OWA for Android debuts but leaves on-premises customers waiting

At last, the fog clears and Microsoft announces the availability of a pre-release version of Outlook Web App for Android. What's a pre-release version? Well, it's not quite finished yet. But OWA for Android works, as long as you have a KitKat smartphone and an Office 365 mailbox. That's not too much to ask, is it?

The Twittersphere erupted yesterday after Microsoft made a “pre-release” version of the long-awaited Outlook Web App (OWA) for Android available in the Android store. As you’ll recall, at MEC Microsoft announced that they were building out the OWA for Devices app family with an Android version to join its iOS cousin, released last July. Many observers, including me, were surprised that it took Microsoft quite so long after the MEC announcement to finally deliver code.

In any case, OWA for Android continues the strategy for mobile devices that Microsoft embarked upon after a succession of problems with Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) clients, mainly the Apple iOS mail app, demonstrated the problems that can occur when Exchange depended on third parties writing code against a licensed protocol. Microsoft benefited greatly from the proliferation of EAS licensed devices, but it had no control whatsoever over the clients that eventually emerged, including the kind of communications that clients attempted with the server using the EAS protocol.

Another issue is the aging of EAS. The protocol was designed a long time ago in terms of the evolution of mobile devices and reflects a time when all you really wanted to do was use a mobile device to check email. EAS has done a fine job since, but the protocol lacks any accommodation for new features that Microsoft wants to deliver to mobile clients, ranging from the aesthetic (mail and policy tips) to functionality (Outlook Apps).

OWA was redesigned in Exchange 2013 to accommodate the form factors of smartphone and pad devices as well as traditional PCs. The new interface has allowed Microsoft to “shrink” OWA to run as an effective client on iOS and now Android. OWA also works well on Windows Phone, albeit not as a separate client but by making a connection to Exchange via the built-in IE browser.

So now we get a pre-release version of OWA for Android. I read this to mean that there are some glitches to resolve, including the thorny problem of making OWA for Android work with on-premises Exchange. For now, aligning with Microsoft's "Mobile First, Cloud First" policy, you have to connect OWA for Android to an Office 365 mailbox. For technical reasons, not least because KitKat supports the Chrome browser, you have to use a KitKat (4.4) smartphone device. That device has to have a "small" or "normal" screen size as defined in the Android developer guidelines. According to the guidelines, Android's supported screen size definitions are:

  • "xlarge screens are at least 960dp x 720dp
  • large screens are at least 640dp x 480dp
  • normal screens are at least 470dp x 320dp
  • small screens are at least 426dp x 320dp

Note: These minimum screen sizes were not as well defined prior to Android 3.0, so you may encounter some devices that are mis-classified between normal and large. These are also based on the physical resolution of the screen, so may vary across devices—for example a 1024x720 tablet with a system bar actually has a bit less space available to the application due to it being used by the system bar."

The net result is that your preferred Android smartphone might not be usable with the pre-release version of OWA for Android. Looking at the site MIcrosoft has created to accept comments and suggestions for the final version of OWA for Android, it seems like common devices such as the HTC One (1080 x1920) and Nexus 4 (768 x 1280) fall into the unsupported category.  Support for Android tablets is rumoured to be in the works and might arrive as part of the final release.

OWA for Android is familiar to anyone who’s ever used OWA for Exchange 2013. Some prefer to use the in-built mail apps but you have to realize that these apps, which depend on IMAP4 or EAS to connect to Exchange, will never support the range of features and functionality that OWA for Devices can deliver. And corporate email administrators might prefer if OWA is used everywhere on the basis that it simplifies support.

It’s an interesting development and I am sure that Microsoft will receive a lot of feedback as they hone the final release. You can provide your feedback on the site referenced above.

Microsoft has not said when to expect the final release, but for now you have a highly functional OWA for Android client available to use, should you like to do so.

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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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