Microsoft's Outlook 2001 for Macintosh edges toward release with a public beta version available online. While not perfect, it's a big improvement, and beta users like it.
This month, Microsoft released a public beta version of its long-awaited upgrade to the Outlook for Macintosh client for Exchange Server. Outlook 2001, previously code-named Watson, resolves many of the major incompatibility and other issues that plagued previous Mac clients for Exchange, although it doesn't achieve 100-percent parity with Outlook 2000 for Windows. According to Microsoft product manager David Siroky, 3000 attendees of the MacWorld conference took home copies of the beta, and by using Microsoft's web site, many more have downloaded it directly.
Outlook 2001 is strictly an Exchange Server client. It provides no support for Internet mail accounts. Microsoft's two Internet mail clients for Macintosh are Outlook Express and the new Entourage personal information manager included in Office 2001. Outlook 2001 and the two Internet clients can't interchange data directly, but if the Exchange Server supports IMAP, both Outlook Express and Entourage can access the mail folders on the Exchange Server. Practically speaking, then, a user could receive Internet mail via Entourage and copy those messages into the Inbox on the Exchange Server via an IMAP connection.
The biggest improvement is almost complete interoperability with Outlook 2000 (and earlier versions) on the Windows platform for calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes. Because of a common file format for Personal Folders (PST) files, a user can open a PST file in Outlook on either OS.
The new user interface incorporates elements from Outlook 2000—the Outlook Bar and Preview Pane, for instance—and supports multiple signatures, multiple folder windows, flag for follow-up, and synchronization of folders (including public folders) for offline use. Its consolidated reminders window resembles that planned for Outlook 10 for Windows. Outlook 2001 employs popular Macintosh capabilities like drag-and-drop installation, password storage with Apple's Keychain technology, and background color themes. I particularly like the screen for setting preferences—its clear layout improves on the options for Outlook for Windows, which can confuse users with multiple layers of dialog boxes.
Some key Outlook 2000 features are missing from Outlook 2001: support for the Categories field, task requests, task-status reports, and journal items. Also, Outlook 2001 offers no direct support for composing messages in HTML format. Instead, it relies on the Exchange Server to convert a message composed in the native rich-text format into HTML (assuming the server settings allow it). Outlook 2001 lacks support for custom forms, except through Outlook Web Access (OWA) forms created to correspond to traditional Outlook forms. Custom properties don't appear in folder views.
According to Siroky, the most frequent request from beta users is to add synchronization support for Palm devices. Although Entourage can synchronize with any handheld using Palm OS 2.0 or later, the Outlook 2001 beta includes no such capability. Siroky says Microsoft is striving to add synchronization to the final product.
Outlook 2001 requires a Power PC-based computer running Mac OS 8.6 or later, with 32MB of RAM and at least 1MB of virtual memory. The installation requires about 20MB of hard disk space.
Microsoft plans to release Outlook 2001 for Mac this summer but has not yet announced pricing or packaging. It's a relatively safe bet, though, that as a strictly Exchange Server client, it will follow the pattern of previous versions of Outlook for Macintosh. Microsoft made earlier versions available at no additional charge, reasoning that so long as you have a client-access license for Exchange, you can use the client you prefer.
To get the news from the trenches, check the new newsgroup\[microsoft.public.outlook.mac\], and check another new discussion group for more. Participants' comments about the beta run mostly positive. Reports at the MacWindows site also paint an upbeat picture of this new client.