Enhanced security, improved time and task management, and connections to more information sources are the themes Microsoft is focusing on in the next version of Outlook, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007. Beyond those objectives, this release resolves some long-held annoyances and provides a few features that users have been requesting. As you’d expect, the new version also mates well with Exchange Server 2007 (formerly codenamed Exchange 12).

Here’s a preview of the key features based on the Beta 1 Technical Refresh release distributed to testers in March 2006. As you’ll see, we have a lot to look forward to.

Account Creation


The first major change you’ll notice is that Outlook 2007 doesn’t require you to provide a lot of arcane information when you set up a new mail profile. All Outlook asks for is the user’s name, email address in SMTP name@domain.com format, and password, as Figure 1 shows. In an Exchange 2007 environment in which the user has authenticated to the domain, Outlook 2007 will query Active Directory (AD) to find the local Exchange server that hosts that mailbox and will maintain the connection even if the mailbox is moved to another server. In nonauthenticated scenarios, Outlook will send a Web request to the Exchange autodiscovery Web service set up for the domain and get in return the mailbox information needed to create the mail profile. Almost all POP3 accounts should also connect automatically, because Outlook uses an algorithm to try to locate the server on the Internet that handles the mail for that domain.

Tasks, Appointments, and Categories


Outlook 2007 tackles tasks and appointments the way Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 did email messages: with a new UI and tools for streamlining the proliferation of flags, reminders, colors, and categories that accrued as organizing features in earlier versions. When the Outlook display appears, you’ll see a new pane on the right—the To-Do Bar—that shows the next few appointments and a list of tasks organized by date, as you can see in Figure 2. This isn’t the task list that you see in your default Tasks folder. Rather, it’s a consolidated list of tasks—from all task folders, not just Tasks—plus messages and contacts you’ve flagged for follow-up. Each item can have a reminder associated with it, and reminders in Outlook 2007 fire for items in all folders, not just for items in the default Calendar, Contacts, Inbox, and Tasks folders.

The categories from earlier versions of Outlook merge in Outlook 2007 with Outlook 2003’s colored Quick Flags and the calendar color labels introduced in Outlook 2002. The result is a new system of color-coded categories that show up vividly on the screen and apply to all kinds of items. You can assign one of 25 colors to a category, and multiple categories can share the same color. No longer is the Master Category List a Windows registry entry that can’t easily be managed or transferred to other users. Outlook 2007 maintains its category list in the user’s default information store (Exchange mailbox or .pst file), and Categories is a top-level collection in the Outlook programming model.

Other Information Sources


For enhanced collaboration and information processing, Outlook 2007 users can work with information from new sources, including Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, Microsoft SharePoint document libraries, iCalendar Web subscriptions, and multiitem iCal attachments. In Office 2007, data from lists on Web sites that use the new version of SharePoint, either Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 or Windows SharePoint Services, is read/write, not read-only as it was in Outlook 2003. The ability to read and write SharePoint data in Outlook applies to contacts, events, tasks, and documents.

Users can search all their local Outlook folders, even the text of attachments, and get results almost instantaneously. I say “local” folders because Outlook users with Exchange mailboxes will see different results depending on whether they’re using Cached Exchange mode to access the server. Cached Exchange mode uses a local .ost file for the data cache. The data in that .ost file is indexed locally and available to the instant search feature. Users who connect directly to the Exchange server won’t get Outlook 2007’s instant search of their mailbox, but if that mailbox is on an Exchange 2007 server, they can take advantage of the new search index in Exchange 2007.

Security


Security features include a stronger antiphishing guard that protects against homograph exploits and provides a more prominent warning to users. Homograph exploits are a new phishing technique based on support for Unicode characters in domain names. For example, someone can put a link in a message that looks like a link to, say, http://www.paypal.com. But instead of using the lowercase a from the Western European alphabet, the URL might use the lowercase a from the Cyrillic alphabet and thus link to a completely different (and potentially bogus) domain.

Outlook 2007 also strengthens privacy by giving users the option not to download images and other external content when they reply to, forward, or print HTML-formatted messages. In Outlook 2003, external content blocking applied only to the original message. Consequently, any action to reply, forward, or print the message resulted in Outlook downloading the external content and thus potentially revealing information about the user.

A new Outlook E-mail Postmark feature aims to make it easier for other Outlook 2007 users to receive legitimate messages that might otherwise be classified as spam. When a user sends a “spammy” message, Outlook performs the calculations necessary to solve a simple computational puzzle and adds information about the puzzle and the solution to the SMTP message header. Because that computation takes only a little time for one message or a few messages but would take a very long time for a spammer sending millions of messages, the presence of an Outlook E-mail Postmark in the message header is a strong indication that the message isn’t spam.

Shared Folders


For organizations that use Exchange 2007 as their mail server, Outlook 2007 streamlines the process of sharing folders. Gaining access to a folder other than the default folders (e.g., Inbox, Calendar, Contacts) has always required several steps that aren’t obvious to the average user. For example, if you want to share such a folder in Outlook 2003 or an earlier version with a user I’ll call Erika, you need to grant Folder Visible permission to the top level of your mailbox and to all other folders higher in the hierarchy than the folder you want to share, plus grant the Reviewer role or other permissions on the folder you want to share. Then Erika must add your mailbox to the properties of her Exchange account. To share a folder in Outlook 2007, you simply right-click the folder, choose Share from the context menu, and send Erika the special message that Outlook generates. When the message arrives, Erika simply clicks the Open button in the message, and Outlook 2007 opens the folder and automatically adds it to her navigation pane.

If you share one of your default folders—your Calendar folder, for example—you can include a request for the recipient to share her folder in return, as you can see in Figure 3. (Figure 3 also shows the ribbon UI that replaces the menu and toolbars on individual Outlook items.) The recipient can choose Allow or Deny when the sharing request message arrives.

Improvements to Key Exchange Features


For your Calendar folder on an Exchange 2007 mailbox, you get more control over how much information Outlook exposes through the Free/Busy feature. As Figure 4 shows, you can choose exactly how much information to share about your appointments: no information at all, just your availability for different time periods, your free and busy times plus the subject and location of appointments, or the full details of your engagements. The new Scheduling Assistant works with the new availability Web service in Exchange 2007 suggest times for meetings according to when most invitees can attend and even tells you what rooms are available.

For years, users have asked for better Out of Office Assistant functionality, and Exchange 2007 delivers two frequently requested features in Outlook 2007. First, you can create two different out-of-office reply messages: one for people in your organization and another for outside contacts. Second, you can schedule in advance the times you want to send out-of-office notifications, as Figure 5 shows, and Outlook will automatically turn out-of-office messages on and off.

For Developers and All Users


On the development side, a greatly expanded programming model aims to eliminate the need to use additional programming libraries, such as Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) 1.21, and provides speedier access to Outlook items and properties. The new programming model also lets you create and modify Outlook message rules and automatic formatting rules in Outlook views. And add-in developers get a new form regions mechanism for adding to the Outlook custom form interface.

Finally, Outlook 2007 takes care of some of those little annoyances that have been bothering Outlook users, in some cases for years. The new version lets you view attached image files and Office document files right in the reading pane. Figure 6 shows an image preview with the navigation pane and To-Do Bar collapsed to leave more room for the image. You can overlay multiple calendars, which will appear in different colors so you can distinguish your schedule from that of your boss. When you add a contact that duplicates an existing contact, Outlook 2007 not only merges both sets of data, as earlier versions do, but also gives you a preview of the changes it will make, as you can see in Figure 7. Furthermore, whereas previous versions always discarded any new notes during a contact update, Outlook 2007 not only saves them but gives them a date/time stamp.