Are the Windows 8 Mail and Calendar apps good enough for Windows RT

Are the Windows 8 Mail and Calendar apps good enough for Windows RT

Summary: Here's a question for you about Windows RT and Surface -- if Outlook is so good, why are the built-in groupware apps so bad?

TOPICS: Tablets

Despite the fact that iPads sell so well, it's often difficult to get a handle on what they're actually used for. In business, the two most common uses are "groupware" (in this context, email, calendar, and contacts) and web browsing.

In this article, I wanted to look at the Mail, Calendar, and People apps in Windows 8 and Windows RT. Specifically I wanted to look at them in Windows RT as on Windows 8 you can always install Outlook.

Talking about Outlook, that's rather good. It's fully-featured, and capable. It also offers a good user experience. Many people spend their entire computing lives within Outlook.

Outlook is one of Microsoft's most important apps. Why then is it missing from the lineup of Office apps that gets bundled with Windows RT, only to be replaced by a mishmash of half-baked apps that do a tiny percentage of what Outlook can do?


The version of Office you get with Windows RT is "Office Home and Student 2013 RT". You might think there's a clue in the name -- "Home and Student". You're not supposed to use Office RT out-of-the-box for commercial endeavours. Why would a suite of apps designed for putting together fliers for bake sales and writing letters to your local government representative (just two examples of "home-y" stuff) contain a tool like Outlook which is all about enslickening your commercial communications?

I think this is a red herring. Most businesses will naturally end up licensing Office RT for commercial use, most likely without having to do anything special. Use that same tablet in business and you won't be using Word to design fliers for a bake sales, you'll be using it to write that killer report that'll wow your boss and make your career. It's not "Home and Student" in that mode. It's "Killer, Most Winningest, Good At Their Job Professional Edition".

There are two theories why Outlook isn't included in Office RT. The easiest one to plump for is the "it's not for business" argument sketched out above. Another is that Outlook may have been too difficult to port. I think it's the latter.

If you've ever had a multiple gigabyte Outlook store on your local machine, you'll have experienced the joy of going to a machine that one day is nice and fast, and the next feels like the processor has been replaced with a mid-80s-era 8086 chip. Outlook is a tremendous resource hog. Whereas slapping around the disk and processor when you have an x86 machine on mains power is something you can live with, on an ARM machine you're likely to go from a battery life of many hours to a handful of minutes.

Thus the theory runs that Office was just too difficult to optimise for ARM. However, optimising Word to run on ARM was doable. Hence why you have Word and not Outlook.

None of this really explains why what you get to replace it -- the Mail, Calendar, and People apps -- are so rubbish. OneNote MX -- the Windows Store app version of OneNote is actually really good. It looks like they, you know, actually put some effort in.


A very common deployment vector for iPads now is giving them to C-level execs instead of a proper computer. Those executives are then likely to spend their whole lives inside of the iPad's Mail app. My concern would be was that if you were to try that with a Windows RT device you'd get fired. If you got fired by email, the exec would have asked someone to send them email for them rather than face the indignity of using Windows RT's built-in Mail app. Your replacement would then given them an iPad and became his or her new BFF.

Looking at the Mail app first, it presents a disappointing user experience. It's slow, feature-poor, and presents little more than a whitewashed screen with a few pieces of information to prod at. It looks and feels like it was hacked together by a gaggle of drunk interns who were given an unimportant project to burn their time on. I'd argue that this app is the most important app on Windows RT but looks and behaves like it's received the least attention. The Mail app and IE are where people are going to be spending the majority of their time on Windows RT.

Speaking as a software developer, the Mail app isn't inspirational. Maybe it is inspirational in the sense it'll inspire developers to do the polar opposite. They could build something that looked good, as fast and responsive, and had more than the baseline features you'd expect in a 1995-era free mail client, for example.


Imagine the scene. You were just about to return to your desk when a colleague stops you and shares with you some hilarious tale of derring-do. You laugh, you cry, you bond. Your life, and the life of your colleague is enriched. But you've forgotten to call that client with that quote! Without sending it through you won't hit your targets, you'll be fired, your spouse will run off with his or her tai-chi teacher. Destitute and alone, you wander the streets of your hometown ruing the day you forgot to call that client.

But it's OK! You use Outlook! Returning to your desk Outlook has helpfully popped up a reminder telling you about the call. All is fine -- Outlook has saved the day through the simple expedient of reminding you about things that you asked to be reminded about.

Good luck on that with the Windows RT Calendar app. In an insanely boneheaded move, the Calendar app uses "toast notification" for reminders. This is a little message that winds in from the top-right of the screen providing information -- in this case, reminding you about the call.

However on Windows RT, toast appears on the screen for a number of seconds and then disappears. So the reminder pops up -- you're in the hallway sharing a little bit of life with your colleague -- and the reminder disappears. When you return to your desk, you see nothing on the screen. In this universe, you miss the call, and you disappoint the colleague. Of course, also in this universe you likely have a mobile phone sync'd to the same calendar. All of those platforms -- including Windows Phone, it's not like Microsoft don't know how to do this -- will prompt you to dismiss the reminder.

Oh, and what else? You can't snooze reminders. Genius.


Apparently, we're also not doing tasks in Windows RT. They just left that out.

This kills me as I use it all the time. I use Siri to put in reminder (I say "use" -- my relationship with Siri is identical in virtual every way to that of Clouseau and Cato), and it syncs to all of my devices. This works fantastically well, except for if I'm using my Surface.

The People app

I don't even know what this does. I think it's a "contacts" app that slavers on a whole load of extra functionality I don't need.

Looking at the contacts on a fresh machine of mine, it seems to have decided that the 2000-odd people I follow on Twitter are my contacts. Um. No. That's the 2000-odd people I follow on Twitter. And why not mash all of my Skype contacts into that as well.

What I need is, for example, the ability to find a contact by company name. How useful would that be?! Revolutionary!


I do think there are a lot of really great things about Windows RT which we can now see exemplified through the Surface device, but the sluggish, feature-poor, and half-baked nature of the built-in groupware apps are going to do nothing to spur adoption of the platform. And it's not like these were done in a rush. First versions of these apps were available in working, usable form in March.

Microsoft seems to hold this crazy notion about Surface and Windows RT that people don't want to use them as their primary device. Their position is that these are "companion devices" designed to sit alongside a "proper" computer back at base.

This idea is both ludicrous and wrong. The iPad isn't a "proper computer", but it sure can replace one. People tend to think that "replacing" means "you no longer have a normal laptop/desktop", but the distinction is more subtle. Imagine someone watching TV with their spouse at the weekend. During an ad break they pick up their iPad and see a work email. They dip into work for that moment and "action" that email, as opposed to going and firing up their laptop. In that moment the iPad has replaced a laptop. It doesn't mean they don't have a laptop. People hear the phrase "iPad replacing laptop" and they baulk at the idea because they still need a laptop. Great, keep your laptop, but have another sort of post-PC device on the side that can take over some of the load from time-to-time. It's this that makes the iPad a great device. iPad works in this context because it doesn't make sending that work email like pulling teeth. Turn away from TV, type email, touch "send", turn back to TV. All done.

Unless Microsoft can slide Windows RT into this usage model and give up on this crazy idea that it's a "companion device", it doesn't have a chance. No one will buy Windows RT because they'll need Windows 8 to plug the gaps in Windows RT. Gaps, I might add, that have been intentionally engineered in through the tactics of not including Outlook in Office RT and doing a lousy job of the built-in apps.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Topic: Tablets

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • There are no good email or calendar apps for any device, anywhere anymore.

    The last good email application was Pegasus Mail. There are no good calendar apps, period.

    Since then, no email on the planet has ever been good. No online mail has ever matched or surpassed any of the old email clients. I live with them only because there's no more realistic choices.

    I have never met a calendar app that didn't duplicate or delete entries when syncing with other calendar apps. None of them work. All of them are equally horrible, especially if you're syncing PCs and iOS devices and even some legacy devices.
    • Pegasus

      I was also a big fan of Pegasus, but their advertising budget paled in comparison to that of MS.
  • With all due respect, Thunderbird by Mozilla is pretty good

    It does everything that I conceivably could want it to do as a home user.
    • Need a better way to filter email in real time

      Problem is, I need a better way to filter email in real time - something other than keeping a machine running 24/7 with an open IMAP connection.
      • perhaps depends on the backend?

        If your IMAP server can do server searches, then this task will likely run way way faster and not require you have all your mail stored locally.

        I personally find the iOS Mail app very convenient and often use it instead of my desktop mail client for various tasks. Of course, the OS X Mail app has some even neater features, EXCEPT it insists to store mail locally if you want to do any search.
    • But is it available to run under Windows RT?

      That is the catch!

      Frankly, I don't consider the Apple iPad mail client to be any better!

      Of course, if your enterprise is an MS Exchange shop, you can always use OWA (Outlook Web Access) to for Outlook features. Or you can use Remote Desktop to access your work computer.

      My employer is going Citrix for remote application access and soon, we will update that service to support the Windows RT Citrix receiver.

      The tools are coming.
      M Wagner
      • iPad is great for email

        I use my iPad exactly like Matt describes. It has become my primary "go to" device, which I go to first, for convenience's sake. And the, when I have exhausted all I can do in mobile mode, I go to my laptop (unless I need to edit video, in which case I go to my desktop).

        So the new rule of thumb seems to be that people want to stay light and mobile as long as they can. They will submit to being tethered to a bulkier machine only when they need to. (Or at least, that seems to be the rule of thumb for me.)

        I was going to buy a Surface RT today, as I love the idea of the form factor (portable slate with fold-over-and-go screen cover), but now I think I want the Samsung Ativ with an Atom processor, when it comes out later this week, so I can put my copy of Office 2010 on it (and tie it in with MS Exchange).

        If only MS had built the Surface with an Atom processor! Or if they had better email apps!
        • The Surface Pro will be available soon

          It won't have an Atom processor, only a Core i5. I'm not suggesting you don't buy the Samsung, only that there are going to be 2 versions of the Surface just like there are going to be 2 versions of the ATIV: one with ARM and one with x86 compatible.
  • Redefining English

    "People tend to think that 'replacing' means 'you no longer have a normal laptop/desktop', but the distinction is more subtle."

    Sounds to me that instead of using different words, you prefer to redefine them.

    Basically, you're heavily invested in creating confusion.

    Replace means replace, period. If that's not the right word, use a different one.
    • Well, that is the distinction isn't it?

      It is not that business people have REPLACING their Windows notebooks with the iPads. Instead the iPad has been acting as an auxiliary device. That is the trend Microsoft wishes to stop with the Surface RT. It seems pretty clear to me that the Surface RT was never meant for business. Instead, it is a consumer device and it is a more-than-capable "iPad Killer".

      The business worker who wants to REPLACE their Windows notebook computer needs to wait for the Surface 8 Pro (or buy one of the many Windows 8 ultrabooks coming onto the market).
      M Wagner
      • Dunno what's up, I think you missed my point.

        "Well, that is the distinction isn't it? "

        I think you missed my point.

        "It is not that business people have REPLACING their Windows notebooks with the iPads."

        In which case, you should agree with me that the word is being grossly misused.

        "Instead the iPad has been acting as an auxiliary device. "

        Hey look, he could have said it differently! There was no need to go to all the trouble of redefining the word.
  • Microsoft's interns

    Why is Microsoft depending on interns to develop critical software? Yeah, I understand proof of concept apps and apps that people won't depend on, but Mail? I'm of course assuming that it's built by interns, because it's terrible. What is Microsoft thinking? They want to compete with Apple, but release obviously inferior apps. I've had the mail app crash on me several times. I prefer Windows over anything else, but the honest truth is that Apple has been releasing far better software than the software giant. It's a sad time.
    General C#
    • beg to differ...

      Apple is a terrible software company. How's Maps in IOS? It's the bees knees right?
      • let it go

        So what...1 app with a problem. My Android has sent me off in the wrong direction too.
        Ed Shea
    • what if

      This is all Microsoft's programmers are capable of?

      They are apparently incapable to code Office in WinRT, so they bolted the entire win32 runtime (and "desktop mode") in order to have it on Windows RT. This is Microsoft's own software by their own programmers, to be written for their own WinRT platform, designed by their own software architects. Or not?

      Yet, they expect the rest of the world to be able to write quality software to run in WinRT?
  • Microsoft Hobbles Itself

    Conway's law states that any piece of software will reflect the organizational structure that produced it. Why does Microsoft make such big claims about its mobile efforts, while bringing out actual products that are, not to put too fine a point on it, mediocre and uncompetitive?

    The reason is that we are seeing the side-effects of an almighty battle for supremacy between factions within Microsoft itself. For too many years, the prime cash cows have been the lucrative desktop Windows and Office businesses; the company dimly recognizes that its needs to bring out more mobile-centric products to compete in the modern market, but the existing mighty desktop empire sees this as too much of a threat to its dominance. And since it brings in the lion's share of the cash to the company anyway, what it says goes. And so we continue to see these anemic mobile efforts.
  • Summary:

    If it doesn't work exactly like Outlook (and it doesn't), it's no good.
    • Not sure if you are being sarcastic

      but as a Surface RT owner, that is exactly how I feel. The built in mail and calendar apps are on par with iOS mail and calendar apps.

      I think the disappointment is that people were expecting Outlook. Comparing mail and calendar apps on iOS, Surface RT, and Android to Outlook just isn't fair, they all suck.
      • comparing

        So, you also own an iPad and you compared the Mail apps with Surface RT?

        Or perhaps not? :)
      • No way!

        Liar, liar pants of fire! The mail app doesn't hold a candle to the one of iOS! That one is solid, the RT mail app is ... I already ran out of nasty adjectives and similes... worse than bad. AND I own BOTH an ipad 1 and a Surface.