Ever wish that everyone in your organization used the same software versions? So do thousands of other administrators. Unfortunately, application consistency is the exception, rather than the norm, for many companies. The problem is compounded when roaming users—whose data needs to roam with them—use different versions of an application to work with that data. For example, roaming users who rely on Microsoft Outlook can run into some problems when they try to use different versions of Outlook to access a PST file. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll explore the issues and problems Outlook users might face to help you address their roaming woes.

Roaming differences in Outlook versions
Users working from a single workstation generally present fewer application compatibility problems, simply because they work with a single version of their applications. Compatibility usually doesn’t become a problem until it’s time to upgrade the application. Even then, compatibility problems are relatively minor. The problem comes when users try to use different versions of a program with the same data, which is often the case when they roam.

Registry key locations
There are several differences between Outlook versions that can affect your roaming users. The location in the registry where Office stores its settings is partly dependent on the version. Outlook 2000 stores its settings in HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\9.0, and Outlook 2002 stores settings in HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\10.0. Although some registry keys are common between versions, this difference means that many Outlook settings won’t roam between versions. So users might change a setting under Outlook 2000, but the setting won’t be changed when they start the program on a system running Outlook 2002. This isn’t a major problem, but it can confuse your users if they aren’t aware of the issue.

Profile confusion
In order for roaming users to continue to use their data from multiple computers, their Outlook profile must have the same name on each computer. How you address this issue depends on how you create the profiles. You can leave it to the users to create the profile, as long as they understand they need to use a consistent profile name across systems. However, you’ll minimize your aggravation by creating the profiles yourself using tools such as the Profile Wizard included with the Office Resource Kit. You’ll also need to develop a standard for profile naming to ensure consistency. A good option is to employ the user’s logon account name as the profile name. Alternately, you might use the e-mail address for the profile name. Just pick a piece of information that is unique to each user and that doesn’t change.

Data storage
Where users store their data is an important issue when working with Personal Folder (PST), Offline Store (OST), and Personal Address Book (PAB) files. Users might have a PST and/or a PAB file even if they have an Exchange Server mailbox. The location depends on the Outlook version and operating system. Outlook 98 defaults to C:\Exchange for PST and OST files, regardless of whether user profiles are enabled. On Windows 2000 and Windows XP systems, Outlook 2000 and 2002 default to the Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook folder of the user’s profile. On systems where the OS was installed clean, the default location for profiles is \Documents and Settings\user. And on systems upgraded from Windows NT, it’ s \%systemroot%\Profiles\user. Regardless of the location, you need to make sure that the PST and OST files are in a consistent location for the user.

The best solution to this problem is to configure the user’s profile to map a local drive letter to a network share and then place the PST and OST files in that network share. This eliminates the problems associated with different versions of Outlook finding the files. It also means that the Outlook files don’t have to be copied across the network as a part of the user’s profile, offering the benefit of decreased network traffic and improved logon time. If the user is subject to group policy at all logon locations, you can also redirect his or her folders to a server and make sure the PST and OST files are stored in one of those folders.

Users with OST files won’t have problems roaming with those files, unless they’re roaming from Outlook 2000 or 2002 to an earlier version, such as Outlook 98. If that’s the case, they’ll receive an error message from Outlook stating that it can’t open the default mail folders because of an old OST file. Unfortunately, there isn’t a workaround for this problem, other than to make sure users always work with Outlook 2000 or later.

Interface issues
If a user customizes the menus or toolbars with a later version of Outlook and those features aren’t supported by an earlier version, those changes won’t appear in the interface when the user roams to that earlier version. Also, both Outlook 2000 and Outlook 2002 let the user define a home page for an Outlook folder. In Outlook 2000, you can display either the folder view or the home page. In Outlook 2002, the folder home page shows up only if you set it to show by default—there’s no way to switch to the folder’s home page from its normal view. So home pages will behave differently between Outlook 2000 and 2002, and they won’t be supported at all on earlier versions of Outlook.

Your users will likely run across a few peculiarities when working with Outlook Bar shortcuts on different versions. Both Outlook 2000 and Outlook 2002 support shortcuts to executables. For example, a user might add shortcuts to the applications he or she uses most often to avoid having to go to the Start menu to launch them. As long as he or she uses Outlook 2000 or later, this isn’t a problem. Outlook 98 and earlier versions don’t support shortcuts, however. The location in which Outlook 98 stores the FAV file that houses the shortcuts is different from later versions. Outlook 98 defaults to the Windows folder, while later versions store FAV files in the Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook folder of the user’s profile. If the 2000/2002 FAV file is copied to the Outlook 98 system and the Outlook Bar contains executable shortcuts, Outlook 98 displays an error and re-creates the Outlook Bar shortcuts. The old FAV file gets overwritten, and any custom shortcuts previously defined in the newer versions are lost. The only graceful way to handle this potential problem is to either use a stock, noncustomized Outlook Bar or make sure all your computers are running Outlook 2000 at a minimum.

Loss of rules
Your users also need to be prepared to lose a few rules when they roam from Outlook 2002 to previous versions. Certain rule conditions and features are specific to Outlook 2002. When you create a rule that uses a 2002-specific feature, Outlook warns you that you won’t be able to use the rule on previous versions, so your users need to understand that these rules won’t work when they log on from workstations with earlier versions of Outlook. In addition, users working on Outlook 2002 can upgrade their rules by clicking Options in the Rules Wizard and choosing Upgrade Now. Upgraded rules won’t function on earlier versions. Users who work with different versions of Outlook should not upgrade their rules in Outlook 2002 for that reason.

Odds and ends
There are several other issues that can crop up when users roam with different versions of Outlook, but most are relatively harmless. For example, an Exchange Server user can access his or her mailbox with almost any version of Outlook. Distribution lists created in Outlook 2002 can be read in Outlook 2000 and vice versa, but Outlook 98 can’t list the distribution list’s members. Instead, Outlook 98 treats it as an e-mail message and opens a message form rather than a contact form. In addition, versions of Outlook released prior to Outlook 2000 don’t support the user’s ability to link items to contacts, and changes to the default File As and Full Name formats don’t roam between versions.

Minimizing version problems
Although users can successfully roam with different versions of Outlook, supporting them could give you administrative headaches. It’s probably already enough of a chore supporting users’ other needs, and throwing different application versions into the mix just adds more work for you. So even though I’ve explained how you can support multiple versions for roaming users, I recommend that, in the end, you only do so as a stopgap measure.

It can be expensive to upgrade applications, and not only in capital expense. You also have the added expense of planning and executing the deployment, plus handling users’ confusion as they adjust to the newer versions. Even so, having everyone on the same page will ultimately make your life easier. Using tools such as group policy and automated application deployment can really simplify the process. For example, when a user logs on to a workstation where Outlook isn’t installed, group policy and related technologies on Windows 2000 or .NET Server can cause a just-in-time installation. Perhaps more importantly, those same technologies can deploy application updates automatically, making it relatively easy to upgrade everyone in an organization without stepping outside of your office. Ultimately, you need to look at how much time and energy you spend addressing application compatibility for roaming users and decide whether it’s cheaper to continue with the applications in place or to develop and implement a plan to deploy a consistent set of applications for all users.

When all else fails, OWA
Finally, if you come to the conclusion that you just can’t justify the cost of installing updated software across the enterprise, you have another option if you’re using Exchange Server. Users who have a primary workstation yet roam occasionally can use Outlook on their main workstation, but they can use a Web browser to access their mailboxes through Outlook Web Access when they’re out of the office. Users who frequently roam can forgo Outlook altogether in favor of OWA. The version of OWA included with Exchange 2000 Server adds several new features that give users almost all of the elements available through Outlook, including reminders, the ability to recover deleted messages, and a lot more. OWA users also gain the ability to easily access their e-mail from outside the network, assuming the server is connected to the Internet.