Get it right later? Microsoft Outlook needs to work now

Public beta testing is fine, if users know it's happening, but it's no excuse for bad apps

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The consumer press loves the new mobile version of Microsoft Outlook, but I and many IT folks strongly dislike mobile Outlook for being half-baked and not very compatible with Microsoft Exchange. What gives?

The fundamental issue is one of expectations -- not the press's, but Microsoft's own. Press expectations play a part: setting the parameters for what vendors like Microsoft can get away with.

Reviewers focused on consumer usage compared Outlook for iOS and Android -- a renamed version of the Accompli app Microsoft bought in December 2014 -- to Google's Gmail app. That's a low bar. And they loved the integration with cloud storage services, often to the point where any flaws in the app went unnoticed.

Some IT-oriented commentators like me also appreciated the cloud-integration notion, while others were freaked out by Outlook's cloud-storage access (never mind that Outlook on a computer can do the same).

But we all were dismayed by the unevenness of the integration and the number of core features found in Outlook for Windows and OS X that are missing or incomplete in Outlook for iOS and Android, such as out-of-office notifications, repeating calendar events, contacts, and calendar invites. That's not Outlook in a business environment. 

In a Twitter conversation comparing the differences between business-press and consumer-press reactions, TechTarget mobile management columnist Jack Madden got it right when he tweeted, "I think they jumped the gun on calling it Outlook."

But his colleague Colin Steele got it wrong when he tweeted back, "Calling it Outlook was smart marketing. Look how much more we're talking about it now. ... The enterprise features will come soon enough."

That also seems to be Microsoft's own attitude, and it's a dangerous one. There was no reason for Microsoft to give the Accompli app the storied Outlook name so soon -- only two months -- after its acquisition.

Microsoft could have taken the time to rework Accompli to do what Outlook does in the perhaps better way that Accompli's app strives for. At that point it could have released an Outlook that would have knocked everyone's socks off and had a strong chance of moving users from Apple's highly Exchange-compatible Mail and Calendar apps to the revamped Outlook.

Instead, Microsoft released a product that got a lot of attention but ultimately works poorly.

Getting it right later is not a new idea at Microsoft

I guess Microsoft felt OK about doing so for iOS and Android -- it seemed to not mind the similar half-baked release of its email client in the flop that is Windows 8. At least Microsoft has the good sense in Windows 8 to call that poor app Mail, not Outlook; it should have had the same sense for Accompli.

In releasing such an app so clearly in beta but not labeled as such, Microsoft has planted a seed of doubt as to Microsoft's seriousness. The only rational takeaway from users and IT alike is that they should stick with competing apps that work well.

Microsoft has done the "we'll get it right later" routine before. Its first Office apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone are beyond horrible. Its Windows RT version of Office was unusable. It then released a mediocre Office for iPad a year ago that in no way compared to Apple's iWork suite for iOS.

Finally, this past fall, Microsoft released a revamped Office suite for iOS that is quite good, if not entirely up to the iWork standard. (The Android version of Office shipped a couple weeks ago, and the Windows Phone version may ship this fall.) The current Office for iPad is finally a production-ready app that both consumers and businesses can use happily.

Mobile Office isn't the first "we'll get it right later" effort at Microsoft. Two decades ago, the common adage among tech journalists was that Microsoft only gets it right on the third attempt, whether that was Windows, Word, Exchange, or the Internet. We didn't mean it as a compliment, but apparently the folks in Redmond thought we did.

I'm sure Microsoft's goal is to evolve mobile Outlook to a capable state over the next year, but why start out bad?

If it's a beta, call it a beta

One option is to do what Google long ago pioneered: Call your apps beta if they depend on users as a testbed and/or are incomplete. Whether or not you like that strategy, the labeling is at least honest. (Where Google falls short is in not bringing its products to a state where the beta label can be taken off.)

Apple used that beta label for its Web version of iWork for good reason: It still isn't baked. When Apple didn't honor such truth in labeling, such as in its first release of Apple Maps, it caught righteous hell

Ironically, Microsoft calls its Android versions of Outlook beta (well, "preview"), so you know the software's unfinished. Unfortunately, Microsoft uses that label not to warn you that the software is functionally incomplete but to alert users that it may not work properly across all the main Android versions.

In that Twitter conversation about mobile Outlook, Brian Katz, head of user experience at the Sanofi drug company and frequent mobile app dev commentator, posed an insightful question: "If they hadn’t called it Outlook yet, would you have liked it more?" The short answer is yes -- I wouldn't have expected it to equal Outlook's business capabilities. I would've still been unhappy with the software's unfinished, sloppy status, but my bar for success would not have been as high.

That's a lesson I hope Microsoft takes from this: Don't slap a key brand onto what is unacknowledged beta software. Be honest about what you are providing as beta for feedback, and don't pretend unfinished software is production software.

Ironically, part of Microsoft knows that. The company acquired the Sunrise Calendar app last week. When I asked what its relationship would be to Outlook, a Microsoft PR rep at Waggener Edstrom told me:

Sunrise’s goal is to redefine what a calendar can be. It aspires to be a personal assistant that helps you manage your time, integrating with a wide range of apps and services from your digital life and providing new ways to visualize your time.
If that brave new world of calendaring doesn’t pique your interest, you can use the built-in calendar in Outlook for a more traditional calendar experience. Or, you can use both apps in tandem -- appointments will surface in both apps and remain in sync. Over time, we’ll take the best innovation from Sunrise and include these in Outlook calendar experiences.

That response makes clear that Sunrise is a way to test new ideas, much as Google's Inbox app is for email. Ideas that make sense will migrate, hopefully in a finished way, into Outlook when the time is right. In the meantime, the apps testing new ideas should be labeled beta (like Inbox) or function well in their own right (like Sunrise). Either path would've been preferable for Accompli.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.