A few days ago Mary Jo Foley reported that Microsoft was testing an Outlook client for Windows RT. She also reported on some of the internal controversy around this move, and I wanted to add some analysis to this apparent situation.
I believe there are two Outlook clients for Windows RT floating around inside Microsoft. The first is the existing Outlook 2013 desktop client that, along with other parts of Office 2013 Pro, have been ported to ARM. That such a build exists should not come as a surprise as this is merely a matter of recompiling the existing applications and addressing any platform-specific dependencies or bugs. This was probably done for engineering cleanliness purposes many months ago, even if Microsoft had no intention of making the build available to customers.
I believe one of the debates that is going on inside of Microsoft is how, and if, they should release Office 2013 Professional, Enterprise, or Office 365 for Windows RT. This is a far more complicated question than most observers would give it credit for. It’s not that it is hard to do, it is that it may not meet customer expectations while creating a long-term support (and migration) headache. Just on the support front it commits Microsoft to up to a decade of support for what is likely an interim offering (more on that later). And it commits them to new releases of desktop Office for a while on Windows RT as well. It also raises questions about more generally opening the desktop on Windows RT, which is something that is counter-strategic.
But I think the bigger question mark is around customer satisfaction with the offering. Let’s focus on Outlook since that is where most of the user interest lies. Imagine this scenario: Surface GM Panos Panay is giving a briefing to a major pharmaceutical company’s CIO at Microsoft’s Executive Briefing Center (EBC) and hears that they would buy Surfaces for all 10,000 field reps if only they could run Outlook on it. Panos is on the shuttle back to his building and calls the Director of Program Management over in Office who is driving the Outlook on Windows RT decision. The Director runs over to the EBC to have coffee with the CIO staff member driving the Surface investigation to understand their requirement. This might be the case he uses to convince Kurt Delbene they should go ahead and release the port! Unfortunately he returns to his office dejected as the ported Outlook 2013 won’t work for this customer. They need it to support the “Siebel Desktop for Microsoft Outlook”, and that uses an extensibility model that they can’t expose on Windows RT.
In fact, every major CRM package integrates with Microsoft Outlook using the same mechanisms as Siebel used. You see, Outlook was never intended to be simply a mail client or PIM, it was intended to be an application platform. And while CRM is perhaps the most obvious case of where Microsoft succeeded in that regard, many enterprises use other third-party or home-grown apps built on the Outlook platform. So while bringing Outlook 2013 to Windows RT would certainly bring a first class email app to the platform, it actually wouldn’t meet the needs of the customers who would really pay for it and justify the long-term downside to the approach.
Meanwhile Microsoft is working on Metro/Windows Store/Modern versions of many of the Office apps, and I believe they are trying to ship those within the next year. This brings up two conflicts. The first is, if Outlook 2013 is simply a better Mail/PIM than the built-in Windows apps and not the app platform it is on X86, and if “Outlook RT” will be available within a year, how could the short-term gain be worth the long-term pain? Shipping both makes little sense if the time frame is really that short.
The second is a topic that Mary Jo explored, which is the relationship between Office RT and the built-in Windows Mail, People, and Calendar apps. I am sure that the Windows (Live) team is actively working to bring the built-in apps up to a more usable standard. But in this case, how much of a difference will there be between them and Office RT? In the old days when we had Outlook and Outlook Express there were significant differences. Outlook supported Exchange, Outlook Express didn’t. Outlook had full calendaring, Outlook Express didn’t. Outlook Express supported Hotmail, Outlook didn’t without a kludgy add-in. Etc. But over the years, particularly with Hotmail’s adoption of the EAS protocol, the justification for two email clients has diminished. So how will Microsoft differentiate a major upgrade to the built-in Windows Mail/People/Calendar and Outlook RT? They might not be able to. And thus they are probably debating if Outlook RT should just replace the built-in apps.
A year from now the mail client situation on Windows RT will look very different from today. Hopefully we’ll have only one client with the richness (if not extensibility) of Outlook. One that is a full Windows Store app.