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3/26/2013
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Windows 8 Updates Core Apps To Improve Usability

Microsoft upgrades Mail, Calendar and People apps. But will it appease customers who say these features should have been included at launch?

Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
Windows 8: 8 Big Benefits For SMBs
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Microsoft on Monday announced that updates to Windows 8's Mail, Calendar and People apps would become available within 24 hours. The release offers needed improvement to Redmond's pre-installed offerings, which have been criticized for their limited functionality.

The new versions don't constitute a revolutionary upgrade; if anything fulfills that purpose in the near future, it will be Windows Blue, a late-stage build of which was recently leaked to the Internet. But in the meantime, current users are likely to appreciate the effort Microsoft put into the new apps.

The updates apply to both Windows 8 and Windows RT, which shares its sibling's tile-based, touch-oriented Modern interface but lacks Windows 8's traditional desktop mode and compatibility with legacy applications. Microsoft's Surface RT tablet has struggled to compete against the iPad and Android devices and the vast catalogue of apps that each competitor enjoys. By improving RT's usability, Redmond's newest offerings represent a step in the right direction. But with millions of users already securely integrated into Apple and Google's respective ecosystems, Windows 8 will need help from inspired third-party developers.

The Mail app receives the most substantial makeover. Folder creation, deletion and renaming are now supported, as is a filter for unread messages and the ability to flag messages. Microsoft claims new features such as advanced spam filters will help mail to sync faster. Redmond has also tweaked its message composition interface, making it easier to input hyperlinks and bulleted lists. The app also stores the addresses of frequently mailed contacts in a dropdown menu, which could be a convenient way to input recipients. Since most users rely on the app to manage more than one account, Mail is smart enough to tailor its recipient suggestions accordingly.

[ What enhancements do you hope to see in Windows Blue? Read Windows Blue: How Will Windows 8 Evolve? ]

One of the most notable Mail upgrades is the ability to search for messages stored on the server. To avoiding gobbling up the limited SSD space in Windows 8 devices such as the Surface Pro, Mail stores only two weeks' worth of data by default. In other words, before the update, messages that weren't synced to the device wouldn't show up in search returns. By opening the search function up to the user's complete message history, Microsoft has made Mail a much more viable tool.

Other additions include the ability to delete all messages in a folder, and the integration of a few Exchange features. Support for Integrated Rights Management, for example, lets users apply granular email restrictions such as forbidding recipients from forwarding a sensitive message.

A simple way to access POP email accounts, meanwhile, is unfortunately nowhere to be found.

The Calendar app's upgrades are less extensive. They include a streamlined, minimalist interface that should be easier to read thanks to resized fonts and less clutter. It also adds a Work Week view that drops weekends from the calendar, and gains several Outlook features, such as expanded tools for emailing invitees and the ability to set termination dates for recurring events. Despite all the benefits, some users will be disheartened to learn that Calendar will be losing native Google sync support.

The People app's transformation is the most modest. It includes some subtle UI refinements and now allows users to control the "what's new" feed by associating it with their various social network accounts. The People app can also be used to post directly to contacts' Facebook walls, and Active Directory hooks are now supported.

In a blog post announcing the updates, Redmond communication manager Brandon LeBlanc promised "big improvements to performance" and seamless integration across Outlook.com, Exchange and other Microsoft accounts.

Though the upgrades represent legitimate improvement, some feel that Microsoft should have had many of these features implemented at launch. In an interview last month with InformationWeek, Michael Cherry, a Windows expert with Directions on Microsoft, linked Windows 8's dearth of must-have apps to the poor example Redmond set with its first generation of core Modern-style offerings. Redmond CFO/CMO Tami Reller has even admitted that the company's pre-installed apps need work.

In his blog post, LeBlanc said the updates are part of Microsoft's "ongoing focus and commitment to continually improving" the Windows experience, which he promises "will keep getting richer." Such promises can often be dismissed as typical PR-speak, but Redmond has made several recent efforts to encourage developers and to expand its app library. The jury's still out on some of the plans; paying programmers $100 per submitted app, for example, seems more likely to produce an onslaught of lousy titles than to be a game-changer.

Even so, March's Windows 8 submissions have so far handily outpaced the number of apps launched in February. According to MetroStore Scanner, the uptick represents the first time since the OS launched that developer activity hasn't suffered a month-over-month decline. Revolutionary apps haven't yet materialized, but Redmond is at least pushing some of the other pieces into place.

Users can install the updates via the Windows Store. They will not install automatically.

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