Helpful OWA 2013 mobile device hints for administrators

Supporting OWA 2013 on various mobile devices can prove a bit tricky. These important tips will make life easier for admins and users alike.

I'm sure most IT professionals would agree that just about every enterprise IT environment today is heterogeneous. Numerous device makers, device form factors and input paradigms are all standard issue these days. This notion seems to have reached Microsoft, because Outlook Web App 2013 has a new array of features specifically designed for non-Microsoft and touch-based client devices.

Working with OWA on those devices can prove tricky since the features are so new and because touch devices have such a wide range of form factors, plus they aren't always detected correctly as mobile devices by OWA. Here are a few technical highlights about the newest features in OWA 2013, and how to work with them when using a non-Microsoft-powered client device or Web browser.

Touch mode in OWA 2013

The most significant addition to OWA 2013 is a touch-friendly mode. This isn't surprising, as the rising number of devices that don't offer anything but touch input makes it all but mandatory.

Touch mode in OWA 2013 does a couple things. First, it uses the more widely spaced variant of the Microsoft Modern UI to make things easier to hit with a finger. Also, it places fewer elements on the display, resulting in a cleaner and more orderly look. 

There are two versions of touch mode in OWA 2013, and each mode is optimized to make the best use of the client device in question: Wide mode is designed for tablets, and narrow mode is designed for mobile phones.

Note

Review the "Supported browsers" section in the What's New for Outlook Web App in Exchange 2013 document on TechNet.

OWA 2013 normally attempts to determine whether or not to switch to touch mode by polling the client device for information about it.

Outlook Web App gets it right most of the time, but there are instances where it doesn't. Chrome for Android, for example, may be set to advertise itself as a mobile browser, but many Windows 7 tablets running Chrome act as though they are desktop machines by default.

Another example that's been known to trip people up is when, for example, a user launches Internet Explorer on the Microsoft Surface, but uses the old-school desktop edition of IE, not the Modern UI version. The individual is using a touch device, but the application advertises itself to the server as an old-fashioned desktop.

In cases like these, you can force touch mode by appending a parameter to the end of the URL that employees use to access OWA 2013. To manually set "wide" touch mode, add ?layout=twide to the end of the URL. To set "“narrow" mode, use ?layout=tnarrow. By doing this, you can create a bookmark that always opens OWA 2013 in the correct mode, no matter what device your employees are using.

OWA offline access via HTML 5

As HTML 5 matures and becomes a fully supported standard on almost every platform, some of its more exotic and powerful features are becoming more widely exploited. Among them is offline storage, which allows an HTML 5 page to work with the browser to store data without a network connection. If this sounds like cookies, you're partly right; it's actually an expansion of that functionality.

OWA 2013 supports offline access in Web browsers that support such functionality for the following programs:

  • Internet Explorer 10 (the Modern UI version of IE)
  • Safari 5 or greater
  • Chrome version 16 or greater

When offline, the user can see his inbox, drafts folder, any folder he viewed through the browser in the last seven days and up to either three days or 150 items worth of content in each folder (whichever is greater). The full contact repository is also available.

This said, you should understand that there are several caveats with using OWA 2013 offline access in HTML 5. For one, attachments aren't available -- period. Calendars provide users with notifications, but multiple calendars aren't available. Additionally, email moves and searches are not available offline.

Learn more

Discover how to modify OWA 2013 to support Lync

Users are also not allowed the aforementioned "wide" and "narrow" mode views in offline mode. Note that with Safari, the only platform supported for offline access is the Mac desktop; iOS devices are not supported.

The biggest caveat may be the fact that all information stored in offline mode is cached in an unencrypted format. This is crucial if your user's device does not encrypt storage by default; one can't realistically expect the browser to do that for you. Since one of the things you can do in offline mode is compose IRM-protected messages, you may to ensure that devices that work with OWA in offline mode have on-disk encryption for further security.

About the author:
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about personal computing and IT for more than 15 years for a variety of publications, including Windows Magazine, InformationWeek and the TechTarget family of sites.

This was first published in May 2013

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