IT administrators see benefits to Outlook 11

New features in the upcoming version of Microsoft Outlook are being lauded by IT administrators who say the features answer some of the most pressing needs of the e-mail client's users.

In its first public preview of the new Outlook 11 e-mail client, Microsoft Corp. showed new features that make it easier for users to track incoming e-mails and that speed up mail downloading when using dial-up modems.

IT administrators attending the Microsoft Exchange Conference in the Anaheim Convention Center said the new pieces of Outlook will likely be valuable to their users and will help solve some of their most pressing problems when dealing with e-mail. Outlook 11 is expected to ship in mid-2003 as part of the upcoming Office 11 suite and also in Microsoft Exchange Titanium.

Jason Loster, a corporate information systems administrator at auto insurance company Manitoba Public Insurance in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said the 1,400 Outlook users he supports will be happy to see the new message threading capabilities in Outlook 11. By linking the messages together, users will be able to keep back-and-forth mail conversations together from individual senders so they don't have to waste time searching for replies.

Also useful, he said, are features that will allow people in workgroups to view each other's Outlook calendars, making it easier to schedule events for groups of workers.

Another feature that's welcome is a redesigned Outlook desktop, with the incoming message pane moved from the bottom of the screen into a column in the center, providing a full screen-length view of a message. "Users don't like to scroll down to read messages," Loster said. "They want to know why they can't see more."

The best feature, he said, is that Outlook 11 will allow local caching of messages so users will have access to their mail off-line, even if the server crashes. Currently, if Outlook crashes, users get a white screen and can't access their mail to work off-line, he said.

Boyd Johnson, a senior Windows NT administrator at Minneapolis-based Harmon AutoGlass Inc., said the new e-mail capabilities in Outlook 11 will be a "big plus" for his 200 on-the-road salespeople and for the company's glass installers, who are out on the road daily. One of the biggest complaints from users, he said, is the length of time it can take to download e-mail in the field over a slow connection.

The new version of Outlook will reduce the download time over slow connections by allowing users to download only message headers and sender names so they can skip messages they don't need immediately. "It will help the users quite a bit," Johnson said.

Lori Woods, a computer specialist/e-mail administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, said the 7,000 users in her agency will be happy to see the sorting capabilities now available in Outlook 11. Because the users are limited to a maximum of 20MB of mail in their in-boxes, they have to remain conscious of keeping room available so they can keep access to their e-mail, she said.

With the new size-sorting capabilities, users can more intuitively delete their largest e-mail files regularly to free up space as they need it, she said. That hasn't always been easy to do in the past, she said, even though earlier versions of Outlook have had similar capabilities.

Also welcome, Woods said, is that Outlook Web Access, which allows users to manage their e-mail from any Outlook-equipped PC, will now have the same appearance as the standard Outlook user interface, giving it a more familiar feel for users.

"We have problems with users all the time" who need help making their e-mail systems do what they want, she said. "Sometimes the basic things aren't always [clear in Outlook]."

One potential feature that was particularly promising, Woods said, was an early glimpse of a module in development called XSO. Microsoft says the module will allow Web pages to work seamlessly with Outlook so information can be automatically entered from a participating Web site directly into a user's Outlook calendar. In a demonstration of the technology, a Microsoft representative used a travel Web site to make airline and hotel reservations online, then showed how the reservations had automatically been entered into the calendar, saving manual data-entry time and keeping the calendar up-to-date effortlessly.

Such possibilities would be welcome, Woods said. "We have a lot of people, especially in our headquarters office, who do a lot of travel," including some 5,000 on-the-road poultry and meat inspectors, who access their mail and calendars through dial-up connections, she said. "Their schedules change weekly. Just letting them have that kind of advanced calendar would be helpful for those users."

Many of the new, more user-intuitive features in the upcoming version of Outlook will reduce the workload for the IT help desk, Woods said, "which will be a good thing."

Ric Crowe, an Exchange messaging administrator at Chicago-based aircraft maker The Boeing Co., said he would like to use all the features highlighted by Microsoft at the show.

Particularly useful, he said, is a new flagging capability for incoming messages. When a message is flagged by a user, it's given more importance for a pending response, and it's automatically placed in a high-visibility "For Follow Up" mail folder where users can quickly access important mail.

The new caching feature for off-line mail access in the event of server problems is also huge for users and administrators alike, he said.

"All of them together I think will make a far better product," Crowe said.

One feature he said he would like to see is password protection for when a user minimizes his Outlook pane and goes away from his workstation for lunch or a break. "I think that would help security," he said.

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