What Does Microsoft Have Against Email?
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.
*–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.