Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), which will be released later this year as a no-charge add-on to Windows Server 2003, has become Microsoft's strategic platform for team collaboration. Customer feedback about its predecessor, SharePoint Team Services, sparked an array of small improvements designed to enhance workgroup productivity by using Web spaces to focus worker activity. The upcoming version also includes some new features that integrate with Outlook-–collaboration features that you can use out of the box with no additional products or programming. The April 29, 2003 Commentary discussed one of those features: document workspaces. This week, I look at two other interesting new WSS features for Outlook 2003 users: meeting workspaces and linking to team data from Outlook.
Meeting workspaces are Web sites designed to help groups plan and execute meetings more effectively. WSS includes page templates that you can tailor with additions from a library of meeting-associated Web parts such as an attendee list, an agenda, a document library, and a "things to bring" list. Thus, teams can use meeting workspaces to consolidate the materials associated with a project or meeting, thereby helping to ensure that attendees will come to the meeting prepared. You can also add to a meeting workspace sections for decisions and tasks to support meeting follow-up. The extremely flexible meeting workspaces equally support live meetings or electronic conferencing.
Outlook 2003 users can create a meeting workspace by clicking a new Meeting Workspace button on the meeting request form. That action invokes a task pane that lets the user choose the team Web site to use for the meeting space. After checking site permissions, WSS then creates the necessary Web pages. Meeting invitees receive a typical Outlook meeting invitation that includes a link to the meeting space. The entry in the invitee's Calendar folder also displays an icon to alert the invitee that planning items for the meeting are available online. As with other WSS components, invitees can elect to be notified when different types of changes are posted to the meeting workspace.
Another area in which Outlook 2003 users will see new integration with WSS is in the core team sites. Like their SharePoint Team Services predecessors, WSS sites feature Web parts, including various lists that users can maintain. Microsoft has upgraded the Web parts for team contacts and events to deliver a new capability: You can save these parts in a special read-only team .pst file that links directly to the team site. Items on the team events list appear in a separate calendar folder, and you can invoke Outlook 2003's new side-by-side calendar display to view both your personal and a team calendar at the same time. When the user has access to the team site (which can be internal or external), calendar items and contacts are synchronized to reflect the most recently available content.
Unfortunately, the integration is only one-way-–users can display group contacts or calendars in Outlook 2003, but they can't add or change items. To add an appointment to the local copy of the group calendar or to change shared contact information, a user must log on to the team site and edit the appropriate list. The next time an Outlook 2003 user opens a folder in the team .pst file, Outlook will log on to the site and refresh the folder contents.
The jury is still out as to how useful the WSS-Outlook links will be. For workgroups that collaboratively maintain shared calendars and contacts, the read-only restriction could prove problematic. However, many teams just need a data repository that one or two team members maintain, then make available to the larger group. The special read-only .pst file should do nicely in these environments. WSS might be a useful starting point for organizations that need an easy-to-implement collaboration solution. Fortunately, Microsoft offers a no-charge trial version of Windows 2003 and a public Windows SharePoint Services Beta 2 download so that you can evaluate the applications in your environment before committing to WSS.