When Microsoft introduced the first version of Outlook for iOS and Android last January, it was a very, very late entrant to the mobile email and calendaring race. Instead of building something from scratch–as Microsoft is normally wont to do–the company had acquired a startup called Acompli and given it the ultimate stamp of approval by rebranding its apps as Outlook. It swam against the mobile-app tide–which currently favors unbundling features into discrete apps–by packing ambitious email, calendar, and cloud-storage features into one experience.
Nine months later, the company is sharing some stats about Outlook’s mobile progress. It has almost 30 million users on smartphones and tablets, who use the app for 1.2 billion sessions a month, each 22 seconds long on average. Stats on mobile email market share are tough to come by, but that represents a huge jump from Acompli, which had fewer than 200,000 users before it morphed into Outlook. The company has continued with the strategy it started with the Acompli acquisition by buying the Sunrise smart calendar app and Wunderlist task manager. Things are going well enough that Javier Soltero, cofounder and CEO of Acompli, is now VP of Outlook, responsible for the product’s incarnations on PCs and the web as well as mobile devices.
And now Microsoft is releasing updates to the iOS and Android versions of the app. They’re the first ones that the Sunrise team helped create, and even though Soltero says they include hundreds of changes, they’re not major upgrades by any conventional standard.
Instead of adding new features, the company put all its energy into polishing up what it already had. The new look isn’t radically different, but in multiple minor ways, it’s cleaner, crisper, and easier to navigate. In the inbox, for instance, messages with a calendar invite now sport an orange calendar so they’re easier to spot. As you swipe from day to day in the calendar, the little gizmo that you tap to get back to today rotates to indicate how far you’ve gone into the future or past. Even the icon you tap to get to the calendar features is now an Apple-esque calendar showing the current date.
Rather than releasing exactly the same app on iOS and Android, Microsoft gave the Android version of the app a refresh more thoroughly in tune with Google’s Material Design principles. Little portraits of your contacts now appear in circles in the inbox, for instance.
“My nonartistic way of describing it is, we injected a bunch of air into the app to make it feel more fluid,” Soltero says. “Consumers expect that.” He explains that the aim was to match the slickness of the best consumer apps from companies such as Facebook and Google: “These are companies that devote extraordinary manpower to sanding down every edge, paying attention to details that are often missed by a lot of people.”
Even though the Sunrise team chipped in on Outlook’s new calendar features, they don’t amount to popping Sunrise into the app in place of Outlook’s existing calendar functionality. Useful Sunrise features, such as the way it pulls in weather information, aren’t present. Soltero told me that Microsoft plans to continue to beef up Outlook’s calendar until it, like Sunrise, is about “all the richness of calendaring and all the things that make it more than just a collection of meetings.” At that point, “The Sunrise app will be sunsetted.” He figures the process may take another six months or so.
There are, however, no plans to perform a similar merger between Outlook and Wunderlist. “The task domain is really its own universe of functionality and innovation,” says Soltero, who calls the to-do app “an incredible complement to the core Outlook experience.”
Between the mobile startups that Microsoft acquired and its existing engineers, Soltero says he supervises thousands of people working on Outlook. After taking charge of the product, he pointed out to the team that iOS and Android both grew enormously successful, years before Outlook was available for them–a striking contrast with Windows PCs, where the app has defined the de facto corporate email experience since the 1990s. “Candidly, Microsoft people weren’t built to hear that,” he remembers. “There was a lot of silence.”
Now the team is working to reimagine Outlook for an era when email still matters, people do it on more gadgets than ever, and Microsoft faces plenty of competition, including the apps that Apple and Google build into their platforms. “We have no birthright on these devices,” he says. “We have to earn it.”