Electronic mail gets a bit smarter (July 98)

Electronic mail is that bit of Internet that they don't show much to tourists. Being more a courier service than an attraction, it's easily outshone by the bright lights of the World Wide Web. Short on thrills, but more interactive and engaging that a courier driver, e- mail really has captured the professional world.

For all its benefits e-mail is a time burner. Office folk read their e-mail before the paper mail; spend hours dealing with it and for some it is the centre of all office life. But it doesn't take an extreme situation to wonder if getting e-mail organised is a way forward. So when Microsoft's Outlook 98 arrived lately, offering a diary, address book with a button-rich filing system I just had to go press some.

Those that drove last year's model, Outlook 97, will find again that new mail arrives with a preview of its first few lines so you can scan over them. A preview pane lets you read the message without opening it. Most messages get their messy headers removed, but not all. As before, the basic unit for organising mail is the folder. You set up folders for each of your projects, and file things away as you deal with your in-tray. Messages can be dragged into storage, dropped on your desktop or flagged for future attention. Things that take longer to write can be left in a 'drafts' folder to do later. In case you forget them, you can set an alarm to finish them when you're next free.

The 'rules wizard' is more the key for getting organised - it may be what you never asked for but it lets you set up rules for handling things - looking at each message and taking action automatically. For example, if you're on holiday you can forward messages to a colleague, as well as send a note to say when you're back. Or you can have it file messages from a client, mailing list, tip of the day, into appropriate folders as they arrive - leaving just today's work to deal with. Clever is that it can select messages according to who they're from, what they say, how big they are and do all sorts with them. It might move or forward them, set up reminders or even get the machine to say 'hi'. It can also sniff out junk mail - using a list you can collect from the Internet, or those you've already put into a junk mailers list.

New and strange is that you can colour messages according to who they're from, or whether they've been read or sent. For example, messages from boss can arrive in red, or in dull grey according to taste. Similarly, personal messages might be in one font, business messages in another, in fact you can categorise and sort to the extreme. It's done 'by example', so you simply choose the message and then choose the category or colour you want. It's so easy it will be the downfall of the most retentive.

Sending messages is also much improved. If you merely type 'George' as the address, Outlook searches your address books to find the one George you know and send it off without fuss. If there are several it offers a choice, and should you only recall a bit of their name - even 'orge', it searches and finds that too. You can sign off your message in several ways, adding your home address, your work address or some salutation, each available for a click.

The longstanding issue of how many address books you need on a system is still unresolved, though if they'd ask me, one will do nicely. Instead, there are some compensations: you can now send a contact's details as attachable 'vCard' or electronic business card, or again with a click, check their location on a street map on the web - but in US only it seems. What seems to be at last sorted is the worry about sending or encoding documents over the Internet - Outlook uses the messages you receive to work out what format to send them. And when you are sure that people really can read what you send, there is a range of stationery - decorated and headed to add a lift to that grey text.

Outlook 98, like its earlier edition is a maze of options - it's good to see that so many are up front and ready, but it still took a good self-teach manual to get the comfort that here is something useful and worth a visit.

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