Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Outlook 2007: time zones tamed

Or how to get a feature into Office.

Beta 2 of Outlook adds a feature to appointments; you can pick the timezone to create the meeting in and you can have a different timezone for the start and end of the meeting. It's very simple, it's very easy to use and it will save travellers a huge amount of grief (and anyone phoning the US from the UK or vice versa). Yes, there was a timezone strip before, but it only did two timezones and it still meant doing sums.

I wasn't expecting to get the timezone feature because it wasn't in the build I saw at the Office Reviewer's Workshop at the beginning of May. So when I started working with beta 2 of Outlook the day before my accident in Seattle and saw it, I did actually sit with my mouth open gaping like a fish for nearly a minute so I took a minute to mail the whole list of thank you’s to everyone who helped me be there that day, clicking the Timezone button in an appointment and setting the start time in Pacific time and the end time in East coast time without a calculator, a headache and a 24-hour miscalculation.

I'll say it again. Thank you! Whether you pointed me at the right person to beg for the feature, put up with me begging for the feature, went back to Redmond and had someone code the feature or actually sat down and did the coding – I thank you! Everyone who doesn’t have to hear me rant thanks you! And probably more importantly, everyone who travels in more than two timezones thanks you too, though you might have to wait until they wake up to hear them ;-)

I can't be the only person who asked for this. But I wonder if I was the noisiest ;-)
This is a feature I've been asking for since - well, I first remember discussing it at the launch of the SPV, the very first Windows Smartphone. 2001? I've asked everyone I've met on the Office team, from Outlook PMs to Jeff Raikes and Steve Sinosfky. I think the internal Microsoft profile for me says something like 'warning, contains timezones'. I had a long and involved argument with the man behind Schedule Plus, which Outlook's appointments were based on, I put it into the Microsoft newsgroups and on the Office wish Web site. I mentioned it to the Exchange team and the real-time communications team. And one day in January, a helpful Microsoft person said to me that what I needed to do was get someone at Microsoft on my side, campaigning internally. Someone with a name. Say, Scoble. Someone who could find me the right person to talk to. And as I met Robert Scoble last year at a Tablet PC launch, I mailed him.

I didn't just ask for the feature, or demand it. I explained why I thought it would be useful, and who I thought it would be useful to. I explained that I understood that features needed testing and added time and cost to a project. I explained the impact I thought it would have on the rest of the product. I wrote the scenario to illustrate the problem it would solve. And a few weeks later I was in touch with the Outlook PM who was working on a timezone feature, almost exactly the way I'd been describing it to Office people for the last four years ;-) that's not because I designed the feature, but because it's the logical way to do it. But if you're going to push for a feature, laying out the problem and being clear about a solution has to be a good way to do it.

Here's how I phrased it. (I was wrong about not being able to send an invite to someone not using Outlook, I found out today; they'd get it as plain email with the details, or I could sync it to their Google calendar).

Suppose you're in the UK and planning to go to a mobile development conference in Florida and then fly up to Seattle for WinHEC (I did that trip last spring!). You want to fill in your meetings in Orlando, your flight to Seattle, the details of the dinner meeting after you land and your meetings in Seattle. To see what time to set your Orlando meetings for you can turn on an extra strip of times at the side of the calendar to show you one extra timezone (although it doesn't change the timezone you see in the appointment dialog).

But then you have to change the second time zone to Pacific Time to set up your Seattle meetings; by this time it's getting really fiddly and I'm feeling confused because I only do this three or four times a year. How about if I need to call someone in Seattle from Florida for a briefing the day before I fly there; now I have to show two US timezones to pick a reasonable time but the appointment still shows the UK time in the dialog.

Suppose I want to give the meeting details to someone who's making the trip with be but they don't use Outlook so I can't send an invite. I have to either write the time of the appointment in the appointment title (which is what I end up doing in case I miscalculated) or keep changing the timezones so I can see the actual meeting times in the correct timezone.

And working out the meeting times isn't always straightforward, especially if maths isn't your strong point. 18.15 in Florida is 16.15 in Seattle is 0.15 UK time; should my 4.15 meeting when I land on Monday go in for just after midnight on Monday or on Tuesday? I should know, but should I have to think about that every time when Outlook could do it for me?

It works the same if you're in the US and travelling to the UK and then on the Germany. Even if you're only changing one time zone, if you create appointments any way other than dragging over the time in the calendar - by dragging in an email or by sending items from OneNote - the timezone strip just isn't good enough and you end up counting on your finger.

Obviously, any feature adds complexity, needs testing and so on. But Outlook and Exchange already store times as an offset to UTC and Outlook already has the timezone information including daylight saving for the timezone strip. Something like a tickbox for 'Select the timezone' and a dropdown list of timezones next to the times in an appointment wouldn't clutter the dialog much. And it seems so daft for the computer that's supposed to do the work for me to make me do sums in my head just because I plan to leave the country.

I'm a huge Outlook fan; I love the new To Do bar and the colour categories to death. There are so many neat features in Outlook 12. But timezones in Outlook make my head hurt and I'm sure I can't be the only person who just wants the software to do the sums for me.
Tags: development, microsoft office, outlook, technology, timezones

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