First thoughts on using the OWA apps for iOS

Everyone got very excited on July 16 when Microsoft released their OWA for iOS apps. I was excited too, so excited that I screwed things up on my blog... but then I managed to control myself sufficiently to appropriate an iPhone 4S and install the app on that device. Ten minutes and one small glitch later I was up and running - and discovered that this is a very impressive app. Not perhaps compelling enough to lure me back to the clutches of Apple, but certainly the best email app that I have seen on the platform. Time to dump the Apple mail app and use something much better - like OWA for iOS.

I must have been pretty excited by Microsoft releasing their OWA for iOS apps on July 16. So much so that I mixed up Exchange 2013 for Exchange 2010 in a blog post title when commenting on the problem discovered with public folder mailbox permissions soon after Exchange 2013 RTM CU2 shipped. Oh well, that’s what you get when you try and multi-task. I hear that men are no good at this kind of thing, or so my wife has informed me many times.

With the luxury of time, I have been able to try out the OWA app and think that Microsoft has done a pretty good job to provide the best possible email client for iOS. It certainly knocks Apple’s standard mail app into the second division.

I first attempted to install the app on a version 1 iPad, only to be told that the app has the good sense to decline installation on such an old device. The error message indicates that a front-facing camera is required, which is misleading. However, my contacts assure me that this is normal practice in the iOS development world when programmers don’t want their apps to run (slowly) on old hardware. Suffice to say that you should run the OWA apps on recent devices. Of course, had I bothered to read the advice given on the app's page, I would have discovered that an iPad 2 is the minimum requirement, but what techie reads documentation? Likewise, the minimum requirement for iPhone is an iPhone 4S, which is lucky because that's the model used by my wife.

After misappropriating the iPhone, I then ran into another glitch. At this point in its development, the OWA apps only support connections to an Office 365 tenant domain that has been upgraded to run the latest cloud applications. In Exchange terms this means that the tenant domain has to be running Exchange 2013 RTM CU2+, or CU3 in the making as will be eventually delivered to on-premises customers through Microsoft’s quarterly servicing release cycle. You can check what version your tenant domain uses by connecting to Exchange Online with PowerShell and then running the Get-OrganizationConfig cmdlet. Look for the AdminDisplayVersion setting in the output. Mine shows 15.0.702.21. Version 15 means Exchange 2013 and the rest of the information contains the build number – you need to see version 15 to be able to use the OWA apps.

In any case, the setup for the OWA apps contacts the server to determine the version number and the glitch occurred when it reported that “this app is incompatible with this iPhone”. Rubbish, I thought, as I knew that my domain has been running the Wave 15 apps for months now. So I practiced standard support techniques and left things alone for ten minutes before retrying. The iPhone then decided that all was well and connected to perform an initial synchronization with my mailbox.

Synchronization was quick and effective. Essentially, OWA performs an initial synchronization to fetch new items each time you move between folders to ensure that you see the up-to-date information. The app then takes out a HTTP subscription to the folder so that it is advised by the server when new information is available and can then synchronize to download the information to the device. It all works very nicely.

Anyone who has ever used the latest version of OWA on a PC will understand what’s going on in the app. Those who move from the standard set of Apple apps might find it strange to see email, calendar, and contacts presented in the same app but will soon get used to it. Contacts don’t have to be synchronized from Exchange, but if they are, they join the set of contacts already on the phone (prepare for some duplicates) and can then be used to display information about callers when phone calls arrive.

In terms of Exchange functionality, comparing the OWA app to the standard mail app is like comparing a new car to a model T Ford. Both send email but that’s the end of the comparison. Being able to work offline with email and the calendar (not just viewing data, but also working with it), support for apps such as the Message Header Analyzer and Bing Maps, access to more than an individual calendar, and MailTips mark the OWA apps out as premium email clients. After finding an iPad 5 that I could use, I discovered that the iPad version of the app delivers a much more productive experience simply because of the additional screen real estate – and the fact that the iPad version has extra features like support for the calendar scheduling assistant and archive mailboxes.

Like any first version of a new app there are things that could work better – reading HTML formatted messages that were composed on a PC is not as smooth as you’d like, you can't use rich text formatting (like bolding and italics) in new messages (but spell checking, cut and paste do work), and adding file attachments (from SkyDrive, the device, or another item in an Exchange folder) seems to be a significant omission. Some users have commented that they think the apps are slow to load and sometimes slow to transition between screens. I didn't find this to be a problem myself, but it is interesting that some of those who reported this feeling were non-technical folk who are accustomed to use the Apple mail app. 

It is Microsoft standard operating practice when they enter a new space is to release 1.0 code that is known to be imperfect in order to establish a beachhead. Given time and user feedback, you can anticipate that versions 2.0 and 3.0 will be much improved. At least, it had better be else Microsoft really will earn the "WTF" label attributed to the apps in what I thought was an unfair and unbalanced InfoWorld review 

Eventually I had to give the iPhone back to my wife so I went to OWA options on my PC and selected the remote wipe option. The wipe was effective the next time the iPhone connected to the server. Only OWA data is removed – nothing personal (like contacts already on the device) is wiped. Credentials and account information are also removed when a device is wiped and have to be reentered before the device can connect again.

I moved from iPhone to Windows Phone about 18 months ago and still consider Windows Phone to be a superior operating system, albeit one handicapped by a lack of good apps. As such, I am probably not the best person in the world to make an assessment of what makes a good iOS app. Some might say that these apps are not real iOS apps because they use the same OWA UI (or "modern", "Metro", or whatever the current term is for Microsoft's design language) as you'd see on a PC, albeit in a compressed form. An iOS user might say that the apps don't look as good as the standard mail app. An OWA user will be able to pick up and use the apps without any problem whatsoever. And that is where the attractiveness lies for companies in that they can recommend the OWA apps to users as part of a BYOD strategy and know that a single UI is in place for corporate email on all devices. Even better, such a strategy facilitates a clear seperation between "personal" email (accessed through the iOS mail app) and "business" email (accessed through OWA).

Up to now I thought that Mobile Outlook was the best way of connecting a mobile device to Exchange for email. Now I’m not so sure. Whether the presence of the OWA app will make me consider moving back to iOS is another question. We’ll just have to see. That Nokia Lumia 1020 is very appealing…

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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