Last summer, Microsoft launched a new Web-based interface for the hundreds of newsgroups that provide peer-to-peer support for Microsoft products. The Microsoft Office Discussion Groups, including those for Outlook, let users ask questions and make suggestions to Microsoft. Since the online suggestion box's August debut, the forum has generated nearly 100 suggestions for Outlook Contacts, nearly 150 for the Outlook Calendar, and hundreds more general Outlook suggestions.

I thought that a good way to start the year would be to check out the most frequently suggested enhancements. After all, the next version of Outlook can't be too far off (Microsoft Office 2003 was released in late 2003).

The microsoft.public.outlook.contacts discussion group yielded 40 distinct suggestions, of which the most common was being able to print a label, envelope, fax cover sheet, or other standard document with just one or two clicks. The people who made that suggestion seemed to be aware that Outlook currently requires the use of Microsoft Office Word to accomplish these tasks; several people specified that they want this capability in Outlook "without going through Word."

Second on the list of Outlook Contact suggestions was the ability to store more personal information in a Contact, such as birthdays for spouses and children. We usually think of Outlook as a business user's email program, but people are clearly storing information about friends and family, too, and about their business contacts' families. Several users also said that they wanted to be able to share Contacts and Calendar information at home with the ease that they share it at the office. As more households have multiple computers, the demand for family Calendar and Contacts lists will grow. The two other top Outlook Contact requests were more flexibility for phone-number formatting (to suppress Outlook's automatic formatting or change it) and the ability to use either Microsoft MapPoint or Microsoft Streets & Trips to get Contact-related maps instead of being forced to go to Microsoft's online mapping application.

I found 70 distinct suggestions in the microsoft.public.outlook.calendar discussion group. By far the most popular was better time zone support in Outlook. Users are frustrated that all-day events turn into 2-day appointments when the time zone on a machine changes or the daylight savings time adjustment doesn't work as expected. Organizations also want to be able to schedule all-day events such as holidays so that people around the world see that event as an all-day event.

The second most-cited calendar enhancement was linking out-of-office responses to the Calendar. Exchange users think that their out-of-office responses should work automatically whenever the Calendar shows that they're out of the office. Other top meeting and appointment scheduling suggestions were showing travel times related to appointments, using a single meeting request to schedule a recurring meeting that doesn't occur according to a set pattern, automatically scheduling tasks in the Calendar, and better tracking and printing of meeting request response information.

I scanned the comments in the microsoft.public.outlook.general discussion group going back to November and was disappointed to see how many people don't understand that attachment blocking in Outlook is customizable with a registry entry (or, for administrators, with a group policy setting or the Outlook Security Settings public folder). Far too many people also wanted Outlook to automatically bounce junk mail back to the sender, apparently not realizing that many From addresses are spoofed. Bouncing mail back to those addresses would punish the innocent and add to the number of useless messages already clogging the circuits.

The top general request dealt with spam and asked for the ability to select multiple items in the Inbox and add the senders to the Block Senders list. Other people asked to be able to block domains from the right-click context menu in the Inbox and to have Outlook automatically block third-level domains (e.g., not just mail from junksender.com but also messages from happy.junksender.com).

I was impressed with the number of practical and innovative suggestions that demonstrated that Outlook users are really thinking about how they use the program and how to make it better. One person suggested adding another choice to the free/busy status options to indicate when you're working from home, not just when you're out of the office. Several people suggested a smarter out-of-office reply feature that responds only to senders in the Safe Senders list or the user's Contacts folder. A surprising number of people suggested enhancements for Outlook Today to take advantage of the today's larger screens by showing more information and allowing more user configuration options.

You can read these suggestions and vote on them by visiting any Outlook discussion group (see the first URL below). Select Office Discussion Groups/Outlook/General Questions, then use the Show drop-down menu above the list of topics to filter for Suggestions for Microsoft. (You'll also see an option for Suggestions with Microsoft Response but, so far, Microsoft hasn't responded to any of the posted suggestions.) You can add your vote to a particular suggestion by clicking the I Agree or I Disagree buttons.

To post to the groups, you need a Microsoft .NET Passport account, and you can set up your discussion group profile so that it doesn't reveal your true email address. You don't need a .NET Passport account, however, to view and search the discussion groups and to cast your vote on the suggestions.

You can make suggestions to Microsoft about Outlook in other ways. You can send an email message to mswish@microsoft.com or outwish@microsoft, or you can visit the Product Feedback Web site at the second URL listed below.

Microsoft Office Discussion Groups

http://www.microsoft.com/office/community/en-us/default.mspx

Product Feedback

http://register.microsoft.com/mswish/suggestion.asp