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My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together
There was recently some discussion at a customer about the use of Outlook/Exchange’s calendaring functionality, this is a commonly deployed solution in businesses yet few people seem to “get” how useful the calendaring functionality can be or how to use it properly.
I almost see it as a democratic process for keeping control of your own schedule and agenda, I often get requests for “access to my calendar” – for most people you don’t need this; your Exchange server publishes free/busy data for your calendar, so people who request a meeting can see if you have a gap in your schedule and request to fill it, they don’t need to see the detail of what is in your calendar and you retain control of your schedule, choosing what you are able to participate in – you can either choose to accept it, reject it or propose another time.
In my experience this is a much abused feature – too many people decline because they can’t make a proposed date/time/location – but they should only really decline if they have no interest in meeting with you (maybe I’m just really unpopular ) otherwise they should suggest a new time.
However, if you work in a modern business where you are often working from a different site, or even different continent there is a gap in this functionality – you have no real way of showing people which office you are planning to be in on a particular day so they can schedule the meeting intelligently – I think there should be a where’s Waldo feature that works as follows…
It would be handy if you had a way to mark in your Outlook calendar in advance with which location you are planning to be in on a particular date – some kind of drop-down property for a day/week/period like Working from Home (online only, Office Y, office X, etc.) and likewise have an option for vacation in this which auto declines meeting requests and suggests an alternative (depending on a preference you set).
This would require your Exchange server to have a concept of location, a list of your company offices, campuses, buildings from which you would select where you are planning to be, likewise other online or virtual locations like WebEx sessions, conference bridges could be specified.
When a user requests a meeting they could select a meeting room or general location like a campus (if it’s face to face) – your server can use this to query against the invitees expected location (assuming Exchange is told which campus/building a meeting room is in) – given appropriate mapping data it could also calculate the most appropriate location with availability and facilities (projector yes/no, conference phone yes/no) for the number of invitees, take this a step further and it could feasibly provide walking/travelling time from the previous session/location to the chosen venue and add travelling time into the request (as well as insert directions into the invite).
Take this a step further and the basic presence information now finding its way into mobile devices and web services/IM could be used to integrate further – give advance warning that an attendee is likely to be late as they are stuck in traffic 50 miles away for a meeting that starts in 5mins and suggest a dial-in if available, or if all the attendees are still in another meeting and are unlikely to be able to travel to the next meeting in-time it could notify the onward requestor and provide dial-in details or suggest a re-schedule.
Anyways, just a quick idea – Outlook hasn’t had that many major innovations (except cloured calendar entries) for a while and this calendaring functionality hasn’t had any major innovations since Outlook was 1st released – this would be amazing, get in quick before someone else like Google does it, Microsoft – all the building blocks are there.
I quite liked the idea of a new feature in Outlook 2010, the ability to use more than one Exchange account at a time. People have been asking for this for years and it looked promising, in the past there was a work-around using virtualization but it was very resource intensive for most people’s machines. Since I ditched Office for Mac 2011 and went back to a Win7 VM on my Mac I thought I would give it a try as I hadn’t tried it out since the early beta builds of Office 2010 – sadly it seems things weren’t much better in the RTM build.
I have a corporate Exchange account, but my own personal email is also hosted on an Exchange server with Fasthosts – who as an aside I can’t really recommend anymore as they are still on Exchange 2003 and don’t seem to have any plans to upgrade the service to 2007, let alone Ex2010 althogh the service has been pretty reliable in the last 4 years I’ve used it.
However, I’ve found using Outlook in this dual-mailbox mode to be incredibly unreliable, it sets up fine – but within a couple of minutes Outlook locks up and becomes unresponsive – this seems to happen mainly when switching between inboxes – I’ve deleted and re-created profiles, .ost’s .pst’s – everything but I just can’t get it to work reliably.
I wonder if anyone out there has managed it – I’m using Windows 7 x64 with Office 2010 x86 (not the x64 version as per MS recommendations) they don’t seem to make much noise about this new feature – maybe this is why.
**Note: your corporate security policy may explicitly say you can’t do this – this is quite reasonable IMHO – I’ve done a lot of Exchange work in the past and whilst the Outlook security model is massively better these days a MAPI-savvy bit of Malware that you bring into Outlook via an external account could still potentially do bad things – remember the ILOVEYOU worm?**
If you want to try it out for yourself you need to totally quit Outlook (it won’t work if you have it open), go into Control panel and find the “mail” control panel applet
Click E-Mail Accounts
Click new, and follow the setup wizard, you’ll then have two Exchange accounts in your profile.
Fire up Outlook and once it’s finished “preparing your mailbox for first use” you’ll see two Exchange accounts with calendars, inbox etc. in the folder view of the UI.
However, in my experience that’s as good as it gets.. it locks up shortly after, shame as Office and in particular Outlook 2010 are pretty damned good otherwise – feel free to post your experiences..
I have been a long-term Outlook user and I’m a serial information hoarder 🙂 so I have a calendar and contact set that goes back a LONG way in time, in a previous life I was also an Exchange/AD consultant so I see the benefits of a server-side mailbox store (centrally held data with local disposable replicas, search, access anywhere etc.).
As well as my work schedule it has all my regular personal appointments, kids school schedules etc. – for simplicity’s sake I only keep one calendar, I don’t have a separate work and personal calendar – your mileage may vary, but this is the way I work.
Having recently moved companies and moved from Wintel/Office to a Mac with the new Outlook 2011 I needed a way of importing my PST-archived calendar to my new Exchange store (calling it a mailbox doesn’t seem to do it justice anymore as it contains calendar, contacts, etc as well now).
I also use a BES-connected Blackberry so I want it to sync my calendar to my device via the BES and a server-side calendar means it’s accessible using OWA from any PC.
This is pretty straightforward for normal Windows Outlook as you just import the .PST and choose the new server-side store/calendar as the target.
However, it seems that the built-in import function in Outlook 2011 won’t import calendar data from a .PST file directly to an Exchange server-side store, it will import it but it only keep it in a separate locally held calendar, nor can you cut & paste or sync or do anything to move the contents from “calendar – on my computer” into the server-side calendar.
My “VMware calendar” (note: not my capitalization :)) is the server-side one but I can’t import directly to it, it always goes into “On my computer” which I can only assume is held somewhere client-side.
Whilst I can select both (as shown above) and they get overlaid on the calendar view this is only accessible when I use my Mac and thus won’t be available via OWA, or on my Blackberry.
So – the only solution I found was to use a Windows VM under Fusion with Office 2010 installed and use it to import my calendar contents, thus it synced back down to my Outlook 2011 offline store and onwards to my Blackberry via the BES.
This seemed a sort of backwards process so I would love to know if anyone has found a better native way to do this….?
I don’t know about you but I tend to treat my mobile (USA:cellphone) phone as my personal contact device, in that I use it to manage both my inbound and outbound communications and plug that into my daily work/life workflow.
Because I travel about a lot for business (and in my spare time also) I give everyone my mobile number, rather than a fixed line as its far more likely to reach me and I don’t have to track numerous voicemail/UM numbers, I also gain a unified call log and history on a single device so I can refer back over time to find numbers I would have otherwise lost.
I have a fax to email service for the same reason for the odd occasion I need to receive a fax… I can get it anywhere and file it electronically.
However the fact that people have my mobile number does not (for me at least) set the expectation that I will be at their beck and call, or answer on demand – I make use of caller ID to screen my calls, I’ll make no secret of that; I manage my workflow during the day and quite often other people’s sense of “urgent” is different from my own [unless you are actually my boss of course – when your calls will usually be answered directly], and at the end of the day I need to balance the needs (…of the many) people who want me to do something for them, and my ability to actually do so and carry on with my day to day workload.
So for example people that ring from lines with withheld numbers will almost always be allowed to go to voicemail, unless I am expecting such a call; I know most people have no control over corporate switchboards but I’ve never understood the logic of withholding caller-ID, especially from a large organisation as you can make the number almost anything, even a central or local office switchboard number if you don’t want to expose people’s regional DDI’s. it also works to their advantage as I’ll be better prepared to speak to them if I know what they want to know – clever as I am I don’t always know everything off the top of my head!
This often means I have a fair number of voicemail’s building up to listen to, and unfortunately more often than not the spare time I have to listen to the messages is whilst on a train or car when I don’t have a pen handy to jot down that number – or am more likely to leave the number written on the copy of the metro on the train.
Now, this is where I’ve found Spinvox really useful in the last couple of weeks; it’s essentially a paid-for service that you use to replace your normal o2/Vodafone/etc. voicemail service. you change your divert on busy/unavailable settings to point at an assigned geographical number (in my case in 0208 one, so it’s inclusive in any bundled minutes your tariff includes rather than a national rate 0870, 0845 etc.).
It offers the normal voicemail features where you can call a special number (again geographical, rather than national-rate etc.) to listen to the actual messages and set your greeting message etc.
But the advantage of SpinVox is it’s ability to convert the speech into text, which can be delivered to you either as an SMS text message or an email (my preference).
I was a bit skeptical at first, but I was very, very impressed after using the 7 day free trial. so much so that at one point I doubted that there was any technology behind it at all and that they were employing a large battery of English speaking monkeys to listen in and type it all up… their website assures me that this isn’t the case and they use a tiered architecture of several speech-text engines depending on the content as some are better at number recognition etc. (can’t find the original link to that article so will keep digging)
It also does an excellent job of transcribing phone numbers and extracts the caller-ID from the caller if it’s available so no hunting around for that elusive pen!
If there is a word in the message Spinvox can’t transcribe or has made a guess at it marks it with a “____” or (?) and if you want to hear the subtle intonation of the person who left the message, each message includes a quick code so you just dial the Spinvox retreival number and key in *03 for example and it will replay the message – a godsend compared to the usual next, next, next drudge with most voicemail systems.
For example – here is a real message left for me.. (names and numbers changed to protect the innocent, but if you really can do my extension cheaper than they can – please do call :)).
You received a new voicemail from +4420812312312:
“Hi there Vinf my name is Bob. I’m calling from a company called XYZ Construction. We received your details via our website regarding your extension. I was wondering if you could give me a call back when you get the message. My telephone no. is 0800123123, in order to discuss the project further. Thank you, bye.”
– spoken through SpinVox
Message received at May 8, 2008 1:25:55 PM
If you wish to listen to this message, call your voicemail on +44207xxxxxxx and press *08
So, back to the point; email delivery of the text content of voicemail messages into my Outlook Inbox allows me to flag, follow-up, set reminders, file, delete etc. and integrate them into my normal daily workflow so I ensure I can manage any resulting actions.
Previously I’ve found where I have had a large number of unheard voicemail messages (due to holiday or long meetings) it takes longer than I’d like to listen to them all; as they often overlap or are irrelevant due to the elapsed time and let’s be honest people (myself included) tend to ramble when they are leaving information in brain-freewheeling mode on an answer machine, or just say it’s X – call me back, which isn’t all that helpful.
So dealing with such a pile of messages, especially when compared to the quick gratification of dealing with normal emails – where you can scan, easily re-read and file, mark for follow-up etc. means dealing with voicemail often fell to the bottom of my priority pile. This, in turn means I risk missing that one important message or take longer to respond to people (yeah I’m a fickle sort of guy – make my life easier and I’ll get back to you quicker… I’m sure I’m not the only one)
In meetings, it’s also ideal – because they’re delivered as SMS or email they also turn up on my Blackberry so I can glance at them during the meeting and make a value/balance decision on wether I should step outside to respond. Doing this in 1:1 meetings might be a bit rude as someone is dedicating their time for your use. But for larger meetings or conferences where you are not always involved or contributing to everything it’s a discrete way of making a judgement call on what requires your current attention.
Overall I’m very impressed, sometimes I’ve seen it take up to 10mins to deliver a converted message (maybe there really are monkeys involved :)), and it’s a bit annoying that the caller (on my o2 network anyway) gets a “your call is being diverted, please hold..” message rather than just cutting to Spinvox as it does with o2’s own voicemail service – but I guess that’s a network feature rather than Spinvox and it’s not a huge deal.
The billing is interesting, and to be honest I think a little bit unclear, as you are basically signed up once your 7 day trial is finished and I’ve not really had any visibility of how they bill other than a message on the last day of the trial saying my account had been charged £5, call customer services otherwise. I can only assume it’s doing this via reverse-SMS billing – for me, this is handy rather than having to manage another subscription and set of card details, however I could see that bothering some people.
Note: I have a “company phone” and don’t always see the bills, so I’ll probably be expecting a call from accounts at the end of the month to query it!
Another use which I hadn’t thought of is for deaf and people with hearing problems, this is ideal as they often make heavy use of text and email to exchange information as they are often unable to call people directly as not everyone has a minicom type setup, I see they are offering text to speech services
They also have a variety of blog/social network interfaces on the way; I don’t think these would be much use for me, but you never know… it takes a while to type these things up, but I’m pretty sure it’s clearer if I’m forced to think about what I’m writing than if I were allowed to ramble at a translator 🙂
In summary it’s an excellent service, and one that I would be happy to pay for myself (even if the billing process is a little unclear, to me and the other user’s I’ve polled anyway) I wonder how long before this technology is adopted by the carriers themselves… it’s got to be the next step, everyone I know hates normal voicemail. most current Unified Messaging systems I’ve seen don’t offer this type of functionality, they’re still geared towards dealing with audio content.
Lastly, one feature that could be quite useful is a web based system for listening to the actual voicemail messages from a PC, rather than dialling into the Spinvox system – although I wonder if I really would use this, it’s so accurate in converting the audio!
Steve Richards blog on work/life balance has a good post on dealing with email overload, that could be extended to take on management of voicemail if you combined it with SpinVox as I mention above – it all ends up in one place which allows you to manage it… rather than drown in it.
I’m not the only one finding it useful, some further reading from other SpinVox Users…
I use a single laptop for my day-day use, it has all the stuff i need, I run Vista and Office 2007, for our corporate mail we use Exchange like everyone else and I use Outlook Cached Mode to work online/offline..
My own personal email is also an Exchange mailbox – provided by fasthosts (why – well, because..ok?) the problem with this is that I can’t have a single copy of Outlook connected to more than one Exchange server at the same time or run multiple instances of Outlook (I’ve tried all the hacks and Thinstall etc.), and to be honest even if I could it would probably violate the security policies of all the involved organisations as it would be quite simple for an Outlook-aware worm to try to propagate itself across multiple organisations or harvest confidential details.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that I often work on long-term customer projects and have to have a mailbox on their Exchange system as well… which leads to multiple diary sync nightmare, maybe I’ll blog about that some other time).
So at present I have 4 Exchange mailboxes that I need to keep track of, auto-forwarding mail between them is a no-no, I used to be an Exchange admin and I’ve lost many bank holidays due to corporate->Hotmail NDR mail loops!
So, up until now I’ve had to run one full Outlook client and multiple OWA clients in a browser, which is ok as long as I’m connected to the Internet, but no good if I’m on a train unless I want to close and restart Outlook with multiple profiles, which is a pain especially when you are collaborating on a project between multiple organisations. To be honest as good as OWA 2003 is it’s no substitute for a full outlook client. (still waiting for Fasthosts to go to Exchange 2007, oh and enable EAS!).
So, anyway a solution – VMWare Unity, this is a feature like Parallels for the Mac which lets you “float” an application window out of a guest VM to the host desktop meaning you can use the applications without working within a single VM’d desktop window.
To use Unity you need to have upgraded the virtual machine to 6.5 “hardware” by right clicking on the VM in the sidebar pane (below) and install the latest VM Tools – it also only seems to support XP at present, or at least it didn’t work on the Server 2003 VM I had.
Boot the VM… and install the latest VM tools.
VM Workstation Screen – note VM is set to “Unity mode”
My Vista desktop (yes, I have the start bar at the right hand side – widescreen laptop!) with the popup menu for the VM, showing all the start menu for applications installed within in it.
It even shows up on the start bar with the correct icon; although this doesn’t seem to work until its been run a couple of times; I assume it needs to cache an icon or something.
it also seems to respect the window snapshots you get whilst Win-Tab between applications, even for pop-up windows
Technically I can use this to run n x Windows XP/Outlook 2003 VM’s presenting Outlook through to my Vista desktop and comply with all organisations security policies, as each VM and its respective copy of Outlook runs in isolation from each other with the relevant company-specific AV client (or at worst, the same level as if I were using a machine connected to a public network in that they all share a vm network) – I don’t enable shared folders between the VMs.
It’s still a beta feature at the moment, and there seem to be a few bugs particularly when resizing windows sometimes it doesn’t work properly and double clicking to expand to full screen overlays the start-bar on my vista machine.
And it does seem to get confused sometimes and not allow keyboard input, so you have to flick back to non-unity mode and then back to continue, and sometimes a reboot of the guest VM but it is an early build so I would guess this will be resolved.
As an added bonus VM Workstation seems to allow the Vista host OS to go into sleep mode even whilst VMs are running, this is something I’ve not had much luck with in the past – it would generally refuse to sleep when I closed the lid (but thats not a scientific comparison… it may have just been bad luck!)
So, the pay-off – 2 copies of Outlook (2003 and 2007) seemingly running on the same desktop, alt-tab works ok and you have access to all the functionality of both without having to switch between or run multiple OWA sessions and from a security perspective it’s not really any different from having 2 physical PCs in front of you (slight memory overhead, but my laptop has 4Gb RAM, so not a huge issue).
Opening attachments is obviously going to be a bit of an issue, as you’ll technically need an individually licenced instance of Office 2003 in each VM as they can’t (yet) exchange data between them… and that would compromise the security principal.
As of 1st April (not an April fools joke!) you can register for, and download the VM Worksation 6.5 beta programme here..
Main new features are;
I’m most looking forward to being able to use Unity… very cool, have used it on the Mac with Fusion and Parallels equivalent, maybe now I will be able to run 2 instances of full-fat Outlook 2007 side by side, plugged into different Exchange mailboxes and orgs (maybe a bit overkill – but I have my reasons!)
This is a really useful feature; I didn’t realise you could do this (until I had a need to do so, thanks Google!); makes it much easier to look and manage multiple calendars (or people’s shared calendars).
Shame the UI for this isn’t particularly obvious, or at least maybe I’m blind but the button is quite small 🙂
Interesting article here on some stress testing VMWare have done running Exchange 2007 under virtualization on VI3.5.
It’s working.. .and working well, now – official support?
I’ve been into reading people’s blogs and tracking websites like theregister for a good couple of years. I never really found an RSS reader app that worked for me; I wanted to build custom views of feeds, flag and prioritize them and mark things to read later – and I could find standalong apps to do these things but not one that did it all – hopefully this post will show you how I do it – if you have some other suggestions feel free to comment & share them.
Outlook 2007 supports RSS feeds out of the box, and it’s ideal as I already use Outlook and it’s calendar/tasks features to manage my workflow. Outlook 2003 and later (I think) added the ability to flag and tag items and even build a custom category list.
It means I can basically add all my RSS feeds as sources of information in the same way as I use it to manage my company emails, and categorise, flag as required and it all merges with into task list.
I can do this categorization manually or I think automatically via a rule
Flagging – which passes it into Outlook’s task list
I have two main folder/sub-folder structures – regular reads, for feeds that have a lot of frequent/interesting traffic and another folder/sub-folder structure for less noisy but important feeds (for example software release notifications etc.)
Best of all I can build custom views across of all my RSS feeds using custom search folders – for example I have the following (yes, and lots of unread emails too!)
And this gives me the following consolidated view across all my feeds, sorted by date (but could be lots of other criteria)
The add feed GUI components definitely have the feel of an afterthought but using them works brilliantly for me. Clicking on a page’s RSS feed brings up Outlook but doesn’t want to add it as a feed so I’ve always cut & pasted.. I assumed this was a beta bug but have been using RTM for quite a while now – must get round to investigating that.