Thursday, February 4, 2016

Exchange Server: Do Public Folders Hate Smartphones?

By Vern Weitzman


In 2006, Microsoft EVP Terry Myerson wrote that the tech giant would be “de-emphasizing” Public Folders in the next release of Microsoft Exchange Server. The fallout was a flurry of rumors and blogs warning that this feature was being phased out, and advising companies to migrate to Microsoft SharePoint.

Public Folders:  Love them, hate them, use them, lose them.
Fast forward to 2016. Public Folders are alive and well, and for one major reason—people love them. Anyone with an Outlook account can view and manage them, so users don’t have to constantly bother IT staff with changes. You can apply granular permissions to each folder and the cost of implementation is practically zero.

One of the common uses for Public Folders is to manage company contacts and calendars. For example, if you work for a construction company and have a constantly changing cast of characters on projects, you could use a Public Folder to store up-to-date contact information for each new project. Maybe your company uses a preferred travel agency with multiple account contacts and phone numbers (a toll-free international number and an after-hours emergency line, for example). No problem—use a Public Folder.  Got a list of contacts that’s only for your executive team? You guessed it…Public Folder.

There are drawbacks.
Public Folders can certainly be a compromise. Consider the following:

  • “Pull” is not “push.” It’s great to be able to manage contacts in one central location. On the flip side, your users won’t know when they’ve been updated. You can send email notifications, but people with glutted inboxes might miss them.
  • It’s easy to forget where they are. I cannot count the number of times that I had to sort through a massive hierarchy of Public Folders to find the vendor contacts folder.
  • They’re like zebra plants. They languish and die without frequent maintenance.

The biggest caveat of all? They will not cooperate with smartphones. Microsoft just doesn’t provide a mechanism to sync Public Folders to mobile users. When do you need your up-to-date shared contacts the most? When you’re away from the office and using your cellphone, of course!

There are solutions.
If you do want to use Public Folders contacts or calendars on smartphones, you have limited options:

  • Search the App Store.  Apple and Android app stores sell a few third-party applications to sync a Public Folder. However, you need to purchase the app, configure (yet another an Exchange Server, username, and password).  This probably won’t scale if you have to do it for hundreds of users.
  • Write your own app. If you know how to do it, you could sync the Public Folder to the contacts folder on each mailbox. ActiveSync will automatically sync mailbox contacts to user mobile phones.

  • Drag your contacts into the mailboxes of everyone who needs them.  This is an excellent option, but it’s also not scalable. Creating a subfolder and overwriting it when it’s time for an update is a better bet, but you’ll still have to notify users of the refresh.
  • Try out itrezzo Unified Contact Management. This is my favorite way to sync Public Folders to iPhone, Android, and Windows Phones. It syncs deletions, works with both on-premise Exchange Server and Office 365, and is free for the first 10 users.

So that’s it—the good, the bad, and the best ways to get the good without the bad. Hopefully, some of these ideas will be useful.

If you’ve got a great way to leverage Public Folders, please leave a comment below. And if you’re interested in learning more about itrezzo Unified Contact Management, click here.

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