The release this week of Microsoft's first truly native Outlook app for Android and iOS has earned the company accolades and could be a sign its mobile strategy is finally getting on track.
"Microsoft is absolutely doing the right thing putting these important and popular applications on Android and iOS," said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. "An increasing number of users of these products already use multiple devices, and it is valuable for them to be able to move across platforms with the same tools."
The new app, released for iOS and in preview mode for Android, is technologically and stylistically different from Outlook.com, Microsoft's mobile front-end for its Web-based e-mail service. It's also very different from the Outlook Web App, with which users of Exchange and Office 365 access their business accounts.
It's not an original Microsoft product, having been acquired last December in the buyout of mobile developer Accompli. As such, it doesn't yet support all the features of Outlook for Windows. In a statement, Microsoft acknowledged that both versions of the app currently lack the full range of support for Exchange ActiveSync administrative tools, particularly the ability to remote-wipe an entire phone if it's lost or stolen (for now, it supports remote-wipe of e-mail accounts and their stored attachments).
But the software is drawing praise nonetheless, helping transform the perception of Microsoft as an also-ran in mobile technology.
The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern called the new Outlook's integration of mail and calendar functions "freedom." At Time.com, Dan Kedmey wrote, "Microsoft freed Outlook e-mail from the confines of the office PC." And over at The Verge, Vlad Savov called the iOS version of Outlook "my best pick for reading Gmail on an iPhone today."
"By the looks of it the best features are still there," wrote Derek Walter at Macworld.
In tests, we noticed the app may have difficulty connecting to some hosted Exchange accounts. And while it does sync calendar data from multiple accounts, including from Gmail, iCloud, and Yahoo, the new Outlook app omits some of the extra properties that Outlook 2013 attaches to events -- for example, color-coded categories and the distinction between an appointment (pertaining to one person) and a meeting (involving several).
Yet as one hopeful user noted in Microsoft's Office Blog, "Hey, it's a preview." If you were to gather all the public reaction into a single room and listen to it all at once, it might just sound like applause.
Reticle Research principal analyst Ross Rubin noted that the new Outlook would be far from Microsoft's first successful cross-platform app, noting the success of Skype and the recent Office apps for iOS and Android. This latest release, if it follows in their wake, could bring in some revenue that Microsoft missed out on by not releasing Windows Phone sooner.
"While [CEO] Satya Nadella emphasized at the Windows 10 event that Microsoft devices will continue to be the targets for the best experience for its services, he's intent on making those cloud-based services available on other platforms. And client apps are the gateways to those services," said Rubin.
Hilwa believes that Office's growing strength will give Microsoft more bargaining power as it negotiates with Google and Apple for resources and support. You can imagine a meeting today, he said, where Microsoft advises Apple to increase its support for iTunes in Windows if it wants to see support for Skype, Minecraft, or Office in iOS.
"Microsoft building Office into a cross-platform brand, that customers demand, is in the same vein as building out other popular consumer assets like Xbox, Skype, and Minecraft," Hilwa said.
Microsoft's broader goal is helping customers be more productive, no matter their location or device, a Microsoft spokeswoman said.
"Thursday's announcement is a good example of how Microsoft is doing [this] on an up-to-date basis via the cloud, along with expanding the way people can access their Office apps on their PC, Mac, tablets, and phone," she said.
She essentially agreed with Rubin's point that multiple client apps give users more choices, though they all lead to the same services.
It's difficult to deny that, with a relatively small investment of cash, Microsoft has taken one of its oldest and most tarnished brands and, in less than two months' time, converted it into one of its strongest mobile assets.