Hark back to the thrilling days of yesteryear: 1985, to be exact. Coca-Cola stunned the world by changing its signature soft drink's formulation and flavor. The company didn't change the soda's name, although the ingredients and taste differed quite a bit. (Customer pressure forced the firm to bring back "classic" Coca-Cola, and the introduction of new Coke eventually yielded uncounted business-school case studies.)

Microsoft recently did something similar with Outlook for the Macintosh: The ingredients are all new, and the taste sure is different. Fortunately, the differences are positive.

Mac Outlook users have long complained about being second-class citizens. The Mac Outlook versions have been slow, clunky, and buggy, especially compared to recent Windows versions. Mac users' discontent arose mainly from the painful fact that the Mac Outlook client versions 8.2 and earlier couldn't share calendar data with Windows Outlook users, rendering a large chunk of Outlook's functionality useless. Adding insult to injury, Mac versions' interface was largely a Windows interface port; Mac users really, really hate programs that don't follow Apple's interface standards.

The first ray of hope appeared at the 1999 Microsoft Exchange & Collaboration Solutions Conference (MEC) in Atlanta. Microsoft announced efforts toward a new version of the Outlook client for Mac OS, code named Watson (a wordplay based on Apple's Sherlock search engine, not Dr. Watson of Windows fame!). Very little information about Watson escaped during product development. Microsoft showed the client's preliminary versions at a couple of MacWorld shows and at the 2000 MEC in Dallas, but the company released the public beta only a couple of months ago.

Because I typically use a Macintosh for most of my writing, I eagerly surfed to Microsoft's Web site to give the new Mac Outlook client a spin. I downloaded the file and installed it—easy, because installing Outlook 2001 requires only dragging its folder to the hard disk icon. Outlook's launch includes copying any needed system libraries to the appropriate places, a feature similar to the highly touted Windows 2000 System File Repair operation.

When I launched Outlook, I could immediately create a profile, connect to my Exchange 2000 server, and get my email messages. Offline synchronization worked flawlessly, and it was a real treat to share calendar data with coworkers from both my work and home machines. I haven't enough space to mention every neat Outlook 2001 feature, but here's some great ones: You can move PST files from PC to Mac and back again with no ill effect, letting you take home important mail. And Outlook 2001's Mac interface equals that of the Office 2001 suite.

Outlook 2001 contains a few rough areas, not unexpected in a public beta. My biggest complaint? Outlook 2000's and 2002's security features aren't available in 2001. Outlook 2001 lacks support for secure MIME (S/MIME) or for setting public-folder permissions, although the user interface for these features is present and appears functional. And Outlook 2001 doesn't let you synchronize with a Palm device, but I get around this by syncing from my PC.

I expect Microsoft to hammer out Outlook 2001's flaws in short order, although company reps aren't saying whether they will provide interim updates to the public beta or when users can expect the final version's release (I'm guessing MacWorld in New York). In the meantime, however, the current version's stability and functionality allows daily use—a nice change from the days when Microsoft viewed the Mac Outlook application as a "stepping stone" (Microsoft's words, not mine) to Windows.

For a forum about experiences with Mac Outlook, see the MacInTouch Web site.