I've made a big deal about the new user interface that Microsoft is prepping for its upcoming Office 12 suite of productivity applications. And now that I've had the chance to play with Office 12 Beta 1 for a few weeks, I'm even more sold on the changes, which present the most commonly-needed commands up front and center in each Office 12 application. Internally, Microsoft refers to this UI as a "results-oriented" UI, one that dispenses with the traditional menus and toolbars that dominated (and, one might argue, overran) previous Office versions.

But I'm equally charged about the changes Microsoft is making to Outlook, an application many would describe as the center of their professional and personal lives. As it likely is for you, Outlook is my front-end to the work day, the place where I correspond with coworkers, readers, and others, plot my schedule, organize my contacts, and perform other related activities. In the current version, Outlook 2003, Microsoft made major changes, adding a new three column view that I've found to be uniquely productive, especially on the widescreen displays I prefer. Outlook 12 is going offer an even bigger improvement.

In Beta 1, the results-oriented UI is only partially implemented. That is, the main Outlook window still resembles that of Outlook 2003, with basically the same menus and toolbars any Outlook user is familiar with. Secondary Outlook 12 windows, such as those for new email messages, contacts, or calendar items, take on the new Outlook 12 look and feel, with UI constructs such as tabs and ribbons. In the new email message window, for example, you see a Write tab, with ribbon segments for fonts, paragraphs, message options, the Clipboard, and other similar commands, plus an Insert tab for inserting such items as pictures, charts, attachments, signatures, business cards, and so on.

Expanding on the work done in Outlook 2003, Microsoft is offering a default four column view for Outlook 12. The first three columns are very similar to what you see in Outlook 12: a navigation pane with email folders and links to the various Outlook modules, a mailbox list (typically displaying Inbox), and then the Reading Pane, which previews the currently-selected message using the full height of the window. The fourth column, which is new, is called the To-Do bar. It includes three sections, top to bottom: the Date Navigator (which shows one or more months in miniature), Appointments (which lists your most recent upcoming appointments, by date), and the Task List. This last item includes a new Task Input Panel, which lets you input new tasks on the fly as they come up, and a traditional list of tasks, typically sorted by due date.

The To-Do bar isn't revolutionary per se, but it basically provides the traditional Outlook display with all the functionality of Outlook Today, albeit in a more interactive context. Now, from a single view, you can interact with virtually all of your email and personal information management (PIM) data, and not need to delve into Outlook deeply to find specific items. More important, perhaps, Microsoft is essentially making Tasks the center of the Outlook universe. Now, you can trigger new to-do items (i.e. tasks) based on new email, new schedules, or other sources, and start tracking your progress.

There's one problem with a four column view, of course. While Outlook 2003's three column view arguably works fine on a standard 4:3 display, Outlook 12 will essentially require a widescreen display to work in four column mode. Fortunately, my desktop and notebook computers both feature widescreen displays, and Outlook 12 looks gorgeous on them in full-screen mode.

There's a lot more in Outlook 12, of course. Finally, Microsoft is adding support for RSS feeds directly in Outlook. By default, RSS feeds are managed directly from within a new folder called RSS Subscriptions, that's found in Personal Folders. You add new RSS feeds to Outlook in much the same manner as you with new email accounts, and you can set various options for each feed, including the name that will identify it from within Outlook, where the local version of the feed will be stored, and so on. Each feed is presented as a subfolder under RSS Subscriptions, and each displays a subset of the full feed directly from within Outlook, in a display that resembles that used for email messages. Full feed text is available via an HTML attachment, and you can configure Outlook to download the full feed for offline viewing, though they open in external browser windows.

Also, Outlook 12, like other Office 12 applications, features an integrated instant search feature that's based on the work Microsoft is doing with MSN Desktop Search and Windows Vista. The new instant search bar is prominently displayed in each Outlook module, providing you with a way to quickly find email, calendar items, tasks, contacts, and other data on the fly. And it's truly on the fly: Search results begin appearing as you type the search query. And the search query text appears highlighted in each item that appears in the results list. I'll need more time to test this feature, but it appears to be a huge improvement on the brain-dead searching feature that accompanies previous Outlook versions.

This week, I'll be taking Outlook 12 on the road for the first time, and I'll admit I'm a little nervous. But even in this early beta version, Outlook 12 is clearly a big leap over previous Outlook versions. I'll let you know how it shapes up.

This article originally appeared in the January 3, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.