Outlook 2001 for Macintosh - 11 Jun 2001

Mac Outlook rides again

Apple Computer's Macintosh users have long had a love-hate relationship with Microsoft. Although Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint were originally Mac-only products, the OS war has been a source of conflict. In particular, Macintosh purists were inflamed by Microsoft's decision to release Office applications that were basically ports of their Windows counterparts. By and large, the Mac versions of these applications (e.g., Word 6) were buggy, slow, and un-Maclike—the latter being a capital offense to many Macophiles.

Microsoft gradually realized that what Mac users really want is functional applications that exploit all features of the Mac OS. Redmond delivered in spades with the Office 98 suite for the Mac, which was really a Mac port of Office 95. Mac users, in general, were overjoyed at the quality of the applications and their fidelity to the Mac UI. There was still a small measure of trouble in paradise, though, and that trouble was spelled O-U-T-L-O-O-K. With Microsoft's release of Office 2001 (a Mac port of Office 97), Mac users were at first hopeful then disappointed to see that the Entourage personal information manager (PIM) included with Office couldn't use Messaging API (MAPI) to attach to an Exchange server.

I won't go into historical detail, but it's interesting to note that the Outlook client for the Mac has never been a part of the Office product package, as it is on the Windows side. This difference caused great frustration to Mac users, who were saddled with the Mac Outlook client. This client also appeared to be a port of the Windows version (or a port of the Windows Messaging and Schedule+ clients) but was missing much of Outlook 97's useful functionality. In particular, Mac Outlook users couldn't share calendars with Outlook for Windows users. To top things off, Mac Outlook was buggy, fragile, and slow.

Unfortunately, Mac Outlook users have had only three choices: Use Outlook on the Mac, use Outlook Web Access (OWA), or switch to Windows. The good news is that a new version of Outlook for the Mac is now available. Let's see how it measures up.

"Watson, come here; I want you"
At the 1999 Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC), Microsoft began dropping hints about a new Mac client code-named "Watson" (presumably to go with Apple's Sherlock search engine and not the infamous Windows Dr. Watson tool). After a long and unusually quiet development cycle, the Exchange development team has finally released a public beta of Watson (more properly known as Outlook 2001). The product is a real treat if you're a Mac user. Outlook 2001 addresses several long-standing aggravations and feature shortcomings. The biggest changes are easy to summarize.

  • Outlook is now a true Mac application that fully supports the Mac UI guidelines. The product uses the same appearance themes that Microsoft introduced in Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 for the Mac, which gives Outlook's main window a pleasing look, as Figure 1, page 11, shows. You can customize the main window to match your desktop and IE appearance. The interface looks like the Office 2001 interface, which is what you'd expect.
  • Outlook 2001 is fully compatible with Outlook for Windows. Mac and Windows Outlook users can open one another's calendars, schedule meetings, and exchange mail without hassle. In fact, you can use the same mailbox with both clients interchangeably. This feature is particularly useful if you have a PC at work and a Mac at home (or vice versa). You can even open a Windows Personal Folder Store (.pst) file with Mac Outlook (or vice versa).

Choosing the Right Client
Before I explain how Mac Outlook works and how you use it, I need to draw a distinction between Microsoft's three Mac mail clients. That's right, three: Outlook Express, Outlook, and Entourage. The clients have confusingly overlapping feature sets, so you need to make sure you're choosing the appropriate client for your needs.

  • Outlook Express is free and usually comes bundled with IE (although it's available separately). The client supports POP, IMAP, and Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP).
  • Entourage isn't free, but it's included with Office 2001. Entourage supports POP, IMAP, and NNTP. The client also has an integrated calendar, task list, and address book, and it can sync with Palm handhelds—a nice feature. Microsoft says that Entourage is a PIM like Outlook, except that Entourage can't use an Exchange server for calendaring or MAPI mail (though it can connect to Exchange with POP or IMAP).
  • Outlook 2001 is free, but it's useful only when you connect it to an Exchange server. To do so, you have to buy a Client Access License (CAL) for Exchange. The Mac version supports only MAPI and Exchange Server—you can't read IMAP, POP, or HTTP mail accounts with Outlook 2001.

The addition of Entourage, which shipped late last year as part of Office 2001, adds some confusion to the mix, because there's no PC equivalent to it. Imagine a high-speed collision between Outlook's calendar and contacts features and Outlook Express, and you get an idea of Entourage. Microsoft explains that this division of their product line gives Mac Office users—most of whom aren't using Exchange Server—a high-quality PIM application such as PC users have. Exchange Server users can use Outlook 2001 for Mac. Although this reasoning makes sense, it's disconcerting if you're not aware of the differences between the products.

Installing Outlook
One of my favorite features in Office 98 for the Mac was its installer: There wasn't one. To install the product, you needed only to drag its folder to any location on your hard disk. Launching any of the installed applications installed the necessary shared libraries, preference files, and so on. Office 98 also featured a self-repair capability similar to the System File Checker (SFC) in Windows 2000 and the self-repair features in Office XP and Office 2000. Outlook 2001 continues this installation technique. If you have the Outlook installer (currently available from http://www.microsoft.com/mac/download/outlook2001/outlook2001beta.asp), just drag the Outlook folder to the desired location and launch the application. Then, you can create a profile and start using Outlook.

Getting Started
Mac Outlook includes a wizard-like profile creator, which Figure 2 shows. To create a new profile, fill in the name of the profile, the name of the Exchange server, and the name of the mailbox that the profile points to. At the bottom of the dialog box, you can specify whether you want this profile to maintain an Offline Folder Store (.ost) file for offline use. Clicking Advanced displays the Advanced Options dialog box, which works similarly to the corresponding dialog box in Outlook 2000. The Advanced Options dialog box tells Outlook whether to prompt for a profile at startup, what assumptions to make about the network connection type, which additional .pst files to open when Outlook starts, and whether to encrypt information passing between Outlook 2001 and the Exchange server.

After you create the profile, you click Test Settings to tell Outlook to contact the server and resolve the name, just like in Outlook on Windows. After creating the profile, you log on to the server by providing a username, password, and domain.

One nifty Mac-only feature that the Outlook development team has added is support for keeping your Outlook profile's credentials in the Mac OS Keychain. Keychain is a system service that lets you store authentication credentials and passwords in a secure, password-protected list. To log on to Outlook each morning, all I have to do is enter my Keychain password once (which I have to do anyway). Outlook can then retrieve my credentials without my retyping them each time.

Daily Use
The biggest surprise in this version of Outlook is how few surprises there are, at least for users who are accustomed to Outlook 2000. In comparison with Outlook for Mac 8.2, the big changes in Outlook 2001 for Mac are that it's faster, more stable, and more functional. Just like its Windows relatives, the Mac version uses a two- or three-pane display (depending on whether you use the preview pane). You can create folders and rules, view and post public-folder messages, and do pretty much everything else that you can do with Outlook 2000 (except for using the Outlook for Windows Journal feature, which seems to go largely unused anyway).

Some new features require a bit of adjustment to the way users work. One welcome change is that the Outlook 2001 client now uses the little reply/forward icons that Windows users have long been accustomed to. This addition is a blessing, because now you can easily tell whether you've read a message or forwarded it—something you couldn't do in Outlook 8.2.

For those sites that use mailbox limits to keep mailbox sizes within bounds, Outlook 2001 now offers users a way to see how big a folder is. You can right-click on the status bar at the top of Outlook 2001's main window, or use the File, Folder, Show Folder Size command. No one likes to be surprised by a "you are over your mailbox limit" message, so this feature is welcome indeed. Of course, the real shocker here is that Mac and PC users' calendars can interoperate without any use of Schedule+ format. This capability finally lets Mac users generate and receive meeting invitations as equal partners with their PC counterparts.

Outlook 2001 offers a few bonus features, too. Here are a few of those features:

  • If you have multiple overdue reminders (e.g., after logging on for the first time after a week of vacation), Outlook 2001 consolidates the reminders into one window. This feature has been one of the most popular additions to Outlook 2002, and I expect the Mac world to give it a similarly warm reception.
  • The default system font sizes are different for Mac OS and Windows machines. As a result, text that looks perfectly legible on a Windows box will often appear illegibly small on a Mac. By default, Outlook 2001 attempts to scale the text to readable size, and each message window has a small pop-up control that lets you adjust the text size.
  • Outlook 2001 uses the Mac OS Notification Manager to notify you when new messages arrive. This procedure is a robust and stable approach that does away with a prime source of Outlook crashes, because it uses the Mac OS instead of a homemade notification system.

The Future
The Outlook 2001 beta still has several minor annoyances. For example, when the preview pane is active, pressing Delete doesn't delete the current message (although CMD+D does). However, because the product is still in beta, I don't want to harp on the problems because they're truly minor. Some features are missing that will eventually be in the final release, including full support for Secure MIME (S/MIME) security and full support for delegating calendar and mailbox access. In the build I used to write this article (1214.3—the public beta), these features—and a few other lesser ones—have the UI and code in place, but they didn't work. Disappointingly, though, two key features—Palm synchronization and the ability to read HTML messages—won't be included.

I'd like to see these two features, and other features, added in a future version. The first feature—the ability to synchronize with a Palm handheld—would be a great addition. Third parties can write conduits to synchronize, but I'd prefer to have synchronization integrated directly, as it is in Entourage. The second feature—the ability to read HTML messages from within Outlook—would also be a welcome inclusion. A less serious concern is that in some places you can't use a keyboard shortcut to dismiss a dialog (e.g., when you're deleting items from a public folder). Microsoft did a generally great job with Office 2001's keyboard shortcuts, so it's a shame to not have a complete set in Outlook. Finally, if Outlook supported IMAP and POP accounts, in conjunction with MAPI, as it does on Windows, I could get down to one mail client.

Despite these minor problems—which are far fewer in number and severity than in a typical beta—Outlook 2001 has been remarkably functional and stable in daily use. If you support Mac users on your Exchange servers, I encourage you to get this software in their hands as quickly as possible—they'll thank you for it.

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