I’m in the midst of having my mailbox migrated from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2007 with my hosted provider, 4Smartphone. The process isn’t complete yet, but while I wait I thought it would be worthwhile to look at OWA with Exchange 2007 since we mentioned OWA Light this time last year. One of the valid complaints of Outlook Web Access for Exchange 2003 is that it’s almost unusable unless you’re using Internet Explorer for a browser. So is the newer web client any better in Firefox, my current browser of choice? In some minor ways yes, but of course it could be better and I’m not as excited about it as I was last year. That’s a tragic shame because many mobile users rely on web-based mail access. Instead of funneling folks to Internet Explorer, I wonder if people are actually moving away from Exchange as a result of the differences in the web clients; obviously not corporations, but what about other end users?
Right off the bat, I noticed that OWA in IE replicates the look and feel of Outlook 2007. Here’s a screen cap of the default view just after logging in. You can see that the entire navigation bar on the left is very much like the latest Outlook client.
You can click the separator lines to expand or contract navigational lists, adjust views, choose which type of Outlook item you want to work with and more. Now let’s check the same screen in the latest version of Firefox.
Hmm…not quite the same, now is it? You have far fewer options available and can’t even see all of the folders in your mailbox at the same time. Views aren’t even an option here; you’ll take what you get and like it. In fact, this aspect actually appears worse in the new OWA client. With Exchange 2003, I could sort my Inbox by Sender, Conversation, Subject and more.
Like Mail, the Calendar in IE is a close simulation of the full Outlook client, complete with a reading pane. To create a new appointment, a double-click in the appropriate timeslot opens a full-featured entry window with all the Outlook bells and whistles like the Scheduling Assistant and formatting options for the text of your invite.
The same functionality in Firefox? Well you can double-click the day away on your Calendar, but it won’t do you any good. You’ll need to click the New Appointment button to get anywhere. The Scheduling Assistant is available in the 2007 version of OWA; a welcome change over the limited Availability button in the prior version. Still, it’s not much to look at, now is it? And where’s my note for the appointment?
Contacts is more of the same; you’ll be greatly limited in the information that you can see in Firefox when compared to IE. IE provides more viewing options and support for distribution lists, for example.
The same view in Firefox is a bit sparse.
Tasks didn’t seem to make the Firefox cut here, nor did Documents which allows you to see shared docs on a file server or in a Sharepoint environment. I can understand the missing Documents functionality, but Tasks are pretty basic and should integrate with the Calendar.
My personal disappointment is that you don’t get a direct choice to use OWA Light or regular OWA. You choose your browser and that choice determines which client you see. As far as choice here it is, direct from the Microsoft Exchange Team Blog: "OWA Light is the solution for all browsers and operating systems other than IE6 or IE7 on Windows". Unless you’re using a relatively recent version of IE on Windows, your OWA just went on a diet. I think that’s a shame and a lost opportunity. Believe me, as someone who codes the changes to this site, I realize there are technical challenges involved when providing web functions across different browsers. However, embracing these differences opens up the potential end-user population by offering more choice.
On the plus side, the newest Outlook Web Access client in Internet Explorer is absolutely fantastic. The replication of the full Outlook client experience is outstanding; it’s just a tragedy that you can’t have both choice of browser and that great Outlook experience. In fact, it’s even possible that the so-so experience of OWA in anything but IE could be pushing folks further to other web-based mail services. Is the H.M.S. Exchange missing the boat here?