See how theres a wee cloud there Lisa Schmeiser

Microsoft Ignite: How Microsoft's declared war on the e-mail attachment

If Microsoft has their way, email users of the future won't have any more workflow do-si-so with downloading an attachment, opening it in a compatible application, changing the file, saving the file, attaching the file, then replying to the original email. Actually, if Micosoft gets their way, simply checking your email will be less of a hassle. Through a series of Microsoft Ignite sessions on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, and Wednesday, May 6, 2015, project managers outlined the company's vision for streamlining workflow and paring distractions.

Email management and data discovery account for nearly 50% of a worker's week, according to one slide Kumar Venkateswar showed during "Tame Your Inbox: Clutter in Office 365." Although Outlook's rules can pre-sift email into folders, that doesn't necessarily stem the tide of message flooding into people's inboxes -- and the act of sifting through all that mail and deciding what to do with it can and does cut into more productive pursuits like acting on urgent messages.

Enter Clutter. The tool pays attention to how a user handles their email -- spending about a week noting what gets clicked on, what get ignored, who gets replied to in a hurry and who's sending a direct message versus cc'ing an entire time -- and then it applies a Bayesian Probit regression model to devise a set a of rules for the inbox. In other words, users teach Clutter what email is important and should be looked at immediately, and once Clutter's had a little experience, it'll decide what belongs in the inbox and what gets shunted to a Clutter folder for more leisurely perusing later.

What qualifies as clutter? Mail you're historically unlikely to read right away. It's different from mail that gets sorted to junk status because that's the mail you never want to see. Clutter sets aside the things you might want to see, once you've plowed through your regular inbox.

Right now, Microsoft is shooting for Clutter to correctly sort your mail into inboxes or Clutter folders at a success rate of about 85%. And, of course, users are continuously training Clutter based on what they move in or out of the Clutter folder or the inbox. The company also aims to make Clutter backward compatible with several versions of Outlook, which is one of the reasons they went with the folder metaphor for the Clutter holding pen.

So far, in Office 365, the average Clutter-enabled user saved 82 minutes a month they would have otherwise sunk into managing their inbox -- and 10% of all Office 365 users pared 168 minutes off their monthly email maintenance.

But treating the inbox like the members-only section of a club isn't the only change Microsoft wants to make to your email experience. Two separate sessions -- "A File's Future with OneDrive" and "Re-Thinking Attachments: Collaborating in Outlook with OneDrive" -- stressed a workflow model where employees keep their assets in a OneDrive account and when they want someone else to view or edit those files, they include a link in the message they send to a coworker. 

Right now, that link looks a lot like the attachment icon, with only a tiny floating cloud in one corner of the graphic to indicate whether the recipient will be getting a copy of the file or clicking on the file within its remote-hosted home. Office 365 users who get a message with that cloud-accessorized icon at the bottom will have the ability to click on it and work in the file within Outlook; the relevant Office app will just open as a separate pane, allowing someone to write (or calculate, or whatever) while keeping an eye on the flow of messages that prompted their task in the first place.

(It's also worth noting that users can now open and edit files in OneDrive too, eliminating the need to either download a file to a local drive and launch an application. This works, of course, if the files were created in or can be processed by Office apps.)

This isn't the end of e-mail attachments. After all, Office 365 users will still be interacting with people who work for other places and don't have the same software -- they can still receive attachments or send them out. But OneDrive and Office 365 also include options to generate a OneDrive link to a specific asset so outsiders can view and/or download as necessary.

But the entire approach -- seamless transitions between what used to be application-specific tasks, only in one pane -- illustrates how committed Microsoft is to the idea of a comprehensive cloud ecosystem for productivity. The cloud-based model streamlines work: no thinking about which app to launch, no discovering your downloads folder is in danger of eating your hard drive. And it also provides a continuous stream of data to Office Graph, the "intelligent fabric" undergirding Office 365 and using machine learning to gather and analyze data on how and what individual users do.

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