What Does Microsoft Have Against Email?

by Steve Wildstrom   |   August 24th, 2012

Windows 8 Mail iconEmail in Windows 8 is a catastrophe.

I know the cool kids think email is last decade’s technology, but the fact is that it remains a vitally important communications tool for both businesses and consumers. But it gets no respect from Windows 8, and this could be a huge problem on Windows RT tablets.

When I first started playing with the Mail app in the first preview of Windows 8, I didn’t pay too much attention to its glaring deficiencies, figuring it was a placeholder for the real application that would come along later. The version of Mail that’s included in the RTM version of Windows 8 Pro is better, but not by much. Support for IMAP accounts has been added, though POP3 is weirdly still missing. And the list of missing features is longer than the roster of present ones: multiple accounts are supported but there is no unified inbox, there’s no way to search,* thread, sort, or arrange messages in anything but newest on top. I haven’t seen anything this bad since AOL Mail, circa 1995.

At first, I thought this was a clever plot to drive users to the new Outlook.com mail service. Outlook.com’s browser user interface is a lot more capable than the Win 8 Mail app. But it’s account support is sadly deficient. It supports only Outlook.com web mail (the replacement for Hotmail) and POP3 accounts. (Do the Outlook.com and Windows 8 Mail teams talk to each other? I doubt it.)

The lack of a decent built-in mail client is not a crushing defect for a operating system.  Windows 7 shipped with no mail client at all, though you could easily download the confusingly named Windows Live Essentials Mail, a latter-day Outlook Express. If you had Office, you could use Outlook, and almost certainly did if your mail system was Exchange-based. Or you could download any of a number of free or paid mail clients.

The same is true for the x86 version of Windows 8. But Windows RT, the vers. ion for ARM-based tablets, is much more problematical. The version of Office included with RT does not include Outlook and Microsoft has not said whether there will be an Outlook for RT. Unless some developer comes up with a good mail client for RT (which would have to meet with Microsoft approval for distribution through the Windows Store), consumer users of RT tablets are going to be annoyed and business users will be in deep trouble. The Mail app does support Exchange accounts, but only the most basic features are available. Outlook Web Access is an alternative, but it has the significant disadvantage of only working on a live internet connection, along with the lack of a unified inbox that will combine messages from other accounts.

Much about Windows RT is still speculative, because we have yet to see systems in the wild. But if Microsoft is going to win back ground lost to the iPad, it will have to do a whole lot better on email support.

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*–Commenter Bam! pointed out to me that you can indeed search through messagers using the standard Search charm. It’s a bit crude–there seems to be no way to limit search to a specific folder, though you can use specifiers such as from: and to:. I still find the idea of the Search charm as a sort of  do-anything tool somewhat confusing. And considering the amount of space the full-screen Mail app wastes, there was plenty of room for a conventional search box.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • ct

    It’s clear to me that the first laptop I am given to use that runs Windows 8 will be the first laptop that I overwrite with Linux Mint.

  • http://twitter.com/crossslide bam!

    You can search mail using the standard Search charm.

    • steve_wildstrom

      So you can, and I will correct. But I still find that highly unintuitive as well as awkward. There’s so much wasted screen real estate in the Mail app; they could easily have included a proper search box.

      • http://twitter.com/crossslide bam!

        I think the reason they didn’t include one is not because of space limitations in that particular app, but because the Windows team strongly discourages any app from including a search box because they’re afraid users won’t learn to use the Search charm otherwise. Their thinking is that if some apps start including search boxes, that will become the standard method of searching and all apps will have to include them, meaning less space for everyone – and other apps might need the space, even if Mail doesn’t. OTOH if all apps “hold the line” and rely on the Search charm instead, everyone will get accustomed to the Search charm method and there will be a little more space for every app. That’s the idea anyway. :)

        • sgns

          Very interesting thank you!

  • Technogran -

    I agree completely with your assessment on the Mail app, its sadly lacking. I think they want to encourage us all to use the web version as you say, and not a desktop program. I prefer Windows Live Mail anyway, as I can then access my RSS feeds in it as a webpage as well as all my email accounts. Plus it has the Calendar included, so much more useful..

    • steve_wildstrom

      Microsoft has not yet made it clear whether Windows Live Essentials Mail will continue to be available for download after Windows 8 ships. In any event, it won’t be an option of the RT version in its present (Desktop) form.

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  • Was Microsoft

    I am afraid the glaring absence of a real mail app capable of working with my POP3 accounts will be the last straw for me, I love Microsoft but when you bet the company on a new and innovative format you cannot shove “no pop3″ down our throats.

    This is a fundamental error and they deserve to lose more marketshare to Apple & Linux, this is a grave disapointment.

  • Mike

    The Mail App in Windows 8 is truly terrible! It fails to provide the basic tools available even in Apple IOS mail. I had to install Windows Live Essentials 2012 for my Mum just so she could send downsized photos easily! I can only suggest others do the same to regain a decent mail client on their Windows 8 machines. See http://windows.microsoft.com/en-GB/windows-live/essentials-home for the download.