Microsoft Office Outlook 2003

Ten years ago, Microsoft built its server reputation with software that was easy to administer, but not necessarily powerful. Accountants and managers who used Outlook could walk up to their email server and figure out Exchange Server with a few mouse clicks. Microsoft kept the commonly accessed functions easy to understand and either hid the advanced functionality, or simply didn’t offer it.

One of the best examples of striking that balance was the early versions of Exchange Server and Outlook: just run the setup programs for each, and suddenly the entire business has group scheduling capabilities through Outlook clients on each desktop. The Outlook client was the sharpest thing out there, easy to use and powerful, with features nothing else could match. The 1-2 punch of Outlook and Exchange made for easy server administration and easy desktop use.
At the same time, Novell and Unix servers were more difficult for business end users to install and configure: accountants rarely set up their own Unix box to run the office file sharing or email. Businesses called in expensive, bearded gurus to manage those kinds of servers.

New Competition: Open Source Software

Today, Linux has popped onto the radar: the software cost has gone away or greatly diminished, and with the dot-bombs, Linux network admins carry a much lower price tag than they did five years ago. Businesses are taking a new look at their basic network functionality like file & print sharing and email servers, and they’re finding that free software often includes more functionality than the costly packages they’re using.

Network admins are investigating free open-source alternatives to Exchange Server and Outlook. Microsoft has suffered a series of black eyes due to viruses and security holes, especially in Outlook, so the pressure was on to produce a version that was more security-conscious, easy to administer, and gave more bang for the buck.

Do You Need Exchange Server 2003?

When Microsoft introduced its year-based version numbering, users had a hard time determining which products were required for which features. For example, Office XP doesn’t require Windows XP, nor does Outlook 2003 require Exchange Server 2003. In fact, most of Outlook 2003’s new features are useful no matter what email server you’re using – even if it’s just plain old POP3 internet-based mail.

After using Outlook 2003 with Exchange Server 5.5 and 2003, I’d recommend that all Outlook users upgrade to Outlook 2003 – but not necessarily Exchange Server 2003. Exchange upgrades open up their own can of worms, and an Outlook upgrade will provide end users with more bang for the buck. I don’t have the space here to review Exchange Server 2003, but to sum it up, Microsoft’s ease-of-use is gone, replaced with more power and detailed functionality. Nobody who uses Outlook is going to successfully manage Exchange Server simply by walking up to it and clicking a few buttons.
Having said that, let’s talk about the fun part: the new Outlook.

New Features in Outlook 2003

Outlook 2003’s most obvious changes center on the higher resolution desktops in use these days. Outlook 2003 takes advantage of big monitors by packing more information into the screen. The Reading Pane (formerly called the Preview Pane) shows up on the right side of the screen by default. My screen shots were taken at 1280x1024 resolution, at which even long emails are usually visible in their entirety on the right side of the screen. The Calendar now shows several months on the left side of the screen in month view, allowing for much faster navigation.
Outlook 2003 handles junk mail much more intelligently. Users don’t need to set up complicated rules manually – Outlook handles the dirty complex stuff, and simply moves incoming junk mails to the Junk Email folder by default. The processing logic shows more intelligence than previous versions: I typically get 200-300 junk emails a day, and over the past several weeks, it’s only marked a handful of valid messages as spam. In all cases, they were opt-in email lists with HTML, and I wouldn’t blame Outlook for guessing they were spam. I’d like to see a color-coding system so that I could quickly identify the emails that Outlook wasn’t quite so sure about. Furthermore, Outlook no longer downloads images in HTML emails by default, but makes it easy to download them with a single mouse click when you want to see the content.


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However, Outlook still insists that junk email is new email: the new-mail icon in the tray shows up for junk mail. The staggering volume of junk mail renders the new-mail icon completely useless. Fortunately, there’s a new feature to help: as new non-junk emails come in, Outlook shows a small, two-line preview of the email in a transparent window near the tray. The tiny popup includes a follow-up button and a delete button, so users can quickly process mail as it comes in without switching over to Outlook.

When using previous versions of Outlook with an Exchange server, Outlook would often freeze and lock up while connecting to the Exchange server and downloading email. VPN users like me complained loudly about 60-90 second lockups while downloading large emails – Outlook simply couldn’t be used during the download. Outlook 2003 introduces a cached connection mode that maintains a local cache of the Exchange mailbox, and updates it in the background while the user can perform other tasks. This works so well that it’s almost transparent: the only indication that it’s syncing with Exchange is a series of messages in the status bar.


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This alone is worth the roughly $100 cost for Outlook 2003: traveling users can boot up their laptops in remote locations to compose emails without having to be connected, and the messages will be sent the next time they connect. In addition, users who have both Exchange and POP3 mailboxes can have partial functionality when they’re away from their Exchange server. I can retrieve my home email without being connected to my company’s Virtual Private Network, and everything works seamlessly.

Microsoft threw roaming power users another bone by beefing up the Send/Receive functionality. Multiple accounts can be grouped together, making it easy to send/receive a few at once. When I’m on the road on a slow dialup connection, I can update only my office email account without having to update all of my personal inboxes or company calendar. Exchange 2003 users can even update a single folder, like the inbox, saving more time.

The only significant drawback I’ve found is that Outlook 2003 still can’t handle two Exchange servers in a single email profile, so those of us with two jobs or an Exchange server at home are out of luck. (I refuse to believe I’m the only guy on the planet who runs his own Exchange server.)

In summary, Outlook 2003 is a no-brainer upgrade for Exchange users that travel, that have multiple mailboxes, or get deluged with spam. The email handling for non-Exchange users is finally strong enough to stand on its own against third party email programs like TheBat, although the price tag isn’t low enough to seriously compete.