By now, it’s no longer news that Microsoft Office is available for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, in versions that are slick and surprisingly powerful, with basic features available for free and some advanced tools reserved for paying users of the Microsoft’s Office 365 service.
One major Office app has been conspicuously absent, though. That’s Outlook, the email and calendar program that’s just as fundamental a fact of life in the corporate world as Word and Excel are.
Today, Microsoft is announcing a version of Outlook for iOS and Android. (The Android version should be in Google Play when you read this, along with the final version of other Android Office apps that were available as previews starting in October; the iOS one is in the process of rolling its way into Apple’s App Store.) The new versions are based on Acompli, an app from a startup that Microsoft acquired.
It’s intriguing in itself that Microsoft chose to make new mobile versions of Office happen through an acquisition rather than trying to build them from scratch in Redmond. But what’s especially noteworthy is how rapidly it happened. The company only bought Acompli at the start of December 2014. Shipping Outlook for iOS and Android less than two months later is a refreshing contrast with the typical scenarios for cool startups which are swallowed up by great big companies, which often involve the acquisition moving more sluggishly rather than the acquirer quickening its pace.
I spoke with Javier Soltero, who was Acompli’s cofounder and CEO and is now general manager of Outlook. “Email remains an extraordinarily critical business tool,” he told me. “Even as we hear startups and other folks in the industry proclaim the death of email, the numbers tell a very different story.”
Soltero says that the goal with these new editions of Outlook was to please a wide range of email users–from “inbox-zero, skinny-jeans kinds of people to people who have 50,000 messages in their inbox, more than half of which are unread.” Rather than trying too hard to mimic Outlook in its venerable desktop form, the company focused on features tailored to mobile devices, including seamless searching of messages stored on the server and the ability to pull in information from other apps without doing too much hopping around. As with the other mobile version of Office, the goal is to make the free versions useful while also giving Office 365 customers some additional power tools.
Outlook is best known as a front end for Microsoft’s Exchange email server. And if your company uses Exchange, these new mobile versions are of particular interest, since other inventive mobile email apps such as Dropbox’s Mailbox and Google’s Inbox don’t support Exchange. But the apps aren’t aimed only at worker bees in Microsoft-centric shops: They also support Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and other email servers, and integrate with storage services such as Dropbox and Google Drive as well as Microsoft’s OneDrive.
In the 10 months since Microsoft shipped the first version of Office for iPad, the company has released multiple meaty updates, proving that these new versions for non-Microsoft operating systems are a priority, not a sideline. According to Soltero, Outlook will evolve at least as swiftly. “Microsoft was very captivated by the way Acompli and our team built products, at a pace that fits the mobile app delivery model,” he says. “That means every 10 days or so there are new updates to the app. And we’ve continued on that pace through the acquisition phase.”
I cheerfully acknowledge that I’m interested in this news for selfish reasons. We use Exchange for email at Fast Company, and I spend much of my time on an iPad. I’ve rigged up a not-entirely-satisfactory workflow involving forwarding messages to Gmail. If real Outlook works really well on iOS, it could render my kludge obsolete. Here’s hoping.