It has a planned update to its flagship Windows 8 operating system that is code-named Windows Blue, which was leaked out onto the Internet; when released it is expected to be called Windows 8.1. But the company is busy working on a number of other items.
One report Thursday said Microsoft is readying a native version of Outlook for Windows RT, a move that not only could improve prospects for Redmond's under-performing ARM-based OS but also mean that a version of Office for iOS or Android is coming.
Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott broke the rumor, writing that he had personally witnessed Outlook running on Surface RT models in the wild. Thurrott's sources inside Redmond confirmed that Outlook for RT has moved beyond internal testing and is in shippable form. Windows RT launched with native versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, but Thurrott claimed Outlook was excluded at the last minute because of a firmware bug in the ARM chipset that caused system crashes and battery life issues.
[ Learn more about the forthcoming Windows 8 update. Read Windows Blue: What We Know. ]
To a degree, the lack of an Outlook app has limited the use of Windows RT devices in the enterprise. Given that the platform lacks the number of apps that has attracted consumers to iOS and Android, it has always been playing from behind. But with a native Outlook option, devices such as the Surface RT could become easier to integrate into business infrastructure and thus potentially become more attractive as workplace tablets.
At the same time, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, whose sources provided most of the early Windows Blue rumors, reported that Outlook for RT could launch this fall alongside either Windows 8.1 or the rumored Gemini project, which will allegedly bring Windows Blue-like updates to the Office suite. She said, however, that an earlier launch is possible. Microsoft is reportedly incentivizing OEMs to produce small devices and some retailers are currently slashing prices on RT models. The lower costs, new hardware and an improving app catalogue could all make Windows RT more attractive, so Microsoft might view Outlook as one of the last pieces needed to push the platform back into the BYOD conversation.
Thurrott claimed that unlike current Office RT apps, Outlook will not be preinstalled on Windows RT devices. Instead, it could be part of an Office 365 subscription plan. Windows RT would retain its native Mail app, with Outlook serving as a supplement, not a replacement. Thurrott also said that Microsoft will not deliver an iOS version of Office until Outlook for RT has shipped.
Whether Microsoft should extend Office to Apple's mobile platforms has been a contentious issue. On one hand, many commentators view such a move as a multi-billion dollar opportunity for Microsoft. Then again, if users have the ability to use Word or Excel on their iPads, Surface RT's prospects take an undeniable hit. iOS already has the edge with apps and a massive installed user base, so Microsoft is understandably exercising cautious in its handling of cross-platform Office releases.
Forrester analyst Dave Johnson told InformationWeek in February that Microsoft could reap greater returns if it stops protecting Windows and starts treating Office as a multi-OS platform. In an interview conducted just before the Outlook RT rumors hit, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi offered similar sentiments, saying that because Office for iOS represents such a massive opportunity, it is "only a question of time" until Redmond finally makes its move.
"When asked, 'Would you spend $99 of your own money on Office for iOS,' everyone says, 'Yes,'" she said, calling the prospect "a huge revenue opportunity Microsoft cannot ignore." She said the software giant will "need to avoid shooting itself in the foot" as it opens up Office to other OSes, but countered that native Word and Excel apps aren't helping RT anyway and that Microsoft might be barking up the wrong tree by focusing on additional business apps. Instead, she said, the RT platform could come into its own as a series of low-cost tablets that more effectively leverages Microsoft's consumer-oriented assets, such as the Xbox ecosystem.
It's not clear if an iOS or Android edition of Office would include Outlook, which hasn't typically been part of past rumors. However that question shakes out, consumers who've been waiting for their Surface RTs, iPads and Galaxy Tabs to become more enterprise-friendly might soon have their wishes granted.