Tag Archives: Outlook

Happy day: Windows Outlook now supports Focused Inbox

A few weeks ago I complained about the Focused Inbox feature. A big part of my complaint was that Windows Outlook didn’t support it. This morning, I updated my Windows Office installation and found that the Focused tab magically appeared.. sort of.

First, how I got it: I was already signed up for the Office Insider program, and my tenant is enrolled in Office 365 First Release. My Office installation showed up with “Current” instead of “Office Insider Fast,” though (to check yours, click File | Office Account in any Windows Office application). For some reason, on my unmanaged, non-domain-joined Windows 10 machine, this setting periodically resets, so I launched regedit and changed the value of the UpdateBranch key under Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\office\16.0\common\officeupdate to “Insiderfast”, relaunched Word, and checked for updates. After a few minutes of coffee break, the updates had downloaded. When I launched Outlook, I got the pop-up telling me that Focused Inbox was active.

This leads me to my “sort of” comment. This installation of Outlook has 3 Exchange Online accounts, 1 IMAP account, and a dozen or so shared mailboxes in its default profile. My home robichaux.net account is default. All 3 Exchange Online accounts are on tenants where Focused Inbox is available, and all 3 show the appropriate UI in OWA and Mac Outlook. However, only my work account shows the Focused tab; the other two don’t. Relaunching Outlook didn’t fix this, nor did rebooting, nor did waiting a while. At this point it isn’t clear if having only a single Focused Inbox is by design, a bug, or a temporary limitation. However, I’m happy to see the feature appear at all.

This must be a very new change, as the Outlook 2016 update history doesn’t include it as I write this. Perhaps Microsoft will update it soon to explain more about Focused Inbox support.



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Focused Inbox in Office 365: making mail harder

About two and a half years ago, Microsoft rolled out a new mail-sorting feature called Clutter. It was intended to use machine learning to filter important mail from newsletters, shipping notifications, and other… well, clutter, leaving your inbox filled only with mail that required your attention. It was a great idea, and, although it had a few bumps in its implementation, soon evolved into a useful and dependable feature. Now Clutter is gone, and Focused Inbox has replaced it. How’s that working out so far?

First some history: in 2014, Acompli introduced what they called “Focused Inbox” in their mobile client. This represented a different take on inbox cleaning; machine learning would still be applied to sort important mail from clutter, but the important and unimportant mails wouldn’t be logically separated into different folders. This had the advantage of working across multiple email systems. Fast forward to today: Acompli was purchased by Microsoft in December 2014, the former Acompli team has been crushing it with their Outlook Mobile app, and key ex-Acompli folks have taken over some key positions on the Outlook team. Focused Inbox has become the new sheriff in town, and Microsoft is rolling it out to Office 365 tenants. One of my tenants was recently upgraded, so I wanted to write about my experience working with it as an end user. (Keep in mind that, as I write this, Microsoft’s January 26 announcement that they didn’t have a firm timeline for rolling out Focused support for Outlook for Windows is still in force.)

I use three primary clients: the Outlook Mobile client for iOS, Outlook 2016 for Windows, and Outlook 2016 for Mac OS X. I mostly use the mobile client to triage mail while away from my desk– I can quickly respond to important items and delete or file stuff I don’t need. In that role, I’ve been depending on Focused Inbox for a while, and I got used to the disparity between what I’d see on the Focused tab on my phone versus what showed up in my inbox– the desktop inbox showed all my messages, not just the Focused ones, but that wasn’t a big deal, as I was usually grooming my inbox by throwing away or otherwise dealing with the contents of the “Other” tab frequently enough to avoid ugly buildup.

When your tenant’s enabled for Focused Inbox, OWA and Outlook for Mac will display a prompt telling you so; when you click to acknowledge it, you’ll see the new Focused and Other tabs in the UI, just like in the mobile app. Here’s where the fun starts.

First up, Clutter is turned off when you accept that prompt, and it’s turned off permanently… so every message formerly  filtered into the Clutter folder now goes straight to your inbox. That means you’ll get a  notification (if that feature’s enabled) for each new message, much more frequently than you’re probably used to. I’ve long had mail notifications turned off on my phones, but now I have to turn them off on my Windows machine too.

Second, the mobile client doesn’t currently have a way to focus or unfocus a message– so now that Clutter isn’t filtering my inbox traffic, I get crap that I want to mark as “other” but I can’t until I get to a desktop. This is the exact opposite of what I want, and it breaks my normal triage-on-the-go workflow. Alert reader Dang Le Duy pointed out that you can focus or unfocus a message from the mobile client– tap the “overflow” icon (the three little dots) and you’ll see a popup that lets you change the message state, like this:

Yay! I didn't know this feature existed but it makes me happy

Yay! I didn’t know this feature existed but it makes me happy


Third, the Mac version of Outlook has long had a feature that combines the contents of the Inbox folder from each account into a single über-inbox (which the team calls the Unified Inbox). IMAP, POP, Exchange, gmail, whatever, all your messages appear in a single handy list. Unfortunately, you only get Focused Inbox in Exchange Online accounts that have the feature enabled– so when you switch back to the Unified Inbox view, all those messages that were neatly tucked away in the “Other” tab come back into your message list. When you select an individual account that has Focused Inbox enabled, you see what you’d expect to:


However, if you go to the Unified Inbox view at the top level, you get something completely different– 6 of the 20 displayed messages appear when they would normally be hidden in the “Other” tab of their parent account:

Focused Inbox doesn't work in the Mac Outlook Unified Inbox

Focused Inbox doesn’t work in the Mac Outlook Unified Inbox

This to me is a significant loss of utility. It’s a complicated problem, to be sure; trying to figure out the right behavior for a mix of accounts (some with Focused Inbox, some without) is tricky. I hope the Mac Outlook team is working on a solution.

With these gripes, you may believe I’m down on Focused Inbox as a feature. I wouldn’t say that’s true. It is useful, and it has tremendous potential, especially when coupled with other machine-learning-driven filtering and prioritization capabilities. But the current client-side implementation takes away some of the utility we had with Clutter, and I want it back. Hopefully we’ll see not only a return to feature parity, so that all my unwanted messages stay tucked out of sight, but improvements that make Focused Inbox clearly superior.

(edited 2-8-17 to reflect that you can, indeed, focus or unfocus messages from the mobile app)

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Universal version of Outlook coming to your phone

Big news from today’s Windows 10 announcement: Microsoft will be shipping a “universal” version of Outlook that works on Windows tablets, phones, and PCs. This is a really interesting move, and not something I expected based on the existence of OWA for Devices (MOWA) on iOS and Android. The universal Outlook uses the universal version of Word as its editing engine, a huge plus because it delivers all the rich formatting tools available on Windows PCs (and which are still, sadly, missing from Mac Outlook, hint hint), and during the demo, Joe Belfiore showed a fluid touch-based interface that nonetheless preserved much of the look and feel of Outlook and OWA.

This announcement raises a lot of interesting questions, though. A partial list, just off the top of my head… (and a disclaimer: I haven’t seen any preview versions of Office 16 so perhaps these are naive questions that have all been well dealt with in the code)

  • Is this new version of Outlook a replacement for, or a complement to, the existing rich Outlook client? In other words, will it be able to do everything that I can do with Outlook 2013 on a Surface Pro 3? If not, what will they leave out?
  • Will this app replace the native WP calendar and contacts app? I’d guess not, given that the People app got a lot of play in today’s announcement.
  • Outlook’s resource requirements would seem to be a poor fit for phones and low-end tablets. I’d imagine that we’ll have sync controls similar to what exist on WP8.1 to allow users to sync a certain amount, but not necessarily all, of their mail, but it’s going to take a lot of optimization to provide acceptable performance on these devices.
  • Will this version of Outlook support on-premises servers? If so, that means it probably won’t rely on MAPI over HTTPS, which isn’t widely deployed. But it’s hard to imagine Outlook built completely on Exchange Web Services.
  • Will the universal Outlook team match the slow release cadence of desktop Office or the faster cadence of, say, the Lync mobile clients? One of the nicest features of OWA for Devices is that new OWA/Office 365 features (such as Clutter and the People view) just automatically show up in MOWA because it’s essentially a container for OWA views. How will the universal Outlook team bake in support for new features as Exchange and Office 365 ship them?
  • Will Exchange ActiveSync-specific features (especially remote device wipe) be included in this version of Outlook? They aren’t included in the existing Outlook family, of course.
    • If the answer is “no, but you can use InTune or Office 365 MDM”, that’s going to displease a lot of existing users. On the other hand, you can’t remotely wipe a desktop Office installation, something which has led several of my customers to block Outlook Anywhere so that people can’t easily use Outlook from personal machines.
    • If the answer is “yes”, then it will be fascinating to see how Outlook interacts with native data such as contacts stored on the device.
  • What does this mean for OWA for Devices? I’d guess that we won’t see Outlook for iOS and Android, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out. Maybe we’re headed back to the days of yore, where the premium clients run on Microsoft operating systems, with a sort of best-effort client set for competitors.
  • Is this the logical vehicle for incorporating the technology Microsoft acquired from Acompli? Or is that being baked in somewhere else?
  • When can I get a Surface Hub?

Given the upcoming availability of previews for Windows 10 for phones, I suppose we’ll get the answers to these questions soon.



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Microsoft sneaks out Mac Outlook update

Good news: Microsoft just issued an updated version of Outlook for Mac. (I guess that’s the official name, as opposed to the older Outlook 2011). The list of fixes is pretty nondescript: you can change calendar colors, add alt-text to images, and use custom AD RMS templates. I suspect most of the effort for this release was actually focused on the “Top crashes fixed” item in the KB article.

Bad news: you have to manually download it from the Office 365 portal. The AutoUpdate mechanism shipped with Office 2011 doesn’t yet know how to handle updates for Outlook for Mac. I suppose Microsoft could either update the Office 2011 AU mechanism or ship a new one as part of a future Outlook update; presumably the latter choice would actually deliver the Office 2015 update mechanism, since there’s undoubtedly going to be one.

The real news here is how quickly Microsoft released this update. While this is only one release, it’s an excellent sign that we got it quickly, and it makes me hopeful that we’ll see a steady stream of updates and fixes for the Mac Office apps in the future— with a cadence more akin to the Lync Mobile clients releases than the glacial pace of past Mac Office updates.

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Why the Outlook for Mac folder pane changes colors

I mentioned in my review of the new Outlook for Mac client that the background of the folder list seemed to randomly change colors:

It may also be a feature that there is a color gradient fill in the folder list. At first I thought the color was the same as the color of the category of my current calendar appointment, but after changing all the category colors, waiting for sync, and quitting and relaunching Outlook, the color didn’t change, so I’m not sure what Microsoft had in mind here, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn it off.

Thanks to the most excellent Bill Smith, long-time Mac Office MVP, now I know the answer:

You’re seeing translucency in the navigation pane. So long as you have a window or other white object behind Outlook you’ll see a whitish background, but arrange Outlook over your Desktop picture and you’ll see those colors peeking through it. Choose Outlook menu > Hide Others to quickly show Outlook over your Desktop.

Sure enough, that explains it. I use SatelliteEyes to update my desktop background, and as I move around (and thus get new satellite maps), or as change the Z order of other open windows, voilà color changes. I normally don’t mind window translucency, but I don’t care for the combination of OS X Yosemite and this effect. Looks like I’m stuck with it, though.


Filed under OS X, UC&C

Do mailbox quotas matter to Outlook and OWA?

Great question from my main homie Brian Hill:

Is there a backend DB reason for setting quotas at a certain size? I have found several links (like this one) discussing the need to set quotas due to the way the Outlook client handles large numbers of messages or OST files, but for someone who uses OWA, does any of this apply?

Short answer: no.

Somewhat longer answer: no.

The quota mechanism in Exchange is an outgrowth of those dark times when a large Exchange server might host a couple hundred users on an 8GB disk drive. Because storage was so expensive, Microsoft’s customers demanded a way to clamp down on mailbox size, so we got the trinity of quota limits: prohibit send, prohibit send and receive, and warn. These have been with us for a while and persist, essentially unchanged, in Exchange 2013, although it is now common to see quotas of 5GB or more on a single mailbox.

Outlook has never had a formal quota mechanism of its own, apart from the former limit of 2GB on PST files imposed by the 32-bit offsets used as pointers in the original PST file format. This limit was enforced in part by a dialog that would tell you that your PST file was full and in part by bugs in various versions of Outlook that would occasionally corrupt your PST file as it approached the 2GB size limit. Outlook 2007 and later pretty much extinguished those bugs, and the Unicode PST file format doesn’t have the 2GB limit any longer. Outlook 2010 and 2013 set a soft limit on Unicode PSTs of 50GB, but you can increase the limit if you need to.

Outlook’s performance is driven not by the size of the PST file itself (thought experiment: imagine a PST with a single 10GB item in it as opposed to one with 1 million 100KB messages) but by the number of items in any given folder. Microsoft has long recommended that you keep Outlook item counts to a maximum of around 5,000 items per folder (see KB 905803 for one example of this guidance). However, Outlook 2010 and 2013, when used with Exchange 2010 or 2013, can handle substantially more items without performance degradation: the Exchange 2010 documentation says 100,000 items per folder is acceptable, though there’s no published guidance for Exchange 2013. There’s still no hard limit, though. The reasons why the number of items (and the number of associated stored views) are well enumerated in this 2009 article covering Exchange 2007. Some of the mechanics described in that article have changed in later versions of Exchange but the basic truth remains: the more views you have, and/or the more items that are found or selected by those views, the longer it will take Exchange to process them.

If you’re wondering whether your users’ complaints of poor Outlook performance are related to high item counts, one way to find out is to use a script like this to look for folders with high item counts.

Circling back to the original question: there is a performance impact with high item count folders in OWA, but there’s no quota mechanism for dealing with it. If you have a user who reports persistently poor OWA performance on particular folders, high item counts are one possible culprit worth investigating. Of course, if OWA performance is poor across multiple folders that don’t have lots of items, or across multiple users, you might want to seek other causes.

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Syncing Outlook for Mac calendars, and when “Outlook” isn’t Outlook

Although I’ve been working with Outlook for Mac for quite some time, there are lots of its features that I don’t use. Because all my mailboxes are hosted on Exchange, for example, I don’t ever use any of the IMAP functionality. In the same vein, because all my calendar and contact data live on an Exchange server, I haven’t had to fiddle with calendar sync for some time. I used to sync my calendar with various Palm devices back in the day using Entourage, Outlook’s predecessor, but it was always a painful and error-fraught process, and I was happy to move to an all-Exchange, all-Exchange ActiveSync environment.

A friend and fellow MVP mailed me with a Mac Outlook calendar sync question, and I didn’t have the faintest idea of what the right answer was. Accordingly, I dragged a third MVP into the fray: Mac/Windows interop expert William Smith. He came up with a workable solution, and as a bonus he wrote a detailed tutorial on how to set up calendar sync.

That got me to thinking about the differences in the Outlook brand between Mac and Windows. The functional differences have been discussed at length elsewhere (like on Steve Goodman’s excellent feature comparison table.) As Steve points out, the Mac version of Outlook feels much like Entourage. Although the user interface has been revamped, and is much more pleasant as a result, many of the same issues that plagued Entourage are still around. For example, I’m running Outlook with 3 Exchange accounts on a MacBook Pro with a 2GHz quad-core i7 and 8GB of RAM. This is a snappy machine… and yet Outlook still frequently takes leisurely breaks to show me the spinning rainbow when I click on messages, and it often gets confused about exactly which messages are, or are not, part of a given conversation.

That’s not to say it’s more or less buggy than Windows Outlook, which of course has its own set of issues. I use both on a daily basis. There are some things that Mac Outlook does better; for example, I love having a single unified inbox for all my accounts, and the integration of Outlook with other apps (like iPhoto) is better than it is, in general, with Windows counterparts. On the other hand, I find it much easier to work with the schedule and calendar views in Windows Outlook; I really like the Outlook Social Connector, and the “Ignore Conversation” and QuickSteps features are both super valuable for plowing through large volumes of mail.

I find Apple’s Mail.app weird and unsatisfying: it doesn’t include all the data I want (like calendar and contact info), and it doesn’t do many of the familiar things that I expect from the Outlook family. That would be OK if Mail provided a better experience than Outlook but in my judgement it doesn’t– I’d rather use Windows Outlook in a VM than the native mail app. In that light, rebranding the Mac client as Outlook has been a success: Outlook users on either platform will find familiar things to like (and perhaps to gripe about) on the other platform. Throw OWA into the mix and overall I’d say that Microsoft has done a good job of building consistency between the platforms.

There are still some major differences between platforms. For example, Outlook 2011 has little to no SharePoint integration; it lacks proper conversation threading (plus the aforementioned QuickSteps and “Ignore Conversation”); it doesn’t integrate properly with Exchange UM, there’s no Personal Archive access, and it doesn’t support VBA (although its AppleScript support is quite extensive, and much improved from Entourage).

Most users, of course, will use whatever version of Outlook happens to run on their preferred platform. That’s natural enough. Overall I’m quite satisfied with Outlook 2010 (well, except that for some reason 64-bit Office Communicator hates it). I’m hoping that the Mac Office team can address some of the performance and behavior issues in Outlook 2011 in the forthcoming Service Pack 2. I’m not as concerned about missing features, as those will come in time, and the Mac team has the benefit of seeing what features in Outlook 2010 are actually worth porting and which ones are not.


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