IT support professionals should always look for new resources that can offer real-world solutions to IT problems. Whenever you’re faced with a particularly troubling issue, it’s helpful to remember that someone, somewhere has probably faced the same problem before. The only trick is getting in touch with that pro to find the answer you need.

When the problem concerns a Microsoft product, there’s no trick at all to tracking down someone who can help. You just have to use Microsoft Product Support newsgroups. Here’s how this tool can put you in touch with a vast number of IT pros who are eager to help you solve your next IT puzzle.

Outlook to NT and everything in between
This tool is a collection of over 1,600 newsgroups dedicated completely to the support of Microsoft products. Every product Microsoft makes is represented by at least one newsgroup. Most of the more complex products, like Windows 2000 or Office, have several. Here you can post a question or read questions that have already been posted using any standard Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) newsreader (such as Outlook Express or Netscape).

The great thing about this tool is that thousands of other IT pros just like you are also looking at these groups. If they see your question, chances are good that someone out there will have solved that problem before. This person will post his or her solution to the group, and your issue will be solved. Sometimes questions even end up with four or five answers, each from a different perspective.

Besides users who are just browsing, hundreds of volunteers monitor the newsgroups to ensure that questions are being answered appropriately. These people are called Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs). There are over 600 MVPs from over 30 countries. I happen to be one for Microsoft Project.

Connecting to the newsgroups
The most common newsreader out there is Microsoft’s Outlook Express (OE). It comes bundled with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). If you have IE, you most likely have Outlook Express. Netscape’s Navigator product also allows newsgroup access, but in the interest of time, this article will focus specifically on the setup procedures for Outlook Express.

From inside Outlook Express, click Tools | Accounts. This brings up the Internet Accounts dialog box shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Click the Add button and select News from the submenu. Enter a Display Name. This will be the name that appears in the From field when you post to the group (see Figure B). Click Next.

Figure B

Now enter an e-mail address and click Next. Many people use a HotMail or other Web-based e-mail account specifically for newsgroup posting. This prevents other group users from seeing a work or home e-mail address. Marketing companies often harvest addresses from newsgroup posts and use them for bulking mailings.

The next screen asks for the news server address you will use. In our case, it is See Figure C. Enter this into the dialog box and click Next and then click Finish. Your news server may be different depending on your Internet service provider.

Figure C

After clicking Close on the Internet Accounts dialog box, you should see a message asking if you want to download a list of newsgroups. Click Yes. Outlook Express will connect to the news server you listed and download the list of available newsgroups. You should now see the Newsgroup Subscriptions dialog box shown in Figure D.

Figure D

From here, you can sort the groups by topic by entering a keyword or product name in the Display Newsgroups Which Contain field at the top of the dialog box. The lists will be filtered to display only those groups that contain that keyword or product. For example, if you entered “project,” you would see the list in Figure E.

Figure E

Figure E shows the 11 groups that contain the word “project.” This list contains 10 groups that are related to Microsoft Project, one group that isn’t, and both English and non-English groups. (The groups with de, fr, es, and kr are all non-English groups.)

Double-click the groups you wish to subscribe to and then click OK. Figure F shows some of the posts from a group about Project. Notice how you can see the list of groups that the user is subscribed to down the left side under folders.You are now connected to your chosen groups and can browse, post, or answer questions as you please.

Figure F

Stay tuned
In this article, I described how valuable Microsoft newsgroups can be and how you can access them. In my next article, I’ll outline how to effectively search for the solutions to a particular problem, post a question, or answer a question.
What do you think of Brian’s description of the Microsoft newsgroups? Do you have a great tip or trick for troubleshooting difficult problems? If so, share it with your fellow TechRepublic members. Post a comment or write to Brian Kennemer and let us know what you think.