Three years ago, I set up an Exchange 2003 server with the goal of having a single, unified mailbox, calendar, and address book that would always remain synchronized across my computers and Windows Mobile smartphone. The setup has held up really well with very little maintenance all these years, and it continues to work seamlessly even with the iPhone 3G that I bought last year.

But there's one thing I was never quite happy with -- Outlook Web Access (OWA), the Exchange web-mail interface. If you're using any browser other than Internet Explorer, OWA falls back to a clumsy, limited-functionality version. While cross-browser support has improved somewhat in OWA 2007 (which I tested in a virtualized environment recently), it's still not quite where I'd like it to be.

When it comes to web-based email, I consider Gmail the shining star -- the UI is clean and simple, navigation is blisteringly fast, and its threaded messaging implementation is a killer feature. Offline access to Gmail and Google Calendar is now possible using Google Gears. iPhones and other smartphones can synchronize with Google Contacts and Calendar using the recently released Google Sync service (which, interestingly, happens to use Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync engine to "push" updates back and forth). The only missing piece is "push" Gmail, and that might be coming soon too.

So the question is -- in the coming months, will the Google Apps suite finally be a truly viable, free alternative to small-scale Exchange Server installations like mine?  I think so. After all, it's well on its way towards becoming something like a hosted Exchange account with a vastly better web-mail interface. If and when "push" Gmail does become available, I'll definitely be giving it a very close second look.