Microsoft Outlook is already one of the most commonly used e-mail clients and information managers in the enterprise, particularly in those companies using Exchange mail servers. The latest version, Outlook 2003, includes a number of improvements that administrators, tech support personnel, and users have wanted for a long time, as well as some new and possibly surprising features.

Although the user interface has been revamped for a new look that will appeal to business and home users alike, the more interesting changes are designed to improve the functionality of Outlook in the enterprise. These enhancements include better connectivity, improved spam blocking, new rights management features, Exchange caching mode, the Business Contact Manager add-in, and document collaboration features. This Daily Drill Down will focus on these new features and how they benefit users, administrators, and support personnel in a large network environment.

Improved performance and secure connectivity
In the busy enterprise environment, performance and security are always important issues. Microsoft has included several performance enhancements in Outlook 2003, and provided a new way to establish a secure connection to your Exchange server. Most of these strategies are designed around Exchange 2003 as the mail server, and you will get the most out of the new version of Outlook if you use it in conjunction with the new version of Exchange.

Better connectivity
One of Microsoft’s goals in making Outlook 2003 more enterprise-friendly was to address problems experienced in the past with slow or unreliable Exchange connectivity. This was particularly problematic with particular types of network connections, such as satellite, that experience high latency, the delay that is experienced in sending a packet of data between two points on the network. Latency is measured in milliseconds, based on the amount of time it takes the packet to make a round trip. Delay can be caused by several factors, including the transmission medium, processing time at routers along the way, disk access time at intermediate devices (switches and bridges), and the distance and speed with which the packet travels (called propagation). Satellite connections experience high latency because of the distance that the data has to travel from earth to the geosynchronous satellite (about 22,300 miles above the equator) and back down.

There are a number of ways to address the latency issue. One of the simplest is to send less data over the connection to accomplish the same thing, or to compress the data that is sent. Outlook 2003 is designed to work with Exchange 2003 (which was code named Titanium) to send 50 percent to 70 percent less data, using compression techniques. This helps to speed up access even over low bandwidth or high latency connections.

Even if connectivity problems do occur, the user will experience less frustration with Outlook 2003 because you no longer have to take the time to restart Outlook to change from online to offline sessions (or vice versa). Users with unreliable network connections will be able to work offline when disconnected, without interruption, and then switch back to working online when the connection is restored.

Exchange caching
One of the most interesting new features in Outlook 2003, in terms of increasing performance and conserving bandwidth, is the new “cached Exchange” mode. Exchange caching (unlike some of Exchange 2003’s new features) is supported when Exchange 2003 is running on either Windows 2000 Server with SP3 or later, or on Windows Server 2003.

Outlook must be set to use caching; this is not enabled by default. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Select Tools | E-mail Accounts to start the e-mail accounts wizard.
  2. Select the View Or Change Existing E-mail Accounts option button and click Next.
  3. Highlight your Exchange server account and click the Change button.
  4. Under Exchange Server Settings, check the box to Use Local Copy Of Mailbox (see Figure A).
  5. When you click the Next button, you’ll be informed that the operation will not complete until you choose Exit from the File menu and then restart Outlook. Click OK.
  6. Click Finish.
  7. Select File | Exit.
  8. Restart Outlook. You should now be operating in cached Exchange mode.

Figure A
Outlook must be configured to use cached Exchange mode.

When caching is enabled, a local data file is created on the client computer. Outlook uses this cache file for foreground activity, and accesses the Exchange server as a background task. When Outlook communicates with the Exchange server, it retrieves more information per request to decrease the total number of requests. The users will be doing most of their work on the local machine, and the burden on the Exchange server will be reduced. Because a copy of the user’s mailbox is stored on the client computer, the user can continue working if the connection to the Exchange server is interrupted. If the user makes changes while working offline, they will be automatically synchronized to the Exchange server when the connection is restored.

You can work with Outlook in Cached Exchange mode in any of the following connection states:

  • Connected or Connected (Headers): You actually work on the copy of your mailbox that’s stored on the local machine, but it is automatically synchronized with the server on a continuous basis.
  • Trying to Connect: If you lose your connection to the network (and thus the Exchange server), Outlook tries to reconnect while you’re working offline.
  • Disconnected: if Outlook tries for five minutes to reconnect and can’t, the status will be disconnected, but Outlook will still try again every 15 minutes. If you want to try to reconnect sooner, you can select File | Connect to <Exchange account>
  • Offline: If you select to work offline (by choosing File | Work Offline), the status will be shown as offline and Outlook won’t try to connect to the server unless you connect manually.

Improved synchronization
Synchronization can be optimized for the type of connection you have. Outlook is optimized for a fast or slow connection to determine the amount of data copied from the mail server to the local machine:

  • Slow connection: Only headers will be copied to the local machine automatically (this option is only available when using Exchange 2003 as your mail server). Address book is not automatically updated.
  • Fast connection: Headers, message bodies and attachments are all copied to the local machine. Address book is automatically updated.

With a slow connection, you can manually update the address book and request to download the message body and/or attachments. Outlook can automatically detect the connection speed and optimize the settings. If you switch from one type of connection to another (for example, you connect your notebook to the company LAN with an Ethernet cable at work, then switch to a modem to connect from home), Outlook will transparently change the optimization settings.

You can also manually control which information (headers only or full items) will be downloaded. To do so, access the Exchange Server Settings as described earlier, and follow these steps:

  1. Click the More Settings button.
  2. Click the Advanced tab.
  3. Under Mailbox Settings, select to Download Only Headers, Download Headers Followed By The Full Item, or Download Full Items, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
You can manually select how much information will be copied to the local computer from the Exchange server.

Corporate users now often use virtual private networking (VPN) to access their Exchange mailboxes remotely. Now, there is another way to connect securely to Exchange over the Internet. The ability to use remote procedure call over HTTP is another new feature for Outlook 2003 that requires an Exchange 2003 mail server. Outlook 2003 can act as an RPC client that can connect to the RPC server (Exchange 2003) over the Internet using the hypertext transfer protocol, to securely execute remote procedure calls, without the need to establish a virtual private network.

Unfortunately, using this feature will require a complete upgrade to the network; since you’ll have to have Windows Server 2003 servers on which Exchange 2003 is running, and client computers need to be running Windows XP with Service Pack 1 applied. It’s probably easier (and certainly less expensive) to deploy VPNs rather than upgrade only for this feature. But the feature is handy if you are upgrading your network OS and Exchange anyway.

Improved spam blocking features
Spam is more than an annoyance in the corporate world; it is a time and bandwidth waster. Dealing with junk e-mail reduces worker productivity and costs the company money. Microsoft continues, with each version of Outlook, to add filtering and spam blocking capabilities to help deal with these problems. Outlook 2002 already included the ability to create a junk mail senders’ list (“blacklist”), turn on keyword filtering and color code junk mail, send it to a separate folder or send it directly to the Deleted Items folder.

However, this system often results in false positives, which can cause you to miss mail that you wanted to receive. Outlook 2003 now includes, along with the ability to right-click and add a sender to the junk senders’ list, the ability to right-click and add a sender to the trusted senders’ list so that his/her mail will not be caught by the junk mail filters, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
You can now add addresses or domains to a trusted senders’ list to reduce false positives.

This “whitelist” feature lets you easily reduce the number of false positives. You can also manually enter full e-mail addresses or domains to the trusted senders and trusted recipients’ lists, as well as to the junk senders list. To do this, just select Tools | Options and click the Junk E-mail button on the Preferences tab in the E-mail section. This provides you with a number of additional configuration options for junk mail filtering, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
Outlook 2003 gives you many options in configuring junk mail filtering.

You can set Outlook to analyze messages according to the level of protection you want:

  • No Protection: Disables junk mail filtering
  • Low: Only flags the most obvious spam as junk mail
  • High: Aggressively filters suspected junk mail
  • Trusted lists only: Filters out all mail from addresses or domains not on your trusted lists.

The filtering used by Outlook 2003 to analyze and flag messages is also more sophisticated. Now a number of different factors are used, including not only the content but also the structure of the message and time stamp.

For companies that don’t have spam filtering implemented at the server level, Outlook 2003’s new junk mail management features can help users avoid the deluge of advertising and other unwanted mail that pours into most corporate e-mail servers. However, mail filtering should be configured by administrators or users should be educated in its use to ensure that important mail isn’t lost.

Using rights management to set permissions on e-mail
A new (and controversial) feature of Office 2003 is digital rights management (DRM). DRM is a buzzword in the industry today, often used by businesses dealing with sensitive information that needs to be protected. Outlook 2003’s DRM features will allow you to exert more control over the e-mail messages you send and what happens to them after you send them.

Microsoft’s new technology is called Rights Management Services (RMS) or Information Rights Management (IRM), depending on which Microsoft documentation you consult, and it is based on the Extensible Rights Markup Language (XrML) and is built into Office 2003 applications. Users will be able to encrypt the contents of the messages they send and configure the rights that they want to apply to the message. There is an actual rights license sent with the message, and rights will be granted based on the recipients’ credentials. The technology is dependent upon an RMS/IRM server that validates the recipient’s credentials and issues a “user license” that tells the rights management-enabled application (in this case, Outlook) how to display the message and enforce the rights restrictions.

A new icon in the Outlook 2003 toolbar allows you to specify permissions when you create a new message. The first time you click it, you get a message that says you must install the Windows Rights Management client software. You can click Yes to download and install it. The client software is only supported on Windows 2000 SP3 or above.

After you install the client, if you click the Permissions icon on a message, recipients will not be able to forward, print, or copy the message content. Administrators can implement permissions policies that can be applied to messages, as well. The permissions set on the message showing actions the recipient can and cannot perform will be indicated on the info bar at the top of the message, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
The infobar at the top of the message shows that this message cannot be forwarded, printed, or copied by the recipient.

Rights management features will be useful in the corporate environment when the dissemination of information needs to be closely controlled.

Business Contact Manager add-in
Business Contact Manager is an add-on that is aimed primarily at small businesses. It allows you to use Outlook to track business relationships using account and business contact objects, and view all the activities that are related to a particular account or contact in the activity history. Business Contact Manager will also create reports to summarize the information collected.

Larger organizations will be more interested in Microsoft CRM (Customer Relationship Management), a new product designed to be a scaled-down version of SAP and other major CRM solutions.

Collaboration features
Outlook 2003 focuses on collaborative and team efforts by giving users the ability to view side-by-side calendars, centralize information in a meeting workspace and, perhaps most importantly, integrate with SharePoint Team Services. The new version retains Outlook 2002 features such as group scheduling, sharing of free/busy information, creation of public folders and online meetings.

Side-by-side calendars
The calendar functionality has been improved in Outlook 2003, now allowing you to view multiple calendars side by side. These can be the calendars of other users, or you can keep separate calendars for different purposes (for example, a class calendar, a meeting calendar, a task deadlines calendar and a personal appointments calendar).

You can choose which calendars to display by checking a checkbox in the My Calendars section of the left pane, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F
You can display multiple calendars side by side for better collaboration and organization.

Meeting workspace
A meeting workspace is a Web site that contains information for planning and following up on meetings. You can use the site to track attendees, documents, and related items. When you send an Outlook meeting request, you simply add a link to the workspace, which the team can also get to from the calendar item for the meeting.

When you create a new meeting request in Outlook 2003 (New | Meeting Request), the Meeting Workspace button appears directly below the Reminder checkbox, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
Use the Meeting Workspace button to create or link to an existing meeting workspace.

SharePoint integration
The concept of meeting workspaces is already familiar to those of you who have used SharePoint Services Web sites. Outlook 2003 is designed to integrate tightly with SharePoint Services. For example, you can:

  • Copy SharePoint contacts to your personal contacts list.
  • Update SharePoint data in your calendar and copy SharePoint calendar items to your personal calendar.
  • Manage alerts received from SharePoint sites.
  • Send files as shared attachments, which creates a document workspace for the attachment on a SharePoint site.
  • Access information in SharePoint document libraries.

Outlook 2003 is Microsoft’s most flexible and full featured e-mail client and information management program yet, but is it a “must have” or simply a nice upgrade for the corporate environment? As usual, that depends on your users’ needs. This upgrade is probably not necessary if you don’t need collaborative technology or if network users are always using a permanent and reliable connection to the company mail server, which is also taking care of spam filtering and controlling forwarding and copying of e-mail. On the other hand, if you have many users who need to work on their e-mail offline, if you want a way for junk mail to be better filtered at the client level, if users often send sensitive information that requires rights management, or if your business uses SharePoint team services and otherwise needs collaboration features, Outlook 2003 will greatly enhance both the users’ experience and the ease of administration.