The harsh reality of an aspect of software development for cloud services is evident in the way Microsoft cut the People View feature from Outlook Web App (OWA) in Office 365. Introduced to First Release tenants in August 2014 and then generally in November 2014, Microsoft took the decision to withdraw People View from March 30, 2015. That process completed in May 2015 and no Office 365 tenant now has access to People View.
I must confess that the demise of People View completely passed me by. I liked the feature when it was released but never really used it much thereafter. There was always something new to investigate and understand and People View never attained the status of a feature that I used every day. Apparently the same feeling existed across Office 365 and Microsoft decided to remove it.
The removal was very quiet. Barely a ripple surfaced as People View sank from sight. Microsoft posted a brief note in the Office 365 message center, but only to tenants deemed to have high usage of OWA. The text of the message is:
“We are removing People View from Outlook Web App
The People View feature, which allows users to filter their inboxes by sender, will be removed from Outlook Web App, beginning March 30, 2015. While users will no longer have access to People View, they can sort email by sender using the search box or by clicking Sort by > From.
You are receiving this message because our reporting indicates there is high usage of Outlook Web App in your organization.”
As far as I can tell (or a web search can find), the only protest came from a user who complained that People View had gone missing on May 11. Nothing before or since.
Even in the often frenzied world of cloud software development, nine months is not a long time for a feature to last so it’s interesting to speculate what forced the decision. Apart from a lack of use, that is.
These are the reasons why I think People View disappeared:
OWA is not the prime client for Office 365 tenants: Outlook remains the king of the clients across on-premises and cloud platforms and People View never appeared in Outlook, so most users are probably unaware that such a feature ever existed. In many respects, OWA is the development client for Office 365 where Microsoft can surface new features to see how users respond. In this case, they didn’t.
Pressure on space in the OWA navigation bar: People View occupied a lot of screen real estate in the OWA navigation bar and that space was needed for other features deemed by Microsoft to be more strategically important to Office 365. Mailbox folders obviously have to be displayed, as do archives, shared mailboxes, and public folders (for some). And then there’s Office 365 Groups, which received a lot of attention at the recent Ignite conference. Groups are now generally available across the service and are supported by Outlook 2016. Groups need that space freed up by People View.
Clutter did a better job: The Clutter feature, which filters out unimportant messages from a user’s inbound mail stream, is now generally available across Office 365 and is enabled for all users (you can disable Clutter for mailboxes by running the Set-Clutter cmdlet – see the Clutter FAQ for details). When Clutter is active – and you have taken the time to train it by indicating what messages are important to you, the only messages that end up in the Inbox are important and the value of People View is much diminished if not removed.
In effect, the needs of Office 365 Groups and the effectiveness of Clutter killed People View.
It's also true that better search will remove the need for something like People View. Outlook has long suffered from inconsistent searches, a problem addressed in Outlook 2016 when online searches are used when clients are connected to a network. Not only will this improve the quality of search results, it also means that Outlook and OWA should return the same results, something that definitely doesn't happen with Outlook 2013/2010.
Microsoft continues to experiment with the OWA user interface. More change is coming and even more will appear in the future. Office 365 tenants sometimes get little or no warning that change happens because some of the updates are never revealed in the Office 365 Roadmap. Given the size and complexity of Office 365, it’s perhaps inevitable that some change will slip through without warning and it is an aspect of the cloud that customers have to learn to live with if they decide to move from on-premises deployments (where they control everything).
Office 365 is a fast moving place. Keep your eyes peeled. You never know what will change next.
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