Nice new calendaring features in Exchange 2007

There’s so much new stuff in Exchange 2007, that it’s easy to forget just how useful some of it is… like the calendaring improvements both in the UI of Outlook and OWA, but in some server-side cleverness too.

In Exchange 2003 and earlier, when someone sends you a meeting request, it will just sit in your Inbox until Outlook picks it up and does something with it (depending on how you have Outlook configured). One standard behaviour would be for it to take meeting requests and stick them in your calendar as tentative appointments which you’ve yet to respond to. Outlook does need to be running, however…

This could mean that if you’re on holiday, people might be sending you meeting requests which conflict, but your free/busy time might look free because Outlook isn’t running. Exchange 2007 now does the tentative booking of time on behalf of the mailbox, as well as taking care of other meeting hygiene features – like removing out-of-date meeting requests when the organiser sends a change (solving another pain if you’ve been away for a while, and come back to loads of meeting requests which are out of date). This is part of what the “Calendar Attendant” does – more calendaring stuff can be found on a description of the collection of services referred to as the “Calendar Concierge“.

Now, I’m on a lot of internal distribution lists which I filter from my inbox into subfolders using server side rules. In the past, I’d sometimes missed conference calls etc where invites had been sent to the DL, but had been moved into my subfolders before Outlook had a chance to shove the tentative meeting in the calendar. Now, with Exchange doing both acts, anything sent to me directly or indirectly will get put in the calendar. Nice!

Well, there is one downside – in a multinational company, there are meetings and conference calls going on at all hours of the day and night… and invites might be sent to DLs to drum up interest in attending. It’s easy to forget to switch off your phone or PDA from reminding you about the out of hours meetings, if you’re not in the habit of deleting/declining the requests…

Sometimes, it’s the seemingly little improvements that make applications so much more usable – and yet don’t get the same degree of attention. The Calendar Concierge is definitely one of them!


You have to admire the way Apple stage manages announcements and releases – despite months of rumours, there’s been little of real substance about the iPhone until it was announced in San Francisco on Tuesday. The media coverage the announcement has already got is hard to believe – let alone all the discussion that’s going on over the net about it.

Now, I have never bought an Apple product*. Partly through bloody-mindedness and some kind of desire to be a bit different, and partly because over a decade ago I never got on with the Mac and, more crucially, never (then) got on with the kind of Mac users who behaved like religious zealots…

The iPhone looks interesting for a number of reasons: time will tell if it is really a success in Europe when compared to all the various Smartphones, PDAs, Blackberry devices etc, as well as the more basic mobile phone devices as used primarily by consumers who just want a phone, maybe one that takes pictures, that can make and take calls, and do text messaging.

Some initial thoughts about the iPhone, IMHO:

  • From a feature point of view, it’s not really all that revolutionary – there’s nothing really on the device that isn’t already available from a number of different (more established) mobile operators and device vendors, and many offer (today) all the same (and more) level of functionality, for a lower cost.
    Where Apple will hope to score will be on the whole package and the design.
  • When iPods are announced (as well as other devices like the Mac mini), it’s often been possible to go right out and buy them that day. This contrasts with most tech company behaviours where products are announced months or even years in advance. The iPhone breaks with this tradition somewhat, by not being available months later in the US, much later this year (in Europe) and next year in Asia.
  • Network operators always have to go through a testing cycle for any new hardware – maybe that’s why Steve Jobs was waving about the iPhone on stage, but it’ll be 4 or 5 months before anyone will buy one. Talk to any of the entrant mobile device vendors in recent years, and you’ll find a lot of them who just haven’t nailed enough of the basics for the device to be usable… so the iPhone v1 might well need to be followed up pretty quickly with a later version, if there isn’t enough time to sort out the inevitable troubles early on. The lack of 3G might have put a lot of carriers off this phone, if it didn’t carry the Apple logo and the cachet that goes with that, so maybe a quick follow-on with iPhone v2 that includes UMTS would be a smart move for Apple, though at the risk of cheesing off all the early adopters of v1.
  • Cingular seem to have done well out of this arrangement – an exclusive deal (at least at first) where every salivating wannabe iPhone owner gets tied to a 2 year contract just to buy the phone in the first place. The other US carriers must be smarting a bit over that one – but to do this, Cingular may have had to give up any control on the device (custom UI, built-in activation of specific carrier services, application bundles etc) that they would typically impose on other handset vendors… although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing…
  • There’s no denying the iPhone looks nice – at least it does in the photos and videos. It’s a master of style and simplicity, just like the way the Mac has always stuck to a single mouse button rather than the 2 or 3 that Windows or various *nixes have adopted. It’ll be interesting to see how effective the touch screen is, not only for dialling (something that’s never as easy on a touch screen as it is on a physical keypad – the lack of tactile feedback really makes a difference), but also for texting using an on-screen soft keyboard without a stylus.
  • Who’s the typical user going to be? Twenty/thirtysomething consumers who quite probably own an iPod already? How’s Apple going to grow their installed base with the phone, if the main user groups just ditch their iPod Nano in favour of an iPhone…
  • Business customers are much more likely to either be using Windows Mobile, Blackberry or similar, or would at least want to connect their array of devices to some internal e-mail system with calendaring & contacts sync support, rather than relying on IMAP or getting an external service (like the push-IMAP that’s being offered from Yahoo!). Enterprise customers may also want some more control over the security of the device – is there going to be on-device encryption? What about policies to manage access in to internal systems from the GPRS network? And with a whole new OS (even if it is some variant of OS X, it’s still going to be “new” from a developer perspective), how quickly & readily will 3rd parties be to fill the inevitable gaps in functionality?


Oh well, I suppose we’ll have to wait & see what happens…


* I do actually own some Apple merchandise – the iPod sock that I use to keep my Orange SPV M3100 warm and scratch-free (thankfully now washed and smelling sweetly). And I once had a Mac classic – when I left a previous employer, one part of my leaving present was an old monochrome Mac (which I don’t think ever booted up). I took it home and turned it into a garden ornament – it looked quite funky sitting in the back border, covered in moss and with the plastic cracking somewhat. Wish I had some photos…

Using Outlook Search Folders to filter only external mail

Following on from my recent post about search folders, I got a few questions and comments via mail. One, from Christian, asked if it was possible to use a search folder to filter out only mail which came from “outside” – eg Only show me the last day’s mail from external senders, thus filtering out all the organisational spam that will typically be clogging the mailbox.

I had a bit of a scratch of the old bonce, and figured out one possible way – there may be others, but none are really obvious. There are a couple of requirements for this to work out, though…

  • Your inbound mail must be handled by Exchange 2003 or 2007, using the Intelligent Message Filter technology to stamp inbound mail with a Spam Confidence Level value. It may be possible to use other tools which also support the Exchange Anti-Spam Framework.
  • You need to install a form into Outlook, which will expose that SCL property which is stamped onto inbound mail. This will then allow you to add the SCL value to views, filters etc.

Once you’ve got the SCL form installed, you can create a search folder with the appropriate length filter (eg all mail since yesterday morning, as described on my previous post) and add a new filter to restrict the SCL value (click on the Field drop-down, and look for either the name you gave the SCL form, or the “Forms…” link to add that).

If you set the filter to be at least “0”, that means that any message with an SCL value of 0 or higher will be shown (you might want to add an additional filter to not show stuff with a high SCL value, since they’re lkely to be in your junk mail folder anyway). You could also restrict which folders are shown, based on the same logic in my earlier post.

Anyway, mail with an SCL value will have come from an external source (ie internal Exchange<->Exchange mail won’t have been scanned by the IMF at all), and will have come from an anonymous connection (mail sent by authenticated servers through the same gateway will be assigned an SCL of -1 to show that it’s exempt from filtering by the SmartScreen logic within the IMF).

It might take a little while to render the search folder if you’ve a large mailbox, but it does provide a nice way of showing you only stuff which came from outside.


You can’t ignore a ringing phone

It’s funny when you look back a few years to see just how communications technology has changed – remember when you might have asked (or been asked), “are you on the phone?”… meaning not, “are you using the phone” but “do you have a phone at home”… now we just assume that (pretty much) everyone’s got a mobile phone, everyone has internet access and everyone has at least one email account.

Organisational culture has evolved a lot in the last 5-10 years, to the point where a lot of people hide behind email while some try to escalate into other forms of communication as soon as possible. There’s one guy at Microsoft who always phones in response to getting an email from me. I tend to enjoy playing cat and mouse by letting the phone drop to voicemail, listening to the message, then emailing him back 🙂

A lot of us have settled on corporate Instant Messaging as a happy medium, for a number of reasons:

  • Like email, it offers access to the whole corporate address book, not just the list of people I’ve talked to before (such as MSN/Live Messenger does) so I can IM people I’ve never had anything to do with.
  • Presence from Communicator is shown in Outlook 2007, and on Sharepoint web sites, so it’s often easier to be context sensitive.If someone’s presence shows up as “In a Call”, there’s no point in phoning them, cos they’re already on the phone (and the status is set by the telephone system, so when they hang up, it’ll revert back to Normal).
  • Best of all, it’s neither as intrusive as a phone, but the immediacy doesn’t get lost as easily as in email.
    • You can’t really ignore a phone that’s ringing – sure, you can forward to voicemail so it doesn’t ring at all, but that’s different.
      • A phone which forwards to voicemail is like the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment in that you won’t know whether you have voicemail – and hence whether anyone was ringing the phone at any given point – until you observe the light on the phone or you actually check your messages. So,
    • When the phone rings, you decide (usually based on the caller ID that’s displayed) if you’re going to answer it, combined with a load of environmental factors (are you busy? are you in a place where you don’t want to take this call? are you just about to go to the toilet so don’t want to be distracted right now? etc)
    • Email, for a lot of people, tends to be like a stack. The last message in (and the one at the top of the list) is the one that gets first attention, meaning it’s easy to overlook stuff that’s in the middle of the stack and probably off-screen when the Inbox is sorted.
  • If someone doesn’t respond to an IM, you generally accept that maybe they didn’t see it – because it’s disposable communication, you don’t tend to have the assumption that a reply is expected. If a sender doesn’t get a response to something important, they’ll always try again, or escalate to another form of communication (like phoning you up).
  • IM makes a great way of starting a side conversation with someone, which might turn into something more formal (escalating to email, to face:face, to group conversations on the phone or even online meetings through the likes of Live Meeting).
    • Often, I’ll see someone’s staus as “In a meeting” – now that could mean they’re sitting at their desk but with Outlook blocking time out of their calendar to do some work (or maybe they’re on a conference call). I’d typically say “busy? got a min?” and if no response comes back, I’d assume that yes, they are busy, and no, they don’t have a min. If a response does come back, then maybe I’ll realise they’re not busy, they’re not on the phone, and in fact, they’d like to meet up for a coffee in 5 minutes.

Interestingly enough, John Westworth IM’ed me halfway through my writing this post to ask a question about my mobile device (an SPV M3100). He theorised that he doesn’t answer his phone much (more through accident than desire, I should add), and figured that I might be the same… so it would be better to IM instead …

This led to an idea for some canny Windows Mobile developer to pick up, and make riches from – an AI-like Bozo Filter for the phone. Just think … it could pick up the Caller ID from an incoming call, figure out if that user is in the Outlook contacts list (or maybe even the GAL) and cross reference with the number of times that individual appears in the Call History (ie have I called this guy before? Has he called me a lot and actually got through?) and in the mail client, then apply a Bozo Confidence Filter (BCL) to the call… which would then allow me to set up rules to decide my preferences for when I will accept calls and from what level of Bozo…

Combine all this with the inherently linear nature of a phone call – it’s synchronous, you (generally) can only have one at a time, and they tend to be fairly short. IM conversations can be done in parallel with each other (though make sure you don’t type a comment into the wrong window by mistake…) and some may have many rounds of dialogue/response stretching over a reasonable period of time (usually at most a day). Email would suit much more asynchronous communications that might be shared with hundreds of people, stretched over any length of time. Choosing which one to use is increasingly a personal preference, and in future, the choice is increasingly going to be with the recipient rather than the sender. So, when the guy I mentioned earlier picks up the phone to call me and I don’t answer, I might receive the call as an IM stream if I’m online and want to take it, rather than dumping straight to Voicemail…

Exciting times, eh?


Using Outlook Search folders to sift large volumes of email

[This is a re-heat and update of an older blog post on You Had me at EHLO!]

Search Folders in Outlook 2003 and 2007 can be a useful tool to manage large volumes of mail in your mailbox; one tip is to create a folder for “all mail since this morning” or similar; I also have a search folder for “all unread blog posts” which means I get a single filtered view, grouped by folder and sorted by date. Here are a couple of examples…

  • Firstly, create a Search Folder by right-clicking in Outlook on the ‘Search Folders’ root folder, and choosing New Search Folder … then navigate to the bottom of the list and create a Custom Search Folder.
  • Click the ‘Choose’ button to start the creation process and give the folder a name (hit the Criteria button on the following dialog once you’ve decided on a name).
  • Navigate to the Advanced tab, and using the Field button, choose Frequently Used Fields -> Received and change the condition to ‘on or after’ and the value to ‘8am yesterday’. Hit the ‘Add to list’ button.
  • Next, choose ‘In Folder’ from the ‘All Mail Fields’ heading within the Field drop down, set the condition to ‘doesn’t contain’ and then follow with a list of words which you want to exclude from the results.
  • Finally, select ‘Message Class’ from ‘All Mail Fields’ if you want to restrict the type of content you’re going to include – I don’t want RSS feeds to be part of the search result, so have set the condition to “doesn’t contain=rss” since the Outlook 2007 RSS form is of message class IPM.Post.RSS.

The second condition here sets the list of folders we want to exclude… I use ‘DL: Sent Junk Draft Deleted’, which means any item in Sent Items, Drafts, Deleted Items or Junk Items will automatically be excluded, but so will any folders which contain the letters ‘DL:’ in their name. This way, I filter social mail and less important Distribution Lists into folders which all start DL: <name> and the other DL items which are more important still show up in the Search Folder.

The last stage is to add the Search Folder to the Favorites Folders collection, and set the default view of the Search Folder to show Arrange by Folder… then it’s really easy to quickly collapse & expand the groupings to show and hide specific folders from the results. Now, all I need to do is get round to reading and responding to all that email 🙂 The sad thing is, that as of writing (around 5pm), the filtered mail from yesterday morning is showing 202 items, 172 of which are unread 🙁

More info on search folders is on Office Online – some here, and here.


Some more useful Windows & Outlook shortcuts

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve a penchant for using shortcuts in Windows: most (if not all) are documented in help files and the likes, but it is amazing how many people don’t know about them or just don’t use them.

Continuing the list of shortcut keys that can save a few fractions of a second each time you use them…

  • ALT-SPACE brings up the menu which allows you to maximise, minimise etc the current window – may be useful if you’ve played with multiple monitors and a window appears half off the screen such that you can’t get to the top of it… ALT-SPACE followed by “M” (for Move) will allow you to use the arrow keys to shift the window around the screen.

  • In Outlook, CTRL-2 switches to the Calendar, CTRL-3 to Contacts, and CTRL-1 back to Inbox. Handy if you’re often flicking around to arrange a meeting with lots of people…

  • Still in Outlook, when viewing the Calendar ALT-= switches to Month view, ALT- “-” (next to equals sign) switches to the week view, and ALT- number displays the number of days forward from the current date (eg ALT-9 will show 9 day view).

There are lots of handy commands which you can type, used in conjunction with Windows-Key-R, to speed navigation in the UI. You could even set up shortcuts to some of these for quick activation using the mouse/start menu etc…

Some favourites:

NCPA.CPL – jumps straight into the network control panel, rather than (depending on which version of Windows you’re running), fiddling about in Control Panel and looking for Networking connections. Under Vista, the guts of Networking is hidden behind the Network & Sharing Center.

DESK.CPL ,3 – (note the space before the comma) – takes you straight to the display settings page that’s used to change resolution, select monitors etc.

COMPMGMT.MSC – quick way of getting to the main Computer Management snapin, which branches off to event logs, user manager etc.

SYSDM.CPL – System Properties dialog (same effect as pressing WND-BREAK)

There are many more – from SERVICES.MSC or EVENTVWR typed directly at the Start menu, to MSTSC /v <server> /console to take over a remote machine’s console using the Terminal Server client.

Enjoy – and Happy New Year!