The release of Exchange Server 2003 beta 2 as a public beta earlier this month opens the door for many more organizations to experience the improvements planned for Outlook Web Access (OWA) and the next desktop version of Outlook, currently code-named Outlook 11. Client enhancements were one of the main product goals for Exchange 2003. Microsoft has done a lot of work to make OWA more like desktop Outlook than ever before—a significant feat given all the changes in Outlook 11.
OWA 2003 actually comes in two versions: a "rich" version for users with Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 or higher and a basic version for other users. Microsoft recommends the basic version for dial-up users and others with slow network connections.
In the rich version, OWA 2003 users will first notice the changes in the opening view. Like Outlook 11's new interface, OWA 2003's opening view is more colorful than in previous versions and shows a reading pane on the right-hand side, not at the bottom. You should be able to read almost all your messages in the reading pane. With the reading pane displayed, the default view shows each item in the message list in a two-line display, leaving room for a new follow-up column. Click once in this column to mark a message with a red flag for later action. Right-click in the flag column to see a choice of six flag colors.
Security issues are important in Exchange 2003, and OWA has its share of improvements. OWA 2003 adds support for sending and receiving encrypted and digitally signed messages with Secure MIME (S/MIME). As in Outlook 11, the reading pane automatically blocks images, sounds, and other external content in email messages. This feature not only conserves bandwidth but also thwarts spammers who use so-called Web beacons—invisible images—to confirm valid email addresses. If the message contains a picture that you do need to see, you can click the "Click here to unblock content" link in the reading pane.
To meet another key security need, administrators can block OWA access to attachments. One server setting prevents users logging on from external machines from opening any attachments, a feature designed to prevent sensitive company documents from leaking out. Administrators will also be able to match Outlook 11's attachment-blocking feature, preventing access to certain types of files that could contain dangerous content.
Although OWA 2003 doesn't support creation of Outlook journal items, it does add support for tasks. The task entry window looks much like desktop Outlook's task form, and the tasks folders let you use the folder view to mark an item complete.
Spell check is another feature that OWA users have wanted for years. Up until now, it has been available only through third-party tools. OWA 2003 includes a spelling button on the message toolbar. The first time you click that button, OWA asks what language you want to use. (You can also click the Options button at the bottom of the new navigation pane on the left side of the main OWA window to set the language.) On replies and forwarded messages, the spelling feature checks only your text, not the text of the original message.
Another long-desired feature is the ability to resolve names first against the mailbox Contacts folder instead of the Global Address List (GAL). Like the spelling language, you can change this setting in the Options display. The Find Names dialog box that you see when you click the To button on a new message also lets you search Contacts as well as the GAL.
OWA 2003 includes a lot of other small improvements, such as recalling the user's preferred size for item windows, the ability to mark a message in the Inbox as read or unread, a default signature, a command for adding a recipient to the user's Contacts folder, and a simple rules editor for creating server-based rules from existing messages. Keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl+R for reply and Ctrl+Shift+F for forward help make OWA more like desktop Outlook. Even if you aren't set up to test Exchange 2003, you can download the 277-page Getting Started Guide and begin learning about the new features and capabilities.
Exchange Server 2003 Beta 2