What wasn't revealed in the next chapter of Office on Windows

What wasn't revealed in the next chapter of Office on Windows

Microsoft certainly did an impressive job of describing their plans for Windows 10 on January 21 and then followed up on January 22 with details of what’s going to happen with Office 2016 in a post titled “The next chapter of Office on Windows”. Cue a feeding frenzy of news reports, most of which did nothing more than faithfully replicate the words of Julia White.

What was more interesting than the details of the touch-optimized Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook Mail and Calendar for Windows 10 were the missing bits. There was no mention of Outlook 2016, or “desktop Outlook” and no indication of what might unfold as Microsoft figures out its mobile email strategy from the mixture of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) clients like Mobile Outlook on Windows Phone, their recent Acompli acquisition, Outlook Web App (OWA) for iOS, and the seemingly-stuck-in-the-mud OWA for Android. Here’s what I think will happen.

Outlook 2013 has aged rapidly since its introduction three years ago. Outlook has always been king of the hill when it came to functionality, especially when paired with Exchange Server. That title has been usurped by OWA, but only within Office 365. The rapid development cadence and competitive pressure that exists within the cloud has led to the quick-fire introduction of new functionality, with OWA acting as the delivery vehicle for many features like Clutter, Office 365 Groups, and People View. I recently commented that a substantial functionality gap has opened up between the versions of OWA that run with on-premises Exchange 2013 and Office 365, so Outlook 2016 is the first opportunity to redress the balance.

However, although OWA is doing a fine job of acting as the development delivery vehicle for new functionality, not everything that is available in OWA, even today, will find its way into Outlook 2016. We know this because Microsoft has already said that some features will not appear in on-premises software because they are too difficult, complex, or costly to engineer in a suitable fashion for deployment in the myriad different environments found in the on-premises base. Clutter, which depends heavily on machine learning technology and a heap of hardware, is a good example of something that will remain cloud-based, at least in the immediate future.

Outlook 2016 also has to serve several masters: Exchange for sure, but it’s an array of old and new in Exchange 2010, Exchange 2013, and Exchange 2016 plus Office 365. And then there’s the folks who like to connect Outlook to non-Microsoft email systems like Gmail and IMAP servers. So there’s a limit to what the Outlook engineers can do. Even so, I suspect that they will want to introduce some new technology, with Groups being the obvious standout feature. Why? Well, if Microsoft ever want to get people off old-fashioned email distribution lists, they have to provide a way forward. It seems like Groups is a good progression, providing Microsoft figure out challenges like how to migrate old lists to new groups.

The mail client shown during the January 21 demos seemed to be the universal app-based version of Outlook Mail rather than Outlook 2016. Look at the ultra-clean interface shown in the Microsoft-provided screen shots: it’s much more like the Outlook.com web interface rather than desktop Outlook – or even OWA. I think this provides a strong indication that this will take the place of Outlook Mobile on Windows Phone 10. It makes sense to use the same application everyone and underlines the usefulness of creating universal apps. The Outlook Mail universal app, which is a pretty nice email client, uses EAS to connect to Exchange (like the Windows 8 mail app does) in the current Windows Insider build (9926) and I bet that this will continue to be the case.

For the other mobile clients, I suspect we’ll have two approaches. EAS will remain the protocol licensed by Microsoft to third party vendors who want to connect their email clients to Exchange. That’s a good approach. EAS is extremely popular and well understood at this point. But Microsoft will leverage the Acompli acquisition to create new and attractive clients for iOS and Android at a minimum and perhaps Windows Phone at a stretch. They’ll do this because EAS does not enable third parties like Apple to exploit all of the functionality available in Exchange and Office 365. Even if EAS supported all possible features, there’s no indication that third party vendors have any interest in updating their clients to implement anything more than they have done today. Microsoft needs premium mobile clients, which is why they created the OWA for Devices strategy. Acompli changes everything and I bet that it will provide the way forward for iOS and Android.

[Update 29 January: Microsoft is releasing versions of Acompli as "Outlook for iOS" and "Outlook for Android". Right now this is just a rebranding exercise, but the word is that updates will appear soon that add to the current functionality and probably make the newly named Outlook for... clients use more of the "Office design language"]

To come back to the original question, Microsoft have probably not firmed up their plans for mobile email (in particular) and possibly the feature set that will appear in Outlook 2016 when they talked about everything else last week. Focusing on the other Office apps and showing an Outlook mail client took the pressure off and kept the newshounds happy. But it always pays to consider what lies behind the story.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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