Problems with email integration for work management tools

I’ve been evaluating a long list of work management tools as part of the research for the Work Management Narrative report (see recent post, Work Management in Theory: Context). One issue that comes up a great deal is the integration with email, which is a common trigger for a user to create a task, as well as a means to communicate with other team members who may not be using the same — or any — work management tools.

This post doesn’t look into how work management tools use email as a way to communicate with team member not using the work management tool: that’s a separate use case. I’m focusing on email as a parallel sort of communication, and one from which a great deal of tasks arise.

There are a number of approaches to email integration, which I will categorize like this:

  • Low or no integration: despite the ubiquity of email, and the obvious need to communicate to the wide, wide world through it (and email’s insatiable hunger to communicate with us, too) some vendors offer little or no support for the realities of email. Not good.
  • Loose integration: some vendors have opted for a loose integration, often through bookmarklets or third-party connection services like Zapier and IFTTT. For example, Azendoo supports a Zapier ‘zap’ where gmails that I star become tasks in a specific project. Subsequently, the user can open Azendoo, and perhaps move the task to another project, add notes, fool with metadata (due dates, assignment, etc.). A bookmarklet — like Wrike‘s — accomplishes more or less the same thing. In either case, the connection is one-way, and the work management tool does not try to ‘handle’ email in a general way: the precipitating email is just a starting point for a task. At present, I think loose integration is the best approach.
  • In-inbox integration: Some solutions — like Todoist (a team task management tool) and Sortd (ditto) — provide a Google Chrome extension so that when you are ‘in’ Gmail you can easily convert an email to a task (and add metadata, etc.) in a window while never leaving the Gmail context. This is a lot smoother than loose integration, especially for people who communicate through email a great deal. Also, clicking on a link back to an email makes it more of a two way solution.
  • In-app email: Some tools aspire to replace the email client’s functionality altogether, basically pulling in all emails and implementing the services that emulate — at least in part — capabilities of email services. It is this last case that I want to zoom into in this post.

I’ve tried at least two solutions in recent weeks that seek to bring email integration in-app: Fleep and ScribblePost. I had an exchange with the CEO of ScribblePost, Alon Novy, about his company’s model of email integration. One outcome was the following post, shared with him through the company’s support system. In that post I suggested a more sophisticated version of in-app email integration:

Alon –

I tried and rejected your competitor Fleep’s attempt to act as a email client.

The hybrid failed for some of the same issues I have with your approach:

1. I might have a number of other plugins or features that operate in the Gmail client that I can’t walk away from, like Google Tabs.

2. If I have to undertake email hygiene in both Gmail and in the work management tool, that is an impossible cost.

3. The design of an email client is distinct from that of a work management tool, and intended to meet a wide range of use cases, not just those related to work management.

My bet is that the best approach will be to have a close coupling, but not a full integration of email in the work management tool, like your SP [ScribblePost]. On the work management side, some emails — those that are starred, or labeled in a specific way — would have a handle created, so that the email can be indirectly referenced and annotated: for example, comments can be added to the handle, or a task can be created as a follow-up to the email that would be attached to link to the email handle.

I think that the email handle is a distinct type or object in the work management space, different from tasks, internal messages, and posts. An email handle is a specific example of a general notion: a handle to reference some info object principally or partially managed outside the work management solution. That could also hold for Twitter or Facebook messages, for example, or Salesforce contacts.

At any rate, SP could implement a set of actions for email handles that fall into two groups:

1. those that represent actions on the handle — like creating or deleting the handle, linking it to a task (as a special sort of attachment), sharing it, adding comments, moving a handle from one project to another, etc. — as opposed to

2. actions on the email linked to the handle — like reply, forward, archive, and so on.

I think such a two-faced approach covers the greatest number of use cases, including unforeseen ones.

You might also benefit from a chrome plugin for Gmail, so that some (or perhaps even all) actions that users might want to perform vis-à-vis the intersection of email and SP could happen ‘in’ Gmail. For example, I might read an email and decide to

1. start tracking this thread in SP,

2. associate one or more tags with the handle, and

3.assign a follow-up task to myself referencing the email along with some notes.

I could then get back to other email, some of which never crosses over into SP.



Note that the info handle concept lines up fairly directly with a platform play, obviously.

I applaud Alon and his team for the innovative ideas they are developing in ScribblePost, and likewise the brilliant design of Fleep, both products which I will be reviewing in the upcoming Narrative. I’m sharing this to stimulate discussion around these ideas, and also (shameless plug) to demonstrate the sort of thinking that animates the report.

Q&A about Enterprise Social Networks with IBM

IBM sent some questions following the recent IBM Connect conference. They are based on some unwritten assumptions that I disagree with, which will become evident in my response.

Here’s the questions:

  1. What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?
  2. Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?
  3. How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?
  4. What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?
  5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

Some answers:

Q1: What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?

A1. The idea of a ‘successful social enterprise’ is simple if you approach it superficially. In that case you simply define ‘success’ as some degree of adoption of social tools, and the harvesting of their purported benefits based on the network effects of social integration. A richer, and more nuanced definition requires a deep dive into significant changes in people’s aspirations, corporate values, and dispersal of tech platforms that underwrite new ways of work, not just new ways to communicate. (But this is not the place for that book to be written.)

A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email. — Stowe Boyd

Q2: Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?

A2. There is actually a large-scale migration away from the now-mainstream model of ‘social business = a company using enterprise social network as platform for communication, collaboration, and coordination’. A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email, now somewhat socialized (like IBM Verse and Microsoft Office 365).

Q3: How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?

A3. Information sharing (mistakenly called ‘knowledge sharing’) is one of the most direct benefits of social platforms, of whatever kind. They decrease the costs involved, and the social motifs — like following, @mentions, and topical activity streams — have revolutionized how we think about working together. I think increasing innovation is a separate, but immensely important issue. Tools need to stand out of the way, drop into the near background, so that innovation can happen: they don’t engender creativity, per se.

In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. — Stowe Boyd

Q4: What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?

A4. The hurdles of adopting any innovation — like a new communications or information platform for business — are consistently the same. First, people differ to the degree they are psychologically disposed toward adoption of new technologies and techniques (and the values that come along with them). So-called innovators — Ed Rogers’ term — are quick to adopt, and the laggards are most averse, and the rest of us are distributed in between in other groups: early adopters, early majority, and late majority. That’s the nature of people. Each group has its own set of concerns and considerations that slow adoption to a greater or lesser extent. This is independent of the specifics of any technology or the dynamics of any company, and dominates The Diffusion of Innovations, which is why Everett Rogers named his magisterial book that.

In the case of ESNs, adoption has been problematic because the benefits are difficult to quantify, are slow to be realized (if at all), and the established alternatives (like email) are deeply embedded in business practices and processes. This has been so slow a process that innovators and early adopters are jumping the curve and moving onto new approaches before the majority has adopted the old ones. So ESNs are already a lap behind in the communications platform foot race.

Q5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

A5. The continued acceleration toward mobile, wearables, and augmented and virtual reality (or surreality, as I call it) will mean even more of a migration away from desktop/laptop use and the decline of ‘desktop’ motifs. In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. Added to the rapid rise of AI assistants (or assistance, depending on your view), the premises of ‘working together’ will change as much as the Web has done, already. So, while we will still be working in social networks in five years — we are human beings after all — we will be unlikely to be using platforms based on the design and organizing principles of what we call ESNs, today.

 Cross-posted from medium and on 8 February 2016.

Work chat Fleep’s slash commands, tasks, and email integration

2016-01-19: Updated with some corrections. Strikeouts indicated former erroneous material now amended or deleted, and italics show new explanations.

I’ve been closely watching the development of work chat vendor Fleep, and since I reviewed the product in August (see Work chat tool Fleep has native task management: Is that a key feature, or just nice to have?) the company has addressed so many areas I won’t try to cover them all, I’ll let them do that for you.
I am just going to focus on the slash commands, tasks, and email integration.
Slash commands — Fleep’s chat (or ‘conversations’ as they call them), support a number of commands that are preceded by a slash (‘/’):

/pin <message> — create a new pinned message
/task <message> — create a new task message
/taskto @someone — create and assign a new task
/bug <message> — create a new bug report task with ((bug))
/add <email> — add new members to the conversation
/kick <email> — remove members from the conversation
/leave — leave conversation

When these are used in the context of a chat, when a chat message with a leading command is posted, the action is taken. In the screenshot below, I have just invited Doppelganger Jones to the AdjectiveNoun conversation, assigned him a task ‘please write up a plan’, and I have formed a new chat message at the bottom to create a second task also assigned to him.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.10.54 PM
Here’s the task pane opened after those tasks were created.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.11.26 PM
One of the weaknesses of Fleep’s task model is that the tasks have very little metadata. I can understand why they might not need comments or notes — it’s a chat app, after all — but due dates are fairly essential.
Tasks are completed by checking the task box. I found it odd that pinning a task — which moves a message to the top of the chat window and stops it from scrolling away — leads to the task losing its ‘taskness’: it becomes just another message. Odd.
Documents can be added to the conversation — including Google and Dropbox docs — but these aren’t attached to messages or tasks: they’re just dropped into the chat. And one or more documents/files can be added to messages or tasks.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.13.16 PM
Once added, they also show up in the ‘Files’ pane, the one with the paperclip icon.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.14.23 PM
Personally, I might have designed them to do both. That limitation seems particularly irksome with tasks.
It’s great that Fleep tasks (and messages) can have attachments, since passing along a description of the work to be done, or a document to be approved are commonplace activities.
Also note in this case I was trying to attach a Google doc, but somehow Fleep instead creates and attaches a PDF of the doc. So my colleagues on Fleep can’t use this as a way to open and coedit the Google doc, but just to look at an immediately out-of-date pdf of the doc. This is dumb. If I were actually using Fleep in production I would copy and paste URLs to docs, instead. And Fleep provides a text markup for that, in this form:

link<<text>>adds an inline link with the text in the angled brackets

And that works really well, in fact:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.01.45 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.02.01 AM
Clicking on the preview or the URL link opens the Google doc, and since I copied a share URL that allows for editing, my colleagues would be able to view, comment, and or edit the Google doc, in place.
Returning to tasks, the task pane can include ‘sections’ that can be used to arrange tasks into subsets.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.49.17 PM
I like the capability to layout the sections in this way, and when coupled with the ability to ‘clone’ conversations, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Too bad that the ‘clone’ function for projects only copies the set of contributors, and doesn’t include — for example — the tasks defined in the conversation. If it did, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Alas, not today.
Fleep now supports ‘@mentions’, so that I can alert others to messages, like ‘Can someone take a look at the timeline in this doc to check it’s up to date?<<Report>> @doppelganger.jones’.
Note that the user identity in Fleep for Fleep users is an email address:
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.57.33 PM
This is by design. Fleep is tightly integrated with email, so that non-Fleep users can be invited to conversations simply by adding their email. If they aren’t a Fleep user, they can participate through email. This leads to all messages — including tasks — being sent to them, and their responses showing up in the conversation. Emailed tasks just look like messages at present, so email only participants can’t check them off, for example.
More importantly to me is that emails directed to Fleep aren’t treated as tasks but as messages, although they can be converted to tasks. And the model is that a new conversation is created with the other person for these emails. There is no way to direct them to an existing conversation. That’s a different slant than I am used to, from tools like Todoist.

I have not  touched on all features of the tool, but probably enough to get a sense for what using it feels like. Fleep is at core, a classic work chat tool, based on contextual conversation (see Contextual conversation: Work chat will dominate collaboration). Unlike leading competitors, however, Fleep has integrated task management.
At the same time, the limits on Fleep’s task model would chafe anyone who believes that richer capabilities are essential — like multiple assignment, subtasks, due dates, start dates, notes, comments, attachments, and so on. However, the fact that tasks and other messages can be brought back into context when looking at a task by selecting ‘show in conversation’ does counter some of the issues with notes, comments, and attachments, so long as they are in fact truly contextualized.
I hacked a link from a task to a day on my Google Calendar to represent a due date, but that just indicates the direction they might take if they start thinking about due dates and calendar integration. Here’s the edit for the task:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.51.54 AM
And here’s how it renders:Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.53.13 AM
This manual approach is just too much work, although I certainly could get the first order benefits simply by putting the due date in the text of a task.
Obviously, I’d rather have a calendar integration so that tasks with due dates would automatically show on my Google Calendar, and so would anyone else, I bet.
If the team at Fleep continue their development at the breakneck pace of 2015, they may in fact be countering some of these issues, and their focus on integration with a wide spectrum of developer tools seems to represent the same arc of adoption that we saw first with Hipchat, and later with Slack. We should anticipate the same disperal pattern, where the developers in a company infect non-developers with the ease of use and depth of the developers’ work chat platform, and they in turn begin to infect other non-developers across the company and the company’s ecosystem.

Sortd is another take on the dream of ‘One Inbox’

Email is often characterized as hellish: at best a necessary evil and at worst a monstrous time sink.

Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face. — Paul Ford

In this post I am not going down that rat hole (as worthy a digression as it may be), and I will simply accept the fact that email exists, we use it, and it is an integral part of many working folk’s workflow. I won’t be talking about email zero, or other approaches that take a Fordian slant.
There’s been a great deal of innovation in email clients for mobile devices — a topic I’ve written about a great deal — but this is about the breadth of what is in email clients, rather than in the gestural and mobile innovations we’ve seen in tools like Mailbox (now defunct).
Sortd is a ‘skin’ for Gmail, implemented as a Chrome extension, and attempting to integrate task management directly into the email inbox experience along with conventional email. The company has also developed an iOS app, which I haven’t had a chance to fool with, yet.
Here you see a screenshot (courtesy of OSM), showing four columns. The leftmost is the email inbox, which flattens out all emails into a single stream, even if you’ve set up Gmail folders.
The right three columns are like Kanban boards, and are user definable. Here the user has defined ‘To Do’, ‘Follow Up’, and ‘Deals’ boards. The items in the boards are nominally Sortd tasks, which are created by either dragging an email from the inbox, or creating a task in one of the boards by clicking the plus sign (‘+’) at the foot of one of the boards.
[My goal in this post is to discuss the concepts motivating Sortd’s design, and so I will leave my quibbles in square brackets, so they can be filtered. In this case, I think the plus sign should be at the top of the list, so it doesn’t drop out of sight when the task list grows long.]
Tasks that start out as an email inherit their name from the email subject, but can be renamed. Tasks can have email(s) added, so a task — in both cases — can include a variety or emails from various people. This is an interesting alternative to email labels or folders, when you think about it: a collection of emails united by some intention, goal, or activity.
Tasks can have notes, deadlines, and reminders, but there is no real concept of subnotes. Boards can act as projects, but there is no other level of task lists.
The UX allows for dragging and dropping of emails onto tasks, and dragging tasks around to reorder them. And dropping tasks onto other tasks consolidates any attached emails and notes, but does not create subtasks, alas. [This is something that should be remedied.]
In my personal case, I have defined ‘Today’, ‘Soon’, and ‘Later’ boards. I refresh what’s on Today, every day, using my 1, 2, 3 technique (one big thing, 2 medium things, 3 little things). Tasks are added, moved, checked off, and consolidated across the three boards all the time, and in particular, new tasks are created as new emails arrive.
When a specific task is opened, there are three flavors of UI:
No email –– notes, due date, and reminder fields are shown.
Single email — as above, but minimized, with most space given over to framing the email:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 11.00.22 AM
Note along the top right various icons to deal with the task/email, like label, and trask, and including a check mark for completing the task. The email can be responded to in this presentation: replied to, forwarded, archived, and so on.
Multiple emails — a selector that allows the user to pick which of the emails should be viewed appears under the task title, and once a specific email is chosen, the presentation is like the single email case.
Sortd provides a toggle on the right hand side of the Gmail window so that the user can toggle between the Sortd and Gmail skin. There is also a setting to select which skin to open in.
Lastly, when looking at an received email that has not yet been associated with a Sortd task the tool allows the user to ‘sort it’ using a button at the top:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 11.09.22 AM
Note this also allows selecting which board the new task will be placed on.
A second approach for turning a reply into a task is provided by hover icons:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 10.22.35 AM
And this allows either pinning the email to a new task in a specific board, or to set a reminder for the email. [There should be away to select an existing task, too.]
I like the Sortd approach to melding task management and email right into Gmail. Partly that’s so that other services offered by Google and others that are integrated into Gmail continue to work, and so that I don’t have to move to some other client. That also makes trying it out much easier, and likewise for gradually transitioning.
The problems I have are only a few:

Sortd’s task management is relatively immature — lacking features like subtasks, recurring tasks, multiple notes, bookmarklet, etc. — is a powerful disencentive. Sortd has not to deepen the offering’s task model dramatically if it wants to attract people using tools like Asana, Todoist, Wrike, Clarizen, and so on. Creating a bookmarklet, so users can create a task linking to the URL of any web page, is a really easy feature to create, especially since the tool runs as a Chrome plugin already, and this counters to some extent the lack of integration with other tools, presently.
Sortd’s communication model is minimal — At present, there is nothing like chats, messaging, or comment threads. I’ve been told that @mention style communication is in the works, presuambly from the existing task notes.
There is no capability for assigning tasks to people, so that effectively limits tasks to personal use. Note that other offerings — Like Streak — have extended the notion of Gmail labels for that enables personal emails to be shared among invited users. I bet that Sortd will have to implement something like this for task assignment — or at least sharing the attached emails as something other than text — to work.
Skinning has limits, or maybe doesn’t go far enough — I like the idea of skins on top of Gmail, but it only goes so far. Why doesn’t Sortd implement opening one of multiple emails collected in a task as an additional hover panel above the topmost one? Each email could be its own task, with nested tasks and emails. Likewise, as in the task management tool Trello, why don’t we have ‘subboards’ within boards? For example, in my ‘Soon’ board, I create tasks that serve just as labels to break up the list of tasks into weeks, like ‘— wo 4 Jan —‘, meaning ‘week of 4 Jan’. But if boards could be dragged onto boards, this would work better.

I will be tracking the progress at Sortd, which has been around for over a year, but we’ll have to see if they are pointing their efforts in the same direction as I would like to see.

Atlassian’s IPO is just part of its lofty goal for the workplace

One of Silicon Valley’s “unicorns” (that is, a tech company valued at over $1 billion), Atlassian is the company behind JIRA, HipChat, Confluence and BitBucket, all of which are aimed at making collaborative efforts within companies easier and more efficient. The company is one of Silicon Valley’s oft-fabled “unicorns” — that is, a company for which the valuation has surpassed the $1 billion dollar mark — and last week the company saw its shares jumping over the initial price of $21 to just over $27, where it has held for the most part. 

Atlassian was founded in 2002 and specializes in workplace software. Most of their products are aimed at streamlining workplace communication and simplifying collaboration in teams. 

HipChat, one of its most popular products, is an email-buster comparable to Slack that brings ongoing correspondence out of lengthy email threads and into a simple chat interface shared by teams and departments within a company. JIRA Software is a project-tracking software development tool. JIRA Service Desk is a task management platform that allows teams to coordinate the living, breathing, changing tasks that often become the foibles of service teams everywhere.

From BBC to Adobe and NVIDIA to Land Rover, Atlassian products are used by over fifty thousand teams worldwide. Which is great, but ultimately just the tip of the iceberg where the company’s concerned. With the successful IPO under their belts, Atlassian’s chasing down some seriously lofty goals.

“Our mission, ultimately, is to have every employee inside of every company using Atlassian products every day,” says Atlassian President Jay Simons. “And when you consider that there’s more than 800 million knowledge workers around the world, that’s a pretty big ambition and it’ll take a while to get there. The IPO doesn’t really change that. That’s basically been a goal of the company since inception.” 

A pretty big ambition, indeed. But it’s a pretty big market, too, and it’s no secret that email’s not particularly well-suited to the way that we work today. Inboxes that tend to get cluttered paired with our own abysmal skills when it comes to staying on top of the constant digital deluge, email’s become something of a dirty word in some circles. 

Though email’s something of a necessary evil that likely won’t be going anywhere (no matter how much I wish the opposite were true), Atlassian products exist largely to bring conversations and collaborative efforts that don’t belong in our inboxes into more appropriate arenas. Even with fifty thousand companies already onboard, there are still thousands of teams stuck in the cluttered trenches of email-only communication.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of white space across teams with a lot of inefficient use of email,” says Simons. “I don’t think email’s going away anytime soon because it is an effective way to direct certain kinds of communication to people, but I do think that when you use our products, your inbox becomes a lot smarter, more directed and more appropriate for what email’s good at.” 

In Simons’ eyes, the successful IPO signals a recognition that what Atlassian’s doing is not only working, but that there’s room to grow—more tasks to manage, more email chains to prevent, more projects completed on-time with fewer hiccups and dropped balls. The way we work is changing, and the response yesterday would seem to suggest that Atlasssian’s going to be around to usher in some of these changes in the way we get things done.

“I think that the market and the investor enthusiasm recognizes that we’ve built a pretty special company,” says Simons, “and also recognizes that there’s a big opportunity in front of 800 million knowledge workers worldwide and teams all over the place that are trying to figure out how to work better together.” 

Autocomplete fail: Gmail is suggesting the wrong email addresses

Better check twice before firing off that email today: You could be sending it to the wrong person, thanks to a Gmail bug that is suggesting email addresses you rarely communicate with, instead of the people you correspond with most often.

The bug has been widely spotted by media outlets, venture capitalists, and normal Gmail users. Instead of sending your email to your coworkers or family, pressing send without double-checking could result in your email being delivered to someone you haven’t talked to in years. Although I am lucky enough not to have misfired one of my messages today, others haven’t been so fortunate:

The problem seems to be widespread — just this morning, Gigaom’s tips email address ([email protected], send us stories) was inexplicably CC’d on a email thread on which editors of another site were discussing the most embarrassing moments from last night’s Oscars.

Google has provided the following statement:

“We’re aware of an issue with Gmail and auto-complete and currently investigating. Apologies for any inconvenience.”

Until it gets fixed, you might want to consider turning on the undo send feature in Gmail labs.

Funds flow in for GnuPG author after article reveals his plight

On Thursday ProPublica published the frustrating tale of Werner Koch, the one guy – yes really – who’s maintaining the extremely widely-used Gnu Privacy Guard (GnuPG or GPG) software that people use to encrypt their email messages and digitally authenticate downloadable programs such as the Tor Browser.

As the article revealed, Germany-based Koch was raising around $25,000 a year for his work, not enough for someone supporting a wife and kid. A crowdfunding campaign he began in December had only pulled in $43,000 – way less than he needed to employ a second full-time developer for the project. Well, the article worked.

At the time of writing on Friday, that campaign had pulled in over €160,000 ($183,000) from supporters. And that’s not all: Facebook and Stripe will each send $50,000 Koch’s way every year to sustain the project, and the Linux Foundation has also granted him $60,000 (a decision that actually preceded the ProPublica piece.)

Good work, everyone. Koch’s software is very important, and the fact he’s been maintaining it for so long, for so little reward, is an amazing achievement. Now, with a second developer, he can make it even better. Now let’s see the same support for more privacy-protecting tools:

Hands on with Microsoft’s new Outlook for iOS

Microsoft quietly released Outlook for Mobile this week. It was a little weird as there were no leaks or even a hint at last week’s Window’s event. While I haven’t been overly happy with Outlook on my Mac, I like it on Windows. Exchange and Outlook are so deeply rooted in enterprise IT it’s almost impossible to segregate yourself from that platform. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this product.

So far, I’m very happy with it and it has become my mail client of choice. Since it’s available for both iOS and Android, for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call it Outlook for Mobile in this article to differentiate from Outlook for a desktop OS.

The problems with

The default Mail app on iOS does the bare minimum in terms of email handling. Sure, I can send and receive emails, but has always been more of triage tool and a quick way to reply to emails as opposed to a good way to process them. For starters, how it handles attachments is abysmal. It shocks me to think of how far we’ve come in some ways with iOS with new features like extensions, but how far we still have to go. still won’t allow you to attach a file from a cloud storage service to an email.

This next complaint isn’t really directed at the Mail app, but an entire career that’s revolved around Outlook has trained me that when I’m looking through my work email, that the email client is also where I’ll get information about my calendar. There have been countless times I’ve been in answering work emails and looked for a calendar icon to check my schedule. Again, this is more muscle memory, but it’s something I’ve missed.

Outlook to the rescue

There are many things I love about the new Microsoft. Even the freemium versions of Office have been great. With basic editing free, I no longer feel like Microsoft is beating me up for my lunch money. This trend continues with Outlook as it doesn’t even seem to care if you have an Office 365 account.

Outlook for Mobile will connect to most major email providers. Currently, it will not connect to a custom IMAP provider. This is not a big deal for me as all my personal domain email is on Google Apps anyway. I’m also forwarding all of them to one Gmail address anyway – it was just easier to have one set place to check all my mail. Outlook for Mobile also has a Focused Inbox. This is similar to the Primary view in Gmail. It cuts out a lot of garbage I get in my email, especially the stuff that ends up in Social and Promotions. Generally speaking, the emails in the Focused Inbox are emails I want to read.

A huge part of the email experience is sending attachments. I’ll often get an email from someone requesting a file. With, I’d have to go dig out the file and try to an email it from the service’s app. If I’m on my desktop, it’s not a problem. Outlook for Mobile will let you simply reply to the email and select an attachment from either Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive. You can also save attachments to these services, too.

This is such a huge game changer on iOS. I can’t believe Apple still doesn’t support email attachments very well. I can only hope iOS 9 will include this very basic feature.


Outlook for Mobile’s Calendering

There is also a button to view your calendar within Outlook for Mobile. As you’d expect this brings up the calendars for all connected accounts. While you can create accounts, I noticed connected to my work email account it could not bring up the Free\Busy status for attendees. I think this is intentional since there is an option to email people to see when they are available. This is a feature I’d like to see added.

The calendar views are also limited. I can view a list of upcoming appointments, a day’s worth, or if I rotate my phone the next three days. On the iPad, I can see a full week, but it’s a full week in advance; not the current week. For example if I look at it on a Friday it will show appointments until the next Friday. On either device, I cannot get a month view.


Final thoughts

Outlook for Mobile looks fantastic. The fonts are nice and clean and look amazing. I love I can finally reply to a message and attach a file without needing to jump between apps. My complaints so far are limited to the calendar, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s not like there aren’t other ways to view my calendar on my devices.

Overall, this is an extremely impressive initial release from Microsoft.

Amazon launches new email service called WorkMail

Amazon is once again adding to its business-suite arsenal, this time with the announcement of WorkMail, the company’s new email and calendar service, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

The Seattle giant obviously faces some stiff competition in the email business with cloud rivals [company]Microsoft[/company] and [company]Google[/company] already controlling a significant portion of the market, but [company]Amazon[/company] believes that customers “feel those solutions are expensive and complex” and it’s betting its service is easier to use, an Amazon Web Services executive told the Journal.

Customers will be able to still use the same email applications as before like Microsoft Outlook so the look of the product won’t be different from what they are used to. Under the covers, however, will be Amazon technology that takes over the duties of sending and retrieving email.

And since email encryption is all the rage these days, Amazon also said that its new service supports encryption and the ability to store emails in specific geographic regions. As for pricing, it will cost companies $4 a month per each user inbox.

For all of you who thought that email is dead, Amazon’s news proves that many companies still see email as a big business and a way to maintain foothold inside an organization; as Barb Darrow reported, Google, [company]IBM[/company], Microsoft and Dropbox all recently launched corporate email products.

Of course, there’s also new work-collaboration tools coming out from startups like Slack and even Facebook with its Facebook at Work product line; these services emphasize chat or the type of news feeds one might see on social networks as a way to keep people working together.

Amazon’s Zocalo document sharing and collaboration tool seems aligned with these endeavors, and now that Amazon has WorkMail, it would make sense for Amazon to one day make it so that the two services were somehow integrated together.

Update – 4:08 PM PST
And it looks like WorkMail is integrated with Zocalo, according to the AWS announcement, which states that WorkMail users can collaborate on documents using Zocalo, all inside the WorkMail environment.

Gigaom Research’s Janakiram MSV chimed in about the new service too and what it means for Microsoft:

[blockquote person=”Janakiram MSV” attribution=”Janakiram MSV”]Amazon WorkSpaces users already get access to Amazon Zocalo for no additional charge. With AWS Directory Services providing LDAP based authentication, customers will get single-sign-on (SSO) across their desktops, document management tool, and email. Any medium sized organisation can pretty much run their core back office on the cloud by signing up for these four services without ever investing in servers or software licenses. This is a big blow to Microsoft which sells multi-million dollar annuity licenses of Exchange server to enterprise customers. Microsoft Exchange and Exchange Online are significant contributors to the server revenue at Microsoft.[/blockquote]