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At the tail-end of 2018, Microsoft announced that it would remove the Clutter feature from Outlook, leaving Focused Inbox to sieve out your less-important mail. I think that’s a potentially worrying change of direction for Microsoft.

Yes, on the one hand, you could argue that Focused Inbox competes directly with similar features offered by Gmail and that those only work in the Gmail client, so why not do it. But, you could also argue that, since Outlook has had both the Focused Inbox and Clutter features for a while (and they both have their advantages), there was no really good reason to ditch Clutter. So, let’s get into it.

What is the Clutter Feature?

We’ve covered the difference between Clutter and Focused Inbox before, but here’s a quick recap. Both Clutter and Focused Inbox are ways of splitting your incoming mail into “important” and “unimportant” mail. Important mail is anything from people in your company, your contacts, and anything else Microsoft’s algorithm deems valuable to you. Unimportant mail is not spam (that goes into the Junk folder) but is mail that is deemed less valuable or urgent—like regular emails from apps or websites.

Clutter and Focused Inbox use the same algorithm to determine if a mail is important or unimportant, but here’s the important part: Clutter is an entirely separate folder, whereas Focused Inbox is just a filtered view of your Inbox.

What this means is that Clutter physically moves an unimportant mail from your Inbox into a folder called “Clutter.”

The Clutter folder

Focused Inbox—which you can toggle on and off using a switch in the View tab—just changes your Inbox to show “Focused” and “Other” tabs.

The Focued Inbox tabs

Microsoft has now confirmed that Clutter will be gone by January 31st, 2020, leaving users with just Focused Inbox. That’s going to cause some users a lot of problems and doesn’t square with Microsoft’s supposed new approach under Satya Nadella.

Why Is Getting Rid of Clutter a Bad Thing?

Most Outlook users prefer Focused Inbox. Clutter was not particularly popular when it came out, and it took people a long time to get used to it. Focused Inbox uses the same algorithm, but allows people to keep their mail in their Inbox, which means just having a single place to find everything. We explicitly said in our article about Clutter and Focused Inbox:

“Focused Inbox is a replacement for Clutter, which wasn’t particularly popular. A lot of users didn’t like going to a different folder to find messages that Outlook thought weren’t important, especially because Clutter only got accurate if you “trained” it by manually moving messages between Inbox and Clutter. Some users assumed that Clutter was just a different way of filtering spam, so they never looked in the folder or just deleted the contents without reading anything that was there.

Microsoft recognized that Clutter wasn’t working and pretty quickly replaced it with Focused Inbox.”

That statement applies to Outlook users. It doesn’t apply to people who use a different mail client, for whom Focused Inbox won’t work at all, and here’s why.

Clutter is an entirely different folder. If you use a non-Outlook email client (like most mobile users, for example) such as Apple Mail or the stock Android Mail app, they will show Clutter as a different folder because it’s part of your mailbox. Therefore, Clutter works for them.

Focused Inbox is just a view of your inbox that Outlook creates. No other mail client—Apple mail, Android Mail, Thunderbird, etc.—recognizes the tags that Microsoft uses to do this, so Focused Inbox won’t work for you.

Essentially, Microsoft is taking away the feature for anyone not using its official Outlook client.

Now, you might think that because this is a Microsoft product, why should people expect other products to work the same way?  Also, we said ourselves that Clutter wasn’t particularly popular, so why are we now complaining that it’s being taken away?

Both of those questions miss the point. This isn’t a change to Outlook; this is a change to the actual email account. The algorithm is the same, but the implementation has gone from being client-agnostic (which means Clutter worked on any mail client) to being proprietary (Focused Inbox only works on Outlook). It’s a fundamental change of principle from making changes to the mailbox that all Microsoft email account users can benefit from, to making changes to Outlook which only people who’ve paid for the software on top of their email account can benefit from.

Under Satya Nadella’s leadership Microsoft has been focused on a “mobile-first, cloud-first world,” but this decision forces all mobile users to use Outlook if they want to get a piece of functionality that until now has been client-agnostic.

For people with memories of the Gates/Ballmer approach in the ’90s, this is worryingly familiar. Microsoft had a reputation for flattening anyone it perceived as competition and part of Nadella’s appeal has been to make Microsoft a less aggressive and more collaborative company, both internally and externally. Yes, this is only a small change in the grand scheme of things, but Office is a flagship product, and if this is what Microsoft means to do with it’s “mobile-first” approach then it’s a worrying sign that maybe that old attitude of “Microsoft or nothing” is still hanging around Redmond.

Profile Photo for Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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