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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Microsoft to make Outlook easier to touch

A Microsoft job posting has provided clues into Microsoft's strategy to make its Office Web applications more friendly to touch-screen devices.

A listing that went up over the weekend for a software development engineer touts some of the successes of Microsoft's Outlook Web App (OWA), saying it has "made a huge difference in the daily lives of millions of users all over the world" but that the company is looking for someone to take OWA to "the next level" with a "next generation" client. That client would be for both the desktop and "the latest mobile and slate devices," the listing said.

OWA can currently be accessed via standard Web browsers but lacks some finger-friendly UI tweaks and gesture identifiers that competitors have packed into their mobile HTML clients.

Google and Yahoo in particular have put out two-pane Web e-mail sites that work on devices like Apple's iPad without the need for a native client application. Microsoft does something similar with its Hotmail service by offering users a simplified version of their in-boxes, but the company has not brought such changes to the latest version of OWA.

Along with the discussion about making OWA work better across devices, the listing goes into some detail about plans to help people "manage meetings, appointments, and tasks." All three of those items are addressed in the current version of Microsoft's Outlook platform, however this would suggest that Microsoft is at work on alternate means for those tasks to be handled--be it inside the app, or by way of a new standalone application in the same vein as the company's Lync communications platform.

That Microsoft would be aiming to make its own Web services more friendly to as many platforms as possible should not be a surprise to anyone, especially given the last several years of product launches. Besides talking up the importance of HTML5 as part of the latest version of Internet Explorer, the company has attempted to make the Web-based versions of its Office applications work on as many browsers as possible, including Google's Chrome, which had originally been left off the list of compatible browsers.

As for when we'll actually get a look at this reworked version of OWA--that detail remains a bit fuzzy. While the company has said it's currently at work on the next major version of the Office software suite, OWA also plays an important part in Microsoft's Office 365 strategy.

Part of the appeal for that offering is that users can get the latest versions of Office applications that are hosted by Microsoft, versus local deployments. If some of the changes are simply under the hood, there's the potential for them to end up in 365 ahead of any future versions of its desktop sibling.

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