Microsoft is talking a big game in EMM, but they need better mobile email apps

Microsoft has a lot cooking when it comes to its enterprise mobility management products. For evidence, head over to Brad Anderson's summer-long blog series.

Microsoft has a lot cooking when it comes to its enterprise mobility management products. For evidence, head over to Brad Anderson’s summer-long blog series. There’s a lot to digest there—most of which I’ll leave for another time. For today I want to take a look at Microsoft’s approach to one critical component of EMM: mobile email clients.

There are a lot of strong opinions out there about using a third-party email apps as alternatives the ones that are built into iOS and Android, but I’m going to pre-empt any arguments right now: Today there are plenty of use cases for both approaches; they will continue to exist even as the enterprise capabilities in iOS and Android evolve; and therefore email apps are an important part of any major EMM product.

Now that we have that out of the way, what’s the Microsoft answer to this? It’s unclear. Currently, all they have are the OWA apps for iOS and for Android. They've talked about upcoming Intune features like mobile app management on Office 365 integration, but not about the future of the email apps. Really all we know for sure is that Brad Anderson has said things like “I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a CIO who’s using one of these apps tell me how much they wish their devices were running Outlook.” I’ve always thought this could be a big deal for Microsoft, but regardless if they want to be competitive in the EMM space, they need better mobile email apps.

The current OWA apps have been around over a year, and they only work with Office 365. It’s a bit confusing that they’re called OWA, since they’re distributed as native apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play, but it makes sense when you look at them and realize that apparently all they are is the HTML5 OWA client packaged into native iOS and Android shells. (Though Microsoft has never explicitly called these hybrid apps or mentioned HTML5.)

Anyway, what this means that the apps look exactly the same for both iOS and Android. Here are screenshots from both. Pop quiz: which one is which?

In one of his blog posts, Brad Anderson notes that with the email apps provided by many EMM vendors, the experience is inconsistent on different operating systems, and that users want a consistent experience.

On the other hand, when most people talk about having consistent experience with third-party email apps, they talk about wanting apps that as close to the experience of the native platform as possible—apps that use the same UI elements, perform well, use the same gestures, etc.

So these current OWA apps, as illustrated by the screenshots above, are “consistent” in the wrong way. If you’re used to the iOS interface or the Android interface and then you’re suddenly plunged into into Microsoft Modern UI interface OWA, it’s super disorienting! Think of an average corporate user that has Windows 7 on their laptop, the desktop versions of Office and Outlook, and either the native email app or one of the major 3rd-party enterprise clients (most of which take their design cues from the host mobile OS) on their phone. How well do you think these OWA apps would go over?

Of course the UI is exactly the same for both versions of the app because it’s a hybrid app. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of hybrid apps for certain use cases, but email is a very special, important case that calls for a rock-solid app built on native code. In that light, the hybrid OWA apps seem like a stopgap effort.

What I’m really hoping is now that Microsoft has released Office for iOS and spent all summer talking about Intune, the Enterprise Mobility Suite, and how they’re a “mobile first” company now, that they’ll also release a better set of mobile email clients.

It’d be good if these apps did a better job of respecting the UI conventions of the OSes on which they run. That’ll be a lot easier (or really just happen inherently) if they’re built on fully native code. They should also work with any Exchange ActiveSync-based email server. Beyond that, there are lots of other ways Microsoft could make the apps “consistent.” They could still have an appropriate level of branding, but the best way to make them “consistent” is just by making them top-notch email clients with no compromises. The other Office for iOS apps seem to be well-received, so we know they know how to build good apps if they want to.

(By the way, does this whole thing remind anybody else of going from Entourage to Outlook 2011 for Mac?)

At the end of the day, I’m not faulting Microsoft for having the stopgap OWA mobile apps. But I am saying that email clients are an important part any EMM product, since Microsoft is talking big about EMM right now, they’re putting their efforts up for scrutiny. If they do things right and release some high quality email apps built on native code—something that could can truly be called Outlook—then this could be a big deal.

Final note: One of the upcoming but not-yet-published posts in Brad Anderson’s blog is called “Secure E-mail.” We could have our answer soon!

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