Microsoft Outlook: Features and Functionality

After a few years and several missteps, Microsoft has finally designed a personal information manager that packs a wallop in flexibility and functionality. Here's how to get the most from this innovative program.

Jeff A. Dunkelberger

December 31, 1997

18 Min Read
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Features and Functionality

Until now, combined scheduling and messaging programs have shoehorned users into less than obliging applications. But there's hope—after several years and more than a few stumbles, Microsoft has developed Outlook, a personal information manager that is becoming as usable, flexible, and accommodating as it's cracked up to be. Intended as a replacement for Schedule+ and the Exchange Inbox mail client, Outlook has solved the multiple-contact database problem between Office, Schedule+, and Exchange. Outlook has also improved the connection between the files in the Windows Explorer folder system and the mail and documents sections. Although Outlook has had a rocky start, necessitating the release of several bug fixes to make it work properly, it's an improvement over previous Exchange client and Schedule+ versions. As with any software, Outlook has weaknesses and strengths, but Microsoft has made a valiant effort to solve the problems most troublesome to Exchange and Schedule+ users.

Perhaps Outlook's greatest advantage is that Microsoft has designed it as a standalone product that connects to an Exchange server. Functions you see when an Exchange client is attached to an Exchange server (e.g., public folder storage and access, global address lists, rules, and mailbox storage limits) are available in Outlook even without an Exchange server connection. And Outlook includes the former standalone functions of Internet email, tasks, and scheduling. Let's explore Outlook and look at how you can get the most from this program.

One Big Happy Family
Microsoft is organizing Outlook into a product family that will grow to incorporate all of a company's email, scheduling, and collaboration products. Outlook now consists of three products—Outlook, Outlook Express, and Outlook Web Access—that will replace all previous products and provide a standard messaging interface across supported platforms. Microsoft has announced that it will support but not improve the traditional Exchange client and the Windows messaging client in NT and Windows 95. Microsoft eventually will phase out these clients in favor of the Outlook family of products.

Outlook Express is the Outlook-family replacement for Internet Mail and News and originally was a Post Office Protocol (POP) 3 and Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) client with basic functionality. The latest version of Outlook Express supports Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) 4, which Microsoft has implemented as the server-side includes piece in Exchange 5.5. IMAP is a protocol that lets any client access and store data on messaging servers, and it provides for server-based folders with online and offline access and other message-management features not previously available to Internet messaging clients. IMAP lets any client connect with any server as long as both support IMAP4. Outlook Express is free (though you pay a fee for the client-access license to connect to Exchange, even through IMAP4). Microsoft designed Outlook Express for users with basic Internet needs: mail and news.

Outlook is the upgrade to Outlook Express and ships with Microsoft Office 97 and Exchange Server 5.0. You can also buy Outlook as a standalone product. With Exchange 5.5, Microsoft has included versions of Outlook for the Windows 3.x and Macintosh operating systems. These versions of Outlook include the Outlook user interface and facilitate interoperability with the 32-bit Outlook calendaring environment. Outlook users who connect to Exchange Server gain functionality in using public folders and centralized mail and folder storage.

A new service, Outlook Web Access, was available in the Exchange Server 5.0 original release, and Microsoft upgraded it in Exchange 5.0 Service Pack (SP) 1. The Exchange Server 5.5 upgrade lets Outlook Web Access users access public folders, and includes calendar objects that let users manage their individual calendars and participate in group scheduling. Through a server-side component (active messaging), Outlook Web Access supports any browser equipped with frames and JavaScript. Server-side includes render the Messaging API (MAPI) from Exchange into standard HTML for display by the browser.

The beauty of Outlook is that it lets any user running any machine get mail from anywhere. As long as users have connectivity and a Web browser, they can retrieve their mail, calendars, and folders. Telecommuters and salespeople can check their schedules, add appointments, and respond to or send messages from any kiosk machine at a client site, or even from an airport or public library.

The downside to Outlook is that Microsoft has released four versions since the company first shipped the product. Microsoft first released Outlook as version 8.0 for use with Office 97 and soon followed with version 8.01, which users needed for connectivity to Exchange Server 5.0. Version 8.02 shipped with the ill-fated release of Office 97 Service Release (SR) 1. Microsoft withdrew the SR1 patch for a short time to fix a problem with saving Word documents, but SR1 is again available. Microsoft has scheduled a fourth edition, Outlook 8.03, for release in the first half of 1998. You'll need version 8.03 to capitalize on new Exchange Server 5.5 features such as deleted item recovery.

Making a Good Thing Better: Downloading Useful Tools
Without a doubt, the best source of client extensions and information for Exchange, Windows Messaging, and Outlook is Sue Mosher's Slipstick Systems Exchange Center, at This site is updated with the latest information about Outlook in its various forms, and an email service lets you receive updates when new information is added to the site. One of the many valuable things on this site is an Outlook 8.02 page detailing the ways you can verify which Outlook version you have and how to upgrade.

Freebies from Microsoft. Outlook has its own page on the Microsoft Web site at with links to relevant information regarding configuration and setup issues. You can reach one especially useful troubleshooting page by going to the Help menu in Outlook, selecting Microsoft on the Web, and choosing the Frequently Asked Questions link. You'll reach Microsoft Technical Support, and it will be the Holy Grail for you if you've ever spent loads of time trying to troubleshoot Outlook or Exchange with limited information. At last count, this page had links to 33 documents relevant to general Outlook usage, configurations, interoperability, and troubleshooting. From there, you can link to the Outlook Support home page, the Knowledge Base, troubleshooting wizards, Help files, service packs, newsgroups, and telephone numbers.

On Microsoft's Web site you can also find many useful tools to improve Outlook's functionality. At, you will find helpful free program enhancements. One of these enhancements is the Internet Mail Enhancement Patch Final Release, which offers improved functionality to Outlook Internet Mail users. It fixes some of the early problems users experienced when they tried to send messages to MIME or uuencode recipients. It also lets you install more than one Internet mail service so that Outlook can check several POP3 accounts for the user from Inbox. This patch lets a user leave copies of messages on the server for download later to another machine, and it lets Outlook send Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) and receive POP3 messages sent over a Secure Sockets connection.

Another useful add-on is the Outlook 3-Pane Extension. It will display a window at the bottom of your Inbox to give you a preview of your messages and let you read and scroll through each message without having to open it. If you have a lot of messages to sift through in a day, this capability can save you time and annoyance. Touching or scrolling through the preview pane with your mouse marks a message as read; you can move or delete the message without ever touching it again.

Two utilities that fix compatibility problems when a user goes back and forth between Exchange and Outlook are the Email Forms Fix utility and the Switch Forms utility. These valuable tools compensate for problems that arise because Outlook and Exchange use different forms to view mail and other data. Sometimes the client software gets confused and uses the wrong forms when both clients are installed on the machine. This confusion can cause mysterious problems, such as corrupted appointments and tasks that generate error messages. You can see the appointment or task in the calendar, but it will not open, even after you check the properties and run the Inbox Repair Tool. Even reinstalling Outlook and reapplying the Microsoft Office 97 SR1 upgrade will not fix the problem.

If you are lucky, persistent, or both, you might discover that the forms are the problem. These utilities will let you switch back and forth safely between the two clients during transition, or you can use them to permanently migrate the user so that the client uses the correct forms all the time. Try these tools, and let your users know that they might experience problems switching back and forth between the two clients unless they use the Email Forms Fix and Switch Forms utilities.

Additional Outlook converters and Windows CE and Palm Pilot synchronization utilities can come in handy. Generally, the Outlook tools for sending data to a palmtop or a Timex Data Link watch are pretty good and have improved from earlier versions. Getting them to work well, however, takes some time. The process still leaves something to be desired, but with the new contacts database in Outlook and these tools, you can now maintain a common database of clients and suppliers on both platforms with relative ease. Transferring tasks and appointments is a little more difficult but has improved and will get better with time.

Getting the Most from Outlook
Let's take a closer look at some of the features that distinguish Outlook from its earlier incarnations. In the process I'll identify some easy things you can do to improve and personalize its performance.

Streamlining with folders. You can use folders in Outlook to store anything from mail messages to Word and Excel documents to full Web pages. The primary folder you use in Outlook is the Universal Inbox, which functions as the name promises: It's the one place you receive all your messages—email, voice mail, fax, or multimedia. Currently, more than 100 Exchange Server add-on applications are available that let you convert voice mail to text and text to voice mail; direct your faxes to your Inbox instead of the common area fax machine; and dial in to the office, pick up your voice-mail messages on email, and listen to them on your PC. You'll even find applications that let you send the first few hundred characters of a voice or mail message to your pager.

The Universal Inbox narrows the number of places you need to check for your messages to one, but the trade-off is Inbox information overload. Here is where the Outlook folder concept is a lifesaver. It can help you organize your work in any way you desire.

To present folders, Outlook uses a device called the Outlook bar (as shown in Screen 1, page 202), which houses shortcuts to folders that can be anywhere in Outlook on the hard disk. The Outlook bar takes up a portion of the left side of the application's window and contains three sliding panes: one for mail, one for Outlook's primary folders, and one for your folders. You can add bars (or groups, in Outlook terminology) as you see fit, and you can change their names. (Unfortunately, the Outlook bar is another file that must follow users as they move from PC to PC, which is a significant challenge to enterprise deployments. The profilename.sav file stores Outlook bar settings in this situation.)

Outlook begins with a few folders on each bar, but you can place any number of folders, in any order, on the bar, including folders on your hard disk that you want to access from Outlook. With this feature you can access selected files in Outlook without having to launch Windows Explorer to get to them.

You can do most things in Outlook that you do in Windows Explorer, but differences in the way you must perform certain actions take getting used to. For example, the file hierarchy is available in Outlook or Network Neighborhood, but you must switch to the Other group on the Outlook bar or click My Computer from the Go menu to see the file hierarchy. Although you can add anything from Explorer as a folder to the Outlook bar, this capability is less functional than being able to navigate up and down the hierarchy. To add a file from Explorer to the Outlook bar, you must display the folder list after you have switched to the Other bar. Having to add each folder individually to the Outlook bar can help, but it hobbles file-system access. Overall, however, Outlook is a major leap forward in connecting files, mail, and scheduling functions in one easy-to-use application.

The Outlook bar takes up valuable screen real estate that you often need when you're performing multiple tasks on the screen. Fortunately, the bar is easy to remove. To do so, from the View menu, select the Outlook Bar command, or press Alt+V, and then press O, to toggle the Outlook bar off and on. You can still navigate to other folders through the other menus, although you will have access to the file system folders only when the Outlook bar is up.

A nice feature would be the ability to store documents in Outlook in the same folders that house mail relating to the document, and to drag the file over from the Desktop when you complete it. It's cumbersome to have to take extra steps to open Explorer to put a document away when you're finished with it. One solution is to add a Desktop folder to the Outlook bar. Then, dragging the document to any folder inside Outlook is no problem.

Ruling over Inbox overload. Rules became familiar to Microsoft customers with the advent of Exchange Server 4.0, but other vendors have offered rules for some time. In Outlook, a rule lets a user specify conditions and actions so that when messages arrive, the software automatically performs prescribed actions on messages that meet defined conditions. For example, say you receive messages from an Internet mailing list that floods your Inbox with 100 messages a day. You might lose important messages in and among the list messages because all the messages land in the Inbox. By using rules, you can specify a way for Outlook to recognize certain messages from a given mailing list (maybe the sender address or a signature or some text in the message body) and move those messages to another folder, which you also specify. Then, as long as you set the conditions properly, Outlook will move all targeted messages out of the Inbox when they arrive and leave only your critical mail. The key to using rules is in administration, both for the LAN administrator, who must build extra processing power into the Exchange Server to support background processing of rules, and for the user, who needs adequate training to use rules effectively.

The Rules Wizard is available for download at Once it's set up, the wizard installs itself in the Tools menu under Rules Wizard. It will let you create and edit rules to manage messages without connecting to an Exchange Server to have them processed. Be aware that this tool is an unsupported add-on, and although the natural-language processing simplifies rule definitions, it adds to the confusion when you need to troubleshoot why the rules aren't working. By adding an extra layer of friendliness between you and your criterion, the natural language that defines the rule also tends to disguise what the rule is looking for.

Sharing information easily with groupware functions. Outlook includes several groupware features that ease continued communication between teams. Tracking functions automatically keep track of messages and how they flow through organizations. Read and Delivery are functions that deliver a receipt or response to senders that their messages have arrived or been opened. Message Recall lets an Exchange Server user who is running the Outlook client recall a message if the recipient has not opened it.

Microsoft has added an option to Outlook when it is connected to an Exchange Server: Voting buttons automatically track and tabulate polling responses. This option lets the polling user select from an array of response buttons (Yes, No, Maybe, Approve, Reject) in composing a poll. The polling user clicks the Options tab on the New Message window to view a list of available buttons and select those desired. Recipients receive the poll questions with the appropriate response buttons attached and instructions for answering. Voting is easy, and Outlook keeps track of votes and summarizes them for the poll taker on the Tracking tab of the original message.

Fixing it on the fly with IntelliSense. Outlook contains many of the IntelliSense features familiar from other Office applications. One of the most useful is the Auto Preview feature on the Inbox. It lets a user see the first three lines of incoming messages without having to open them, allowing for quick mail sorting.

The Auto Date feature converts a text description of a date into a calendar date (for instance, "The second Tuesday of April" becomes April 14, 1998). Auto Name Check checks email addresses against the Address Book and underlines ambiguous names with the familiar red squiggly line, signaling that a manual correction is necessary. The user then right-clicks the name to see a display of logged entries that are similar to the one in question and can either verify the name or add it to the Address Book.

3, 2, 1—Contacts. Outlook incorporates a new contact manager, called Contacts, that combines the Schedule+, Exchange, and Word mail merge databases into one contact manager. Contacts is a well thought-out database with fields for everything you might want to track and places for more phone numbers than one person could ever collect, including telex, radiophone, and assistant and callback numbers.

Contacts usually does what it is supposed to do­keep track of your contact data. The only problems that users repeatedly report occur when users try to get something in or out of the database without typing the entry. One common example is when a user imports phone and address information from an Excel spreadsheet. The import wizard is generally friendly but requires that you manually map the field to the new location every time you import into it. If your formatting within Excel does not completely mirror your data, the data might not be imported or it might arrive distorted.

Group Scheduling saves wasted time on the phone. Group Scheduling has been fixed in Outlook. Interoperability has been improved with Schedule+ 1.0 and Schedule+ 95, so users can share schedules during the transition to Outlook as long as they're aware of a few caveats. Microsoft says you can continue to share schedules seamlessly if you follow a few suggestions: First, attempt to migrate all users of the workgroup at the same time, and upgrade conference rooms and resource accounts after you've migrated users. Second, make sure users keep their Schedule+ files until after they have imported them successfully into Outlook. Last, be sure to activate the Outlook option for continuing to use Schedule+ 95 as the primary schedule until the transition is complete (this option is a checkbox in the Outlook ToolsOptionsCalendar menu).

A good rule of thumb is that all users must run the same version of the schedule in order for full-function scheduling and resource sharing to take place. Because Outlook is the most up-to-date product, it can communicate with all versions of Schedule+. But users who run a version of Schedule+ can communicate with only the same or an earlier Schedule+ program. Choose the earliest Schedule+ program your users run as the standard to get you through the transition, and save Outlook to communicate backward until all users get it on their desktops.

Microsoft says it has "an extremely simple client licensing model. Users purchasing Microsoft Exchange Server receive all the Microsoft clients free of charge with the purchase of the server product. In addition, the client-access license price is the same, regardless of the client that the users employ to access Microsoft Exchange Server." What this statement means is that as long as users are licensed on the Exchange Server, they can get mail using the Exchange client, Outlook client, or Web Access without paying for each type of client. Everyone still has to buy a client-access license, but at least not one for each client.

Outlook for the Future
Outlook provides tremendous functionality in one package. Even in Outlook's earlier versions, and considering the product's weak points, Microsoft has delivered a personal information manager worth migrating to, and a platform for continued innovation and consistency in the future. Although users may need time to grab hold of Outlook's advanced ideas, users will become more able to solve any problems they encounter as they become more sophisticated in using the program. In any case, we'll all have plenty of time to get comfortable with the program, because it looks like Outlook is here to stay.

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