Overview
ActiveSync requests and responses are sent as HTTP messages. In order to reduce the size of the messages, the body is encoded in a format known as WAP Binary XML. The information about Microsoft's implementation of this protocol that is used by ActiveSync is detailed in the MS-ASWBXML document which is based in the WAP Binary XML Content Format version 1.2.


Resources:

   - MS-ASWBXML
         http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd299442(EXCHG.80).aspx

   - WAP Binary XML Content Format version 1.2
         http://www.w3.org/1999/06/NOTE-wbxml-19990624/

   - IANA Character Sets
         http://www.iana.org/assignments/character-sets/character-sets.xml


Why do you need to know how to do this?
If you are troubleshooting an application that uses ActiveSync you will probably collect some type of network trace that contains request and/or response messages. However, when you try to look at the message contents it will just appear as a stream of bytes. Unless you have a utility that can interpret these bytes for you, you will need to know how to decode them manually. Once you know how to do this you might decide to write a utility that can do the work for you next time.


How does it work?
WBXML is NOT an encryption method, it is an encoding method. The XML elements in a message are replaced with single byte tokens. MS-ASWBXML contains a list of these tokens and maps them to an XML element. Simple enough right?


Lets get started!
The following streams of bytes are a request and response from an ActiveSync mobile device to an Exchange Server.

Request:
03 01 6A 00 45 5C 4F 4B 03 30 00 01 52 03 32 00
01 57 00 11 45 46 03 31 00 01 47 03 33 32 37 36
38 00 01 01 01 01 01 01


Response:
03 01 6A 00 45 5C 4F 4B 03 31 39 39 37 34 33 33
30 37 34 00 01 52 03 32 00 01 4E 03 31 00 01 01
01 01


Each message is divided into 3 parts:
   - Header
   - String Table
   - Token List


Header
The Header consists of the first 3 bytes of the stream and contains the Version Number, the Document Public Identifier, and the Character Set. Lets take a look at these.

03 01 6A

The first byte represents the Version Number and tells us that the message is encoded using the WBXML 1.3 format. You may have noticed that MS-ASWBXML references the WBXML 1.2 format. However, we will not encounter any issues because the message is encoded with the 1.3 format. The second byte represents the Document Public Identifier. In this case it means that the public identifier is unknown or missing. The last byte specifies the Character Set that is being used. The possible values that you might find here are defined in the IANA Character Sets specification. In this case, 6A (106) is UTF-8. The first line of the request might look something like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>

You can find more information about the Version Number, Document Public Identifier, and the Character Set in the WAP Binary XML Format version 1.2 and IANA Character Sets specifications.


String Table
The 4th byte of the message specifies the length of the String Table. In this case, the String Table is 0 bytes in length and no other work is necessary.


Token List
Following the String Table is the Token List. This is where the real work/fun starts! If you haven't already downloaded the latest version of the MS-ASWBXML document, now would be a good time. To get the most out of this blog I suggest you follow along in the document. You'll be glad you did if you ever have to do this again on your own.

45 5C 4F 4B 03 30 00 01 52 03 32 00 01 57 00 11
45 46 03 31 00 01 47 03 33 32 37 36 38 00 01 01
01 01 01 01


For the remainder of the stream it's a simple matter of looking up the token value in MS-ASWBXML and constructing the XML message. Lets take a look at the first token, 0x45. Go look it up in MS-ASWBXML and then come back here to see if you are correct.

What do you mean you can't find it? Here's a hint, it's in section 2.1.2.1.1. Go look again.

You still can't find it? OK, sorry, that was a trick question. The truth is that it really is in section 2.1.2.1.1, but you have to take a closer look at the individual bits in the token first. This is the only real hurdle in understanding WBXML encoding. Once you understand the Tag Format the rest is easy.

The Tag Format looks like this.

   Bits  

   Description

   Example

   8

   If set, the element contains attributes  

   <element attr="1"></element>  

   7

   If set, the element contains content

   <element>test</element>

   6-1

   The tag identity

 

Note: If you are using Windows 7 or newer, I have found that using the built in Calculator in Programmer mode makes this much easier. You can simply click on the individual bits in the display to toggle them on/off.

The tag 0x45 in binary is 01000101. We can clearly see that the 7th bit is set which means that the element will contain content of some sort. This could be a string or it could be other elements, we don't know yet. If we ignore the 7th bit and just examine the first 6 bits (see my note above about using the Windows Calculator for this) we can see that the actual value is 5. Now, go look at MS-ASWBXML section 2.1.2.1.1 and find the element with a token value of 0x05. See, I told you it was there, it's the <Sync> element!

More information about the Tag Format can be found in the WAP Binary XML Content Format version 1.2 in the section titled Tag Code Space.

Follow the same process to decode the next 2 tokens 5C and 4F. Each one of these also has the 7th bit set. The actual token values are 1C and 0F. The next 2 elements are <Collections> and <Collection>. So far, our completed XML looks like this.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Sync xmlns="AirSync">
   <Collections>
      <Collection>

You might be wondering where the xmlns="AirSync" part came from. Every ActiveSync element is defined in a code page, or namespace. In order for the server to be able to interpret the XML, it needs to know what code page the elements belong to. AirSync is the default code page (or namespace) for ActiveSync requests and responses. Unless you see an explicit code page switch (see SWITCH_PAGE below) after the String Table, this namespace definition is implied even though its not encoded into the byte stream. It's not necessary to provide an alias for the namespace. Any elements that are not prefixed with an alias will be assumed to be part of the AirSync namespace.

Decode the next token in the same fashion. 0x4B is 0x0B when you flip the 7th bit. This is the <SyncKey> element.

4B
<SyncKey>

The next token is 0x03, which you won't find in any of the code pages. This is because 0x03 is a global token. Global tokens are listed in MS-ASWBXML section 1.6 and described in more detail in the WAP Binary XML Content Format version 1.2 specification. The token 0x03 represents an inline string with a terminator (0x00). In this case the string is very short and only consists of a single value, 0x30, followed by the terminator 0x00. The string is encoded using the Character Set specified in the header, which is UTF-8. UTF-8 is very similar to the ANSI character set and in this case you can look up the character value in either. 0x30 is the character '0'.

The following token, 0x01, is another global token, END. This token is generic in that it represents a closing tag for whatever the currently 'open' tag is, which is the <SyncKey> element. So, this 0x01 token represents </SyncKey>. The following is the entire sequence of bytes for the <SyncKey> element. Once you get used to looking at WBXML you'll start to notice small patterns like this.

4B 03 30 00 01
<SyncKey>0</SyncKey>

Do you see the next pattern? Bytes 9-13 look like this: 52 03 32 00 01. If you've been following along you might assume that the next chunk of XML is going to look something like this <element>string</element>, and you would be right. 0x52 is actually 0x12 when you flip the 7th bit, which is the <CollectionId> element. We know that 0x03 means the next bytes represent an inline string followed by a terminator. Again, it’s only a single character, 0x32, which is the value '2' followed by the terminator 0x00, and the END token, 0x01. These bytes represent the following XML segment.

52 03 32 00 01
<CollectionId>2</CollectionId>

You now have almost everything you need to decode the rest of the stream with 1 exception so let's keep going. The next token is 0x57, which is 0x17 without the 7th bit set, which is the <Options> element. The token right after this is 0x00. What does that mean? It's another global token, SWITCH_PAGE. You might have been wondering why all of the tokens we have looked up so far have been in section 2.1.2.1.1 "Code Page 0: AirSync". This is the default code page. When we encounter the token 0x00 when not in the context of an inline string this tells us that we are switching to a different code page and that any elements that follow this switch should reference that code page. The byte that follows the switch is 0x11. The list of Code Pages can be found in section 2.1.2.1. However, remember that the token is a hexidecimal value and the code pages are base 10 integers. This is important because the switch is telling us to look at code page 17, not code page 11.

00 11
SWITCH_PAGE to Code Page 17

The next token is 0x45, but remember that because of the code page switch that we need to look at code page 17, AirSyncBase, which can be found in section 2.1.2.1.18. Flipping the 7th bit gives us 0x05 which is <BodyPreference>.

45
<airsyncbase:BodyPreference xmlns:airsyncbase="AirSyncBase">

There it is again! I snuck in something that isn't actually in the byte stream. Here again, defining the alias for the xml namespace is implied, but not actually present in the byte stream. It actually doesn't matter if we put it here or after the AirSync namespace in the Sync element, however it MUST exist in one of these two places. Without the xmlns:airsyncbase="AirSyncBase" definition we cannot use the airsyncbase: prefix. We MUST prefix any elements contained in the AirSyncBase namespace with the alias that we provided in the definition. If you don’t, the server will look in the default namespace, which in this case is AirSync and it will think the 0x45 token is a <Sync> element and you will get an error.

The next token 0x46 would be 0x06, <Type>, which is then followed by an inline string as indicated by the 0x03 token. The string consists of a single character 0x31, '1' followed by the terminator and 0x01 token indicating the closing tag for the <Type> element.

46 03 31 00 01
<airsyncbase:Type>1</airsyncbase:Type>

The next pattern of bytes is very similar. 0x47, which is 0x07, or <TruncationSize>, followed by 0x03 indicating  an inline string, "32768", the string terminator, and the closing element. 

47 03 33 32 37 36 38 00 01
<airsyncbase:TruncationSize>32768</airsyncbase:TruncationSize>

Here we are at the home stretch and all we see is a few 0x01 tokens. If we examine the complete XML that we have built so far those last 0x01 tokens will make sense.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Sync xmlns:"AirSync">   
   <Collections>
      <Collection>
         <SyncKey>0</SyncKey>
         <CollectionID>2</CollectionID>
         <Options>
            <airsyncbase:BodyPreference xmlns:airsyncbase="AirSyncBase">
               <airsyncbase:Type>1</airsyncbase:Type>
               <airsyncbase:TruncationSize>32768</airsyncbase:TruncationSize>

All that is missing is a series of closing elements for BodyPreference, Options, Collection, Collections, and Sync. Notice that there are exactly (5) 0x01 tokens remaining in the stream. That is exactly what those are, closing tags in that order. And you're done! The complete XML request should look like this. I've tried to highlight some key areas so you can associate those with the bytes from the stream.

Decoded Request
03 01 6A 00 45 5C 4F 4B 03 30 00 01 52 03 32 00
01 57 00 11 45 46 03 31 00 01 47 03 33 32 37 36
38 00 01 01 01 01 01 01


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Sync xmlns:"AirSync">
   <Collections>
      <Collection>
         <SyncKey>0</SyncKey>
         <CollectionID>2</CollectionID>
         <Options>
            <airsyncbase:BodyPreference xmlns:airsyncbase="AirSyncBase">
               <airsyncbase:Type>1</airsyncbase:Type>
               <airsyncbase:TruncationSize>32768</airsyncbase:TruncationSize>
            </airsyncbase:BodyPreference>
         </Options>
      </Collection>
   </Collections>
</Sync>

You should now have enough information to be able to decode the response on your own. Try to decode it on your own. Check what you get against the answer below.

Decoded Response
03 01 6A 00 45 5C 4F 4B 03 31 39 39 37 34 33 33
30 37 34 00 01 52 03 32 00 01 4E 03 31 00 01 01
01 01


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Sync xmlns:"AirSync">
   <Collections>
      <Collection>
         <SyncKey>1997433074</SyncKey>
         <CollectionID>2</CollectionID>
         <Status>1</Status>
      </Collection>
   </Collections>
</Sync>