Government // Mobile & Wireless
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10/10/2011
10:50 AM
Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Wanted: A Mobile Interface For Outlook Web App

Outlook Web App is a key app for enterprises looking to allow communications with client systems that aren't necessarily trustworthy. If only there were a mobile version.

Do you use Outlook Web App (formerly known as Outlook Web Access)? It's the Web mail interface to Exchange that was the original, prototypical Web 2.0 app.

Outlook Web Access

OWA is a crucial app in the world of consumerization of IT because it's one of the most popular ways for enterprises to give access to internal resources without granting richer network access. All you get is an authenticated HTTP session and whatever interfaces OWA presents you. When OWA was young it was a major achievement, but it's kind of long in the tooth now and, more to the point, almost impossible to use on mobile devices. It's just not designed to be used on teeny little screens with touch interfaces.

So we should make it work better on them.

The basic idea is to write an app that parses the HTML emitted by OWA to the browser and translates it into an interface that's designed for the mobile device. Think of it as a mobile OWA proxy. It would be a real mobile app.

The main problem--and I don't know yet how big a problem this is--is that Microsoft isn't likely to commit itself to maintaining its HTML structure for the convenience of developers like the ones who would write this app. But in the worst-case scenario I suspect this structure changes only with versions of Exchange--so the developer would need to keep up with Exchange versions and make adjustments as necessary in the code.

I think the right way to do this is actually with thin apps and a proxy service rather than putting the translation logic in the mobile app. The actual mobile apps for different platforms would be simple and use a common protocol to talk to the proxy, which would handle connection management and translation. Architecturally, it would be a hub-and-spoke system, with one spoke for each server version with distinct HTML structure. That would make it easier to change the translation code when necessary and keep a lot of footprint off of the device. Perhaps this could be written as an Exchange server app, which would make it more attractive to enterprises and hosting services.

There might be a more general market for HTML parsing for mobile apps like this, but the implementations would have to be application specific. I can't think of another one as obviously useful as OWA, but I'm sure enterprises would want such a thing for in-house apps.

My own experience is that coming up with great ideas--even doable ones--is easy. The hard part is the actual doing. Let me know if you do this one. I might want to buy a copy.

Speaking of Web 2.0 apps, this week I'll be attending Web 2.0 Expo in New York. I might not see a mobile app for Web Access App there, but there is sure to be lots of other interesting stuff. Watch this space.

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