With a cleaner interface, some long-overdue improvements, and advances in group scheduling, the revised Outlook 2002 will make lots of users happy. But the program still lacks some of the group collaboration features that companies look for (and get) from the program's nearest rival, Lotus Notes.
The new Outlook interface is less obtrusive and more customizable than the previous version, which shipped with Office 2000. To make functions easier to find, you can rearrange shortcuts in the left pane simply by dragging and dropping them, and the right-click menu lets you rename or delete shortcuts. You can also color-code calendar entries--a new feature--individually or by creating automatic rules. It took us only a few seconds, for example, to create a rule that turned all entries containing the word Frisbee green, and those with the word meeting red.
Looks will get you only so far, however (at least outside of Hollywood). Outlook 2002 is a productivity tool after all, and its ability to increase your productivity is what will make or break it. If you have multiple e-mail accounts (and who doesn't these days?), Outlook now allows you to view messages from all of them, including Hotmail and other Internet e-mail services, in one place. And instead of having to forward messages from one of your accounts to another, you can simply drag and drop them from account to account.
Outlook 2002 in brief
- Multiple e-mail accounts funnel into a single in-box.
- A drop-down list lets you choose which account sends a message.
- Familiar e-mail addresses automatically complete.
- You can switch on the fly among HTML, Rich Text Format, and plain text in the messages you send.
- Online collaboration features are not as powerful as those in Lotus Notes.
Most e-mail users will applaud the fact that Wordmail, a text editor with most of the functionality and all the familiarity of Word, is now the default. (It was an option in Outlook 2000.) For some organizations, this single feature might be sufficient cause to upgrade from Outlook 97.
Wordmail brings Word's AutoCorrect, Paste Options, Address, Name, Date, and other Smart Tags to your e-mail compositions. A new drop-down menu lets you switch on the fly among HTML, Rich Text Format, and plain text, and a single click cleans up the extra line breaks in plain-text formatting. HTML mail files are now smaller because the document-specific tags that allowed messages to be edited in Word have been excised.
New address book enhancements
Some of Outlook's "new" e-mail features aren't all that new, however. Automatic name completion, for instance, fills in e-mail addresses that you've sent mail to before, as you type. Users of Eudora, Lotus Notes, Outlook Express, and most other e-mail clients take for granted this handy feature, and it's a mystery why Outlook took so long to incorporate it.
There are other where-have-they-been features that debut in Outlook 2002. The program finally recognizes URLs in the subject field of e-mail messages, which saves users the trouble of having to copy addresses and paste them into the Address field of their browser. And its mailbox-management tools have been enhanced to allow searches for files by size or age, which makes it easier to delete, move, or archive files.
A nice addition to Contacts is a 'Display as' field that replaces any e-mail address with the name of your choice, allowing you to display the cryptic address 'firstname.lastname@example.org' as the easier-to-recognize 'Mike Gonzales,' for example. You can also adjust the width of the column headings in your address books.
Microsoft has closed some of the security holes that enabled viruses to spread by sending themselves to everyone in a victim's Outlook address book. Programs can no longer read your address book or send e-mail without your permission (a fix that's also available as a separate patch).
Instant messaging alerts, group scheduling
If you use MSN Messenger, Outlook will now alert you when people in your Contacts list and address book are online, and it will allow you to initiate a chat session on the spot. Unfortunately, MSN Messenger has far fewer members than America Online's AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. If the systems ever link up, this feature could be handy.
The new group-scheduling features in Outlook 2002 let you create multiple groups and share calendars via Microsoft's no-cost Free/Busy Internet service. Once group members register for the service (they must all use Outlook 2002), they can view the schedules of other group members and reserve conference rooms. Participants must be connected to an Exchange server (the e-mail/groupware server that uses Outlook as a client), but they needn't use the same server. Group members also have the option of proposing a new time when they receive a meeting request.
Outlook still drops the ball on most Web-based collaboration, though. Microsoft scrapped planned new features that would have allowed users to design collaborative Web-based applications for offline use, such as a service allowing mobile employees to create purchase orders. As a result, Lotus Notes remains a more powerful choice for companies interested in that kind of collaboration.
This story, "First look at Outlook 2002" was originally published by PCWorld.