You might be surprised at how many people are using Outlook to collaborate without Microsoft Exchange Server, and I'm not talking about Net Folders. Microsoft introduced Net Folders in Outlook 98 to give individuals the ability to synchronize folders via special email messages that Outlook produced automatically. Net Folders filled a niche, to be sure, but it was never reliable. The amount of work that might be required to fix Net Folders probably sealed its fate; Microsoft dropped the feature in Outlook 2002. Instead of using Net Folders for collaboration, I'm thinking of things like publishing free/busy information, exchanging task and meeting requests, and using Outlook forms across the Internet.
Publishing Free/Busy Information
Internet Free/Busy is a feature that Microsoft introduced in Outlook 98 Internet Mail Only (IMO) mode to let users publish free/busy data from their Calendar folder to an Internet site so other people can know when they're available. Microsoft has beefed up Internet Free/Busy in Outlook 2002 by providing a free public site for free/busy information sharing. Now, individuals no longer have to put up a Web server just to share this information. To learn how to use the Internet Free/Busy feature, go to Microsoft's Web site.
Exchanging Task and Meeting Requests
Outlook has always supported sending meeting and task requests over the Internet, though most books written about Outlook imply that this feature is available only in Exchange. The secret is that the sender must enable the recipient address to receive the request in rich text format (RTF). In Outlook 97 and in Outlook 98 or 2000 running in Corporate/Workgroup mode, you need to double-click the recipient address—either in the outgoing request or in the original contact item—and check the box for "Always send to this recipient in Microsoft Outlook rich text format." In Outlook 98 or 2000 in IMO mode, make sure that you haven't checked the "Send plain text only" box on the recipient's record in your Contacts folder. In Outlook 2002, you must double-click the recipient address, and choose either "Send Using Outlook Rich Text Format," if you want to force RTF all the time, or "Let Outlook decide the best sending format." You can also set a similar option for a contact in the Windows 2000 Active Directory (AD) or a custom recipient in the Exchange 4.0 or 5.x Global Address List (GAL).
If you've set the recipient address to receive your message in RTF and you're sending the message from an Exchange mailbox, but your requests are not arriving as actual Outlook requests, the obstacle might be in the Exchange server. The administrator needs to let the server pass RTF content. In the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Exchange 2000 System Manager snap-in, click the Advanced properties tab and look under Global Settings/Internet Message Formats. The default setting lets individual settings control RTF. Microsoft article Q179722 covers earlier Exchange versions.
Outlook 2002 also has a setting that simplifies exchanging meeting requests over the Internet and eliminates concern about the recipient's address settings. Choose Tools, Options, Calendar Options, and select the "When sending meeting requests over the Internet, use iCalendar format" check box. When you select this setting, Outlook automatically converts any meeting request into an iCalendar message with content-type text/calendar. Maybe a future version of Outlook will do the same for task requests, which the iCalendar format also supports.
I see questions on the Microsoft newsgroups every day from people trying to collaborate over the Internet using custom Outlook forms. I've been working for a few months with an agricultural company whose several offices, scattered over a large state, don't use Exchange for mail. We've converted six of the company's most commonly used paper forms into Outlook forms, taking great pains to make the Outlook forms look as much as possible like the familiar paper versions. In some cases, the Outlook forms generate regular Outlook messages with the data in the message body. In others, the different offices use custom Outlook forms to exchange the data. The same RTF settings I discussed above for meeting and task requests let the forms work over the Internet, too. The president of the company tells me that the Outlook forms provide a structured way to collect and report data much faster than with paper forms. Not only is the exchange of data through email quicker and easier, he said, but it's also more accurate. He rates the project a smashing success.
Next time you need to collaborate with someone who isn't in the same Exchange organization, remember that Outlook can do a lot more by way of the Internet than you might realize.