iPhone and ActiveSync / Exchange

June 30, 2007 by Jared Goralnick

iPhone account settings for Microsoft Exchange

March, 2008: While Google may have sent you here, I’d highly recommend reading the UPDATES HERE which incorporate Apple’s news. The article below relates to the present state of the iPhone, but the link will take you to the proposed changes that will be out this summer. I intend to follow and update you on all the Microsoft compatibility with iPhone issues. You can subscribe to this blog here by RSS or email, if you’d like, or check back periodically.

The iPhone does not support ActiveSync but it does handle Outlook data synchronization and Exchange email downloads. Since I was so curious about this topic (being a Smartphone user) I figured I’d post some of my research on what the “Exchange” account setup feature does provide on the iPhone, and what’s missing from a normal ActiveSync-enabled device.

Microsoft ActiveSync sychronizes one’s email, calendar, contacts, and tasks (not notes) from their Outlook account or Exchange mailbox store to a mobile device. With an Exchange server, this happens wirelessly. When one only has a POP/IMAP account, calendar, contacts, and tasks can only synchronize when connected via a cable (or through third party wireless synchronization software that is installed on one’s desktop). ActiveSync for Exchange also provides mobile device policies that enable Exchange administrators to configure phone password policies and remotely reset a phone’s data (such as if a phone is stolen or an employee terminated).

The iPhone has a screen for entering Exchange server settings, but as of now it only communicates via IMAP4 (see page 45 of the iPhone manual). Thus the email will stay wirelessly in-sync whenever email is pulled down from the Exchange server. This does not enable wireless synchronization of contacts, calendar, or tasks (well, there is no such thing as “Tasks” on the iPhone). It presents a few other problems:

  • For security reasons, many Exchange admins keep their IMAP ports closed–effectively blocking all iPhone access to wireless email through the iPhone email client (though one could still use Outlook Web Access)
  • IMAP is primarily a pull-based technology–which means users will need to configure their iPhone to retrieve email at certain intervals (as opposed to the messages being pushed to the phone like on a BlackBerry or ActiveSync device). That means email will take longer to receive and one could potentially use more battery life in querying their Exchange server on a regular basis
  • There is no way to centrally control iPhones for Exchange admins, meaning that password policies and remote wipe capabilities cannot be implemented (unlike BlackBerry/ActiveSync)

However, one can still synchronize their Outlook contacts and calendar when connected via USB. iTunes plays much the same role as the Windows Mobile Device Center, in that it handles all the USB synchronization operations from Outlook data to media and files. (In the coming weeks we’ll learn how seamless this synchronization is.)

The final verdict: for secure workplaces or heavily mobile Exchange users, the lack of ActiveSync is a step backward. For many users, they’ll be okay with checking email and synchronizing when they’re back at their desk.
Perhaps Apple will decide to license ActiveSync in the coming months…if they do, they’ll have a lot of customers…

March, 2008: Since so many have requested updates following Apple’s latest announcement, I’ve provided that here. I intend to follow and update you on all the Microsoft compatibility with iPhone issues. You can subscribe to this blog hereby RSS or email, if you’d like, or check back periodically.

You should really subscribe to Technotheory via Subcribe via email email or rss.

15 Responses to “iPhone and ActiveSync / Exchange”

2 Trackbacks

  1. MessagingBlogs» Blog Archive » iPhone lacks business features.
  2. Technotheory.com – iPhone ActiveSync / Exchange Updates, and its impact on iPhone adoption amongst businesses


  1. R Townsend

    I knew it, the phone was junk, but they’re selling it at the wireless stores and Apple stores like it fully supports Microsoft Exchange…..

  2. Jared Goralnick


    Haha. It’s not quite junk but it’s certainly no replacement for BlackBerry, GoodLink, or Windows Mobile when it comes to business communications.

    Apple understands marketing, and putting “Exchange” on the package is a pretty good marketing vehicle. Can you get your email? Yes. Will it sync wirelessly anything other than email? Will it get mailed pushed to the device? No.


  3. JRF

    YEs Yes Yes.
    Mac/Apple made a HUGE mistake by not licensing ActiveSync!
    My company just bought ten TILTS from AT&T, only because the IPhone doesn’t “really” sync.
    Sorry IPhone.

  4. Mike T

    All the people that say iphone is junk have never used one. They just hear things from other people and join the bandwagon. At first I was that guy until last week when I finally got one and was blown away.

    I’ll spare the details but just know this…the SDK is almost out which means all the feature people complained are lacking are about to be released which will finally get the iphone the tools it needs to compete with the remaining smartphones on the market…

    PLUS there are a ton of FREE apps already availible for download right now that add new features to the phone. So to the guy who said the iphone is junk….I’ll say stop being a Laker’s fan

  5. Jared Goralnick

    Mike, I respect your policing this topic thread–but the point here is that ActiveSync and business mail aren’t supported to the same degree on iPhones as on Palm, Windows, and RIM devices.

    As of today, Dec 20, 2007, it’s a painful inconvenience to have to synchronize email, contacts , and calendars the iPhone way after having lived with one of the above three mentioned solutions.

    The design and user experience on the iPhone is without doubt far superior, but the business user accustomed to live synchronization will be disappointed.

  6. Tony K

    The iphone is great, but with no active sync support it means that business people will still have to carry their work phone and their ipod separately for now.

  7. Julie RB

    I just got the iphone and love so much about it, however, I am disappointed that I no longer have all the functions of my Treo650. Active Synch is far superior. Now, I only can synch contacts and calendar entries…can’t synch tasks because there is no option. Also, I have a subscription to our office outlook calendar that I can’t synch because iphone only sees my outlook calendar and not any calendars subscriptions.
    iPhone is wonderful for the internet, music and fun stuff like that but just no where near the functionality of the Treo for business features. I feel so lost…

  8. Tech3071

    I purchased the iPhone and it is very nice. I wished it could recieve email like my blackberry did. To be honest I missed the blackberry because it kept me in the know. I’m hoping Apple will come on board with more business features to the iPhone. I know my organization would buy more of them if it was in the business class. Oh! I have an ideal, why not make one business class and one for the younger generation.

  9. Dave

    This is the only thing holding me back. If they would have put ActiveSync on it, I’d already have an iPhone.

    Apple has an iPhone feedback page… let them know that we need this feature before real business users can migrate to the iPhone!


  10. Narg

    I support a handful of folks with iPhones. I’ve worked on them quite a bit.

    It’s junk. Period.

    The iPhone is a toy, not a serious communications device. There is plenty of room for improvement though, so Apple’s got a chance. But for right now, other than a “new interface” (I won’t call it nice, because it has it’s moments) there is really nothing worthwhile in the purchase of an iPhone.

    Fortunately 3 of those users have already switched to the new Samsung Blackjack 2 phones, and they all love them dearly. Once you use a phone like a Blackberry or Blackjack for more than a few days, you’ll see the real difference in what you can do with a real phone.

  11. George

    >>Once you use a phone like a Blackberry or Blackjack for more than a few days, you’ll see the real difference in what you can do with a real phone.

    Oh… you mean like compiling your own software packages for it?? Ha. Good luck in the past. Sucka.

  12. Stephen Strydom

    Is there now means of connecting to OWA if your organisation has one in order to pull down your mail and calendar similar to Entourage??

  13. Jared Goralnick

    Stephen, I don’t think you mean OWA. But yes you can get mail/calendar by using ActiveSync–please see the updated post here:


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