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?

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?

Office

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.

C-level

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.

Calendar

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.

Tasks

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!

Conclusion

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

Topics: Tablets

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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