An attractive aspect of Apple’s product line has been the way the company has managed to preserve the elements of its user interface (UI) across its hardware platforms. With the introduction of Windows 8, though, Microsoft is bringing that same kind of cross-platform design elegance to products running its operating system.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Redmond’s reworking of its interface for its Outlook Web App (OWA). Long a poor relative of Outlook for the desktop, the new release of OWA maintains its strong design elements across whatever device it’s running on, as well as incorporating the functionality clamored for by users of older releases of the software.
A cornerstone of the new OWA is its ability to mold itself to the device it’s cooking in. It not only recognizes screen sizes but also navigational options—mouse, keyboard and touch. Not only does that kind of scalabililty create a comfortable experience for users, but it allows Microsoft to develop OWA in a parallel fashion so each version of the application can maintain UI consistency.
Depending on the device OWA is operating on, it will slip into one of three modes. For laptops and larger devices, there’s Desktop mode, which displays a UI optimized for mouse and keyboard input. For tablet screens, seven to 10 inches diagonally, there’s a Touch-Wide mode. And for phone-sized screens, from 3.5 to five inches, there’s a Touch-Narrow mode.
All three modes are supported by OWA with a minimum of complexity. More than 90 percent of the application logic operating under the UI is shared by the three modes. For users, that means a consistent experience across devices.
They don’t have to relearn functions like managing email or calendar appointments when they hop from platform to platform. For administrators, it means that policies they create for OWA will be in place and working regardless of the device it’s operating on.
The UI itself is clean without appearing barren and fresh without appearing confused. It’s very similar to the UI Microsoft is using with its Hotmail replacement, Outlook.com.
In Desktop mode, you have three columns. The first column is where you can access your folders and “quick views” and filters. There are some default folders—inbox, junk, drafts, sent and deleted—and quick views—documents, flagged, photos and shipping dates—but you can add customized folders and views as well.
The second column lists the messages in the folder selected in the first column, and the third column displays the text in the message selected in the second column.
When you view OWA in a device that uses Tablet-Wide mode, you can view two columns—a list of messages, for instance, and a column of what’s in them. In Tablet-Narrow mode, a single column is displayed of the messages in your inbox.
OWA’s new interface complements other new features Microsoft has added to the software. For instance, users can work offline with the program. Whatever work is done while disconnected will be uploaded when an Internet connection is reestablished. Messages can also be composed within the application. In older versions of OWA, messages had to be composed in a new window.
With its new UI and added functionality, OWA will be a worthy companion to Exchange 2013 when it’s debuted next month.