Tag Archives: outlook

Notes from the field: “cannot open the Outlook window” in Windows 10. OneDrive the culprit?

A friend was having problems with Outlook on a new Windows 10 laptop. It had been set up with a POP3/SMTP email account. Everything worked fine at first, but then Outlook refused to open, displaying a message “Cannot open the Outlook window”. The version of Outlook was the latest Outlook 2016, purchased via personal subscription.

Presuming database corruption, I created a new profile and entered the email settings. It worked at first and then exactly the same error occurred, after Outlook had been closed and reopened a couple of times.

I looked more closely and noticed something odd. Outlook was saving the .pst database for this account to OneDrive. This is not something you would notice, since the location of this database is normally invisible to the user. However you can see it if you go into Account Settings and then Data Files.

Note: this screenshot comes not from my friend’s PC but from my own test install of Windows 10, which uses the defaults. I simply set up Outlook with a POP3 email account.

image

Why was this happening? It is because Windows 10 sets OneDrive as the default location for documents if you set it up with a personal Microsoft account, which is the default for non-business users.

image

Outlook creates .pst files in a sub-folder of the special Documents location, called Outlook Files.

Note: Outlook does not do this for .ost files used for Exchange, Office 365 or Outlook.com. It is only something you will see if you use an old-style POP3 email account, or possibly IMAP (I have not tested this).

Saving active .pst files in OneDrive is not a good idea. Even if it works, it brings no benefit, since you cannot get multiple versions of Outlook on different PCs to use the same synced .pst.

Worse, it is known to cause corruption. Check out this ancient post on the subject from the experts at Slipstick systems:

The answer: It won’t work in most services and is not recommended in any service. Outlook puts a lock on the pst file when the pst file is open. OneDrive (and other cloud solutions) continually syncs the local folder. It won’t be able to sync the pst because Outlook has a lock on it and as a result, the pst file could become corrupted and data loss occur.

Unfortunately it is not that easy to persuade Outlook to save the .pst elsewhere. The method I used was:

1. Open the Mail applet in Control Panel (always the first port of call if Outlook will not open).

2. Select a profile, even one that doesn’t work, and choose Properties.  Click Data Files tab and then Add. This lets you create a new, empty .pst in the location of your choice. Close this dialog.

3. When setting up the email account, choose Manual settings, and then select the option to deliver mail to an existing .pst. Browse to select the one you created.

image

All of this is well buried and typical users will not find these settings.

The other solution is to reconfigure the location of the Documents folder to be on the local hard drive and not in the special OneDrive folder. Of course this will affect all your documents and not just Outlook. Saving everyday documents to OneDrive is not such a bad idea, since it gives you resilience in the case where your hard drive or SSD fails.

Note: There are multiple reasons for the “Cannot open the Outlook window” error so the above is not necessarily the fix you need, if you have come here in search of an answer. It only applies if you have this particular configuration and use POP3 email.

What to do when Outlook is stuck on “processing”

I have seen this a couple of times recently, both cases where Outlook 2016 is installed. You start Outlook, it loads plug-ins, then presents a dialog that says “Processing”.

image

It does this for a long time. What is is processing? Who knows. Will it complete in its own good time? Not sure, but for sure it takes longer than you want to wait in order to get your email.

Here is the fix that worked for me. Close Outlook by clicking the X at top right. If that doesn’t work, you can use Task Manager to end the Outlook process.

Now hold down Ctrl and click the Outlook shortcut on the taskbar, presuming it is pinned. This dialog appears:

image

Click Yes. If you get further dialogs such as First things First, click Accept:

image

In both cases I have seen, Outlook now opens immediately, though in safe mode which means no plug-ins are loaded.

Close Outlook and restart it. Again it opens quickly, this time complete with plug-ins.

What is going on here? Not sure, but it may be related to automatic updates for those of us with the Pro Plus version of Office installed via Office 365 or other entitlement.

Observation: this is poor from Microsoft. One of the issues is that showing a generic busy dialog with no indication of what the software is actually doing makes poor UI. Users are more accepting of a long process if they can see evidence of it, even if the technical details of what is displayed make no sense. Maybe something like “Verifying nodes nnn of nnn” with the number incrementing.

This would also help if in fact the software is stuck in a loop, since the user can see that nothing is really happening.

Another issue of course is that this looks like a bug. Most users will end up calling support, despite the trivial fix above.

There may be other reasons for this problem which require different fixes. If that is the case with you, apologies!

Microsoft risks enterprise credibility by pushing out insecure mobile Outlook

One thing about Microsoft: it may not be the greatest for usability or convenience, but it does understand enterprise requirements around compliance and protecting corporate data.

At least, I thought it did.

That confidence has been undermined by the release yesterday of new “Outlook” mobile apps for iOS and Android.

I read the cheery blog posts from Office PM Julia White and from new Outlook GM Javier Soltero. “Now, with Outlook, you really can manage your work and personal email on your phone and tablet – as efficiently as you do on your computer,” says White.

There is a snag though. The new Outlook apps are rebadged Acompli apps, Acompli being a company acquired by Microsoft in early December 2014. Acompli, when it thought about how to create user-friendly email apps that connected to multiple accounts, came up with a solution which, as I understand it, looks like this:

  1. User gives us credentials for accessing email account
  2. We store those credentials in our cloud servers – except they are not really our servers, they are virtual machines on Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  3. Our server app grabs your email and we push it down to the app

A reasonable approach? Well, it simplifies the mobile app and means that the server component does all the hard work of dealing with multiple accounts and mail formats; and of course everything is described as “secure”.

However, there are several issues with this from a security and compliance perspective:

  1. From the perspective of the email provider, the app accessing the email is on the server, not on the device, and the server app may push the emails to multiple devices. That means no per-device access control.
  2. Storing credentials anywhere in a third-party cloud is a big deal. In the case of Exchange, they are Active Directory credentials, which means that if they were compromised, the hacker would potentially get access not only to email, but to anything for which the user has permission on that Active Directory domain.
  3. If an organisation has a policy of running servers on its own premises, it is unlikely to want credentials and email cached on the AWS cloud.

The best source of information is this post A Deeper look at Outlook on iOS and Android, and specifically, the comments. Microsoft’s Jon Orton confirms the architecture described above, which is also described in the Acompli privacy policy:

Our service retrieves your incoming and outgoing email messages and securely pushes them to the app on your device. Similarly, the service retrieves the calendar data and address book contacts associated with your email account and securely pushes those to the app on your device. Those messages, calendar events, and contacts, along with their associated metadata, may be temporarily stored and indexed securely both in our servers and locally on the app on your device. If your emails have attachments and you request to open them in our app, the service retrieves them from the mail server, securely stores them temporarily on our servers, and delivers them to the app … If you decide to sign up to use the service, you will need to create an account. That requires that you provide the email address(es) that you want to access with our service. Some email accounts (ones that use Microsoft Exchange, for example) also require that you provide your email login credentials, including your username, password, server URL, and server domain. Other accounts (Google Gmail accounts, for example) use the OAuth authorization mechanism which does not require us to access or store your password.

image

The only solution offered by Microsoft is to block the new apps using Exchange ActiveSync policy rules.

The new apps do not even respect Exchange ActiveSync policies – presumably hard to enforce given the architecture described above – though Microsoft’s AllenFilush says:

Outlook is wired up to work with Active Sync policies, but it currently only supports Remote Wipe (a selective wipe of the corporate data, not a device wipe). We will be adding full support for EAS policies like PIN lock soon.

However a user remarks:

Also, i have set up a test account, and performed a remote wipe, and nothing happened. I also removed the mobile device partnership later and still able to send and receive emails.

The inability to enforce a PIN lock means that if a device is stolen, the recipient might be able simply to turn on the device and read the corporate email.

The disappointment here is that Microsoft held to a higher standard for security and compliance than its competitors, more perhaps than some realise, with things like Bitlocker encryption built into Surface and Windows Phone devices.

Now the company seems willing to throw that reputation away for the sake of getting a consumer-friendly mobile app out of the door quickly. Worse still, it has been left to the community to identify and publicise the problems, leaving admins now racing to put the necessary blocks in place. If Microsoft was determined to do this, it should at least have forewarned administrators so that corporate data could be protected.

Exchange 2010 Service Pack 2 with Office 365 migration wizard and retro Outlook Mini

Microsoft has released Exchange 2010 SP2, which I have successfully installed on my small system.

image

There is a description of what’s new here. The most notable features are the Hybrid Configuration Wizard for setting up co-existence between on-premise Exchange and Office 365, and Outlook Mini for low-end phones with basic browsers.

A hybrid setup lets you include on-Premise Exchange and Office 365 Exchange in a single organisation. You can move mailboxes back and forth, archive messages online (even from on-Premise mailboxes), and synchronize Active Directory information. The feature is not new, but the wizard is.

image

This looks similar to the Exchange migration tools for BPOS and Office 365 so this is mainly a matter of baking them into the product.

Outlook Mini is very retro; I like it. It is also called Outlook Mobile Access and is similar to a feature of Exchange 2003 though it is new code; it is actually built using Outlook Web Access forms and accessed at the url yourexchange/owa/oma. There is no automatic redirection so users will have to be shown where to find it.

image image

 

Finally, this note amused me as evidence of how far litigation issues have permeated into Microsoft’s products. But what is the point of a “litigation hold” if it is so easily bypassed?

In Exchange 2010 SP2, you can’t disable or remove a mailbox that has been placed on litigation hold. To bypass this restriction, you must either remove litigation hold from the mailbox, or use the new IgnoreLegalHold switch parameter when removing or disabling the mailbox.

Disappearing items in Outlook and Exchange

I came across what looks to me like an unusual bug, most likely in Microsoft Outlook. Background: I have used the Notes folder in my Exchange mailbox for all sorts of information going back several years. This morning, I looked at the folder and found it empty, except for one solitary item. Normally there are over 1000. The surviving item was the result of my last search in that folder.

image

Now, the Exchange database is robust in my experience; and most often when items disappear it is not a bug but a result of Outlook working as designed but catching the user out in some way. Here are some common reasons:

  1. The items got auto-archived. Archives can be present on any machine on which you run Outlook. The default location for the archive folder is in a hidden location such as C:\Users\[USERNAME]\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook\archive1.pst, where [USERNAME] is your Windows username. It really is hard for users to find this without expert help. How can the popular corporate mail client have usability like this? But I digress. The solution is to open the archive in Outlook and drag items back where they are wanted.
  2. The items are present, but filtered out by the view. Views in Outlook can be filtered to restrict the items on display, for example to unread items only. The user set the filter by clicking something in Outlook’s labyrinthine user interface, but does not realise it is still set. The effect is that items disappear. The solution is to reset the filter.
  3. The user accidentally dragged a folder inside another folder. This is easily done, as Outlook does not prompt you when you do this; it just moves the folder. The symptom is that a little expand symbol appears in the target folder, if it does not already have subfolders. The solution is to drag it back.
  4. The user accidentally deleted the items or folder. Outlook does not prompt when you delete items. In this case, however, the items end up in the Deleted Items folder. The solution is to drag them back where you want them.

Even if the user has subsequently emptied the deleted items folder, there is hope. Outlook has a little-known feature called Recover Deleted Items. Items go into a kind of hidden deleted items folder for a period after they get removed from the visible deleted items folder, or if they are removed with Shift-Delete. Recover Deleted Items, which is on the Folder tab in Outlook 2010 and on the Tools menu in earlier versions, will let you get them back.

My disappeared notes were nowhere to be found. Further, the evidence is that I had not deleted them, since the surviving item was the result of a search. There is no command that I know of to delete all items in a folder other than the result of a search.

Still, I wanted to get them back if possible; and preferably without restoring Exchange to an earlier date, this being a fairly slow and painful operation. I checked my laptop without connecting it to the network, to see if this had an offline copy. My laptop runs Outlook 2007. There was no offline copy, since it had synchronised subsequent to the items disappearing.

Incidentally, this is why synchronisation and redundancy are not the same as backup.

I had one more go at Recover Deleted Items. Curiously, Outlook 2007 does have a Recover Deleted Items option for the Notes folder, whereas Outlook 2010 does not. Note though that the deleted items live not in the local offline store, but in Exchange.

To my surprise, all my old notes were there. I selected them all in the Recover Deleted Items window and clicked to undelete. Now I am back where I was, except that all my old notes now have a “Created” date of today. A nuisance, but a good outcome nonetheless.

But what happened? I have two questions about this. One is how the items got deleted in the first place. The second is how they ended up in Recover Deleted Items. The documentation for Recover Deleted Items will make your head spin. It is an Exchange feature, but apparently controlled by Outlook. This knowledgebase article says it only works on the Deleted items folder, unless you are using Outlook 2007 when it works on all the folders.

Does that suggest that is was Outlook 2007 that deleted my items? But how could Outlook 2007 on one machine delete all the items except the result of a search in Outlook 2010 on another machine? It does not make sense.

My view is that Outlook has become so obscure and intricate in its inner workings that anything is possible. I think Microsoft should build a new Exchange client.

UK business applications stagger towards the cloud

I spent today evaluating several competing vertical applications for a small business working in a particular niche – I am not going to identify it or the vendors involved. The market is formed by a number of companies which have been serving the market for some years, and which have Windows applications born in the desktop era and still being maintained and enhanced, plus some newer companies which have entered the market more recently with web-based solutions.

Several things interested me. The desktop applications seemed to suffer from all the bad habits of application development before design for usability became fashionable, and I saw forms with a myriad of fields and controls, each one no doubt satisfying a feature request, but forming a confusing and ugly user interface when put together. The web applications were not great, but seemed more usable, because a web UI encourages a simpler page-based approach.

Next, I noticed that the companies providing desktop applications talking to on-premise servers had found a significant number of their customers asking for a web-hosted option, but were having difficulty fulfilling the request. Typically they adopted a remote application approach using something like Citrix XenApp, so that they could continue to use their desktop software. In this type of solution, a desktop application runs on a remote machine but its user interface is displayed on the user’s desktop. It is a clever solution, but it is really a desktop/web hybrid and tends to be less convenient than a true web application. I felt that they needed to discard their desktop legacy and start again, but of course that is easier said than done when you have an existing application widely deployed, and limited development resources.

Even so, my instinct is to be wary of vendors who call desktop applications served by XenApp or the like cloud computing.

Finally, there was friction around integrating with Outlook and Exchange. Most users have Microsoft Office and use Outlook and Exchange for email, calendar and tasks. The vendors with web application found their users demanding integration, but it is not easy to do this seamlessly and we saw a number of imperfect attempts at synchronisation. The vendors with desktop applications had an easier task, except when these were repurposed as remote applications on a hosted service. In that scenario the vendors insisted that customers also use their hosted Exchange, so they could make it work. In other words, customers have to build almost their entire IT infrastructure around the requirements of this single application.

It was all rather unsatisfactory. The move towards the cloud is real, but in this particular small industry sector it seems slow and painful.

Outlook blues: the annoying blue bar when you reply to a message

I’ve written a long rant about how annoying Outlook is when you reply to a message. It’s the blue bar, you see. You delete the entire original message, but it still appears when you type. Or you type after the blue-barred quote, and your typing gets the blue bar too. Or you try to type within the original message – as recommended here – and your typing is hard to distinguish from that of the original.

The rant with some tips and workarounds is here.

Setup error raises obscure Outlook error message

I was intrigued by the following Outlook 2010 error message which I had not seen before:

image

Instant Search is not available when Outlook is running with administrator permissions. However, it was not. A Microsoft support note suggested another possible reason: Windows Search not running. However, it was running. It was clear though that Outlook searches were not being indexed, making them unusable on my low-powered netbook.

Eventually I figured it out. I’d just run an update for the excellent Battery Bar, which installs an batter monitor in the Windows 7 taskbar. In order to shut down the running instance, the Battery Bar setup restarted Explorer. Since the installer was running with elevated rights, Explorer had presumably restarted with elevated rights, and this somehow triggered the error in Outlook.

I recall that it it is tricky (but possible) for an elevated process to start a non-elevated process, so I guess Osiris needs to tweak its setup application.

The solution from my point of view was to restart Windows.