Outlook Express: dead, not dead, or just deadly?

All of the above...

Outlook Express has been reprieved, ZDNet Australia announced last week, having two days earlier announced shock news of the product's demise. But if you do the sums, you'll likely conclude that ZDnet was right in the first place - if Outlook Express has any future, it's not likely to be a happy one.

The problem is that Express is something of a sad little orphan. Proper, grown-up Outlook is a part of the Microsoft Office empire, and costs real money, whereas Outlook Express is a free product that looks a little bit homeless now Microsoft is to discontinue standalone version of IE. IE and Express are now in the charge of the Windows team but while you can more or less figure out how viewing browser technologies as part of the OS can develop, what do you get when you integrate a standalone email client into the OS? And, if you were running Windows development, why would you bother?

Messenger, web-based email and so on are maybe adequate for your purposes, and given the powers that be at Redmond are starting to look at chargeable features for these, free POP clients look a little anomalous. Sure, you probably need one to make sure nobody's else's free email client starts poaching on what you've established as your turf, but you're not likely to be putting much effort into developing it, are you?

Which is more or less what the guy from Microsoft told ZD before partially eating his words two days later. It's worth noting at this juncture that this particular guy works for the "information worker product management group", Microsoft's relatively recent dullsville tag for the bit that owns Office. The Office people, naturally, would dearly love people to pay for their own product instead of just using the free one, so you might reckon, he would say that, wouldn't he?

The notion of every last cheapskate stopping using Outlook Express and paying for a whole copy of Microsoft Office instead is somewhat risible, but what do we have here? The pricing for the next version of the Microsoft Office apps, including a standalone version of Outlook for $109, or £89.99.

Now, this definitely doesn't nail the cheapskates, but it doesn't leave a vast amount of space underneath either. The price tag is low enough for Microsoft to mop up quite a lot of the business customers who've been using Express, on the basis that it's not a lot for extra features - particularly if the number of these gets mysteriously larger as time passes. And you could also lob in the Sun gambit; Sun charges for StarOffice because businesses are suspicious of free stuff, apparently.

And what about the home market? The position here is a little tricky because it's not obvious (probably not to Microsoft yet, either) which division's turf this is on. At some point in the future a cheaper and less functional version of Outlook ($39? Would that work?) might make sense for the Office people, but probably not a great deal. And while more upmarket, paid-for email might make sense to MSN, Outlook Express isn't an obvious part of that.

The bottom line, we reckon, is approximately as follows. Outlook Express is effectively on its way to the morgue, because nobody loves or wants it. It will therefore go into some form of maintenance in the hope that it gently withers away. But if Microsoft says this, lots of people will howl and competitors may jump in. So "Microsoft will continue its innovation around the email experience in Windows" (which you'll notice is a wondrous way of not quite committing to develop Outlook Express) while Express itself will mysteriously not get significantly better.

So, farewell, we've always hated you anyway. And if you ask us, people using this malware magnet want their heads examined. ®

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