Windows 8 Tablets and Email: A Disaster in the Making

Win 8 mail app screenshotI’m skeptical about Windows 8 as a desktop operating system, but I think it has a lot of potential on tablets. To win a good chunk of the market, however, Microsoft and its OEM partners have to convince buyers, both consumers and enterprises, that Windows serves their needs better than the competition, particularly the iPad. As the Oct. 26 launch of Windows nears, this venture is in danger of foundering on the shoals of email.

I’ve written before about the awfulness of Windows 8’s built-in mail Metro-styles program. The more I use the version built into the finished version of Windows 8, the less I like it. Though it has a very clean touch-centric design, its lack of features long considered essential in any email client makes it a great leap backward. First and foremost, while you can have multiple accounts with support for Exchange, Yahoo, Gmail, and IMAP. there is no way to combine accounts into a unified inbox. There’s no message threading. You can’t flag messages or create smart  inboxes. It feels like a throwback to the bad old days of AOL mail.

The Mail app has gotten marginally better through the Windows 8 beta process, but Microsoft isn’t promising that it will improve much any time soon. My inquiries yielded a bland and noncommittal statement: “The first-party Microsoft apps built for Windows 8, including Mail, will continue to receive updates and feature changes over time via the Windows Store.”

This is an enormous challenge for ARM-based tablets running on Windows RT. because as of now, Metro Mail (sorry, I’m going to call it Metro until Microsoft gives us a real alternative) is the only mail client available for RT. Outlook 2013 has the same architecture and essentially the same user interface as Outlook 2010, and its computational, memory, and storage demands always made it unlikely as a component of Office on RT. Microsoft made this official in a somewhat backhanded reference in an Office Next blog post, that said that the Mail app does not support “certain [Office application] email sending features, since Windows RT does not support Outlook or other desktop mail applications (opening a mail app, such as the mail app that comes with Windows RT devices, and inserting your Office content works fine).”

Unless some third party comes up with a more capable Metro mail client soon, I think RT tablets will effectively be disqualified for enterprise use. Yes, the Metro Mail app is an Exchange client, but it’s a wretched one, far worse than iPad Mail. Enterprise users may have to rely on Outlook Web Access (OWA) for a decent Exchange experience–but the current version requires an active network connection to do anything. Exchange Server 2013 will add offline access capabilities to OWA, but it is likely to be at least a couple of years before this versions is widely deployed by enterprise IT. The fact that Microsoft, which owns the back-end mail systems of the corporate and institutional world with Exchange, has failed to offer a first-rate mail client for a tablet it considers a key to the future is just baffling.

Things are somewhat better for Intel-powered Windows 8 tablets, because they do not have to depend exclusively on the availability of Metro-style apps. Outlook 2013  is only sort-of touch optimized. The cleaner ribbor with larger icons and menu items in touch mode will work a bit better on tablets, but the program is still heavily dependent on cascading menus, which do not work at all well with touch.

Still, it’s good to at least have access to Microsoft’s premier mail and collaboration application. In the enterprise world, Outlook is the program everyone hates and that everyone depends on to get through the day. The lack of a tablet-ready version of Outlook promises to be a huge impediment to the enterprise adoption of Windows tablets and could be a crushing blow to Windows RT.



Will Windows RT Include Outlook? Microsoft Won’t Say

Office 13 logo
Folks who plan to use Outlook on ARM-powered tablets, such as the Windows RT version of the Surface, may be in for a disappointment. The materials Microsoft released this week along with the Consumer Preview of Office 2013 were frustratingly vague about the RT version, saying only that Windows RT tablets would come bundled with a version of Office that included Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

In in response to a direct question on whether Outlook would be available for RT, a Microsoft spokesperson said “we are not sharing more specifics about ARM plans today.”

A lack of Outlook on RT tablets has important implications. Many enterprises rely heavily on Outlook, especially as the front end to Exchange mail and collaboration systems. and the lack of Outlook would eliminate a major competitive advantage for Windows tablets vs. the iPad and other tablets. Users would be stuck with the mail, contacts, and calendar programs built into, and the mail program, at least as it exists in the windows 8 Consumer Preview, is particularly weak. It’s Exchange support is limited and  it does not support standard internet mail (IMAP or POP3) accounts at all.

However, as I point out in a post earlier today, Outlook 2013 shares the space and resource hungry architecture of earlier versions and implementing it on an ARM device would be highly problematic. In particular, Outlook’s storage requirements will prove very troublesome on tablets where storage is limited to a few gigabytes.



Office 2013: Can Complexity and Touch Get Along? [UPDATED]

The new versionOffice 13 logo of Microsoft Office, unveiled this week in a consumer preview, has an awful lot riding on it. The strongest claim Microsoft can make for Windows 8 tablets, including the Microsoft-branded Surface, is that they will deliver the full Office experience. This probably won’t mean much to consumers, most of whom can do perfectly well with with the Office alternatives available today for the iPad. But it is a very big deal in the enterprise, where Office still rules and advanced features are routinely used.

To an extent that technology writers on the web often ignore, enterprises live and die in Office and its back office companions, especially Exchange and SharePoint. Support for these technologies in both iOS and Android is limited by the lack of support for full-featured Office applications. Windows 8 delivers that, at least in part, but there are major questions about the usability of the apps without a keyboard and mouse. Based on preliminary experience with the new Office, it looks like the software could give Microsoft a competitive edge, but it is very far from being decisive.

Outlook on RT? There’s a lot we still don’t know about Office, especially the version that will run on Windows RT (ARM-based) systems. For example, we do not know for certain whether Outlook, a critical enterprise application, will exist for Windows RT. The version of Office that will be bundled on Surface and other Windows RT tablets will not include Outlook. If Outlook is not available separately–and Microsoft has not yet responded to inquiries on this point–enterprise users with Exchange accounts would have to make do with the much more limited Windows 8 mail, calendar, and contact programs. UPDATE: A Microsoft spokesperson says the company has no further information on its Office for Windows RT plans at this time.

Microsoft developers faced an impossible task with Office 2013. The essence of Office is the richness of its applications. But feature-rich applications require complicated interfaces, and complicated interfaces are very difficult to implement for a touch-only tablet environment. Consider the iPhoto application for the iPad. It’s a very rich app by iPad standards, though it contains only a small fraction of the features of Photoshop. Yet it has a user interface that, again by iPad standards, is unusually complex and fussy.

Microsoft decided to make only evolutionary changes to the Office UI. A lot of touch features have been added, especially gestural controls, but access the the myriad features still requires negotiating Office’s maze of ribbons and menus. Unless you have Steve Jobs’s famous sandpapered fingers, you’re going to need a stylus or some other sort of pointing device to do that with any efficiency. Ars Technica summed it up well in a downbeat analysis of touch features in Office with the subhead: “Office 2013 makes concessions to tablet users, but they’re far too few.”

How big a problem this is depends on how an individual wants to use Office on a tablet. Having the full apps lets you view files, make minor changes, and save or send them without the fear you may have that a third-party tablet app would make a mess of complex formatting. But any attempt to do serious work on complex documents will prove extremely frustrating without a keyboard and a pointing device. You have all the features, but they are just not highly usable in touch mode. (I found that highly formatted documents did not do at all well in Word’s new Reading view. Pages with multiple elements broke up in ways that made it difficult to understand the relationship between them.)

The mail challenge. Outlook is a special case. Outlook 15 does not appear to have tamed the application’s hunger for resources, both CPU cycles and storage. This will be problematic on tablets, with their very limited storage. I installed the new Outlook on a laptop running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and set up two mail accounts: The IMAP service I use as my primary mail account and a lightly used corporate Exchange account. The local database (OST file) for the Exchange account, which was limited to the last six months of messages, weighed in at 211 MB. The file for the much more active IMAP account took up 1.9 GB (the option to time-limit the messages stored locally is available only for Exchange accounts.) Unlike the mail programs designed for tablets, Outlook clearly does not have the economical use of local storage as a priority–and this is why I think it may not be an option on Windows RT devices, which are likely to have more modest specs than their Intel-based brethren.

Microsoft made a decision to deliver the full Windows experience on tablets. The difficulty is that it isn’t a very good tablet experience for the same reasons that Windows 7 was not a satisfactory touch experience. The richness and complexity of Office may appeal to IT departments looking to support uniform software across different types of devices, but I think users will be frustrated.


Windows on ARM to Include Desktop Office. But What About Outlook?

Office logoWhile Microsoft has said a lot of Windows 8, it has revealed very little about its almost equally important software partner, Office 15. In in a post on the Building Windows 8 blog today, Windows boss Steve Sinofsky disclosed a vital bit of information about Windows on ARM (WOA), the version that will run on ARM, rather than Intel 86, processors and is especially important for tablets:

“WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, codenamed “Office 15”, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility. WOA supports the Windows desktop experience including File Explorer, Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop, and most other intrinsic Windows desktop features—which have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption.”

I don’t know how much to read into this but there is one critical application missing from the list: Outlook. Sinofsky says the Windows 8 Metro mail app will support Exchange Active Sync (EAS) for mail, contacts, and calendaring. But supporting EAS does not necessarily mean the full Exchange policy support that enterprises want to see. Android phones, for example, can connect to Exchange servers for mail, but do not natively provide full Exchange support (some OEMs have tweaked Android to do this, and there are third-party solutions.)

I think Enterprise adoption  is going to be key to the success of Windows 8 tablets, so this is a big deal. On the other hand, porting Outlook as it currently exists to ARM is a non-starter. Outlook is a notorious resource hog and ARM programs are going to have to be resource sippers because of the relatively limited processing and memory power available on tablets. And Outlook’s massive databases would swamp the storage available on a tablet.

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to elaborate on Sinofsky’s blog, so I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.