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Outlook Web App vies to become Microsoft Outlook replacement

Although Outlook is the foremost application for business email, Outlook Web App is becoming a viable replacement. Should you make the switch?

Microsoft Outlook remains one of the main applications used by information workers -- in all organizations. Outlook Web App was created as a means to check email remotely, but is it a worthwhile Microsoft Outlook replacement?

Microsoft started adding features from Outlook to the Web-based client Exchange Web Connect to create Outlook Web Access. With the release of Exchange 2013 and Office 365, Microsoft invested lot of time to make the client more appealing for end users and the name changed to Outlook Web App (OWA).

Most organizations would prefer that users choose OWA: it saves the IT team from deploying, maintaining, patching and troubleshooting issues with various Outlook clients, and avoids compatibility issues with various upgrades to the back-end Exchange platform.

New Outlook Web App features

Even though OWA doesn't provide all the same features as Outlook, the foremost reason users -- especially those on the road -- don't choose Outlook Web App as a Microsoft Outlook replacement is because it needs an Internet connection. Outlook is much more productive with access to existing email and users can still reply to email without Internet access. This made a huge difference -- users can continue working on the road with Outlook, but not Outlook Web App.

To an extent, Microsoft has fixed that issue in OWA 2013 with its offline access in Exchange 2013. Offline access is similar to the Outlook cached mode and lets users work offline while having access to email, calendars and contacts without an Internet connection. The auto complete cache fills in the email address of contacts with whom the user has been in touch.

While offline mode is enabled by default in OWA, users have to enable it manually on a device by going into the OWA options. It will work on the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Safari and Chrome.

There are a few limitations as to what is available in offline mode, which may make some users decline to see OWA as a true Microsoft Office replacement. Only a subset of email is available; attachments are unavailable. There are no archived folders and there are a limited set of upcoming calendar reminders.

With the cleaner interface in OWA 2013 comes a feature called "inline compose" which allows the user to reply to an email message without opening a new window in the browser.

OWA also detects if you forget to attach a file or document to an email message, by searching through the text for indicators that an attachment should be included. Google has had this feature for a while and Microsoft has finally caught up. This feature is now included in OWA 2013 as well as the consumer email service Outlook.com.

Keeping it on par with Outlook, OWA now allows users to view multiple calendars. Each calendar has its own color for ease of use.

Mac users can get premium features with OWA and in Exchange 2013. The interface now has a much cleaner, clutter free experience.

OWA was optimized to work well with mobile devices and tablets as well.

OWA device optimization

As users have access to various devices to check email, OWA has been optimized for each device form factor with desktop, touch-wide and touch-narrow modes.

When users access OWA from a desktop or laptop, OWA renders an interface optimized for keyboard and mouse input known as desktop mode. With a tablet, a user interface is rendered for optimizing touch input (touch-wide mode). While using a mobile phone, a narrower interface is rendered for touch (touch-narrow mode).

As the current technology world is all about mobile apps, Microsoft released OWA apps for mobile devices running all major OSes. Since not all information workers use Windows phones and tablets, Microsoft implemented OWA apps in competitor's platforms, which makes using OWA easier on iPhones, iPads and Android systems.

So, is OWA a viable Microsoft Outlook replacement? With the release of OWA 2013 and 2016, organizations should look into the possibility of using OWA as the default email client. While Outlook is bundled into the Office subscription, there is no immediate cost savings to replacing Outlook with OWA, but it might pay off by cutting out help desk requests from Outlook users.

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