By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
If I were in charge of the Justice Department's investigation of Microsoft, I'd send out for a few more bottles of aspirin. The world's largest software company is about to do its Internet Explorer trick on a new area of conquest—computer e-mail.
Judging from the state of the competition, I'd say Microsoft is going to win this new battle without the bloodletting that has accompanied its struggle with Netscape Communications over Web browsers. Its weapon is an amazing feature of Outlook 98 called Net Folders.
Net Folders is very simple in concept and extremely sophisticated in execution. You create a folder on your PC, using Outlook 98, Microsoft's new mail-and-information-management software. Click a few times in a couple of windows and you can share that folder with anyone on any network your computer has access to.
By "any network," I mean every network—from your office network to the Internet as a whole. Anything you put in that folder is sent to everyone who shares the folder. And, if you give the people who are sharing that folder the appropriate access rights, anything they put in their copy of the folder is automatically sent to everyone else.
In one quick programming move, Microsoft has made Outlook 98 practically essential for every modern PC user who needs to share information with others, no matter where they are. Outlook 98 runs under Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT, and you must have Outlook 98 to create a shared folder.
But here's the part everyone needs to understand: You don't need to be running Outlook 98 to share a folder someone else created. You don't even need to be using a PC. If you don't have Outlook 98, the software recognizes this and sends everything to you as standard e-mail. This means Mac users, Unix users and everyone using any other kind of computer can take advantage of shared folders created by someone using Outlook 98.
As you probably know, the U.S. Justice Department has accused Microsoft of trying to elbow its competitors out of the Web browser market by making the browser an essential part of Windows. What's more, Microsoft is driving the Justice Department batty by giving away its sophisticated Internet Explorer browser to anyone who'd like to help it make the browser an essential part of Windows. (Whether this is an abuse of federal power is a separate issue, but you can guess how I feel. You don't need to guess how Netscape feels, because it is now giving away its browser, too, and has delayed work on new versions of its software.)
What will the feds do now? Outlook 98's Web Folders turn e-mail into a new medium. They give tremendous power to ordinary users—you could, for example, run an extensive mailing list with nothing more than Outlook 98—and they are almost guaranteed to make shared net-and-Internet folders an essential part of a computer's operating system within a few years. And get this, you doodleheads in D.C. Outlook 98 is free. Microsoft is giving it away. And, shudders, it's even designed to work seamlessly with that devil itself, Internet Explorer 4.0.
(Find out how to get your free copy of Outlook 98 by going to http://www.slipstick.com/outlook98/.)
Net Folders is an extraordinarily effective example of data sharing. Anything can be shared—notes, messages, mail, images, plans, spreadsheets, company policy statements, personnel notices, help documents, contact lists, calendars, task lists, blueprints, Web pages, homework assignments, Internet shortcuts, anything. In an office workgroup, employees can collaborate on a project by dragging items into shared folders. If some of the members of the workgroup are away, they can continue to collaborate through normal Internet connections.
The biggest competitor for Outlook 98's Net Folders is Lotus Notes, from a division of IBM. Lotus Notes costs a lot of money and requires a special server before it can do the same thing that Outlook 98 does with any server. Another competitor is Novell's GroupWise, which also costs a great deal of money and needs a special server. And both Notes and GroupWise are hard to use compared with Outlook. (GroupWise even lacks the ability to share items within a shared folder unless you specifically turn on sharing for each individual item—a flaw that seems incomprehensible.)