Microsoft's Office 'system' attacks collaboration from all sides
Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Live Communications Server cover the bases, but present a patchwork to users and ITFollow @infoworld
When Microsoft took a $51 million stake in Groove Networks 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.