Dept. of Surprising Software Developments

For years, Microsoft has offered webmail for Exchange sites via a tool called Outlook Web Access (“OWA”). It’s an acceptable tool, but has generally lagged behind more widely-used webmail tools like Gmail. Also, and crucially, the most fully functional version of OWA has heretofore only been available to users with Internet Explorer — which gives the short shrift to multiplatform folks with Exchange accounts, but that was never something Microsoft gave two shits about. Sure, you could still use OWA from Firefox, or from a Linux box, but you’d have only limited access to the tool (no formatting, no rules, etc).

Well, we just upgraded to Exchange 2010 at work (hosted externally, thank God), and I’ve noticed something amusing about the 2010 version of OWA. It still has a “basic” version you can use optionally (nice on a low-bandwidth connection), but you get pretty much the full set of features on nearly every browser I’ve tried: IE 7 and 8, obviously, but also Firefox (Win and Mac) and Safari (Mac, but probably Windows, too). There’s actually only one browser I’ve tried that forces the crappy OWA on the user: Internet Explorer 6.

It’s not often I’m happy about something Microsoft does with web standards, but this is clearly an example. OWA required IE-only in the past because it was built to rely on special Microsoft-only proprietary web development techniques, and only IE honored them. At the same time, IE6 was built in such a way that properly-built web apps typically had to have special “and for IE6, do this” code clauses because of how dependent it was on MSFT-only tricks, and how poorly it handled standards-based development. MSFT did this deliberately, it’s assumed, because a fully-functional cross-platform web hits them where they live, and they wished to retard its growth.

The implication with this new “everybody but IE6” approach with OWA is that OWA has been rewritten in a much more standards-friendly way, and so much so that the full version won’t even work in IE6, and MSFT didn’t care to write a special version that would.

Welcome to the standards-based web, Redmond. Come on in. The water’s fine.

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