How to push e-mail to the iPhone without Exchange

Though the iPhone supports all common e-mail protocols, Exchange is the only business-oriented option for offering push notification of new messages as well as over-the-air updates to calendar and contact items.

Sure, push notification and update is supported by Apple’s MobileMe – and push e-mail notification is supported for Yahoo Mail accounts. But neither of these would be considered viable options for most businesses.

Exchange may be the most common e-mail and collaborative tools package on the market, making it a logical choice for Apple to choose for enterprise support. Despite its widespread use potentially broad feature set, Exchange isn’t always the optimal choice for every organization, however.

Exchange licensing can become prohibitively expensive, particularly for small organizations, and successfully deploying and managing Exchange can be a challenge given the broad array of features and options it offers. Its very tight integration with Active Directory, a plus in many situations, can also be a downside for environments based on other platforms such as Novell, Unix and — ironically — Mac OS X Server and Apple’s own Open Directory.

That can be a problem for companies looking to roll out the iPhone but unwilling or unable to rely on Exchange as well. The generally accepted option is to use POP/IMAP e-mail accounts on the iPhone and rely on iTunes to sync contact and calendar data — from Outlook on Windows or Address Book and iCal on the Mac — to the iPhone.

Though that will work, it eliminates the option of receiving instant notification of e-mails and calendar and contact updates. It also prevents iPhone user access to a shared central contacts database such as Exchange’s Global Address List through the Contacts app.

But there are other options. Although the iPhone’s documentation names Exchange specifically, Apple actually licensed and implemented Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol, which was developed for Exchange. Apple is not alone. In fact, several other mail and groupware server products, both commercial and open source, are available that implement ActiveSync and allow mobile clients, including the iPhone and desktop applications such as Outlook, to access the same push and over-the-air features available from Exchange.

Here’s a rundown of those alternatives:

Kerio MailServer

Kerio MailServer is a commercial groupware product that offers features similar to Exchange, including mail, centralized contacts, calendar, notes, tasks and public folders.

One of its big advantages is that, in addition to ActiveSync and native access from both Outlook and ActiveSync mobile devices, Kerio fully supports access through other client protocols without the need for add-on components – although not all features are available to all client products. Using a sophisticated Web interface, Kerio allows LDAP access to its central contacts database by any contact or e-mail app that supports LDAP lookup as well as calendar access from any CalDAV client, including Apple’s iCal.

As a server, Kerio MailServer can be installed on a number of platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It also supports integration with Active Directory or Apple’s Open Directory as well as Pluggable Authentication Module access for Linux, allowing simplified user and e-mail account management. And it supports an internal account database.

Kerio’s site includes detailed instructions for using the iPhone as a client device and the company provides a wide range of configuration information and explains how to move from other mail and groupware solutions. Licensing is cheaper than Exchange and includes a variety of options such as bundled anti-virus solutions. Since the licensing is primarily user-based, there are no additional fees for mobile device or iPhone support.


Zimbra Collaboration Suite is another full-featured e-mail and groupware solution. Like Kerio MailServer, Zimbra can be installed on a number of platforms and supports a range of clients. Zimbra is available in several product editions, ranging from a basic open-source solution that does not include support for syncing data with either desktop or mobile tools to an extremely well-provisioned professional edition.

In that professional edition, Zimbra supports integration with Outlook and any Mac OS X apps that implement Apple’s iSync framework, including Mail, Address Book and iCal. Unlike Kerio, Zimbra uses connector tools installed on client machines to manage data syncing with the server. And platforms other than Windows and Mac OS X will have limited access to collaborative tools beyond basic POP/IMAP for e-mail and Zimbra’s rich Web interface.
Zimbra implements mobile device support, including support for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Palm and other devices as an optional add-on. Zimbra Mobile, as the package is called, is available for a flat $500 additional fee beyond the standard licensing terms.

Zarafa and Z-Push

Like Zimbra, Zarafa is available in both open-source and commercial variations, although it you want Outlook support, you’ll need one of the commercial variations. Zarafa offers support for e-mail, centralized contacts, calendar, task management and public folders. It’s designed primarily to use Outlook as a desktop client or a rich Web interface for collaborative features, and the Web interface, supports POP/IMAP access.

Unlike Kerio and Zimbra, which have versions that can run on multiple server platforms, Zarafa is designed for Linux and built to integrate with any LDAP-based directory service, including Active Directory and Open Directory. Zarafa also offers installation flexibility and supports integration with most common Linux mail transfer agents — think postfix and sendmail — as well as options for migrating from Exchange or other mail servers that provide IMAP.

As with Zimbra, access from the iPhone and other mobile devices made possible via an additional package called Z-Push. Unlike Zimbra Mobile, Z-Push is a fully open-source solution that can be implemented at no added cost.

Communigate Pro

Communigate Pro is a full-featured messaging and groupware solution that integrates support for e-mail, instant messaging, centralized contacts, calendar, task management and voice over IP (VoIP) phone services. Much like Kerio, Communigate supports a wide range client protocols for messaging and collaborative tools that can be accessed natively from Outlook, Thunderbird, Apple’s Mail and iCal, among others.

It also includes both traditional and Flash-based Web interfaces for its various features and offers ActiveSync support for the iPhone and other mobile devices.

Like Kerio and Zimbra, Communigate runs on various platforms including Windows, Unix/Linux, and Mac OS X, and provides integration with Active Directory and LDAP-based directory services environments. Integration with Lotus Notes calendaring is also supported, as are migration processes from Exchange and POP/IMAP mail servers. The goal is to provide a seamless migration process.

Communigate is available in product bundles aimed at everything from small companies to large enterprise customers to ISPs and other service providers . The bundles offer a variety of unified messaging approaches and incorporate anti-spam and anti-virus solutions.


Icewarp produces a messaging and collaboration suite that includes modules for e-mail server, Jabber-based instant messaging server, a groupware server that is CalDAV compliant, Web and FTP server, rich WebMail interface and mobile services. In late August, Icewarp announced it would add support for the iPhone to its existing support for mobile devices with the release last month of version 10 of the Icewarp server.


Unlike the previous solutions, which are all e-mail and groupware servers in their own right, NotifyLink by Notify Technology delivers sync and direct push functions to mobile devices by integrating with an existing e-mail/groupware server. That means it behaves much like RIM’s Blackberry Enterprise Messaging Server, although it’s not tied to a specific device. (RIM’s messaging server is tied to the company’s Blackberry devices.)

NotifyLink supports all major smart phone platforms , including the iPhone, the Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Palm. As with other options I’ve described, NotifyLink relies on the iPhone’s ActiveSync implementation to provide direct push, although some smart phone platforms rely on a client application. Detailed information about using the product with the iPhone is available on the company’s support site .

NotifyLink’s ability to integrate with existing e-mail and groupware solutions makes it particularly attractive, as does the breadth of server platforms it supports. They include: Exchange, GroupWise, Communigate Pro, Kerio MailServer, Zimbra, First Class, Meeting Maker, Sun Java Communications Suite, Mirapoint, Scalix, Oracle Collaboration Suite and Beehive, Google Apps, MDaemon, Courier Mail Server, Sendmail, Cyrus, UWash IMAP, and Eudora Qualcomm Worldmail.

Outsourced or hosted solutions

For smaller companies and organizations, setting up and maintaining a mail server might be a goal that simply requires too many resources: the costs aren’t worth the rewards when there are only a handful of e-mail accounts. Typically in that case, a company relies on its Internet or Web hosting company for e-mail hosting through which it gets its POP/IMAP accounts.

An alternative for smaller operations looking to roll out the iPhone — with support for direct push e-mail notification and possibly calendar and central contacts management — is outsourced or hosted Exchange. For a monthly fee, companies get someone to handle their server management while providing access to all of the features of a traditional Exchange environment. It’s an excellent alternative for small businesses, or even individuals who want full Exchange functionality — and don’t want Apple’s MobileMe service.

There are other hosted options that rely on some of the other projects I’ve already cited. Both Kerio and Zimbra maintain lists of partners offering hosted services using their respective products.

If an organization has a bunch of non-Outlook clients like Macs running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and the current version of iCal or any CalDAV calendaring solution, non-Exchange hosted services may be a better option. Similarly, Notify provides an outsourcing option called NotifyLink On Demand that lets companies maintain their current e-mail/groupware solution and deploy NotifyLink without setting up and maintaining the server in-house.

In the end, each operation will need to consider a number of factors before implementing the iPhone: the current e-mail and collaborative tool set; whether a migration is desirable — or even feasible; the cost of deploying a new solution; and the level of support needed during and after a transition.

All are likely to play a role in finding a solution. Whatever the ultimate decision, it should be made as part of a broader understanding of the pros and cons of options that go beyond simply supporting the iPhone.

That said, the number of choices means companies have numerous options beyond deploying Exchange to push e-mail to the iPhone.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at

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