If you haven’t had a chance to use Exchange 2007 Outlook Web Access (OWA) yet, you’re missing a treat. As one of the partners here told me the other day, “It’s just like Outlook!”
As was the case in Exchange 2003, OWA has two modes: a rich client mode when run on supported versions of Internet Explorer, which gives the full user experience, and a fallback mode (referred to in various places as the “reach” client, apparently because it’s reaching out to everyone else) that has more limited functionality but gets the basics taken care of. Exchange 2007 OWA continues with this dual-world approach; Users with IE on Windows get the full rich “I can’t believe it’s not Outlook!” experience.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that Exchange 2007 OWA rocks on toast in both modes. OWA has always been one of my “run in IE if at all possible” web applications, as the Exchange 2003 implementation of OWA was good enough to do a quick email or contact lookup in, but wasn’t robust enough for my day-to-day email habits. In contrast, I’ve spent many weeks on various projects where I was logged into Exchange 2003 OWA all day long as my primary mail client, and not really suffered for it. From the testing I’ve done on Exchange 2007 OWA so far, this will only improve in both cases. The non-IE version is such a better experience.
However, this is one area where I think the Exchange 2007 team needs to concentrate some effort and produce some updates as quickly as possible, because given the rise of AJAX, the excuses for having the two-tiered level of support break down to “IE on Windows” and “everything else” become a lot less convincing.
If you’ve taken a look at some of the software being produced in the collaboration suite market these days (Zimbra comes to mind), it’s obvious that one of the main competitive points against the entrenched market leaders is the user experience. Zimbra, in particular, has a particularly rich web UI that works well in just about any of the leading browser/platform/version combinations.
Regardless of the technical merits, there are a lot of people out there who are convinced *now* that IE is an insecure platform and that it is too hard to properly secure. These are not the people who are waiting with baited breath for IE7 so they can ditch their corporate investment in deploying and securing alternative browsers such as Firefox and Opera. There are some days, where, reading the various pitches, it seems that Exchange marketing thinks that the promise of a better OWA experience will somehow lure these users back to IE. Color me doubtful.
Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by inertia. Let’s face some realities here:
- The ASP.NET AJAX beta has just recently been released. Exchange 2007 OWA has been under development for quite a while now. They couldn’t very will sit and wait for the AJAX components to be released before beginning development work.
- Exchange moves to a different project schedule than ASP.NET does. It’s probably really bad project management to sync such a large piece of Exchange 2007 to components that are being developed outside of the control of the Exchange group, because now a key piece of functionality is outside of your control. It’s really, really difficult to make meaningful estimates on how long development will take under those conditions, and Microsoft gets a bad rap for slipping ship dates as it is.
- As the Exchange team has pointed out, it takes more testing resources to be able to run the battery of tests that the rich client OWA is subjected to against a large matrix of browsers and operating systems. On the other hand, I’m personally far less sympathetic to this point because clearly their competitors are managing to do it. Even IBM’s Workplace offering is fairly browser-agnostic.
Now that the ASP.NET AJAX controls are coming to fruition, I for one certainly hope that the Exchange team can retrofit those controls back into OWA. That may be a major engineering task — a daunting one — but I think that it will produce some important wins for Microsoft as a whole far beyond the immediate concerns of “how many additional seats will this allow us to sell?” The main benefit I see is yet another blow to the claims that Microsoft is only interested in promoting its own technologies at all costs. There are some great features in IE that the Exchange team could extend with in the spirit of “Better together” without sacrificing good user experience for Firefox, Opera, and Safari users, still providing a compelling reason to use IE. (The RSS integration, for one, makes me think cool thoughts, especially when Exchange 2007 is accessing SharePoint 3.0…)
The other major benefit is that the Exchange team can certainly help give the ASP.NET AJAX controls a thorough workout. I bet they’d be a major source of bugs and enhancements, which would in turn eventually benefit every single developer and user in the .NET ecosystem. How cool would it be to know that ASP.NET AJAX powers Exchange OWA? Wouldn’t that be a great dogfooding story for Microsoft to tell, to be able to evangelize?