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Microsoft's OE V6 tool not worth effort

David Strom takes a look at Microsoft's efforts to secure Outlook Express in Version 6.

Category: E-mail security management
Name of tool: Outlook Express V6
Company name: Microsoft Corp.
Price: Free for the downloading
URL: www.Microsoft.com/IE/
Platforms supported: All Windows operating systems (OE is available for Mac and Unix as well but not Version 6 as of yet).

* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

Key features:
Finally, a way to block viral attachments in your e-mail from Microsoft.

Getting this set up properly with an antivirus tool is going to take some doing.

You are better off using an antivirus scanner and not upgrading to this version.

Virus authors have been able to exploit the ability of Microsoft's Outlook Express to automatically open attachments for years. Finally, Version 6 has arrived and can do something to prevent the rapid dissemination of these dastardly deeds.

The way Outlook Express worked in previous versions made it easier for users to view their attached Word and other documents. But it has also made it easier for viruses to spread. In the past, you had to click on a file (or more precisely, the paper clip icon next to the e-mail message that contains the attachment) to run the program, but smarter virus authors figured ways around this and could infect systems without opening the file.

Microsoft has come up with a few fixes for this with OE V6, which is freely available and also part of the Internet Explorer V6 package. I would not recommend using it without a great deal of caution.

OE V6 includes two rudimentary virus protection features by going to Tools | Options | Security, which have both been requested by many corporate users. Users can have OE issue a warning and thereby prevent other applications from using OE to send e-mail, a common behavior of many Trojans and other macro viruses, by checking the appropriate box on the Security screen. Also, OE can block attachments from being opened or saved by checking the corresponding box on this screen. While this latter choice is probably not as dependable as using a fully featured antivirus tool, it is a step in the right direction for Microsoft and useful for all OE users.

Well, it would be a step in the right direction had Microsoft done a better job. I found out the hard way that checking this second box ("Do not allow attachments to be saved?") will probably remove quite a few attachments that aren't viruses, but that OE doesn't recognize and so treats it as dangerous. This meant that OE deleted the desirable attachments from my system. Two examples of benign attachments that OE did remove were ZIP files and the eFax document fax format files -- neither of these file types contains any executable code, and both are fairly well recognized. Or should be, everywhere except by Microsoft's programmers.

Microsoft has a page on their Web site with additional information about these new features.

However, reading that page will take some careful study, and it is somewhat confusing. Basically, Microsoft will allow you to add additional file types to its watch list. You will end up spending a lot of time fooling around with this option. I found it just easier to not bother with trying to fine-tune this, after hours of experimenting with sending myself faxes and ZIP files and seeing what got through and what didn't. It is far easier to depend on a good antivirus screener.

Now, that isn't to say I don't like OE for e-mail; I do, and I use it on one of my machines at home all the time. It is the only e-mail client that allows multiple users (such as family members) to share a single PC and have multiple e-mail accounts that are password protected from each other. But getting into those issues is for another column.

My recommendation is to stay away from this option in OE V6 right now, until Microsoft does a better job implementing these security features. Certainly, you can run OE V6 without this option turned on. And the additional features from OE V5 to V6 aren't worth the upgrade at the moment; so don't bother with the download if you are happy with OE V5. In any event, you should continue to make use of a good antivirus scanning tool, such as Norton Anti-Virus, for your own protection. Eventually, Microsoft will get this right, maybe with OE V7 or 8. But in the meantime, don't rely on Redmond to protect you from virus infections.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at david@strom.com.

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