MS Office "system" attacks collaboration

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - When Microsoft Corp. took a US$51 million stake in Groove Networks Inc. two years ago, the motivation was clear. Collaboration would be one of the themes of the new decade; Office needed to become a more compelling platform for teamwork. Office 2003 attacks the challenge not by splicing in Groove DNA, but rather by cobbling together a solution that enhances the core productivity apps using SharePoint and the new Live Communications Server. The results are delightful in some ways, perplexing in others, and mostly tangential to collaboration's bread-and-butter application, e-mail.

Because e-mail is the key means of collaboration at nearly every company, let's first zoom in on what Outlook 2003 brings to the table. The new Outlook does present a more attractive and more capable user interface. The classic three-pane view morphs, in this version, into a three-column layout that exploits today's larger screens. As a result, it's easier to scan lists of messages, and you can read most messages without scrolling. For compulsive organizers, there's a new way to group messages: search folders. The usual foldering method -- moving messages to folders, by hand or automatically via filter rules -- is still available. Search folders work, alternatively, as filters that collect pointers but leave the messages themselves. The model takes some getting used to. You don't move a message to a search folder, for example; you build a search expression that causes the message to appear there. When you delete a message, it doesn't just disappear from the search folder, it disappears from its real location, too. A message in your inbox, or in another conventional folder, may appear in several search folders.

I like this new organizational tool, but wish that the expression builder it shares with Outlook's advanced search feature could tap into the XML data flows that the other Office applications can now produce. For that matter, why can't Outlook produce XML content and metadata, as Word, Excel, and InfoPath can? If the grand theme of Office 2003 is intelligent data, adding XML smarts to the documents we most often read, write, and search for would seem an obvious first step.

Outlook's built-in search engine is another area where I hoped for improvement but didn't find any. It's always been necessary to rely on third-party solutions to index and search the local message store, and in Outlook 2003 that's still true. The Outlook team opted not to build a throwaway solution that would be obsolete by the next platform wave due in 2005: the Longhorn version of Windows, built atop the Yukon database. But 2005 is a long way off, and full-text search isn't exactly rocket science, so this was disappointing news.

Outlook's new user interface is spiffy, but it's not a reason to upgrade. However, the overhaul of the plumbing that connects Outlook to Exchange Server just might be. In this new version, Outlook's messages, contacts, and calendar items are stored locally by default, and synchronization with the Exchange server is handled far more gracefully than before. Locked in a client/server embrace that began in the LAN era, Outlook and Exchange were previously ill-adapted to the fluid style of the modern worker who begins writing a message at his or her wired desk, revises it in a Wi-Fi-equipped conference room, and sends it from an Internet cafe. Outlook 2003 manages these transitions deftly.

When you're stuck with dial-up access, you'll appreciate these niceties: newest messages arrive first, you can defer some or all message bodies, and you can bump up the priority of a deferred body or attachment. If you're running against the 2003 editions of Windows Server and Exchange Server, you can also take advantage of RPC over HTTP, which tunnels Exchange traffic through the standard SSL port. That means when you're outside the firewall, you needn't fire up a VPN connection just to sync mail.

Because our e-mail-oriented way of life is seriously threatened by the spam plague, I was curious to see how effectively Outlook 2003 fights back. Evaluating the product at the height of the Sobig.F outbreak gave us an excellent chance to test the product's anti-spam capabilities. I was only mildly impressed. Even after I cranked the content filter up to its most aggressive setting, lots of junk got through.

To be fair, Microsoft intends the content filter only as a last line of defense. The foundation of Outlook's anti-spam strategy is identity, not content. You can, for example, whitelist or blacklist e-mail addresses or entire domains, but such actions require more thought and effort than many users are willing or able to invest.

E-mail identity is also, in general, vulnerable to spoofing, although Microsoft points out that Exchange Server 2003 can distinguish between mail that is from the local domain and mail that only claims to be.

Identity filters may be the best tactic in the long run, but Outlook 2003's most accessible anti-spam weapon is its content filter. And surprisingly, that filter doesn't improve with use. Mac OS X's Mail.app and the SpamBayes plug-in for earlier versions of Outlook learn what we want to read by watching how we manage our inboxes. Outlook 2003 doesn't.

Here's a trick question: What is Microsoft's collaboration server? The answer used to be obvious: Exchange. Now it's not so clear. Suppose you want to hold a discussion. You can still do that transiently in an e-mail thread, or with more permanence in an Exchange public folder. But Live Communications Server injects a new ingredient into the mix: IM-style presence. If you can see that the participants in the thread are online, you may want to switch to chat mode. Or you could launch a discussion on a SharePoint site that displays presence indicators. Even more intriguing, an Office document can now be a locus of presence-enhanced SharePoint collaboration.

E-mail, the intranet, and IM have been on a collision course for some time now. I am delighted to see Microsoft not only embracing all three modes but also looking for ways to weave them together. Yet I can't avoid a sense of dejà vu. In the 1990s, Netscape tried something similar, offering a suite of collaboration servers and a matching suite of clients. There were compelling benefits, but also a lot of moving parts. I feel the same way about Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Live Communications Server. Users will find no single unifying theme akin to the Groove shared space. Administrators will have to install and manage three or four sets of clients and servers. The new capabilities are exciting, but it'll take lots more integration to make Office-based collaboration a seamless and manageable experience.

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