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The evolution of email

Steve Chew is a senior product marketing manager in the Exchange group.

Earlier this month at SharePoint Conference 2014 we shared our vision for what it means to work like a network and how we’re developing new enterprise social features in Office 365 to help deliver on this vision. At this week’s Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin, we explained in more detail what this all means for email – a workplace tool that has become both ubiquitous and indispensable.

There is no denying that businesses depend on email more than any other digital communication medium. The downside of email’s popularity is that people receive so much of it that they often experience inbox overload and email fatigue. Email is also a highly versatile tool, so it gets used in situations where it is not the optimal one, like when people collaborate on a document by emailing multiple—and often conflicting–versions around. Lastly, email makes it easy for people to have private conversations, but these conversations don’t provide visibility to people outside of the recipients who could benefit or contribute.

That’s why at this week’s MEC we’re previewing features that will help redefine the email experience as we know it today, making it more social, relevant, and collaborative. We are introducing three features that are coming to Outlook Web App in Office 365 later this year: “Clutter,” enhanced document collaboration, and groups.

“Clutter”

People need a simple – but accurate – way to manage the high volume of email messages they receive. There should be a way to separate out unimportant items from important ones without having to set up and manage large numbers of inbox rules… which can get complicated very quickly.

This is the core goal of “clutter,” the codename for a new feature in Outlook Web App in Office 365.  At its heart, it intends to remove as much unimportant mail, or clutter, from a user’s inbox as possible so that a user’s inbox can, well, become their inbox again. At a high level, clutter is pretty simple.  We know that in most businesses, people spend a great deal of time just trying to keep up with the volume of email coming into their inboxes throughout the day. How they manage that email can then serve as a blueprint for what is important to them.

For example, if you completely ignored Juan’s email about his recent vacation pictures, that message was likely unimportant to you – i.e., clutter.  On the other hand, if you both read and responded to Cathy’s email about her new budget proposal, that message was likely important to you – i.e., not clutter.

That is exactly how clutter works. Leveraging the intelligence of the Office Graph, clutter looks for how “importantly” or “unimportantly” you treat email messages and looks for patterns behind those behaviors.  For example, do you tend to reply to email from your boss?  Do you tend to ignore email sent to the Biking Enthusiasts group at your work?  Then, once it understands those patterns, it can look for them as new email arrives and help you by separating out the clutter from the rest of the items delivered to your inbox.

Most importantly, it is 100 percent personalized to you.  Clutter learns how you handle your email and doesn’t try to use the same model for you that it does for Leo in Accounting (unless of course you are Leo).

To be clear, we refer to this work as codename “clutter” as it is still a work in progress.  That means when it ships, it may not look exactly as it does today. That said, let’s take a closer look at clutter.

Below is a sample user mailbox without the feature enabled.  The user has his normal mix of both important items and unimportant items in his inbox.

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Now, if the user turns on clutter, all of the unimportant items are automatically removed from his inbox, and he has a much shorter list of items to manage.

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These unimportant items now live in a special view that can be accessed from the “CLUTTER” footer at the bottom of his inbox.  This allows him to quickly skim all of the items marked as clutter and see if there is anything of interest.  If so, he can easily right-click on an item, mark it as “Not Clutter,” and the item is returned to his inbox.  The system will also recognize that it made a mistake, and will use this signal to adjust the model accordingly.

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Once the user has finished skimming his clutter view, he also has the option of deleting all the items in the view.  This can be done by clicking on the “Delete All” link at the top of the view.  This will delete all the clutter items and immediately return the user to his de-cluttered inbox.

The user can check his “clutter” view as frequently or infrequently as he likes.  The key here is that thanks to clutter enabled, his inbox only contains the email messages that matter to him.  This allows him to focus on what’s important and get his work done in an efficient way.

Enhanced Document Collaboration

Another common frustration with email today is dealing with attachments. Maybe you’ve asked for feedback on a document only to have to manually merge back changes from all the recipients. Maybe you need the context from someone’s email to help inform the review of the document they included, and have to keep toggling back and forth. Even if you’re leveraging the cloud for storage and collaboration, sending links to files can be tedious. Outlook Web App simplifies all of these tasks with improved document collaboration features that will be coming to Office 365 customers later this year.

Outlook Web App now includes full integration with OneDrive for Business, allowing you to easily share files stored in the cloud as attachments in your email. There are two ways you can share a file with Outlook Web App and OneDrive for Business:

  • When you send an attachment from your computer or device you can now automatically upload the file to your OneDrive cloud drive and send it as a link.
  • You can also easily attach a file directly from your OneDrive cloud drive when sending an email in Outlook Web App.

When you send these links in Outlook Web App, permissions on the document are set automatically. Any recipient on the To: and CC: lines will be able to view and edit the file by default. No manual configuration is needed, it will just work. We also make it easy to change the permissions from the file directly from the email message. You can set permissions to view-only if desired, so no one can edit the file without your permission.

Let’s take a look at how we have integrated OneDrive for Business into Outlook Web App to make it easy to send files as links.

The process begins when you choose to add an attachment to your message:

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Files on your OneDrive for Business are available for you to choose from:

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You can also chose a file from your local computer.

When you pick a file from your computer or from OneDrive for Business, you can choose how you want to send it out – either as a link to OneDrive or as a physical attachment:

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When you send a document as a link, the attachment will look and feel the same with a couple of key differences. Any file stored on OneDrive for Business will always show a cloud icon on top as well as show you the permissions of the file under the title.

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You can also easily manage the permissions right from email:

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Sending files in this way is simple and easy.  Everyone now works off of a single file, and you get the benefits of automatic permissions and version control in OneDrive for Business combined with the familiarity and ease of use of email.

Now let’s look at the experience of receiving documents, which also gets significantly better. When you receive a Word, PowerPoint or Excel file from someone via email – whether as a link to OneDrive as described earlier or as a physical attachment - Office Online is integrated directly into the email experience to allow you to view and edit documents side-by-side with the original email conversation.

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This new view allows you to read your email conversation and view the document in a single experience.

Even better, you can edit the document and respond to the conversation with a single click. When you click “Edit a copy” the following steps happen:

  • Outlook Web App will open the attachment into Edit mode in Office Online.
  • A draft response to the original conversation is created with the edited version of the document automatically attached:

You can now edit the document and write an email response in a single window. The really exciting part here is that all of your changes are automatically being saved to the attachment that was added to your email response.

Once you’re all finished making edits to the document and typing your response, you can click Send, and both the response as well as the edited document are sent off to the recipients.  What used to take many steps has been consolidated into a single click, saving you time and keeping you productive.  Just to reiterate, you get this same document collaboration experience whether the document is a physical attachment or stored in OneDrive.

Group collaboration also gets better with this experience.  If the file is stored in OneDrive,you can do real time co-authoring using Office Online in this side-by-side view from Outlook Web App.  Since the file is stored in OneDrive, all recipients can make changes to the document at the same time without creating multiple copies of the file.

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But not only have we improved the collaboration experience for documents, we’ve also enhanced the viewing experience for pictures.

Images are also shown in this same side-by-side view, allowing you to read the contents of the email as you browse the pictures you’ve received.

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Groups

We introduced the concept of Groups at SharePoint Conference earlier this month and we’ll be going into more depth at MEC this week. At a high level, we have taken the Groups concept in Yammer and extended it across Office 365. With this new, central building block, we can enable collaboration experiences that weren’t possible before.  Let’s dive into how this works.

Starting things off in Yammer, you’ll notice a list of Public Groups here pinned to the left. These are Groups that have either been created or joined.  Clicking on a particular group will show the conversation feed for that group.  This is where you share information and collaborate with others.  A new group can be created from here – in fact, anyone in the organization can create a group from anywhere in Office 365, which empowers everyone to be more productive.

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Navigating to Outlook Web App shows a user’s personal inbox.  You’ll notice a list of groups here – the same that appeared in Yammer.  By integrating groups membership across Exchange, SharePoint and Yammer we’re delivering a unified experience across the Office suite.

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Clicking on a group opens that group’s conversation feed, which is the same one that appeared earlier in Yammer.  Both Outlook Web App and Yammer show the same conversations for the same groups.  This means however you prefer to work – whether you live only in email, only in Yammer, or both – you can participate in the group.  We’re creating a collaboration tool that will allow everyone in your organization to work more closely together, in their preferred manner.

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In this public group, conversations appear in the form of cards, and users can quickly start a new conversation from here without having to find the address and type in the name – it’s all done for you.  You also get a feed-like conversation which flows more naturally with new comments appearing at the bottom of the reading pane.

If one of your colleagues recently read an article that he thought would be interesting to the rest of the group, he can post a link to the article to the group and an inline preview of the article automatically appears.  This way, folks in the group don’t just get a plain old URL, but they can now read the preview and determine if they want to read the full article or not before actually clicking through. You can also do this with video content, posting a link to a video brings up an in-line preview of the video. You can even watch the video using the native video player in Outlook Web App. This saves the user time by keeping them in the context of their conversations.

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Adding a new member to the Group gives that person immediate access to what the group has been working on so they can quickly get up to speed. Since Outlook Web App retains the history of all conversations for the group, you don’t have to search for all of the relevant email from the past few weeks to forward to the new member of the team – it’s all right there.
Each Group also gets its own calendar. You can differentiate each group calendar by color and even overlay your personal calendar with your groups’ calendars. Now every member of the group can add, delete, or edit any of the events in the group’s calendar, so if the person who created the meeting is out of the office, other members of the group can adjust the meeting. If there is a group event that is particularly important, you can add that event to your personal calendar with a single click. And when something about the event changes in the group calendar, it will automatically adjust on your personal calendar as well. Again, adding a new member to the group, allows he or she to get caught up quickly on what the group has been working on, since the Calendar contains all of the active meetings for the group. No more having to manually add the new person to each meeting instance – it’s all done for you.

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Groups also make public conversations and sharing easier. There are two types of groups – private and public.  Groups are public by default because we want users to engage in open conversations so that they can discover new information and new contacts within their organization.   Bringing the notion of public groups into email make it easier for users– as they become more comfortable – to move some of their private conversations into public groups. Conversations that happen in public groups can lead to better information sharing, and free exchange of ideas connects people and makes the org more productive.

OWA for Android Phones

For a billion people, the phone is already their first and only connected device. We know that nearly half of emails are now first seen on the phone. So it’s clear that phone is becoming the primary screen for communications. This means we need to have the best email and communications experience on all phones.

Exchange created ActiveSync – and no smart phone today is considered a real smart phone without Exchange ActiveSync support. We work closely with leading phone OEMs like Apple and Samsung to have great built-in support for Exchange. We will of course continue to do that.

We also want our customers and users to have access to the latest features in Exchange. Of course, the Windows Phone team continues to provide the most comprehensive support for the latest Exchange features in the native Outlook app on Windows phones. On iPhone and iPad, we released the OWA app last year. And today we announced that we will be releasing the OWA app for Android as our latest step in that journey. Our phone users will have great built-in support for Exchange via the default email app on all phones – plus they can also use the OWA app on iOS and now Android to get the latest features.

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We’re really excited to deliver these enhanced email and collaboration experiences in Outlook Web App and across mobile devices. We’re bringing an entirely new way to think about email as a continued enabler to how people get work done whether in the office or on the go. Email is becoming more collaborative, more efficient, easier to manage and, yes, more social. Look for these new features to begin rolling out to Office 365 customers later this year.

– Steve Chew

Join the conversation

14 comments
  1. Well, that sounds great – if you use the Outlook Web App, that is. When are these features coming to the Outlook desktop client? I see little reason for having my e-mail in a browser when a proper application is available…

    • arknu – Features are being released to Outlook Web App first because we are iterating in the browser, which is easier to change until we get to final design we like. Once we lock on the best experience, we will then translate this into the next version of the Outlook desktop client.

  2. Wow! Can’t wait to see these features live. Especially the issue with the “Enhanced Document Collaboration” is what we waited long for! Any more detailed time schedule, when this feature will be online?
    BR, Fritz

    • Fritz_B – Glad to hear you can’t wait for enhanced document collaboration! All of these features will be available later this calendar year. We don’t have any more detailed time schedule at this stage.

      • Steve – only one question. The mentioned collaboration function is already available for OneDrive. Is there any reason, why this nice features always gets introduced first in the free version and only later on in the paid version (OneDrive for business)? Should this be a hint of MS to use the free version only?
        Can you tell us a bit about this strategy?
        BR, Fritz

        • Fritz_B – Outlook.com is a different service designed to meet the needs of consumers. Outlook Web App is part of Exchange Online and has more robust capabilities for our business customers. Sometimes features are tested in our consumer services first, in order to gauge their effectiveness and customer response before implementing the change for everyone. This helps us be less disruptive to our business customers while still making sure they get the very best of what we have to offer. Thanks again for your interest.

  3. When will the Android OWA app for tablets be available please?

    • PeterWhitehouse – OWA for Android Phones will be available later this calendar year. We don’t have any news to share at this time with regard to Android Tablets.

  4. Some really exciting features coming to the OWA client. Looking forward to trying out the Clutter feature. It will be nice to see these features applied to the desktop client also in the future.

    • Thanks CAdams! Glad to hear you’re looking forward to the new features.

  5. It will be really hectic task for user to mark the mail as a clutter, if you are keep on receiving the unimportant messages like promotions and updates from different social sites. Separating messages through labels is the most convenient method to concentrate on important mails. Manage clutter on your own is extra task. I rarely check my mails in outlook just because of these cluttering things. I’m eagerly waiting for tab like feature provided by gmail to be implemented in outlook. You Microsoft developers relying on users to mark that message as a clutter. Gmail is doing that automatically.

    BTW outlook is the most beautiful mail client, but the fact is no body want to shift from gmail. Just because gmail have killer features. To overcome that you guys have only one solution, manage that clutter automatically.

    • sandeshdamkondwar – The “Clutter” feature automatically separates out unimportant messages from the important ones in your inbox. You don’t need to manage this on your own as you’ve mentioned in your post. The only time you have to manually mark anything is when a message automatically shows up in “Clutter” that you want to move back to your inbox. The system will then learn that this type of message should be kept in the inbox in the future. Otherwise, “Clutter” should be pretty effortless on your part. Please note that this feature will only be available for Office 365 for business customers when it’s released.

  6. Steve,
    I really like the way the products are converging here, it makes a lot of sense.

    Reading about ‘Groups’ I suspect that many companies currently use SharePoint team sites to fulfil a similar need. If they have groups as well, what criteria would you suggest for going the ‘groups’ vs ‘team site’ route? Or will team sites effectively be a web view on the same activity data?

    Regards
    Sam

    • Hi Sam,

      Glad to hear your feedback. Each Group will have its own site, so the recommendation would be to use Groups as you’ll still be able to leverage the Group site.

      Thanks.,
      Steve

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