Vampire in the machine – don’t let Microsoft Outlook bleed you dry

For the opposite view read Lynn Greiner’s story:
Ten reasons why Microsoft Outlook should be your email client of choice

If you enjoy stirring things up, try walking into a room of IT professionals and loudly declaring your love or hate for Microsoft Outlook.

You’re sure to get knees jerking so hard that you’ll wish you had stock in arthritis pain creams. However, most complaints and valentines about Outlook are personal anecdotes which, while interesting, may have little relation to reality.

The reality: letting this software behemoth slip into your desktop PCs is like inviting a vampire into your house. Before you know it, everyone and everything’s bled dry. Lest you get tempted, read on.

1. Your users don’t have infinite time

Outlook has never been the fastest kid on the block, but Outlook 2007 takes a new prize in being extra special slow. When you have large .pst or .ost files (starting officially around 2GB and getting significantly worse as you top 4GB), Outlook happily freezes on you as you work with your mail. You can also run into this problem if you use Outlook 2007 for RSS feeds.

While there’s an update that fixes this problem somewhat, some of the recommendations for reducing the trouble are themselves problematic. Who has time to go through and hand purge items from a mailbox that’s in the gigabytes? Microsoft also recommends to “Use an online mode profile instead of a cached mode profile.” Unfortunately, turning off cached mode increases network traffic, messes with your junk mail filtering, and if you’re off the network, good luck with being able to see your mail at all.

There are also issues with using Outlook 2007 to pick up POP3 mail, where Microsoft’s handling of the AUTH command is incorrect, causing the POP3 mail checking process to take a painfully long time.

2. You don’t like losing your mail

Outlook’s .pst files have been notorious for years for becoming corrupted. In older Outlook versions (Outlook 97 through Outlook 2002), if a .pst file reached 2GB in size, the file could spontaneously corrupt itself. This problem became so widespread that a host of companies created products to fix the problem.

For example, there’s Disk Doctors Outlook Mail Recovery that can repair .pst files damaged this way, along with fixing other corruption issues and retrieving deleted items (mail, contacts, etc). What are these other corruption issues?

Outlook’s .pst file can also be corrupted over the network if not stored locally, it can have its header corrupted, or be corrupted while compacting the file to make it use disk space more efficiently. This tool also claims to be able to retrieve .pst files that other tools couldn’t because of file fragmentation on the disk.

Other tools are Recovery Toolbox for Outlook-corruption repair only-and Repair Outlook PST, with features comparable to Disk Doctors Outlook Mail Recovery.

And then there’s the issue that if you subscribe to Windows Live OneCare-you know, Microsoft’s security suite that’s supposed to keep your system safe-there’s a chance that OneCare can actually hit a bug where a single virus can cause it to make it look like your e-mail has vanished from Outlook 97, 2000, or Outlook Express on Windows XP.

Their recommended solution? Exclude your .pst or .dbx files from scanning. You know, the files with the e-mail and therefore the files that might contain viruses. Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

3. Your users get and read a lot of HTML mail

Outlook 2007 for some reason uses Microsoft Word’s HTML engine instead of Internet Explorer’s , and we’re all familiar with the elegant, brief HTML that Word so lovingly creates for us (yes, that is sarcasm you see dripping down your screen.)

As a result, if you send or get a lot of HTML mail, you’ll find that background images won’t display properly, you can’t add or fill out forms, Flash and other plug-ins won’t work, various CSS features are non-existent, you can’t use or see image-based bullets, and there’s no support for animated gifs.

Some people might get big smiles from this flaw, among the crowd that feels that e-mail should be plain text at least. Your marketing department, as they try to send out nice-looking mail to entice new customers, won’t be so impressed.

At least Microsoft was kind(?) enough to create a special tool you can use to see if your HTML will actually work in Outlook 2007. When you need an entirely separate tool to figure this out and your software is that non-compliant with the standards, it’s a bit head shaking.

You also can’t add HTML code into Outlook e-mail. For those who hate HTML mail, no harm, no foul. But if you need to create it, having to (for example) send images as attachments instead of embedding them is a no-brainer.

4. Outlook ignores more than just HTML standards

How can you expect Outlook to follow HTML standards when it doesn’t even follow e-mail standards? Even better, when there is an error because of its non-compliance, the error message blames the problem on your administrator!

For example, messages stored in .pst files are in Microsoft’s proprietary MAPI format, meaning that they aren’t in MIME format, making it awkward for anti-virus and anti-spam programs to scan the content.

An even more fun one is that if you’re not using Exchange, Outlook 2003 doesn’t include Message-ID headers, your users may end up sending mail that gets flagged as spam before it can reach its recipients.

5. Your users are on multiple platforms

Outlook is only available for Windows. If you also have Mac users, you’ll need the Mac version of Microsoft Office with Entourage, a program that was not built to blend in well with other Mac software and feels very foreign to Mac users. Then if you have people using Linux desktops you’ll need either an emulation solution to run the Windows version of Outlook, or a third mail solution.

If you need to support all three of these platforms, then look into Mozilla’s free and cross-platform (Windows, Mac, and Linux) Thunderbird. Those who need to support just Windows and the Mac might be interested in QUALCOMM’s Eudora. Or you could bypass e-mail clients all together and offer Webmail.

6. Your hardware budget isn’t infinite

Outlook is a big program. Massive. Feature bloat has swollen it into such a monster that it sucks down resources and shortens battery life. Your laptop users in particular will want to lance this boil from their systems so they can get things done. Otherwise, you might have to invest in more high-end hardware just to support an e-mail client.

Consider Thunderbird, Eudora, or Pegasus Mail, another free, but single platform, e-mail client. Again, there’s always Webmail.

7. Outlook has the Microsoft target painted on it

Because Microsoft still owns the majority of the desktop space, and Outlook and its variants are still the majority e-mail client, there’s a big fat target painted on this program with every spammer and scammer trying to exploit it. Add onto this issue that many IT departments don’t allow their users to apply updates on their own, and are still using older versions of Outlook, and you end up with a veritable disaster breeding-ground.

Beyond the Reasons

Really, there’s only one thing to do if you’re considering handing Outlook to your users. Get some counseling, for starters. Then arrange some for your users base, and especially your help desk or poor Joe over there in the corner who helps people with their desktop PC problems while doing his four other jobs.

If you don’t get some therapy now and you insist on moving forward with Outlook, then I suggest buying stock in antacids. You’re gonna need them.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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