Outlook Web App 2013 and its morphing user interface

Outlook Web App 2013 boasts a new interface and a range of new features. I can't get some of the new features to work properly for me (could be user error), but the ability of the client to morph itself to make best use of available screen real estate across a range of device types is really quite impressive. OWA has the same capability in Office 365 if your tenant domain has been upgraded to the Wave 15 products.

I might not have like Outlook Web App (OWA) 2013 as much as I do its predecessor because I consider the 2010 version to be more functional than the current release. But that’s not to say that OWA 2013 does not bring some new tricks to the party and my feeling on the topic might just be because some of the new OWA features don’t work for me.

Take apps for example. These are touted as a way to extend OWA (and Outlook for that matter) in all sorts of nice ways. If you care to visit the link to the Office Store, you find all manner of apps waiting to be installed, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Microsoft provides some built-in apps, but I have had different luck with these. For instance, Bing Maps is invoked if OWA detects an address in a message, but it seems to me that OWA can only handle U.S. addresses and only if they are formatted according to a preset pattern. Inputting an address like:

1 University Avenue

Palo Alto 94303

California

Did not work whereas

1 University Avenue

Palo Alto

94303 California

Worked just fine. Maybe it’s just me or perhaps it is OWA’s way of saying that an Irish guy should not be looking up U.S. addresses anyway. Naturally, OWA had the good taste to ignore addresses in France, Ireland, and the U.K. with which I tried my best to attract Bing’s attention. And when Bing did notice, it produced some interesting results, such as showing a location in France as being close to Baltimore. Oh well...

OWA 2013’s new offline mode is more impressive. Provided that you have a modern browser (IE10 or the latest version of Chrome, for instance), OWA allows you to work with mail, calendar, and contacts offline and does a pretty good job of it. Of course, there are some factors to consider before deploying any capability that might leave data on PCs, but overall I like offline access very much.

Another impressive feature that might not receive much air time is the ability of OWA 2013 to morph itself to best fit the available screen estate on a variety of devices. OWA 2013 is very usable on touch devices but even more impressive is the way that OWA uses the useragent information reported by the browser running on a device to figure out how it should display mailbox information.

If OWA is running on a PC, it uses the traditional three-column layout with folder information to the left, messages in the selected folder shown in the middle, and the reading pane to the right (OK, it would be nice to be able to move the reading pane, but I hear that’s coming). Three columns is just fine unless you’re on a tablet or smartphone where it does not make sense to clutter up the screen with elements that are not immediately required. 

On tablets, OWA reverts to a two-column layout that emphasizes the information that users are most likely to want to see, so we have a list of messages and a big reading pane for the selected message. A set of icons at the bottom expose other elements such as the calendar and contacts, search, a “synchronize now” button and a button to hide the message list to give more room to read the selected message. The buttons are all big to make it easy for fingers to press and you can get to the folder list by pressing the chevrons shown at the top of the message list. This mode is called “touch wide” because you can test it on PC by adding the query string ?layout=twide to the URL used to invoke OWA. For instance:

https://mail.contoso.com/owa?layout=twide

This works for OWA 2013 running with both Exchange 2013 on-premises servers and Exchange Online in Office 365 (provided your tenant domain has been upgraded to use the Wave 15 products). Try it!

Smartphones have even less room on their screens, so we have a touch narrow mode too.

https://mail.contoso.com/owa?layout=tnarrow

Once again focus is directed to the most important element. To people reading email on smartphones that’s likely to be the message list, as shown above. Reading or creating a message uses the full screen. Again, we can switch between calendar, contacts, etc. by pressing one large button. It all works very nicely with the only possible complaint (for those who are picky) being that while you can see folders (by revealing that column), you cannot manage folders and perform operations such as add new folders, rename existing folders, or delete folders. A lot of users access Exchange and never change the default set of folders so this omission is probably not all that important.

I guess that the point is that OWA 2013 addresses different design goals than its predecessor. The world is changing and OWA could not simply focus on the PC. We live in a multi-device, multi-format world now and OWA’s new interface is capable of switching seamlessly from one format to another while keeping the focus on the most important element – satisfying our ceaseless demand to be always connected.

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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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