In Mac Office 2008, reliability wins out over Exchange support

Microsoft says full Exchange support for Entourage will come later

Improving the reliability and stability of Entourage, the e-mail client in next week's update to Office for the Mac, was more important than making the program a clone of Windows' Outlook, several Microsoft developers said today.

That will disappoint users who have been pleading or demanding -- or both -- that Entourage connect to corporate Exchange mail servers with the same functionality as Outlook, the client included with the Windows' version of Office.

Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac is scheduled to launch on Tuesday.

"The real story with Entourage [2008] is that we have improved its reliability," said Andy Ruff, lead program manager for the e-mail client. "When we looked at Entourage two years ago, we felt that improving the reliability and stability was the way to go."

Users keeping tabs on the progress of Office 2008 last year, however, had different ideas about what they hoped to see in Entourage. In October, when the Office team blogged about improvements to the client's calendar, 135 users left comments. Many lobbied hard for better Exchange support and more interoperability between Outlook and Entourage.

"I just can't figure out why it's so hard to read .pst file [the data file format used by Outlook], and get full access to Exchange servers like Windows, in every manner," someone identified as Jason said in a comment left on the Oct. 15 post.

Another user was more colorful in his language. "Exchange support for notes and tasks is a must," said Evan Baxter. "If it's missing in January, I am going to be very pissed. I am sick and tired of all this half-assed Exchange support."

"Technically, that's a very difficult thing to do," Ruff said when asked why Entourage 2008 couldn't read Outlook's .pst files. Instead, the team devoted its time and resources to improving the reliability of Entourage's synchronization, both with Exchange and -- using the Mac OS X's own Sync Services -- with other applications such as iCal, the calendar bundled with every Mac.

"A[nother] big area of pain was the calendar," added Rich Kmieciak, an Entourage program manager. "We straightened lots of problems out [in the calendar] and added features. It was a big investment in this release."

Entourage 2008, for instance, now synchronizes to-dos with Exchange, and is more consistent with Outlook in other calendaring functions, such as declining a previously accepted invitation directly from the event listing. But Entourage does not sync notes and tasks with Exchange, as Outlook does.

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit also expended significant effort in getting Entourage's notorious data corruption problems under control. The e-mailer, like its Windows' cousin, stores mail in a database file, which can grow to serious size. If that file is corrupted, all mail is lost. Apple's own Mail application, on the other hand, stores each message as a separate file -- in part so that OS X's own Spotlight search tool can index the message and its contents -- so a corrupted file damages only one message.

Data corruption has been on users' minds. In a comment attached to the team's October posting, someone pegged as "J-F" said: "Is Exchange 2008 still using a database to store? Because the corrupt database problem is THE main reason why all of our office stopped using Entourage 2004."

Ruff, however, promised progress. "We did quite a bit of work to stress and test the database," he said. "We're much more confident in the database's reliability in 2008. The rebuild tool [for example] is much more reliable in correcting and finding issues."

If the database does need repair, the fix isn't as drastic as earlier, added Kmieciak. In Entourage 2004, for example, a repair on a corrupted database would require a re-download of the entire Exchange account. In Entourage 2008, mail sorting rules, for instance, do not have be re-downloaded or recreated. "You may still need to [rebuild], but it's not a catastrophic event as it was," said Kmieciak.

What Entourage 2008 delivers next week, however, will not satisfy everyone. "Tasks, notes, categories," are among the functions "KnightRyder" called out for in comments on the October blog post. "If these features are not part of this release, the M[icrosoft] Mac Business Unit is useless and obviously not listening to anyone!"

Mac BU knows it's not going to please everyone. "You always want to deliver what customers want," said Amanda Lefebvre, the business unit's marketing manager. "But you do what you're able to do with the resources you have. And at the end of the day, I think [Entourage 2008] is a great step forward."

According to Ruff, it's not the last. "Exchange support is a multirelease effort," he said. "Compatibility with Outlook and Exchange are very important, and we will continue to improve [that]."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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