Using OWA Over Outlook: An Experiment

I've been spending some time with an old friend of late, a friend we call OWA. When Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 launched about two years ago, improvements to Outlook Web App (OWA) was one of the major themes: conversation view, MailTips, integrated presence and IM, all available with full-featured OWA versions on multiple browser platforms. The question I had at the time was if OWA was now good enough to replace Outlook on the desktop altogether.

For many people, undoubtedly the OWA experience truly offers all you need in an email and calendaring client. But my recent immersion in OWA has highlighted the gaps that still remain between OWA and the complete Outlook desktop version you get with the Microsoft Office suite. To start with, let's look at some of the positives.

For creating, sending, replying to basic email messages, OWA gives you all the tools you need. Likewise, for adding meetings or reminders to your calendar, there's really nothing lacking. And it's all just about the same as doing it in desktop Outlook, including easy linking to your Contacts or Global Address List (GAL), complete with resource scheduling. You can get pop-up notifications for new mail and calendar reminders -- or not, if you choose. In fact, you have a great deal of control as an end user on all your settings, including the ability to change your password, through the OWA interface.

I was able to take advantage of the integrated IM through OWA. It works well -- no complaints there. The Search function, which I know is something people use a lot in Outlook, works just about as well in OWA; OWA has some filtering capability, but doesn't offer the level of fine-tuning you can get through Outlook itself. And yes, for the artistically inclined, OWA with Exchange 2010 gives you many theme options so you can adjust the look of the interface to suit your mood. (I've gone with the semi-techno Blibbet because I like the green glowy bits. Even though I'm normally a cat person, I find the Herding Cats theme to be a bit silly for the working day -- sorry, Tony, I just can't support you on that one.)

So, lots of good things to focus on with OWA. Now let's see what's missing. The first thing that struck me was that I couldn't insert an image in my email signature. I thought I must have missed something, some trick to doing it. But no, it's really not there. A little research in some Microsoft forums and I found some workarounds, but apparently these solutions aren't supported by Microsoft. And it's not that OWA can't handle images or images in a signature. For example, if I create an email in Outlook that includes an image in my signature and save it in the Drafts folder, then open the draft in OWA -- no problem, image appears just as expected.

Some companies really want to use a corporate logo as part of email signatures, and that logo is going to be in the form of an image file. If you're considering using OWA instead of Outlook, using the Drafts folder workaround obviously isn't going to help you. Your options then are going with an unsupported solution, using plain text signatures, or waiting for Microsoft to add this capability to OWA.

Probably the other major fail for me is in the spell-checker. First of all, you don't get the autocorrect behavior while you type that I'm pretty sure most of us have come to rely on when using Outlook. So, no automatic capitalization of sentences, no changes of ahve to have, and no fixes of the hordes of other mistakes we probably are making without even realizing it. You do get a red underline of (perceived) mistakes so you can correct them yourself. You can set the spell-checker to run automatically before sending every message, and you can run it manually.

But perhaps the bigger problem with this version of spell check is that you can't add words to its dictionary. So proper names (in your signature, for instance) and unfamiliar technology terms will trip up the spell-checker every time. I get tired of telling it my name is spelled right each and every time I send a message -- particularly when it's in the same automatic signature that's applied to every message. (When I get worked up about spelling, you can probably tell I'm an editor.)

Here's a laundry list of other problems I have in using OWA instead Outlook, in no particular order:

  •  Although you can sort the view with oldest messages on top or newest messages on top, OWA doesn't remember your choice from one session to the next: It always opens with newest on top, which is fine if that's what you prefer. That's not what I prefer.
  •  Flagged messages don't show up as clearly as they do in Outlook, where the whole line turns red when an item is due-potentially a big deal if you live by flagging emails, as I do.
  • Advanced graphics and formatting options aren't available to OWA-think tables, SmartArt, and themes, although I think themes should be outlawed, so that's not really a great loss; still a lot of people seem to like to use them.
  • No Quick Parts, which is another of the more advanced Outlook features I make regular use of. It's an easy way to send email messages based on a template or to include a section of text that you use frequently and repeatedly.

In some ways, I think having used Outlook with all its great features is the real spoiler. I've gotten used to features that aid in the way that I work, that help me be most productive. If I'd never found Quick Parts, for instance, I probably wouldn't find retyping the same messages in OWA all that unusual. But to workers who haven't had Outlook at all, OWA will mostly likely seem like it has everything they need.

With the launch of Microsoft Office 365 and its kiosk worker plans, and the overall emphasis these days on cloudsourcing, providing an excellent OWA experience is certainly in Microsoft's best interest. OWA with Exchange 2010 certainly provides that, although your power users will definitely find there's still room for improvement.

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