Earlier in July, Microsoft announced OWA for iPad and OWA for iPhone. Available only for Office 365 subscribers for now (available for Exchange 2013 at an undisclosed point in the future), OWA for iOS originally left me a bit confused.
You see, at a glance, there’s really nothing that OWA for iOS does that you can’t do with the built in mail app on iOS. The one benefit I arrived at upfront was that with Exchange’s autodiscover, configuration for novice users might be easier – it’s just a matter of entering in their username and password to configure it. It also seemed the app might be more comfortable for users who really enjoy the Windows Phone/Windows 8 design aesthetic (why those users would have an iOS device instead is a good question).
OWA for iOS is effectively the Outlook Web App (OWA) component of Exchange 2013/Exchange Online, wrapped in an iOS-native wrapper. Since OWA can run offline as of Exchange 2013, this is a neat sort of parlor trick that enables a unique Office app experience without requiring a massive amount of new code. The native wrapper then enables push notifications, voice-command (that I couldn’t get working very well), as well as a few other bells and whistles not available with OWA normally.
But then outside of this easier configuration and/or Modern-friendly experience, what’s the benefit to OWA for iOS? I didn’t get it initially. But last week I started wrapping up work on a SharePoint 2013/SharePoint Online evaluation guide for work, and something hit me.
What else can OWA (or Outlook 2013) do that the mail app on iOS can’t? It can run Apps for Office. Formerly called “Agaves”, Apps for Office are Web-based add-ins for many of the Office 2013 applications (including Outlook 2013 and Outlook Web App on Exchange 2013) that extend applications with additional functionality. Though the Apps for Office are not really widely embraced yet, there are a handful of Apps for Office available today for use with Outlook. I have installed an App for Office in Outlook 2013 in my Office 365 account, and sure enough, it was available in OWA for iOS – though the design was hardly optimized correctly (surely the designer of the app didn’t have running on an iPhone in mind while designing it) it worked.
In the future, Microsoft’s own Dynamics applications – as well as other Web-based apps that need to hook into email content – could be made available through OWA for iOS and integrate into the Exchange mail content there.
Many people criticized the fact that Microsoft made OWA for iOS first, rather than a Windows client. Frankly a lot of the same features are available if you pin your Exchange 2013/Exchange Online OWA page to the Start screen, although notifications aren’t available that way (perhaps in the future). More importantly, when Windows RT 8.1 ships this fall, Windows users have Outlook available across the board – largely negating the need for OWA for Windows RT.
Though I don’t think the Apps for Office were the main reason for OWA for iOS to be delivered, I do think they’re an interesting value-add that you can’t get with the iOS mail client.