Being an Office for Mac 2011 user is sometimes hard. Really hard. And not just because Office for Mac 2011 is so far behind its Windows counterpart in terms of functionality, it’s also because its applications like Outlook for Mac 2011 looks so outdated and horrible. In the case of Outlook, it might be on a par with the Outlook 98 design. Thankfully, I only have to deal with the horror when my wife has a problem with Outlook for Mac, which is approximately every two days. I get lots of practice at sorting out Outlook for Mac problems.
So I was pretty happy to learn of the October 31 announcement that Microsoft will ship a new version of Office for Mac in the second half of 2015 with a beta version available to the public in the first half of 2015. The way things are lining up, it seems like Microsoft is finally synchronizing Office for the Mac and Windows platforms in the Wave 16 releases, which would be a good thing.
The same announcement contained the news that a new version of Outlook for Mac is available, but only for Office 365 customers. Still, that’s not too bad because I have an Office 365 tenant domain and my wife’s mailbox is in the cloud, so off I went to examine the details of the new software. Interestingly, although Microsoft is providing the software to Office 365 customers, there’s nothing to stop you connecting it to an on-premises server. Or if you really must, you can use IMAP4 to connect to other popular email services such as Gmail.
Obviously, Outlook for Mac will always be different to Outlook for Windows. There’s the slight matter of protocols for a start, where the Mac software uses Exchange Web Services (EWS) while Windows continues to use MAPI, albeit the new-improved-and-all-round-better MAPI over HTTP in the newest iteration.
EWS is great, especially in the hands of a real expert such as MVP Glen Scales, whose blog is replete with examples of how EWS can be used to examine, extract, and manipulate mailbox contents. But a nagging doubt always exists in my mind that EWS must surely lag MAPI in some respects. After all, MAPI has been around for so long that EWS must still miss some MAPI features that it has to implement. Or so the urban myth goes.
Leaving protocols aside, the good news is that the new Outlook for Mac looks much better than the 2011 version. I don’t think it is a case of applying a better type of lipstick on a pig (a difficult task if you contemplate what actually has to be done to make the lipstick stick on the pig). It’s actually a better look and feel that is ascetically pleasing. At least it is to me.
I’m less enthused by the list of updated functionality. The highlights as published in Microsoft’s blog post (together with some commentary from me) are:
Better performance and reliability as a result of a new threading model and database improvements. Sounds good. And as Paul Robichaux describes in his WindowsITPro.com article about Outlook for Mac, the improvement is noticeable.
A new modern user interface with improved scrolling and agility when switching between Ribbon tabs. Good. Welcome. Great.
Online archive support for searching Exchange (online or on-premises) archived mail. At last some support for archive mailboxes appear five years after their introduction in Exchange 2010… but to be fair to the developers, EWS support for archive mailboxes was needed first. And BTW, the support is not only for searches as mentioned in much of the press coverage – it really means access to archive mailboxes from Outlook for Mac for the first time, albeit with the bizarre caveat that you cannot drag and drop folders from your primary mailbox to the archive. Paul also notes that the archive mailbox has to be on the same platform as the primary, which seems like a pity as many hybrid scenarios are ruled out.
Master Category List support and enhancements delivering access to category lists (name and color) and sync between Mac, Windows and OWA clients. Which is what you’d expect – but seriously, it’s amazing how the small points in user interface design are so important.
Office 365 push email support for real-time email delivery. I thought that Outlook for Mac 2011 had real-time delivery but then found that it really wasn’t. I assume Outlook is now using the same notification mechanism that pushes email to OWA for Devices clients but maybe not!
Faster first-run and email download experience with improved Exchange Web Services syncing. Sounds good and appears to be accurate.
Although undoubted improvements are in the list it’s a poor set to put before faithful Outlook for Mac users who have waited so long for a new version. And it’s still not feature-comparable with Outlook for Windows. Where is the support for site mailboxes (possibly of little interest to most, but supported in Outlook 2013) for instance? Or MailTips? Or DLP policy prompts? Or retention policy details? Or the slider to allow control over how much offline data is cached on the Mac? Or PSTs?
Hmmm… there are many Outlook for Windows features that have been around for quite a while and the developers should know about. In particular, it’s hard to know why the useful policy tips have been excluded. On the plus side, it’s good that Outlook for Mac now supports the write-once use-on-many platforms model for Outlook apps.
My summary is that the new version of Outlook for Mac boasts a pleasing interface that is a lot better than its predecessor without delivering the functionality that would allow it to stand beside its Windows cousin. That being said, a lot of time will elapse between now and the second half of 2015 so there’s hope that the final version of Outlook included in Office for Mac 2016 will be better.
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