Microsoft Azure: Remember Exchange Server?

Recently I joked there’s significant difference between AWS and Azure launching features:

  • AWS launches a production-ready feature that you can consume the next day.
  • Azure launches a preview that might work in 6 months.

Those with long enough memories shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not the first time Microsoft is using the same tactics.

What follows is my recollection of the events; some other people claim Exchange fiasco was Microsoft’s response to Lotus Notes. I was more impacted by Netscape’s demise at that time, and we might all be suffering from Mandela effect anyway.

Long long time ago, on a planet far far away, there was a too-successful startup called Netscape. They made a web browser that actually worked (as opposed to early Internet Explorer), and had a whole suite of server products alongside their web server offering email and directory services. Not surprisingly, everyone (particularly those sick-and-tired of Microsoft’s Windows monopoly) got excited. It was time for the empire to strike back.

Microsoft started talking about a beautiful vision called Exchange years before it shipped (my memory is blurry – if someone has a better timeline please write a comment). They created enough hype to stop the rush of unsatisfied customers migrating to Netscape. Obviously those customers got duped, as they remained stuck with their ancient email systems for at least another year if not longer, but who cares about such minor details.

Finally, Exchange shipped. It was buggy, it was slow, it was useless (for example, SMTP gateway was added a year later)… but Netscape was mostly dead by that time. Exchange got better, bugs were fixed (apparently not all of them), but it pushed us back at least half a decade.

AWS is far too big to make that tactic useful against them, but keep it in mind the next time you’ll hear industry analysts talking about Microsoft WAN. It looks great in PowerPoint (pun intended), but might set you back a few years if you decide to become a true believer. I’ve heard enough horrors stories about Azure VPN gateway to be extra-cautious (turns out there’s a reason people want to deploy their own appliances in Azure).

Want to know the technical details? I added Virtual WAN section to the Azure Networking webinar in early April.


  1. Exchange 4.0 was an basically an upgrade for MS Mail 3.0, which was really competing against CC Mail. When Lotus Notes came out there was really no easy upgrade path from CC Mail, so customers were going to be starting from scratch anyway. Many enterprise customers already owned Microsoft BackOffice because of SQL server, so many choose to go the Microsft route. It is fair to say that Exchange 4.0 was not widely adopted, but Exchange 5 was out with a year and it really took off after that. To the best of my recollection Netscape never had an email server product, if so I never came across it at any of my customers.

  2. Netscape had server products (including a Mail server) and many were available on multiple platforms, but others (like their calendar server) were only available on Solaris, alienating their Windows customers. They claimed to want to partner with enterprises, but then stood firm on embracing Internet standards leaving out features like email read receipt, which enterprises were already familiar with in Microsoft Mail. Netscape was as much responsible for their own demise as Microsoft.

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