Outlook for iOS speeds up work with third-party add ins

Android support coming soon to help people process email without leaving mobile Outlook

Users of Microsoft's Outlook app for iPhone and iPad can now get work done quicker using third-party integrations.

As of Thursday, Outlook for iOS supports add-ins, which let software companies build extensions to their own products that interact with emails in Outlook on a user’s smartphone and tablet. At launch, the app supports add-ins from Evernote, GIPHY, Nimble, Trello and Smartsheet, in addition to those that Microsoft has created.

For example, users will be able to translate emails using a Microsoft Translator add-in, add cards to a Trello board straight from their email and quickly reply to an email thread with a funny animated GIF.

The add-in system is aimed at solving one of the key problems with handling email on a smartphone. Messages often require users to take action in one way or another, which can often require information from a different application or service. These add-ins are supposed to help users be more productive by letting them stay inside Outlook.

Here’s how it works: users go into the Outlook for iOS settings panel and tap the Add-Ins menu. After that, they’ll see a list of potential add-ins for the app, and can tap the plus symbol to add them. After that, users will be able to invoke the add-ins when reading email by tapping the symbol that appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the messages they read, underneath the reply button.

Each add-in has its own behavior, specific to the service that built it. For example, Nimble’s add-in will show users information about the sender and recipients of an email. At this point, however, add-ins can only be invoked when users are reading email. Javier Soltero, the corporate vice president of Outlook at Microsoft, said that the company is working on making it possible to use add-ins in other contexts, such as writing emails.

When asked about his company’s process of developing an Outlook add-in for iOS, Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader said that Microsoft’s developer tools were “best in class.” But beyond that, the tech titan provided additional help and input with add-in development.

Apple already introduced an Extensions feature in iOS 8, but Soltero said it’s not right for Microsoft’s purposes. In his view, Apple’s design is based on a series of events that users don’t typically follow. To email a picture, users find the photo in their Photos app, then open the share sheet and send the photo to Outlook for inclusion in an email.

Microsoft’s add-ins work differently.

“You know what you’re going to do, you’re going to send a message, and what you include in that message is the other consideration,” he said. “Similarly, you receive the email, and then [can] act on it with these add-ins.”

There’s also a question of user demand. While Smartsheet has existing apps for the iPhone and iPad, the company hasn’t seen much interest in iOS extensions from enterprises.

Another advantage for Microsoft to using these add-ins instead of Apple’s built-in functionality is that they interoperate with Outlook on other platforms, including Outlook 2013 and 2016 for Windows. Soltero said that add-in support is coming soon to Outlook 2016 for MacOS, too.

Mader said that Smartsheet has found good add-in design works well across both desktop and mobile, but that user experience should be tailored for each platform.

Right now, the add-ins are available for Office 365 commercial customers using Outlook for iOS. The functionality is also slowly rolling out to Outlook.com users. Microsoft said that similar functionality for Outlook on Android will be available “soon.”

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