Jewish World Review April 16, 2003 / 14 Nisan 5763

Outlook 2003 beta: A promising program

By Mark Kellner | Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite has been at once alluring and disappointing so many times that plunging into the Office 2003 Beta software (now available to one and all at just under $20 a pop, with details at evoked mixed emotions. Could I let my heart be broken yet again, after an initial promise that looked so stunning?

Well, while I may yet have to eat these words, an initial tryout of one key Office 2003 component, Microsoft Outlook 2003, is enough to induce a swoon, particularly if one has multiple e-mail accounts to juggle while at the same time seeking to avoid pornographic spam e-mails.

Outlook 2003, which, along with the rest of the Office 2003 lineup, will be commercially available "in mid-2003," the firm says, takes the concepts of e-mail to another level. For example, one finds e-mails arranged by date: these came in today, these yesterday, and those other ones the day before; earlier e-mails are filed under "last week. It's not a big step, but a nice organizing tool.

Unread e-mails - all your unread e-mails from all your accounts - can be viewed in an "Unread Mail" folder, particularly handy for the user-on-the-go. And those e-mails you want to do something with later, but perhaps never get around to handling, can (and will) sit patiently in a "For Follow Up" folder the second you "flag" them for, well, follow-up.

Newly arriving e-mail is announced with the familiar "bing" default sound and a tiny envelope in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. But now, if a single e-mail arrives, the name of the sender, subject line and a brief snippet of text magically appear onscreen (if you are working in another program) for a few seconds, giving you the chance to decide whether or not you want to switch over and look at the e-mail. You do, do you? Well, click on the preview window and, presto!, the e-mail opens for your reading and answering pleasure.

These may seem like parlor tricks to some, but such organizing and previewing tools will seem like a gift from the heavens to those of us (your writer included) who have to wade through a few hundred messages a week, or even that number daily. The "Rules Wizard" is more customizable than before, or so it seems, making it easier to set up and apply criteria so that, for example, e-mail from my boss gets more priority than those offering, say, the prescription medicine once advertised by a former Senate Majority Leader.

Spam blocking is heightened in Outlook 2003 in a couple of ways. One is that junk mail filtering remains, and remains useful. The other is that Outlook 2003, when displaying e-mails created with HTML, the Hyper-Text Markup Language, will not display certain graphic elements in those messages. That means the pretty banners on your college alumni e-mail go away, but also those images you'd rather not want to see, related or unrelated to prescription medication sales via the Internet.

You have the option of displaying the graphics with a single mouse-click, so nothing is lost. But it's also easier to dump spam e-mails without having to look at objectionable (or just annoying) pictures. Score one for Microsoft here.

And when displaying e-mails, the subject line gets the largest type, the name of the send the next-largest, and the recipient's address a smaller size. This makes sense, helping you see what a message is about and who sent it ("Prescription news" from your HMO may be more important than "Prescription news" from, for example.)

All told, Outlook 2003, in its plain-vanilla configuration, offers much more than its predecessor. It, along with other Office 2003 components, can be previewed for a low cost, and should be examined by PC users serious about increasing productivity and reducing their e-mail agonies.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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