By Mike Gunderloy and Susan Harkins

The decision of which e-mail client to use is critical for many businesses, since this is the most commonly used (and depended upon) application in the office. From a management perspective, Outlook 2003 offers some valuable new features, but you’ll need to consider carefully the cost of those features when deciding whether to upgrade. Here’s what you need to know in order to make the best decision in terms of Outlook 2003.

More than just a pretty face
Looking at some parts of Office 2003, you might get the impression that Microsoft is out of new ideas. That’s certainly not the case for Outlook, though. There are a ton of new features in Outlook 2003, enough that even experienced Outlook users are likely to be surprised at some of the things they find.

For starters, there’s no denying that Outlook 2003 does have a new pretty face. Figure A shows the new default arrangement, with the improved Outlook bar to the left, the more informative list of messages in the center, and the “paper” preview pane to the right. These improvements may not come as any great surprise to most of you because Microsoft has been using similar screen shots in talks since it first started leaking information about Outlook 2003.

Figure A

Organization is a snap
One of the strengths of the new Outlook is that it allows users to easily find and organize mail. Search folders are one tool that helps in this regard. You can think of a search folder as a persistent search. Once you select your search criteria (which might be as simple as “unread messages” or as complex as “messages from Joe with the word budget in the body”), Outlook will automatically keep the search folder up to date as new mail arrives. Search folders may change the way you work very quickly. If you use rules to place new mail in a variety of folders, for example, you’ll find that the Unread Mail search folder gives you an easy way to see what’s arrived without your having to click around your entire folder tree.

Another improvement in organization is better grouping. It’s easy to tell which messages in your Inbox date from today, yesterday, a week ago, or further in the past. Of course, if old mail makes you feel guilty, you might want to turn off this feature.

Exchange and OWA
If you’re using Outlook with Exchange, you’ll appreciate the new cached Exchange features, especially if you travel with your computer. You no longer need to decide whether to connect to the Exchange server or to work offline. Instead, Outlook itself will keep your local copy of your mailbox synchronized with your server-side copy, and switch back and forth from one to another as dictated by the changing circumstances of your connection. You can also connect to your Exchange server over the Internet without the hassle of setting up a VPN. This makes remote access much simpler. Although it’s not a part of Office, the much-improved Outlook Web Access (OWA) feature of Exchange Server 2003 includes nearly all of the capabilities of the stand-alone Outlook product—an enhancement that road warriors will appreciate.

Calendar features
Calendars, too, have come in for a bit of a facelift. If you’re one of the many people juggling multiple e-mail accounts, you’ll appreciate the ability to display all of your calendars at once, as shown in Figure B. Outlook also offers color-coding for different types of appointments and a more flexible set of calendar views.

Figure B

Junk mail tracking
With this version, Microsoft is making strides toward keeping clutter out of your mailbox. The junk mail blocking has been overhauled to work better (though we haven’t seen details of the algorithm being used). You can read everything as plain text if HTML bothers you or strikes you as a security risk. Ad banners in HTML mail are blocked if the mail comes from your HotMail account. Web beacons (sometimes called Web bugs), which are sneaky images that can tell spammers if you are actually reading their mail, are automatically blocked.

Other new features
A few other enhancements include a quicker way to flag messages for follow-up (and search folders to track flagged messages), meeting workspaces that let you initiate a SharePoint collaborative space directly from Outlook, pictures in your Contacts folder, and pervasive Unicode support.

Exchange 2003: The server for Outlook 2003
Outlook 2003 is a great e-mail client for a wide variety of servers. Whether you’re using Exchange, POP3, IMAP, or HTTP to get to your e-mail server, you can use Outlook 2003 as a client to good advantage.

That said, some of the new Outlook 2003 features will work only if you’re using Exchange 2003 (not an earlier version) as your e-mail server. That’s because the Outlook and Exchange teams have worked together to optimize the protocols that the two use to communicate. Some particular features that require Exchange 2003 on the server include:

  • Compressed and optimized protocols for faster e-mail downloading.
  • Logging on over the Internet.
  • Improved synchronization capabilities.
  • Support for local caching of server mailboxes.
  • Support for transparent online/offline transitions.
  • Client performance monitoring (from the perspective of the server).

Of course, there are many other features in Exchange 2003 beyond the Outlook-specific advances. With Microsoft including Exchange as a member of the “Office 2003 System,” it’s worth a quick look at some of these features. So here’s a quick Exchange 2003 list:

  • The new Outlook Web Access interface
  • Support for WAP and iMode communications with mobile devices
  • Eight-way clustering for better scalability and uptime
  • Built-in antispam hooks for third-party vendors
  • Improvements to the virus-scanning API
  • Kerberos security
  • An API that allows snapshot backup without taking down the server
  • Dynamic distribution lists
  • Exchange Server Objects (XSO), which is a new .NET-style programming interface

So, if you can afford it, you’ll want to upgrade your e-mail servers to Exchange 2003 to best support Outlook 2003 clients. But that’s it, right?

Windows 2003 too!
Well…not quite. You can install Exchange 2003 on a Windows 2000 server (provided that you have SP3 installed on the server, and for security reasons, you should do that anyway). But to enable the complete Exchange 2003 functionality, you need to be running Windows Server 2003. That’s because the new Exchange depends on the new Windows for some of its advanced features:

  • Outlook access over the Internet
  • Eight-way clustering
  • Enhanced Active Directory integration
  • Faster backups and restores

There isn’t time to go into all the great features of Windows 2003, which have been adequately covered elsewhere (though it is worth mentioning the vastly improved security of the new version). But it’s fair to say that most people don’t think about upgrading their servers to a new operating system when considering whether to switch to a new version of their e-mail client.

Of course, upgrading a server to a new version of Windows is not something to be taken lightly. Besides the significant cost of the new version, you need to take into account possible downtime, the potential difficulty of migrating settings, and the need to retrain your server administrators. There are real benefits to the upgrade, but it’s not a decision that you should rush into.

So what’s the bottom line?
Outlook 2003 is undoubtedly the best version of Outlook yet. In most organizations, e-mail is the one application that sits open on everyone’s desk, all day, every day. So it makes sense to buy the best e-mail application that you can get; even minor productivity improvements will quickly add up for such a pervasive application. With that in mind, it’s easy to recommend upgrading to Outlook 2003.

But you need to have a realistic estimate of the impact and costs of the upgrade process itself, particularly if you elect to go the full route and install Exchange 2003 on Windows Server 2003 to handle the e-mail server chores for your organization. Microsoft, of course, would love for you to upgrade everything; that’s one reason it’s calling it an Office “System” these days. But your own needs and budget may have other ideas.

To make the right decision for your organization, there’s no substitute for getting some “sandbox time” with the product. Set up Outlook 2003 using test accounts on your current e-mail server. Then set up a test server running Exchange 2003 on Windows 2003. Take a look at the differences in functionality, and you’ll be on your way to knowing whether the advances are enough to justify the upgrades in your own company.