Microsoft Outlook for iOS doesn't live up to its name

Microsoft has applied a thin sheen to the Accompli app, but scratch below the surface, and the shortcomings quickly become clear

Microsoft Outlook email

If you've used Microsoft's Windows 8-style OWA app for iOS, you know how awkward it is. When Microsoft released its Outlook app yesterday for iOS (as well as a preview version for Android), based on the Accompli app it acquired last year, many users rejoiced -- but only because they hadn't actually used the Outlook app.

Sad to say, Outlook for iOS is not very good. It feels both rushed and incomplete.

The Outlook for iOS UI is much cleaner than the OWA app's UI, which has the clunky Windows 8 design. But the text is too small for many people to read, and there are no settings to change the text size. Plus, Outlook doesn't honor iOS's Text Size settings. If you're over 40, you'll likely need reading glasses to use Outlook on even a full-size iPad.

Navigating Outlook email accounts and folders is also difficult, relying on an Android-style hover menu that requires much more effort than Apple Mail's simple "go back a pane" approach. But I give Outlook credit for easy filters, such as showing emails with attachments or unread messages. Although Apple Mail has more such smart filters, you have to set them up yourself.

Outlook for iPad email accounts and folders

You navigate accounts and mailbox folders through a hover menu in Outlook for iOS.

The OWA app is restricted to Office 365 subscribers only, and solely for Exchange access. By contrast, the Outlook app lets you access any Exchange server (both on-premises and hosted), as well as several popular email services: Gmail, iCloud, Yahoo, and (the old Hotmail). But you can't set up email for other POP or IMAP accounts, as you can in Apple's native Mail app. [UPDATE 2/13/15: Microsoft added IMAP support in an update released today.]

When you set up accounts, Outlook connects with email, calendars, and contacts, not only email. But it doesn't support tasks or notes, which Apple's apps do with Exchange, iCloud, and IMAP accounts — you'll need to use Apple's Reminders and Notes apps for that data.

You can set up cloud storage access for OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, and Dropbox, but oddly when you set up an Office 365 account that has an associated OneDrive account, OneDrive isn't automatically established. Neither is iCloud Drive if you set up an included account. Google Drive is automatically enabled if you set up a Gmail account.

Still, I like the Files view for email, which shows you all files for all active accounts (email and cloud storage) in one take. The user-configurable gestures in the mail list is also nice -- it basically works the same as Mail's feature except you get to choose only one button for each swipe in Outlook, versus several in Mail.

The Scheduled feature simply puzzles me. You can't schedule an email you are composing, but you can schedule messages you received, which doesn't make sense. There's also no way to mark mail as junk.

The iOS Outlook app has no out-of-office capability, although the OWA and Apple Mail apps do. This is a core Outlook capability on the desktop, so its omission from the iOS version shows the lack of care Microsoft put in this app.

When composing an email, you can check your calendar and send out your availability, as well as create invites, but you can't add people to the invite as you can in Mail or OWA. Recipients get invitation files, but because you can't add people to the invite from the email, you have no record in your calendar as to who was invited and who responded. (You can add people to a calendar invite in the Calendar view.)

The calendar view is likewise frustrating. There's no ability to set up a repeating appointment — a ridiculous omission — and in Exchange, the Location field can't see your meeting rooms, as the OWA app and Outlook on a computer can (but not Apple Mail).

Outlook for iPad calendar appointment

Outlook for iOS misses several key capabilities in setting up appointments, including meeting-room access and repeating events.

When you set up Exchange and Google accounts their calendars are enabled in the Calendar view of the Outlook app. But not iCloud calendars — those you have to manually enable. 

The People pane is quite limited, though useful. You tap a person's name to see all emails, meetings, and files associated with that person, and you can compose an email for a person from the pane. But you can't see any details for people, such as phone numbers. On an iPhone, you can't call someone from Outlook; you still must go through the native Contacts app in iOS to manage and interact with users broadly.

Outlook for iPad people view

The People pane in Outlook for iOS provides a handy way to see emails, meetings, and files associated to individual people, but it provides no contact-management capabilities.

I'd say that Outlook is a decent start for Microsoft in bringing professional email to iOS and Android, except that it's a barely different version of the existing Accompli app, and it does less in some key areas than the awkward OWA app.

Let's be honest: Outlook for iOS and Android is a teaser app for something decent Microsoft might do in the future but is not doing now, a signal that one day we'll get real Outlook on mobile devices.

But currently, neither it nor OWA are good apps. Fortunately, Apple and Google have better apps already on your devices.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.