Acompli: A look at Microsoft's new mobile email tool


As much as we try to, we simply cannot seem to shake our collective email habit. We embrace social networks for collaboration, we use SharePoint for productivity and document sharing, we run Skype to bring us closer and more connected with our colleagues. But at the end of the day, email is the lowest (and most popular) common denominator among working professionals. It is important that the tooling for handling email be great; sadly, this has not usually been the case on our beloved smartphones.

Enter an app that is attempting to change that. Acompli was originally built to bring world-class, intelligent email to mobile devices, notably iOS and Android. Microsoft announced its purchase of Acompli in December; here's my take on how the current version works and what the Microsoft deal means.

Lots of us, me included, work from a phone a lot of the time -- as we're traveling for business or pleasure, or are just out and about running errands. The in-the-box email app for iOS devices is a slimmed-down version of Apple Mail (some folks still call this, the standard Mac OS X email application; it's decent for looking at your inbox in a sort of quick, emergency scan sort of way, for deleting spam and irrelevant messages and for firing off quick responses that are just a few words in length.

More detailed types of things are much easier to do on a "full fat" desktop or laptop client, including sorting through messages, establishing rules, scheduling meetings based on emails, attaching files and uploading images and other documents, and more.

Acompli aims to make it possible for the mobile email client to intelligently perform the tasks you would ordinarily need to do later from a "real" computer. Can it?

Taking a look at Acompli

Acompli works with Microsoft Exchange, Office 365, Google Apps, Gmail, iCloud, Yahoo,, Hotmail, MSN and Live, so it covers the vast majority of the corporate email market, and it works with phones and tablets running iOS 8 or later as well as those with Android 4.0 or later.

At its core, Acompli wants you to be able to tell which emails are most urgent or time-critical and require an answer, to respond to those urgent emails right from your phone and to expose more options to make some follow-up actions much more accessible. Plus, for the moment, it is free -- although Microsoft might seek to change that, or perhaps make it part of the Office 365 and Exchange Online services; more on that in a bit.

Acompli is available for download in the Apple App Store and on Google Play; just search for "acompli" and the app pops right up in the results.

What you will most likely notice straight away once you load Acompli and configure it with your email account -- it uses autodiscover so it does the heavy lifting itself -- is the integration between its email interface and its built-in calendar. (For email hounds, you can also add multiple accounts to the app and it will keep them delineated for you as you work through your inbox.)

acompli calendar Acompli

The calendar is deeply intertwined with email; for example, if you get a meeting request in your inbox from a co-worker, Acompli can look at the calendar and intelligently suggest times that would work for a meeting of a given duration. It pulls in your calendars automatically when you first connect Acompli to your email account.

The calendar itself is fairly bare-bones; you can schedule meetings, have a quick look at your existing appointments and get a sense of what your day and week look like. A day view and an agenda are the only available views, but to have that information just a tap away in the same app can be a great boon for productivity when you are out and about. Normally you'd have to load a separate Calendar app, look around, double-tap your home button, move back into email and then write back (manually) about what times would be good for you, as just one example.

I would eventually hope for a more granular calendar that lets me look at my week and month to more effectively schedule tasks, appointments and meetings, especially as I -- like many professionals -- deal with new and changing recurring meetings for which I need to schedule a set time over a certain duration of many weeks or months. (I was unable to set up a recurring meeting using Acompli exclusively -- without looking at the Acompli calendar -- but that may be a bug rather than a deliberate omission.)

The killer feature

As you get familiar with Acompli, you will see it beginning to triage your email. This is really the killer feature of the app. It will learn what emails you deem important out of the copious messages that you get, doing so by learning who you reply to, how quickly you reply to that person and which messages languish unread in your inbox for extended periods of time.

Kind of like the new Clutter feature in Office 365, which aims to keep the most relevant and interesting email in front of you while taking away the junk, the Acompli app attempts to make sure you can keep up with the most critical and germane emails while on the road. You can help Acompli with its training by moving email that it does not immediately recognize as relevant but that you want to know about or respond to, into the "focused" tab within the software.

acompli focus Acompli

I found during my tests over a week or so that if you give Acompli a few days, it does an admirable job of popping up relevant messages. It alerted me to roughly 10 emails out of the 150 to 200 that I get on an average day. This is especially helpful, for example, when I am trying to keep moving on an issue while I am sitting in the carpool lane waiting to pick my son up from school -- I do not have to be distracted by promotional mail, messages that I am just cc'd on that I can safely defer until later and so on.

The integration with OneDrive, Dropbox and Google Drive was particularly helpful. Because I store all of my working documents and data in Microsoft OneDrive, Acompli allowed me to send a second draft of a piece directly to an editor while I was sitting in my car, without having to leave Acompli.

What is less than stellar about this triaging facility is that it appears to come at the cost of not syncing existing contact data that you might have stored within your email account. While Acompli will learn about your contacts as it attempts to decide which messages are most relevant to you, it does not know out of the box about any other contacts -- even if they are in your Exchange address book, for example.

So if you are composing a new message to someone who has not emailed you since you installed Acompli, and you do not know his or her address offhand, you will need to switch over to another app like your phone book, grab that information and then pop it into Acompli's new-mail draft window.

I also installed Acompli on my iPad 3 with Retina display and found that the app did a good job of handling both portrait and landscape modes with the larger screen. My iPad runs iOS 8.1, as does my iPhone, and Acompli had no trouble or compatibility issues with this latest OS. The app is optimized for iPhone 5, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. I did not test the Android version of the app.

Concerns about Acompli

I do have a couple of major concerns about Acompli from a higher-level perspective aside from the usability and feature small-ish complaints I just mentioned:

Security. You might be thinking to yourself, as an administrator of an enterprise mail system: I have already struggled with the concept of users bringing their own devices to my network and accessing my resources. Now I am expected to let a brand new mail application from a startup look inside my Exchange servers, corporate directory and calendar data and then learn from the data within it, all without any sort of assurance about how the app stores its data on the device? What happens if a user loses his device? Does Acompli make it better, worse or about the same with respect to the difficulty in wiping a lost device?

Acompli vaguely addresses these concerns on its home page by simply saying, "We encourage you to put your IT management in touch with us at They'll be very happy." There is also a security page. which indicates that Acompli uses TLS for data in transit and device encryption for data at rest. A privacy page gives details about what personal information Acompli stores within its own system and shows how a user can opt to purge his or her data from Acompli's servers. When asked for more information, Javier Soltero, co-founder and CEO, said, "You'll find a detailed explanation of our security and privacy policy" on those pages. Further, he promises, "We do not sell any data nor have any plans to do so."

Cost. Currently, Acompli is free. Recall the old adage that if you are using something that is free, it means you are the product. What is the business model around Acompli? Is the company scanning my email? Is it just using "free" to get eyeballs and users and then will later charge a standard fee for purchasing the app? The company says on its site, "Acompli is a well-funded company that will later make paid services available to companies," which is not the clearest statement of intent about how Acompli plans to exist in a decade -- especially given that Microsoft is the new sheriff in their town. I am always concerned when I cannot plainly see how a product supports itself. Soltero says, "Acompli will continue to be free to end users." Further, he promises a product roadmap and "more news about our plans in the coming months."

An analysis of Microsoft's acquisition

Put simply, I am pleased that Microsoft bought Acompli. Microsoft has recently discovered its mojo for delivering applications and services for platforms other than Windows. Last March it released Office for iPad, and in the fall it worked with Dropbox to introduce support for using the latter with Office 365 services like Word Online and Excel Online. At this point, it's not surprising to see Microsoft investing in cross-platform experiences.

The real motivation for Microsoft in its Acompli purchase may well be the realization that while email may never die off completely, the current email model is threatened by new social services like Yammer, IBM's new Verse email and startups like Baydin, Slack and Asana that are trying to redefine enterprise email entirely.

Obviously Microsoft has invested heavily in the groupware and messaging marketplace over the last couple of decades with Exchange, Exchange Online, Business Productivity Online Service (BPOS) and Office 365. But it seems in the last couple of years or so to be acutely aware of many pundits' assertions that email will become less relevant in future computing trends, even if those assertions are wrong -- which I absolutely think is the case. By adding to its stable of messaging products that individuals as well as corporate and enterprise users can take advantage of, it clearly is trying to arrest that trend and insert the company into as many scenarios in a customer's life as it can. Don't be surprised to see Acompli with more Yammer and SharePoint support very soon.

I find the Acompli purchase intriguing and a point for optimism; If Microsoft can bridge the gap between the ubiquity, familiarity and ease of use of email, and the sexy allure of collaborating with a social network platform on the go, we will all be better off.

The last word

Acompli is a skillful app with a lot of potential that just hasn't put all of the right stuff together quite yet. I really like the email triaging, but really dislike that I have no access to many of my contacts within the app. I really like easily scheduling meetings, but really dislike not being able to see more than a day at a time in the built-in calendar.

From a higher-level perspective, I like the idea of my users being more productive on the road and exposing them to a better mobile email experience, but I have a lot of concerns about an untested, untrusted app being so in touch with the most common way internal proprietary information is discussed. And ultimately I wonder: If the app is free, am I -- or are my users or their information -- the real product?

Microsoft's acquisition may settle these last two questions, but for now Acompli has some work to do before it earns my unqualified recommendation.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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