Dissecting Microsoft Office 2010

The shipping version of Microsoft's latest office suite offers some exciting new changes, including a vastly improved Outlook.

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Making Outlook even more powerful are two new features called "Clean Up" and "Ignore."

Clean Up performs some nifty magic by sweeping through a conversation and deleting any messages within messages that are redundant (for example, when someone in a long e-mail conversation clicks "Reply" without realizing that they've just sent copies of the last 25 messages within that message). Having fewer messages per conversation, with every message relevant, is another big time-saver.

The Ignore feature is useful but also potentially dangerous. When you click the Ignore button, all future messages from that conversation will automatically be routed to the Deleted Items folder.

Outlook Social Connector

The new version of Outlook does more than help you manage e-mail better. It also partially solves what is becoming a serious problem in a world in which e-mail is only one of a number of common ways to communicate with others. To keep in touch today, you often need to check not just your e-mail, but social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. There is no longer a single, central location to turn for all of your electronic communications.

Outlook is the first e-mail client to take a serious stab at turning e-mail into the center of the e-communications universe, via the Outlook Social Connector. (Google Buzz, which is associated with Gmail, isn't really an attempt to integrate Gmail with social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, but to compete with them). It doesn't completely succeed, but it's an excellent first attempt, and I expect a more fully featured version in the future.

The Outlook Social Connector appears as a horizontal pane, called the People Pane, at the bottom of each message. The People Pane does more than just connect you to social networking sites; it also does duty as a kind of command central for your communications with people in Outlook.

The pane shows you all of the most recent communications you have had with the sender or receiver of an e-mail, including e-mails, attachments, meetings, RSS feeds and updates on social networking sites. At this point, it works only with LinkedIn and MySpace; according to Microsoft, a version for Facebook is in the works. It's likely that Twitter will eventually get a connector as well. In addition, when you're writing an e-mail to someone in one of your social networks, you'll see any updates to their status at the bottom of your message screen.

Microsoft Office 2010

The Outlook Social Connector does duty as a kind of command central for your communications with people in Outlook.

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To see only one type of communication with someone -- for example, only meetings or social networking status updates -- you click one of a series of icons on the left side of the pane. To see the details about any communication, such as an entire e-mail, you click the link for that individual piece of content, and it will open in a separate Outlook window.

Even if you don't use the pane for social networking sites, it's an excellent addition to Outlook, because it lets you see the entire history of your communications with a contact. No longer will you need to search for old e-mails you've exchanged; they're all there in easy reach.

That's not to say that the Outlook Social Connector is perfect. To make it the true hub of your electronic communications, it would need to include a page that could show you, at a glance, all the updates on all your social networking sites.

In addition, the way it handles contacts causes some confusion. It creates a new Contact folder for all of the contacts in each of your social networks. This means that you may have a single contact with two or more entries, and each entry with different contact information -- once in your normal Outlook contacts folder, and once in each of your social networks folders. It would be useful if there were some way to merge all the contact information into a single place.

In addition, Outlook doesn't immediately update the social networking sites folder. When I added a new contact on LinkedIn, it took about a day to show up in Outlook.

Outlook 2010 beats Google Buzz when it comes to social networking, because Google Buzz wasn't really an attempt to integrate Gmail with social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Instead, it was meant to compete with them. You can't link to them from Google Buzz and vice versa, while Outlook 2010 tries to make e-mail a central point of communication with social networking sites.

There's plenty more new in Outlook as well -- notably Quick Steps, which can speed up e-mail handling by automating tasks. Let's say, for example, that whenever you get an e-mail from your boss you always move it to a specific folder, flag it as important and assign it to the "Boss" category. You can create a Quick Step to do that automatically for you. Outlook comes with several prebuilt Quick Steps, but you can easily create your own.

There are other improvements throughout, such as refinements to searching that make it easier to use multiple search criteria. And Outlook's Backstage View gives you quick access to your e-mail account settings, so you can easily handle tasks like setting up a new e-mail account.

Be aware that your existing Outlook add-ins may not work with this version of Outlook. Google's Calendar Sync, which synchronizes your Google Calendar and Outlook calendar, won't work in Office 2010. I'm hoping Google will release a new version that fixes the problem.

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