Microsoft has started testing the next version of its Exchange e-mail and calendar software, a product that Microsoft said is designed to run from the ground up as a hosted service that can work simultaneously with more than one business.
The new version, code-named E14, is in limited private beta testing as a traditional server product with "a select number" of businesses.
But Microsoft also recognized that traditional beta testing wouldn't help it much in getting a sense of the multi-tenant support. So starting in October 2007, the company started seeking out universities and schools willing to test E14 as part of Exchange Labs.
The move is important. Although Microsoft has continued to take share in recent years from longtime rival Lotus Notes, the company faces the prospect of growing competition from Web-based alternatives from Google and others.
Microsoft said on Tuesday that there are now more than 3.5 million people, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni, who are testing the next Exchange at more than 1,500 educational institutions.
Among the features is an updated Web client, Outlook Live. Among the changes from today's Outlook Web Access is support for managing distribution groups, setting up rules and viewing other e-mail accounts, things that typically have required the desktop version of Outlook.
It wouldn't say when to expect a public beta or the final version of E14, but I am told it will have more to say on the subject sometime this quarter. The company also plans to post a video on its testing experiences later on Tuesday.
Although Microsoft has taken steps to make Exchange better suited to hosting with E14, the software maker and some of its partners already provide hosted Exchange using the current version, Exchange 2007. Microsoft officially started offering the Exchange Online service late last year, after testing it for some time.