Microsoft is suddenly a powerful presence on my phone. Yes, you read that right. This is the same Microsoft that spent almost a half-decade trying to offer a credible alternative to Apple’s iPhone and mobile devices running Google’s Android. And it’s the same Microsoft that paid more than $7 billion to buy Nokia’s once-mighty handset business, only to see its mobile business sink further. The company now clings precariously to a 3% share of new smartphone sales.
Make no mistake, Microsoft still wants its mobile operating system, Windows, to be the software in our smartphones. But mobile developers continue to focus on making apps for Apple or Android devices instead, making Windows phones an increasingly hard sell.
That reality has finally sunk in at Microsoft, and a new strategy is afoot. When Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, took the top job at the company about a year ago, he signaled that the company’s priorities were shifting. Microsoft, he said, was in a “mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Since then, the company has brought more of its apps and services to the Apple and Android devices people actually use, rather than the ones Microsoft would like them to use—those that run Windows.
What’s even more surprising is that Microsoft’s heart seems to be in the effort. Over the last several months, Microsoft has been taking up more and more space on my own iPhone’s home screen. I’ve installed mobile versions of its Office apps as well as OneDrive, the company’s answer to Dropbox, Google Drive and other cloud storage services.
For the last couple of weeks, I have also relied heavily on Microsoft’s latest mobile creation, Outlook for the iPhone. (It’s available on Android, too; both versions are free for personal use.) Outlook is an email and calendar app that bears a resemblance to the PC version of the software, but mostly just in name. Instead of trying to jam all the features of the PC version into the app, Outlook is thoughtfully tailored for how people use email on smartphones.
The new Outlook is not Microsoft’s work, exactly. The app is mostly a rebranding of Acompli, an existing app made by a start-up that Microsoft acquired in December for $200 million. But there is no shame in using acquisitions to inject new talent and technology into a company. Facebook, Google and Amazon all employ a similar strategy.
The fact that Microsoft released the new Outlook in late January, when the ink was barely dry on its Acompli deal, is a clear sign of how quickly the company feels it needs to move in the mobile business. Last week, the company bought the maker of Sunrise, a popular mobile calendar app, suggesting that Microsoft has no plans to let up on its deal-making.
Until it released its new mail app, Microsoft offered OWA for iPhone and Android. The name stands for Outlook Web Access, and as the name suggests, the app was essentially a shortcut to a web page and lacked the performance and richness of a native mobile app. The new Outlook is everything its predecessor was not—snappy and, for people who are heavy email users on mobile, a genuine improvement on the standard Apple email app that comes on every iPhone. Outlook’s answer is to use software algorithms to automatically divide emails into two queues: Focused and Other. Put simply, Focused is supposed to give me the messages I’ll want to look at in those 24-second glances, while Other is stuff I might want to look at later or not at all.
Microsoft is hardly the first to sort like this. Google’s Gmail app for iPhone, for instance, has an email queue known as priority inbox for messages it determines you’ll want to see. Both Google and Microsoft have similar tricks for ranking important emails. They look at who you’ve emailed in the past, whose messages you open and who you bother replying to. The problem with this kind of intelligent email sorting is that it’s
often hard for users to trust. No one wants to miss a crucial email from a boss. And if the sorting isn’t reliable, many users will simply look at two inboxes instead of one. That said, I like how Outlook sorts emails and prefer its approach over the Gmail app.
There are excellent free productivity apps on mobile and PCs from Google, Apple and others, and the prospect of those apps chipping away at its Office business is terrifying for Microsoft. But Microsoft has sweetened its Office 365 deal by including unlimited online storage through OneDrive, its cloud storage service.
That’s not a misprint. You can create an online copy of all of your pictures, videos, music and other files in the cloud, with no limits.
The other day, my daughter put together a birthday tribute to her mother in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. She composed it on a Mac, which automatically backed it up to OneDrive. We went to a restaurant, my daughter opened PowerPoint on my iPhone 6 Plus and did the presentation right there at our table.
My wife was in tears — and it would have not have been possible using Microsoft products a little over a year ago.