Hello. My name is Nathan Breskin-Auer. Some of you may already know me as the father of the kid that does the wicked Mr. Roboto number in "that accessibility video", but - in fact - I am also the Product Designer and PM for Microsoft Exchange 2007 Outlook Web Access Light. OWA Light is the solution for all browsers and operating systems other than IE6 or IE7 on Windows. So for all of you Firefox users, like myself, all of you Mac users, like my wife (hi honey!), and everyone else using something other than IE6+, here's a little preview of the improvements that we've made to "The Product Formerly Known as OWA Basic."

The first thing you'll notice in Microsoft Exchange 2007 OWA Light is the completely redesigned user interface.

We wanted to create an experience that felt open and inviting; an interface that would get out of the way and let you accomplish your tasks as efficiently as possible, while maintaining the richness of features that OWA Premium offers. We had a lot of challenges to address in such a design, including how to be the most accessible web-mail client possible for blind and low vision users, how to be quick for high latency connections, and how to keep as much feature parity with OWA Premium as possible in a flat, frameless UI with (almost) no pop-up windows. But, hey, what's life without challenges, right?

Differences between OWA Light & Premium

First things first, I know there has been a lot of discussion wondering about the differences between OWA Light and Premium, so here are some things that you do get with Light, and some of the things you don't.  Neither list is exhaustive, but both have a decent amount of information for either why to use OWA Light, or what it is that a user would be missing from Premium.

What you get in OWA Light:

- Faster logon times for slow connections

- Works across a diverse set of OS/Browser combinations, including the following (these are the combinations that we support and test against; other combinations may work, but are not actively supported):

Operating Systems: Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Window ME, Windows 98, Mac OS X, and Linux

Browsers: Firefox, Safari, Opera, Netscape, IE7, IE6, IE5.5, IE5.01 and IE5.2 on Mac

- Redesigned from the ground up to offer the best accessibility possible for blind (screen reader) and low-vision (high contrast settings) users.

- Works in locked down browser modes, such as kiosks and those with strict pop-up blocking policies.

- New, redesigned UI, for a cleaner look, and easier use.

The big things that you get in Premium that are not in Light (in no particular order and not exhaustive):

- Tasks module

- Only the text of the task items can be read through OWA Light; task specific properties will not necessarily be available.

- Search for mail items; For Beta2, OWA Light users only get search in Contacts and Address Book. We will have mail search for RTM.

- Reminders

- HTML composing of messages; compose in Plain Text only; Users still get HTML formatting for reading

- Flags and Categories

- Weekly view in Calendar; Light is daily view only

- Free/Busy grid in Appointment/Meeting Scheduling Assistant.  You do still get "Suggested Times", which is much more pronounced in OWA Light, to help users, including blind and low-vision users, to schedule times that work well for everyone.

- Print

- Spell Check; There is a small mitigation here in that some browsers, like Firefox 2, have spellcheckers built in.

- Conversation View

- Account Quota information

Navigation

Some of the new improvements in the OWA Light for 2007 include the collapsible navigation area, the dropdown tree for viewing all folders, and the most often used folder list.

The navigation area can now be collapsed in the same manner that it can be in Premium, providing more space for the user's folders.

The traditional tree control, missing in 2003 OWA Basic, has been compacted into a hierarchical drop down for OWA Light. This allows us to pack a large feature in to a small space in the UI, and - in the case of very large trees - only incur the performance hit when requested by the user. Hierarchy is related using a dots (.) and indentations, a layout that users of Outlook's conversation view will already be familiar with.

The most often used folder list is a dynamic list of the folders that takes into account both the amount of activity a specific folder receives as well has how recent that activity was. This list resides beneath the "Click to view all folders" link, and can be seen in both sets of images above.

The list that is generated then responds to the real world usage of the user, such that a folder which may be critical during a specific business transaction or milestone, will naturally drop off the list once that transaction or milestone has passed and usage of that folder declines.

Mail

Message forms - both Read and Compose - for OWA Light, are displayed in a flat, in-frame experience, while maintaining many of the navigation and action metaphors that Outlook and OWA users are already familiar with.

Like Premium OWA, the message read form displays the content as formatted by the sender, including inline attachments.

Replying in OWA Light is still, necessarily, in plaintext. Inline images will be bubbled up to the attachment well on replies and forwards to keep the context of the message intact. Subsequent replies - those once the attachments have already been moved to the attachment well - will drop the attachments, as per normal replying behavior in Outlook and OWA Premium.

For the message compose form, we've replaced the secondary navigation for the module with a Most Recent Recipient list. The list is built using the auto-complete cache that Premium uses when resolving a name as you type it into the recipient well.

When a name entered into the recipient well can't be recognized, OWA Light will present the user with the possible options for the user to select the intended recipient or, if so desired, to remove the entry completely, using the [remove] link next to the name.

Address Book

The Address Book is where a user can find people, groups & resources from various company/organization specific address lists. There are multiple entry points to the address book in OWA Basic, the primary path being the 'Find Someone' search field in the Options bar and the Address Book icon in the Options bar.

A user can also access the address book from any of the recipient well buttons on the various compose forms, which will display the address book with recipient wells so that the user can add members of the address book to their mail or calendar item.

The user simply selects the name using the checkboxes and moves them to the appropriate recipient wells, as they would in Outlook.

A cool new feature found on the details page for address book entries is Organization section, which displays the reporting hierarchy of the person being viewed.

Contacts

The Contacts module is where a user manages their personal contacts and Personal Distribution Lists (PDL*). It functions much like the address book, though here the user is able to create and edit information about the contacts.

As that OWA Light is constrained in the number of lines that can be displayed in the main view, and can only show one number at a time, the user can set a default number when creating or editing the contact, ensuring that the phone number the user is most likely to be looking for is the one that is presented first.

The compose form is displayed by either creating a new Contact, or by clicking on Edit Contact on the details page.

* Note that PDLs cannot be created or edited from within OWA Light, only viewed and used if they are created outside of OWA Light

Calendar

The Calendar module is where the user can view their appointments, navigate the days, weeks, and months, and create appointments and meeting requests.

A user can only view a single day at a time in OWA Light. The scheduling area displays in one (1) hour increments, with half-hour markers. We've worked hard to ensure that the basic layout of the scheduling area is the same as that found in Premium, including coloring the background of the scheduling area to reflect the Free/Busy information (such as Tentative, Out of Office, or Busy) for the dominant event of the day. Category coloring is not available in OWA Light at this time.

New for OWA Light in Exchange 2007 is the Scheduling Assistant which is available when creating or editing an appointment or meeting request. The big difference for Light vs. Premium is the lack of a Free/Busy grid. Instead, Light displays a detailed breakdown of suggested times and rooms, including quality of suggested time (Great, Good, Fair, Poor), and a detailed listing of who is/is not available at the suggested time.

Folder Management

OWA Light folder management has been simplified for Exchange 2007. Utilizing the same hierarchical dropdown used in place of the folder tree when browsing all folders, creation, renaming, moving , deleting folders has never been easier (unless, of course, you're using Premium's oh-so-hot inline folder creation... but that's not what we're talking about right now.)

Options

The Options page allows the user to set their preferences for behavior of OWA Basic.

All options, with one exception, for OWA Basic are shared with Premium. The one exception is 'Number of items to display per page', found on the messaging tab, which is independent of OWA Premium to allow users in a low-bandwidth scenario to request fewer e-mails per page, helping keep their load times as fast as possible so that they can get to the data they need.

The subset of options that OWA Light has are:

- Regional Settings

         - Language

         - Date and Time Formats  

- Messaging

- Message Options

         - Number of items to display per page: Basic Only

         - E-Mail Signature

         - Message Tracking Options

         - E-Mail Name Resolution

         - Deleted Items  

- Junk E-mail

- Calendar

         - Calendar Options

         - Calendar Work Week 

- Out of Office Assistant

- Change Password 

- Accessibility

- Mobile Devices

- About

Accessibility

In OWA Light, we have ensured that we have a strong story in place for the majority of screen readers for blind users, as well both user and system scalable fonts and layout for low vision users.

As part of this work, we've not only improved on the existing work done in OWA 2003, we've also added new features, including area labels for screen reader navigation and header tags to subjects on mail and calendar items to make them easier for blind users to navigate to.

For more information, check out the Exchange 2007 OWA Light Accessibility Improvements video.

Why doesn't Premium work on Firefox?

Before I wrap up, I'd like to address the question we often receive about why OWA Premium doesn't work in non IE browsers. The following is heavily plagiarized from others who have answered this question as well (thanks Kristian!), and if after reading this you are still unclear as to why Premium doesn't work on Firefox, please feel free to post your questions here and I'll do my best to answer them.

Shockingly, the decision to make OWA Premium only work on IE6+ has nothing to do with forcing people to use other Microsoft products (sorry to have to dispel the conspiracy, and just when Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner were starting pre-production on "OWA: The Movie "). The decision was made, simply enough, due to costs, time, and customer need.

The browser support we have for OWA Premium and OWA Light is due to usage share among our customers, and the development and test investment it takes to support additional browsers/versions. This doesn't mean the browser statistics for "browsers hitting OWA", which would be skewed based on our previous browser support. We look at the browser statistics for "browsers used on the Internet" and "browsers used within our customer organizations", as well as listening to what customers are asking for, since statistics, surveys, site logs, and research firms never tell the full story. The browser matrix of OWA is about where we allocate our investments, and the need of additional browser support as compared to the need for all the other OWA features our customers want. We have limited resources, limited time, and a very large set of potential features. 

It's pretty cheap for us to add support for additional browsers to OWA Light, since we don't have many advanced AJAX behaviors in it. But OWA2007 Premium is among the most advanced AJAX applications on the planet and there are literally hundreds of small browser specific tweaks and modifications we would need to figure out to make it work flawlessly in Firefox. 

The cost of making OWA Premium work in Firefox is going down continuously because IE and Firefox are getting more in sync. If the collective Exchange customer benefit, across all our customer categories, of OWA Premium Firefox support outweighs the development and testing investment it would take for us to add that support, we would add Firefox support for OWA Premium. That's the same framework we use to evaluate other potential OWA features. For example, we made the same tradeoff when we decided not to support OWA 2007 Premium in IE5.5.

With the posting of this blog today I hope that you'll find that Firefox (and Safari and Opera and Netscape and...) users will have a pretty nice email and calendaring experience with OWA2007 despite OWA Premium being restricted to IE6+.

From all of us on the OWA Light team:

- Nathan Breskin-Auer