I've made a big deal about the new UI that Microsoft is prepping for its upcoming Microsoft Office 12 suite of productivity applications. And now that I've had the chance to play with Office 12 Beta 1 for a few weeks, I'm even more sold on the changes, which present the most commonly needed commands up front and center in each Office 12 application. Internally, Microsoft refers to this UI as a "results-oriented" UI, one that dispenses with the traditional menus and toolbars that dominated (and, one might argue, overran) earlier Office versions.

But I'm equally charged about the changes Microsoft is making to Office Outlook 12, an application many would describe as the center of their professional and personal lives. As it likely is for you, Outlook is my front end to the workday--the place where I correspond with coworkers, readers, and others; plot my schedule; organize my contacts; and perform other related activities. In the current version, Outlook 2003, Microsoft made major changes, adding a new three-column view that I've found to be uniquely productive, especially on the widescreen displays I prefer. Outlook 12 will offer an even bigger improvement.

In Beta 1, the results-oriented UI is only partially implemented. That is, the shell of the main Outlook window still resembles that of Outlook 2003, with basically the same menus and toolbars that Outlook users are familiar with. Secondary Outlook 12 windows, such as those for new email messages, contacts, or calendar items, take on the new Outlook 12 look and feel, with UI constructs such as tabs and ribbons. In the new email message window, for example, you see a Write tab, with ribbon segments (called categories) for fonts, paragraphs, and message options; the Clipboard and similar commands; and an Insert tab for inserting such items as pictures, charts, attachments, signatures, business cards, and so on.

Expanding on the work done in Outlook 2003, Microsoft is offering a default four-column view for Outlook 12. The first three columns are similar to what you see in Outlook 12: a navigation pane with email folders and links to the various Outlook modules, a mailbox list (typically displaying Inbox), and the Reading Pane, which previews the currently selected message using the full height of the window. The fourth (i.e., rightmost) column, which is new, is called the To-Do bar. It includes three sections: the Date Navigator (which shows one or more months in miniature); Appointments (which lists your most recent upcoming appointments, by date); and the Task List. This last item includes a new Task Input Panel, which lets you input new tasks on the fly as they come up, and a traditional list of tasks, typically sorted by due date.

The To-Do bar isn't revolutionary per se, but it basically provides the traditional Outlook display with all the functionality of the Outlook Today front end that's present in earlier versions of Office, albeit in a more interactive context. Now, from a single view, you can interact with virtually all your email and personal information management (PIM) data without needing to delve into Outlook deeply to find specific items. More important, perhaps, Microsoft is essentially making Tasks the center of the Outlook universe. Now, you can trigger new To-Do items (i.e., tasks) based on new email, new schedules, or other sources, and start tracking your progress.

The four-column view has one problem: Although Outlook 2003's three-column view arguably works fine on a standard 4:3 display, Outlook 12 will essentially require a widescreen display to work in four-column mode. Fortunately, my desktop and notebook computers both feature widescreen displays, and Outlook 12 looks gorgeous on them in full-screen mode.

Microsoft is also adding support for Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds directly in Outlook. By default, RSS feeds are managed directly from within a new folder called RSS Subscriptions, which is found in Personal Folders. You add new RSS feeds to Outlook in much the same way as you add new email accounts, and you can set various options for each feed, including the name that will identify it from within Outlook, where the local version of the feed will be stored. Each feed is presented as a subfolder under RSS Subscriptions, and each displays a subset of the full feed directly from within Outlook, in a display that resembles the display for email messages. Full-feed text is available via an HTML attachment, and you can configure Outlook to download the full feed for offline viewing, though they open in external browser windows.

Also, Outlook 12, like other Office 12 applications, features an integrated instant search feature that's based on the work Microsoft is doing with MSN Desktop Search and Windows Vista. The new instant search bar is prominently displayed in each Outlook module, giving a way to quickly find email, calendar items, tasks, contacts, and other data on the fly. And the search functionality is truly on the fly: Search results begin appearing as you type the search query. And the search query text appears highlighted in each item that appears in the results list. I'll need more time to test this feature, but it appears to be a huge improvement over the brain-dead searching feature that drags down earlier Outlook versions. There's nothing like searching for an email that you know is there only to have Outlook search tell you it isn't.

This week, I'll be taking Outlook 12 on the road for the first time, and I'll admit I'm a little nervous. But even in this early beta version, Outlook 12 is clearly a big leap over earlier Outlook versions. I'll let you know how it shapes up.