Outlook, Exchange to get new features

Microsoft will announce plans to add new features to the Web-based version of the Outlook e-mail program that will make it as comprehensive as the regular PC version.

4 min read
Microsoft next week plans to disclose more details of a forthcoming update to its Exchange Server communications software, including new features for the Outlook e-mail program.

Paul Flessner, a Microsoft senior vice president, will provide a detailed product road map for all of the company's server software when he speaks Tuesday at the Microsoft Exchange Conference in Anaheim, Calif. His talk will focus on how Microsoft's next version of Windows--called Windows.Net Server 2003--is designed to help save businesses money when combined with the company's other software, a Microsoft representative said.

Flessner will also discuss new features in Exchange and Outlook designed to increase worker productivity and reduce technology costs for businesses, the representative said.

The new version of Exchange, which handles e-mail, calendars and contact lists, will be released in mid-2003. It is the company's first major update to the product since releasing Exchange 2000 nearly two years ago. In the $1.6 billion e-mail and messaging market, Microsoft ranks first in the number of users, but trails IBM in revenue. Other rivals include Novell and newcomer Oracle.

On Tuesday, Flessner will announce plans to spruce up the stripped-down Web-based version of the Outlook e-mail program, adding new features to make it as comprehensive as the regular PC version, according to the company.

The new Web version will include a spell checker and the ability to create and manage "tasks" or to-do lists, said Chris Baker, a Microsoft group product manager. Previously, people could view their tasks but couldn't change them. People will also be able to create "rules" that automatically directs e-mail to specific inbox folders, he said.

"It will be the same look and feel, same layout and design. The goal is to make sure the user using the full Outlook can be as productive on the new Outlook Web Access,'" Baker said.

As previously reported, the PC version of Outlook will sport a new look, with Microsoft moving the window that previews the text of an e-mail from the bottom of the screen to the right-hand side. Another new feature is the ability to group e-mail based on when messages arrive. Outlook will also feature improvements in sorting mail, including new multicolored flags that people can use to determine each e-mail's importance. Computer users can then put flagged e-mail in multiple folders in their inbox.

Microsoft said the future version of Outlook will automatically run in a "cache mode," meaning a copy of contacts, schedules and e-mails will always be stored locally on users' computers. The local copy on the PC will regularly sync up to the corporate network to ensure information is up to date, he said.

In addition, the new versions of Outlook and Exchange will automatically detect the speed of users' Internet connections and whether they are on slow dial-up connections, Baker said. If that's the case, Outlook will only grab some of the e-mail's information from the back-end server, such as who sent the email, subject line and the first three lines of text. If a user clicks on the email, Outlook will then go retrieve the full e-mail from the back-end server. In current versions, Outlook always fetches the entire e-mail from the server, using up server resources, he said.

The new version of Exchange and Outlook also compresses the data being sent back and forth between the computer and back-end server, Baker said. The two new features--compression and "cache mode"--reduce the workload on the back-end servers, allowing businesses to save money because they can support more people on each server, he said.

"Less data has to travel back and forth," Baker said. "So if you can get more mailboxes on any given server, you drive down the cost of the operation."

Another new feature, to be unveiled Tuesday, is the ability to view e-mail over S-HTTP, a version of HTTP that allows files to be securely exchanged on the Web. Microsoft customers that support S-HTTP will allow their employees to check e-mail without the hassle of connecting to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPNs give workers inexpensive and secure high-speed connections to their corporate networks over the Internet.

Earlier this summer, Microsoft executives disclosed that the new version of Exchange, developed under the code-name Titanium, will feature more security and improved support for cell phones and other handheld devices.

The new version of Exchange will be more secure because the company will, by default, disable certain messaging features to prevent hackers or virus makers from taking advantage of openings. In the current version of Exchange, all messaging features are automatically in use when installed. In the new version, there are fewer security loopholes because features that customers don't need or don't use are automatically turned off, Microsoft asserts.

The new version of Exchange will also be more powerful and handle more users and allow network administrators to more easily store company e-mail by taking regular "snapshots" of the data. Microsoft's Mobile Information Server will also be built into Exchange, allowing companies to more easily send e-mail and calendar information to mobile devices, such as cell phones. Mobile Information Server was previously sold as a standalone product.