Who Wants Outlook 2002?

I've been running Office XP since Microsoft released the first public betas last year. Maybe some inner masochism drives me to install beta code, but I prefer to think of it as a continuing search for knowledge. The bottom line is that new features in products often compensate for the occasional glitches encountered in the beta code. At least, that's my story.

Office XP is now available in a Release to Manufacturing (RTM) version, but I haven't upgraded from the last beta. Yesterday, my Office XP odyssey crashed to a halt. Some code in Office XP detects PC configuration changes, supposedly to stop software piracy by preventing people installing products on multiple PCs. The code identifies PCs by their unique property combinations—CPU type and speed, disk size, presence of a CD-ROM drive, and so on. At start-up, Office XP checks whether the PC configuration has changed; if so, the program prompts the user to insert the Office XP installation CD-ROM so that Office XP can verify itself. If the CD-ROM isn't available, Office XP automatically downgrades to reduced functionality that lets you read information, but you can't edit or create documents or messages.

The verification code that monitors PC configurations is supposed to disregard minor changes, but it can be a real pain if you swap devices on a notebook PC. In my case, I swap a CD-ROM drive for an extra battery whenever I travel, causing Office XP to have a fit and demand its installation CD-ROM. In the past, I've managed to get around the verification check by rebooting the PC, which clears memory, resets hardware, and generally cleans up PCs. Windows 2000 removed many reasons for rebooting, but Office XP seems determined to bring one back. In this instance, my reboot strategy failed, and I was left working away from the office with a brain-dead set of Office applications. I could avoid creating new Word documents or Excel worksheets for a couple of days, but going without email seemed disastrous.

Contemplating my plight, I realized that I had an Office 2000 CD-ROM set in my bag. I removed Office XP and installed its predecessor. To my relief, everything ran smoothly again. Happiness is the ability to communicate via email . . . or maybe I'm just strange that way. I freely acknowledge that the verification code was part of a beta version, not the RTM code, and that Microsoft has software kits available that deploy more easily in large corporate environments. But the beta code isn't the issue—the important point is that Office XP forced me to move back to an older Office version.

And I haven't missed Office XP. Sure, the mark-up facilities in Word 2002 are more visually attractive than those in Word 2000, and PowerPoint's new default layout for presentations is easier to work with—but these aren't drop-dead features. The same is true for Outlook 2002, so I wonder why anyone should upgrade from Outlook 2000.

On the plus side, Outlook 2002 offers some interesting features. Anyone who's used Outlook to access a mailbox on an Exchange 2000 Enterprise Server over a dial-in or extended WAN connection knows that sometimes the client becomes unresponsive. Typically, this results from a "hanging remote procedure call (RPC)," a condition in which Outlook has issued a request for data to the server, but the server doesn't respond in a timely manner. Outlook 2002 lets you cancel the request and get back to work.

In practice, cancelling the request works well about half the time. It's great to be able to cancel your request to connect to a remote public folder server and go back to reading and sending email, but it's less effective to cancel a data-retrieval request to a mailbox folder (such as the Inbox). In that case, Outlook often gets confused and displays a blank screen. Waiting a few seconds and clicking the folder refreshes the contents, but I can imagine users ringing Help desks: "Why can't I see my email?"

Synchronization, the process for replicating data from server folders with local copies held on a PC, also gets a makeover in Outlook 2002. I've often criticized the amount of data Outlook swaps with Enterprise Server during mailbox synchronization. Microsoft tried to introduce the "Local Store" (LIS file) to replace the offline store (OST file) used in previous versions of Outlook. The plan looked good; the idea was to create a seamless view of data whether you worked online or offline. In addition, the Local Store took a step toward using WebDAV, an evolution of the HTTP protocol, to replace RPCs. But Microsoft abruptly removed the Local Store midway through beta testing, perhaps because it worked poorly; I didn't use the Local Store.

Even worse, Microsoft didn't replace the local calendar feature, apparently removed as a side effect of Local Store's disappearance. The local calendar is an Outlook 2000 feature that enables a client-side copy of calendar appointments and other items; it synchronizes with the server calendar by a background process. When the user wants to view the calendar, Outlook can reference the local instead of the server version. The local calendar is a marvellous feature for those who use their calendars frequently, and it'll be greatly missed in Outlook 2002.

All in all, Outlook 2002 synchronization works as well as previous versions. The most obvious change is that Outlook now provides some progress indication of synchronization via a screen that informs you what folder is currently being synchronized and how much more time the process will take. It's a nice idea, but like many other progress bars (think of downloads from Web sites), this one lacks accuracy. All too often, the progress bar solemnly informed me that it would take 3 hours or more to complete synchronization, because the first message included a very large attachment that skewed the prediction.

Users really like automatic address completion, and it's the one feature I missed most when I reverted to Outlook 2000. Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) has used a similar feature to autocomplete URLs for years, but Outlook 2002 implements it very well for email addresses. Essentially, Outlook learns the email addresses you use. After you've typed three or more characters in an address, Outlook tries to complete the address with one you've previously used. I like the feature, but I couldn't find an obvious way to edit or correct the data that drives address completion. Apparently, the trick is to press Delete when you get the popup suggesting an incorrect address. Perhaps I'm not clever enough to grasp the concept, and I couldn't find any assistance in the Help file, but at least you can clear out bad addresses, once you've learned how.

Compared to earlier versions, Outlook 2002 communicates somewhat better with GCservers in an Enterprise Server environment. As I'm sure you're aware, Enterprise Server uses the Active Directory (AD) as its source for directory information; clients that require Global Address List (GAL) access must connect to a GCserver. Earlier clients could connect through a referral or proxy process managed by Enterprise Server, but in Outlook 2002, if the GCserver fails during a session, the clients hang. Outlook 2002 doesn't fail overall, so you can continue to read email. If you want to connect to a different GCserver and regain access to the GAL, however, you must exit and restart Outlook.

In addition, Outlook 2002 implements security controls similar to those in Outlook 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1). These controls stop users opening EXE files that are sent as attachments. Users who don't understand the dangers of EXEs benefit from this feature, but it annoys others, particularly when sending an EXE is the only way to share a file with another user. Fortunately, putting the EXE inside a Zip file is a quick workaround for both Outlook 2000 SP1 and Outlook 2002. You can set Outlook 2002 to allow access to EXE and other files via a registry entry, but a slicker way is through a COM add-in that provides a nice UI. For details, check the following URL.
http://www.slipstick.com/outlook/esecup/getexe.htm#ol2002

Outlook 2002 also merges the Internet and Corporate mail modes used in Outlook 2000 into a single client. This sensible step lets you concurrently connect and work with multiple mailboxes using different protocols. Although it's interesting to be able to read Hotmail or mail from another POP3/IMAP4 server along with that in my corporate inbox, this is hardly a killer feature.

I can empathize with Microsoft's difficulties in coming up with new features that convince users to pony up the stiff upgrade fees, especially when older products work so well. The bottom line is that the Office XP applications are evolutionary advances; most users won't recognize the difference between Office XP and Office 2000. Outlook 2002's enhancements aren't enough to justify an upgrade. But don't take my word for it—test Office XP for yourself, and see what you think. But remember to keep that installation CD-ROM available for the time when Office XP thinks your PC's configuration has changed.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish