SEVERAL large Hong Kong companies are testing a beta version of a new Microsoft product that could change the way E-mail works. Microsoft's Exchange Server, which is scheduled to be released in December, aims to maintain the ease of use of the graphical interface but combine it with equally simple server software. The Beta 2 version of Exchange Server is being tested by organisations such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Hongkong Telecom, the Housing Authority and OOCL. There are about 50 other sites in the territory that will be testing the new program. During the test period, Microsoft will offer support through its Solution Partners. Kevin Yim, product manager of the business systems division at Microsoft said: 'The evolution of messaging began about 10 or 15 years ago in large corporations.' At that time it was possible to send only text messages, ASCII data, and it was so simple that a couple of people could handle a global network. 'The beauty of the mainframe systems was the back-end: you had central administration. 'You could have a few people managing an entire global system,' he said. Mr Yim said the systems had evolved into LAN-based messaging. 'LAN-based systems have really cool graphical user interface clients. 'In this category you find Microsoft Mail, Lotus cc:mail or Novell GroupWise. With these, the end user could send rich text, and send attachments,' he said. 'These systems are great for the end user but are an administrative nightmare. Now it takes a whole team of people just to maintain the servers. 'Client-server messaging as we understand it at Microsoft gives you the best of both worlds.' He said Exchange Server was electronic mail with integrated groupware that helped make business communication easier. The server will run on Windows NT, through Microsoft's Backoffice Suite. 'The administrator regains the control he lost,' Mr Yim said. The client software will be available for many different platforms, including Windows 95, 16-bit Windows, Windows NT, MS-DOS, Macintosh and UNIX. Mr Yim said: 'We believe that it [messaging] should be an open standard [so] that could be in the operating system, rather like printing. 'Things change with Windows 95. There is a new client in the program called the Exchange Inbox. The benefit to the end user is choice,' he said. One difference about messaging and E-mail today was the use of services such as the Internet and CompuServe. They could also be supported, Mr Yim said. 'You can have multiple clients such as Microsoft Network, CompuServe, the Internet, or even the UNIX POP3 mail servers. 'All of them can be loaded at the same time,' he said. With all of them loaded, the user would be able to have a wide choice of targets for messaging. But there was more to it than just messaging, he said. Microsoft has developed Cue Cards that help design the way the user wants the information displayed on the screen. So, for example, if the user wanted to display certain names and certain groups of information, it could be designed that way. Microsoft believes that it is possible to combine groupware or group scheduling with messaging. Microsoft should have a big hit on its hands if the final release delivers anything like what the beta offers. This is the kind of product that busy people who must stay in touch would like to have. The program offers facilities for re-routing mail when you are on holiday. Mail marked normal would go to a designated person while mail marked urgent would track you down. The program can also re-route an urgent message to your pager service.