Why I couldn't connect my Windows 8 tablet to Exchange

Windows 8's adherence to Exchange rules complicates connections that work so easily on iPads and Androids

[UPDATED OCT. 23, 2012] As Windows 8 approaches and we all wonder whether tablets like the Microsoft Surface running it will gain the upper hand in the battle for dominance with the iPad, it's easy to forget the so-called post-PC devices owe a huge debt of gratitude to Microsoft. Why? Because Microsoft licensed Exchange ActiveSync first to Apple for iOS and OS X, then Google for Android. The defunct WebOS also supported EAS; in fact, pretty much every mobile platform except the BlackBerry (which uses its proprietary BES) supports EAS.

EAS compatibility is what lets iPads, iPhones, Androids, and Macs connect to corporate servers for email, calendars, contacts, and tasks. It's also the key mechanism through which mobile device management (MDM) tools manage and secure those devices. In truth, EAS is a cornerstone for why non-Windows PCs are increasingly used in business and why Microsoft and the PC makers are struggling to retain their monopoly. It's ironic that Microsoft's approach to EAS in Windows 8 is less flexible and less user-friendly than what the licensed version lets the post-PC competitors do.

[ Windows 8 is coming, and InfoWorld can help you get ready with the Windows 8 Deep Dive PDF special report, which explains Microsoft's bold new direction for Windows, the new Metro interface for tablet and desktop apps, the transition from Windows 7, and more. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

When Microsoft revealed its Office 2013 apps a few weeks ago and provided reviewers like myself loaner tablets to test it on, I couldn't get its Office client to work with my company's Exchange server. Microsoft's techs couldn't, either, yet I had no trouble connecting a slew of Android smartphones and tablets like the Samsung Galaxy S III and Motorola Mobility Xyboard 10.1 to Exchange. Nor was there any trouble connecting iPads and iPhones or any issues connecting Macs -- only on Windows 8 tablets and PCs.

I thought it was another example of how Windows 8 doesn't get what it means to be a user-oriented device, but it turns out to be more complex. Yes, Windows 8 has very unfriendly aspects epitomized in an Exchange issue I'll describe shortly, but my Exchange connection problems in both Outlook 2013 and the Mail app that comes in Metro had as much to do with a careless setup by our Exchange admins as it did with Microsoft's excessively canonical Exchange setup. What's ironic is that Outlook and Metro Mail couldn't deal with that carelessness, whereas the EAS licensed to Apple, Google, and the rest could.

Windows 8's overly strict approach to Exchange setup backfires
As a user, I had no idea my company's Exchange setup was abnormal -- it worked on non-Microsoft devices. In Windows 8, the native Exchange didn't know how to deal with the abnormality and kept telling me it couldn't find the server on the Internet, resulting in a lot of wasted time with support staff who assumed it was an Internet problem. (Never mind that Internet Explorer and every other Internet-connected service worked just fine.)

Basically, Exchange is designed to strictly interpret the settings, whereas licensed EAS is more flexible, and when it can't connect, it doesn't throw up a red-herring alert message. Microsoft should ensure that Windows 8's ability to connect to Exchange is at least as flexible and user-friendly as what it provides to Apple and Google customers.

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