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New Outlook from Microsoft

The software giant delivers better performance and a simplified user interface with the latest version of the messaging client.

Better performance and a simplified user interface are what developers at Microsoft (MSFT) say they will deliver with the latest version of the company's Outlook messaging client.

The first beta version of Outlook 98 will hit the company's Web site next week, with a second beta version due later this year. The final version of the software is expected to ship in the first half of 1998, according to the company.

With Outlook 98, product manager George Meng said his team tried to meet the needs of a broad range of Internet users, as well as its traditional user-base for the client for Microsoft Exchange and a key component of Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer 4.0.

The new package adds support for a whole slew of Internet standards, like IMAP4, LDAP, and S/MIME. It also includes support for Internet calendaring standards, like iCal and vCal, which allow users to share schedule information over the Web. Support for vCard, an emerging standard for electronic business cards, is also part of the new package.

Meng admits that customer dissatisfaction with the performance and consistency of Outlook 97 were considered when the next version was developed. "We paid close attention to user issues regarding ease of use, making it more intuitive and brought in more support for Internet standards," he said.

In addition to providing a consistent interface, Microsoft has added synchronization features, search tools, and organizational tools in the new version.

Flag for Follow-up, which allows users to flag email messages or contacts to help prioritize, schedule, track, and write follow-up actions, is an example of the email management enhancements in the new package, according to the company.

Microsoft connected Outlook more closely to the back-end, or server, to speed up their product, Meng said. Background synchronization of public folders and field-level replication will be added to the new version

Current users of Outlook 97 have reported trouble with the product locking up when public folders are being synchronized, said Meng. With the new version, the client is free to perform other tasks, even when working on a public folder synchronized between itself and the server. Filter replication, another new feature, is also a big time saver, said Meng. With the two features, Microsoft believes Outlook will support high-end collaborative applications that can be built to run on the Exchange Server. This could allow users to enter messages and documents while either online or offline.

Microsoft has designed Outlook 98 to integrate with Office 97, Exchange Server, and IE 4.0.

Users can start Outlook 98 from IE 4.0 to send and receive email and create contact lists. The new client also shares HTML rendering and the News Reader from IE 4.0, Meng said.

The first beta version of Outlook 98 will be posted next week to Microsoft's Outlook home page. Once shipped next year, Outlook will be a free upgrade to Office 97, Exchange, and for standalone Outlook customers.