Microsoft's Comprehensive New Support Site

Microsoft revamped its support site last week, making it easier to find the most valuable information about Outlook, Exchange Server, and other applications. In addition to the familiar Microsoft Knowledge Base pages, you can now find support pages for individual products filled with links to the most common problems, how-to articles, and white papers.

You can use these new support pages proactively. Administrators can check the pages before they deploy a new version to learn about problems that other organizations have encountered and whether workarounds are available. Users can work through the how-to articles, especially those about features that have changed in the latest version.

One of the new site's welcome features is the Send button in the upper-right corner of each page, including the Knowledge Base article pages. Clicking the button generates an email message with a text link to the page. This feature avoids the problem that occurs when you use Internet Explorer's (IE's) File, Send, Link by E-mail feature, which produces a message containing a .lnk file to which Outlook blocks access. Furthermore, unlike the URLs for Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) and TechNet sites, the text links are short enough to fit on one line in plaintext messages with fixed line lengths.

The Knowledge Base search includes many new features that might be especially helpful to novice users. One feature is a degree of context sensitivity to help users refine their searches. For example, when I conducted a search for Outlook 2002 articles containing the word "forms," in addition to the Knowledge Base results, I received a pane at the top of the page that asked what technology I was interested in—forms, automation, COM add-ins, macros, or folder home pages—and whether I was experiencing crashes or other errors. On other search result pages, you might see a drop-down list inviting you to "Please select the topic that most closely matches your interests."

Also, at the top of the Knowledge Base article results page, you'll see a drop-down list with "Refine your search" as the selected choice. You can use this list to select Preview instead, opening a preview pane at the bottom of the results page. As you click on the link for each Knowledge Base article, the text appears in the preview pane. The Print button at the top of the page then prints just the text of that article, not the entire results page. You also can use the preview pane's View Full Screen button to open the article in a separate browser window, then return to browsing the search results page.

I have a few suggestions for the support site. First, instead of starting each Outlook version's support page with Common Issues, Microsoft should add a section at the top of the page for security issues. These issues should include both Outlook patches and the essential updates for IE needed to protect against Nimda, BadTrans, and other viruses that exploit vulnerabilities in HTML mail messages.

Second, Microsoft should restore the capability to search for Knowledge Base articles published in the last 7 or 14 days. Such a search was available on the old Knowledge Base interface, but the new site apparently uses 30 days as its shortest search timeframe.

Finally, Microsoft should expose the Knowledge Base as a .NET XML Web service. The fact that the new support site uses .aspx pages, not .asp or .htm pages, is a tip-off that Microsoft has converted the site to ASP.NET. Making Knowledge Base searches available for other sites to consume as a Web service would be a fantastic way for Microsoft to demonstrate the power of .NET and to get the Knowledge Base content into the hands of more people.

In the meantime, enjoy exploring the new support site. You might receive a few error messages—ASP.NET is still in beta, after all—but overall, the new site is definitely a step in the right direction.

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