With Acompli, Microsoft buys its way to truly mobile Outlook

Microsoft hopes the startup will bring its mobile magic to Outlook and Office 365

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Earlier this year, Bob Brown of Network World mentioned mobile email maven Acompli in a roundup of 25 mobile and cloud startups to keep an eye on.

Someone at Microsoft must have been listening, because Redmond has shelled out an undisclosed sum -- rumored to be around $200 million -- to buy Acompli and add its magic touch to mobile versions of Outlook and Office 365.

Microsoft is on the prowl for ways to bolster its mobile portfolio, which has remained an also-ran since its inception. Mobile versions of Office (and Outlook) have been a key part of that strategy, but the tough part has been making those apps useful in a mobile context when they were conceived for and currently thrive on the desktop. 

Microsoft says it bought Acompli as "part of our company-wide effort to help people accomplish more with their mobile device."

Acompli's mobile email app is all about productivity, allowing users to more easily schedule appointments or follow up on tasks. As demonstrated to Liz Gaines of Re/code, the Acompli app allows a user to do common work within email with minimal or no typing at all. Instead, the app leverages mobile UI motifs, such as gestures and long-press actions.

Acompli's exact place with Outlook and Office 365 isn't clear, but a few possibilities stand out. For one, Acompli's work could be used to create a new mail interface for an Outlook inbox, akin to Google's Inbox project, where the usual array of folders and clutter of messages are replaced with an automatically curated set of highlights shaped by the user feedback. Convenient as it sounds, it may remind people too much of the intrusive, presumptuous behaviors of the Clippy-era Microsoft Office.

Another possibility: Microsoft simply will add Acompli's team to its existing army of Outlook and Office 365 developers. The individual mobile-access features that made Acompli interesting could be rolled straight into the mobile version of Outlook. Existing Acompli users likely won't be pleased since the very characteristic that drew them to Acompli was the fact it was its own product.

Office and Windows remain Microsoft's flagship offerings, both for their feature sets and their massive user bases. Change them in the wrong ways and people will be disgusted, as both Office 2007 and Windows 8 demonstrated. Make a few changes to address common pain points, and everyone's happier.

Sometimes those changes can't come from within -- especially when dealing with a company the size of Microsoft. Consider Microsoft's purchase of Lookout in 2004 to remake search in Outlook and throughout Windows generally. Microsoft saw an approach to search in Lookout that it might never have come up with on its own, but at the cost of taking off the market a product with a small but committed user base.

The same goes for Acompli. Microsoft's acquisition of the company may seem like buying rather than building innovation, but it's right in line with the way Microsoft -- and most upscale technology companies -- operates.

It remains to be seen whether the existing Acompli app will live on side by side with Outlook or be absorbed into Outlook. The track record for Microsoft's previous acquisitions suggests it's more a matter of when, not if it will be absorbed.

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