With Outlook being a mature application that's between product cycles, you'd expect 2005 to be a relatively quiet year for the product. And so it was, except for a few interesting developments on the junk-mail front--until the recent beta release of the next version of Microsoft Office and Outlook, code-named Office 12 and Outlook 12.

Microsoft started the year by inaugurating Microsoft Office Outlook Live (MOOL), a subscription-based version that combines a copy of the most-recent version of Outlook with MSN Hotmail. January also brought five Outlook 2003 post-Service Pack 1 (SP1) hotfixes, one of which changed the way Outlook imports junk mail lists so that the import takes place only once per session, when Outlook starts. (I wrote about this fix in "Deploying Junk Mail Filter Lists in Outlook 2003," http://www.windowsitpro.com InstantDoc ID 45563.) The changes make it possible for administrators to configure Outlook so that it periodically imports lists of safe senders, safe recipients, or blocked senders without adversely affecting Outlook's performance. This feature is useful when your organization does a lot of business with certain other companies and you want to ensure that Outlook never marks as junk mail from those key domains.

In March, another Outlook 2003 post-SP1 hotfix (which you can read about at the first URL below) gave administrators the ability to restrict use of personal folder files (PSTs) on a per-user basis. Previously, the DisablePST registry value was available only in the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry hive, not as a user policy or preference setting. It turned out, though, that DisablePST's effects were a little too strong for some organizations because it blocked the use of the PSTs that Outlook 2003 uses to proxy Windows SharePoint Services events and contacts lists. An April hotfix took care of that problem by adding a new AlwaysAllowSharePointPST registry value (read about this fix at the second URL below). In June, the big news at Microsoft TechEd was that Exchange Server would include support for public folders only through its next version, code-named Exchange 12. During the Exchange 12 lifecycle, Microsoft will encourage organizations to migrate public folders to another platform, probably Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server. It's still too early to talk about what capabilities will be present in the next version of SharePoint Portal Server, but Microsoft has already announced that Outlook 12 will have improved SharePoint Portal Server integration, including the ability to take document libraries offline. At every meeting I've attended since TechEd, I've asked Exchange administrators how many public folders they have and how many contain applications--in other words, custom forms, folder home pages, scripts, or event sinks. Most of the admins I've spoken with don't know how many folders they have (other than a vague guess of "hundreds" or "thousands"), and most estimate the percentage of application folders to be quite small--perhaps around 5 percent. Still, 5 percent of 1000 represents 50 folder-based applications that will have to be completely redesigned and rewritten for a new platform.

September brought the release of Office 2003 (and Outlook 2003) SP2, which consolidated more than three dozen hotfixes (including the ones mentioned above) issued since the release of Outlook 2003 SP1 in July 2004, and which enhanced Outlook's security by adding two new features. With SP2 applied, messages in Outlook's Junk E-mail Folder always appear in plaintext format and all Web links in those messages are disabled. Additionally, Outlook 2003 SP2 detects phishing messages, which attempt to get the user to visit Web sites and provide personal information. Links in suspected phishing messages are disabled but can be turned on by the user, as long as the message isn't in the Junk E-mail Folder. The anti-phishing feature requires not only Outlook 2003 SP2, but also the most-recent Junk E-mail update for Outlook 2003. Microsoft has been issuing those updates every couple of months. The other major new feature in Outlook 2003 SP2, Offline Address Book (OAB) version 4 (v4), requires Exchange Server 2003 SP2 (released in October) on the back end. (I wrote about OAB v4 in "All About OAB v4," InstantDoc 48587.) OAB v4 reduces the frequency of full OAB downloads and the size of both full and differential downloads. This version also moves index generation from the Exchange server to the Outlook client and lets users use first names for address resolution in organizations that display the Global Address List (GAL) in Last, First order.

Outlook 2003 SP2 also changed the behavior of meeting requests in an attempt to eliminate the many reported problems with disappearing appointments. The Microsoft article at the third URL below explains the changes and the new DisableMeetingRegeneration registry value that you can use to retain the old behavior, which might be necessary for certain applications that synchronize mailbox calendars with databases or other data sources. In November, Microsoft released Visual Studio 2005, including the Office-related version Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office (VSTO), which makes it easier to build add-ins that integrate tightly with Outlook. However, because VSTO requires Office Professional Edition 2003, it's useful mainly to in-house developers whose desktop version of Office is tightly controlled or to independent developers who target their applications only at Outlook 12 or Outlook 2003.

The biggest news from November was the distribution of Office 12 Beta 1 to a select group of testers. Microsoft had lifted the veil over Office 12 a bit at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2005 in September. At that time, the company showed attendees the new UI that will appear in Microsoft "Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and the authoring part of Outlook--your calendar, your mail notes and your contacts--not the shell of Outlook," according to Julie Larson-Green, group program manager for Office User Experience. Other Outlook sneak peaks included attachment previewing in the reading pane, a to-do bar (on the right side of the main Outlook window) that shows the next couple of appointments and a task list arranged by days, an indexed search that highlights search-term matches, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed subscriptions, and emailing Microsoft Office InfoPath forms. Bill Gates announced that Office 12 will ship in the second half of 2006.

As the Office 12 beta testers settle into their work, I wish you and your families a most wonderful holiday season (and not too many calls to the Help desk). I hope to see you in 2006 at the Microsoft Exchange Connections conferences in Orlando, Stockholm, and Las Vegas (see the fourth URL below for conference details). "A network administrator can add the DisablePST registry value to a registry key so that all the users of a computer cannot create or access Outlook .pst files in Outlook 2003" http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=896515

"You receive an 'An error occurred adding the following Windows SharePoint Services folder to Outlook' error message when you link a Windows SharePoint Services Calendar or Events list to Outlook 2003"
http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=897658

"Developer information about the calendar changes in Outlook 2003 Service Pack 2, Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 and later versions"
http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=899919

Microsoft Exchange Connections
http://www.winconnections.com/default.asp