Why I needed to use Outlook Web App's in offline mode instead of Outlook

Some difficulties with Wi-Fi forces a decision to use Outlook Web App configured for offline access instead of Outlook 2013. Why? Well, Outlook is a bit of a pig when it comes to network resources because it synchronizes so much data from so many sources. On the other hand, OWA is efficient and quick and uses far less bandwidth - and still provides a pretty good interface.

I've made lots of comments about Outlook Web App (OWA) over the last year. Justifiably so, I think, seeing that I have actually been using OWA more than I usually do and Microsoft has released their OWA for iOS app. But returning once again to my travel escapades that caused me to use OWA light on a TV set in Abu Dhabi, I continued to experience more network connectivity issues as I traveled onward to Australia that resulted in a decision being made to use OWA premium rather than Outlook 2013 for the duration of the trip. On the surface (no pun intended, for this was indeed the device I used), this might seem like a strange thing to do as Outlook 2013 is obviously a much more functional client than OWA. But Outlook’s functionality has to be paid for in the form of resources and in this case, it was the network that determined client choice. Or lack of network to be precise.

Australia is a wonderful country with friendly people, great weather, and a host of things to do. That advertisement for the Australian tourist authority has to be balanced by the fact that most Australian hotels insist on abusing their clients by over-charging for weak and slow Wi-Fi networks. $20 a night seems to be the going rate in most cities, which I wouldn’t mind paying if I was able to connect to more than just Facebook.

Of course, it’s possible to seek out free Wi-Fi in coffee shops and the like but there’s a limit to the amount of coffee that you can drink, good as it might be. So a decision was made to purchase a Telstra 4G USB modem,  a device that can support up to 5 concurrent connections at reasonable speed in the major urban areas. 

For years, one of Outlook’s strengths has been its ability to insulate users from flaky networks by synchronizing data to the OST. The transition from offline to online access is smooth and email flows without a hitch. It’s one of the things that has made Outlook a premium client and one of the reasons why many spend a lot of their working life deep in Outlook.

But Outlook consumes a lot of network bandwidth to get things done. Outlook 2013 was perfectly happy to connect using the 4G modem, albeit slowly. The problem is that Outlook 2013 often connects to more than your personal mailbox. In fact, Outlook 2013 is a connection fulcrum that fetches information from myriad places to present a full picture of your online world. Links to Facebook and LinkedIn via Outlook’s social connector inform of important new developments in the lives of friends and colleagues while connections to shared mailboxes, site mailboxes, and public folders mean that all manner of information is available. And of course, the OAB is updated daily so that you know about new mailboxes and groups. All good stuff, but highly dependent on solid networks.

The 4G modem came with 5GB of data and the promise of hefty charges should more data be required. OWA 2013 supports offline mode, as long as you use a modern browser like IE10 or the latest version of Chrome. And the nice thing about OWA is that it presents a reasonable user interface at a much reduced network cost. It therefore made sense to configure OWA for offline access and use it instead of Outlook whenever network bandwidth was at a premium.

After using OWA in offline mode for three weeks I’ve got to say that I am impressed. Microsoft has done a very nice job of hiding network frailties from users. Messages are downloaded and sent when a network is available. Unlike Outlook’s ability to keep the entire mailbox synchronized offline, OWA concentrates on caching only the data that you are most likely to use, such as the Inbox, Sent Items, and Calendar as well as other folders that you access during a session. Only 150 items are kept in email folders to restrict downloads. Attachments are only downloaded if accessed online. All of your contacts are synchronized and available offline while the Calendar downloads the current month plus the next five months. Apart from not being able to access Tasks offline, OWA works really well when no network is available.

Some might say that OWA 2013 offline mode is like working with Outlook 2000 before Outlook 2003 arrived with all the networking smarts to transform offline working and there’s some truth in that assertion. However, the point is that it gets the job done when network resources are not abundant and that’s all that really matters. I’m sure that the OWA team will improve and enhance this capability in future builds and I look forward to the results of their work.

In the meantime, I am enjoying fast Wi-Fi networks again and the need for OWA 2013 offline mode has receded. Outlook 2013 has regained its rightful place as my email client of choice. At least, until the next time when networks degrade.

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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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