Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

The good, bad and ugly of Outlook apps for iOS and Android

Outlook mobile applications for iOS and Android are here, but is that a good thing? Take a look at why users will love them and why IT might hesitate to endorse them.

Outlook apps for iOS and Android will make accessing mobile email easier for employees, but the limited management and security controls might scare off enterprise IT.

Microsoft Outlook is now available as a mobile application for Apple iOS and Google Android devices. Catering to the strengths and limitations of each OS, this brings one of Microsoft’s flagship productivity apps to the majority of mobile device users.

Some organizations may want to wait for later versions to adopt the app, but it's worth taking a look at what the initial Outlook mobile apps bring to the table, such as easy integration with file-sharing services, and where they’re lacking, especially when it comes to security.

Mobile-friendly email, calendar interface

To power the new Outlook apps, Microsoft used its acquisition of Acompli, a mobile email client startup. The mobile app is completely different from the desktop version, highlighted by the tab-based inbox, which splits emails into two categories and reduces clutter on the smaller screen. This feature places important emails in the Focused tab, and less important ones are filtered into the Other tab. The app learns what’s important as users move emails between tabs.

The app also includes a swipe feature that lets users swipe their finger left to determine what the app does with a given email immediately. It’s completely customizable; users can designate left swipe to flag an email or to delete it.

Outlook's built-in calendar gives users the power to communicate their availability with Quick RSVP. With nearly the same functionality as the desktop application, users can also check meeting times, create meeting invitations and view who is attending meetings.

Through its Sunrise acquisition, Microsoft is also expected to integrate that calendar app’s technology to provide a more streamlined experience between users’ Outlook or Google calendar and third-party apps such as Facebook. The Sunrise app is still available as its own download in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, and Microsoft has not yet clarified when it will be incorporated into the mobile Outlook apps.

Easy access to file-sharing features

The Outlook apps for Android and iOS allow access to Office 365, iCloud, and Gmail among other email services through the app. It can also integrate easily with file-sharing services such as Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive.

For instance, users can insert links to files from those cloud services and give automatic permission to the recipients to view the file. To prevent files from getting lost, users can sort through a list of recent attachments instead of digging through all their emails.

Other user-friendly additions include predictive Search, which helps users find something by typing just a few letters, and Schedule Email, which lets the user hide an email until he is ready to deal with it.   

Limited management capabilities make IT wary

The biggest problem with Outlook for Android and iOS when it was first released was the omission of integration with mobile device management (MDM) tools. Since then, Microsoft has added some MDM features, but IT still needs granular control over Outlook data. Without more management capabilities, IT can't manage what users can and can’t do with the app – causing some organizations to ban use of the app altogether.

Outlook’s file-sharing integration means that users can set up a personal email account on the app and share any file located on the app with any other user they choose. This makes it easier for users to share stored files from various accounts, but it prevents IT from controlling the transmission of sensitive corporate data.

The Outlook mobile app also uses the same Exchange ActiveSync client ID for every device an employee uses to access the app. Again, this capability is convenient for end users because they only have to remember one ID, but it’s challenging for IT because administrators can't determine which device an employee is using to work with the app.

Even more worrisome, Microsoft can store login credentials and sensitive data in the cloud without informing the user. Once data is in Microsoft's cloud, IT no longer has full control over it.

Microsoft adds app controls

Fortunately, the barrage of criticism following Outlook’s initial mobile app release spurred Microsoft to make some changes to security and management.

For example, IT can now set screen-lock rules and limit the number of times someone can attempt to unlock an Android device. Apple iOS users must set up a PIN with Exchange ActiveSync, or they won't be able to access their email, and Outlook will take advantage of built-in encryption for data on any device running iOS 8 or higher. On both OSes, IT can now determine who has access to what features within the app based on devices enrolled in MDM.

Microsoft also sped up the timeline for remote wiping the Outlook app, so it can now take place in seconds, removing data on the app without affecting the rest of the device. In addition, Outlook will now enforce passwords at the device level if IT requires users to have one for email syncing. IT can also establish standards for the length and complexity of passwords. 

The company announced it will soon allow administrators to blacklist and block certain actions. Finally, Microsoft will add further mobile application management (MAM) features for Outlook for iOS and Android, but only through its own Intune, not through third-party vendors. With Microsoft MAM, IT can prevent users from cutting, copying, pasting or saving information from Outlook and transferring it to their personal apps.

With these new app-level controls and upcoming MAM options, IT just might take another look at supporting Outlook apps for employee-owned iOS and Android devices.

Next Steps

Set up ActiveSync policies on iOS devices

How to improve email security

Social collaboration tools could replace email

Dig Deeper on Mobile management

Unified Communications