Office 12 server-side

One of the things that was implied but not specifically announced at the recent Professional Developers Conference (PDC 05) in Los Angeles was that some features of Office 12 will rely on, or make use of, server-side processing rather than doing all the processing on the client PC. In some cases, this will just mean an expanded role for SharePoint Services – the free Intranet portal service add-on for Windows Server 2003 – but in other cases it looks like there might be specific new server-side functions you get with Office 12, or you might have to purchase a separate ‘Office 12 Server’.

Office 12 server-side

SharePoint 3, scheduled for release at the same time as Office 12 in the second half of 2006, is known to be a much more capable beast than the current version. It will, for instance, be able to handle incoming and outgoing email, which means you can set up an email address for a SharePoint discussion list and all mail sent to that address will be automatically added to the discussion. If you make this email address a distribution list, mail will be sent to all members of the list and archived in the SharePoint discussion list too. Emails and discussion items added directly to the list will all be correctly threaded, and you can use full HTML formatting for these items. If you supply an email address for a document library, you’ll be able to send emails with attachments and these attachments will be automatically put into the document library. Supply the email address of a SharePoint calendar folder and it will process any iCAL files that are emailed to it, adding the relevant appointments to the calendar. These new features are great for ‘occasionally connected’ users such as external sales staff, as they allow them to fully participate in discussions and contribute to document libraries without having to be connected to the office network to do so.

Also new in version 3 will be list history and versioning, which will allow you to see what changes have been made to a SharePoint list and the items in it. New append-only fields allow users to add but not edit or delete comments about an item, and multiselect values mimic the categories fields in Outlook where users can select one or more values from a list. These features are used in an updated Issue Tracking Template that you can customise for your own use. There’s also a new Project Task List template, including a new Gantt Chart View, intended for lightweight project management jobs – if you need something stronger than the list of tasks you get in Outlook, but still less than the full power of Microsoft Project, this facility might fit the bill. You can even drag-and-drop items around in the Gantt Chart View to change their start and end dates.

Another change is that lists in SharePoint can be synchronised with Outlook and the synchronisation will be a two-way affair. Until now, you’ve been able to make SharePoint contacts, tasks and calendars available in Outlook, but only as read-only copies. Now SharePoint 3 and Outlook 12 will have bidirectional links, which shows that Microsoft intends to replace Exchange Public Folders when they’re retired in a couple of years’ time. Nevertheless, synchronising standard contact, calendar and task folders is one thing, but what about custom folders with custom fields? Microsoft hasn’t yet demonstrated how, or indeed if, it can display custom fields that were defined within SharePoint inside an Outlook form. Most of SharePoint 3’s new integration with Outlook and email doesn’t require Exchange Server, so users of other mail servers should get many of the benefits. However, some features, such as Distribution List support and the Address Book picker, rely on Active Directory, so if you do have another mail system it’s to be hoped that it works via AD rather than doing everything its own way.

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