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« Shuffling...off to Buffalo... | Main | Just reinstalled BlogJet.. »

February 28, 2005

Comments

Al Nye

Buzz:

As you know, I highly recommend Anagram which works with Outlook. I also use Qurb as a spam filter.

Naturally, ActiveWords is always running ....

Al

soe

Personally, I'd love to see Outlook being used more as a platform and a host for various applications.
For me, the following two arguments have the highest priority; Outlook's spread and use, and the bulkiness of many Intranet applications. Looking around in the corporate landscape the evidence is obvious, many companies have standardized on Outlook (and Office) and Outlook is always on screen. This poses huge potentials to Microsoft, application developers and the corporations. Being enforced to use not-rich-enough-in-functionality applications within the browser in a corporate Intranet also creates challenges and opportunities to corporations, their users, and the application developers.
Here are a few examples of some applications that, besides the obvious CRM and ERP applications, spring to my mind in this context.
- A FTP Connections Browser which lists the available FTP connection and lets me work with them, e.g. add and connect.
- A photo viewer lets me browse the My Pictures folders. I can choose how to view the content of the folders, e.g. thumbnail or filmstrip.
- A music player that lets me navigate my media player’s play lists and would allow me to browse my media library.

Needless to say, these are not productivity boosting applications but examples on how Outlook could be used as an application platform. The applications could install as icons in the navigation pane of Outlook. When starting or opening one application, I think it should automatically be hosted in Outlook’s reading pane. This behavior of course should be configurable.

Perry

I use Outlook extensively. If my PC is on, Outlook is running. I, like you, use ClearContext, but have replaced Lookout with the MSN Desktop Search. I have used Plaxo (similar to Cloudmark, yes?), but do not currently use it. I have also used Anagram, like Al does, but have also uninstalled it.

The one plug-in I use more than any other currently is intraVnews, which is an RSS aggregator, similar to NewsGator. The primary benefit intraVnews has over NewsGator is that it can pull in the entire HTML for entries from sites whose RSS feeds do not include all of the content.

When it comes to Outlook as a platform, I think RSS aggregation is one of the biggest potential uses for it. Blogs and similar sites post content in the form of "entries" or "posts". It's not a far leap to treat those entries as messages, and messages are, of course, Outlook's strong suit. About the only potential downside is that clicking on a link in a message causes a context-switch into IE, but it's not as glaring as some might thing. In fact, it's not really any different than clicking on a link in any email.

There are a couple of glaring weaknesses in Outlook, in my view. One is it's handling of IMAP/4 mailboxes. The methods used to handle messages in an IMAP message store are significantly different than for MAPI or POP3 stores. I would love to see Microsoft work on this so that working with IMAP mail is no different to the user than MAPI or POP3.

A second weakness is one anyone who uses plug-ins will see: Outlook can easily get very unstable when plug-ins are used. My guess is that Outlook needs an entirely new platform for incorporating plug-ins, ideally something similar to the new 2005 Visual Studio Tools for Office, which expose Word and Excel documents as .Net objects to developers.

Scott Niesen

We have started thinking about Outlook as a platform and a console.

With RSS, blogs, podcasting joining email as essential tools for smart businesses and smart business people, it reinforced our belief that the right place for business blogging, email and podcasting to intersect is Microsoft Outlook.

Since corporate and professional users live there, it's a sensible console for pulling all of this information together.

We just posted a new version of You Subscribe: RSS, the RSS aggregator for Microsoft Outlook.

You Subscribe: RSS news reader uses background processing and Internet Explorer plug-in to bring up-to-the-minute headlines from Websites and blogs directly into Microsoft Outlook


Easily add and manage feeds and subscriptions with an Enhanced Internet Explorer Toolbar.

Easily download Podcast audio files and other attachments and enclosures. Links to additional files including audio Podcast files are displayed in the article preview.

Search for news feeds without leaving Outlook. Search using your choice of popular Web and blog search engines to find news feeds using Blogdigger, Daypop, Feedster, MSN Search, Yahoo! News, Wired News and Moreover.

Find the original source of feeds retrieved from searches. The link to the original source is now included in preview pane allowing you to see where the search result came from.

Easily manage subscriptions with enhanced configuration application. Easily make multiple selections of news feeds and add new feeds quickly using the enhanced configuration application.

You Subscribe: RSS will automatically offer to import your existing RSS feeds from Newsgator and Intravnews so you won’t have to spend any time adding your feeds again. To see how You Subscribe: RSS stacks up you can run it with other Outlook RSS aggregators.

Download the update here – http://www.yousoftware.com/subscribe
It’s free. We don’t even ask for an email.

You can get a complete list of new features and bug fixes here:
http://yousoftware.typepad.com/yousubscribe/

We'd love getting feedback on our approach

Frank

Buzz - thanks for the mention of ClearContext. We hope that the product is working well for you.

We agree with much of what Perry has said. When we made the decision to tackle an email productivity application, we focused on building an add-in rather than a stand alone client largely because of Outlook's adoption by our target users, the importance and volume of information invested in that application and correspondingly, the frequent, all day use of Outlook.

It is gratifying that Microsoft has provided as rich an environment as it has to enable companies like ours to be able to integrate new functionality into Outlook. However, we would like to see more integration enabled, particularly in the user interface, to enable us to more fully realize our vision in enhancing email productivity. We have found the development environment to be challenging because each Outlook version and email server combination seems to behave differently, and you have to be very careful in how you handle the internal Outlook objects and data to avoid instability or other side effects.

Despite the difficulties, we are pleased with what Outlook as a platform has allowed us to accomplish. We are free to focus our attention on areas where we feel we can add value without having to reinvent the wheel on building yet another email client. And, in seamlessly integrating within Outlook, our users can adopt our productivity features at their pace, without requiring them to change applications or move their data.

James Kendrick

Great concept, Buzz. I live in Outlook all the time too and have ended up uninstalling most add-ins I try due to instability. What I would love to see in Outlook is integrated Project management. Not super detailed but a Project Center like the Mac version of Office has.

I'd also like to see an integration with OneNote so that notes and ideas that reside in OneNote could be searched and tracked from Outlook too.

And of course, it all needs to be totally ink enabled. :)

Jeff Singfiel

I use Outlook as my GTD platform. I would like to see wiki functionality built into the Notes component. Notes is the weakest component of the whole system.

Rock

Outlook as a platform for productivity software is a dream of mine. There are so many different theoies and systems for organizing and managing your information and time, and as I've learned about each of them I've realized that different people need different systems. For Outlook to be useful to a broad range of people it needs to do two things really well: 1) nail the fundamentals and 2) make them easily extensible.

Because Outlook is used by such a wide variety of people, Microsoft can really only focus on those features that are useful to a broad section of the market. However, to make it truly useful and even enjoyable to those people, it must also work the way they want to work. There is far more variation in how people manage their information, communication and time than there is in say, writing documents with Word or creating presentations with PowerPoint.

The existing addins for Outlook attest to that variation, and the success of so many of those addins shows that people demand that kind of customization. Outlook (and electronic organizers in general) will be competitive with pen and paper when it allows you to set it up the way you want, even if it costs $100 to buy a few addins.

Tools like http://www.add-in-express.com/ can help make development on Outlook easier for the time being.

Amit Joshi

We have a security product that adds a new dimention to securely viewing email messages and attached content. In our Outlook module, we have a few components that use programming models exposed by Outlook from exchange client extension, outlook addin to MAPI. While we were successful in achieving our goal, our outlook development experience was not something I would like to remember or recommend to someone else. We found that the following items were major hurdles in using Outlook as a platform:

Inconsistent implementation of features:
----------------------------------------

When an API is exposed by outlook, in our experience, it doesn't always work as advertised. This gives me an impression that the entire Outlook API wasn't tested beyond 'Hello World' test cases. Here are a few examples:

1. Outlook as a form server: When outlook is launched as a form server a lot of features just don't work or work unpredictably. for e.g. NewInspector event does not fire when OL is launched as form server

2. Outlook crashes when you return E_ABORT from the IOutlookExtItemEvents::OnOpen while opening an embedded message

3. The olDiscard flag does not work on Outlook XP:
The _MailItem(and other item types such as _AppointmentItem etc) AND _Inspector interfaces in the Outlook object model support a Close method. This method takes in a flag which is of the enum type OlInspectorClose. The valid enum values are olSave (which means save the changes to the item before closing the window), olDiscard (discard any changes made to the item before closing the window) and
olPromptForSave (which means prompt for save if there are any changes). In Outlook XP, the olDiscard flag does NOT work. It treats the value as an olSave value and actually saves the changes.

4. Outlook crashes if the command bar reset method is called in the IOutlookExtItemEvents::OnClose

4. Having Word as email editor is a big pain in the @55. The outlook object model that was limping till now falls apart when this happens and for an addin there's little control over this fact.
For example: Adding a new command bar to a Word Inspector window fails. When an Outlook addin or Exchange Client Extension tries to add a command bar to the CommandBars collection of a Word Inspector window (this happens when Word is used to display rich text emails) this call fails with E_FAIL. In fact addition of a command bar into Word from any out-of-process code fails

Poor Documentation:
-------------------

The documentation provided for Outlook Addin model is in a wierd format (not in the standard MSDN format) and quite frustrating to browse. For example, given an interface there's no way to find out all its methods. I have found myself referring the type library more than the documentation. In some areas the documentation is not provided or is just plain wrong. For e.g.

1. An ECF file is needed for the IOutlookExtItemEvents method calls to fire. Not documented.

2. The ECF file entries required to handle the IExchAttachedFileEvents methods are unintuitive:
Normally the ECF file entries to handle the methods are the names of the methods in the Events key under the relevant section(s). But in the case of the above interface the entries are different. They are OnOpenAttachment; OnLoadAttachmentFromFile; OnSaveAttachmentToFile.

3. Documention on MAPI? Lets not open this can of worms.

The WTFs
--------

In some cases we are surprised by the poor quality and unnecessary assumptions in the outlook code. For example:

1. msmapi treating interface pointers as its own classes and trying to access data members.
2. In offline mode, it exposes a IMAPIFolder interface that returns E_NOINTERFACE for IUnknown!

Debugging in outlook:
---------------------

Debugging in Outlook is worse than debugging Netscape Plugin. One of the major problems is that there are NO DEBUG SYMBOLS. Some genius in product management wants to promote Outlook as a development platform and yet denies the required developer support. You have no idea how much pain and frustration this has caused us. Ever debugged a call stack where you have no context of what's happening above and below your code?


Now a small ISV like us doesn't have the time to deal with Microsoft PSS on every one of the above issues. Even if we get those fixed, it takes time for the patches/hotfixes to become available and even when the fix becomes available, our customers may not have that installed (and our product is required to work on all versions of Outlook). In my experience, Outlook as a development platform is still in its infancy. The quality of API exposed, its implementation and tools available are totally inadequate.

The result is either a missed product opportunity and great developer pain (as can be seen from newsgroups).

Ridgewalker

There are some very cool plugin's for Outlook and sadly they do not play well together. The GTD plug in seemed ok until I added another plugin (Plaxo I think). Since then Outlook has never once closed gracefuly. I exit out and it crashes. I hadn't heard of the Clear Context plugin you mentioned so I tried it. Very impressive. I quite like it. After about three hours of usage though Outlook crashes and will not let me log back in. I had to go to our IT person and have him reset my password. After the second time this happened, I uninstalled it. I may uninstall GTD though and reinstall CC as GTD is more in the 'nice to have' realm.

I agree with your observation that MS never built Outlook as a platform that it seems to be turning into. Not to be overly cynical but I suspect this situation will continue for some time.

I do think it is absolutely fascinating though to watch the innovation that is taking place in this area.

Chris

NewsGator runs inside Outlook, and is invaluable to me.

BTW - sell me on ActiveWords.

bill fencken

Here is a link to a collaborative Outlook based project management tool. It also handles light CRM duties and time reporting, expense reporting and help desk tickets. All from within Outlook (combined with Exchange)

http://trackeroffice.com

Tell them Bill sent you...

Jim Wilson

In addition to your list, I use Taskline which adds tasks to your calendar. In spite of its shortcomings, it's the only tool I've found that does this function. Taskline and Clear Context (absolutely brillant tool with great support) work better for me than the GTD add-in which I used briefly and was only too glad to get rid of. I also use Anagram (another brillant tool imho) and newsgator which is definitely getting long in the tooth -- I'm looking for a replacement unless they update soon.

Brian Tinkler

I'm honestly shocked to see some of the feedback on this blog. It's all healthy, so I'm not alarmed, just a little surprised.

I consider myself addicted to Outlook in so many ways, including the many, many phenomenol plug-ins available. I noticed that most of those who blogged here were advocating their own product. Hey, that's cool, but it doesn't really address the point, imo. The point seems to be - how do you use Outlook as a platform? That point is more than the sum of plug-ins you use. It's far more about how you orchestrate your activity within Outlook (including plug-in use) to get things done.

So, and I'll only say this one time here...I completely disagree with everyone who reports issues with GTD. It's a great system and speeds the process of processing information. That's its intention. It is by itself nowhere near a complete set of tools for productivity in Outlook. Perhaps many of you were expecting too much.

I'm going to provide a link shortly for all the plug-ins I use (btw - I have no crashes or unexpected behaviors even with ALL of these plug-ins running, so if you are experiencing those problems, you should check your system for other issues. If you still have problems, feel free to contact me.)

First though, I want to talk about what Microsoft is doing with Outlook in terms of it becoming the platform so many have discussed here as not existing. Microsoft realizes the value they have in their 95% market share in Outlook and they're rapidly working to integrate .NET development into the plug-in development/customization process. Of course, Microsoft calls it smart-client development, but even Gates recently talked about in a web cast. It is completely the vision of Microsoft to make Outlook a platform. Keep your eye out this fall when Microsoft releases Visual Studio 2005 and the many extreme innovations in the Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) SDK. It is an absolutelyl amazing set of tools. If you have MSDN access, go download VS 2005 and VSTO 2005 today and you'll be amazed what it does even in Beta/CTP release. Further work with the Information Bridge Framework (IBF) will continue to integrate with all the .NET development applications you can dream up and tie them seamlessly into Outlook and other Office applications. It is becoming exactly what many of you are wishing for but not seeing - THE platform for Microsoft moving forward.

Ok, at last, as promised, here's a link to a blog post I made awhile back of all the Outlook plug-ins I'm using, why I'm using them and what they do. Together, as a system, they're unbeatable. I truly believe I'm operating at the peak of productivity, carefully planned, intimately organized, ultimately as successful as the "Outlook platform" enables today.

Check it out at:

http://geekswithblogs.net/btinkler/archive/2005/01/28/21281.aspx

Take Care & Good Luck!

Alexander Deliyannis

Thanks for the posts; there's lots of good stuff in there.

You might want to check out the free desktop version of Datelens, a very interesting way to present time information.

Datelens works either as an Outlook plug-in or as a stand-alone application; whichever way it requires Outlook and .NET 1.1 at least. It is available here: http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/datelens/

I definitely suggest to download the video demo to get an idea of what this interface can do. There's also a commercial Pocket PC version at http://www.windsorinterfaces.com/

For the background research on user interfaces that the products are based on, read "Interfaces for Staying in the Flow" by Benjamin B. Bederson at
http://www.acm.org/ubiquity/views/v5i27_bederson.html

Alexander

Bob Walsh

As a developer of a product that has to work with Outlook, I can attest to just how strange it can be.

That said, I agree with Brian Tinker: Microsoft wants Outlook to be a platform and realizes its not. They have done some serious work here that will see the light of day with Office 12.

Unfortunately, elephants only see the world from the point of view of elephants, and Microsoft, a large complex enterprise, sees the world in terms of large complex enterprises. Most of the really good stuff in Office 12 I will bet will be for enterprises, not individuals.

I don't like enterprises. If you are reading this, I bet you don't either.

I came across this blog searching for some nice software tool that will 1. clean up my godawful mess of an inbox, 2. Make it easy to keep it that way, 3. Not crash. I googled "Outlook", "Outlook Email Organizer", "Email Organizer" and finally "Outlook +Organizer" and found nothing that looked like it would get there. The only professional product I saw was NEO, but I think its overpriced and limited.

It's enough for me to consider changing some of my medium range development plans for MasterList Professional (obligatory plug: http://safarisoftware.com).

Scott Mace

Outlook calendaring has not "played well" with other calendars. Even with yesterday's Microsoft RSS announcements, there's a long way to go.

David Davidson

Had you ever looked at ContacTree(TM)? ContacTree re-indexes your Outlook contacts by company and will automatically generate org charts. You can also navigate to contacts via the boxes in the chart.

commercial roofing philadelphia

Hello. I just wanted to give a quick greeting and tell you I enjoyed reading your material

Search Engine Optimization

There are some disputable moments in your article. I do not absolutely agree with the author.

Anatoly Gaverdovsky

agree with author. The problem is that Outlook is not designed to support external apps, yet
please cheack out www.invisiblecrm.com to see what can be done with this real beats for developers

Thanks,

enlargement

Listen, when you love somebody, you're always in trouble. There's only two things you can do about it: either stop loving 'em, or love 'em a whole lot more.

Fanster

Definitely try this plug-in too: www.sendshield.com. You don't ever have to worry about letting someone find the edits in your Office files (like comments and tracked changes)

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