Outlook.com add-ins: What you need to know

DevToolsGuy / Thursday, January 14, 2016

The email service we now know as Outlook.com is among the world’s oldest webmail services. Founded in the mid-1990’s under the original name Hotmail before being acquired by Microsoft, the service was rebranded as Outlook.com in 2013 and remains one of the world’s most popular providers (if not the most popular). Outlook.com is a free public service, and shouldn’t be confused with Microsoft’s other email services - the locally based Outlook and the private service Outlook Web App.

Outlook.com has tended to have a rather unexciting image in the public imagination - less hip than Gmail, less functional than the desktop Outlook people use in their offices. It was always the ‘go-to’ web service, yet never anything more than functional. However, that might all be set to change - Outlook.com has undergone a lot of UI improvement in recent years and, most excitingly, will now allow third party developers to bring add-ins into the platform. The announcement was made at this year’s Build event, and further detail was released in a post on the Outlook blog

This is an exciting move for three main reasons:

  1. Microsoft are reasserting their dominance in the email service space
  2. Companies will be able to provide customers with services tailored to their email experience
  3. Consumers will have easier access to the products and services they use most often from within their email service

Essentially, Microsoft are opening up their APIs so developers can access email data and produce some sophisticated and impressive tools which tie in well with Outlook.com. These will be a lot more than plugins which sit on top of an email service; they’ll function in any browser and from any device.

What might these add-ins look like?

Outlook.com has never previously supported third party add-ins, and so the potential here is enormous. Three major services which have already produced add-ins are Uber, PayPal and email service Boomerang. When Satya Nadella announced the move at his Ignite Keynote speech, he demo’d how this would work with Taxi service Uber. What the add-in offers is a brilliantly natural and integrated approach to the user’s app. The Uber add-in allows you to:

  • set ride reminders for any calendar event with a single tap;
  • receive notifications in Outlook.com of upcoming journeys;
  • access the Uber app with a simple swipe from your calendar;
  • in the future, there’ll also be an Uber add-in for Cortana!

Clearly, this functionality will make end users’ experience of the Uber app a lot more fluid, and for Microsoft the option works as a draw for potential Outlook.com users. There’s a huge range of potential use cases for this kind of add-in and we can expect a lot of companies to start looking for ways to get customers to install their own add-ins. Retail, payment, advertising and travel businesses in particular will be very excited about the possibility of tapping into their customers’ inboxes, contact and calendars directly.

Getting started with Outlook.com add-ins

Microsoft are keen to get developers building add-ins and have provided handy guides to help them connect to Outlook.com’s APIs and to teach them how to extend the service. There are two principle ways of doing this:

1.    Connect to the Outlook Service

The Outlook REST API relies on Microsoft Azure and allows developers to call the Calendar, Mail or Contacts APIs directly to their apps. The process requires developers to manage authentication tokens, construct correct URLs and queries for their needs, and these are written in C# and JavaScript.

The process involves: Registering an app -> getting an authorization code -> getting an access token -> calling the mail/calendar/contacts API

 2.    Extend the Outlook.com service

If you want to change the look and feel of Outlook.com for your customers, you’ll first have to request an Outlook.com developer preview account from outlookdev@microsoft.com. The quickest route here is simply to clone Microsoft’s existing add-in code which is currently available on GitHub. From there you can follow Microsoft’s guide to begin customizing UX.

The Outlook is good

Now that developers can build customized add-ins for Outlook.com customers, there’s a huge potential for providing smooth, intuitive and integrated experiences within the email service. This is an exciting step in Microsoft’s evolution towards a more open, developer and third party friendly model and promises to enhance end users’ experiences with their apps by making things just work more easily. Brilliant design and User Experience will be crucial to making sure third party add-ins don’t make life more complicated for customers, but the potential is awesome and the Outlook is good, if not fantastic.