Microsoft today launched Outlook Web App (OWA) for iOS, a "native" app that reprises — and amplifies — the in-browser OWA corporate workers have long used on devices that don't support the full-fledged Outlook client.
The new app, which comes in iPhone and iPad flavors, offers the same functionality as the browser-based OWA, letting users access email, calendars, contacts and other inbox data housed on a company's Exchange server.
But because the apps are iOS-native — in other words, they're written specifically for Apple's mobile OS, not simply a Web app in disguise — they can tap the hardware, adding features like gesture support and voice control.
The native app approach also means it can be used when offline, unlike the in-browser OWA which requires an Internet connection.
Wes Miller, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, was impressed. "In terms of packaging this is a really neat idea, with a very, very good [user] experience," said Miller, who ticked off several examples, ranging from push notifications to the hardware integration.
There are caveats.
As it did last month with Office Mobile for iPhone, Microsoft is dangling the iOS OWA carrot to tempt customers into subscribing to Office 365, the rent-not-own plans introduced earlier this year. Only customers with active Office 365 accounts can use OWA on the iPhone or iPad, even though the app itself is free to download from Apple's App Store.
More important, if apparently temporary, is the requirement of Exchange Online, the off-premises, hosted Exchange service included with virtually every non-consumer Office 365 plan. Businesses that still run their own on-premise Exchange servers are out of luck for now.
"We are planning to deliver OWA to Exchange 2013 on-premise customers at a future date, but we have no additional details to share today," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in answer to questions today.
"That's a deal-breaker for some customers," said Miller in a Tuesday interview before Microsoft clarified that it would offer OWA to organizations with an in-house Exchange infrastructure, a category that includes most medium- and large-sized companies. What remains unknown is when those Office 365 users will get their hands on OWA for iOS.
Microsoft's approach to iOS apps has taken some licks from outsiders who view the Office 365-only strategy as misguided. "Anyone [with Office 2013] should be able to access the app," Forrester analyst Frank Gillett said last month about Office Mobile for the iPhone. "They're continuing the artificial advantaging of one product over another to change customer behavior. We think that's a major mistake."
Gillett's point may be a month old, but it applies equally to OWA for iPhone and iPad: Microsoft customers who have adopted Office 2013 in perpetual license form rather than as a subscription are barred from running the new app.
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