Google drops Exchange ActiveSync support for free email accounts

Google's decision to restrict support for enterprise-class syncing is the latest move in a bid to move customers to its paid products and to push free Gmail users to its mobile apps.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Google's campaign to draw a sharp line between its free email offerings and what it delivers for paying customers is nearly complete.

Last week, Google announced it was killing off its free Google Apps offering for new customers. Today it dropped the other shoe, announcing, in a bizarrely named "Winter cleaning" blog post, that as of January 2013 it will no longer support Google Sync connections for new devices using a Gmail or free Google Apps account.

See also: Gmail loses Google Sync: How Windows 8, RT, Office are affected

Why "Winter cleaning"? Who knows? Google isn't dropping support for Google Sync for its paying customers, only removing the option for free Gmail customers.

The announcement is even more confusing because both Google and Apple have misused brand names associated with the various products. So here's a cheat sheet:

Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) is an XML-based protocol, developed by Microsoft, that allows synchronization of email messages, calendar items, contacts, and other data between servers and mobile devices.

Microsoft Exchange is an email server program developed by Microsoft. It will celebrate its 20th birthday in 2013.

EAS is supported on Google mail platforms because enterprises demanded it.

Back in February 2009, Google licensed EAS from Microsoft but branded it as Google Sync:

Google Sync uses Microsoft® Exchange ActiveSync® to let your users synchronize their Google Apps mail, contacts, and calendars to their mobile devices. They can also set up alerts (sound or vibration) for incoming messages and upcoming meetings.

EAS is a data exchange protocol. Google's implementation of EAS is not Microsoft code, and Google's implementation is completely separate from Exchange, the mail server program that Microsoft sells to corporations (and now to small businesses as well, via Office 365).

Google's support for Exchange ActiveSync has always been half-hearted. Even today, three years after its introduction, Google's official support page says, "Google Sync is still in beta. Read Known Issues with iOS before enabling Google Sync with iOS devices."

Confusingly, if you set up a Gmail account on an iPhone today, you're most likely to use the Microsoft Exchange option, even though that server program isn't involved in any way. Apple took the shortcut of reusing that setup screen rather than duplicating it under the  Google Sync name.

So what does this mean for Google customers?

  • If you are a Gmail user, you can continue to use existing devices set up with Google Sync/Exchange ActiveSync. But as of January 30, 2013, you will no longer be able to set up a new mobile device this way. You will instead have to use a Google app or configure your account to use IMAP and synchronize accounts separately.
  • If you have a free Google Apps account (grandfathered in following last week's announcement), you will also lose Google Sync support. A Google spokesperson confirmed via e-mail that users of free Google Apps accounts will not be able to set up new Google Sync connections after January 30, 2013.
  • Paying Google Apps for Business, Education, and Government customers can continue to set up new devices with Google Sync after this cutoff date.

For iPhone users, as Larry Dignan has noted, this is a clear pitch to spur use of the Gmail iOS app. For Android users, it's a non-issue. For users of other platforms, including Windows Phone 8, it's a headache.

Microsoft has been aggressively targeting Gmail customers for months and has stepped up its campaign recently.

So today's response from Redmond shouldn't be surprising. Microsoft exec Chris Jones wasted no time posting this tweet:

Winter cleaning? Time to switch to Outlook.com from Gmail, so your calendar/contacts keep syncing.

Game on.

Update: Several people have asked me about the licensing agreement between Google and Microsoft over Exchange ActiveSync. Neither company has disclosed specifics, but these general terms appear in a wiki hosted at Microsoft.com:

In December 2008 Microsoft shifted it's [sic] licensing of Exchange ActiveSync from that of a protocol license, to licensing the patents of Exchange ActiveSync and providing full protocol documentation …


Because EAS is licensed as a series of patents (and not given as computer code to other companies), different clients and servers implement a subset of the entire features of the protocol and the implementations are written by each company that has obtained a license.

So, Google wrote Google Sync after obtaining a license to use the underlying technology. If you're surprised that this latest scuffle comes down to patent licensing, you haven't been paying attention.


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