OWA iOS app makes its debut

We all know that the recent history of Apple's iOS mail app has been problematic when it comes to communicating with Exchange, mostly because of the way that Apple has implemented ActiveSync for iOS but also due to some server bugs. Well, Microsoft has now taken the bull by the horns and launched their own Outlook Web App apps for iOS as a direct higher-functionality replacement for the native iOS mail app. Sounds good... what's the scene?

When I published “Exchange ActiveSync to be replaced by OWA on mobile devices” on July 9, I certainly didn’t expect to see radical developments in the space quite so quickly, yet that’s just what happened when Microsoft released Outlook Web App (OWA) apps for iPhone and iPad in the Apple app store on July 16. Talk about good timing or perhaps just good luck!

To be clear, I had no up-front warning that Microsoft was about to release these apps. However, there had been many rumours (for example, this report from Apple Insider in May 2012). It makes a lot of sense for Microsoft to create apps that essentially act as a wrapper around OWA so that the out-of-the-box functionality that would be available by running Safari is augmented with code to store user credentials, use Autodiscover to connect to Exchange, and (most importantly) to apply a mixture of OWA and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policy settings to provide some administrative control over the apps.

You can find the new app by searching for "OWA for iPhone or OWA for iPad" in the app store. Other apps tout their ability to connect to Exchange and do a better job than Apple's mail app including OMP (Outlook Access for iOS), Mail+ for Outlook, Mail+ for ActiveSync, or even Outlook Mail Access for iPad. The big difference is that the OWA app is developed and maintained by Microsoft and, even better, it's free. You can't argue with that price point.

Apple is a great company that serves the interests of consumers extremely well. However, Apple is far less impressive when dealing with the needs of corporations who want to exert some control over applications. Apple’s track record of using EAS is spotty. On the one hand, its mail app is able to connect to Exchange using EAS to access mail and calendar information. On the other, there have been a large number of bugs in the way that Apple has used EAS, including the infamous “calendar hijacking” issue in late 2012. In addition, it seems like Apple has made a decision to implement just enough of the EAS protocol to allow its apps to use basic email functionality. It ignores all the extended settings that allow administrators to control security settings on the devices. In effect, Apple’s implementation of EAS delivers “just enough” and no more.

It’s easy to understand how frustrated Microsoft might become. They want Apple to support Exchange and were, no doubt, very happy when Apple decided to license EAS. But then the Apple mail app makes no attempt to use the extended features of Exchange. From Cupertino’s consumer-centric perspective their approach makes sense. In Apple's mind, the simple fact is that iOS devices support Exchange and no more needs to be done. End of story.

The new apps provide Microsoft with a method to control the user experience that is available through Exchange while also taking advantage of the iOS platform such as using Apple's push notification service to update the number of new messages on the OWA icon. In effect, the new situation is that you can use the Apple mail app if you simply want to access an Exchange mailbox or you can use the OWA app if you want richer (premium in OWA terms) functionality that’s available through OWA. For example, the initial release of the OWA app allows access to an archive mailbox - the first time that a mobile device has been able to use an archive. Other advanced features such as retention policies, delegate access to calendars, multiple calendars, support for IRM, and a view of free/busy data are available in the initial release as is support for EAS mailbox policy settings such as remote wipe and minimum PIN length. 

Not all of the extended functionality is available in the first version of the OWA app but you can bet that Microsoft will create as much clear blue water as possible between its apps and Apple’s apps. Given that public folders are exposed in the PC version of OWA, you'd expect to see it appear in the iOS version too. The same is true for site mailboxes and all the other features that are currently available in the premium version of OWA. And the best thing from a Microsoft perspective is that they can leverage Apple’s app store infrastructure to push out new releases to users. iOS users are accustomed to downloading and installing new version of apps as they become available so it's a well-established mechanism to get new features to end users.

Now that iOS apps are available, will Microsoft release OWA apps for other platforms? Well, there’s no real need to do this for Windows Phone as Mobile Outlook already delivers the best implementation of an EAS mail client. Android is an obvious next step. However, Android is a fragmented market currently dominated by three major releases of the operating system, which obviously creates some difficulties for developers. Microsoft is not saying whether they will support an Android version of the OWA app. However, after they figure out how best to support the multiple Android platforms, it’s reasonable to expect that Microsoft will make a version of the OWA app in the Android marketplace sometime in the future.

And what future now remains for EAS? The first thing that has to be said is that EAS remains the de facto connectivity protocol for mobile devices. EAS therefore occupies an important position until the time comes when OWA or OWA-derived solutions are available on all mobile platforms, and that’s not going to be anytime soon. However, it’s also fair to anticipate that Microsoft is not going to overhaul EAS to add support for the extended functionality that is available through OWA, like archive mailboxes. The work is probably unjustified at this point and anyway, it would require all of the mobile vendors to upgrade their mail apps to take advantage of anything Microsoft did in EAS. Given that they’ve just solved the major issue of how to satisfy iOS users, there doesn’t seem to be much joy for Microsoft to attempt to upgrade EAS for the fragmented market that exists in the Android space.

Screen shots and a general description of the OWA for iOS apps can be found on the Office 365 blog. Why Office 365? Well, the initial release of the OWA apps is restricted to connections to Exchange Online mailboxes - and only if your tenant domain has been upgraded to the latest version of the Wave 15 applications. On-premises Exchange 2013 deployments will gain this capability in the reasonably near future, probably when Microsoft issues upgraded code in a cumulative update. I do not anticipate that Microsoft will retrofit this app to work with Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2007, but have been proven wrong in the past. In the meantime, Microsoft will have the opportunity to gauge out the OWA apps work by observing user activity within Office 365 before they finalize the code to be released for on-premises installations.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Jul 18, 2013

I'd like to understand now how we can implement the equivalent of ABQ (Allow Block Quarantine for EAS) for iOS OWA? Admitedly the whole security model for Office 365 is questionable. Not being able to easily apply IP lock down is painful. You either have to take a path of ADFS (with MS IP lockdown) or use 3rd party like Okta.

Anyone know what MS's plans are in respect to ABQ for iOS OWA?

on Jul 19, 2013

Interesting, now the transition off of EAS makes sense. An app is the way to go not a browser experience which you mentioned last week.

Last I looked the Windows Phone 8 outlook experience didn't compare to iPhone mail app nor did it support as many EAS policies, not sure how it cannot be improved upon.

Glad they're getting out the kinks with O365 before offering it to on-premises Exchange customers. This app brings pressure to Good and other MDM providers which I'm sure will add more features to stay ahead.

on Jul 19, 2013

@GregtJones, am investigating this very point and will cover it in a future blog post...

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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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