How many ways can Outlook archive an item?

It's great to give people choice unless you confuse matters by providing too many choices. The decision to give Outlook 2016 some of the features enjoyed by Outlook Web App is laudable, but I fear that Microsoft is about to confuse users with the choice between the old auto-archive feature (to a PST), archiving items to an archive mailbox via retention policies, and the latest archive button. All move items, but to different places. My brain hurts. Surely someone could have thought through the ways that Outlook desktop is used in enterprise deployments, especially with Exchange, and figured out that too many ways to archive is too much of a good thing.

In January, I spoke with Javier Soltero, the new General Manager of the Outlook development group, about his plans, hopes, and aspirations for revitalizing the Outlook client family, including Outlook desktop. Javier said that “his team is in the middle of reviewing every feature in the current client to ask the question whether the feature does make email better.” However, I’m not sure that Outlook now boasts a “Archive” button is quite what he meant. Adding the ability to include animated GIFs in Outlook.com also seems to be in the doubtful category.

To return to the topic of archives, Outlook desktop has sported an archive (or auto-archive) option for quite some time. That option moves items to a PST to reduce the overall size of a mailbox. It’s a useful option for people who use Outlook to connect to non-Exchange servers (like Gmail) and want to retain a local copy of messages.

However, ever since the advent of archive mailboxes and retention policies that can automatically move items into archive mailboxes in Exchange 2010, the auto-archive feature could be regarded to be a tad archaic. Indeed, if your mailbox is enabled with an archive, Outlook won’t let you use auto-archive, which is the way things should be as PSTs should be avoided whenever possible.

Microsoft announced Outlook's new archive feature in a February 25 blog as:

“We’re also introducing an Archive capability in Outlook 2016 that lets you quickly move messages out of your inbox and into another folder. This will allow you to triage your inbox with an experience similar to archiving in other email services like Outlook.com. Archive is rolling out to Outlook 2016, coming soon for Outlook for Mac, and available today in Outlook on iOS, Android and the web.”

The feature is available to users even if their mailbox is archive-enabled, is available in Outlook Web App and is showing up in preview builds of Outlook 2016 desktop clients (16.0.6528.1007 is one such build). For both clients, you first select a folder in your mailbox as the destination for archive item or use a folder called “Archive”, which Outlook will create if necessary. Thereafter, if you elect to archive items, they are moved to the selected folder.

All of which is fine and dandy if it weren’t for the salient fact that Outlook clients already possess the Move option, which essentially does the same job. True, you have to select a target folder for the move, but Outlook desktop supports the ability to create a “quickstep” that can move items to a specific folder. In short, the quickstep does exactly what the new Archive feature does. It’s even “one-click archiving” as per the description for Outlook desktop.

So we have a new feature that duplicates existing functionality and has the same name as another feature that works in a totally different manner. Cue user confusion?

But it’s actually even worse because users might be lured into a false sense of security that they can use the feature to archive and preserve items. All the archive feature does is to move items to a folder. It does not stamp the moved items with a retention tag to prevent the Managed Folder Assistant applying a default delete or default archive tag on the items, meaning that it is quite possible that the items will be deleted or moved to an archive mailbox to meet the requirements of a retention policy. Cue further user confusion as items “disappear” from their archive folder.

Adding options to clients that automate common tasks (which I believe this to be an attempt to do) is all well and good, but it has to be done in the context of existing user behavior and the servers to which the clients connect. It’s all very well making new functionality available that addresses a perceived need for individual users but it’s not good when that functionality might affect user helpdesks as well as organizational compliance strategies.

Perhaps this change was in flight before the new management regime reached the Outlook group and it is not indicative of what they plan to do in the future. I hope that’s the case. I really do. Outlook is too important a tool to be messed with in this manner.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on May 15, 2016

Thank you for this sensible commentary. I am going to be more astute with backups - and I am not going to trust the hype or misleading use of the word "archive".

Having spent several hours on the phone with Microsoft help desk (in an attempt to restore emails after an office install gone wrong which wiped out my profile) - and being told - "lost and gone forever" for all those emails that were "archived like a pro" I have to agree -

" Cue further user confusion as items “disappear” from their archive folder." and

"that functionality might affect user help desks as well as organizational compliance strategies."

On the upside my issues has been escalated to level 2 (because it was not my fault that the Office install stuffed up my Outlook Profile) - but I have to wait 6 hours - before they can call me back.

Meanwhile - back to surfing the net ...

Just another day @ The Office ...10 hours and 10,000 emails... lost.

on Jun 2, 2016

I have outlook 2013 and just archived my 2015 mail to a local 2015.pst file. All the mail is present but my sent mail folder is empty. The 2015 sent mails are gone from my current mail sent folder as expect. I have looked in the default archive.pst file and they are not present there either...

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Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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