The latest surprise release of Outlook for Mac 15.3 is largely what you'd hope to get in an Outlook refresh: At long last, a version that looks and works almost identically to the Windows version. This is great news if you live exclusively in an Exchange environment, but you may want to mute your celebration if you also deal with other calendars and contact lists created elsewhere.
Outlook and the Mac have a long and ugly history. For many years, there were, at best, rudimentary and semi-functional Mac versions of Outlook, which created a self-fulfilling cycle that the Mac was not ready for or worthy of use in the enterprise. Various versions of Outlook Express and something called Entourage performed some or most of Outlook's functions through the early 2000's.
But those substitutes had no actual code from the baseline Microsoft Office suite, of which Outlook is a part, and the user interface was different enough from Outlook to create problems for support and IT departments. It didn't help that Entourage never quite reached parity with Outlook as an Exchange client.
It wasn't until late 2010, with the release of Office Mac 2011 (the most recent version to date) that Entourage was buried and a full version of Outlook for Mac was released. But even then, the user experience was different from -- and less capable than -- the Windows version. In fact, it was dissimilar enough that moving from one platform to another was frustrating.
Last month, screenshots started to leak out of Outlook for Mac 15.3, part of an anticipated new version of Office slated for next year. Surprisingly, Microsoft released a no-extra-charge Mac version shortly thereafter through its Office 365 SaaS service.
Parity with Windows -- sort of
The big news is that, at long last, Outlook for Mac has more or less reached parity with Outlook for Windows. Rather than worrying about making things "Mac-like," Microsoft's designers have become confident enough to build out their own design language across platforms. The interface is cleaned up and icons are simplified. Outlook for Mac looks and works like the same Outlook you'll see anywhere.
The Ribbon interface is cleaned up in Outlook 15.3 and mirrors the Windows version. Unread messages are clearly denoted by a blue bar to the left of the message abstract -- much easier to see than the bolding that marked unread messages in the previous version.
Links to the various pieces of Outlook -- mail, calendar, contacts, tasks and notes -- have been moved from the left column under the mailboxes to the bottom margin of the window. They used to be easy to miss, especially if you had many accounts and many folders. Now, they've got a prominent place of their own.
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