Office 2003 has undergone a lot of tweaking, but the most obvious changes are in the new and improved Outlook 2003. The differences will be obvious as soon as you fire it up.
The first change you'll notice is the Reading Pane. If someone said that sticking the body of an email into its own area and slapping a wide border around it would change your working life, you'd probably wonder what they'd been smoking. But this is what Microsoft has done, and it works very well.
Email is now opened in a window to the right of the Email list, which is found on the right of the Folder list. Don't worry, the buttons haven't gone; they just sit below the Folder list and you simply drag a bar up and down to show as many, or as few, as you like. You might think that placing the Email list in a narrow column instead of the old wide layout format would render it ineffective, but it actually has the opposite effect. After intensive research, Microsoft found that decisions on whether to open an email or not were often based on the sender's name and address, which is now highlighted in bold. But this is just one of many usability features scattered all over the new Outlook. Grouping, for example, has notably improved. You can group by almost anything, making it easy to assemble sets of similar emails. And, once you've done the grouping, just click on the group name, which automatically selects all the emails in that group – handy if you want to put them in a folder.
All external content in an HTML email is now turned off by default, which is wonderful news if you just deal with plain text emails. However, it's a right pain if you get lots of HTML email and find all the images, for example, simply aren't there. You can set it up so that HTML content is enabled depending on where it's from, but this isn't easy, especially if you receive HTML newsletters that take their content from a number of locations. This isn't just an image issue, of course, as scripts are prevented from running as well, but it's better to let your antivirus software deal with that and see your mail as it was meant to be seen.
Another useful feature becomes apparent when you click the Contacts button in the Navigation pane. This brings up a set of radio buttons for switching instantly between different views, which is very useful.
But, potentially even more useful is the new Business Contact Manager (BCM) add-on. This lets you create business contacts, organise groups and track sales leads, sales opportunities, documents associated with contacts, emails, phone calls and much more.
The interface will be familiar to anyone who has used Outlook before, and you'd think this would be the killer add-on that finally takes Outlook into the serious business world.
And it would, were it not for one important factor – it's single-user only. There's one desktop and you can't share anything with anyone. This is fine for the individual worker, but almost useless in a company. Make this shareable, and you have a great tool. As it stands, the BCM is just a good way to do precisely what most people simply won't want to do – compartmentalise important info away from others who might find it useful. The SharePoint developers must be tearing clumps of their hair out.
Getting back to Outlook, the next new feature worthy of note is one-letter Auto-complete, which instantly brings up an intelligent list of previously typed addresses after one letter has been entered in the 'To:" field (you used to have to type three). It populates the list with the most used address at the top, so you'll find your email addressing takes no longer than it takes to type the first letter and select the top one or two available addresses.
Another useful feature is the combination of Quick Flags and the Follow Up folder. Quick Flags let you assign a coloured flag to any message you choose, and then you can look at the flagged messages in the Follow Up folder, order them as you wish and more, making it a lot easier to retrieve those important messages.
Messages can also be viewed more easily with the introduction of junk-email filtering into a folder, which you can peruse later to extract any mail that shouldn't be there. It certainly makes a dent in your junk mail, although I found that in practice it was still only catching about 50 percent of the drivel sent my way.
Outlook 2003 is a huge leap forward, and you'll shudder every time you have to use an older version. The only real frustration is BCM, which could have been great if it had multi-user capabilities. If you're an Outlook user, I recommend upgrading to Outlook 2003 as soon as it comes out.