Microsoft Outlook is one of the most ubiquitous email clients in the world. It’s installed on every computer with Microsoft Office. There’s also a mobile app called Outlook, not to mention a web version. Don’t forget, it’s also an email service. Of course, there’s a separate email and calendar app for Windows 10.
If all of that sounds confusing, you’re not alone. It seems that even Microsoft realizes that it has gotten a little out of hand.
Windows Central reported earlier this week that Microsoft is working on a new, unified Outlook that ditches most of that in favor of a progressive web app (PWA) for Windows and Mac. Considering how important Outlook has been for Microsoft, that’s risky. There are a lot of things that could go wrong.
Outlook is important, despite the fact that it’s years behind not only its competition but its users as well. Arguably, for Microsoft, Outlook is one of its most important productivity tools, which means there’s a lot on the line.
The challenge is that Microsoft isn’t exactly known as a company that creates amazing software experiences. Because it has to serve such a wide range of users, from individuals, families, and schools to small businesses and giant corporations, most of its software leans more toward utilitarian function than elegant design. Or, to put it differently, the company usually plays it pretty safe, so as not to break anything that millions of people depend on every day.
That said, I think you could argue Outlook has been broken for a while. It certainly hasn’t been a great software experience.
Of course, when it comes to email, most people use the browser version of Gmail, so maybe people just don’t care about great software experiences in this case. Interestingly, Gmail is the reason this is such a big deal.
At one point, Outlook was the default email and calendar app for anyone running Windows. Now, however, unless you’re an enterprise user, chances are you just use Gmail. Even if you are an enterprise user, there’s an increasingly good chance your company is using Gmail.
In fact, when it comes to email clients, most people either use Gmail in a browser or they use the Apple Mail or Gmail apps on their devices. That makes sense considering those happen to be the default options on iOS and Android, respectively. Those are by far the two most popular email clients, which reflects the fact that most people do most of their email on their smartphone.
And people definitely still use email. Over 306 billion emails were sent in 2020, and that number is expected to increase by almost 20 percent by 2024.
Sure, people complain about email. Tech companies are even trying to get rid of it entirely. Slack and Microsoft’s own Teams app have tried to change that, but in reality, email is still the most reliable way to get ahold of most people. Almost everyone has an email address–they aren’t all a part of your Slack workspace.
As a result, email is still where many people spend a lot of their work life. And “work life” is very much where Microsoft has built its brand. Its primary selling proposition is that it offers you all of the tools for getting work done.
Need productivity tools? How about Microsoft Word or Excel or OneDrive or OneNote. Need to browse the web? There’s Microsoft Edge. Trying to manage customers or sales or inventory? Microsoft Dynamics.
Need a business email address? Oh, just use Gmail.
You can see why that might be a problem. Google has slowly eroded Microsoft’s dominance in business productivity tools, and email is the most vulnerable point of entry.
Outlook was built when email was still relatively new. Over the years, it added features like managing contacts and calendars and tasks and, well, a lot of things that are related but aren’t email. All of those features add layers of complexity both in terms of design and in daily use.
For Microsoft, that means that overhauling Outlook is both very much necessary and extremely risky. It’s necessary because it has fallen far behind its peers in terms of design and usefulness. It’s risky because, if you get it wrong, you make life complicated for the customers who still depend on it, and give up any chance of winning over new users.
At the same time, sometimes a huge risk is one worth taking.