software as tools #1 – a critical look of Microsoft Outlook

Software are types of tools in a lot of ways

Trouble is some of these tools are often blunt, a bit broken, inaccurate or awkward to use.

Some software is akin to a Swiss army knife, can be quite a cool too pack too lots of things in one package but they all don’t do the individual dedicated job that well. It might have a can opener but you wouldn’t want to open a tin of beans with one, and using the philips screwdriver to change a electrical plug is likely to be more difficult.

Microsoft Outlook is the most popular mail client in business today. Just because something is popular or industry standard it doesnt mean its all that great or even satisfactory.

There has been an argument for and against Microsoft applications and encouraging alternatives for a long time now.

I try and take an unbiased stand on this, some MS apps like Word and Excel do the job very well and don’t really have that many problems.

I have used and supported Outlook at places I have worked for sometime now, and I think its not a good mail client at all.

1/ User interface. Its quite poor, both in 2000 and 2003 iterations. Microsoft makes some aspects of this app “too customisable” to the point where its not consistent in use. Its easy to accidentally hide and move toolbars, something I dealt with a lot with medical staff when I was at Portsmouth Hospitals. “Personalised menus” is a really irritating feature which hides a lot of the menus so only half the choices are shown, in my opinion this makes training people on this application potentially more difficult and from a helpdesk support point of view harder to point people in the direction of a particular feature. This is easy to disable but its not usually turned off by default from any PC of a user I have come across.

2 / Usability. Ok this similar to user interface topic I know, one of the common questions asked to IT helpdesks, is a member of staff is awake sick unexpectedly and other members of the department need to read Mr Smith’s (who is absent) mail. You have to go to File, open, go across and either put in the persons user name (your IT helpdesk should have given you rights from Active Directory if you have been given permission)

The address book icon, why is it so small? Its an item that needs to be used frequently so it should be big and handy.

The size of the email and any attachments. This is not shown be default, it should be. When a user calls his helpdesk when hes run out of mailbox space and wants his box made bigger, usually by adding this they can work out which emails are taking up all the space and then can practice cleaning out unwanted mails, especially the jokes and funny photos are probably several megabytes in size.

Having a member of staff (especially on the PC of a HR manager or marketing assistant) with lots of folders, often becomes a big confusing mess. Having to scroll tediously up and down to drag an email to specific folder can be a real drag, there isn’t an easy way to sort these folders or so lots of them at the same time. So the potential for a staff member to put a confidential email thats meant to go to a private folder and end up putting it in a public one is quite likely.

3/ Worst of all, long time storage of mail and data.

There a flaws in Outlook which affect long term storage of data which I think is an unforgivable shortcoming. If a particular company has a clean sheet to start from as far as there IT infrastructure and does not already Outlook in their organisation, and a proper established viable application becomes available, I would strongly urge them not to use Outlook.

Why is this? When your mail box gets full you are usually advised to make a new folder, which makes a PST file. This a file which contains all your surplus email which has the content and any attachment files all lumped in together.

Outlook will save this file by default in location of your hard disk like C:\Documents and Settings\Jonathan\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook\archive.pst. Note, this folder is *only* visible if you have turned on “show hidden folders and files” mode on, as otherwise you wont know where it is. Now its important that files should be saved on a network drive, there ought to be some prompt when setting up a user’s mailbox profile on where these very important files should be saved which ought to be on a network drive, but no, they are saved in a hidden folder where the user is unaware where critical emails are going to end up.

These .PST files corrupt easily. Very easily. Microsoft admits that bugs in Outlook means these files are risk of corruption if the reach over 2gb. In reality these files can corrupt much less than this. This is usually happens suddenly or when the PST files are copied over to a new PC when a user is rolled out a new machine. Often Outlook will ask the user for a password to get into this files, the user will swear blind that they had never (and they are normally correct) put a password on this file. I can use a tool which removes these passwords off the files. I have another tool which can *sometimes* repair corruption in this files if you are lucky. This can be got free from Microsoft site for the genuine one. In the event of the file still broken, a quick google search will reveal a variety of (I haven’t tried any of these) commercial applications at quite high cost which promise to fix these, which could save the skin of a nervous IT help desk engineer who is being demanded by a senior director why his mail folder cannot be read.

Some senior IT professionals I have met in the past think these files break only very rarely, I have seen it happen more often than I am comfortable with. It certainly not a nice experience trying to break it to a user that their files are gone for good, and if they weren’t saved on a network drive, that they cannot be recovered off a tape back up.

Going back to the tool analogy, this flaw of outlook is akin to storing an overflow of water (data) in pipes and buckets (PST files) that have holes in. They leak. Having information in your organisation with a piece of apparatus that means information (could be life critical or legal) gets lost is seriously bad news. I have had to support a user which had files at risk which contained information needed to be given to the police.

Note these are my own findings and opinions from real life support queries I have dealt with, not just stuff taken somewhere off the net. Like most people I tend to moan at Microsoft’s products but I try to do so from my own experience.

Me? I use Mozilla Thunderbird at home. It doesn’t become slow with lots of mail, works great in conjunction with Gmail, so you can have the best of both worlds with proper grownup style POP3 mail and web based mail simultaneously, although I have not used coupled with MS Exchange. Thunderbird hasn’t quite matured yet though as there is no calender/diary yet, I think this can be available as an extension but these are early in stages. I would like to see in any mail client an ability to store my address book list on the web so I can get at one standardised method of looking up email addresses, phone numbers and other details, whilst I am away, I have no need for a PDA or smart phone but would like to get at this information synchronized between my home PC, laptop, work PC and any public computer,