The demos in yesterday’s MEC opening keynote revealed an improved user interface for Outlook and Outlook Web App (OWA) compared to the preview versions released in August. This is to be expected as the developers refine their code in a drive to eliminate bugs and streamline the UI before the products eventually ship, expected later this year or in early 2013. In any case, improvement is always good to see, even if some still believe that the Metro influence results in far too much white space, so much so that I’ve heard people complain of headaches after a day working with Outlook 2013. Perhaps the changes seen yesterday will help.
The new user interface makes it hard sometimes to tell Outlook and OWA apart. OWA 2013 is now a very feature-rich client that shares many new features with its big brother, including inline editing of messages and the display of “people” data gathered from sources such as LinkedIn and Facebook (Twitter seems missing, which is interesting). These data sources are revealed by add-ins created using the new Outlook development model, which holds out the promise that apps developed now will survive without needed rework for future versions of Outlook. OWA 2013 also includes offline mode (providing you use a suitable browser), but lacks some of Outlook’s offline capabilities such as the OAB or local full-text indexing. No doubt these gaps will close over time.
Outlook 2013 and OWA 2013 have also been optimized for touch with big buttons that are easy for fingers to locate. In addition, if you detach a touch-enabled client device such as the unnamed but highly likely to be Microsoft Surface from its keyboard, Outlook 2013 reveals a number of command buttons (including delete) positioned so that they’re easy to use with right-handed thumbs. No comment was made whether this is a configurable setting that left-handers can change. It probably is.
Despite its twice-over remake in Exchange 2010 (once in RTM and again for SP1), OWA receives another new interface in Exchange 2013. Apart from the need to fall in line with the new corporate UI guidelines, OWA can mould itself to different sized screens and is therefore a much better client to run on mobile devices where Outlook isn’t available (including Windows RT running on a Microsoft Surface). I can see how people will choose to use OWA via a browser on devices such as an iPad or Android tablet and maybe even on some of the larger-screen smartphones.
The situation is a tad different on Windows Phone because Microsoft has engineered an ActiveSync-based version of Outlook for that platform. However, even on devices that support ActiveSync, I think that the temptation will exist to use OWA 2013 simply because OWA reveals much more functionality for email, calendar, tasks, and contacts than is usually the case with a vendor’s native email client. It’s nice to have a choice.
Speaking of ActiveSync, it was interesting to hear Rajesh Jha, corporate vice-president for Exchange (pictured above), claim that it is now the de facto standard for mobile email connectivity. Given the number of companies that have licensed ActiveSync from Microsoft, including Google and Apple, and the subsequent profusion of ActiveSync-enabled email clients on Apple and Android devices, I think that this is a fair claim.
The near-to-final version of the Exchange Administration Center (EAC) also looked good with some interesting touches that I’d missed previously. For example, if you opt to move a batch of mailboxes, EAC will notify you when the batch has completed processing with an icon in the upper right-hand corner of the console. Small UI touches like this make all the difference and it’s good to see that EAC is maturing nicely into a powerful administration console.
Lots more information is surfacing (no pun intended) at MEC. It will take me time to digest it and figure out what’s important and what’s so much fashionable fluff. Stay tuned for other reports as I sort things out in my own mind.
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