Microsoft is set to release the final version of the free Outlook '98 client by ther end of March, positioning it as a strategic product that provides an interface for Office application users, Exchange users and as standards-based Internet email users.
Outlook '98, which was initially timed to arrive with Exchange Server 5.5 last fall, will be offered as a free upgrade client to current users of Microsoft Office and Exchange, says Scott Gode, product manager for Outlook.
"This is a piece of the whole Microsoft Office story. It has multiple constituencies that it has to make happy," says Phil Schacter, a senior industry analyst at Ferris Research, in San Francisco.
Microsoft has not determined whether or not it will charge for Outlook '98 for those users who want it as a messaging client in environments other than Office or Exchange, Gode says. Office and Exchange users will have to verify that they possess a license for those products to obtain the final, free Outlook '98.
The company has not yet decided whether to offer the product via downloads from the Microsoft Web site, as they have done for the previous two beta versions of Outlook '98.
Overall functionality of the final Outlook is essentially the same as for the current beta copy now available, according to Gode.
"There are no substantial new features, just fixing some bugs, some tightening and tweaking," Gode says of the final version.
Analysts say the newest Outlook client is a vast improvement over previous versions.
"It's a lot easier for a newcomer coming to the screen to know what to do," Schacter says. "The user interface looks like it's in transition from being very Windows-oriented to one that is more of a browser-integrated interface."
However, Outlook '98 will not incorporate browsing functions, even though it can operate in HTML mode, Gode says.
"We've been saying all along that Outlook '98 is a great all-around e-mail client and we will encourage people to use it as a front-end client to any Internet e-mail server, including Exchange," Gode said.
"Outlook '98 is totally HTML-compliant, and e-mail messages -- if the user chooses -- can be in HTML," Gode says. "We will not default to HTML, because -- as nice as it is -- in talking to corporate users we find that the infrastructure and storage infrastructure are not set up for people sending and storing weighty email messages. We will default to plain or rich text format, but users have the opportunity to send HTML messages."
The clear separation of the browsing function, despite the HTML functionality, creates a distinct divide between the Outlook approach and that of messaging and groupware rival Lotus.
Lotus plans in the second half of this year to deeply integrate browsing functions into its next client, code-named Maui, so that the HTML-based email and Notes client acts as an all-in-one user destination. Ironically, Lotus will use Microsoft's Internet Explorer ActiveX control to do so.
Microsoft, unlike Lotus, appears to be resisting an all-in-one client approach, and will keep the browsing function separate or aligned with the operating system. Users will alternate between the Outlook client (for messaging, calendar, and productivity applications), and the browser and/or operating system for local and wide area file management or intranet and Web access.
"Outlook '98 cannot yet use the IE control, and we have no plans going forward to make that possible," Gode says.
Microsoft is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible violation of a earlier antitrust agreement, or overall U.S. antitrust laws, in the way it markets and packages its Explorer browser.
"They are using the HTML editor from Internet Explorer, so at least part of Explorer is included [in Outlook '98]," Schacter says, although he declines to speculate on why Microsoft is separating the Outlook client from Explorer functions.
Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at http://www.microsoft.com/.