Will "Death to Outlook" follow "Death to Word"?

A boring Tuesday in April brings me to contemplate the intriguing Slate.com article entitled "Death to Word" (the title, at least, got your attention). Basically the author’s premise is it’s time for Microsoft to put Word for Windows into the spare parts bin. Some of the targets identified in the article are easy to anticipate. For example, "Clippy" makes yet another appearance as the animated icon everyone loves to hate. Other Word features that the author identifies as not worth having will probably surprise because you might consider them worth having, such as the way that Word automatically adds a superscripted "th" after ordinal numbers. To each their own, I suppose.

I think that the underlying idea is worth considering. Should developers look at applications that have been around for twenty years or so and ask whether they are still fit for purpose or just go on piling new feature upon new feature in the hope that this is sufficient to keep users happy?

Word started off as a reasonably simple word processing application that was capable of snappy performance on the PCs that we enjoyed in the early 1990s. I wrote my first books on a VAXstation 3100 using a WYSIWYG editor called DECwrite. It wasn’t a happy experience because DECwrite was a bug-ridden application that liked to crash a lot. Fortunately, one of the better functioning pieces of DECwrite was its capability to recover from a crash and little work was ever lost. Moving from a VMS workstation to use Word 2.0 on Windows 3.1 running on a DEC 320p laptop PC (80386 CPU running at 20 MHz) was a revelation, if only because the editor managed to stay up for more than a couple of hours at a time. Of course, Word 2.0 wasn’t as functional as Word 2010 but it did the job. And that’s the point really. How many of the features added in the twenty years since have contributed to our ability to use Word effectively? Now that I think about it, I’m not sure.

I guess the same criticism might be leveled at Outlook. Of course, Outlook hasn’t been around as long as Word, but it’s still not a new application. Outlook 2010 is the seventh iteration (for Windows) and another is on the way as part of the Office 15 wave of releases. By comparison, Word 2010 is its thirteenth version. It also has a new version coming in Office 15.

Outlook 2010 can packed full of features. Another way of looking at this is to say that it’s a “fat” client. The question probably should be asked whether Outlook is still a reasonable email client for the kind of communication that we use today. My response is “it depends”. Certainly, Outlook does a fine job for many corporate workers who depend on email communication to get their job done on a daily basis. Some of the features that Microsoft added to Outlook 2010 made it easier for these folks. MailTips, for instance, is quite effective at stopping people doing silly things, like sending email to someone who will be out of the office for the next two weeks. Conversations are also effective, once you get used to the way that messages are displayed, and it’s good that Outlook can access online archives and deal with the kind of massive mailboxes that people consider necessary today.

But if you’re one of the social networking generation that depends on applications like Facebook, Twitter, and SMS-based messaging to communicate with their friends and peers, Outlook seems like an unhappy old uncle who’s constantly muttering that “it’s better this way”. Sure, this generation uses email, but browser-based clients connected to Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo! Mail meet their needs and they can’t quite see how to extract additional value from Outlook. For those of us who straddle the two worlds, Outlook’s Social Connectors help somewhat by extracting and displaying information about correspondents from Facebook and LinkedIn (mind you, I’ve never managed to get the LinkedIn connector to work). Add-in extensions like Twinbox integrate Twitter feeds with Outlook and does a reasonable job of integrating that data feed into “normal” email. However, the overwhelming impression is that Outlook 2010 is struggling to be a cool client in an ever-changing world. And older Outlook clients look and feel antique.

Office is a tremendously important franchise for Microsoft. Their recent Q3 results indicated revenue of $5.814 billion for the Microsoft Business Division, much of which is linked to Office. Microsoft’s challenge is therefore to keep the Office applications fresh and relevant, attractive to both corporate workers and other communities (home, student, small business) while accommodating the changing dynamics of social collaboration. It will be interesting to see how Outlook 2013 (or whatever Outlook 15 will be called) copes with these challenges.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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