With the release of Microsoft Exchange Server 2013, it's perhaps time again to turn some attention to Outlook Web App (OWA). As usual, the Exchange team devoted some useful development time to providing enhancements to OWA 2013. The new ability for offline mail access has probably received the most attention, but other interesting changes include the dramatically simplified UI and the ability to integrate apps with OWA (which also applies to the Outlook 2013 desktop client). The question naturally arises about whether OWA is good enough to allow companies to abandon Outlook on the desktop in favor of OWA.
First, let's examine the new features a little closer to see what benefits they bring. So, offline access. You can use OWA to read and respond to email even when you have no network connection, which could be great. However, this feature is possible only with the very latest browsers -- Internet Explorer 10, Safari 5, and Chrome 18 -- and enabling offline access is sure to require a good deal of end-user training to avoid security problems. Whether this feature is truly a boon remains to be seen, but in the short term, I suspect many organizations would rather avoid using it.
The simplified UI seems largely to be a winner, although there are always users who have valid disagreements with changes made to the features they interact with the most. The look and feel might be cleaner, but can you easily find the functions you use every day? Microsoft believes you'll be able to, and perhaps we should expect an adjustment period before writing off changes as bad. However, if access to a feature simply isn't in the UI, such as Public Folders in OWA 2013, that's going to be a problem for anyone who needs such access.
One of the reasons behind the UI changes is to present a consistent view of your OWA environment across different browsers and on different devices -- desktop, laptop, tablet, including touch capabilities. Although I haven't been able to test this experience personally, the demos I've seen (granted, given by Microsoft people) certainly make switching from one device to another look quite seamless. The fact that this sort of design effort was even made seems to be a recognition of the work habits of a modern workforce -- people work everywhere and want the same connected experience on whichever device they choose at the moment. OWA 2013 should be able to provide that experience.
The new model for integrating apps with Outlook and OWA seems to me one of the most exciting new features in this round, but how well it develops is largely dependent on whether developers get on board and build third-party add-ons. At launch, you'll have the Bing Maps app and a few others; Bing Maps can provide a graphic map and directions for meeting invitations, which can certainly be handy. At the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) 2012, Messageware introduced one of the first third-party Apps for Outlook, Messageware TakeNote, a tool that lets you add notes to messages or senders. If you're into coding yourself, you can learn about developing Outlook apps in the Microsoft article "Mail apps for Outlook."
These are all great features in their ways, but I'm not sure if they really offer enough in themselves to sound the death knell for the Outlook fat client. Another factor that often enters the debate at this point is cost: Can your business save money by using only OWA and avoiding the whole desktop upgrade? In the past, this point swung in OWA's favor, but with the Office 2013 suite available in a subscription model, the answer is less clear. Maybe you can upgrade without the high upfront costs.
Then the question comes back to whether Outlook 2013 provides anything compelling that OWA 2013 doesn't. Building on the social connectors introduced for Outlook 2010, one of the biggest changes for Outlook 2013 is the People Hub, which is the new standard view for contacts. You can link multiple versions of the same person, including information from LinkedIn and other social networks, so everything appears on a single contact card. But . . . you can also do that in OWA 2013.
The other UI change for Outlook 2013 is the Weather bar on the calendar, which gives you a 3-day snapshot of your local weather forecast (or some other region if for some reason you've configured it that way). This feature is a pretty neat idea, but not a deal-maker. The rest of Outlook 2013's enhancements are mostly around performance improvements and back-end stuff -- all of which is of no consequence if you decide to use only OWA.
As Microsoft continues to develop in tandem for the cloud and the on-premises versions of products such as Exchange, you do have to wonder what the future is for the desktop version of Outlook. Sparked by reading a blog by Kerio's Andrew Staples, "Long live email, but desktop email clients are dead (or at least dying)," I posed the question on Twitter, "Is Outlook dead/dying?" Twitter user @getgander replied, "maybe 'stagnant' is the best word? I think as generations change, Outlook may fade, but right now, it has an incumbent advantage." And Exchange MVP Devin Ganger (@devinganger) said, "Outlook will die when admin assistants use something else to manage delegate calendars. Not today!"
You can probably build your case either way, Outlook or OWA. Of course, the whole debate is meaningless if you're not planning to upgrade to Exchange 2013 in the first place -- but if you are, then it might well be worth considering what experience will best suit the needs of your users and your business when you're up and running on the new Exchange.