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Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

Category Archives: Work/Life Balance

Exchange Outlook Feature Request: Where’s Waldo?

 

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 Winking smile) 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.

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Domestic Schedule Bliss? There’s an iPad app for that in the Cloud

 

Anyone reading this that has a partner and family will probably understand my pain… My wife & I have a pretty busy schedule; work commitments and travel that are part of any modern IT consultant job, 2 young children and their highly complex schedule of social and school, nursery, classes add to that a widely distributed network of family and friends and their social events/weekend visiting and it gets pretty complex to keep track of.

As I’ve written about before my Outlook/BES Blackberry calendar is de-facto to me; I just don’t have the mental bandwidth to track everything and the bit of my brain that deals with remembering dates over a week away is either missing or faulty and multiple personal/work calendars just mess with my head.

My wife has performed a heroic task of maintaining a paper family calendar for years, but that forced me to also maintain it manually and often things were forgotten which has led to much confusion and mis-scheduling, especially when I have been away and there have been changes to my schedule.

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We work in IT right? there has to be a technical solution to this pain? well yes, there is; however my wife found using a laptop or small screened mobile phone to manage a shared calendar too difficult whilst juggling 2 small children and always fell back to the paper calendar and lived with it’s limitations.

So, when an iPad was introduced and quickly adopted by everyone in the household as “good-enough” for everything from quick browsing of the web to TV guides, iPlayer, recipes, games I spotted an opportunity.

I was a bit skeptical about the iPad at first and didn’t think it would be much more than a nice toy, however it was used so much by all of the family because;

  • It switched on instantly (unlike a laptop)
  • the battery lasts literally forever so you don’t have to be tethered to power (unlike a laptop or iPhone)
  • Has a usable sized screen that you could read things without having to scroll/pan about (unlike a smartphone); and having 2 young kids it’s wipe-clean and reasonably robust (parents will understand Smile).

So with some fiddling we ended up at this solution

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  • Google calendar acting as the central “hub” reference – accessible via a web browser from anywhere and with a good API that is used by sync applications across multiple platforms.
  • My Exchange-hosted calendar is automatically synced to my fat-Outlook client and to my Blackberry via the BES.
  • the Google calendar sync application runs in the background on my Blackberry and syncs with the shared Google Calendar.
  • The iPad application CalenGoo syncs with the Google Calendar so the calendar can always be viewed and edited from the iPad in a convenient home-use form-factor.
  • My wife’s new smartphone (which will either be a BIS Blackberry or iPhone will be able to sync with the Google calendar “hub” giving her a mobile and up to date editable copy of the calendar.

For us it works pretty well, if you have a similar problem I’d suggest you investigate it, one word of warning the BB/Gmail sync app won’t sync historical appointments from your calendar so be careful if you try to get around this with a manual import; you may end up with duplicate calendar entries (at least I did, and had to de-dupe them).

There are also Google calendar sync plug-ins for Outlook and other mail clients, but I was happy enough with doing it via my BB as that nearly always has a network connection and is kept constantly in-sync with my work calendar.

With all that sync’ing there is a latency of about an hour for changes to get replicated end-end which is more than enough for our family needs.

In terms of security my family or work schedule isn’t particularly sensitive but it’s tied down to usernames/passwords where relevant and transmission is over SSL, entries from our shared calendar get synced into my corporate calendar marked as ‘private’ – but there could be better support for a more granular model both ways here, Google calendar seems to have this concept but it doesn’t federate into into the Exchange/BB world {yet}.

SpinVox: The Future of Voicemail

 

SpinVox is changing the game for busy people..

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

For assistance, see www.spinvox.com or email service@spinvox.com

Thank you,

SpinVox

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.

image 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…

http://www.atmasphere.net/wp/archives/2008/05/14/with-spinvox-im-reading-your-voicemail

http://darlamack.blogs.com/darlamack/2008/05/how-did-i-live.html

http://www.womworld.com/nokia/3305/spinvox-a-lifeline-for-busy-users/

http://davestronach.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/spinvox-voicemail-to-text/