Last week's release of Windows Server 2003 moves Microsoft one step closer to providing a new range of collaboration features in Outlook, specifically the version of Outlook due for release later this year as part of Microsoft Office 2003. Windows 2003 is the foundation for Windows SharePoint Services. WSS isn't a totally new product but the second version of what was originally known as SharePoint Team Services. WSS is currently in beta along with Office 2003. Microsoft plans to release WSS as a download for Windows 2003 later this year and support it as part of the Windows 2003 OS.

One of the new Outlook-related features that WSS supports is document workspaces. A document workspace is a Web-based environment in which people can collaborate on a document. Within the workspace, you can create additional documents, put together to-do lists, discuss documents, and use other WSS Web site features.

The Outlook integration aims to make the process of setting up the document workspace as seamless as possible. When you attach a file to an email message, Outlook 2003 provides two options. The first is to send the file as a regular attachment so that each recipient gets his or her own copy. The second option, which is new, is to send the file as a shared attachment that will be immediately available online in a document workspace. To use this option, you need to be connected to the Internet when you send the message.

When you choose the shared attachment option, Outlook prompts you for the location of your team Web site. Typically, an organization might deploy WSS so that each department or work team would have its own site where members of the department or team can create new document workspaces and other WSS collaboration sites. (Microsoft is also working with various application service providers--ASPs--to offer WSS as a hosted service for organizations that don't want to host WSS internally.) Office 2003 applications remember your team Web site URL, so you need to enter it only once, not every time you want to share a document.

After you enter the team Web site URL, Outlook updates your email message to add a link to the shared document workspace. When you send the message, Outlook checks whether you have permission to create a new workspace and, if so, creates the new workspace site, copying the document to the workspace. It also creates an account and password for each recipient who doesn't already have an account on the site. Recipients don't need to have Office 2003 to participate in the document workspace Web site; they just need an application that can open and edit the document. Even people with only a browser can participate in discussions about the document, even if they can't open the document.

Each recipient gets two messages--your original email message that includes the file attachment and a link to the document workspace, plus a separate message that invites the recipient to join the document workspace and includes the username and password created for that recipient. If the attached file is a Microsoft Office Word 2003, Office Excel 2003, or Office PowerPoint 2003 document, it will contain a custom property that stores the location of the document-workspace copy of the document. When a recipient uses Office 2003 to edit the file attached to the Outlook message, Office will update the document-workspace copy. Office 2003 applications also offer a conflict resolution mechanism so that users can compare their changed version of the document with the most current version of the document in the workspace.

Alternatively, to avoid possible conflicts with other users' changes, you can log on to the document workspace and check out the document so that other users can't make changes. They can still read the document, however. When you check the document back in, you can add a comment that explains what kind of changes you made.

One key feature of a WSS site is the generation of alerts that let participants know when changes have occurred on the site. You can subscribe to a shared Office document and get a notification automatically whenever someone updates it. That's something you don't get when you store a document in a normal shared network folder.

You can also create a document workspace directly on a WSS team Web site or through a new Shared Workspace task pane in Word 2003, Excel 2003, or PowerPoint 2003. But in either of those cases, you must add users to the workspace and grant them an appropriate level of access. The Outlook integration that creates users automatically from your recipients list is potentially the key factor that will make document workspaces a part of everyday life for Office 2003 users with access to WSS team sites.

Corrections to this Article:

  • Actually, Outlook doesn't need to be connected to the Internet to create a WSS document workspace when you send an attachment. Outlook just needs to be able to connect to the WSS server. If the server is on your company intranet, all you need is a local network connection.