Outlook Web App goes native on Android

Preview requires KitKat and an off-premises Exchange mailbox

Microsoft on Wednesday released a preview version of Outlook Web App (OWA) for Google's Android, fulfilling a promise made in March.

OWA for Android is a "native" app that reprises the in-browser OWA that corporate workers have long used on devices that don't support the full-fledged Outlook client or have that software installed.

The Android app -- like the iOS cousins Microsoft shipped in July 2013 -- offers the same functionality as OWA in a browser, letting users access email, calendars and contacts housed on a company's off-premises Exchange server.

According to Microsoft, the beta of OWA for Android requires a smartphone with a "small" or "normal" screen as defined by Google; Android 4.4, aka "KitKat" or later; and an Office 365 mailbox.

Android tablets are not supported.

Rather than defining screen sizes in inches, Google uses "dp," for "density-independent pixels," but does give a rough conversion of the latter to the former: Small or normal screens are those up to about 5-in. The Samsung Galaxy S5, which sports a 5.1-in. display, can run OWA, for example.

The KitKat requirement could also be a problem, since that version is currently on only about 14% of all Android smartphones. Microsoft said that it would be adding support for other devices as the preview progressed, and even provided a place where users can vote for models that cannot yet run the app.

As it has with other mobile variations of Office, Microsoft dangled OWA as a carrot to entice customers into subscribing to Office 365, the rent-not-own plans introduced in 2013. Only customers with active business-grade Office 365 accounts can use OWA on an Android device, even though the app itself is free to download.

More important is the requirement of Exchange Online, the off-premises, hosted Exchange service included with virtually every non-consumer Office 365 plan. Businesses that still run their own on-premise Exchange servers are out of luck, as they've been since OWA's iOS debut almost a year ago. Microsoft has long promised that OWA will be officially supported from on-premises Exchange servers, but has yet to pull the trigger or even announce anything.

Because it targets corporate workers, OWA for Android will not work for customers who have subscribed to the consumer-grade Office 365 plans -- Home, at $100 annually, or Personal, which costs $70 a year -- nor with Outlook.com, the browser-based consumer email service that Microsoft operates.

Early reviews of OWA for Android were not kind. On Google Play, the app scored 2.1 out of a possible 5 stars, with many users reporting that OWA refused to let them log into their Office 365 accounts, while others dinged it for being sluggish or looking too un-Android.

OWA for Android
OWA for Android is a native app that replicates the access to Exchange-based mail, contacts and calendars (shown here) previously available only through a browser. (Image: Microsoft.)

Still others took Microsoft to task for the off-premises Exchange requirement. "Not everyone uses Office 365!!!" said Adam Bohn, who apparently was entranced by exclamation marks. "It's ridiculous that this app is exclusively for Office 365. Many organizations host their own Exchange servers and use Outlook 2013. There is absolutely no reason this app should be exclusive to Office 365!!!"

Microsoft replied to Bohn's comment -- and others of similar ilk -- in the Reviews section of Google Play. "For this pre-release we're focused on making this app great for Office 365 mailboxes," a company representative countered. "We do not have any news to share at this time regarding our plans for on-premises Exchange."

Some scoffed at Microsoft's vagueness. "By the sounds of ... Microsoft's response it will be a very cold day when they offer this to work with on-premise Exchange servers," groused Nicholas Goss.

Microsoft did not plot a timetable for OWA's launch on Android. The company will reportedly launch a touch-based Office on Android -- something similar to Office for iPad -- before the end of the year; Microsoft would wrap up OWA before then if it followed the sequence it used for iOS.

OWA for Android can be downloaded from the Google Play.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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