Microsoft has reset the future of Exchange by finally retiring its grand collaboration plan for the server and laying out a slate of planned features for a new version.

The only thing missing was a date when Microsoft will ship Exchange 12, the codename for the next version of the server.

But what Microsoft did is cement Exchange's return to its messaging roots and confirm that the server will never evolve into the collaboration centerpiece that just a few years ago Microsoft hoped it would become. Instead, Microsoft hopes to trim the cost to run the server, improve security and provide a range of enhanced client options with the release of Exchange 12.

One thing that won't change is the Exchange data store. Microsoft plans to keep Exchange's Jet database engine, forgoing previous plans to incorporate either SQL Server 2005 or the futuristic WinFS.

Not coincidentally, Microsoft's attempt to resurrect an Exchange roadmap that has been crumbling for the past few years comes a week before chief rival IBM hosts its annual Notes/Domino user conference, Lotusphere, where it plans to show off its forthcoming Notes/Domino 7.0 and its new Java-based Workplace platform.

The unraveling of Exchange's roadmap began in 2003, when Microsoft had hoped to ship a version of the server code-named Kodiak, which featured a universal data store that would support collaborative applications built using Exchange technologies like public folders and forms.

Last May, Microsoft finally wiped Kodiak off the board and then followed it up by recasting other promised Exchange products, including tearing apart its Exchange Edge Services security offering and adding its piece parts into Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2, due the second half of this year, and holding others for Exchange 12.

With Exchange 12, Microsoft has positioned the messaging server as a cog in a much larger set of servers, clients and services Microsoft is stitching together for collaboration including e-mail, online workspaces, real-time communication and document management.

"Exchange is not self-contained. We made a conscious decision to change strategy there," says Dave Thompson, corporate vice president for Microsoft who took over responsibility for Exchange a year ago. "We are aligning the development of Exchange 12 with our broader collaboration vision." Thompson says that includes such technologies as Office, Windows Server, SharePoint Portal Server and Windows SharePoint Services, Outlook, Live Communications Server and mobile devices.

"The bottom line is that they spent a lot of time touting Exchange as a Notes killer, and it wasn't," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with Burton Group. "They have almost been apologising for Exchange for three years now, partly because all the things touted for Exchange 2000 [collaboration, instant messaging, Web conferencing] did not work out. Then they got ahead of themselves and started touting features for the Kodiak release. They retired the code name because they had managed to confuse so many people, including themselves."