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Outlook 2007 - time zones get marginal improvement

There’s a nice new time zone feature in Outlook 2007 – but it doesn’t go far enough.

One feature we like in Outlook 2007 is the, long overdue, support for appointments from different time zones but, as usual, when you dig deeper the improvement doesn’t go far enough.

In the past these appointments were difficult to enter – Outlook has a primitive dual time zone display which is rightly ignored by most people as cumbersome and unhelpful. There was no good reason for this because the underlying structure for saving appointments has always been able to store time zone details – for some reason Microsoft has chosen to obscure that powerful ability from their customers.

At long last you can enter an appointment according to a time zone different from the one that the computer is currently set for. For example, if you’re in Seattle, you can add an appointment for 3pm local New York time – great for phone appointments.

To do this create a new appointment in Outlook 2007 – on the Appointment ribbon there is a button ‘Time Zones’ which will make new drop-down lists appear next to both the Start time and End time lines.

click on image to see a full size version

Once that button is clicked, recurring appointments can also be created with time zone settings.

You can have the start and end times in different time zones – perfect for flight schedules. A flight that leaves JFK at 9am and arrives in LAX at noon can appear in the appointment exactly that way. The duration of the flight (6 hours) shows up correctly in your calendar.

Outlook 2007 will even easily deal with those strange appointments where the end time is before the start time (but in different time zones). For example a flight going east across the International Date Line can leave at 10:50am and arrive in the US at 7:10am the same day! That did confuse older Outlook’s and users no end (the usual solution was to enter the departure and arrival as separate appointments of zero duration). Now just enter the flight with the correct date, time and time zone.

But, there’s always a but ….

The times shown on the calendar are the adjusted local times according to the time zone currently set for your computer. This is strictly correct but perhaps unhelpful in reality. It would have been better if the tooltip showed the actual times with time zones as entered.

Many people don’t adjust their computer for the time zone they are in when travelling, instead they keep it in their ‘home’ time zone. This is partly just inertia and partly because long-standing Outlook users have been burned too many times by Outlook going haywire when the computer time zone setting is changed.

So, despite this innovation, we continue to suggest that you enter the local times in one of the text fields of the appointment. For example with the flight mentioned above, the Subject and Location lines we’d enter are:

Subject: JFK-LAX

Location: AA 1 – Term 9 9am – noon Ref: ABCDEF

All the essential information, including terminal number, eticket reference and flight times will show up even in the short display of the appointment and regardless of the time zone setting. It also means you have a ‘fixed’ record of the appointment time regardless of anything Outlook might do.

Another Outlook 2007 change is the ability to permanently alter appointments into a new time zone if you move or your computer has a permanent time zone change.

Right-click in calendar view and choose Change Time Zone, with Outlook 2007 there’s a new option, change calendar time zone.

No Time Zone Views

Sadly the time zone display options in Outlook have not been improved otherwise. Only the lame ‘dual column’ time display is available (right-click on the calendar, Choose ‘Change Time Zone’) – this display might work for zones only a few hours apart but it becomes hard to follow when the time difference is larger.

It also assumes you are only dealing with two time zones at a time. Many people have phone appointments in a variety of time zones (eg someone in Seattle has conferences with people in both Chicago and New York). Regular travelers often need to setup meeting in many different cities hopping across several time zones in the course of a week.

Microsoft has chosen, yet again, to postpone improvements to the configurable calendar views, in particular the ability to setup calendar views to a particular time zone. With such an option you could have an Outlook window open showing your calendar for an upcoming trip to New York, London or Hong Kong with local times showing for that place while still seeing your current appointments in a different window with local time settings.

With so many Microsoft staff travelling around the US and the world, you would think the time zone support would be improved for their own sake, let alone paying customers. Again Office customers suffer from a piecemeal approach to software improvements and are expected to wait many years (and pay for many upgrades) before getting a group of features that make overall sense.

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