Recently, customers who use Outlook Web App (OWA) have been raising the topic of web app accessibility as a top priority. One reason for all the buzz about web application accessibility is due to a standard produced by the W3C called ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications). While the standard has been around for a while now, ARIA support in the most commonly used web browsers has recently improved. We want to share our thoughts on this topic and let you know that ARIA support is coming to future versions of OWA!

Accessibility here refers to how users with limited vision, mobility, hearing etc. can be given access to all the functionality of an application through a user interface (UI) optimized for that user’s circumstances. For instance, many blind users interact with computers through screen readers, which read the UI text out loud. Another example is users with limited mobility who can’t use a computer mouse and instead rely on speech recognition for dictation and alternative keyboard designs which navigate the UI through keyboard input only.

Microsoft Office, including OWA’s companion Microsoft Outlook, has had strong accessibility support for many years through the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) technology and more recently the User Interface Automation (UIA) frameworks on the Windows platform. But accessibility has been more difficult for web-based email experiences because of the incompatibility between many accessibility technologies and new dynamic/complex web app behaviors. We’ve faced a tough choice between a) staying away from most dynamic, complex web app behaviors and ensuring great accessibility, or b) building modern Web 2.0 apps without top-notch accessibility support. For OWA 2007 and 2010, this was not a choice we could make, so our solution was to do both. We built OWA Premium which makes use of all that Web 2.0 has to offer, and OWA Light which is a very accessible UI built almost exclusively on HTML 4.0. When people access their Exchange mailboxes for the first time through OWA, they’re asked whether they’d like to use the OWA experience optimized for accessibility.

Over the years, the screen reader interoperability and keyboard navigation capabilities of OWA Light offered an accessibility solution few other modern web applications could match and have been appreciated by the people who rely on it every day. But, web standards are evolving. People are wondering if ARIA is mature enough for us to move beyond a two-UI solution and take OWA accessibility to the next level. After watching ARIA evolve and experimenting with it in recent version of web browsers we support, the answer is clear: we look forward to implementing ARIA in future versions of Outlook Web App.

Kristian Andaker
Microsoft Group Program Manager
on behalf of the OWA team