Dumping Outlook for the Web

On some days you get what you want, and on others, you get what you need. -Hunter Thompson

On some days you get what you want, and on others, you get what you need. ~Hunter Thompson

A few weeks ago the library I work at took a big leap forward and upgraded to the latest version of Microsoft Exchange Server. While this didn’t bring a lot of changes to everyone’s day to day work, because Outlook worked just as it did before, it brought huge changes with OWA. For those who don’t know, OWA is the Outlook Web App which used to be called Outlook Web Access. However the name change is apt and warranted as the difference between the two could not be more pronounced. The old OWA was basically an Internet Explorer only thing. It only worked well in IE and even then it wasn’t that great. God forbid you tried accessing from Firefox or Chrome. It worked, but barely. You didn’t get the “good” interface and you lost options.

Now OWA works equally well on everything and it does so everywhere. Mobile browsers are a bit spotty, but there are apps for that. On the desktop and laptop side of things, OWA delivers the same look and feel in Windows, Linux, and OS X. Indeed the experience was so good, I decided to try a little experiment.

I have a morning ritual when I get to work. I use a laptop as a primary computer and I have a dock on my desk to hook it in to an external keyboard, mouse, monitor, and peripherals. I come in, hook in, log in, and fire up a browser and Outlook. Outlook takes quite a bit to load because of a couple of unneeded add-ons that I can’t get rid of but never use. By the time it loads, I’ve already brought up the library’s website in the browser and I’m working on online projects. I go back to Outlook after it loads and start working through email. After fiddling with the new OWA for a few days I set off on my experiment and asked one question:

Is it good enough to dump Outlook?

I made my decision when I noticed a feature in OWA matches something I see in Outlook. It’s a simple feature, but a huge timesaver – the app remembers who I emailed and it auto-suggests those people as I type names into the TO: field. So if I emailed Tony, all I need to type is T and O and I get the rest. So I knew I wouldn’t have to dive into the address book all the time. As you can see below, it looks beautiful and functional, and you can even change your theme.


Click to embiggen.

My email is really sparse because, while I’m not a fanatic for Inbox Zero, I still work on that philosophy. Nevertheless you can see my folders, my calendar, my tasks. All of them look great, even the calendar.


Click to get a version you can actually see.

These screenshots are from Firefox, not IE. It works just as well in Firefox as any other browser. All the public folders I need are there so I can use our Conference Room and Vehicle Reservation Calendars.

Best yet, all my keyboard shortcuts seem to work. So CTRL N starts a new message, CTRL R replies, ALT S sends the message. All of the little shortcuts I use in Outlook seem to work in OWA. Being a guy who’s not very fond of mice, it’s nice to get that support from a browser based app.

So my experiment was this: Can I go a full week using nothing but OWA? I took the Outlook shortcut off my taskbar and off my desktop. That way I’d have to work a bit to click the icon. I added OWA to my bookmarks and got into the habit of loading up OWA whenever I brought up a browser for work. I started working within the environment of OWA and did my level best to ignore the Outlook app on my computer. I emailed, added events to my calendar, reserved vehicles and a conference room, and generally carried on with it as best I could. Now, the bottom line and the final question:

How did it go?

Well, I started my one week experiment two weeks ago if that tells you anything. Since I started, I’ve not opened Outlook once and I’ve actually enjoyed working within OWA for much the same reasons I prefer Gmail on the web over Gmail in Thunderbird. Sure, there are advantages to Thunderbird, but 99% of my time can be spent in a web app and I’m just as happy getting just as much done. The greatest thing is that I’m a Web Content Manager, ya know, a web librarian. I work in a browser. If I’m not in a browser, I’m in Dreamweaver or Photoshop, sending things about, editing code, and then going back to the browser to see how I did. I’ve often said I live online, and I do. My work at the library is online, my passions and hobbies at home also wind up online. When people ask me what operating system I use, I tell them I use all of them. On the odd occasion people ask me what my favourite operating system is, I tell them that it’s Firefox.

Because in the end, I don’t give a damn what the underlying OS is, if I can run Firefox, I can do 90% of my job and at least that much of my hobbies. Outlook Web App fits in really well with that since there’s nothing extra running. I have a browser open to my personal email, may as have my work email in a tab too. If your library has the latest OWA, check it out, especially if you like working email online with Gmail or Outlook.com. I almost guarantee you’ll come to the same conclusions I did after a week, especially when my week of OWA turned into two and became a very pronounced switch in my workflow.


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