When I wrote about Office 365 Groups, I remarked on the difference in the Outlook Web App (OWA) user interface that has opened up between the cloud and on-premises versions. Microsoft always designed OWA 2013 to have a morphing interface so that the client could deal with different device form factors and this capability has allowed OWA to become the center of Microsoft’s mobile email client strategy. Sure, we're still waiting for the final release of OWA for Android (rumors abound that a version will soon appear to support Android tablets) but OWA for iOS seems pretty popular with end users.
But what’s more interesting is how OWA has become Microsoft’s shop window for advanced new technology delivered to cloud consumers to demonstrate just what software engineering can do when everything works in an integrated stack.
Office 365 provides the power, known software environment, and solid management to allow software engineers to design with confidence. It’s a world removed from the on-premises environment where every customer can be subtly different and few customers deploy just the right combination of software and hardware to power the kind of features that are now appearing.
And no customer could cope with the speed of change in their IT environment that happens inside Office 365; it’s hard enough for customers to cope with the bits that are visible.
All of which means that OWA/365 boasts interesting and useful features like People View, Groups, Clutter, and the enhanced text editor (including URL preview). OWA/365 also includes new user interface elements that are more modern than the on-premises equivalent and solve some annoying problems with the Chrome browser.
By comparison, OWA/2013 just does email, and even the version provided in Exchange 2013 CU7 lacks email-only features like People View or the enhanced editor. The screen shot below shows how the URL preview feature works in OWA 365 (right) compared to the plainness of OWA in the latest builds of Exchange 2013.
On-premises customers might wonder if this situation is going to continue. The answer is emphatically “yes” because Microsoft operates in a highly competitive environment where new features are the weapons used to deflect the likes of Google.
But that question has to be asked alongside “does it matter if the cloud marches forward and the functionality gap continues to grow?” The answer here is more nuanced because a feature is all very well if it looks pretty and does something but is worthless unless it contributes to a better business outcome. Those who see value in the features now available in Office 365 are probably already in the cloud or making firm plans for their transition; those who don’t will be happy and content to stay on-premises.
Those who prefer to use Outlook to connect to Office 365 feel kind of left out too. None of the nice new features have shown up in Outlook and the work that has been done inside Office 365 to improve Outlook, like MAPI over HTTP and dual-factor authentication are more hard-core behind-the-scenes engineering than the pretty baubles boasted by OWA. Outlook feels very much like a second-class citizen in the world of Office 365.
It’s a feeling well known to anyone who has the misfortune to use Outlook for Mac, which up to recently was stuck in its own little time warp somewhere in 2011. Thankfully, the version released at the end of October makes Outlook for Mac a lot easier to use - and although it is slated for cloud use only, the client is happy to connect to on-premises servers too.
Things may or may not improve in the second half of 2015 when Microsoft releases the Wave 16 versions of the Office desktop applications. Server applications will also be updated but the clients might be released earlier, perhaps to coincide with Ignite 2015 or the launch of Windows 10 - and maybe the new versions of Mac and Windows Office will even appear together.
No one knows yet quite what the combination of Outlook 2016 and Exchange 2016 (or whatever the versions will be called) will deliver to on-premises customers, but let’s hope that the functionality gap is closed – at least a little.
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