It claims to be an app called “Mail for Windows 10.” Microsoft promises it to be the touch-sensitive, yet feature-packed, mail functionality that it failed to provide in Windows 8.
Yet when the new Mail app pops on-screen for the first time, it shows a familiar looking portfolio logo with an “O” on it. Its default email account, even if it’s hosted on a non-Microsoft server, is called “Outlook.” And its background picture, when the preview pane is empty, is an Outlook icon over a clear, blue sky.
Just what is it that we’re looking at: a part of the free upgrade that Microsoft promises Windows 10 will be? Or a peek into a more full-featured package that users may yet be prompted to purchase?
Mail No Longer a Snail
With Build 10061 of the Technical Preview of Windows 10 and Windows 10 Professional this week, Microsoft began distributing vastly revised Mail and Calendar apps. The new Mail app borrows Outlook’s familiar three-pane display, with the center pane showing the titles and first lines of messages, the right pane reserved for previews and the left aisle reserved for switching between key functions.
These new apps, while markedly different from their Windows 8 predecessors, very closely resemble versions first shown to reporters last January 21, when Microsoft previewed Windows 10 for the first time at its Redmond, Wa. headquarters (see photo above).
During that January presentation, a Microsoft representative described the key features users asked for, when given notice that it would produce “Universal” Mail and Calendar apps for phones, tablets and PCs. One was a wide array of simple, recognizable gestures, which Microsoft calls “verbs.”
On a touchscreen, when you swipe the title of a message in the new Mail with a quick, leftward flick, it’s deleted — “delete” being the implied verb. Not moved to a recycle bin, but deleted. A single swipe to the right posts a flag on the message for future action.
that time, the spokesperson said software designers liked the basic concept of swiping left to get rid of things or right to elevate them.
But they didn’t want to stop with just those two. As Microsoft confirmed in a blog post late Wednesday afternoon, it has since added new gestures for moving messages between folders or marking them as read or unread.
From the new Mail’s left aisle, as with Outlook, the user can switch between Mail and Calendar with a single tap.
This addition resolves the key issue that Windows 8 users raised with its initial design: the fact that both functions consumed the entire screen, so they had to swipe between them manually.
Developers have also added features borrowed from Word, such as the ability to drop a table into a message and auto-format that table with colored borders and shading.
Color Coded Calendar
A Mail user can switch to Calendar by clicking on the Calendar icon in the left aisle. This brings up a much-improved display, with a miniature month card in the left pane, as well as the ability to display calendars from multiple sources.
This was another key user request that Microsoft representatives shared with reporters last January: Phone users deal with personal calendars, employee calendars managed by their employer, and business calendars representing their colleagues’ important events.
The new Calendar app color-codes events according to where they've been synced from, and designates those colors in a legend in the left pane. It does not carry over the color codes or tags given to events or appointments created by Office for Outlook. In other words,
if you used Outlook to flag an event purple to help you remember an anniversary, it won’t necessarily be purple after it’s synced through Exchange ActiveSync and appears in the Calendar app.
But there is a better chance that it will be synced properly — at least better than ActiveSync fared with the Windows 8 Calendar app, based on my experiences.
The new Calendar also does not distinguish between an “event” (a period of time with a name and description) and an “appointment” (in Outlook, a mutually agreed-upon date and time between users). This key omission implies there may yet be a “Universal” Outlook version that substitutes for the Mail and Calendar apps, once it’s installed in Windows 10.
And that might still be confusing, especially since the new Calendar app’s default calendar bears the unavoidably distinct name “Outlook.”
Judging from their appearances, the new Mail and Calendar could jointly be the “Outlook Preview” that was so obviously omitted from Microsoft’s “Outlook Universal Apps” release in February. At that time, Microsoft released previews for PowerPoint, Word and Excel, but dodged questions about whether Outlook fares in the mix. Arguably, if the default Mail and Calendar apps provide enough functionality, a separate Office-themed version of “Universal” Outlook might not be necessary.
You can’t avoid noticing that, in a design nod to Google, the new Mail and Calendar apps have “hamburger menus” — a triple-decker horizontal line sandwich in the upper left corner. The “Universal” previews of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint don’t have hamburgers... at least, not all the time. As this veteran beta tester has noted, for unexplained reasons, hamburger menus have on occasion appeared briefly while these apps are initializing, before disappearing.
Why It All Matters
How Windows 10 handles mail is extremely important, especially for commercial organizations whose main channel of communications with customers is email. The Mail app that originally shipped with Windows 8 was said to be so poor that Windows 8 users avoided it, and prospective Windows 8 PC customers avoided upgrading.
The quality of Windows’ default mail app was never a big issue until Microsoft made an effort to adapt the operating system to touchscreen devices. Mobile users needed a handy way to communicate while in motion. Meanwhile, Outlook was intended to be used on desktop PCs with mice and keyboards.
In an earlier age, the ubiquitous of Outlook along with the rest of Office on the PC meant that both marketing and IT personnel could guess what their customers were seeing when they received and opened their messages. When those messages tried to start a web browser, or link to a conferencing service, they knew what to expect.
If Microsoft insists on bifurcating its software channel with as many as five simultaneous mail products (Outlook 2016, Outlook “Universal” for Windows 10, Mail for Windows 10, Outlook.com, and Outlook Web App for Office 365), then customer support personnel will have that much harder a time instructing customers on how to use their email.
Windows 10’s latest changes come with just three months to go before the time AMD CEO Lisa Su accidentally blurted out as the operating system’s general release date.
This may mean Microsoft only has weeks to go before making final code commitments to Windows 10’s key features. And the bugs are still present: During my tests yesterday afternoon, whenever Mail or Calendar is running alongside any of the three “Universal” Office preview apps or alongside the now-standard “Project Spartan” web browser, the program that manages Win10’s new Start Menu crashes. Which means Start won’t start.
I’m guessing that’s a bug.