Microsoft, making good on a promise made last year by company chairman Bill Gates, plans to deliver a new email and workgroup client for Office 97 by December.
Called Outlook, the new email client will use Microsoft's Exchange Server as a message transport, but it will be significantly faster than the email client now bundled with Windows 95, according to sources who saw demonstrations last week.
Microsoft hopes the new offering will address mounting user criticism of the performance of Microsoft's existing client.
"Exchange is a pig and takes forever to come up. This is why the Office group wants Outlook, because it is a hell of a lot faster," says one corporate consultant who is familiar with the company's plans.
Other industry observers say Microsoft is under intense pressure from competitors to deliver faster email and messaging products that provide better World Wide Web support.
"Microsoft is responding to criticism that it is building operating systems and applications that are too unwieldy and storage-intensive. They have been getting beaten up by competitors who claim to have slimmer solutions," says Dwight Davis, editorial director of the Windows Watcher newsletter, in Redmond, Washington.
But other sources close to Microsoft say the new email client differs from the existing Exchange email client only on the basis of functionality.
Whereas the Exchange email client is designed for enterprise messaging, Outlook functions more as a workgroup-collaboration client, offering task lists, contact lists and other features taken from Microsoft's Schedule+ personal information manager software.
Outlook puts components of Schedule+ into icons that are placed vertically on the left-hand side of the screen. Several features of Windows 95's Explorer will also be visible as icons.
Microsoft will also include in Outlook the Talking Agents that Gates showed off during his keynote speech at last fall's Comdex trade show.
Users can customise the appearance of the agents, what they say, and when they pop up.
The agents also have the capability to remind users about appointments or to offer help in using an application.
"Despite all the new stuff they're adding, this thing looked real robust and had great performance on a 486 notebook," says one source who saw the demonstration. "It also takes nice advantage of OLE for dragging and dropping."
Like many existing mail clients on LANs, Microsoft's Outlook will have customised viewers that will allow users to view files within all the Office applications, eliminating the need to load the entire application.
"You can view applications without taking the hit on your hard drive. This is all being driven by users' requirements on the Internet," Davis says.
A second email client, code-named Athena, is expected to be released with the Internet add-on pack for Windows 95 in mid-June. A simple mail client, Athena (comparable to Qualcomm's Eudora), will offer SMTP and Network News Transfer Protocol support.
This client is expected to specifically appeal to individual users who have accounts with Internet service providers.