Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Are Just as Crappy as I Remember

Internet Explorer–still the worst browser out there.

About four years ago, the University of Alabama, where I work, decided to “improve” the email experience for faculty and students alike. This was long overdue as the email product it had been using was truly horrible with an utterly useless Web interface that was here branded as “Bama Mail.”

UA students were all moved onto the Gmail platform. I should say, I am a huge fan of Gmail, which I have used since invitation-only, beta accounts were made available back in 2004. Its Web interface is extremely functional (its keyboard shortcuts have entered my muscle memory) and its spam filtering is second to none. Having used email since the days of BITnet and dumb terminals (tapping into UA’s Big Iron at UA1VM) and having suffered through monstrosities such as cc:Mail (shudder), I feel like I’ve reached email Nirvana with Gmail.

Consequently, I have been forwarding my Bama Mail to Gmail for the past ten years and I have set up Gmail’s “Send mail as” feature to “use Gmail to send from [my] other email addresses.” As you can imagine, I would have been quite happy to have my UA email ported over to the Gmail platform.

But that was not to be for UA’s faculty and staff. Instead, our accounts were moved from Bama Mail to Microsoft Exchange Server and we were instructed to begin using MS Outlook as an email client.

When I heard the news about the move, I think I might have physically winced.

I consider myself something of an email pioneer. Hell, I’ve been running a LISTSERV email list for over 23 years. Over the years, I’ve sampled many email interfaces and client software–from the egregious cc:Mail (still probably the worst) to the sweet Eudora (named for author Eudora Welty!) and the yes-we’re-still-here Mozilla Thunderbird. I’ve even run my own email server (Mercury, we miss you!). In that time, I’ve heard many horror stories about how difficult it is to keep a MS Exchange server from borking everyone’s email. And I’ve personally experimented with MS Outlook and found it to be clunky and bloated.

Thus, even when UA moved us to Exchange/Outlook, I continued to forward my email to Gmail. But within the past year, an official policy came down: No forwarding allowed! All faculty/staff must use Outlook and all email must be stored on UA’s Exchange servers.

I sighed. Why weren’t faculty/staff moved to Gmail like the students? I speculated about the reasoning behind the Exchange/Outlook move for faculty/staff (speculation I’m not going to air here) and recommended the UA Faculty Senate push back against the move, but to no avail. And so last week, I gave in to the inevitable, cut the forwarding to Gmail and began using MS Outlook–its desktop client and its Web interface. Besides, I thought, I haven’t used Outlook in many years; maybe it’s improved.

Improved? Yes (it would be hard for it to get worse). Still crappy software? Absolutely. Allow me to enumerate some of the ways in which it remains pure crap:

  1. Its Web interface is optimized to work best with Microsoft Explorer (the world’s worst Web browser) and it eliminates features from its interface if you try to use, say, Google’s Chrome.
  2. Even thought it’s optimized for MS IE, it still crashes IE on a regular basis. In the week I’ve been using IE and Outlook Web Access (OWA), it has crashed at least ten times. (See below.)
  3. Its spam filtering is anemic.
  4. Its “rule” system is less powerful than Gmail’s “filters.”
  5. Its folder system does not allow you to tag one message with more than one folder–as Gmail’s archives do.
  6. Its desktop client (I’ll call it Outlook Desktop Client or ODC) is difficult to configure. Setting up ODC on my home computer was impossible without a call to the UA help desk.
  7. I am still trying to figure out OWA’s and ODC’s addressing and address book. Can one not insert email addresses into a message with the standard “firstname lastname ” format? Does an email recipient have to be in OWA/ODC’s address book first? If so, that is big-time crap.
  8. On other email apps, like Gmail, when you begin typing into an address field, the app will try to guess who you’re sending it to and fill it out for you. ODC does this, but it only does it for addresses I’ve previously emailed. It does not seem to be pulling potential email addresses from the contacts I uploaded into the address book.
  9. I’m sure part of the rationale for using Exchange is to get UA faculty/staff to rely on its calendar. Sorry, but I won’t. I’m quite happy with Google Calendar and I have dozens of repeating appointments (birthdays and such) that I am not going to try importing into Exchange calendar. Again I ask, with students using the Gmail platform, why aren’t faculty/staff?
  10. When you install an Exchange account on an Android device, you get a very scary warning message (“Activate device administrator?”) about erasing all  your data. I suspect this is as much Android’s fault as Microsoft’s, but, still, I don’t remember getting this when I installed other email apps.

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