Microsoft looks to unify communication methods

Outlook 2007 product manager speaks about the product and e-mail trends

Jessica Arnold is Microsoft's product manager for Outlook 2007, the e-mail component of Microsoft's Office 2007 suite. Microsoft has made several improvements in this latest version, such as faster search, RSS feed reading and user interface enhancements, such as a new to-do bar, that are getting buzz among beta testers and analysts. In a survey of IT users we released earlier this month, more respondents rated improvements in Outlook 2007 "very important" than those in Word 2007, Excel 2007 or any other part of the Office 2007 suite. Arnold spoke with Eric Lai last week. An edited transcript follows.

What are the prevailing trends in how people are using e-mail and Outlook?

In the past 10 years, we've seen e-mail traffic increase tenfold. It's an interesting debate on whether this is plateauing or not. Forrester Research expects it to continue to grow. But I've also had conversations with companies trying to get face-to-face interaction back into their workdays. They'll institute policies like "No e-mail Fridays" to encourage employees to call each other or go over to each other's desks and talk.

Personally, I do think e-mail is continuing to grow, which is why we have a pretty big effort in the next version [after Outlook 2007] to unify different types of communication. For instance, as you get more e-mails, instant messages and voice mails all on the same topic, you'll want to keep them all together. So now in Outlook 2007, you can cut Subject lines from e-mails and paste them into IMs and voice mails so that you can easily group them as part of the same conversation. We also let you group many messages at once into categories organized by color.

I also think people no longer send e-mail just to catch up and say hello. It is much more directed these days. People request meetings and assign tasks, etc., across e-mail. There is often an expected action associated with that e-mail. For instance, in Outlook 2003, you could start assigning tasks to someone via e-mail that would automatically end up on someone's personal Outlook task list. Depending on the company and its culture, that could be viewed as being overly micromanaging, or the recipient may like it because they don't have to worry about losing that task information. We're trying to see how we can help with those things, make calls to action more visible and clear. We have already enhanced tasks in Outlook 2007 so that you can flag an e-mail and it automatically creates a task. That saves you a few clicks. You can also view it on your to-do bar, avoiding the need to jump to another screen.

Was there any particular user feedback that influenced a feature in Outlook 2007?

In beta one, we moved the Send button to the right side of the screen. We got pretty vocal feedback from people who were pretty unhappy. We thought the power users would just be sending e-mail with Alt-S. So we ended up moving it back, and got a lot of positive e-mail as a result.

Why have you been so reticent about promoting Outlook 2007?

We haven't been shy about talking about Outlook. But there is a pretty big focus at Microsoft on the overall Office system to reinforce that we're not marketing the products individually [Editor's note: Outlook 2007 is available separately for US$109.95], and that there are a lot of benefits from using them together.

Will Web-based e-mail replace e-mail clients like Outlook?

Some of these AJAX-based clients do a great job, others not so great. But I think something like Outlook, which you can use whether you are online or off, is something that people will never completely lose the need for.

Live Communication Server, Exchange and Outlook used to be run in separate divisions of Microsoft. Now they're in the same one. Does that cement Outlook as the central dashboard for all communication?

I think it's fair to say that Outlook is already de facto the central dashboard, yes. With Outlook 2007, you still have to have Office Communicator running in the background, but you don't have to launch it to send an instant message. You can also see your co-workers' presence. Going forward, we are looking at how to even better integrate things into Outlook, though we are still very early on this. We want to make it easier for you to do voice over IP, Web conferencing, IM, all from the same place.

What is your personal e-mail style? Are you a filer or a piler?

I'm a filer and a deleter. I don't like to keep old things around. So I only have seven folders. Fortunately, it's not just me that influences Outlook development. We have 80 people in our engineering team, including architects, developers and testers, which is about the same as the Excel or Word team. Everyone has a different e-mail style. The faster search in Outlook 2007, for better or worse, does let you be less organized. I have a manager who, the only thing he does, is take all of his e-mail and piles it into another folder. When he needs to find something, he just searches for it.

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