Once upon a time, the words ‘email’ and ‘Outlook’ were almost synonymous. If you wanted to send a business email, you used Outlook to end it. Like Windows itself, Outlook was so ubiquitous that it was impossible to imagine sending or receiving emails via any other means. Times change, though, and so does technology. Outlook, however, hasn’t really changed in the past decade.
While alternative options like Thunderbird and GMail have evolved with the times, Outlook has remained rigid, and as a result, it’s been looking dated for a long time. As a result, users have been slowly drifting away. When respected IT publications are publishing lists of reasons not to use your software, there’s something seriously wrong. It now appears that Microsoft has finally taken the hint, and the product is getting a much-needed overhaul.
There are apparently a number of new functions coming to Microsoft Outlook in its next version, including a simplification of the process required to schedule an email to be sent later on instead of being sent immediately. Surprisingly, though, the change that’s caught the attention of most internet users and most media commentators is a feature that’s been ‘borrowed’ (for want of a better word) directly from Google’s GMail platform; predictive messaging that cuts down on type-time by trying to guess what you’re about to say before you’ve said it. Gmail has offered the feature to its users as standard for around two years. Microsoft will begin offering it as of now.
If you’ve been using this functionality on your mobile phone for years, as most of us have, you probably won’t think this is a big deal. What Microsoft is proposing is a little more advanced, though. On the majority of phone handsets, the prediction of what your next word might be comes from a list of commonly connected words or common phrases. Microsoft’s software (and Google’s, for that matter) learns from the way that you talk and offers you sentences and phrases that you use regularly. While some people find this extremely creepy, others are grateful for the facility to complete what would have been a long sentence with just a single press of the tab button or the ‘right’ cursor key.
Aside from being impressive, the software is enormously complicated. Multiple word branch options for every possible word or phrase pairing have to be stored and accessed, and the complex mathematics that drives the process can be compared to the equally complex mathematics that are used to create symbol combinations on online slots websites like Roseslots.com. Hopefully, the word combinations that are generated by Microsoft’s new piece of kit will be a little less random than the reels of an online slots game, if a little less lucrative. They could do worse than to reach out to a few people who have experience of coding online slots for assistance, though. If anybody knows how to handle equations this challenging, it’s them.
It might come as a surprise to some people that ‘send later’ functionality in Outlook doesn’t already exist. In fact, some of you might be positive that you’ve used such a feature in Outlook before. You might be correct. The desktop version of Outlook comes with ‘send later’ functionality and has had the feature for years. For reasons best known to Microsoft, the web version of the program never has. This has long been a bone of contention for remote workers who log in to their email through a work-approved portal and cannot schedule emails for release at specific times of the day in the same way that they could if they were sat in front of their office computer. As of later this month – although we don’t have a precise date for the release of the new Outlook yet – this problem will be a thing of the past.
In another feature that ought to be seen as Microsoft catching up with the times as opposed to forging ahead, this new version of Outlook will also be able to pick up on times and dates in the body of your emails and suggest the booking of appointments or the setting of calendar reminders based on those times and dates. How welcome that will be for some users will depend on how much you enjoy those features on your current phone handset or email client now. While the ability to auto-set reminders can be helpful, no developer has yet created a software client capable of consistently distinguishing what should or shouldn’t be offered as a diary reminder, and the resultant pop-ups can often be as irritating as they are useless. Perhaps Microsoft has found a way to encode the feature without it becoming a nuisance.
Emails appear to have been a particular focus for Microsoft in recent weeks. The news of these new features comes hot on the tail of the news that accidental mass ‘reply to all’ email threads might soon become a thing of the past for Outlook users. Many of us have known the pain of accidentally hitting ‘reply to all’ when we only meant to respond to one person. All of us know the irritation of being trapped inside an email thread where two or three people are speaking only to each other, but multiple people are included in every response. The company’s new ‘Storm Protection’ feature will put a stop to this by removing the option to ‘reply to all’ after ten clicks, or when five thousand emails have been set – whichever occurs sooner. It won’t totally eliminate the problem – and it certainly won’t prevent you from accidentally replying to everyone in the first place – but it’s a step in the right direction.
Outlook’s new features sound like a sensible step in the right direction for Microsoft and its aging flagship email product. The platform is stronger for them, and yet it still looks basic overall. Microsoft used to be a leader when it came to innovation, but these latest changes only provide their users with the same raft of functions that Gmail users first started using years ago. Nobody knows what the future of email looks like – that’s for the best creative minds at Microsoft, Google, and elsewhere to think about – but if the company wants to protect its market share, it’ll be hoping to take those next steps into the future before its rivals do. As one of the biggest tech and computing firms in the world, they can’t afford to fall behind again.