Inside Office 2003

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Outlook's New Look

Current Outlook users will have one burning question about the revamped version: "Does it help me clean up the mess that is my in-box?" After spending several months with the beta version of the new Outlook, we say the answer is a definitive yes.

Outlook's makeover starts with the new vertical default view. On the left side, a navigation pane lists your e-mail accounts and folders; the middle in-box pane displays your received messages; and on the right, the reading pane (called the "preview" pane in earlier versions) shows the contents of the selected message.

Reading these vertical panes feels more natural, much like perusing a newspaper. You can see more messages at one time in the in-box, and you can view more text from the selected message in the reading pane without having to scroll (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: The new vertical layout in Outlook 2003 makes it easier to read the message selected in your in-box. And the program's new flags make organizing your in-box a snap.
). The new layout may look busy at first, but you'll soon find that the vertical orientation makes messages quicker and easier to read than they were in Outlook's previous horizontal preview pane. Close the reading pane to see more of your in-box messages, or move the pane to the bottom to approximate Outlook's old look.

Appearances matter, but what could really win over Outlook holdouts is the program's new organizing prowess. You can now choose one of six colors when you right-click the flag for each in-box listing. (The previous version let you flag individual messages for follow-up, but the flags weren't particularly useful.) Group your messages by arrival time, and Outlook labels the groups 'today', 'yesterday', 'last week', and so on. Or arrange your in-box by flag--for example, with all red-flag messages up top. If you flag e-mail as it arrives, this system presents messages in their order of importance. Don't get too fancy with your color system, though: You can't add a text description (such as 'high-priority') to your flags, nor can you save a key to identify what your colors represent.

The Tools menu's 'Rules and Alerts' option helps you make flags work even better. For instance, you can set up a rule instructing Outlook to automatically flag e-mail from a particular person--your boss, perhaps--in a specific color (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Send messages from specific people to the top of your in-box by creating a rule for one of Outlook 2003's six colored flags.
).

The icing on Outlook 2003's organizational cake is the program's ability to keep searches in search folders, without moving the messages from your in-box. This saves time by letting you create a search for a word relating to a current writing project, for example. After the initial search, Outlook continues to update the folder, so every time you click that search folder, the program grabs all the new messages you've received that contain the specified word. The function makes getting a grip on the random information lurking in your e-mail much easier. You can choose from preset folder options, such as 'containing the word', or customize your search to look only in messages with one or more attachments, for example. This is what well-designed software is supposed to do--save you time and get you organized.

If you love to read about "generic Viagra" and get-rich-quick schemes, you'll hate Outlook's new junk mail screener. For everyone else, it's a gem. Outlook 2003 intelligently routes much genuine spam into a Junk Mail folder. Open it when you want to view the message subjects, and then delete them en masse.

Outlook 2003 also prevents messages from grabbing material off the Web, such as images of products sent in an e-mail message from a store, and it automatically stops e-mail from loading malicious content onto your PC. When a message tries to connect to the Internet, you see a small alert; right-click it and select Download Pictures to see the content. Outlook remembers who is sending you junk and who isn't (a store you like, for example).

The latest version of Outlook offers a bonus for small businesses. Office 2003 Small Business Edition includes the new Business Contact Manager, a good-looking Outlook add-on that does basic customer-relationship management tasks, such as tracking your sales pitches from start to finish and your projected results for the month or quarter. For anyone who isn't already charmed by Act or another contact-management program, the Business Contact Manager represents a useful extra.

Office 2003 unveils Microsoft's Information Rights Management technology, designed to help companies control documents and e-mail. The Professional and Professional Enterprise packages, running on Windows Server 2003, let you create "protected" e-mail messages that can't be printed, forwarded, or copied.

You can also create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with similar restrictions and/or expiration dates, after which the files will not open. One point of IRM is to prevent someone from goofing up a document on which you've worked long and hard--a presentation with a corporate-mandated color or graphics scheme, for example. But IRM's main goal is to control the flow of information and thereby provide another layer of protection against corporate legal troubles and leaks.

Recipients of IRM-protected files will need either Office 2003 or a viewer that Microsoft plans to offer on its Web site and incorporate into Internet Explorer. IRM could help companies lock down confidential documents, but there's potential for aggravation. For instance, what if you send IRM-protected files to people who use a Web browser other than IE? Whether the Microsoft viewer will play nicely with other browsers remains to be seen.

If Outlook is your primary e-mail client and contact manager, you'll find that spending $109 for the new version's fresh look and other enhancements is worthwhile. However, the improved Outlook is not sufficient justification for a total Office remodel.

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