Microsoft Outlook probably drives more people crazy than any other software application. For tens of million of people who use Outlook for access to corporate e-mail systems, and for tens of millions more who use it for Internet mail and to manage their contacts and calendars, Outlook is likely their single most important program.
Now there's good news for anyone who has struggled with Outlook's complexities. Most of the changes in Microsoft Office 2003, available at retailers on Oct. 21, are of interest primarily to corporate technology managers. But while Word, Excel, and PowerPoint offer little new to most users, Outlook gets both a face-lift and an under-the-hood overhaul that makes it easier to use, especially for people who read corporate mail from home or on the road.
The changes in appearance are striking. The screen is divided into three vertical panes. The "Outlook Today" icons and the jumble of folders are replaced by a pane whose contents change as you switch among mail, calendar, and contact views. In the mail view, the middle pane lists your messages and, for the first time, you can group them by topic sorted by date rather than alphabetically. Finally, the right pane contains the body of the selected message.
LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT in determining ease of use, and this redesign makes Outlook less frustrating. But many important revisions are less obvious. Links to content on the Web no longer open automatically, so if you want to see the pictures, racy or otherwise, you'll have to ask that they be downloaded. This makes it harder for spammers to plant "Web bugs" that report back on your online activities.
The biggest change affects those who use Outlook with Microsoft Exchange, the most widely used corporate mail system. Inefficient use of the network in earlier versions of Outlook made the program painful, if not impossible, to use on slow dial-up connections and tough even on the relatively high-speed links used by small branch offices. Outlook 2003 does most of its work on a local copy of your mailbox, speeding up work dramatically. This makes the new Outlook a must-have, especially for mobile workers.
One place you'll see the difference is in faster searches of messages. You can also set up "search folders" in which the contents of frequently used searches are kept updated. (Those using Internet mail rather than Exchange may want to try Bloomba, a mail program from Stata Labs that I'll review in a coming column.)
The rest of Office 2003 will appeal mainly to enterprises that want to take advantage of a technology called extensible markup language, or XML. This, for example, allows information entered in a form created in Word to be captured easily in a database. And for the first time, Microsoft is offering an attractive deal for families. A new Teacher and Student Edition, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, costs $149 and is licensed for use on up to three computers. Other editions cost $399 to $499, or $239 to $329 as upgrades. Outlook alone costs $109.
Most ordinary users will have no idea what to do with XML or some other advanced features that only work with a Windows 2003 Server. But the appeal of Outlook 2003 is immediate and strong. If you're a user of Outlook and Exchange, this is an upgrade worth the price. By Stephen H. Wildstrom