074. Outlook Pride, Finally
The best reason. . .to upgrade to Office 2003 is the new Outlook-Office's organization tool, which handles email, contact and calendaring functions. –Journal of Accountancy, 6/2004
Each module of Office deserves a shot at being the hero of a release. That’s how a healthy product bundle should move forward, rather than relying on a single anchor. Excel 5.0, Word 97, PowerPoint 2000, Access 2.0 anchored Office Professional. While Outlook was top of mind for IT infrastructure managers, it remained complicated and frustrating for regular end-users. Embarking on a radical redesign of a major product is a career opportunity and also a big bet for a critical business that continued to be half of Microsoft. That would be difficult enough, but nothing is that straightforward. Outlook would still face internal pressures of strategy and alignment that have made building a breakthrough release so difficult previously. Would this be the moment for Outlook to shine?
Back to 073. **DO NOT FORWARD**
Outlook barely worked. Still.
Such was the product-market fit of Outlook that enterprise customers owning the latest in all the Office tools were routinely deploying the newest Outlook while leaving old versions of the core Office apps on the PC.
Five years and three releases from the debut of the product, Outlook remained fragile, bloated, and too difficult to use. It wasn’t as though the team hadn’t executed, releasing Outlook 97, Outlook 98, and Outlook 2000 in the span of just over three years. Rather the team, through little fault of their own at least after Office 97, whipsawed through strategic initiatives. First, they had to split the product into internet and corporate modes. Then they had to merge the product back together while attempting to integrate with Office and the deployment tools of Office 2000. Then they had to charge up the hill of unified storage for the second time, only to cut the feature again at the tail end of the project. As if this wasn’t enough, the past couple of years saw the rise and unveiling of NetDocs which pivoted to a potential Outlook replacement, only to see that vision meet reality.
Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, wrote in 2007, years and a generation after the release of Outlook and long after the demise of Netscape, “The Only Thing That Matters”.1 This short piece codified product-market fit. Essentially, he said that the market pulls a successful product out of the company, “[t]he market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along.” Outlook was such a product. Coupled with Exchange the market simply needed the combination to exist and provided by Microsoft. No matter what, the market was going to make the offering successful. It simply didn’t matter what Microsoft did or did not do, Exchange and Outlook were going to be successful. Once customers saw enterprise-grade email running on Windows Server with a single integrated mail and calendaring solution, all from Microsoft, everything else was set aside: bugs, bad user-interface, poor performance, and missing features. The combination clobbered IBM/Lotus Notes. The rest is history.
We (or I) could not overcome the internal forces driving Outlook’s strategy in order to give the team space to focus on building the product it needed to be. It was weird to achieve so much success with such a challenging product. That really throws one off balance. Product people, so to speak, like to think that being a great product is what matters in the market. This belief drove so much of the dialog internally and across teams it is hard to think of any other factors that were ever discussed—the battles were over what makes for a great product. We battled features, architecture, performance, competition, and more. We never really debated the other aspects of the 4 P’s of the marketing mix beyond product: price, place, and promotion. Outlook was the right price, available through the right channel, meeting an articulated need exactly the right way. Oh, and email and calendaring kind-of-sort-of worked.
Still as a product development organization and leader, I really wanted to make Outlook work. We really wanted a release of Outlook we could be proud of in a product sense. It was a mission.
Standing in the way, more strategy.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Hardcore Software by Steven Sinofsky to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.