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Dear Microsoft: Why does Outlook 2013 cost $110?

Commentary: Consumers who seek a decent desktop mail client must pay a steep premium. But why?

outlook-2013-box.jpg
Microsoft

I don't understand Microsoft Outlook.

I mean, I understand how to use it. Truth be told, I actually quite like it. As desktop mail clients go, I think Outlook 2013 is the best option out there, and certainly the best version of the program Microsoft has ever produced.

What I don't understand is why Microsoft charges $109.99 for a single license. Maybe it's to thoroughly discourage anyone from buying it, in hopes that customers will instead opt for an Office 365 subscription. But here's the thing: I don't want Office 365. I just want Outlook.

The program debuted in 1997 as part of Microsoft's Office 97 suite. That coincided with the rise of the PalmPilot and other PDAs, and back then there was a thriving market for personal information managers (PIMs). A program like Outlook was the desktop side of the PDA, the big-screen manager of contacts, appointments, and to-do lists.

To say things are different now is a major understatement. Most folks manage their contacts and calendar on their phones, syncing everything to a cloud destination. Same goes for e-mail, and in fact some would argue that there's little point in bothering with a "local" (i.e., desktop) mail client at all.

So why am I bothering? Like a lot of people, I need to manage multiple accounts. I have three with Gmail and another from a domain tied to a small business. Can I deal with all of them in a browser? Sure, but it's a huge hassle: Google, maddeningly, offers no unified-inbox option, no way to sign into or view all your accounts in a single tab.

Desktop mail client FTW

No, for multiple accounts, nothing beats a desktop mail client. And call me a traditionalist, but my preferred layout is a simple inbox pane on the left and a preview pane on the right. I also insist on an "unread" view that shows just my unread messages -- across all my accounts, not just one of them.

Most important of all, and this may sound minor, I don't want a program that automatically marks a message as read after I click it or a certain amount of time has passed. That makes zero sense. A message is "read" when I reply to or forward it. But you'd be amazed how few mail clients work this way. I've tried tons of them, and found just two that afford this configuration: eM Client (which has proven maddeningly buggy of late) and -- wait for it -- Outlook.

So here's the thing: I like Outlook. I want Outlook. It's the perfect mail client for someone like me. But I won't pay $110 to get it, nor will I pay $69 per year for Office 365 -- not when the other 85 percent of the suite holds no value for me.

Outlook.com is not the answer, and neither is Microsoft's anemic Windows 8 Mail app. Mozilla Thunderbird is flaky and fugly, and has the same annoying mark-as-read issue as most other clients.

I suspect Microsoft itself doesn't know what to do with Outlook, which is ostensibly a business tool and probably overkill for most consumers. It has sort of outlived its usefulness, except as a mail client. So here's what the company should do: Sell Outlook licenses for $25 apiece. Give people a compelling reason to buy it, instead of shoveling it into a subscription plan like an afterthought.

Alas, it'll never happen, because Microsoft undoubtedly thinks the perceived value of the product will suffer. And because this version of Outlook is now two years old, there's almost certainly an Outlook 2015 planned for next year's Windows 10 release -- though what the former could possibly add, I have no idea.

All I know is, Microsoft has a perfectly good e-mail client no one in their right mind would buy for $110. Let me put the question to you: What's a fair price? And if you've found a good solution for managing multiple e-mail accounts, by all means share it in the comments!

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