Outlook is one of Microsoft’s oldest products — at nearly 22 years old, it is the same age as some of the fresh-faced interns that arrive on the company’s Redmond campus every summer. But it just keeps humming along, outlasting many programs and initiatives that have been conceived, released and discarded during its lifetime.
Microsoft has updated the email program to keep up with the times and compete with Gmail and others by infusing technologies like artificial intelligence and focusing heavily on mobile apps, even though the company doesn’t have a widely used smartphone operating system. And the executive leading the charge is a long-time mentee of CEO Satya Nadella.
Gaurav Sareen sports the broad title of corporate vice president of communication and time management at Microsoft. He leads teams that work on the company’s key communications tools, and he’s been at Microsoft for 17 years — joining just after Steve Ballmer became CEO.
Clad in a white Nike polo shirt with the Office 365 logo added on, Sareen spoke with GeekWire about the future of Outlook, what he’s learned from Nadella and how Microsoft thinks about email in the smartphone era.
A couple years ago, Sareen, then working on the Bing search engine, was looking for something new to do. He talked to his mentor Nadella, and set his sights on Outlook. Sareen and Nadella became close when the future CEO was running Bing. Sareen wanted to help people get things done, and he found that Outlook was his most important tool for completing tasks.
Outlook at the time was close to 20 years old, and it had a web version, a Mac version, and a fairly new mobile app. Sareen came in with a mindset that is now very common at Microsoft for addressing apps across devices. A regular practitioner of Vinyasa Yoga — a style of yoga that focuses on stringing together multiple poses fluidly — Sareen is passionate about removing the digital clutter and making it so people can quickly move through tasks.
“These were all sort of siloed products, so what I came in to do was to see how can we think of Outlook as one service that spans devices, and then position us to help people connect, organize and get things done,” Sareen said.
Sareen and his team sit in the Experiences and Devices Group, and the work fits under the umbrella of Microsoft 365. Sareen’s manager is Rajesh Jha, the executive vice president of the group who reports directly to Nadella.
Smartphones have replaced PCs as the must-have tech gadget, a reality that could have been a blow for Microsoft, given the company’s struggles to compete in smartphone hardware and mobile operating systems. Microsoft has adjusted, embracing Android and iOS and designing apps specifically for those platforms, while adding extensions for a variety of competitive productivity offerings like Dropbox and Google Drive.
Microsoft has offered a widely accessible mobile Outlook app for close to four years — based on the email app Acompli that the company acquired in 2014 for a reported $200 million — and it is a major focal point today. Before that, Microsoft offered mobile email for Office 365 subscribers via the Outlook Web Apps for Android and iOS that were retired last year.
There are more than 100 million active Outlook mobile users, and the app just underwent a significant redesign on iOS. Microsoft added new features as well as some goodies that have already debuted on the Android version. The move is part of a broader reimagining of the company’s core offerings, including Office and Windows 10.
On a phone, interactions are a lot shorter than a desktop or laptop that someone might be sitting in front of for hours. Much of the recent improvements to Outlook on mobile focus on speeding things up. Here are a few new features for Outlook mobile that have debuted recently or are coming over the next few months:
- The ability to add meetings through Microsoft Teams and join them without leaving Outlook mobile.
- Favorite notifications that allow users to tag frequent contacts like their bosses or people they work closely with and get specific notifications from those people when they send emails or calendar invites.
- Enhanced calendar sharing abilities and the expansion of search so that users can look for a specific calendar event.
Like almost every other part of the company, Microsoft is infusing artificial intelligence into Outlook on smartphones. We’ve been hearing about AI for decades, but only recently has it been possible to actually develop the technology and program it into products, Sareen says.
Microsoft has embraced AI as much as anyone, making the technology a companywide centerpiece after a major engineering reorganization last year. Sareen thinks we are just starting to see what the technology can do, but it also must be developed and deployed with care.
“We do want to make sure it’s still about the human first, and AI is there to help you in being a more complete you, rather than being substitutive,” Sareen said.
In addition to helping users manage the deluge of information, AI in Outlook is also there for protection. Microsoft uses the technology to flag messages that might be spam or malicious to warn users from clicking on them.
Though it’s not as cool as the newer collaboration apps like Teams and its rival Slack, email remains the dominant form of communication among Microsoft customers. The amount of email sent and received is still growing.
Sareen called email a means to an end, and that end is connecting people throughout an organization. Someday the most effective means of communication could change, so Microsoft is making sure Outlook connects to a variety of other programs, such as Skype video calling via Outlook.com, and its document sharing services as well as those from the competition.
Microsoft’s $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn has sent ripples across the company, and Outlook represents one of the first programs to integrate with the social network. Sareen says email is simultaneously the largest closed and open ecosystem. As long as you know someone’s email, you can reach out to them. But if you don’t, it’s tough to find people.
LinkedIn is the opposite; it’s wide open in terms of finding people, but users need approval to connect. By associating LinkedIn profiles with profiles in Office 365 — an integration Microsoft unveiled in September 2017 — Microsoft wants to make it easier to find people and learn more about them quickly.
Sareen says he and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner conduct periodic reviews of efforts to integrate the business social network with Outlook. Down the line, the company wants to make LinkedIn into a “directory for the world,” allowing users to more easily find contact information for people in their network, even if they don’t have the exact email address.
The acquisition of LinkedIn was the single biggest in Microsoft’s history, and it will play a major role in Nadella’s legacy as chief executive. Along the way, Nadella has made believers out of skeptics, both internally and externally, and led Microsoft on a resurgence that has made it the most valuable company in the U.S.
Sareen had doubts of his own when Nadella came in to run Bing in 2007. But one simple thing stood out about the new boss right off the bat: he listened.
“He was very clear that he started with learning and then making a decision, rather than just saying ‘I am the leader, and here are the things we need to do,’ ” Sareen said.
The two men both grew up in India, about 1,200 miles apart, and quickly connected because of their shared emphasis on putting culture first and implementing the right tools and systems to help people do their best work.
Sareen also admires Nadella’s penchant for structure. Nadella instituted regular meetings and check-ins on a variety of metrics that Sareen says forced the team to be more disciplined in their approach.
Nadella has said in the past that it is better to be a “learn-it-all” than a “know-it-all.” He remains eager to learn, says Sareen, even if that means being called out every once in awhile.
Nadella’s learning mindset has not faded even as he’s ascended to the top of the company. Sareen mentioned a recent meeting where he disagreed with Nadella on something, and rather than hunkering down and arguing, Nadella acknowledged he was wrong and continued.
“He had an opinion, but when I made my point he very quickly said, ‘Yes, I think that makes sense’ and moved on,” Sareen said. “This kind of learning approach has helped him both succeed personally and in some sense turn the company’s culture around.”
If you follow Microsoft even the slightest bit, you’ve probably heard an executive regurgitate the current mission statement: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Mission statements can be a little hokey, something Sareen believed for a long time as an engineer.
Now it’s different, Sareen said, as every decision the company makes takes into account those 13 words.
He finds this mindset and a shift to being customer-focused rather than competitor-focused a lot more motivating than a simple edict of crushing the competition. Under Nadella, the mindset is to make the customer happy and hope that satisfaction ultimately gives Microsoft an edge.
“Those were good rallying cries,” Sareen said, “but they didn’t really resonate with me because customers don’t care if you crush someone else.”