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With Outlook 2003, Microsoft has revamped the Outlook interface, added new connection options for Exchange Server, improved junk mail filtering, provided many other new features, and enhanced several of the existing ones. I’ve been working with the beta version of Outlook 2003 since it was released, and I can say from experience that this is one upgrade well worth considering.

Connectivity options for Exchange Server
Outlook 2003 implements a new feature that provides a better offline experience for users. Cached Exchange Mode, an option you can set for an Exchange Server account, causes Outlook to create and work from a locally cached copy of the user’s Exchange Server mailbox. In many ways, using Cached Exchange Mode is a lot like using an offline store (OST) file. In fact, Cached Exchange Mode uses an OST file to store the cached copy of the mailbox. The main difference is that with Cached Exchange Mode, you’re always working from your locally cached copy, and Outlook handles synchronization from the server to the cache automatically. Cached Exchange Mode is therefore very useful for users who frequently disconnect from the network or who work from remote locations.

According to Microsoft’s Web site, Cached Exchange Mode requires Exchange Server 2003. However, it also works with Exchange Server 5.5 and Exchange 2000 Server, but there’s a catch. When using Cached Exchange Mode with Exchange Server 2003, you can configure individual folders to download headers only or download complete items. Downloading only headers gives you the capability to delay large downloads until you have a faster connection, or to delete unwanted messages without downloading them.

When working with either Exchange Server 5.5 or Exchange 2000 Server, however, Outlook defaults to downloading full items and prevents you from changing this behavior in send/receive groups. This restriction applies whether you’re using Cached Exchange Mode or a “standard” OST file, or whether you’re working online. This can be a major issue for organizations whose users often receive large attachments, particularly if they work from dial-up or demand-dial connections. So upgrading to Exchange Server 2003 sooner rather than later might be worthwhile for this reason alone if you’re planning an Outlook 2003 deployment. Other remote mail features are still available for other types of accounts (such as POP3) in Outlook 2003.

To configure an account to use Cached Exchange Mode, open the Mail applet in the Control Panel and click E-mail Accounts in the Mail Setup dialog box. Choose View or Change Existing E-mail Accounts and click Next. Select the Exchange Server account and click Change. Select the option Use Cached Exchange Mode (Figure A), click Next, and click Finish. To configure a folder to download only headers from Exchange Server 2003, choose Tools, Send/Receive, Send/Receive Settings, Define Send/Receive Groups. Select a group, click Edit, and click the Exchange Server. Click a folder and choose the option Download Headers Only.

Figure A

Another significant addition for users and administrators alike—and a rationale for upgrading to Exchange Server 2003 as well—is support for HTTP as a connection protocol. Outlook 2003 users can configure the Exchange Server account in their profile to use HTTP as the communication protocol for sending and receiving data to and from Exchange Server 2003. The addition of HTTP as a communication protocol means that network administrators no longer need to hassle with VPNs to enable clients to connect to Exchange Server remotely through the corporate firewall. Because port 80 is likely already open, you won’t need to reconfigure your firewall to allow Exchange Server client access. Using HTTP also simplifies life for the user, who no longer needs to worry about using a VPN client or being forced to use Outlook Web Access when working remotely.

In addition to Exchange Server 2003, you might also need to install an update on the client to overcome a problem with RPC over HTTP in Windows XP. See the Microsoft Knowledge Base article 331320 for details. To configure an Exchange Server account to use HTTP, open the properties for the account in your profile, click More Settings, and click the Connection tab. Enable the option Connect To My Exchange Mailbox Using HTTP, and if you need to configure proxy settings, click Exchange Proxy Settings. You can specify an SSL-based proxy URL, connection options, and authentication options for the connection to suit your network (Figure B).

Figure B

Organizing items
Outlook 2003 adds some new features that you’ll find very handy for organizing your Outlook items and keeping you on track. The first of these features is Search Folders. A search folder appears as a separate folder in the Outlook folder list, but a search folder isn’t really a folder—it’s a custom view that works like a separate folder, gathering all messages that fit a specific condition and putting them into the folder. For example, Outlook 2003 includes three default search folders:

  • For Follow Up: This folder shows all messages that are flagged for follow-up.
  • Large Mail: This search folder displays all messages over a user-specified size (100 KB by default).
  • Unread Mail: This search folder shows all unread messages.

You can create as many other search folders as you need to organize messages in the ways that are most useful to you. For example, you might create a search folder that displayed all messages from a specific sender, messages that are marked as high priority, messages sent from a specific domain, and so on. The important point is that the search folder doesn’t create a copy of the items that fit the search condition, but instead just gathers them into a virtual folder view—the messages remain in their respective folders. Another important point is that search folders work across multiple Outlook folders, not just the Inbox.

Also new attraction in Outlook 2003 is the addition of more flag types for flagging items. Where Outlook 2002 and earlier provides one flag color, Outlook 2002 offers six. Although you can’t associate a specific follow-up action or text with a given flag color, you can organize items and customize views to display items based on their flag color (for example, displaying all messages that are flagged Blue). You can include a reminder for any flagged item regardless of its flag color, and the reminder includes a follow-up action such as Call or Follow Up, just as in Outlook 2002.

New alerts
Outlook 2003 incorporates three new types of alerts. The first is a desktop alert for new messages that you can use in addition to or instead of Outlook’s other notification options (play a sound, change the mouse cursor, or show an envelope in the tray). An Outlook desktop alert fires when a message arrives in the default Inbox, displaying a pop-up alert on the desktop, for example. You can configure settings for the alert duration and transparency of the dialog box.

You can also create rules that trigger a desktop alert when a message arrives that fits the rule criteria. The capability to trigger these alerts with rules will help you build a system that notifies you of important messages while accepting other messages without an alert. To configure desktop alert settings, choose Tools, Options, click E-mail Options, click Advanced E-mail Options, and click the Desktop Alert Settings button. You can preview the settings from the resulting dialog box (Figure C).

Figure C

You can also create rules that display a New Item Alert dialog box when a message arrives that fits the rule condition. The dialog box lists the messages that fit the rule and enable you to open the item right from the dialog box. To use this feature, choose Tools, Rules And Alerts, create a new rule, and assign to it the action Display A Specific Message In The New Item Alert Window. You can then specify the text that appears in the alert window.

The third type of alert allows you to receive notification of events in a Windows SharePoint Services site. For example, you might want to receive an alert when someone posts a new document to a team folder. To create and manage these alerts, choose Tools, Rules And Alerts, and click the Alerts tab in the Rules And Alerts dialog box.

Junk mail filtering
Outlook 2003 radically restructures its junk mail filtering features and adds whitelists, blacklists, and other options to help you get a handle on the endless stream of junk coming at your Inbox. Outlook 2003 provides four basic levels of protection, which you configure by choosing Tools, Options, and clicking Junk E-mail (Figure D):

  • No Protection: As you might expect, Outlook performs no junk filtering with this option enabled.
  • Low: Outlook scans for obvious junk mail and places it in the Junk Mail folder.
  • High: Outlook uses more aggressive scanning with this option, also placing the messages in the Junk Mail folder. More aggressive scanning means more likelihood of at least some false positives, with valid messages being moved to the Junk Mail folder.
  • Safe Lists Only: Outlook accepts messages only from senders or to recipients listed on the Safe Senders and Safe Recipients lists, as well as from senders in your Contacts folder (optional).

Figure D

If you enable junk filtering, you can have Outlook delete the messages rather than place them in the Junk Mail folder, but you run the risk of losing at least some valid messages with that option. You should use the Junk Mail folder for a few months first to identify false positives, and add those senders or recipients to the safe lists.

The Safe Senders list identifies addresses from which Outlook should accept e-mail without considering it to be junk. Outlook includes an option that directs it to also trust all mail from senders in your Contacts folder. The Safe Recipients list specifies destination addresses for messages that Outlook should not consider junk. For example, assume you participate in a mailing list that is sent to a list distribution address, not directly to you. Adding the list recipient address to the Safe Recipients list prevents the messages from being treated as junk.

Both the Safe Senders and Safe Recipients lists are whitelists. The Blocked Senders list is Outlook’s blacklist. Messages from addresses or domains that you add to the Blocked Senders list are treated as junk mail regardless of the message content, subject, header, or other message properties. You can import and export addresses to each of Outlook’s lists to help you quickly build and share the lists.

Another feature Outlook 2003 adds to help reduce spam is external content blocking. Many spammers include external content in e-mail, and when you display the message, the external content is accessed. The remote server makes note of your e-mail address and flags it as a valid address. By blocking external content, Outlook 2003 prevents the message from triggering the server to validate your e-mail address. To configure these settings in Outlook 2003, choose Tools, Options, click the Security tab, and click Change Automatic Download Settings.

Information Rights Management (IRM)
Information Rights Management is Microsoft’s solution to protecting content rights. In a nutshell, IRM lets you specify permissions for a message to prevent the recipient from copying, forwarding, or printing the message without explicit permission. To view the message, the recipient must be running Outlook 2003 or must install the Rights Management Add-on for Internet Explorer.

To take full advantage of IRM, you need to install Windows Server 2003 and the Rights Management Services (RMS). With RMS installed, you can create permission policies that define the actions that can be performed with a given item. You can create an unlimited number of policy templates for RMS as needed.

A new look
The Outlook development team gave Outlook a completely new look for the 2003 release (Figure E). The Outlook bar has been replaced by the Navigation pane. Buttons on the Navigation pane open their respective Outlook folders, and items such as the folder list, views, folder options, and other commands and options are available from the Navigation pane. The contents of the Navigation pane change depending on which folder is open.

Figure E

You can add shortcuts to the Navigation pane—just as you can for the Outlook bar in other versions—to make it easy to open frequently used Web sites, documents, or other Outlook folders. Unfortunately, Outlook 2003 doesn’t make it very easy to create shortcuts directly because the program provides only an interface for creating shortcuts to Outlook folders. However, you can drag documents or Web shortcuts (such as from your Favorites folder) from Windows Explorer to a shortcut in the Navigation pane to add that shortcut to a group.

The Reading pane is another new interface feature in Outlook 2003, replacing the Preview pane in previous versions. You can turn off the Reading pane or place it at the right side or bottom of the Outlook window. Placing it at the right gives Outlook more area in which to preview messages, which means you should be able to see more of the message without scrolling or opening the message in its own window.

More collaboration features
Outlook 2003 improves on collaboration, adding integration with Windows SharePoint Services, the collaboration system formerly known as SharePoint Team Services. SharePoint Services enables a team to share calendars, post messages, share documents, and collaborate in other ways. As I mentioned earlier, you can configure alerts to have Outlook inform you when changes occur at the team site, such as a new document being posted or an existing document being revised.

In addition to integration with SharePoint Services, Outlook 2003 expands on the Instant Messaging capabilities in Outlook 2002. You can view the online status of a message sender from the InfoBar in the Reading pane. You can also click a small IM icon on the InfoBar to access IM-related tasks, such as starting a chat session.

Business Contact Manager
Business Contact Manager is included with Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003, Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003, and Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003. Business Contact Manager, an add-on for Microsoft Outlook 2003, builds on the contact management features already in Outlook to create a system for managing clients, sales opportunities, and other business data. Business Contact Manager doesn’t replace Outlook, but rather adds new item types, additional folders, and features for managing these items to help you keep track of accounts, customers, and business opportunities more efficiently. Business Contact Manager stores these items in a database separately from your other Outlook data, and setup installs MSDE on the computer to create and service the database. Figure F shows an example of Business Contact Manager in action.

Figure F

The current version of Business Contact Manager is designed as a single-user application. Although one user can create and use different databases with different Outlook profiles, or multiple users can each have their own database on a shared computer, there is no multiuser support that would allow users to share a Business Contact Manager database. In addition, in the released version of Outlook 2003, Business Contact Manager is disabled if the profile includes an Exchange Server account. Microsoft doesn’t want enterprise customers using the product because it wasn’t designed with larger organizations in mind.

There is some integration between Business Contact Manager and the standard Outlook folders and items in this first release of the product. For example, although Business Contact Manager uses a separate Business Contacts folder to maintain your business contacts, you can copy your existing Outlook contacts to the folder, and then edit the contacts to add properties specific to Business Contact Manager. If you send an e-mail from Outlook to one of your business contacts, it automatically associates the message with the contact, and the message appears in the history for the contact, along with other items such as opportunities (potential sales) associated with the contact.

Although Business Contact Manager doesn’t provide any support for an existing SQL Server customer database or much flexibility in customizing the database, it’s still a very useful product for smaller companies that don’t require database sharing. Microsoft has indicated that multiuser capability is a good possibility for the next version of Business Contact Manager.

Is it worth the upgrade?
The features I’ve explored here are some of the major changes and additions in Outlook 2003, but there are several others. Some of these key features, such as Cached Exchange Mode, Information Rights Management, and HTTP access to mailboxes, can go a long way toward improving the user experience, simplifying administration, and better securing data. Keep in mind that many of these features require Windows Server 2003 and/or Exchange Server 2003, but the benefits may outweigh the costs involved in deploying these server platforms to fully support Outlook 2003. The new junk mail filtering capabilities, improved alerts, and other features make Outlook 2003 a compelling upgrade whether or not you use Exchange Server. I give Outlook 2003 a definite thumbs-up. If you currently use Outlook, you should definitely consider an upgrade.