Can’t get to your mail? Blame Exchange. And that’s OK.

The “Waiting for your exchange server“ dialog in Outlook has evoked some of the most violently negative[1] responses I have ever seen from customers. Michael talks about this “dreaded Outlook popup” and offers the following tip:

If the server name shown in the Requesting data … dialog box is in the FQDN format, Outlook is waiting for a response from the directory service. If you see a short server name, Outlook is waiting for either the mailbox server or public folder server to respond.”

And the funny thing to me is that the dialog was originally considered a feature - instead of Outlook freezing up when it couldn't reach the server, it would give you the option to at least cancel the operation. In the case that the operation was something where canceling would be useful (perhaps you were trying to go to a public folder that couldn't be reached, but your mailbox server was reachable), it made sense, but it turned out that a lot of the time that users saw it, canceling did them absolutely no good, and the fact that Outlook taunted them with the dialog made it worse. So then we added a feature to customize the length of time before Outlook would display the dialog (at least, I think that happened after the initial implementation, after we got some feedback).

So then a feature was implemented to remove the need for the dialog entirely, aka Outlook 2003 cached mode. I've given several talks about Exchange and Outlook 2003, and they always have a slide in it with that dialog, plus an animation that draws a big red X through the dialog. It always gets applause.

When users can't get to their email, it's A Big Freaking Deal. And it is always Exchange's fault. Around these parts, we sometimes got uppity whenever Outlook informed us that our “Exchange server is not responding“. From time to time, we'd snort and say it's not our problem, it's the GC. Or maybe it's the network. Or perhaps the user's port just got shut off for spreading a virus or downloading porn.

Sure, it's kind of unfair to us as developers on one product when the root cause has nothing to do with our product. But the truth of the matter is that it's our customer, and we own making their end-to-end experience work (or at the very least, fail gracefully). We use the term “End-to-end messaging“[2]; it's about ensuring that the entire experience operates as expected, stop blaming another piece of code and just make things work together better. Customers don't care whose fault it is, they just want it to work.

So, nowadays when I see that dialog, it always makes me think of end-user frustration, the improvements we've made in Outlook 2003/Exchange 2003, and where we can go next. Plus, it's really a compliment that problems with email access is such a big deal - it's nice to see that our software is that important to so many people.

[1] I wanted to use the word 'evisceral', but I looked it up first to verify my spelling[6] and it doesn't exist. That's a real bummer, since I've used it many times before.
[2] “What's hickadoola? It's that special feeling you get when you're holding hands with your best gal!” [3]
[3] My phrasing reminded me of that episode.[4]
[4] If you ask my four year old nephew “What does Quagmire say?” he says “Giggidy giggidy giggidy!”.[5]
[5] If you then ask him “What else does Quagmire say?”, he says “Aawwwwwll riiight.”
[6] I'm fairly obsessive-compulsive. Tell me that half of analysis is anal, and I'll tell you that the other half is ysis.[7]
[7] Actually I stole that one from an old friend.
[8] Blame the rere-download of this post in your RSS aggregator on Larry (since when is your name larry osterman? your full legal name is larryo, gosh darnit) for pointing out my typo. And Larry, I bet it's driving you nuts that [8] isn't referenced anywhere... muahaha

Comments (10)

  1. Jeremy C. Wright says:

    Personally I find it a pain to admin user’s mailboxes (outside of their inbox) without resorting to SMS / ZENworks. Some tools for those kinds of things would be nice 😉

    The connectivity stuff never really bothered me.

  2. John Eddy says:

    What bugs me is when OL is minimized to the systray, then decides it can’t hit the server and won’t let you double click the OL icon to bring it up so you can work in cached mode. And then when a new mail sneaks in, you can double click the new mail icon to pull up OL, but you *still* can’t use the OL icon to do it. GRRRRR.

    GRRRR!! BABIES!!!!

  3. Larry Osterman says:

    Um… K.C?

    There is no [7].

  4. KC Lemson says:

    [7] is like the spoon.

  5. Tommy Williams says:

    Just drop the "e" from "evisceral" and you get the word you were probably looking for. It’s not negative, but it is something felt deeply and fundamentally. Although I do like the image of your word: a combination of "visceral" and "eviscerate" — something you feel so strongly about, and so negative about, that it feels like the core of your being is cut away.

  6. John Eddy says:

    My spoon is too big.

  7. Larry Osterman says:

    Um. And KC. It’s LarryOsterman – someone took LarryO 🙂

    I’m just full of it tonight, aren’t I 🙂

  8. None says:

    mmm somehow i read this and yet came away with nothing…….

  9. Zoran Lazarevic says:

    Since we upgraded to Outlook 2003, it takes a couple of minutes for the client to connect to the server. Why the heck is that? It is obviously the fault of Outlook 2003, because the users who did not upgrade start up in seconds.

    And the new "improved" layout (with 3 vertical panes) is sometimes nice, but sometimes I prefer longer subject line. I wish there was an option to change the layout as in Thunderbird.

  10. KC Lemson says:


    #1: I don’t know offhand what could cause this. Are these users using RPC/HTTP? With RPC/HTTP, the client is connecting to the server in a different way, and so that could potentially change the user experience (but a couple of minutes is *not* normal, I’m just saying it might be a factor). Other than that, I don’t know of any other possible causes off the top of my head.

    #2: You can tell outlook to only use the two-line view if the messages list is smaller than X columns (roughly characters), I think the default is around 80. It’s in view arrange by current view customize current view.

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