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Microsoft Announces Major Changes to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac

Microsoft announced this week that it's releasing Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. Apart from the usual bug fixes for all the Office applications, the big news is that SP2 makes some major--and welcome--changes to Microsoft Entourage's Exchange support.

The long list of tasty new goodness in the SP2 release includes:

- A new model for public folders. Earlier versions didn't support calendar or contact public folders; this release does. To enable that support, the development team changed the way Calendar data is stored and managed. Now your local machine will have a Calendar, as well as a Calendar for each Exchange account and any calendar public folders you have. For most Exchange users, this change will be a huge improvement because they can easily drag items between Calendars or contact folders. (The small number of users who define multiple Exchange accounts in the same Entourage identity will notice that Entourage doesn't automatically sync events from every Calendar to every other Calendar now, but relatively few people were doing this.)
- Much, much better sync performance with Exchange accounts. (Microsoft also fixed that annoying bug that makes the Progress window pop up even when you've previously closed it.) Public folder browse performance is greatly improved, too; this was a sore point for enterprise customers who had large numbers of public folders.
- Support for setting permissions on Exchange items. That's right-- you can now grant permissions on any folders in your mailbox, just like you can in Outlook. You can also open other users' shared folders, provided you have permission to do so.
- Create private Calendar and Contact items that are invisible to other users who have access to your data. (This setting is carried over to any PDAs with which you sync, too, which is a handy feature).
- Much better support for delegation, including the ability to assign other users as delegates. Microsoft recommends that you use the folder-sharing feature unless you want another person to be able to send and receive mail and accept meeting invitations as you; if you want another user to see details of your Calendar, sharing is what you want.

SP2 also has some less obvious, but perhaps more welcome, changes. For example, Entourage now honors the Thread-Index and Thread-Topic headers that Outlook uses, which means that conversations with Outlook users will be properly threaded. Entourage also includes a new Conversation view type that properly threads email messages--a feature that's long overdue (although you could simulate it by creating your own custom view). You can also "get info" on any folder to see how much space it's taking up on the Exchange server-- something I use all the time, given the mailbox limits that are applied to some of my accounts.

SP2 is missing a few missing features, however. For example, you can't turn Exchange's out-of-office feature on or off on a Macintosh without using Outlook Web Access (OWA), and there's no support for creating, viewing, or editing server-side Exchange rules. Entourage probably won't ever have complete feature parity with Outlook because the applications' target markets are different. Entourage has several unique Mac-only features (see for more details) that Outlook won't ever get, however, so it's probably an even trade.

SP2 is available for download from Microsoft's Mac Web site; as far as I know, SP2 will update either the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) or SP1 versions of the Office suite, and you'll need to install it separately on each machine unless you're using a software distribution system. Microsoft has also promised to make SP2 available through its Automatic Updates mechanism for Office 2004 for Mac.
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