Feature Article
Outlook Express on Two Computers

September 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

For quite a while now I have been running Outlook Express for my e-mail. I have two computers at home. A typical desktop and a laptop. I store the files for Outlook Express on the desktop and access them from both computers. This allows me to use either machine for my e-mail, and have all my mail available regardless of which computer I or my wife are using.

But there in lies the problem. Outlook Express is not friendly when running on two computers. But I have overcome its deficiencies. And that is the topic of this month's column. How I am successfully able to run Outlook Express from two computers successfully.

Why It Doesn't Work

I have a major flaw. I don't like being told something can't be done (with a computer). I have many times been able to prove that I could do things that vendors say cannot be done with their software. Outlook Express told me (in not so many words) that I could not run it remotely. For me, remotely meant running it from a laptop while its files were stored on another computer connected over a simple home network.

In OE you can tell it where to put the "Store." This is a folder/directory on your hard drive where you would like OE to save all your mail messages (its files). However, if you point OE toward a shared folder on a network it will gray out (disable) the OK button. You can't save such a setting. This leaves you to pick from local folders to store its files. I got around this by looking in the registry for the key that held the folder OE used. The key is HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Identities\
Software\Microsoft\Outlook Express\5.0\Store Root. That was a mouthful. Also, you own key will may be slightly different, but you can find it by getting close or copy and pasting it from OE into regedit's search... which is how I found it in the first place.

I edited this setting pointing it to the shared directory on my desktop. It worked! I was able to run OE from either machine and they both could see all my mail messages in all my folders. Very Cool!

But It Still Didn't Work

Although I was able to run OE from two machines... something I am sure Microsoft will tell you can't be done... it was not reliable. The laptop would frequently forget where the store was and would go back to its default. This was most annoying since OE collects all my mail at startup. This required me to go through a tedious process to save off the new messages, run regedit to point the store to the right place, log off and back on the computer, and finally copy the mail messages into my regular mailbox.

Another problem was using the STORE by both machines at the same time. This was less a problem, as my wife an I would do a decent job of telling each other when we were using OE. But it did happen on occasion that we would both accidentally run it. This would corrupt any files it had to write to. BTW each folder in Outlook Express is a file, so as soon as we both ran Outlook Express it would corrupt the InBox file.

I was never able to be sure of why the laptop would lose knowledge of the store for OE. It could have been any number of problems, some of which included the desktop being hung, a weak network connection, no network connection (the cable was not plugged in), and others. Sometimes the laptop just needed a restart of its own to see the other computer. This is after all Windows networking... and my desktop is running Windows 98... not exactly your killer server Operating System.

The Final Solution

To permanently remedy this flaky operation I had to dig a little deeper and write a custom program. I was able to write a quick Visual Basic program that would launch another program and wait for it to finish.

This became the basis for the final solution. This program of mine (named OE Checker) would need to do a few things to make it perfect (for me). The first thing the program does is check for a single file in the director where I keep the OE store. If it cannot find this file it will generate an error message and exit. This will prevent OE from ever running if the laptop cannot find the STORE. At this point I can at least find out why the network is not running properly.

Once the file is found by OE Checker, meaning I have a valid network connection, then I check for a second file, a flag file. This is a file I create at runtime (you'll understand more in a moment). If my program does find this file I know that my program has launched OE on another machine using this same store. At this point I display a warning message saying OE is already running and exit without ever launching Outlook Express

If after two file checks my program has ended or it is ready to launch Outlook Express. My program now creates the flag file. This is a warning to other machines that OE is running on a machine. After I create the flag file I finally launch Outlook Express. My program then waits for the user to exit OE. When the user exits Outlook Express my program deletes the flag file and exits.


I know it can sound a little complicated. In a nutshell... I check for a connection, check to see if OE is already running on the other machine, and then launch OE if it is safe. I run this program from both machines. This makes it impossible (so far at least) for OE to fail, or reset its store location.

I do get the error messages. Mostly when the laptop is not talking to well to the desktop... which is expected when you are using Windows 98 as a server. A quick reboot is usually necessary, but this is far easier to fix then resetting the registry and moving a bunch of mail messages.

I love this solution. I almost never write programs at home anymore, but this one was necessary. My sanity level has increased a great deal. If you have a need to run Outlook Express from more than one computer I would be glad to help you work it out. Drop me a line and I can help you setup your computers, and supply you with my little program.