Microsoft unveiled Outlook 11 at the annual MEC conference in Anaheim, California last week, calling it the most ambitious release of Outlook ever. Administrators reacted positively to the infrastructure improvements for Exchange Server users. However, the most obvious changes are in the interface, which Microsoft hopes will set a new standard for Outlook as a premium email client. Outlook 11 will ship in mid-2003, as part of Microsoft Office 11 and at about the same time as the next version of Exchange, code-named Titanium. The version of Outlook 11 shown at MEC was beta 1, which will be distributed to testers soon.
In an Exchange environment, Outlook 11 will address connectivity problems that plague users with relatively slow or unreliable connections or connections that exhibit high latency, such as satellite connections. The result will be a smoother user experience, with no need to restart Outlook to switch between online and offline sessions. Outlook 11 also will send less data over the wire, especially when running with Titanium. With Titanium, Outlook will compress the data and pack the remote procedure call (RPC) buffers used to transmit the data. Microsoft says this will result in 50 percent to 70 percent less data sent over the wire, depending on the type of data in the mailbox.
In addition to the purely online and purely offline connection modes supported in earlier versions, Outlook 11 will introduce a new "cached Exchange" mode. In this mode, Outlook will download a local copy of the user's mailbox to an offline folders (.ost) file and automatically keep it up-to-date. The user won't need to perform scheduled or manual synchronization and will always work with the local data store. The folder hierarchy and calendar changes will come down to the client from the server first, followed by new message headers and the first 256 characters of text for all new messages. If the user has a fast network link, Outlook next will get the message bodies. On a slow connection, however, Outlook will download the headers only, then wait for the user to mark the message bodies he or she wants to see. Advantages of the cached mode include better performance, the ability to keep working even when network problems occur, and no chance that a user who needs to travel will forget to synchronize a key folder. Other infrastructure changes in Outlook 11 and Titanium will support RPC over HTTP so that users can connect to Exchange over the Internet without the need for a VPN.
The new user interface will be more colorful and take advantage of extensive research into email usage and onscreen reading. A reading pane on the right side of the screen will replace the preview pane at the bottom of earlier versions and will display as much as 40 percent more text. New features called "arrangements" and "search folders" will organize mail in a logical fashion so that users can more easily find the most important messages. Flagging a message for later action will be a one-click or one-keystroke operation.
At MEC, Microsoft showed nothing new related to collaboration in Exchange public folders. However, Outlook 11 will integrate with SharePoint Team Services, Microsoft's Web-based workgroup collaboration environment. An Outlook 11 user will be able to open a SharePoint Team Services calendar or contacts list in Outlook. Outlook will copy the SharePoint Team Services data to a local Personal Folders (.pst) file. The transfer will be strictly one-way—Outlook won't have the ability to change or create individual SharePoint Team Services items. Outlook users will also be able to create "meeting spaces," a new feature coming in SharePoint Team Services 2.0. Meeting spaces will collect documents and other information associated with an upcoming meeting created in Outlook.
With a new user interface and infrastructure changes aimed at better performance on a variety of networks, Outlook 11 has a lot to offer both administrators and users. The new version of Outlook Web Access (OWA) coming in Titanium will use a similar interface, including the new "search folders," and will support tasks for the first time.