Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 contains many useful options and features. Through years of problem resolution and answering users' questions, I've discovered 10 changes to Outlook's default settings that improve its functionality and increase user acceptance. Let's explore what these changes do; then I'll show you how to implement them.
1. Sending Read Receipts
Unlike earlier releases, Outlook 2003 prompts you when you open an email message sent by someone who requires a read receipt. The prompt gives you the option of sending the read receipt or ignoring the request. Microsoft seems to have designed this feature to help protect you from spammers and other unscrupulous individuals, but I've found that some recipients use this feature to avoid sending read receipts to anyone for any reason. Although I understand this reluctance, people who send read-receipt requests often have good reasons for doing so. For example, managers who use email as a resource-management tool to delegate employee tasks might request read receipts to make sure that employees are aware of the required tasks. Although this feature can help prevent spying, the Exchange server already blocks read receipts to the Internet unless you override Exchange's Global Internet Message Format and allow automatic replies to the Internet.
2. Returning to the Inbox
Three message-handling settings let you control what happens after you close or delete a message: Return to the Inbox, Open next item, and Open previous item. The Open next item setting is the default. When you close or delete a message, Outlook opens the next message in your Inbox and displays it. This setting is convenient but can be risky. For example, if the subsequent message is spam, when you close the current message, Outlook displays the spam message, which could trigger an embedded Web bug, also known as a spam beacon (for more information about these bugs, see "Spam Beacons," September 2003, InstantDoc ID 39501). Or the displayed message could contain offensive content. To mitigate risk, enable the Return to the Inbox setting. Users will still be able to open messages manually, but subsequent messages won't automatically open after users close the current messages.
3. Using Outlook Email Security Update
Outlook 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and later include the Outlook Email Security Update, which Microsoft designed to protect against viruses and other malicious code. The update blocks a large number of attachments that can transmit viruses, including potentially harmful file types such as executables (e.g., .com, .cpl, .exe) and scripts (e.g., .bas, .js, .hta, .wsh, .vbs). Unfortunately, it also blocks document types that users often need, such as security certificate (.crt) and Microsoft Access database (.mdb) files. The Email Security Update lets you specify which attachments to block and which to allow by creating a public folder to hold settings that define the Outlook security update configuration. You must enable a registry subkey on the local PC so that Outlook knows to look in the public folder for the custom security settings. The tool administrators use to customize the Outlook Email Security Update settings is called the Outlook Administrator Pack and is part of the Microsoft Office 2003 Editions Resource Kit, which you can download from http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/xp/appndx/appa04.htm. You'll find information about this tool at http://www.microsoft.com/office/ork/2003/three/ch12/default.htm.
4. Maximizing Free/Busy Published Data
Outlook uses free/busy data for various scheduling-related features and functions. By default, Outlook publishes only 2 months of free/busy data, but you might need more months of data to make realistic scheduling decisions. Outlook can publish more data for individual clients, but if all the clients in your enterprise don't publish the same amount of data, they might have problems scheduling shared or delegated resources. As "The Free/Busy Map," September 2004, InstantDoc ID 43152, explains, these scheduling problems occur because Outlook updates free/busy data and saves it to the Exchange server, but the free/busy publication settings in each Outlook installation govern the amount of free/busy data that's saved to the server. If different Outlook clients with different free/busy publication settings access and update resources, the free/busy data won't be available to indicate that the time block is already scheduled. To prevent these types of problems, make sure that all the clients in your organization publish identical amounts of free/busy data.
5. Recovering Deleted Items
To eliminate the hassle of restoring an entire server to recover just one prematurely or accidentally deleted item, Exchange uses a feature called Deleted Items Recovery, which lets end users recover deleted items within a specific time window. Typically, when a user deletes a message, Exchange puts it in the Deleted Items folder, which is analogous to a wastebasket. When the user empties the Deleted Items folder, the item isn't actually removed from the Exchange Store; rather, it's hidden and date-flagged for deletion after a fixed interval. This action is similar to emptying a wastebasket into a dumpster, where items wait for final disposal. In fact, Microsoft refers to items from the emptied Deleted Items folder as being "in the dumpster." The dumpster is just an analogy; items are still in the Deleted Items folder, just hidden. To recover data from the dumpster and make it visible in the Deleted Items folder, users can use the Deleted Items Recovery feature from Outlook's Tools menu.
Like many other functions in Outlook, users can delete messages several ways: by clicking the delete button, by pressing the Delete key on the keyboard, and by using the Shift+Delete key combination. Using Shift+Delete is referred to as deleting items "in place," which means that instead of first moving an item into the Deleted Items folder, then into the dumpster, Outlook places the item directly in the dumpster, by hiding it in place (e.g., in the Inbox) and flagging the item for deletion. Out of the box, the Deleted Items Recovery function is enabled only when the Deleted Items folder is selected, which prevents you from recovering in-place deleted items from other folders. You can enable the Deleted Items Recovery function for all other folders by updating the DumpsterAlwaysOn registry setting on the PC, which I'll explain later.
6. Disabling Full Menus
Outlook has so many features that learning all of them can be difficult. To make matters worse, by default, Microsoft enables an Outlook feature called Personalized Menus. When you click a menu root option, Personalized Menus shows only the most frequently used options. This setting can increase the amount of time it takes for new Outlook users to learn features or shortcuts. In my experience, Personalized Menus are best used after users become fully familiar with Outlook and should be disabled by default.
7. Enabling Spell Check
I'm not sure why Outlook turns off spell check by default. Fortunately, enabling spell check is easy to do, as I'll explain later.
8. Marking Messages in the Preview Pane
No other Outlook feature seems to cause so much concern about putting the enterprise at risk. Because the Preview Pane automatically processes and displays HTML-encoded messages, it can execute a virus or trigger a Web bug. This happened frequently in Outlook 98, and the feature's reputation hasn't fully recovered. Outlook 2003 is considered safe because it includes security features that prevent the Preview Pane from launching a virus or triggering a Web bug. As long as you stay up-to-date with patches and updates, you shouldn't have a problem. Many people like the Preview Pane functionality because it lets them quickly review messages. If you're comfortable using the Preview Pane, you should configure the option that controls when a message changes from an unread to a read state when it's viewed through the Preview Pane. This option is on by default and causes a message to be marked as read when the selection changes. In other words, when you use the Preview Pane to select and read a message, selecting the next message automatically marks the previously viewed message as read. If you tend to skim messages, this feature can cause you to lose track of an important message because each message that you've viewed in the Preview Pane will look like it's been read in the Inbox. I suggest that you turn off this feature and have users learn to use the Ctrl+Q shortcut key combination to mark messages as read.
9. Disabling the Preview Pane
If you're still not convinced that the Preview Pane is safe enough to use, you can turn it off by using the /nopreview switch on the Outlook.exe command line. This switch works with Outlook 2000 and later. When you use it with Outlook 2002 and Outlook 2000, the Preview Pane is turned off in all folders and the Preview Pane option on the Outlook View menu is disabled. When you use the switch with Outlook 2003, the Preview Pane is turned off in all folders when Outlook starts, but users can still turn it back on. The method that I'll describe shortly adds the switch to the default Outlook startup configuration so that you can use it with the default Outlook icon on the desktop or quick launch bar (no new shortcut is required).
10. Disabling AutoArchive
By default, every 14 days Outlook asks if you want to archive old items in your mailbox. Functions like this that help users manage their mailbox resources are useful, but I've found that letting users decide which messages to archive and when is often preferable to automatic archiving. Most people use Exchange mailboxes not only for sending and receiving communications but also as a repository to store information. If you use a third-party application to move email to secondary storage, Outlook auto-archiving isn't necessary. Another disadvantage of Outlook's Auto Archive function is that by default it stores the .pst files that the archive creates in a location that users don't expect, such as C:\DocumentsorSettings\neubauerJ\Local Settings\ApplicationData\Microsoft\Outlook\archive.pst. This folder tree isn't part of the My Documents hierarchy that users are accustomed to, so some users might have trouble finding and retrieving archived files. I suggest that you turn off the automatic 14-day archiving and give users detailed instructions about how to manually activate the archive function, including where to save .pst archive files. Doing so protects data because users can store archive files on a resource that you frequently back up instead of on their local hard disks.
Deploying the Changes
The first five changes I've discussed can be considered policies. You might want to prevent end-user personalization of these settings because they affect organizational security and recoverability. You probably use Active Directory (AD) Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to configure and enforce policies on a wide scale because end users can't change GPO-based settings. The problem with using GPOs with Outlook is that Outlook GPOs usually control more than one setting at a time. When you use GPOs to define and enforce one setting in the group, you can unintentionally configure and enforce other settings. One of Outlooks strengths is that it's configurable, but IT administrators have a tendency to lock down configurations to make the application more supportable and stable. Although doing so is sometimes necessary, needlessly restricting users' ability to configure their settings hinders their ability to use Outlook efficiently, which can reduce productivity and stifle user acceptance.
Figure 1 shows a GPO that lets you control whether Outlook should return to the Inbox after deleting or moving an open item. The GPO also controls five other settings. If you enable this GPO to prevent Outlook from displaying the next (possibly spam) message, Outlook also enforces the on or off state of other settings (e.g., Save copies of messages in the sent items folder, Display a notification message when new mail arrives) because they're part of the same GPO. So, for example, if you don't select the Save copies of messages in the sent items folder setting, a user who needs to respond to messages as soon as they arrive won't have the option of using the new mail notification pop-up message.
Fortunately, GPOs aren't your only option for configuring settings; you can also use the Microsoft Office 2003 Editions Resource Kit's Custom Installation Wizard (CIW). Typically, the CIW is the best way to configure settings because it doesn't produce the "set one, configure, and lock many" side effect. Some options, such as the setting related to the amount of free/busy data to publish, let you set and lock configurations, but users can usually change the settings after installation.
The Resource Kit that contains the CIW is specific to the Office 2003 family. If you're thinking about deploying an earlier version of Outlook such as Office XP or Office 2000, most of the concepts will apply but you'll need to use tools specific to your particular Outlook release. You can find links to these tools on the Microsoft Office 2003 Editions Resource Kit Web site.
After you install the resource kit, you can use custwiz.exe to specify Outlook's installation options and initial settings. The settings are stored in a Microsoft Transform (.mst) file, which the Office Outlook installation program uses to implement your settings. A full discussion of how to use custwiz.exe is beyond the scope of this article, but I'll describe the parts of the wizard that you must use to configure the settings I've discussed. To create the .mst file, copy the contents of the Outlook installation CD-ROM to a network share, then launch custwiz.exe. On page 2 of the wizard, specify the path to the Microsoft Installer (.msi) file, which is located on the share to which you copied the Outlook CD-ROM. Pages 3 and 4 of the wizard let you create a new .mst file and name it (e.g., MyOutlook.mst). Pages 5 through 9 let you specify items such as your organization name, features you want to install, and how you want to handle settings from earlier Outlook versions. (Because these pages aren't relevant to our discussion, I don't discuss them in detail; you'll find more information about them in the wizard's Help files.) Page 10 of the wizard lets you configure most of the settings I've described.
On page 10's left pane, expand the settings tree and select a category to display your configured settings. Double-click an option in the right pane to display the configuration page. Figure 2 shows an example of some of the settings you can use to configure free/busy options. As Figure 2 shows, the interface is similar to the interface you use to configure GPOs.
Web Table 1 (http://www.windowsitpro.com/microsoftexchangeoutlook, InstantDoc ID 44786) lists the settings tree location and settings that you must configure to implement the changes I've discussed. Page 10 configures seven of them. Page 12 configures the last three options—Disabling the Preview Pane, Deleted Items Recovery, and the Email Outlook Security Update—which let you specify custom registry definitions. Figure 3 shows an example of the interface you use to define a custom registry entry in the CIW.
After you configure the options on page 10 and define registry settings on page 12, continue through the wizard pages. On page 24, click Finish and create a .mst file. Run setup.exe and use the TRANSFORMS= switch to select your .mst file (e.g., setup.exe TRANSFORMS=MyOutlook.MST).
If you've already deployed an earlier version of Outlook and want to adopt these changes, the Microsoft Office 2003 Editions Resource Kit includes a tool called the Custom Maintenance Wizard (mainwiz.exe), which has similar functionality to the CIW. It lets you create an update file that you can deploy to existing installations to add new components or change settings. If you use this tool, be aware that it will overwrite any customizations that users might have made since the initial deployment.
I've barely scratched the surface of the configuration options you can specify when you deploy Outlook 2003. Microsoft provides more than one way to customize Outlook deployments. The CIW lets you initialize standard, enterprisewide deployment settings, and GPOs let you enforce settings so that users can't change them. If you need to lock part of the configuration, determine whether the loss of configuration flexibility is worth using a GPO. In most cases, you'll probably want to use a hybrid approach. Use the CIW to define the defaults, then use a GPO to enforce just a few settings. Weigh the costs and benefits of these methods and decide which are best for your environment.