The futility of attempting to recall a message

A recent tweet by Brian Winstead exclaimed “Didn't mean to send that. Don’t worry, With Outlook 2010, you can recall a message after it’s sent” and pointed to the Office web page that explained all. Of course, Exchange clients have been able to recall messages for a long time – I believe it was one of the features of the Outlook 97 release – but in any case attempting to recall a message has long been an exercise in sheer futility. Here’s why.

It’s logical that time is critical when it comes to preventing a recipient having the opportunity to read a message that we wish they don’t see. After all, the longer a message resides in the recipient’s Inbox, the more opportunity he or she has to read the blessed thing and expose the reason why we wanted to recall the message in the first place.

The first barrier to recalling a message is Outlook’s user interface. People don’t generally recall a lot of messages (if they do, perhaps they have another problem) so it’s unlikely that the average user will immediately know what option to take (or where it is located) to recall a message. The Office web page says:

To recall a message without sending a revised message, do the following:

  • In Mail, in the Navigation Pane, click Sent Items.
  • Open the message that you want to recall.
  • On the Message tab, in the Move group, click Actions, and then click Recall This Message.
  • Click Delete unread copies of this message.

Clear as daylight! Although it’s eminently logical to assume that you can only recall a sent message, try having that acuity of thought in the state of sheer panic that often descends when someone realizes that they have just sent a message that they really should have kept in their Drafts folder until it was ready to go. 

At this point, unless Outlook offered a bolded, blinking, large red button labelled “Recall”, it’s likely that our average user will flip between options in the ribbon seeking the elusive recall option. Why do I have to open the message that I want to recall (an action that slows things down)? Why is the option in the Move group anyway? In what dimension is “recall” a “move” operation? And then why is recall hidden another level deep in the Actions? And finally, why isn’t there a recall option in the context-sensitive menu exposed when I right-click on a message? It’s all very frustrating and extraordinarily slow when every second counts in my quest to stop the recipient opening the message.

RecallMessage

Once the right option is located, we run into another small issue, which is that Exchange can only recall a message when it can (figuratively) reach out and grab copies of the offending item from the inboxes of recipients. That happens beautifully in a computer laboratory where recipients are all in the same Exchange organization and thoughtfully don’t attempt to read the message while we are scrabbling through menus to find the right option to recall the blasted thing (see above). But today’s email environment is an intensely connected mesh of servers and it is highly likely that a copy might be sent (or forwarded by a rule) to a different email system or even a different Exchange organization. 

Once the message passes the boundary of its originating organization, Exchange throws its hands up in disgust and stops its attempt to recall the message. There’s no internationally agreed standard for email systems to request each other to retrieve selected messages from user mailboxes so once a message is transferred to another email system it’s in the wild and cannot be touched. The SMTP-based transport systems incorporated in the current versions of Exchange are very quick in message transfer so all of this happens in the blink of an eye.

Even when the message stays within the same organization there are other things that can happen to expose our folly in sending it out. For example, a copy of the message might be directed into a mail-enabled public folder where it is revealed to all. 

But the single biggest flaw and complicating factor in any attempt to recall a message is the fact that so many of us now access email using multiple devices. Back in the days when users accessed email through just one client (Outlook) on a desktop computer the task of recalling an errant message was much simpler. But now we’ve all got BlackBerries, iPhones, iPads, Androids, Windows Phones, and anything else that might run an email client that can connect to Exchange using IMAP4, POP3, or ActiveSync. And no self-respecting person would limit themselves to just Outlook as you simply cannot appear in public unless you have at least one mobile client. Exchange is very efficient at handing off messages to mobile clients whether it’s via BlackBerry Enterprise Server, pushing messages out via ActiveSync, or permitting older clients to download copies via IMAP4 or POP3. The result is that while Outlook will do its very best to ask nicely to recall a message there’s a high likelihood that the damage is long since done and your shame is revealed in its true majesty when the recipient reads the message on their preferred mobile device.

In fact, the only reliable way of stopping anyone reading a message is to walk around to their desk and slap a mask over their face while you throw their mobile devices out of the nearest window and delete the message from their Inbox. Although effective, this action might draw attention to your original error in sending the message and cause complaints from recipients.

Whether you use on-premises Exchange or are up in the clouds with Office 365, I therefore conclude that attempting to recall a message with Outlook is an exercise in futility. Please try it if you insist in sending messages when you shouldn’t. You might get lucky. But don’t be surprised when your recipients have a smug look on their face the next time you meet them.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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