Fun with Outlook, Time Zones, and Those Little PC Companions

If you read my COMDEX report last month in WinInfo Daily UPDATE—now archived at the Windows SuperSite—you might remember a weird little problem I had with Outlook's Calendar feature during the trip. Basically, when I changed the time zone settings in Windows back 3 hours to match the Boston to Las Vegas time change, Outlook moved my COMDEX meeting times back 3 hours as well. Two things became immediately obvious to me when I showed up at my first meeting 3 hours early: One, the automatic meeting time change seemed like an Outlook bug, and two, I needed a pocket-sized Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) of some kind. Repeatedly opening up a laptop to check on meeting times is ridiculous. I resolved both of these issues, but neither in the way I had expected.

My mention of the Outlook "bug" in WinInfo Daily UPDATE that week caused some controversy: Several people wrote to me wondering how I could label this a bug at all because Outlook was working exactly as it should: How would Outlook know that my meeting times shouldn't change along with the time settings? I didn't see it that way: Changing the time zone should change the time as appropriate, but it shouldn't change scheduled events. If a meeting is at 2:00 P.M., it's at 2:00 P.M. Either Outlook isn't as sophisticated as I thought it should be, or I was simply missing something obvious.

In a rare moment of redemption, I heard from Woody's Office Watch (WOW), an email newsletter about Microsoft's Office products. Referring to me as "reader PaulT from Boston," the WOW newsletter summarized the problem nicely. "This is a long-time gotcha that I've discussed with the Microsoft Outlook team members several times, and they'll tell you it's a feature, not a bug. The scenario they want you to imagine is that you have a weekly meeting at your main Boston Office every Tuesday at 2:00 P.M. You go to Vegas and need to phone in to the meeting. At what time do you want that meeting \[notification\] to show up while you're in Vegas? Why, at 11:00 A.M., when it's 2:00 P.M. in Boston. That's why Outlook is the way it is.

"But this algorithm doesn't work in two cases. First, if you have a daily reminder to take medicine at 7:00 A.M. when you are in Vegas, \[the reminder\] will start going off at 4:00 A.M. Related to this bug is that . . . Thanksgiving or any other all-day event . . . \[apparently runs\] from 9:00 P.M. the day before until 9:00 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day because Outlook happily adjusts even such events when you change time zones. When you set up a Vegas appointment last week while still in Boston, you didn't adjust for the time change, so when Outlook changed the times, your appointment was off. Outlook has an official solution for this. You can turn on a dual time zone display (pick Tools, Options, Preferences, Calendar Options, Time Zone) from the Outlook menus and use it the week before you leave town to make sure the appointments have the right time adjustment. This doesn't work very well if your trip takes you to several time zones. In the end, I think that the scenario Outlook corrects for is the less common one so that the Outlook solution is not the right one. Indeed, many Outlook gurus 'solve' this problem by not changing their time zone when they travel. Not a great solution but forced by Outlook's annoying behavior."

So I guess it's all how you look at it. I still consider the meeting time changes a bug.

Another thought from COMDEX: Relying on a laptop for reminders and scheduled-event details is ponderous at best. As with beepers and cell phones, however, I've resisted getting a Palm OS or Pocket PC device for various reasons. But constantly opening the laptop, even with Hibernation speeding the process, was untenable. So I started looking into PDAs.

What I found wasn't surprising. At the low end of the palm-sized PDA market, devices such as the Palm M100 and the base Handspring Visor provide small amounts of RAM and black-and-white screens in a $150 package that requires removable batteries. No thanks. For a few bucks more, you can get a black-and-white Pocket PC, but that breed of animal is pretty rare. Something tells me that the Pocket PC will have its big successes with color, not grayscale, devices.

Color Palm OS-based and Pocket PCs are expensive, however. For about $500, you can get a color-enabled palm-sized device. In that price range, the Pocket PC pulls decidedly ahead of Palm and Handspring: Pocket PCs have enough RAM to do double duty as portable digital music devices, and with the ClearType-enabled Microsoft Reader software, they are superior eBook devices as well. The Palm OS is currently in the middle of a transition to color, and color-ready software is scarce. But the thought of spending $500 on something I'd probably just lose is hard to overcome. These are nice devices, but they seem a bit much, especially if all you need is calendar and contacts synchronization.

Of course, a wide world of devices outside of the Palm/Pocket PC duopoly caters to just about every need. The new eBooks from Franklin and other companies perform all the common personal information manager (PIM) tasks most people need, and they're pretty cheap, starting at about $100. And Royal's tiny Vista comes with a small foldout keyboard and is even cheaper, about $50. But then I realized I already owned the tool I need. A year or so ago, I bought two Rolex REX devices and gave one to my wife. Since Xircom purchased Rolex, the REX has evolved somewhat (it now offers input capabilities, which I find largely superfluous in a device this size), but it basically offers a wide range of PIM features, along with desktop synchronization, in a device that fits in a wallet. In fact, the REX plugs directly into a PC card slot in a laptop, making it an ideal combination of portability and connectivity. And because it can maintain two time zones easily, it doesn't mess up your meeting times when you travel. I might actually use it now that I've seen the light.

Finally, I discussed Microsoft's Tablet PC last week, and several readers are looking for a good picture of the Tablet PC. I forgot to include the following link (where you'll find a picture) in my article.

I also received several messages about the Qbe Personal Computing Tablet, a device that's been available for about a year and will soon enter its second generation with a design called the Vivo. The Qbe Personal Computing Tablet offers just about everything the Tablet PC promises, but it's here today and worth checking out.

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