Let’s Start Again: Account Configuration

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…
SPA: What?
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 john_doe@isp.com, 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.

More later.

Comments (25)

  1. This is a very cool feature, and it is definitely one that is putting the user first.

  2. elegault says:

    In the future I’d like to see something similar to how VCR’s automatically configure the time by reading a signal on a designated channel (usually PBS). This might be feasible for broadband connections, given the proper security of course. If the cable providers can send packets with info specific to the subsciber at the destination node on their network, maybe they can not only bundle news server names, but the user name and password as well.

    Then all e-mail applications need to do is learn how to detect and read these signals (which would either be pervasive in the stream, or call/response) to auto-configure a user’s e-mail account. A pipe dream? Technically impossible or impractical?

    Eric Legault

    MVP – Outlook

  3. Mike Dimmick says:

    You might need to try parent domains – my ISP (Demon Internet) still hands out yourhostnamehere.demon.co.uk names to users of the Home/Office service. So I have @dimmick.demon.co.uk addresses. However, my mail servers are pop3.demon.co.uk and post.demon.co.uk.

    I did wonder if it might be possible to achieve something with SRV DNS records.

  4. ericduerr says:

    I’m trying to configure Outlook for RPC over HTTP. After installing the app, I can’t find "Connect to my Exchange mailbox using HTTP:" under the connection tab.

  5. bvleur says:

    How do you prevent the guessing procedure to accidentaly send the password to some other server?

    As mentioned above, some ISPs hand out customername.demon.co.uk. What if (for example) Demon would use "mail.demon.co.uk" as their real mailserver and as a customer I choose the customer name "pop". If your guessing procedure guesses "pop.demon.co.uk" first then passwords of new outlook 12 users will be send to some fake POP3 server I run at some funny port.

    Or are you guessing that all these ISPs are blocking these kind of customer names or all of the ports you guess?

  6. frnkblk says:

    Great idea, this XML file thing. What would it take for you to pass this on to the Outlook Express team? We are an ISP and have to assist so many users with this config issue.


  7. mnerec says:

    It is nice that you are reworking it!

    While you are at it, you should work on the way the dialog functions in general.

    In Outlook 2003 it is a wizard with Next, Prev and Finish buttons. I’ve always found this very confusing, and when I have to set up multiple adresses I often end up closing the dialog.

    Add to that the lack of a "copy account" function, it can get pretty frustrating configuring several account on the same domain.

  8. Judge says:

    This New Account Configuration feature is fine.  However, how do you get around the fact that Outlook 2007 does not allow different POP3 and SMTP servers, or at least, if they are not the same lenght in, Outlook 2007 does not allow it.

    For example, I am using a GoDaddy email account and GoDaddy requires the following setup: POP3: mail.mydomain.com; SMTP: smtpout.secureserver.net

    Outlook 12 does not allow the above set up.  Outlook will cut off the last few characters to make it the same length as the POP3 server, and of course I will not be able to send emails.

    How do I get around this in Outlook 200?

  9. matt mcgill says:

    I’m having a problem with Outlook 12 beta: I have it on two machines, and both are configured to an exchange server. Worked fine for a long time on both. On one machine, outlook crashed every time it opened. Once, there was some kind of an error with One Note 12. I know this because when starting Outlook, it asked be if I wanted to disable the One Note add in. (I didn’t). the following things haven’t helped:

    I ran the recovery thing

    I uninstalled one note. still crashed. I "repaired" office, still crashes

    I uninstalled outlook, and re installed it. still crashes.

    I removed the exchange account, no more crashing.

    I added the exchange account, (and deleted the old file) and it crashes again…

    any thoughts? should I uninstall all of office?

  10. Jorrit says:

    I have searched for a long time but I can’t figure out where I can file bugreports. It’s a Beta isn’t it? Isn’t there supposed to be a public website where you can file bugs and other things alike?

    I would like to mention that the Outlook 2003 bug which prevents you from using multiple IMAP accounts on the same server is still here (error number 0x8004DF0B)

  11. engfelt says:

    When you create a new pop3 account (manual) settings. The "Test acount" button is active and inactive in wrong situations. It is active from the beginning when it should not be active and it is inactive if you tab down a bit. It should be inactive until at least one server is filled in. When only one server is filled in it should give a warning that you can only send or only receive messages with this account. This would make it even more easy for the users to test their accounts.

  12. Does anyone know where to find the settings for the autodiscover.xml file?

  13. DirkTheDork says:

    Do you have a url to any reference information about the Auto Account Setup xml file?

  14. Kreuzfahrt says:

    Great idea and very cool feature.


  15. Ferienwohnung Usedom says:

    Thanx This is a very nice feature

  16. Mutterwitze says:

    Had many thanks for this great feature, but I am beginning hattte slight problems with it.

  17. Beamtendarlehen der Hamburg-Mannheimer says:

    thank you for the goof feature

  18. Beamtendarlehen der Hamburg-Mannheimer says:

    thank you for the good features

  19. kimmy says:

    Keep getting told to check my 'account configuration' re not sending my e mails.  Having read this still none the wiser as to what has changed or what to do!