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What's missing in Windows 8 apps

Come October 26, Microsoft will face two battles for Windows 8. Not only does it have to convince people that the OS is worth upgrading to, but it must land with competitive apps. Here's what they lack so far.

Splitting the screen between two apps is neat, but it won't make up for a lack of core in-app features in Windows 8.
Splitting the screen between two apps is neat, but it won't make up for a lack of core in-app features in Windows 8.
Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Windows 8 ships with some absolutely gorgeous apps. Navigating through News, Travel, or Weather, it's hard to deny the rich and colorful depiction of content. While its four core productivity apps are equally pretty, they're woefully inadequate in their current state for getting things done.

First off is the all-important Mail app. This is not a service-specific tool for grabbing only your Microsoft mail but a wide net to cast for juggling all your e-mail. It currently supports Microsoft's Hotmail and Outlook, as well as Google accounts and "Other" for non-Webmail accounts It's a great idea for the neophyte operating system, to encourage people to think of its default apps as capable of handling more than just Microsoft.

The execution, though, leaves much to the imagination. The app doesn't support basic Google features, like message conversations. Perhaps that's expected, since Google is a competitor. But it also doesn't yet do some of the basics in the overhauled Outlook.com, such as making controls immediately available. Instead, you must swipe in from the top and bottom edges to see the most obvious tools, like subject-line editing, draft-saving, or font style-changing.

And if you're on a Yahoo account, you're out of luck.

It has other significant holes where there should be features. There's no way to flag or star an e-mail, there's no way to create a new folder or label, sync is atrociously slow, and Share doesn't interact with individual messages. Share is so important to Windows 8 that it gets one of the five slots on the Charms bar, but yet you can not "share" an e-mail directly. You can highlight the contents of an e-mail and share that, but it's hardly the same thing.

Also, Mail doesn't always indicate when new messages arrive, and it is not yet integrated with the Calendar app. Speaking of which, the Calendar app is hardly ready for prime-time, either.

Like Mail, it only supports Hotmail, Outlook, and Google accounts. If Microsoft is looking to peel off Apple fans with Windows 8, this isn't going to help. Your configuration options are currently limited to toggling a calendar on or off, and changing its display color. The lack of direct e-mail integration is painful.

It does nicely snap to one side, so you can have the Calendar open while working in Mail or any other app, but that's a feature of Windows 8, not of the app. And like Mail, it fails to integrate with Share.

If Mail and Calendar are half-baked, Messaging is still in the mixing bowl. It flat-out doesn't integrate with Share, which is beyond silly given Share's importance to Microsoft and the importance of messaging to everybody else on the planet.

Account support is currently limited to Microsoft Messenger, which almost nobody uses, although thankfully Facebook is supported. This is weird because we've seen Google app support, and the People app, which I'll discuss next, supports Twitter. There's no instant messenger support for Yahoo, AOL, or any other account.

The People app is one of Windows 8's default app bright spots, but it too could use some improvements.
The People app is one of Windows 8's default app bright spots, but it too could use some improvements. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

You can change your status from Available to Invisible, you can invite a friend to chat, and you can delete a thread. Forget the mixing bowl. As IM apps go, Messaging hasn't even assembled all the necessary raw ingredients.

The People is the bright dish in a sea of mediocre apps. It was one of the first that Microsoft debuted at last September's Build conference, and it looked great even back then. It's more than an address book, it's where your contacts social networking updates appear.

Account avatars are crisp, Facebook messaging status appears as a thin but legible green bar next to a person's avatar, and the font shines here. Semantic zoom lets you quickly jump alphabetically across your address book, and you can quickly toggle whether the contacts from a particular account appear without having to unsync that account. Sharing a contact's data works quite well here, and you can even filter by who's online.

People supports the most accounts of Microsoft's apps, adding LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to the list of Google and Microsoft's various services, but it does have its flaws. Even on a broadband connection, sync remains slow, and its ties to other productivity and communication apps remain one-way. You can send a Gmail to a friend listed in People from their contact info that People pulls in, but if you create a calendar event and mention them by name, Calendar won't link back to People. While it's true that no operating system has nailed this fully, even if it were done in a rudimentary way it could set Windows 8 above competitors.

Microsoft is playing a difficult game with Windows 8, promising a hearty operating system that can serve the masses. But default apps must meet tablet use cases in addition to more traditional workflows, and the lack of full integration and incomplete features will turn people off from day one if they're not fixed. To its credit, Microsoft has promised ongoing updates to apps that it develops, but that doesn't negate current problems. Windows 8 itself might be ready to serve, but since the default productivity apps that have yet to approach a common definition for usable that October 26th deadline has never loomed larger.