Inside Microsoft's New PIM

Related Stories
Review: Internet Explorer 5 4.5 mice
Review: Outlook Express 5 4.5 mice

When Microsoft finally raised the curtain on Microsoft Office 2001, the surprise was that a new application had been added to the Office suite. Considering the parts of the Windows version of Office, you could expect two possible candidates for addition to Office's Mac sibling. One possibility would be for a database program, analogous to Microsoft Access. The other would be a PIM (Personal Information Manager), along the lines of Microsoft Outlook.

Ride the Alpaca

Rather than go head-to-head with Apple's FileMaker Pro, Microsoft chose to make the existing Office applications work better with FileMaker Pro, and instead to develop a PIM, which has yet to find its true name. Microsoft probably won't call it Outlook, because there's already a Microsoft Outlook for the Mac; it's the little-known client program that works with Outlook and the Exchange Server for Windows. For now, the new Office 2001 PIM is called Microsoft Alpaca. With it, you can look forward to one program that combines e-mail, calendaring, contact management, and a task manager.

Why use the code-name Alpaca? Perhaps it's because of the little-known fact that Western Washington, including the Redmond area, is a hotbed of alpaca activity. In fact, the Alpaca Association of Western Washington recently held Alpacapalooza 2000 ("two days of peace, love, and livestock") a mere 20 miles from the Microsoft campus. Coincidence? I think not.

But I'm tasked here to write not about the gentle member of the camelid family, but about the software code-named Alpaca. There is, however, at least one interesting parallel between the two; they can both be easily mistaken for their relatives. Just as the average livestock watcher might look at an alpaca and think "oh, it's a llama," the casual software browser could be forgiven for mistaking Alpaca for Outlook Express 5. Alpaca has clearly been built upon Outlook Express' chassis; if you use OE 5 (see the

4.5 mice
Review ), you'll feel at home when you open Alpaca.

Alpaca's address book view.

Integrated for Office

Alpaca brings integrated e-mail to Microsoft Office, so it's a relief that it has robust e-mail capabilities, instead of a stripped-down mail client. Virtually all of the e-mail features sported by OE 5 are present unchanged in Alpaca, including useful things like the Junk Mail Filter, the Mailing List Manager, and the powerful mail Rules, which let you filter and sort your mail to a fare-thee-well.

There are a few new things that should help you create better e-mail; one is direct access to Office 2001's included Encarta World English Dictionary. Another is text editing that brings the familiar Auto-Formatting tools that were introduced in Word 98, such as AutoCorrect for spelling errors, "smart quotes," and automatic numbering and bullet lists. These features lend themselves more to formatted text than plain text, so you can expect that most Alpaca users will probably be sending HTML-formatted mail messages. This is in keeping with Microsoft's strategy, begun with Office 98, of making all Office documents sharable on the Web in HTML format. In fact, you can even save your Alpaca calendar as a Web page, which you could easily upload to your Web server to share it with others.

Alpaca's calendar view.

Links Everywhere

Web integration implies hyperlinks, and Alpaca supplies abundant linking capability. You can insert URLs into outgoing mail with the new Insert Hyperlinks button, which draws from Internet Explorer 5's currently opened window, its Favorites list, or its History list. Alpaca doesn't just do hyperlinks -- it also does links, which are connections between information within Alpaca and elsewhere on your machine. You can link e-mails to contacts, events, tasks, notes, or any other document from Alpaca's toolbar. But links aren't the same as file attachments. Rather, they're there to help you maintain the connections between the different parts of your work. Using the Link abilities, you can show a list of all of the e-mails associated with a particular event in Alpaca's calendar, and you can link to all the people in your Address Book that pertain to the event, too.

That Address Book is the most noticeable difference between Outlook Express 5 and Alpaca. Instead of the anemic version in OE 5, you get a full-featured contact manager, with all the fields for personal data you might need, plus several customizable fields. You can call on Internet resources from the Address Book; a button lets you get maps and driving directions for any contact. Alpaca's Address Book also explains why Outlook Express has a Palm conduit that allows it to HotSync contacts (but oddly, not e-mail) with a Palm handheld; Microsoft was laying the groundwork for Alpaca's full-featured Palm synchronization of contacts, calendar, tasks, and notes. The ability to create notes and exchange them with Palm devices puts Alpaca ahead of PowerOn Software's Now Up-to-Date & Contact. Of course, the Now PIM supports multi-user calendars, which Alpaca does not.

A Palm Replacement?

On the traditional PIM front, Alpaca will do a fine job of keeping most people's schedules, to-do's, and notes organized. In the calendar, day, week, month, and list views show you what's coming up. The task manager lets you assign priorities, and handles things like recurring events with aplomb. You can set reminders for events and tasks that pop up when you start Alpaca (it's not clear yet whether there will be a system extension for reminders when Alpaca isn't open). And of course, you can sort, slice, and dice your events, mail, tasks, and notes with customizable categories.

From a PIM standpoint, Alpaca is roughly equivalent to Palm Desktop, a free application. So why use Alpaca instead? Mainly because of its excellent e-mail capabilities and its integration with Office. Office already provides the dominant word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program for the Mac OS; with the advent of Alpaca, the developers of Mac PIMs should be very afraid.

Macworld Contributing Editor TOM NEGRINO writes frequently about Internet applications -- but infrequently about camels.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments