Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is It Time for a Microsoft Office 365 Super Client?

With so many different tools and apps falling under the Office 365 umbrella, Microsoft's next step should be unifying them under one pane of glass.

I will never forget the first time that I saw Microsoft Outlook. I was visiting a friend at his office, and he had Outlook on screen. Outlook looked a lot like other Microsoft applications that I was familiar with, and yet I could tell that it was something completely different. When I asked my friend what it was, he excitedly told me that Outlook was new, but that it was already his most important desktop application. Although I can't remember my friend's exact words, he described Outlook as a single tool for managing all of his business communications. In fact, my friend told me that he spent most of his day in Outlook.

Outlook has evolved quite a bit over the years, but it still does the same basic things that it did so long ago. It is essentially a tool for managing e-mail, contacts and calendars. Although e-mail, contacts, and calendars are indispensable staples for many professionals, Outlook is starting to show its age. Personally, I think that it is time for Microsoft to create a completely reimagined version of Outlook.

For most of its life, Outlook has existed as a client component for Microsoft Exchange. As Microsoft has added new functionality to Exchange Server over the years, they have usually been pretty good about exposing that functionality through Outlook. The problem is, that Exchange Server's place in the enterprise has changed.

Once upon a time, Exchange Server was the go-to enterprise application for communications and collaboration. Although Exchange Server still has a major following, it is no longer the only game in town. Exchange is now just one of many applications that exist within the Office 365 suite. Some of the other collaborative applications in Office 365 include SharePoint, Yammer, Teams, Skype for Business -- and the list goes on.

I applaud Microsoft for including so many great apps in Office 365, but I think that it is time for Microsoft to take a step back and consider how users work with those apps. Some of the Office 365 apps use dedicated client components, while others use Web interfaces. Right now, for example, as I type this article on my desktop, I have an Outlook window open and I have a Skype for Business window open. My wish is that Microsoft would create a new version of Outlook (or of some brand new client component) that exposes all of the functionality of Outlook, Yammer, SharePoint, and Skype for Business through a single pane of glass. In my mind, all communication and collaboration should be exposed through a single "super client." That way, the end user does not have to constantly juggle applications as they switch from one task to the next.

Admittedly, with a little bit of work, Outlook can be extended to support additional functionality. I have written several articles in the past for various publications explaining how to expose SharePoint functionality through Outlook. Even so, there is a big difference between reconfiguring Outlook to expose limited support for various Office 365 applications and having full support for those applications natively presented within the client.

Although I firmly believe that an Office 365 super client would make desktop users more productive, I think that there is a good chance that such a client will never be created. Today, it is somewhat rare for a user to spend all day in front of a desktop computer. Instead, users tend to work from a variety of device types. In the case of small mobile devices, there seems to be a tendency to expose very targeted functionality through dedicated apps. Large, monolithic apps tend to be difficult to use on small screen devices.

Additionally, one of the big trends right now is toward the creation of HTML 5-based tools that live in the cloud (think OWA). It is expensive for a company like Microsoft to develop separate versions of its applications for various desktop and mobile platforms. It could conceivably be much more cost effective to build a single browser-based tool that works on a variety of platforms. As such, I suspect that Microsoft will eventually give us a browser-based app that exposes most of the features of its various collaborative tools through a single Web app. The trick is going to be for Microsoft to create such a tool that will be practical to use on a variety of desktop and mobile platforms.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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