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Still Looking Out for Some Outlook Improvement

I've been playing with Office 2010 a bit, now that it's finally out, and I'm walking away (as I have with past versions) wondering what I'm missing. I built my personal finance management with the Excel version in Office 97 and, after 13 years, I still can't find a single new feature in Excel that would make the thing any more useful. I've been writing columns in Windows IT Pro for nearly 15 years (we celebrate our 15th anniversary this September, if memory serves—boy am I getting old!), and I can't point to anything in Word 2010 that would make putting a few thoughts on paper (oops, I mean "electrons") any more easily than Word 95 allowed me to do.

PowerPoint has some glitzy new slide transitions and a bunch of wide-screen HD-ish templates. (Tell me again why anyone needs to build a widescreen PowerPoint, particularly given that it's harder to read text on a narrow landscape-sized screen than it is on the more familiar portrait format of a book?) What's more, a presentation is always more about how the presenter tells the story than it is the font that the story is told in, so again I'd be fine working with any version of PowerPoint, even one from the 20th century.

If you find yourself agreeing with me a bit—and I'm exaggerating a trifle as I do use some of the newer collaborative tools in Word and the animation in PowerPoint—then perhaps we've put our collective finger on the main problem facing any Office team in trying to create a compelling new product. Could it be that Office is, well, a "good enough" solution for people's office communication and collaboration needs? Could it be that Microsoft has solved all of the big "office suite" problems nearly enough that nothing left could excite a new buyer?

Taking a Hard Look at Outlook

You know, I was really rolling that idea around in my head for a little while as I considered a topic for this month's update, and then I looked at my screen. You see, I had the time to consider what might be interesting to those kind enough to read my pieces because I was bloody waiting for bloody Outlook to bloody well finish figuring out that I had a sum total of five new emails. So nope, Office is still apparently a work in progress, and an unfinished work until someone de-annoyifies Outlook.

In my case, I run a non-Exchange email server and have three email accounts on it. Once upon a time, I received hundreds of "junk" emails—malware and spam—and several dozen reader emails a day. Since using an external anti-spam/anti-malware service, I'm now seeing perhaps ten pieces of junk email a day. Since setting up an online forum for tech support, the reader emails are down to about ten a day and lots of good questions end up on the forum, where others can read those questions and answers. (Even better, a bunch of folks who are smarter than me answer most of the questions.)



As a result, Outlook has to handle only about two dozen new messages a day, a load that my other email client (my iPhone) handles with aplomb. Ask the iPhone for new emails, and in about 30 seconds, it's got them, assuming I have halfway decent connectivity. So why is it that when I plug my laptop into a wired Ethernet connection that shares a gigabit switch connection with email server that is six feet away and start up Outlook, I oftentimes wait five minutes to be told that Outlook cannot make a connection to the email server, and is therefore working in offline mode?

Or here's another Outlook puzzler. As I've said, I have three email accounts, all running on my email server, and Outlook is set up to access them all via HTTPMail. When I start up Outlook, I can't click any of the email folders even to see offline stuff. It makes me wait as it says "Synchronizing headers... Send/Receive Status...," and then finally says "Send/Receive Complete." No worries there—if Outlook wants to get my new emails for all three accounts all at once, great. But then I try to open one of my accounts, and Outlook says "Synchronizing folder list..." for a bit and, again, I can't do anything while it's doing that, as apparently the folks on the Outlook team are unwilling or unable to put more than one thread on Outlook's input/output routines. Great, I say, now I'm in Account One, let's click on "Inbox" to see the email, and we're back to "Synchronizing Message Headers...." Is Outlook unaware that it synchronized those message headers 70 seconds ago? In a minute or two I'm in my Inbox—by now, we're about five minutes and counting since I started Outlook, and that's on a good day. Sometimes, Outlook just stops responding and gets that glazed-over, white-out look that it gets when I've got the temerity to click on it out of turn, sort of Outlook's way of saying, "Talk to the hand, dude, can't you see I'm busy here re-doing the thing that I just did?"

Steps to Improve Outlook

So, Office folks, if you're looking for a few killer suggestions for "Outlook Next," here goes. First, multithread the I/O. If I make the mistake of clicking on Account One and realize that I really meant Account Two and therefore decide to click on Account Two before Outlook's finished with Account One, don't ignore me. Terminate the lookup of the first account and go to the other. Second, give me more feedback about what Outlook is doing while I wait. If I never have to wait, I don't care what Outlook is doing, but if, on the other hand, it frequently goes into some sort of infinite-lookup-loop, at least give me the feedback that I need to figure out what might be wrong or some indication of how things are going. (The little gas gauge on the "verbose" version of Send/Receive is not sufficient.) Third, make Outlook more stateful. If I've just opened it and it's told me "Send/Receive Complete," then don't make me wait for two more send/receives before I get my first peek at my email. Fourth, could we please restore some of the features of Outlook 2000? In particular, I really liked those flags that I could set on messages, but ever since Outlook 2003 that hasn't worked unless I have an Exchange server. Similarly, I made big use of Outlook 2000's ability to let me share a calendar with another Outlook user without needing Exchange, but that's gone too.

Outlook is it when it comes to PC-based personal desktop organizers, the far-and-away number one in its category. That's a powerful position to be, Office folks, and you know what Spider-Man says about what comes with great power. So please, could you give a little time to making Outlook Next a bit more useful and less aggravating? I know that millions of folks would be grateful. (Or at least, I would.) Thanks.

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