Microsoft, speeding along in Internet time, is preparing to release upgrades to its flagship Web programsInternet Explorer and Outlook Expressless than a year after the last major revisions of the software. Outlook Express 5.0, an upgrade to Microsoft’s free e-mail client scheduled for release this fall, is further along in the development cycle, but the company is also previewing features slated for Internet Explorer 5.0. For iMac and iBook users, the company has announced a promotion in which it will offer a consumer edition of Microsoft Word 98 for $99.
A New Outlook
Major new features in Outlook Express 5.0 include an easy-to-use junk-mail filter, a new contacts database, built-in synchronization with 3Com’s Palm Organizer, and a raft of interface improvements.
The new antispam filter applies a variety of algorithms designed to screen out unsolicited e-mail messages. Using a slider control, you can determine the filter’s sensitivity: as you slide to the right, the filter screens out a higher number of messages.
Interface enhancements include the InfoBar, which lists other e-mail messages within the current message thread, and a new window for viewing attachments. New buttons in the preview pane let you increase the font size and apply AutoText cleanup, which rewraps text and corrects for common formatting problems. A new flag feature lets you tag unread messages for later scrutiny.
The program’s Address Book lets you define up to eight custom fields for each record, in addition to the standard name, address, and phone-number fields. As in version 4.5, you can use the Address Book to feed data to Word 98’s mail merge feature.
When you create a new outgoing message, the new Address AutoComplete feature automatically displays a list of e-mail addresses from the Address Book. As you type in letters, the list automatically updates to display records that match the character string.
A new Mailing List Manager lets you sort messages from specified addresses into user-defined folders. And you can schedule the program to download mail at certain times.
The upgrade also provides a direct tie-in with Microsoft’s Hotmail, a free Web-based e-mail service. Instead of going to the Hotmail Web site to send or receive mail, you can access Hotmail accounts from within the e-mail client. However, the new junk-mail filter won’t screen out messages sent to Hotmail accounts.
The Hotmail tie-in could be considered a boldor perhaps arrogantmove, since the company is clearly using its Web software to give a competitive advantage to one of its Web properties. Microsoft’s ability to leverage its software assets was a central issue in the recent Justice Department antitrust case.
Microsoft is providing only a few details about Internet Explorer 5.0. The upgrade will support the latest round of Web standards, including Cascading Style Sheets 2.0, and will rely exclusively on Apple’s Macintosh Runtime for Java to interpret Java applets. Microsoft announced last year that it would abandon its own Mac-based Java interpreter in favor of Apple’s.
The software will also include the Auction Manager, which tracks transactions on eBay and other popular auction sites. Instead of going to the Web site to check new bids or the auction’s closing time, you can instruct the browser to play a sound, display an alert, or send an e-mail message when activity occurs.
People running auction sites will probably have mixed feelings about this feature: it will make the sites easier to use but will also reduce traffic and, with it, ad revenue. (Microsoft does not have an auction site of its own.)
Along with the forthcoming Web software, Microsoft has announced a special promotion under which it will offer a consumer edition of Microsoft Word 98 for $99 ($129 with a $30 rebate). Word 98 Special Edition for the iMac and iBook includes a full version of Word 98, along with clip art, greeting-card templates, and sample card paper. The software license specifies that the software can be run only on Apple’s iMac and iBook, but no proof of purchase is required. It’s a great deal, considering that Word 98 retails for $249 and an upgrade from previous versions costs $149. The promotion is good through January 31, 2000.