Users pleased with improved e-mail management in Outlook 2007

His real desk may be a mess, but Jason Clarke’s virtual office is as neat as they come due to his assiduous answering, filing or deleting of the 400-plus e-mails he gets each day.

“My feeling is that if you have more than a screenful of e-mails in your in-box, you’re being rude,” said Clarke, a technical sales and marketing manager at Wenco International Mining Systems Ltd. in Richmond, British Columbia.

Clarke is an archetypal “filer,” spending hours a day managing his Microsoft Corp. Outlook e-mail program.

The latest version of Microsoft’s Outlook personal information manager adds several key improvements to its e-mail function that beta testers and analysts say are helping early users better cope with ever-growing inboxes.

The new version, Outlook 2007, has been available to business users since November and will ship to consumers later this month.

Clarke, whose company began beta testing the new version early last year, credited the improved search capabilities, along with junk mail filtering and other features with cutting the time he spends managing e-mail each day.

Several early users and analysts cited the improved e-mail search capability as the chief improvement in Outlook 2007 — available as part of Office 2007 in the Basic, Standard, Professional Plus and Enterprise editions, or as a US$109.95 standalone product.

Using the predecessor Outlook 2003 version, searching through thousands of messages for old e-mails can be so slow that it becomes “almost unusable,” said Peter Pawlak, an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft. Outlook 2007, by contrast, builds indexes of users e-mail boxes, he noted.

“Once [the indexing] is done, the search is very, very quick,” said Dawie Olivier, an IT project manager with Johannesburg, South Africa-based Sasfin Bank.

Since switching to Outlook 2007 at the beginning of last year as part of the bank’s participation in Microsoft’s Office 2007 Technology Adopter Program, Olivier said he has cut the time he spends sorting through e-mails each day by more than half, from two hours to 45 minutes.

Not only do ad hoc search results come back instantly, Olivier said the new version also lets him create different e-mail views based on preset keywords. The latter feature, along with Outlook 2007’s ability to support much larger e-mail accounts, lets Olivier do away with an elaborate filing system that at its peak grew to more than 300 folders and subfolders, he said.

Other new Outlook 2007 features include a to-do bar that gives users a snapshot of upcoming appointments and tasks, improved support for multiple calendars, improved browser access to e-mail accounts and an integrated RSS feed reader, Microsoft said.

Jessica Arnold, Microsoft’s product manager for Outlook 2007 said Microsoft is positioning Outlook 2007 and future versions as a central communications dashboard for information workers.

For example, she said, Outlook 2007 lets users send instant messages and check whether co-workers are on or offline without starting up the separate Office Communicator client software. Outlook will eventually become the repository for most workers’ messages, whether in e-mail, IM or voice format, she said.

Clarke noted that for all the improvements in the new version, Outlook 2007 still isn’t yet the perfect application. Despite the improved efficiency, he will continue using an add-on called ClearContext IMS to collapse long e-mail exchanges into easier-to-manage “threads.”

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