New Features Freshen OWA in Exchange Server 2007 SP1

Enhancements to OWA Light, support for personal DLs and WebReady Document Viewing, and others make Outlook Web Access a better webmail client

Exchange Server 2007 SP1 includes a slew of improvements to Outlook Web Access (OWA), the Microsoft Outlook web-email client. If you’re already used to working with the OWA interface in Exchange 2007, you won't have any trouble navigating OWA in Exchange 2007 SP1. Although Microsoft has added new features to OWA in SP1, it hasn't changed how you implement previously existing features, nor has Microsoft altered the steps you need to take to perform various tasks. Here I introduce you to some of the SP1 OWA enhancements and explain how these features provide a better webmail client experience for your end users.

OWA Light
Like many previous Exchange versions, Exchange 2007 includes a lightweight version of OWA—called OWA Light—intended for users with low-end browsers, such as the ones used on Windows Mobile devices, or Mozilla Firefox or slow Internet connections. To use OWA Light, go to the OWA sign-on screen and select the Use Outlook Web Access Light check box, as Figure 1 shows. As you see in Figure 2, OWA Light has the same basic features as the full-blown version of OWA (e.g., message list, calendar, contacts, and mail folders). However, it contains far fewer features than the complete OWA, omitting features such as the Tasks module and task-specific properties, mail-item search, reminders, flags and categories, the ability to compose HTML messages, the Free/Busy grid, and deleted-item recovery, among others.

In the original Exchange 2007 release, Microsoft assumed that users would employ OWA Light only to compose short messages. If you attempted to write a long message, OWA Light would often time out before you could finish typing the message. In SP1, Microsoft has redesigned OWA Light so that it now monitors your activity to see whether you’re actively typing anything and won’t time out unless the session is truly idle. The timeout period varies, depending on whether you’re using the public or private profile. Public profiles use a fairly short timeout period although the private profile provides a longer timeout.

Personal Distribution Lists
Thanks to a new OWA feature, you can now create and edit personal (but not system) distribution lists (DLs). As you can see in Figure 3, there’s now a Distribution List option in the New drop-down menu. If you choose the option to create a new allocation directory, you’ll see a screen that lets you specify a name for the DL you’re creating and add or remove recipients from it.

WebReady Document Viewing
WebReady Document Viewing lets you directly view various types of documents through a web browser. This tool existed in the Exchange 2007 RTM version, but the original offered no support for Microsoft Office 2007 system documents. The SP1 version supports Office 2007 documents and maintains support for Microsoft Office 2003 documents and PDF files. For example, in an email message containing an Office 2007 document attachment, you’ll see the Open as Web Page link next to the Office 2007 document attached to the message, as Figure 4 shows. If you click the link, the document opens in a browser window.

To use WebReady Document Viewing, you need to enable it. To do so, open Exchange Management Console and navigate through the console tree to Server Configuration\Client Access. Next, select your Client Access server from the Results pane, then right-click the OWA (Default Web Site) listing in the details pane and choose the Properties command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do so, you see the owa (Default Web Site) Properties sheet.

Exchange 2007 retains two separate OWA configurations that you can modify on a per-user or system-wide basis, depending on whether you access OWA from a private or public computer. The properties sheet contains two otherwise identical tabs that let you perform separate configurations. Open either the Public Computer File Access or Private Computer File Access tab and select the Enable WebReady Document Viewing check box, as Figure 5 shows. You can select the option to force the use of WebReady Document Viewing when a converter is available; click the Supported button to see which converters are offered.

Move, Copy, and Deleted-Items Recovery
In previous OWA versions, you couldn’t move or copy a message from one folder to another; in SP1 OWA now includes the move and copy functions. Microsoft has also added the Move to Folder and Copy to Folder options to OWA’s right-click, context-sensitive menu capabilities, as Figure 6 shows. Normally, when you right-click an object through IE, you see a shortcut menu. In Exchange 2007 RTM, Microsoft removed IE’s shortcut menus and replaced them with OWA-specific menus. Microsoft just added the Move and Copy commands to the existing shortcut menus. So, for example, as Figure 6 shows, you could select a message in the Deleted Items folder, then click Move to Folder to move the message back to the Inbox. Additionally, in SP1 OWA you can now recover deleted mail items through the Deleted Items folder, just as you can in the full Outlook version.

Monthly Calendar
Shortly after Microsoft released Exchange 2007, I received a call from a frustrated friend who couldn’t figure out how to display her calendar in month format. I remember telling her that it couldn't be too hard to do and that I’d log on to OWA myself to walk her through it. Imagine my surprise when I couldn't figure out how to display the calendar in a monthly format, either.

As I discovered, the original Exchange 2007 release didn't support viewing the calendar in monthly format in OWA. Happily, Microsoft has added this feature in SP1. To view your calendar in month format, just click the Month icon at the top of the calendar screen, as Figure 7 shows.

Public Folders
Although Microsoft has hinted at discontinuing public folders in the next version of Exchange, the good news in the meantime is that you can access public folders through OWA. You access public folders via the Public Folders link in the lower left corner of the OWA screen, as Figure 3 shows. OWA now offers all the standard public folder features: You can create new posts, reply to existing posts, and search existing posts.

Microsoft has re-established backing for Secure MIME (S/MIME) in OWA. Supported in Exchange Server 2003 and Exchange 2000 Server, S/MIME is a technology originally developed by RSA that provides cryptographic security services for email. You can use S/MIME for authentication, encryption, and validating message integrity.

Not all email clients support S/MIME. In fact, if you use the Exchange 2007 RTM version of OWA and receive a message containing an S/MIME certificate, the OWA client will have no idea what to do with the certificate. The document will simply attach to the message as a file named smime.p7m. In the SP1 version of OWA, however, messages that use S/MIME are now displayed correctly.

Customization Features
OWA in SP1 also supports a wider degree of customization than its predecessor. OWA now can integrate with custom message types defined in the Exchange mailbox store, so that those messages can be displayed correctly. You can also tailor OWA’s UI to integrate other custom applications into OWA.

You can also tweak the OWA UI to give it a unique look. For example, in SP1 OWA lets you use themes (just as you can in other Office 2007 applications) to change the look of the OWA interface. (Themes are available only in the full OWA version, not OWA Light.)

The OWA screenshots I’ve shown you so far use a theme known in Microsoft circles as Seattle Sky because of its blue color. Exchange 2007 RTM comes with an alternate theme named Carbon Black. However, when you apply SP1, you receive two additional themes—XBOX 360 and Zune—that are a little bit more exciting. All the themes are specific to OWA.

To switch themes, open Windows Explorer and navigate to Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\ClientAccess\Owa. You should see a folder under the Owa folder that’s named with a version number. On my server, the folder is labeled, but your server may use a different name. Navigate to this folder, then to the themes folder under it. You should see a subfolder called Base and other subfolders named 1, 2, and 3. The Base subfolder contains the Seattle Sky theme, and the 1 subfolder holds the Carbon Black theme. Subfolder 2 contains the XBOX 360 theme that you see in Figure 8, and Subfolder 3 contains the Zune theme.

To switch themes, make a copy of the Base folder and put the copy in a safe place. After doing so, copy the files from the desired theme’s folder into the Base folder, overwriting any previously existing files. Don’t erase the contents of the Base folder before duplicating the files because some files in the folder aren’t overwritten.

Keep in mind that the themes apply to everyone who uses a Client Access server. It isn’t possible to let different users employ multiple themes unless you implement multiple Client Access servers.

Practical Improvements
The best part of the new features in OWA 2007 SP1 is that most of them are things you can use right away without any special training. Unlike many of the updates I’ve seen over the years, most of OWA’s additions are practical, high-use improvements. This time around, Microsoft focused on the masses rather than just creating an obscure set of features for the few.


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