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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 01:32 GMT 02:32 UK
Microsoft backs e-mail controls
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Microsoft boss Bill Gates
Microsoft's Bill Gates launched Office 2003
The days when you could forward an embarrassing e-mail to your colleagues could be a thing of the past.

Upgrades to Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program come with a feature which gives you complete control over what people do with messages or documents.

The software giant says its Information Rights Management system is intended to protect sensitive information.

It is part of the new version of its flagship Microsoft Office, which goes on sale worldwide on Tuesday.

Information overload

Microsoft estimates that there are 300 million copies of Office in use.

This puts control into the hands of the person sending the e-mail, as opposed to allowing the proliferation of messages
Mike Pryke-Smith, Microsoft
For the 2003 version, Microsoft has focused on making the software easier to use, instead of building in more and more features.

"Information overload is a big problem at the moment," said Mike Pryke-Smith, marketing manager at Microsoft, "and this is one of the problems we have tried to tackle with this product."

One of the key changes is the Orwellian-sounding Information Rights Management.

Microsoft says this is in response to concerns from its customers about how to prevent sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.

It reflects the increasing use in companies of electronic means like e-mail discuss sensitive financial or business information.

"Forwarding is obviously the key issue," said Mr Pryke-Smith. "This puts control into the hands of the person sending the e-mail, as opposed to allowing the proliferation of messages."

In Office 2003, people can limit who else can open, edit, copy or even print a document.

Microsoft Outlook 2003
The new look for Outlook
You can even set a time limit on it, so that a document only be read for a set period and then become effectively locked. In any case, a copy will most likely remain on a central server.

Microsoft says a free viewing program will be available for those who receive a protected document but are not using Office 2003.

The rights management feature, like many of the others in Office 2003, is squarely aimed at businesses. But one aspect that will interest the home user is what Microsoft is doing to stop junk e-mails.

Stopping spam

Outlook has long being a target for spammers and virus writers since it offered virtually no protection against junk messages.

Microsoft has sought to respond to its critics by including automatic spam filtering, which analyses a message to try to work out whether it is junk.

The 2003 version also has lets you build a blacklist of senders to block, as well as a safe list of people whose messages you want to receive.

More significantly, Outlook can automatically block images embedded in e-mails, a common tactic used by spammers.

The image is not actually in the e-mail itself but has to be downloaded from a website, thus showing that an e-mail address is valid and it could mean more junk.

Microsoft has also tweaked Word, Excel and Powerpoint, though the most obvious change is a new, blue colour scheme.

Pay up

Microsoft boss Bill Gates unveiled the changes to the flagship software package at the product's launch in New York on Tuesday.

Office 2003 will be available in a set of packages at range of prices, starting at around £120 for students.

But the programs will only run on a PC with Windows XP or 2000.

Microsoft says it has more than 90% of the market for products like Office. Among its competitors is StarOffice from Sun Microsystems and the open source program, OpenOffice.

Whereas Office can cost hundreds of pounds, OpenOffice can be downloaded for free over the internet.

How you tried Office 2003? What do you make of the changes and Microsoft's Information Rights Management system? Here are a selection of your comments.

It is clear to me that Microsoft wish to try to take over the domain of e-mail. It is yet another "embrace and extend" tactic to ensure people are locked into buying Microsoft products and upgrade licensing.
Lea Anthony, Wales

I can immediately think of two ways to bypass the restriction on forwarding and the auto-destruct mechanism. It won't work, good idea or no.
Daniel Foster, USA

They are trying to own e-mail! This is just downright silly.
Mark Nehemiah, USA

There are two ways, technologically speaking, to prevent others from violating the DRM rules you set in your e-mail. The first is 'voluntary' adherence by all e-mail clients, which is easily circumventable by running another e-e-mail client, and gives the user a false sense of security. The second is to require everyone to use a Microsoft e-mail viewer application to read e-mail. This latter option, quoted in the article, will mean that Microsoft will 'own' the world's e-mail system. They will decide what computers/operating systems will be able to read e-mail, when you can read e-mail, and, potentially, how much you pay to read your e-mail. Sure, you will still be able to use the 'old' e-mail system, but you will be increasingly required, through sheer force of 90% market share, to make sure that you have a Microsoft approved operating system on which to run their e-mail viewer. This is merely another attempt to use current market dominance to secure future market expansion.
Redacted, USA

We must be allowed to control who sees the information that is send as well as what we receive.
Marvin Neville, USA

Outlook 2003 looks nice and operates well, and its feature set is nice. Just don't ask me to pay that much for the rest of the package when it doesn't have the featureset that makes it a major upgrade.
Randy Peterman, USA

I have mixed feelings about the enhancements to Outlook. On one hand I welcome the control it provides over the fate of messages, but on the other I fear that Information Rights Management will spell the end of universal e-mail where e-mail from any client program can be sent to any other client program. This Information Rights Management scheme (as with everything on the internet) should be based on open standards.
Travis Capener, Canada

Having used OpenOffice for production work for quite a while, I see no reason to go for MS Office. OpenOffice works, does a great job on all the mundane tasks of daily life, eliminating my incentive to pay the upgrading bill. The fact that OpenOffice uses a well-documented open-for-all XML file format is an extra plus. Microsoft has some catching up to do here.
Henrik Ręder Clausen, Denmark

So your colleague uses a digital camera to photograph the e-mail on the screen, scanning software to read the image onto his computer, and then the message is forwarded. The colleague needs to press three buttons rather than one. Information, once displayed, is insecure and can be copied. We've seen copy protection before (remember Lotus 1-2-3 in 1980's). It cannot work. Microsoft's system will just engender a completely false sense of security, lock you in to their proprietary system and cause endless annoyances for end users.
Simon Clift, Canada

This isn't going to stop information being shared contrary to the wishes of its creator. At most it prevents the software from automatically processing the data or moving it elsewhere. There is nothing to stop people from copying with pen and paper, or typing it up again.
Steve, UK

Data, is data. It doesn't matter how encrypted this IRM is, someone will break it. Once broken, that data can be copied, printed and transmitted. Nice idea, but it not going to work.
Vince, UK

I certainly don't welcome the e-mail controls in the new MS Office. Whatever happened to personal accountability? If you don't want a message you write getting forwarded to other people, it should be your responsibility to give thought to who you send it to.
Michael, USA

The BBC's John Terrett talks to Bill Gates
"Email has emerged as a key form of communication but it's had limits"

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