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Markus on Development and Publishing

This is Markus Egger's professional blog, which covers topics such as development, publishing, and business in general. As the publisher of CoDe and CoDe Focus magazines, and as the President and Chief Software Architect of EPS Software Corp., Markus shares his insights and opinions on this blog.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006
The Trouble with Outlook

I have a true love-hate relationship with Outlook. I use Outlook to organize practically everything. I use email a lot more than phones (which might be the understatement of the year), so most of my correspondence ends up in my inbox. I also organize my RSS news feeds in Outlook. This means that I really only have one place to organize all my communications and day to day work. (And I can highly recommend this approach! Time management experts say that organizing all your collaborations in a single tool is great for productivity).

However, there are a lot of things I really do not like about Outlook. Recently, I started using Outlook 2007. And I like it better than the previous version. However, I also am a bit disappointed. Outlook 2007 does not appear to address many of my needs.

But lets start at the very beginning: My main problem is that my Outlook store is bigger than most people's. At this point, I only keep correspondence since 2005 in my mailbox, yet it is still close to 10GB in size. And apparently, this is too much for Outlook. Here are some of the problems this causes me:

  1. Outlook is extremely slow. And I know I have a large mailbox, but give me a break! A few years ago Microsoft started talking about supporting terra byte sized harddrives on Windows workstations as those soon will be common, but if I choose to keep 10GB worth of correspondence, then that for some reason is stupid? Perhaps I am expecting too much, but if I choose to keep this level of information, then the "premiere information worker tool" should support my way of working. As with all other software, the user should not have to adjust to the software, but the software should support the user. And besides: 10GB is really not that large! Microsoft has tons of database technologies that can easily handle 10GB quite speedily, even if it exists on a local workstation in an offline cache.
     
  2. More often than not, I am told I didn't close Outlook properly. But I do. In fact, I am now shutting Outlook down and give it as much time as possible (usually 15-30 minutes after closing Outlook) before I shut my computer down. However, I guess some process must still be running, so when I shut down the computer altogether, something does not get closed properly. Hu? How long can it possibly take to close a database?!?!? I guess users are supposed to look at certain processes to make sure they do not happen to remain in memory.
     
  3. Whenever I get the message that Outlook was not closed properly, Outlook takes the precaution of checking the mailbox file before it lets me do anything. Not that there is anything wrong with it. The dialog says it is checking just in case. The problem with this is that it takes anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour and a half before I can start using Outlook again. And all that "just to make sure". Argh! Can't that be checked in the background IF a check is required? I mean, what the hell is id doing? Going through an ASCII file char by char?
     
  4. Searching in Outlook is just a joke. Sure, Outlook 2007 tries to make things better, but it is far from satisfactory. What I can not figure out is this: Even if a folder has 100,000 items in it, how can it not be instantaneous to search within it? I recall DOS products from 15 years ago that could do that! (Anyone remember phDBase?). At least MS is trying to address the issue, but "trying" just isn't good enough. I expect that an information worker product does one thing well: Provide information when needed. Outlook completely fails at that.
     
  5. Archiving sucks! Well, not for me really, because due to the size of my mailbox, the archive feature does not work at all. So I archive manually. What fun! But even if it did work, I would not be happy with it. I simply can not archive everything into a single archive. I need the ability to specify much better rules for what gets archived where. If I put everything in a single file, then it gets much too large to be maintainable. If Outlook was able to handle large files, then I would not have to archive in the first place! Which raises a good question: Why can't they just give me a real database-based product so it can handle the data, rather than me doing it manually?!?
     
  6. Offline support is really not as great as everyone says it is. Sure, it is kinda cool and works pretty well, but once things get even just slightly more complex, it really does not work that well. For instance, I would like better configuration options to define what and how much of it gets synched and is available offline. (Every time Outlook decides to syncs a folder called "Junk Mail" before other folders I am about to throw the keyboard into a corner... especially since at that point I am likely to already have waited an hour for the file to be opened). However, this really does not work at all, since Outlook really can't switch between online and offline. Instead, Outlook is always offline and just syncs in the background. This architecture makes it hard to provide finer grained control.
     
  7. A similar issue: I have more than one computer that runs Outlook. One in the office, one at home in Houston, one at my home in Austria. I also use mobile Outlook and sometimes Outlook Web Access.  But for some reason very often the read-flag on items are completely off. I may have no unread mail in one version of Outlook, but 100 unread messages in another. Argh! How can one keep an overview here?
     
  8. The fundamental logic of the junk filter is not that bad, but some of the options around it just seem oddly lacking. All the junk email goes into one folder for instance. But there is different kind of junk email. There is junk that I specifically flagged so. It can be considered "confirmed junk". Then there is the suspected junk. But some of it is normal email. So I need to check things manually. But I get about 100,000 junk emails a week. It is not achievable! And what maddens me so is that Outlook has different levels of spam it keeps track of internally. Why not allow junk to be sorted differently so I can minimize the amount of junk I have to manually check.
     
  9. Flagging something as junk or not junk is done badly! Why can I not select 100 different messages and state that all those senders are OK? I sometimes have lengthy threads that end up in the junk folder and I then have to go through and flag them one by one. Argh! Also, I often end up having email from Microsoft people in my junk folder even though I flagged the entire domain as safe. Argh again! And sometimes I can not even flag a sender as a junk sender, because spamers may not use valid email addresses. Why check for email validity on the junk rule?!? If I keep getting spam from someone I want to flag them as a junk sender, even if the email address is not valid. Makes you wonder who made that decision? Some intern or something?
     
  10. I would like to send emails that are signed. However, setting up a certificate first of all is a pain. Secondly, a lot of things (such as previews) do not work for signed emails. And worst of all, some of my customers are not able to open my signed emails even though they also use Outlook.

I guess I could go on and on, but you get the idea. There are a lot of things that really need fixing, and I am very disappointed that Outlook 2007 does not address these issues (some not at all... others not good enough).

I am also not quite sure about some of the new features. The new - supposedly faster - search feature mainly seems faster because it doesn't find diddly. I am not sure why. Maybe my mailbox is too large to be indexed. Also, I am curious to see how the RSS feature will ultimately work out. Right now, I can not use it, because it does not support feeds which require authentication. And since RSS is used for so many different things now, I have a number of feeds that require authentication. Hopefully, this will be fixed before release. Another issue I am confused about is where the feed gets downloaded. I know it is the same feed as is used by IE7, but that is specific to a machine or an account. However, if I use Outlook on multiple computers, will they download duplicate feeds? I am not sure. I will experiment with that once the RSS feeds work better.

Another disappointment for me is the new calendar. It is cool and colorful, but next to impossible to keep an overview. Yes, you read right! I do not like the UI, and I am normally very open to such UI changes. But if you have a busy calendar as I do, then it is really hard to see stuff in Outlook 2007.

Oh, and a word of warning: It has been stated that you can not have Outlook 2003 and 2007 on the same machine. I would go a step further: Do not use Outlook 2003 and 2007 even on different machines if you want to access the same mailbox! Outlook 2007 converts a lot of stuff. It creates a second calendar and a second task list. And it causes a lot of trouble. I have no idea if that could have been avoided considering that I also have a Windows Mobile 5 device which needs to access calendars and task lists. Needless to say that those devices are entirely confused now...

All in all, I like the new Office suite. I like the Ribbon a lot. Nevertheless, at the end of the day it is hard to overlook that there is not that much in Outlook 2007 you couldn't do before, yet there are large areas that just cry out for obvious improvements. Too bad...

 

Posted @ 4:08 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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