The next version of Microsoft Office, currently known as Office 11, will ship in mid-2003, bringing with it a new version of Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft's messaging and personal information management (PIM) client. Outlook 11 won't be a lackluster upgrade like the previous versions. It will be the first major upgrade to Outlook since the product debuted in 1997. The new version will bring a redesigned UI and quick access to the features users need most. Outlook 11 will ship as a standalone product, in various Office 11 suites, and as part of Exchange Server 2003 (code-named Titanium). Here's what you need to know about Outlook 11.

A New Outlook on Your Data
Like all earlier Office versions, Office 11 will feature nonstandard toolbars and other widgets, making the various Office applications look different from the other Windows applications you might be running. Outlook 11 will pick up the Office 11 UI, which will feature odd tubular toolbars and seas of blue colors. Apart from its ugly shell, the Outlook 11 redesign holds promise. Figure 1 shows the default view for Outlook 11, which will be divided into three columns: one to navigate customizable and stock folder lists, one to list the contents of the currently selected folder (e.g., Inbox), and one for a large reading pane, which replaces the preview pane in earlier Outlook versions. The reading pane will offer 40 percent more viewing area than the preview pane, which means you'll often be able to view an entire email message without scrolling. Even better, the reading pane uses Microsoft's ClearType subpixel rendering technology to dramatically enhance the look of onscreen text, which will make email easier to read on an LCD monitor.

The interface improvements don't stop with the reading pane. The middle folder view will group email into days (e.g., Today, Yesterday), an arrangement that's similar to that of Microsoft Internet Explorer's (IE's) History pane. Each message header will include a new right margin in which one mouse click flags the message for follow-up (previously, flagging required multiple steps).

In the lefthand navigational column, Outlook 11 will display different folder views based on the Outlook component currently in use. When the Mail component is open, for example, Outlook 11 will display by default folders for unread mail, follow-up mail, sent items, and so on, and you can add your own favorite views. The lower part of the column will include links to other Outlook components such as Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks.

Other New Features
Outlook 11 will include many other improvements. In earlier versions, the much-reviled Address AutoComplete feature regularly digs up one-time correspondents. In Outlook 11, it will first suggest frequently used email addresses. Outlook 11 will vertically stack message threads and reply messages and won't use the staggered views of the past, which often caused messages to disappear off the right side of the view. In Calendar, you'll be able to load others' calendars side-by-side with your own to visually compare schedules. And you'll be able to use Outlook 11 to view in read-only mode calendars, contact data, and contact photos published to Microsoft SharePoint Team Services Web sites.

Some of the biggest changes are under the hood. A new cache mode will automatically maintain a local copy of your mailboxes and Public Folders, Favorites folders for better performance over low-bandwidth connections and in offline situations. Performance will improve further when you connect your Outlook 11 client to a Titanium server; Microsoft says that using these two products together will reduce network traffic by 50 to 70 percent.

Outlook 11 will include Exchange Server Objects (XSO) technology, which provides a standardized way for Web sites to create links to Outlook 11's Calendar. For example, you might book a trip on a travel Web site and choose to have the schedule for the trip added to your Outlook Calendar. If your itinerary changes, the Web site automatically updates your Calendar to reflect the change.

Recommendations
Microsoft claims that Outlook has more than 200 million users worldwide, and email volume has grown more than tenfold since the company released Outlook 97. Outlook 11 will address the problems that this email flood generates, making it easier to find and manage the messages that are most important. For this reason, Outlook 11 will prove to be an important and compelling upgrade for all Outlook users, whether or not you connect to an Exchange server.