Outlook Spaces

Last week I was reminiscing about Microsoft Entourage, an old (and discontinued) Mac groupware app:

Entourage was Microsoft’s answer for Mac users who wanted Outlook. Like Outlook, Entourage allowed you to manage your calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes, alongside email. But it also included an interesting feature that wasn’t available in Outlook: the Project Center.

The Project Center allowed you to create focused views of your emails, appointments, tasks, notes, and files. It narrowed down the information in Entourage according to project-specific filters that you’d configure. I was running a design consultancy at the time, and Project Center made it easier for me to keep track of several projects simultaneously.

Entourage was replaced by a “proper” Mac version of MS Outlook in 2010. Alas, the Project Center didn’t make the cut. At that point I moved to Mac OS’s built in calendar, contacts, and mail apps, and haven’t looked back.

I’m bringing this up because a recent post on The Verge highlights a leaked upcoming feature for Outlook:

Microsoft is working on a new organizational feature for Outlook, named Spaces. Twitter user WalkingCat revealed the new tool in a leaked video over the weekend, and Outlook Spaces looks like it’s designed to allow users to collate emails, notes, files, documents, calendar appointments, and to-do lists into online spaces. It looks like it will be useful for students or businesses that are planning projects.

I don’t usually point to posts about unreleased products, but am making an exception for this one because of two reasons. First, I have a soft spot for placemaking metaphors in software design. The name of this feature (“Spaces”) is clearly such a metaphor. Second, Outlook Spaces sounds a lot like Entourage’s Project Center — but smarter.

Project Center had a lot of promise in theory. In practice, it was a slog. The problem was that the system required a lot of maintenance. The search filters for each project had to be adjusted often; if a team member joined or left the project, you had to re-configure the filters. You also had to manually tag emails, notes, tasks, and events. So while the system would indeed focus your information, it wasn’t very smart: you had to work at it, not just in it.

Outlook Spaces may solve this problem. The leaked description highlighted on The Verge suggests upcoming releases may use AI to automatically discover and group information. This would make using such a system much more practical, since it wouldn’t require as much maintenance. (Of course, this is assuming that the AI works properly.) The possibilities are exciting.

Still, such a system may not work for me in 2020. Twelve years ago, I communicated mostly through email, so Entourage was a nexus for my work life. These days, my communications are spread over a variety of systems: email, Slack, Messages.app, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. This makes it much more difficult to centralize communications, and a system like this one would have to include everything to be useful.

As a result, I suspect that Outlook Spaces would be most useful for organizations that are all-in on Microsoft’s ecosystem. That’s unlikely to be my case anytime soon. That said, I’m excited by the prospect of such at tool using modern technologies.

Leaked video reveals Microsoft’s new Outlook ‘Spaces’ feature