Outlook 2002: Crippled to Protect You

Have you seen Microsoft's new Office XP suite? The new software will be on store shelves May 31, but some people are already complaining about the new suite's Outlook 2002 client. Apparently, Microsoft has changed the way Outlook handles sending and receiving file attachments because of the onslaught of viruses, worms, and Trojans that constantly target Outlook users.

As you know, previous Outlook versions can sometimes automatically launch file attachments without the user's permission, and in other cases, previous versions let unsuspecting users inadvertently launch malicious files. In either scenario, the damage can become heavy and widespread very quickly. The "IloveYou" virus reportedly spread via Outlook into some 600,000 systems, where it has caused billions of dollars in damage.

Microsoft hopes to curtail that sort of damage by limiting the types of file attachments that can launch from within an email message. Apparently, Outlook 2002 will block more than 30 different file types, including executables, VBScript, JavaScript, Windows Help files, batch files, and even some types of image files. Clearly, Microsoft is protecting us from ourselves as much as it's protecting us from viruses, worms, and Trojans.

When the "ILoveYou" virus struck, Microsoft quickly released updates for Outlook 2000 and Outlook 97 that help make those mail clients more immune to such nuisances. However, not everyone installed the patches, and that virus and its mutations are still infecting users' systems. As a result, Microsoft has taken much of the blame for the infections even though it quickly provided a remedy. Outlook 2002's expanded file attachment restrictions will prevent many such scenarios in the future and save Microsoft plenty of backlash.

A news story in Tuesday's InfoWorld offers a strong case for Outlook 2002's new file attachment restriction. The article revealed that Japanese audiovisual electronics manufacturer Pioneer inadvertently sent email containing a worm to 10,758 consumers who had registered their email addresses on the company's Web site to receive product and event news. The virus, formally named Hybris (better known as Snow White) is received as a file attachment, and users have to open the file to become infected. As of today, 19 recipients of Pioneer's email have actually opened the file to infect their systems. Outlook 2002 would have prevented this infection outright.

Not everyone is happy about the new features. Many people feel that Microsoft is breaking functionality that users rely on as an inherent part of their daily routines. But Microsoft said that although the restrictions will be part of Outlook 2002's default configuration, users can disable the feature, although doing so will require editing the registry. You can learn about the registry key settings in Sue Mosher's article "The Scoop on Office XP and Outlook 2002".

The article first appeared in the March 5 edition of our Exchange & Outlook UPDATE newsletter. In addition, Microsoft has a document online that explains how to further customize Outlook 2002 security settings via additional registry edits.

In the meantime, anyone using Outlook 2002 will have to accept the file attachment restrictions and develop workarounds to their daily email usage. Richard Smith of the Privacy Foundation pointed out that although the new mail client will restrict users from launching certain file types, users can learn to Zip their files before transmission. In addition, users can place their files on Web servers and email a URL to the location in lieu of the actual file.

Personally, I think Microsoft's new approach is a good thing. However, I run my mail client in a paranoid fashion; I don't open a file attachment unless I'm absolutely certain of its origin and its content, and even then, I do so with some hesitance. So to me, the changes are no real burden; they simply mimic current practices that many leery users already employ. But the new restrictions are bound to affect many businesses' preferred workflow methods.

What do you think about Outlook 2002's new file attachment restrictions? Send me a note with your thoughts. I'd love to hear them. Until next time, have a great week!

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