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Windows 8 app updates streamline user experience across devices

Microsoft's Windows 8 app updates are a step in the right direction, but may not provide enterprise users with the functionality they need.

Microsoft updated its Windows 8 Mail, Calendar and People applications this week to enhance the end-user experience and bring feature parity across Windows 8 and Windows RT, but industry watchers say improvements fall short.

The Windows 8 app updates were designed to better support the needs of enterprise IT, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. When the Mail app was first available for Windows RT, for example, it was apparent the email client was subpar compared to what enterprise users were familiar with in Outlook. The updated Mail app allows users to organize messages with folders and toggle back and forth between personal and work email accounts more easily. There is no limit to how many accounts one can sync manually, but the app continues to limit the number of push-enabled accounts across Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) and IMAP to three.

The Calendar app now offers cosmetic changes with a cleaner visual interface. It also offers a workweek view and adds more scheduling capabilities using an assistant for Microsoft Exchange users that are similar to what users have in Outlook.  Microsoft also updated the People app to improve manageability and connectivity with a user's contacts across Twitter, Skype, Facebook and Microsoft revised the swiping capability to aid users in moving quickly between apps and posting status updates.

Windows 8 app updates fall short

Although the minor updates to core apps are appreciated, skepticism remains over whether the new improvements will provide enterprise end users with all the functionality they need to easily replicate their experience with the more robust Outlook.

"Calendar and email brings the overall experience up sharply, but it falls short of an Outlook experience," Enderle said. "Until Outlook moves to the Windows 8 UI, it will be tough for Microsoft."

Microsoft wants users to be excited about the new platform, but there needs to be a lot of improvement for that to happen, said Michael Cherry, an operating systems analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an IT consulting firm in Kirkland, Wash.

The updates to Windows 8 underscore Microsoft's long-term commitment to provide a similar look and feature set across all its devices, ranging from smartphones to desktops. Apple Inc. delivers an iOS-like functionality and feel to its desktop, while Google recently consolidated its Chrome OS and Android OS divisions into one business unit.

Indeed, with the market for devices like smartphones and tablets set to explode, Microsoft needs to account for the changing computing landscape. Worldwide tablet unit shipments will grow from 128.3 million in 2012 to 352.3 million unit shipments by 2017, a 174.5% compound annual growth rate from 2012 to 2017, according to IDC's smart connected device market forecast, published this week. However, Microsoft has yet to make a dent among enterprise users either on the desktop or with Windows 8 mobile devices.

"People are still confused by Windows 8," said Bob O'Donnell, program vice president for clients and display at IDC. "In their efforts to leap ahead, Microsoft leapt a little too far, and now they'll be dealing with that for some time to come."

Others are more optimistic and say major changes mean slower adoption of Windows 8. "This is a disruptive technology, and it will take time for users to understand the difference," said Eric Stein, business development manager at mobile application developer Appmosphere Inc. in Minneapolis. "It will take time for Microsoft to be where it needs to be."

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