This seems like a good place to start, since this is how many of our customers first become acquainted with Outlook.
One of the themes for Outlook 12 is “Connect across boundaries.” For many customers, the first boundary they encounter is between them and their email account.
Configuring Outlook (and other email clients) is just too complicated for many people. (Keep in mind, you digerati who are reading this blog all grok how email account setup works.) (You probably even know where the word “grok” came from.) Account setup is a huge support challenge for Microsoft. It also costs ISPs a ton of money and time to helping their customers get connected.
Let’s consider two examples.
Example #1. I checked out the online instructions for my broadband provider at home. They have instructions for how to set up Outlook Express (but not Outlook) on their web site. One wacky thing is that you have to log in to their web site to find the instructions. Hmmm. That’s a blocker right there.
The instructions have 7 different steps and 6 screenshots. 7! 6! Not too simple.
Example #2. Here’s the POP account setup dialog from Outlook 2003:
(Shown smaller than actual size.)
It’s bad form to ridicule the current version of my product in this blog, but let’s see how this works. Put yourself in the place of someone who doesn’t do computers for a living:
Your Name: OK, I know what that is.
E-mail address: My ISP gave me that somehow.
User Name: Wait, I thought I just typed in my name.
Password: My ISP gave me this, too.
Incoming mail server: Uhhhh…
Outgoing mail server: Uhhhh…
More Settings: I hope I don’t have to go in there.
Notice the “Test Account Settings…” button. We put that in Outlook because it’s so hard for regular users to tell if they got it right.
Our support folks see a variety of problems when people try to set up their accounts. They swap the POP3 and SMTP servers. They don’t know the difference between e-mail address and user name. They don’t know they need to turn on SPA. The list goes on and on.
So, what have we done to make this simpler?
In Outlook 12, we’ve added a feature that will make this easy for the majority of our customers. We’re calling it Auto Account Setup. It comes in a couple of parts:
Part 1: Exchange Accounts. For customers who use Microsoft Exchange “12,” Outlook will automatically detect your account information from the Active Directory and an Exchange 12 web service during account setup. This information tells Outlook your Exchange server name, your email address, any configuration options your admin has set for you, including RPC over HTTP settings, etc. Outlook can also detect basic account information from older versions of Exchange, as long as the customer’s computer is in the same domain as the Exchange server.
This makes Exchange configuration really simple for most customers. No more server names. No more arcane settings.
Part 2: POP & IMAP Accounts. While the account configuration details are often confusing for regular users, they’re pretty predictable for experts. For example, if your email address (given to you by your ISP) is firstname.lastname@example.org, then there’s a good chance that your POP3 server is something like mail.isp.com and your SMTP server is probably something like smtp.isp.com.
With Outlook 12, the customer needs to just type in his or her name, email address, and password. Outlook then tries several predictable combinations of server addresses, SPA, and server ports (995, 993, and 587 for secure connections, 110, 143, and 25 for unsecure connections) until it finds a configuration that works. It tries the combinations in a prioritized order, so for most ISPs the correct combination is often detected very quickly.
But what if an ISP uses a non-standard (or hard to predict) configuration? For example, some ISPs use different ports, even for POP3 or IMAP accounts, for largely historical reasons.
These ISPs can deploy a XML file in a predictable location on their server (e.g. isp.com/autodiscover/autodiscover.xml, among other places) that includes information about the correct configuration settings for POP3 and IMAP accounts on that domain. Outlook downloads the XML file and uses it to automatically configure the customer’s account. We figure out where to look based on the email address.
Before Outlook 12 ships, the format for the XML configuration file will be available for ISPs everywhere.
Hopefully ISPs will be able to save tons in support costs by deploying these XML files or by using predictable configuration settings. Our goal is to make sure that we can autoconfigure for the largest ISPs around the world by the time Outlook 12 is released.
Hopefully, our customers will be able get up and running a lot sooner than before. They’re just getting started with Outlook 12, and they’ve already connected across a boundary.