Outlook Year in Review

The year 2003 gave its name to the most recent versions of Outlook and Exchange Server, but that isn't all that happened this year. As 2003 draws to a close, let's look back over the main messaging events of the past 12 months.

As the year began, Microsoft made Office Outlook 2003 and Exchange Server 2003 available through public betas. The company also released a much-needed update for Outlook 2000: a new list of holidays (for 2003 through 2007) to supplement the list that shipped with Outlook 2000; that list ran only through 2002. (In case you're wondering, Outlook 2002's list runs through 2005; Outlook 2003 lists holidays through 2007.)

Spam was a huge concern this year, with many new developments shaping the way Outlook users and administrators deal with junk email. In March, Microsoft changed the face of spam fighting when it released Office 2003 Beta 2, which possessed a highly effective, integrated spam filter. Several years of antispam studies at Microsoft Research and a huge body of junk email contributed by Microsoft Hotmail users who agreed to share information about their junk email classifications formed the basis for the filter. This beta release once again changed the rules for the "object model guard" that makes harvesting Outlook addresses more difficult for viruses--leaving antispam and Outlook add-on developers scrambling to update their products. The release also revealed that Outlook 2003 would display security prompts when external programs accessed properties related to the body of a message; earlier Outlook versions hadn't restricted access to those properties. Microsoft finally realized that these restrictions didn't give standalone users enough say in how Outlook operates. As a compromise between security and utility, the final release of Outlook 2003 ended up adding standalone Outlook support for trusted COM add-ins.

Incidentally, Microsoft this week issued its first update for the Outlook 2003 spam filter. This patch replaces the Outlfltr.dat file, which--according to Outlook add-in developer MAPILab ( http://www.mapilab.com )--consists of a large dictionary that assigns weighting factors to tens of thousands of words, plus 11 fairly straightforward checks of other message characteristics, such as the time a message was sent.

This year saw a huge explosion in the number of antispam tools designed specifically for Outlook. These tools use a host of techniques, including challenge/response, community reporting, Bayesian analysis, whitelists, and blacklists. In addition to tools that integrate directly into Outlook, many tools--especially those designed for standalone users--act as a POP3 server gateway for Outlook and other mail clients, downloading messages, running them through antispam filters, then storing them in a mailbox on a small POP server running on the user's workstation.

In July, Microsoft released Exchange Server 2003 to manufacturing. Exchange 2003 includes an overhauled Outlook Web Access (OWA) that's more similar to the desktop Outlook version, plus support for more efficient connection modes from Outlook 2003. In August, Microsoft released Microsoft Office 2003--which includes Outlook 2003--to manufacturing. The official launch of both Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003 took place in October.

Speaking of Office 2003, the Professional and Small Business editions also include a new Outlook utility known as Business Contact Manager. BCM adds rudimentary contract-tracking and sales-opportunity management features to Outlook. However, Microsoft has sent confusing signals about BCM. Clearly, Microsoft wants to distinguish BCM, which is intended for single users and includes no data-sharing features, from Microsoft CRM, a small-to-midsized enterprise Customer Relationship Management application that debuted in January and went into full international release this month. Although the "How to Buy" documents for Volume License customers list BCM as an application in Office 2003 Professional Edition, apparently the BCM disk isn't automatically included in the media sent to those customers. BCM also didn't appear in the CD-ROM sets distributed at some of the Office 2003 launch events and to various Microsoft partners. And just to muddy the waters further, the retail Office Pro box carries a bright red warning that BCM isn't compatible with Outlook in an Exchange environment, yet Microsoft released a patch this week that lets BCM run in a profile that contains Exchange--but only Exchange 2003 in Small Business Server (SBS) 2003, another product that Microsoft released late this year.

What can we expect in 2004? Microsoft has announced plans to incorporate spam filtering that will integrate with Outlook 2003's filter into Exchange 2003. Also in the works are two Outlook connectors: an improved version of the Outlook 2002 connector for Lotus Notes and Domino and a new connector, to be included in the Microsoft Network Premium service, that will let Outlook users synchronize MSN and Hotmail mailbox data with Outlook. (Even AOL has indicated that it might at last open its mailboxes to Outlook access.) Another key development is the growth of Rich Site Summary (RSS) news feeds as a substitute for email newsletters. Once found largely as a feature at Weblog sites, RSS news feeds have increased in functionality and popularity with the release of two news aggregators for Outlook--NewsGator ( http://www.newsgator.com ) and intraVnews ( http://www.intravnews.com ). Electronic newsletters seem to be having more and more difficulty avoiding spam filters, even when subscribers have explicitly opted in to receive the publications. And by default, Outlook 2003 blocks the downloading of images and other content from the Internet, meaning that many HTML-format newsletters have big red Xs where the advertisements and other graphical content should appear. Will other mail clients follow Outlook's lead and block images? And what will email-newsletter publishers do to compensate? Next year could be an interesting year indeed.

Happy holidays to all! And may next year bring you success and well-being!

Outlook 2000 Add-in: Holiday Updates

http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=7d4d9017-8d4e-4963-8ba7-d2e91d491f5e

Overview of the Outlook 2003 Junk E-mail Filter Update: December 16, 2003

http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=832333

Overview of the Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003 Update: Windows Small Business Server 2003

http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=831747

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