Microsoft’s Outlook to steal features from social networks

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Credit: Kevin C. Tofel/Gigaom

Microsoft is bridging the gap between email services and social networks.

The company announced yesterday that it plans to upgrade Outlook, the email service that surged in popularity when Microsoft released an upgraded iPhone client earlier this year, with features taken directly from sites like Facebook and Twitter. These features will probably be popular — but not for the reasons Microsoft thinks.

First among the new features is the addition of “@mentions.” These notify someone when they’re mentioned in an email thread, which is bound to save many a worker who stops paying attention to office-wide emails after the first couple of messages. (Let’s not pretend we’ve never ignored “important” company email conversations.)

People already do this in email threads. I’ve participated in long conversations with a half-dozen people in the past, and whenever we really wanted to address someone, we would stick the “@” symbol before that person’s name. Microsoft isn’t pioneering anything; it’s just assigning real functions to otherwise all-but-meaningless symbols.

More important is the “like.” Anyone who’s ever pressed the thumbs-up button on Facebook or the little star beneath someone’s tweets knows what this does. While the action is supposed to suggest approval — why else would it be called “liking” or “favoriting” something? — they’re used a little differently in professional settings.

This is true in other communications tools like Convo or Yammer or Asana. Sometimes these “likes,” “hearts,” or whatever the company wants to call them are used as intended. Often they’re used to save something for later, or just to indicate to someone that their message was received, even if it doesn’t warrant a response.

Both of these features solve common problems with email: It’s hard to get someone’s attention without sending them more messages, and it’s impossible to know if someone saw your message without them sending something in return. If your inbox is anything like mine, these two issues probably occur every single day.

There are some receiver-facing solutions to the first problem. Someone could choose to use an app like Mailbox, which can remind them about certain messages, or could use their smartphone’s virtual assistant to do the same thing. Outlook’s new “@mentions” give some of this control back to the person sending the message.

And I think the “like” will serve a happy middle ground between ignorance (has someone seen my email?”) and automatic read receipts, which are problematic. Nobody has to send another message. No-one has to wonder if their message was received. It’s just the right amount of effort to make everyone a little bit happier.

Microsoft says these features will debut in stages depending on whether someone is a “First Release member” or not, and on what device they are using. Mentions will debut first on the Web in mid-October, then on Outlook’s apps for Windows, OS X, Android, and iOS “in the first half of 2016,” while likes will debut “at a later date.”

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Caroline Black

Interesting and as you say, hopefully this will cut back on the messages that you don’t really need to send that can be the death of your in-box organization. Automatic read receipts have always felt mildly like stalking to me.

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