Improvements to Outlook Web App in Exchange 2013 (Part 2)

by [Published on 14 March 2013 / Last Updated on 14 March 2013]

In this article we will be looking at Outlook Web App on Mobile Devices and the new Offline Access feature.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

Introduction

In the first part of this article series, we looked at the improvements made to the interface of Outlook Web App in Exchange 2013, Calendars and Contacts. In this second part, we will be looking at Outlook Web App on Mobile Devices and the new Offline Access feature.

Mobile Devices

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, one the reasons behind the radical user interface [UI] change, is so that users get a streamlined interface across different platforms and devices. Everyone who has tried to use Outlook Web App [OWA] on a mobile device knows exactly that it is not easy at all to use...

Finally the OWA interface has evolved to the point that it is now touch friendly, making it usable in tablets and mobile phones. As we know, desktops/laptops, tablets and mobile phones have different UI requirements. Ensuring a consistent experience across all these devices is no simple task, but Microsoft has honestly done it. The new OWA “adapts” to the device the user is using to access the mailbox:

  • In desktops or laptops, OWA projects a UI optimized for mouse and keyboard input. This mode is known as Desktop;
  • In tablet size screens, OWA projects a UI optimized for touch input - mode known as touch-wide;
  • In mobile phones, OWA projects a narrower UI for touch - touch-narrow mode.

Because all these 3 modes are very similar in function and look-and-feel, users will not have to learn how to manage e-mails or calendars in different devices.

Besides a nice interface, using OWA instead of the default e-mail application of mobile devices, provides users with many Exchange features not available in these apps. For example, it allows users to read and compose IRM-protected e-mail [Information Rights Management], view other user’s calendars (as we will see in figure 2.6), server-side search, access their Exchange archive mailbox, etc.

Unfortunately, for technical reasons, I don’t have ActiveSync access to my lab at this stage, so the following screenshots were taken from my account on the new Office 365 which is based on Exchange 2013 (amongst other 2013 products). As such, these screenshots are identical to on-premise Exchange 2013 OWA.

OWA on an iPad

As you can see from the screenshot below, OWA on tablets is almost identical to the one on a desktop or laptop, which is great considering the fast proliferation of these devices:

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Figure 2.1: Default OWA View on an iPad

As you can see from the screenshot below, the Bing Maps app (more on apps in the third part of this article) is also available on tables and it works without any problems.

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Figure 2.2:
Bing Maps App on an iPad

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Figure 2.3:
OWA on an iPad – Composing an E-mail

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Figure 2.4:
OWA on an iPad – Navigation

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Figure 2.5:
OWA on an iPad – Month Calendar View

Another great feature, something users I have worked with always requested, is the ability to see other users’ calendars on mobile devices such as iPads, for example. This is now possible and it is as simple as when using the Desktop version of OWA:

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Figure 2.6:
OWA on an iPad – Multiple Calendar View

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Figure 2.7:
OWA on an iPad – Contacts

OWA on a Mobile Phone (Android)

The following screenshots were taken using my Android mobile device (a Samsung Galaxy S II).

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Figure 2.8:
Default OWA View on an Android Phone

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Figure 2.9:
OWA on an Android Phone – Reading an E-mail 

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Figure 2.10: OWA on an Android Phone – Navigation 

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Figure 2.11:
OWA on an Android Phone – Month Calendar View

OWA Offline Mode

Another major, major improvement is the introduction of Offline support, allowing users to launch OWA and start working even if there is no network connectivity! The work a user does while disconnected will then be automatically synchronized the next time the user goes online. This is very similar to Outlook Cached Mode and allows users to be productive even when they have no network connectivity.

Most e-mail and calendar actions such as sending e-mails and calendar invites, deleting e-mails, getting reminders, declining meetings, flag and categorize messages, etc. work while in offline mode. However, not every option (or action) is available, but as HTML5 evolves I reckon more and more options/actions will be made available in offline mode, bringing OWA even closer to Outlook. One example is full-text indexed search which is still not possible with OWA offline or HTML5 offline in general for that matter.

Other examples of available features and limitations of offline mode are:

  • Only the last 3 days or 150 e-mails (whichever is larger) are available and only on your Inbox, Drafts or any folder viewed within the last few days;
  • The previous month and future year of your calendar are available;
  • Only a limited set of upcoming calendar reminders are available. If you are offline for a long time, reminders will stop working until you go online so OWA can download current information;
  • All your contacts are available (this excludes contacts from social networks like LinkedIn and the Glogal Address List);
  • The Auto-Complete cache is available;
  • Archived folders or tasks are not available;
  • As I already mentioned, you will not be able to search or sort items when offline;
  • Built-in filters will also not work;
  • Attachments are not available.

At the time of writing of this article only the following browsers support offline mode:

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 10;
  • Safari 5 or greater (supported on Mac desktops only);
  • Google Chrome.

Although offline mode is enabled for all users by default, in order to actually use it, users need to first manually enable it on each computer they want to use this feature. This is done by clicking the settings button at top right-hand corner of the main OWA page and selecting Use mail offline:

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Figure 2.12:
Enabling OWA Offline Mode

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Figure 2.13:
Enabling OWA Offline Mode Warning

Note:
Offline mode has been designed for computers and laptops. It can't be enabled in browsers on smaller devices like tablets or smartphones!

When starting an OWA session in offline mode, the browser takes the user directly into the mailbox (as no authentication can happen). Once in there, the experience is as I have already described above. Notice, for example, as the attachments are not available while offline:

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Figure 2.14:
OWA in Offline Mode

E-mails composed and “sent” will be placed in the Outbox folder just like in Outlook (this folder is not visible when online):

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Figure 2.15:
Sending E-mails when in Offline Mode

Note that this Outbox folder is local to the machine the user is using.

If a user opens and edits a message from the Outbox folder, it will become a draft and get moved to the Drafts folder until SEND or SAVE is selected.

Once the connection to the mailbox gets reestablished, the browser takes the user automatically to the OWA logon webpage. Once logged in, all operations performed while offline will be performed (like sending e-mails in the Outbox).

Note:
The only basic thing missing from offline mode is a notification informing the user he/she is working in offline mode... The only way to tell we are in offline mode seems to be the Synchronizing... text at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen:

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Figure 2.16:
OWA Trying to Synchronize

Security

Obviously when users enable offline mode, their data is going to be downloaded and cached on their computer or laptop, which for some companies might not be acceptable. This data is kept in a web database (usually a file or set of files) determined by the browser used. At the time this article was written, these were the locations (on Windows machines):

  • Internet Explorer 10: %systemdrive%\Users\%username%\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Indexed DB
  • Chrome: %systemdrive%\Users\%username% \AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default\databases

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Figure 2.17:
Browser Web Database

Note:
This data is accessible through the user account under which it was enabled and is not encrypted!

The good news for all the security guys out there, is that Exchange administrators can control which users have access to OWA offline mode. Remember that offline mode is enabled by default for all users.

To disable it we have 2 options:

  1. Disable offline access for an OWA mailbox policy. This can be the default policy which will affect everyone, or a new OWA policy that applies only to specific users.

    Set-OwaMailboxPolicy <OWA_Policy_Name> –AllowOfflineOn [NoComputers | AllComputers | PrivateComputers]
  2. Disable offline access for an OWA virtual directory. Be careful with this method as if you disable this feature on a CAS server but not on another server (assuming you have multiple) and you have all users connecting through any one of them, then your users will face an inconsistency on their OWA functionality depending to which CAS server they connect through.

This feature is useful if, for example, you have a set of CAS servers that provide external access to OWA and another set of CAS servers that only provide internal OWA access. In this scenario, you could enable offline mode just for the internal users, for example.

Set-OwaVirtualDirectory <OWA_Vir_Dir_Name> –AllowOfflineOn [NoComputers | AllComputers | PrivateComputers]

Conclusion

In the second part of this article series, we looked at the improvements made to the interface of Outlook Web App on Mobile Devices and the great new Offline Access feature.

In the third and last part, we will discuss apps, accessibility, supported browsers and operating systems, and if OWA is finally a replacement for Outlook.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

 

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