Microsoft To-Do is a good start, but there’s a long way to go

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After removing the bare-bones task management features from the calendar of Windows Phone 8.1 in the Windows 10 Mobile upgrade in 2015, the ability to do any kind of task management on mobile devices connected to Microsoft Exchange or Office 365 business accounts has greatly suffered. The whole reason I personally started using Microsoft’s mobile operating systems in 1998 was because of the task management and ability to sync with Outlook. Back in 1998, I was working at a design firm using Mac OS, and that had zero software for task management, so I bought a Windows CE Palm-sized PC to keep by my side, take note of projects, due-dates, and time spent on each task. I could also sync with my home computer running Outlook 98 for a larger screen to look at. Up until Windows Phone 7’s release in 2010, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating systems were excellent for keeping track of work while on the go. Today, we hear that Microsoft is going to go back to targeting businesses like they did in the past, but without a task management mobile app that syncs with Exchange or Office 365, that’s obviously not possible. Thankfully, last week Microsoft released a preview of “Microsoft To-Do”. It’s a new task management app being built by the people who made Wunderlist and the intention is to bring proper task management back to smartphones.

Lots of features to add

In testing the preview for Microsoft To-Do, unfortunately, it looks like Microsoft has a long way to go. First of all, the most important feature… ActiveSync support for Exchange tasks (which includes Office 365 Business accounts)… is missing right from the start. It’s supposed to sync with Exchange and Office 365 someday, but this will oddly require a new option to be enabled on the server and in the Office 365 Admin panel. Why would it require that? There’s no reason for it. Exchange ActiveSync has worked fine for accessing Tasks for decades.

Currently, Microsoft To-Do only syncs with Outlook.com/Hotmail email accounts. It’s good that it supports that, which is now running on similar Exchange servers to what Office 365 is using, but really we need the business accounts to work.

Microsoft To-Do also currently only supports signing in with one account at a time. That’s another major issue as many people have multiple personal and business Exchange accounts. I want my business tasks to show up in a separate folder from my personal and family tasks.

Categories are missing as well. In the full Outlook desktop program, we’ve always been able to organize content using categories. This can be done automatically with rules in the case of emails or manually via the ribbon and toolbars. Since abandoning the old Windows Mobile classic in 2010, Microsoft’s mobile efforts have forgotten about the usefulness of categories. Microsoft To-Do is no exception. However, the new Outlook Calendar on Windows 10 desktop (not Windows 10 Mobile) DOES actually support syncing categories from Exchange accounts, and that’s pretty awesome.

Microsoft To-Do does allow for creating multiple lists of tasks and that’s not something that has already existed in Microsoft Exchange (although Outlook has always supported multiple folders for tasks), BUT… those probably should have been implemented as Categories. Being able to apply one or more categories to each task and having those category names appear as sorting options is almost no different than the new way of creating “lists” of tasks. By “almost no different”, I really mean “slightly better”. Microsoft To-Do’s current “list” method of organizing tasks fails when a task could apply to more than one list. That’s where the old Categories interface in regular Outlook is superior. You can choose different color themes for each “list”, but this would have been much better if it picked up the Category colors that I’ve already specified in Outlook. All of those category names and colors are accessible in my Exchange account, the To-Do app should use them.

Flagged messages don’t show up in the To-Do list either. Granted that feature has never been implemented on any smartphone, but it’s been in the desktop version of Outlook for decades and has more-recently come to Outlook Web Access. Flagging an email for follow-up should absolutely make it show up in the To-Do’s list. This capability has been missing from smartphones for far too long. Once a flagged email shows up in the To-Do app, I should then be able to set reminders for it just as I do in full Outlook.

I would say those are all of the primary must-have task management features, but of course there are plenty more that we could wish for that are already in Outlook. The ability to assign tasks, status fields, status reports, time tracking fields, mileage, billing information… all of that is missing.

It would be nice of Cortana’s reminders could be listed in To-Do, too! Shared task lists, comments, and hashtags from Wunderlist should be at the bottom of the priority list as full Outlook/Exchange server integration is much more important.

User Interface

First of all, the “Microsoft To-Do” name is wrong. It should be “Outlook To-do” and it should probably be installed at the same time as Outlook Mail, Outlook Calendar, and People on Windows 10. Task management should be heavily integrated with Outlook and its user interface should reflect that. Currently, Microsoft To-Do has a completely different design language that doesn’t match Outlook Calendar, Mail, or People. The UI doesn’t use the Windows 10 system theme colors, so it totally clashes with all of my other apps. That said, the large hero banner at the top allows the actual content and interactive elements to move more towards the center and bottom of the screen where they can be reached with a thumb while holding a phone. That’s an important usability feature that most mobile developers ignore. Unfortunately, Microsoft To-Do still uses that awful hamburger button in the upper left corner of the UI which has been proven time and time again to be bad usability design.

WHERE’S THE LIVE TILE!?

Microsoft To-Do unbelievably has no live tile when it’s pinned to the start screen in Windows 10 or Windows 10 Mobile. This is an obvious omission as having tasks due today appear on the live tile would be so extremely useful.

There’s also a “My Day” section that seems to be the default listing, but it doesn’t really do anything. Apparently you have to manually add tasks to this view. In real Outlook, my To-Do list would automatically show the tasks that are due today along with the flagged emails that are due today at the top, and that’s much more useful. There is a “Suggestions” light bulb icon button in the My Day section that gives you suggestions for tasks that you should add to your “My Day” list, but I don’t know why that’s necessary since if it’s “Flagged for follow up today” or “due today”, those are properties already built into the tasks that should be readable and automatically surfaced as most important.

Platform Agnostic

It’s great that the Microsoft To-Do app will be available on Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile, Android and iOS. It also has its own website, which is weird. The web version of Microsoft To-Do is just about exactly like the Windows 10 UWP version except without the responsive width. What’s weird about making a web-based version of this is that we already have a tasks section in Outlook.com and Office 365 Outlook Web Access. There’s no reason to build a separate website for it. So in my opinion, that was a big waste of time.

Microsoft To-Do doesn’t need its own website, since Tasks are already in Outlook Web Access.

Having iOS, and Android versions in addition to the Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile versions is great, but again the design doesn’t go with Outlook as it should. I know Android and iOS don’t have system wide themes for apps or live tiles, but at least Microsoft should try to get it right on Windows.

Conclusion

In my opinion, many aspects of the Microsoft To-Do preview are going in the wrong direction. Microsoft should be building on the strengths of its existing task management features and bringing those to mobile devices instead of trying something new that requires adding server side extensions for no reason. All we want is Outlook tasks, and all of the features there-in, on our smartphones. That’s what we need for professional work.

Granted, while Microsoft To-Do is a very early preview and totally nowhere near as useful as full Microsoft Outlook, it’s much better than the way Google implemented task sync on Android! Seriously, tasks are hidden in the Gmail app? Same for the way iOS puts Exchange tasks into the Reminders app. Microsoft has the opportunity to do task management on mobile way better than the competition.

You can install Microsoft To-Do Preview for iPhone, Android, Windows and also use it on the web. You can also give the Microsoft To-Do team feedback using the in-app contact form, or via UserVoice, Twitter and Facebook.

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein

Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!