Google, Microsoft, and the EAS problem

Today, in a blog post on the Google Official Blog, Google announced that they were shutting down some services, including Google Sync.  According to the blog post:

Google Sync was designed to allow access to Google Mail, Calendar and Contacts via the Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync® protocol. With the recent launch of CardDAV, Google now offers similar access via IMAP, CalDAV and CardDAV, making it possible to build a seamless sync experience using open protocols. Starting January 30, 2013, consumers won’t be able to set up new devices using Google Sync; however, existing Google Sync connections will continue to function. Google Sync will continue to be fully supported for Google Apps for Business, Government and Education. Users of those products are unaffected by this announcement.

The decision to end support for EAS via Google Sync has direct implications for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, as Windows products don’t support CalDAV and CardDAV, and Windows users (including Windows Phone users) currently use Google Sync to get full Gmail sync.  Once Google Sync goes away, Windows users won’t be able to fully sync Gmail to their devices (they will still be able to use IMAP to get Gmail, but not Calendar or Tasks sync).

This has caused a bit of an uproar, of course, with pundits declaring that “Google just declared war on Microsoft”, and that Google is “going to screw Gmail users on Windows Phone”.  The problem runs a bit deeper than just shots across the bow in an ecosystem war, however.

The first thing to remember is that Google is a licensee of Exchange Active Sync, and must pay Microsoft a license fee for the use of EAS in Google Sync (users can access the output of EAS without paying, of course, but the server software creating the Google Sync content must be licensed).  Coupled with Google’s recent decision to end free access to Google Apps, it seems likely that Google is seeking to end supporting “business” services for free, and especially services that they have to pay for themselves via licensing fees.

Google plans to continue offering EAS services in its paid Google Apps, both to support Enterprise customers (who rely on EAS for their corporate mail), and probably to pass the costs of EAS licensing along to customers.  For a single user, the cost isn’t much, only $50/yr or about $4.17 per month.  Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just upgrading a Gmail account to Google Apps – you have to create a new email address for Google Apps, so just upgrading your current Gmail address to Google Apps for Business won’t work.

But the problem with accessing Gmail on Windows, unfortunately, is not so much that Google won’t continue to pay Microsoft for proprietary access, it’s that Microsoft doesn’t support the open source standards (CalDAV and CardDAV) that Gmail, and many other services are based on.

In addition, and this is one reason we’ve been harping on about a Windows Live / Calendar, Google Calendar offers now (even with the recent cuts) and has from the beginning a better set of services than what we’ve been offered through Windows Live.  We know that many of our readers gave up years ago on Windows Live Calendar, and switched to Google, just because they needed a working service. Those Windows Live / calendars are also not based on open source standards, even as Microsoft has moved away from other proprietary services like Silverlight towards standards based HTML5 and JavaScript. 

Saying that “EAS is what we call a de facto standard because everyone uses it”, as Paul Thurrott did in his post on Google’s decision is like saying that everyone should support IE6 instead of web standards.  It’s the wrong road to take, in our opinion.  With IE6, Microsoft’s insistence on using proprietary standards cost users dearly, and is still costing users to this day.  Google may indeed be declaring war on Microsoft to get them to support the standards that the rest of the world is using, but we don’t think that’s evil, in this case.  We think it’s the right thing to do.

Google isn’t out to get Microsoft and Windows Phone users so much as it is to continue to come down on the side of web standards over proprietary protocols, but the effect is the same.  Without EAS/Google Sync, Gmail and Google Calendar just aren’t going to work with Windows Phone or Windows.

That still leaves a number of options, however.  If you’re a Windows Phone user using Google services, you could just switch to (of course this might be a better option if we would ever get a new Calendar!).  Or, of course, if you’re dedicated to Gmail, you could switch to an Android or iOS (for which Google provides a dedicated app) device.

Beyond that, Microsoft could move to support the open source CalDAV and CardDAV protocols, and perhaps that’s one reason why we’re not seeing an calendar just yet (that’s just a wild guess, though).  Or, Microsoft or a third party (they are, after all, open source standards) could build a Gmail app for Windows Phone and/or Windows 8, which might not connect seamlessly with the People Hub, but would at least get your Gmail and your Google Calendar on your phone or desktop.

Until Microsoft adopts open source standards for mail and calendar sync, as it has done for web standards, Windows and Windows Phone users are going to suffer, and that’s the real problem.