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Users push for Outlook tab in Microsoft Teams

A request from users for an Outlook tab in Microsoft Teams has been 'under review' since early 2018.

Microsoft has been dragging its feet for nearly two years over whether to provide access to email within the collaboration app Microsoft Teams, despite thousands of users endorsing the idea.

Microsoft's sluggishness on the issue comes despite signs that the inability to send and receive emails in Teams is preventing the app from being more widely used within some organizations.

"It would be ideal to have access to email within Teams," said Dan Mulligan, vice president of digital workplace at Everest Reinsurance Company. Everest is a midsize insurer and reinsurer based in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Such integration would "keep people in one interface, so they don't have to bounce around from client to client to client to get their job done," he said. It could also help boost the adoption of Teams at his company.

For employees who do a lot of their work in email, a tab for Microsoft Outlook would be "a way to bridge that gap," Mulligan said.

Users have been seeking an Outlook tab in Teams since 2016. More than 6,000 people have endorsed an appeal for the feature on the company's user feedback forum, making it one of the website's most popular requests.

But the item has remained "under review" since March 2018, after previously spending a year on the backlog. A Microsoft representative confirmed last week that the vendor was still mulling over whether to support the idea.

Unlike some other features demanded by users, an Outlook tab in Teams should be relatively simple to engineer, experts said. Two Microsoft employees recently created a tutorial to demonstrate how customers could use the vendor's publicly available developer kit to build a makeshift Outlook tab in Teams.

"[Microsoft] could do it very, very easily," said Tom Arbuthnot, principal solutions architect at consulting firm Modality Systems. "So, it's not a technical challenge; it's a decision they are making, I think."

Microsoft declined to comment on its decision-making process. But some industry observers suspect the company is grappling with squaring a tighter Outlook integration with the marketing of Teams. The vendor has tried to portray Teams as serving a different purpose than email.

Microsoft developed Teams in part to compete with the rise of Slack, which markets its product as helping companies minimize their use of email. Adding an Outlook tab to Teams might make it harder for Microsoft to sell against Slack among companies that are hell-bent on that goal.

"From a marketing perspective, as soon as they put email in Teams, you've kind of jumped the shark," Arbuthnot said. "It's a weird message."

Internal politics within Microsoft could also be delaying a decision. Experts suspect the product groups for Teams and Outlook may be battling over what role their apps will play over the long term in the Office 365 portfolio. Adding Outlook to Teams could be the first step toward diminishing the email client as a stand-alone service for business customers.

Instead of creating an Outlook tab, Microsoft has focused on creating tighter integrations between its email client and Teams. Users can now forward emails to a Teams channel and export Teams messages to Outlook. Slack provides similar integrations for Outlook and Gmail.

At the same time, not all users are on the same page about receiving email in Teams. Among the more than 400 comments about the topic on Microsoft's user forum are numerous messages saying it would be a bad idea. Those users appreciate that Microsoft has maintained a separation between apps designed for different kinds of communication.

Ultimately, Microsoft will need to bring Outlook and Teams closer together, said Adam Preset, analyst at Gartner. Email remains the best tool for communicating with people external to an organization.

Microsoft might be wise to include only a leaner version of the email client in Teams to avoid bogging down the app with Outlook's every bell and whistle. The vendor could also design a way to let each customer choose whether to activate an Outlook tab.  

Microsoft has been telling companies that Teams is the hub for all apps in Office 365. At this point, the only thing missing is email, Preset said.

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