OWA iOS app makes its debut

By Tony Redmond,

When I published "Exchange ActiveSync to be replaced by OWA on mobile devices" on July 9, I certainly didn't expect to see radical developments in the space quite so quickly, yet that's just what happened when Microsoft released Outlook Web App (OWA) apps for iPhone and iPad in the Apple app store on July 16. Talk about good timing or perhaps just good luck!

To be clear, I had no up-front warning that Microsoft was about to release these apps. However, there had been many rumors (for example, this report from Apple Insider in May 2012). It makes a lot of sense for Microsoft to create apps that essentially act as a wrapper around OWA so that the out-of-the-box functionality that would be available by running Safari is augmented with code to store user credentials, use Autodiscover to connect to Exchange, and (most importantly) to apply a mixture of OWA and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policy settings to provide some administrative control over the apps.

You can find the new app by searching for "OWA for iPhone or OWA for iPad" in the app store. Other apps tout their ability to connect to Exchange and do a better job than Apple's mail app including OMP (Outlook Access for iOS), Mail+ for Outlook, Mail+ for ActiveSync, or even Outlook Mail Access for iPad. The big difference is that the OWA app is developed and maintained by Microsoft and, even better, it's free. You can't argue with that price point.

Apple is a great company that serves the interests of consumers extremely well. However, Apple is far less impressive when dealing with the needs of corporations who want to exert some control over applications. Apple's track record of using EAS is spotty. On the one hand, its mail app is able to connect to Exchange using EAS to access mail and calendar information. On the other, there have been a large number of bugs in the way that Apple has used EAS, including the infamous "calendar hijacking" issue in late 2012. In addition, it seems like Apple has made a decision to implement just enough of the EAS protocol to allow its apps to use basic email functionality. It ignores all the extended settings that allow administrators to control security settings on the devices. In effect, Apple's implementation of EAS delivers "just enough" and no more.

It's easy to understand how frustrated Microsoft might become. They want Apple to support Exchange and were, no doubt, very happy when Apple decided to license EAS. But then the Apple mail app makes no attempt to use the extended features of Exchange. From Cupertino's consumer-centric perspective their approach makes sense. In Apple's mind, the simple fact is that iOS devices support Exchange and no more needs to be done. End of story.

The new apps provide Microsoft with a method to control the user experience that is available through Exchange while also taking advantage of the iOS platform such as using Apple's push notification service to update the number of new messages on the OWA icon. In effect, the new situation is that you can use the Apple mail app if you simply want to access an Exchange mailbox or you can use the OWA app if you want richer (premium in OWA terms) functionality that's available through OWA. For example, the initial release of the OWA app allows access to an archive mailbox - the first time that a mobile device has been able to use an archive. Other advanced features such as retention policies, delegate access to calendars, multiple calendars, support for IRM, and a view of free/busy data are available in the initial release as is support for EAS mailbox policy settings such as remote wipe and minimum PIN length.

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