Launch of Outlook RT testifies to Microsoft's app troubles

Microsoft's addition of Outlook to Windows RT tablets is more than good news for users, it's also an indictment of Mail on 'Modern'

Microsoft's announcement Wednesday that it will add Outlook to Office on Windows RT says as much about the company's app problem as it does about customers clamoring for the business-grade email client, an analyst argued.

Yesterday, Microsoft said that Outlook RT 2013 will be added this fall to the existing quartet that now makes up Office Home & Student 2013 RT, the suite that's bundled with Windows RT. The app will be part of Windows 8.1, formerly code named "Blue," which will be a free update to Windows RT and Windows 8.

But to Wes Miller, an analyst at Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, Outlook RT represents not only a win for users, but an indictment of Microsoft's core Mail, Calendar People and Messaging app, bundled with both Windows RT and Windows 8.

"When it comes down to it, Outlook RT is a testimonial about how the built-in Mail app has been received," said Miller, of Microsoft's decision to add the email client to Windows RT.

Although Microsoft updated Mail, Calendar, People and Messaging (Mail) in March, when reviewers noted performance improvements, it has not shaken a reputation as an underwhelming example of a "Modern" or "Metro" app. The app's current rating in the Windows Store is three stars out of a possible five.

"If [Mail] is the best that Microsoft itself can design, it shows how hard it is to make a Windows RT app," said Miller.

His point? The poor reception of Mail -- and the tacit recognition of that by replacing it with Outlook RT -- illustrates Microsoft's biggest problem going forward for Windows 8 and Windows RT: a dearth of high-quality "Modern" apps functional enough to replace the traditional desktop applications that Modern means to supplant.

In other words, it's the apps, stupid. "My concern is that if your collection of apps can't motivate people to buy the platform, the only alternative is to ride this pricing war to the bottom," said Miller.

And there lies disaster, he argued, because Windows tablets can't compete on price alone. "[Windows tablets] must split the pie three ways, Microsoft, Intel and the ODM [original device manufacturer]. There's no way they can compete on price with Android, where only the ODM has to make money."

Miller wasn't the only analyst to both applaud Microsoft for the changes in Windows 8.1 and point to the company's app ecosystem as its greatest weakness -- the main hurdle to tablet success and increased market share.

"It's not Windows 8.1 that will change Microsoft's fortunes in the enterprise," said David Johnson, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It's the app [ecosystem] that must succeed. The Modern UI needs to have more and better development.... That's core to their strategy."

Microsoft, of course, doesn't see it that way. Outlook RT is coming to Windows RT, including the firm's own Surface RT tablet, because customers asked for it.

"We're always listening to our customers and one piece of feedback was that people want the power of Outlook on all their Windows PCs and tablets," wrote Chris Schneider, a Microsoft marketing manager, on a company blog Wednesday.

What Schneider did not say, however, was why customers wanted Outlook, leaving the door open to Miller's interpretation, that the Mail app, which was supposed to satisfy users' needs for email, a calendar and a contact list, has failed.

Calls for Outlook on Windows RT have circulated since Microsoft announced the lineup of Office on the ARM-powered OS, but in recent months reports claimed that the app would not appear until the fall of 2014. Microsoft will beat that by a year.

In the meantime, Mail continues to collect negative reviews.

"Just not up to snuff," started a Wednesday review that ranked Mail as a two-star app. "Functionality is bare bones."

Another, also from yesterday, began, "Awful. It doesn't get any confusing than this."

Office Home & Student 2013 RT, currently composed of touch-enabled editions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word, is included with all copies of Windows RT. As is, the suite is not licensed for commercial use, which means it cannot legally be employed for business.

This article, Launch of Outlook RT testifies to Microsoft's app troubles, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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