Finally, an Outlook for Mac

New mail and calendar management tools end second-class status of Mac users.

For reasons that will probably never be clear, Microsoft's Office for Mac application suite has until now treated e-mail and personal information management as an afterthought. Although Outlook has shined in this role since its first release as part of Office 97 for Windows, the commitment to delivering an equivalent for Macintosh systems has been lukewarm at best, and half-hearted in more recent releases of Office for Mac. These substituted the lackluster Entourage, which, among its numerous drawbacks, lacked the ability to import the data files that are used by Windows versions of Outlook and contain mail, contacts and calendar information in one giant, unwieldy collection.

Finally, in Outlook 2011 for Mac, Microsoft offers its Macintosh customers a useful set of tools for managing e-mail, calendars and contacts; one which allows users to access the treasure troves of data they created in older versions of Outlook for Windows, while taking advantage of unique features of the Mac platform.

Perhaps the most important feature of Outlook 2011 is that it eschews the model of one ever-expanding .pst file that is used by Windows' version of Outlook, in favor of treating data as multiple files that are more easily backed up and recovered with the Mac OS X Time Machine utility. Just as importantly, the new version of Outlook for Mac easily imports .pst files from Outlook for Windows, without requiring the third-party support tools that were previously indispensable for this task.

Outlook for Mac's unified mailbox scheme allows users to work with multiple mail accounts as if they were one, while its conversation-based view groups lengthy e-mail threads into an easily comprehended and managed collection of related messages. Users will enjoy Outlook 2011's implementation of the Mac's Quick Look feature, allowing them to preview attachments without requiring the launch of a related application.

Calendar management is another area where Outlook 2011 shines; instead of requiring users to switch between separate panes to see whether a meeting request will conflict with one's calendar, Outlook opens a snapshot of the calendar inside the meeting request for a unified, at-a-glance view. The calendar overlay feature allows users to see multiple and shared calendars together in consolidated or stacked views.

The new Outlook for Mac makes it easier to set up meetings from within an e-mail message, with a one-click meeting invitation function that improves upon a feature from Entourage that used an Apple Script automation to perform that task.

Outlook for Mac, as one might imagine, reaches its full potential when used with Exchange Server, and Outlook 2011 includes a number of new features designed to take advantage of Exchange's capabilities. For example, Outlook for Mac users that have access to Exchange Unified Messaging and Exchange 2010 receive voice-to-text previews of voice mail along with the voice mail itself. Users are no longer forced to guess at contact information when working offline; that crucial data is now automatically replicated to Outlook 2011 from an Exchange address book.

Unlike the updated Mac versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Outlook 2011 for Mac is not sold separately; it is, however, available in the Home and Business and Academic versions of the Office for Mac suite. One other catch that users need to consider: Outlook 2011 for Mac's Exchange support requires, at the very least, Exchange Server 2007 with Service Pack 1 and Update Rollup 4. Organizations still running the relatively crusty Exchange Server 2003 can therefore expect a new pressure to modernize their installations.

With Outlook 2011 for Mac, Microsoft has lived up to its goal of providing Macintosh users with a messaging and personal information toolset that is worth using. I cannot overstate the importance of the new Outlook's ability to use existing stores of Outlook data, while maintaining the inherent ease of use and data protection features of Mac OS X. This feature alone would have sold me, but by adding other features that reduce the labor of e-mail and schedule management and mirror the way I want to use my inbox and calendar, Microsoft has finally offered a realistic alternative to the Mac's own Mail and iCal applications.