Microsoft will offer a public beta of Outlook 98 this week on its Web site, it was revealed Wednesday. This new version of Outlook is a follow-up to the product that shipped with Office 97 in January. Microsoft is expecting to ship the final version of Outlook 98, which will be free to Outlook 97 users, before the middle of next year.

Outlook 98 addresses the most common complaints about Outlook 97. The original Outlook product was bloated and slow, so Microsoft took steps to make Outlook 98 smaller and faster. Scott Gode, Outlook product manager at Microsoft, says the first release of the product was loaded with features that were not easy to use as well. Therefore, Outlook 98 features a much simpler interface that indicates the direction Microsoft will take with Office 99.

"It's important to get it out so people can test it," Gode said. "We wanted to make sure we expose this beta to all kinds of strange configurations out there."

Also expected for Outlook 98 are support for the S/MIME, NNTP, IMAP, vCal, and vCard protocols, in addition to the POP3 protocol supported by Outlook 97. Outlook 98 uses many of the components from Internet Explorer, including the HTML renderer to support HTML email. Previous versions of Outlook and Windows Messaging/Exchange supported only text and rich text email.

Thanks to Bill Ricci for tipping me off to this story. Expect a full review of the Outlook 98 beta on the Internet Nexus Web site later this week.

For more information about Outlook 98, check out Microsoft's Outlook Grows Brighter page