Outlook Web Access (OWA) has come a long way since its debut in Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5. The Exchange 2000 version was the first production AJAX application, and subsequent versions have continued to add features and capability, many of which are unmatched by competing web mail systems.

The Exchange 2010 release—which, remember, changed the name to Outlook Web App—addressed one of the biggest complaints about OWA: the difference in functionality between different browsers. Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer are now co-equal, providing the same experience for users. However, there are a few other areas where OWA could use some improvement, including the ability for administrators to customize its look and behavior.

Of course, you can control which features users have access to in OWA. Both the Exchange Management Shell and the Exchange Management Console provide tools for restricting user access to calendaring, contacts, instant messaging integration, and other OWA features. (Take a look at the Help for the Set-OwaVirtualDirectory cmdlet to see a full list of the things you can change.) These settings are useful, but they don't address some areas that I frequently see people asking for.

Probably the biggest request I hear is for branding, or the ability to "skin" OWA to reflect your organization's logo, color scheme, and other design elements. OWA 2007 let administrators define themes that users could select or that could be applied directly by the administrator. This feature made it easy to apply branding, although it was sometimes misused. OWA 2010 still has themes. More properly, it has a single theme that's stored in \\Client Access\OWA\version\themes. You can modify the graphic elements, colors, and so on in the theme, but you only get one, so users can't switch between themes, and it's difficult to test your changes before applying them. Also, any changes you make to the default theme will be overwritten when you deploy an Exchange rollup or service pack, so make sure you keep backups!

The second kind of customization that I often hear requested is the ability to embed pieces of OWA in other web applications. The canonical example is a company web portal, into which you want to embed a web part that shows the user's inbox. The story here is somewhat confusing. The TechNet documentation page "Introduction to Outlook Web App Customization" says that you can embed OWA 2010 components in other web pages . . . right before it says that you can't embed OWA 2010 components in other web pages. As far as I can determine, this capability is no longer supported, but if you've got it working, I'd love to learn otherwise.

What about customizing the logon page for OWA? This feature is another frequent request; unlike the first two, this one is easy to do. The Microsoft article "Customize the Outlook Web App Sign-In and Sign-Out Pages" has complete instructions, but basically you need to edit the logon.css file to change colors and styles, then replace the system-provided logos with your own choices. Microsoft doesn't support changing the logon page itself, although you can certainly edit it to control which security controls appear, whether the "Use the light version of Outlook Web App" checkbox is present, and so forth. Like changing the theme, though, the changes you make to the logon page will be overwritten when you apply rollups or service packs.

Customizing OWA gives you a fairly simple way to make your OWA environment reflect your organization's overall look and feel, so it's worth looking into if you want something more than the attractive, yet bland, default look. Give it a try. As for me, I'm off to wrap Christmas presents! My very best holiday wishes to you, along with my thanks for being an UPDATE subscriber.