Microsoft Outlines Outlook Web App Changes
Microsoft on Thursday described the many changes it has made to its Outlook Web App (OWA), which is a browser-based version of the company's Outlook e-mail client.
OWA is just one component of Microsoft's branching Outlook products. For instance, Outlook 2013 for Windows is the next emerging customer premises-installed "boxed" version of the e-mail client. There's also a new Outlook for Mac boxed product and hosted solution to come. Outlook Mobile is the name of the built-in e-mail application in Window Phone. Microsoft also announced this week that it was launching a consumer e-mail service called Outlook.com.
The Outlook.com service, available now at the preview stage, is described by Microsoft as "new," although Microsoft used its experience running the Hotmail e-mail service to build it. The free Outlook.com service also comes with free Office Web Apps, including browser-based versions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word, with documents connecting up to the free Microsoft SkyDrive cloud-based storage system. In a competitive dig at Google's Gmail service, Microsoft claims not to scan your personal e-mail messages on Outlook.com.
"We don't scan your email content or attachments and sell this information to advertisers or any other company, and we don't show ads in personal conversations," a Microsoft blog claims, describing the Outlook.com service.
Google admits to scanning users' Gmail messages, but claims in a FAQ that it doesn't share the content with advertisers.
OWA is different from Outlook.com because it's not offered free of charge and it has some management controls for IT pros. In the past, Microsoft has distinguished its Office Web Apps designed for use by businesses and organizations as requiring the use of SharePoint, which is a server-based solution that consumers are unlikely to deploy or pay to use. OWA is offered through Microsoft's Office 365 and Live@edu services.
Organizations wanting to test the new OWA need to sign up for Microsoft's Office 365 customer preview, which was announced last month. Specifically, they must sign up to test the "Small Business Premium or Enterprise plans," according to a Microsoft blog post. The new Office 365 customer preview also has Home Premium and ProPlus plans, but those aren't listed as options to test OWA. Apparently, one reason why is that Office 365 ProPlus offering only supports updates and software installations from Microsoft's cloud, rather than actually running as an application from the cloud. Here's one Microsoft description of Office 365 ProPlus:
"Office 365 ProPlus uses the cloud for streamlined software delivery and updates, but does not execute Office applications remotely in cloud, instead the focus is getting Office up and running quickly on the local PC using application streaming," the blog states. The phrase, "application streaming," apparently isn't being used generically but refers to Microsoft's "click-to-run" installation technology," which delivers bits incrementally to end users.
OWA User Interfaces
Microsoft has designed OWA to work with the different screen sizes afforded by a PC, tablet or smartphone. The code for these different screens is largely the same. Microsoft's blog indicated that more than 90 percent of it is "shared between the three user interface modes." OWA is available with three different user interfaces (UIs): premium, mini and light.
The "premium" UI is the typical one that's used with newer browsers across PCs, tablets and smartphones. It's designed to work with Internet Explorer 8 and higher versions, as well as "newer versions of Safari, Chrome and Firefox," according to Microsoft's blog post. Tablet and smartphone support are initially limited to Windows 8-based tablets, iPad 2 tablets running iOS 6 (although iOS 5 will work with the preview) and iPhone 4, the blog explained.
The OWA "mini" UI is designed to work on Japanese cell phones. OWA "light" is based on HTML 4, and will support any browser not supported by the premium and light UIs. For instance, OWA light will work with Microsoft's IE 7 browser.
New OWA Architecture
Microsoft added HTML 5-based capabilities in revamping OWA. Specifically, Microsoft used HTML 5 technologies to enable OWA to work offline. The OWA e-mail client will let the user work offline and then will synchronize data when the user reconnects to the network or Internet. This offline capability works in Internet Explorer 10 via HTML 5's IndexedDB storage spec. With Chrome version 17 and later and the Safari 5 browsers, the HTML 5 technology that's used for the offline storage capability is called "Web SQL Database."
Surprisingly, in building a new OWA client tapping HTML 5 natively, Microsoft appears to be creating an alternative to its own ActiveSync technology, which has been the subject of past lawsuits, particularly with Google. Microsoft likely isn't trying to displace ActiveSync, but OWA at least will have similar offline capabilities using HTML 5 technologies.
"Our goal for OWA offline is to support the most common user actions, as far as HTML5 offline capabilities allows [sic]," Microsoft's blog post explains. "This does not take us to the complete offline support of Outlook on the Windows or Mac desktop, but it matches or exceeds the offline capabilities offered by most Exchange ActiveSync phone clients."
One limitation of the HTML 5 technology, compared with ActiveSync, is that it is still not possible to perform a "full-text indexed search" while offline using the new OWA client, the blog explained.
Server Architecture Changes
Microsoft switched how OWA processing happens on Exchange Server 2013, which now has two server roles -- Client Access Server (CAS) and Mailbox Server. With the new OWA, "rendering logic runs on Mailbox (MBX) servers, whereas in the past this rendering logic ran on the CAS." This change supposedly simplifies load balancing for both Exchange and OWA, according to Microsoft's blog.
Another change concerns monitoring capabilities.
"We have made the monitoring and auto-recovery mechanisms we use in Office 365 datacenters also run on premises, giving all Exchange customers the most robust and feature rich monitoring and self-healing system we have ever had for Exchange," according to the blog.
It's not clear how IT pros get those monitoring capabilities, which wasn't described in the blog. Microsoft earlier described some management perks to come in Exchange 2013, including a new administration center.
Hosted "Outlook Apps"
Microsoft described a new model for enabling third-party software vendor apps to work with OWA. These third-party apps are now hosted on an Internet server and delivered to an OWA client, rather than being installed on a server. Microsoft's blog described this approach, which is known as the "Outlook Apps" platform, as a security and stability measure. It eases the burden on IT pros, who typically would install these third-party apps on an Exchange server and then have to keep track of versions and compatibility issues.
Outlook Apps can be found listed in the Office Store. Microsoft's blog claims that IT administrators will be able to control which Outlook Apps can be tapped by users in an organization. This Outlook Apps approach works with premises-installed Office 2013, as well as Office 365.
Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.