Acompli acquisition transforms Microsoft mobile email client strategy

Microsoft spent several hundred million dollars to buy Acompli, a mobile email startup company. It seems like a lot of money until you understand that Acompli is a pretty nice email client for Exchange that does a better job than any other email client on iOS and Android. Sure, there are some rough edges to hone as Acompli joins the Office family, but the early signs are very good.

One thing you can always be sure about when working with technology is that change is constant. When I wrote about Microsoft’s evolving mobile strategy for Exchange last May, it seemed pretty clear that Outlook Web App (OWA) was the driving factor to deliver user functionality. ActiveSync (EAS) remained important because of its support by so many devices, but Microsoft had become frustrated by their lack of control over a stream of EAS implementation issues seen on iOS and Android. Customers see Exchange as the problem rather than the email app.

At that time, Microsoft had just launched OWA for Android to follow OWA for iOS and seemed to be well on the way to deliver OWA for Devices everywhere. Wrapping OWA up in a way that it could be consumed on different platforms appeared like a good way to expose new functionality, especially when new features appear regularly in Office 365, as they’ve done recently with People View, Clutter, and Groups. The situation is a little different for on-premises Exchange.

Although functional, OWA on Devices has proven to be slow on iOS and still doesn’t support all Android devices. Microsoft’s developers have done their best to speed things up but I guess that will always be a challenge when several layers of software are needed in a client.

Which brings us to Acompli, acquired over the Thanksgiving break (after some web leaks) by Microsoft. Paul Thurrott has already laid out why he thinks Microsoft bought Acompli. I don’t really have too much to add to Paul’s analysis, but I thought that I should work with the client for a couple of days to see what the fuss is about.

I normally use Outlook Mobile on Windows Phone as my mobile client. Outlook Mobile is as good an EAS client as you’re going to get and it serves my purposes very well so I consider it a good benchmark to compare any Exchange mobile client against. Of course, Acompli doesn’t just connect to Exchange (on-premises and cloud) as it is equally comfortable connecting to Gmail or Outlook.com.

The first thing was to configure Acompli (V1.7.1) on an iPhone 5S to connect to my Office 365 mailbox. Autodiscover can be a black art at times but its mysteries have been well plumbed, which made it disappointing to have to enter connection data manually. Oh well, that hiccup was quickly sorted and the client connected.

On the surface, Acompli uses EAS to talk to Exchange. At least, you’d conclude this because EAS device access policies will quarantine Acompli if you’ve set things up to block new devices, which I had. But behind the scenes, Acompli only uses EAS to fetch information from your Exchange mailbox to its own server.  The data is then processed because the “service requires that certain data flow through the Acompli service so that we can index it and provide the Acompli experience on your mobile device.

Everything works quite smoothly and there’s no perceptible delay in receiving new mail on the device, but the intermediate transfer through the servers of a third party will cause some alarm bells to ring in the security community, even though Acompli has paid attention to both security and privacy.

Processing data from Exchange allows Acompli to present it in different ways than other mobile clients. It means that they’ve achieved a very polished integration between the calendar and email and have features like “undo delete” and the swipe-to-move messages into the “archive” (this is not an archive mailbox but rather an archive folder in your primary mailbox). It also allows Acompli to present treaded conversations in a very nice manner and to implement their own version of “Clutter” or “Focused” email that you should deal with first (however, because Clutter was cleaning up my inbound mail stream on the server anyway, anything that arrives into my Inbox is already pretty focused). Acompli’s “Badge Count” seems to be like Microsoft’s People View in that it is a mechanism to understand the people with whom you correspond most often and are therefore most important to you.

The Acompli client is fast and, at least in my view, a much better client for Exchange than Apple’s standard iOS mail app. It has some irritating shortcomings that should be sorted. For instance, I found no way to force synchronization or how to change my account details once I had entered them to configure the client. More importantly, there is no way for an administrator to exercise any control over Acompli short of creating a device access rule to block all Acompli clients.

Remote device wipe (above) for instance needs to function. Acompli’s security policy says that “Exchange accounts also support end-to-end data purge can also be initiated from the Exchange server via mobile policy “remote wipe” either by the user or by an IT administrator.” It all sounds OK, but I could not make a device delete work despite several attempts. No doubt there’s a simple reason why the remote delete request issued by Exchange wasn’t respected by the client and the delete pending status always reverted to “Access granted”. I eventually had to delete the client to remove the data from iOS.

Like any acquisition, it will take time for Microsoft to figure out exactly how Acompli fits in their line-up and what changes are required elsewhere, including how Acompli leverages some of the advanced features now appearing in Exchange Online and how the client will interact with Microsoft's mobile device and application management strategy based on Intune.

I imagine that a substantial amount of engineering brainpower will soon be consumed to determine how OWA for Devices evolves – or terminates – on both iOS and Android given that Acompli performs much better than OWA and has a more platform-like interface to boot.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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