Why Is Managing Personal Information So Difficult?

Like many frequent business travelers, I'm at odds with today's personal information managers (PIMs). I use Outlook to manage my contacts, email, scheduling, and to-do list, and as I mention in my review of Outlook 2002 (see the URL listed at the end of the column), the state of the art just isn't so state of the art. So I've tried a bunch of other tools—including Act! 2000, which is decent, and some shareware alternatives from a bevy of small companies—with an eye to possibly comparing them to Outlook at some later date. But the reality is that I rely on Outlook. Heck, I almost have to use Outlook. So I'm not switching, but I'd like Outlook to become more usable.

Late last summer, I complained about the lack of sophisticated time-zone management in Outlook, and although I won't reiterate what I wrote in detail here, the story goes something like this: You plan a business trip to a different time zone and set up your meetings from your "home" time zone. Then you hop on a plane, fly to the new location, and dutifully change your system clock to the local time zone. And what does Outlook do? It adjusts all your meeting times too. If you've just flown from Boston to the West coast, as I did recently (and will be doing again by the time you read this newsletter), your appointment times will all be off—3 hours off in my case.

OK, you can find ways around this problem, and Microsoft makes it easy to work with one alternate time zone. And you'll find people who can explain, quite logically, that the feature does just what it should do. But in my own experience and in conversations I've had with others, I find that the system doesn't match the way most people work. Outlook should do a better job. And even though Office XP is shipping soon, its version of Outlook doesn't improve this situation. Many people I've spoken with admit that they don't change the system time on their laptops specifically because they'd rather convert the local time on the fly than mess up their PIM information. And although I consider myself fairly computer literate, I do the same thing. It shouldn't be this way: Computers are supposed to make such things easier.

So I began looking into handheld PIMs, such as those based on the Palm OS and Pocket PC. Even inexpensive PIMs such as the excellent (and tiny) Xircom REX support the concept of multiple time zones—and I think that these devices should be able to deal elegantly with the concept of travel. And sure enough, they do, sort of. I looked at inexpensive units from the Palm OS and Pocket PC camps—a Palm M105 and a Hewlett Packard (HP) Jornada 525, respectively. I'll compare these devices next time around, but for now I'll look more closely at how the Palm OS and Pocket PC handle time-zone management.

The Pocket PC is based on Windows CE, which—even in its latest incarnation—is surprisingly like desktop Windows versions. And the similarity is both good and bad: You get "Pocket" versions of the latest desktop applications, such as Word and Excel, which I find almost useless on such a small machine. What's more interesting and relevant is the PIM stuff. No true Pocket Outlook exists; instead, Microsoft split the application into separate applications for Inbox, Contacts, Calendar, and Tasks. They sync up with their desktop equivalents nicely and provide the kind of instant-on, quick-access convenience you need as you hurry to the next appointment on the road.

And the Pocket PC supports two time zones, sort of, through the Clock applet, which has Home and Visiting clocks; you can set the Visiting time to the time zone you've traveled to (or to a city name, such as Redmond, Washington), and the applet will actually change the device's system time to reflect the new location. But here's the kicker: When you make the change, it's like changing the time zone on a Windows desktop: Your Calendar appointments change as well (3 hours in my case). That's ridiculous.

The Palm OS's Date Book and Clock applications are, in some ways, less sophisticated. But then, you don't have the same scheduling problems either. If you import your Outlook data into the Palm and hit the road, you can change the time through the Clock applet as you'd expect. However, changing the time doesn't have the effect of changing the time of your appointments. You might be familiar with the argument that the Palm OS is successful because of its simplicity. I think the way it handles time changes might be a good example: Because it's so simple, it works the way you'd expect.

The Palm isn't a slam dunk, however. As I'll discuss next week, synchronizing Outlook with the Palm isn't simple, and I'm still not positive that either of these devices—Palm or Pocket PC—is a must-have productivity booster. I have to resist the urge to ask people I see on planes, buses, or trains, tapping away incessantly on those tiny screens, what it is, exactly, that they're doing. At least they're not talking into them, not yet. No doubt that day will come soon enough.

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