10/96 Reviews: What's Hot
-- by James E. Powell, Northwest Bureau Editor
The ultimate in "killer apps" is one that glues everything--information, applications and the network--into a single, seamless package that's easy to learn, customize and use. The folks at Microsoft say they've got one: Outlook 97. After spending a few days with an early Outlook beta, we have to admit Microsoft may just be right.
You'll see Outlook later this year, bundled into the new Office 97 application suite; the company will also sell it separately. It replaces the Microsoft Exchange and Schedule+ clients on Windows 95 and NT systems, but does a great deal more than either. Microsoft is calling it a "desktop information manager," essentially accurate but unfortunate in light of its acronym (DIM) and the inevitable jokes.
Outlook tracks e-mail, calendars, contacts, tasks, data files, system information, sticky notes, information routing/sharing and even a diary within a single customizable interface, using Microsoft's trademark IntelliSense technology to automate routines. The idea is that you "live" within Outlook and bring in Office 97 components to use as needed. You'll still work within other applications, but you'll quite likely manage files within Outlook.
Outlook offers so much in so many categories that it's difficult to describe. It uses, but does not require, Microsoft Exchange Server. It also supports NetWare 3.x networks. It's client-based on a network-connected desktop or a wandering notebook, although we couldn't test notebook features. It combines data formerly stored in separate Exchange and Schedule+ databases into a single file.
Integration and consistency are the hallmarks here. You can save multiple views of the same data-even create brand new views-just by dragging in new fields or changing the sort order. You send meeting-request messages by dragging a contact name to the appointment icon. Turn an appointment into a task by dragging it from the Calendar to the TaskPad. Web addresses are automatically made "live."
Many Outlook ideas aren't new. Novell GroupWise has a universal inbox, and Lotus Notes pioneered many of the routing rules and data-gathering ideas you'll find in Outlook. And Outlook isn't perfect: Some choices seem counter-intuitive. To add a contact's meeting without automatically creating e-mail, you have to right-mouse drag the contact to the Appointment icon. Most PIMs simply use a "follow-up" button.
At this stage there's no way to tell if the overhead from all these fancy bells and whistles will result in unacceptably slow performance. We did have some slow moments (speed dropped dramatically after importing a 2,500-name Sidekick contact list), but on the whole we didn't find glaring performance problems.
Outlook really shines as a contact manager. Type any address into a single field and AutoAddress turns it into address, city, state, zip and country fields. AutoName parses contact names, automatically capitalizing them and splitting them into title, first name, last name and middle initial components, while the phone number field automatically divides numbers into country codes, area codes, phone numbers and extensions.
Enter a "New Contact from Same Company," and Outlook will copy key information (such as address) to a new contact record. You can add any number of categories (such as "vendor," "customer," "big spender") to a contact, and use them later as sort keys.
Outlook offers most standard contact-management features, such as speed dial and last number redial, and an unlimited number of pre-stored autodial phone numbers. You can answer a call and bring up the appropriate contact record using Caller ID, then start a timer and record notes about your conversation. However, we missed having a quick "follow-up" button on this form to schedule the next logical task, such as attaching a call-back date with a reminder to ask your client if a problem was resolved satisfactorily.
The program beats standard PIMs with its ability to turn just about anything into a custom field, including calculations. You can use the expression language from Visual Basic to combine fields such as First Name and Last Name, and add them to forms.
Outlook can use forms you create in other applications, such as Access, Excel and Word, or you can customize standard Outlook formats into commonly used forms that automatically have all the original's attributes. For example, you could add a "wine preference" custom field to your contacts form and have it appear for all contact records. Or you could set up an e-mail invoice that auto-routes itself for authorizations. Generally speaking, you'll want to create an Outlook form for any common information-gathering task you perform entirely online.
Most forms designers make you align objects manually or, at best, group them and hit the "align fields" button. Microsoft does worlds better here with an intelligent layout tool that figures out where things should go once you drag them onto the form, and makes adjustments as necessary. The tool's smart enough to try this just once; you can override its decision by simply moving or resizing. While this hands-off approach is generally sensible, if you accidentally move an auto-adjusted object you'll have to delete it and start over to get Outlook to pay attention again.
AutoAdjust may be our favorite Outlook feature, so we were extremely disappointed to learn that it won't make it into other products in the Office 97 suite. It would be a godsend for forms-heavy Access, for example, so maybe Microsoft will reconsider.
A Microsoft spokesman said the final product will ship with several predefined forms, including vacation authorization, time cards, problem reports, job postings, expense accounts, press releases and one, WebSite, that links with Internet Explorer and lets you catalog favorite Web sites.
Outlook offers dozens of e-mail shortcuts: name checks to ensure you're not using an ambiguous e-mail address, automatic completion of frequent correspondents' e-mail addresses, and the ability to redirect or copy someone else on your messages. It removes extraneous spaces from your Internet addresses and now recognizes semicolons or commas separating multiple addressees.
In an effort to further democracy, Outlook offers a new, gee-whiz survey type of e-mail using voting buttons. After starting an ordinary e-mail message, click the options tab on your e-mail message, enter your choices into one blank and the recipient(s) of the results in another, and your correspondents' message will include buttons labeled with your choices. All they do is click on their choice; results are tallied in a spreadsheet-like table and returned to your Sent Items folder.
AutoPreview is probably the most useful feature in Outlook. It simply shows each message's first few lines so you can delete irrelevant messages without opening them. Besides standard navigation, there's Smart Next and Previous Move to take you to the next/previous unread item, to an item from the same sender, or to a same-topic item (similar to following a thread). You can also create jumps in new messages by typing a Web address, which Outlook turns into a hyperlink.
A Rules Wizard, which gives you fine control over messages, was in the beta but won't be in the final version. Microsoft will offer it as a downloadable option. If it works as well as it does in beta, it will become a must-have.
You can set message flags (to indicate an item needs attention or follow-up), then filter flagged messages to the top of your inbox. Drag a message to the Task icon, and you can turn it into an activity. Besides a single-day, weekly and monthly view, a custom multi-day view lets you display discontinuous days on the same calendar. The standard time bar shows you when each appointment is scheduled, and you can add a second bar to show the corresponding time in another time zone. Unfortunately, the program doesn't use multiple lines for appointments, so much of the text isn't visible.
Outlook lets you book regular appointments automatically. Type "three days from now" in an appointment field, and the program automatically schedules it on the correct date. Its Meeting Planner will search for a group's common available time, as long as all those involved share the same server. AutoDate recognizes familiar phrases such as "tomorrow," "next Tuesday" and even "second Tuesday in November," turning them into the correct month/day/year entries.
Unfortunately, AutoDate isn't psychic, at least in our beta copy. If we replaced a reference date, say, March 15, with another date, Outlook still calculated "next Tuesday" as the Tuesday after March 15.
Outlook and Schedule+ 7.0 work just fine in the same network, despite their different file formats. A word of caution, however: When Outlook installs it can delete Schedule+ and Exchange client files it doesn't need, so restoring previous versions might be a chore.
If you remember working on a budget spreadsheet last week but can't remember its name, you can browse the Journal's timeline listing of your actions-which can include Office 95 files, messages, tasks, appointments and so forth-to find it. You can specify which actions should be included in the Journal.
Each contact has its own Journal, so you can quickly see all the activities-meetings, phone calls, e-mails-with which a contact has been involved. You can set a contact to be automatically Journal-ized, meaning everything you do related to that contact will be logged in for you.
One virtue of shared components is that users learn one set of tools. Outlook offers that unity in spades; you can even use the forthcoming Word as your e-mail editor. The system's Find utility, similar to Windows 95's, searches single items in any field, or groups them for more complex searches. You can attach just about any object, from an e-mail message to an Excel spreadsheet.
Outlook lets you see network and local folders just as you would in Windows 95's Explorer. It offers extremely useful System Info, such as Registry options and font substitutions, although they're not editable.
File import went remarkably smoothly, with drag-and-drop mapping of input fields to a contact list, including handling custom fields. Since Office 97 wasn't available, we couldn't test the product's ability to use Word Mail Merge with an Outlook address book, add a task from within any Office application, or let Word 97 use the Outlook Address Book-all features Microsoft says will ship in the final product. There's still plenty of room to grow, however. Outlook doesn't have Sidekick 95's easy text generation for merging contact information into skeleton appointment text such as "Call [Contact] from [Company] at [Phone]."
Outlook is the first to use the Office Assistant, a small window with a Bob-like icon that monitors your progress and offers help. We found ourselves turning to the Assistant frequently.
Products that focus on sales management, such as GoldMine and WinSales, probably won't be challenged by Outlook-at least not until third-party add-ons start appearing. But mainstream PIMs, e-mail packages, schedulers and even Lotus Notes should be looking over their shoulders.
Cynthia Morgan contributed to this review.