Archive for July, 2009

Still Searching for Calendaring Nirvana

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I’m still on a quest, a long and arduous quest to find the right series of tools and techniques that will let me get my Work (gnu-designs, inc. and $EMPL) and Personal calendars into a format that I can use, without losing appointments, data or context and manage them on my handheld device (currently a Blackberry Bold 9000).

I tried using Google Calendar Sync, and found the following outstanding issues with it:

  1. No support for multiple calendar files. This is a HUGE oversight, and unfortunately, most vendor products lack this capability, but I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have a separate Work and Personal calendar of some sort.
  2. Duplicating events. That’s just bad programming logic.
  3. Ignoring/missing events. See above, just poor logic flow in the sync design.

After getting frustrated with that, and trying various methods to try to work around these deficiencies, I was led over to “SyncMyCal“, which is a pretty slick solution overall. Except there’s no way to keep the data separate once it gets to Google Calendar. If you want to sync the data back from Google Calendar to Microsoft Outlook, it just gets glommed into the main (default, as defined by your configuration) Calendar file on your desktop.

Yecch.

Nokia Intellisync Logo

Ironically, the company with the absolute worst track record for managing PIM data (RIM, aka makers of Blackberry handheld devices), has a solution based upon Intellisync (now owned by Nokia).

Their sync solution supports multiple source calendars (Work + Personal), synchronizes them to a single handheld device, and keeps them separate, without intermingling them on the way back to the desktop when you sync again. This is the closest thing to calendaring nirvana that I’ve ever used. This isn’t without its own issues, however:

The major problems I’ve found so far are:

  1. Major, major data corruption about 75% of the time, when a sync hangs or fails outright. In order to get around this, you have to delete the Intellisync directory (C:\Documents and Settings\$USER\Application Data\Research In Motion\BlackBerry\Intellisync), and re-create your sync rules from scratch.
  2. The catch (and the second major issue)? You need to be connected to the live Internet in order to configure the sync of your Blackberry to Outlook, using Intellisync through Blackberry Desktop Manager. Why? WHY do I need to be connected to the Internet to create a local sync rule from Outlook <-> Blackberry and back? Nothing at all in that process touches the LAN network or the Internet. Something fishy about that.

I found an interesting thread that suggested using Mozilla Sunbird as a “trampoline”, and going from Outlook -> Sunbird -> Google Calendar -> Google Sync for Blackberry.

In that thread, user “ssitter” mentions FreeMiCal, which is a project aimed at creating proper, standards-compliant iCalendar files from Outlook as a data source, and using those .ics files as the import source into Sunbird. From there, you can then use the Sunbird Provider for Google Calendar mentioned in this other thread to get the calendar data into Google Calendar, in a two-way fashion.

Or so I thought… Here’s a quick snip of what Outlook sees in my calendars (4.074 events total):

Outlook work + personal calendars

And here’s what FreeMiCal sees when I launch it (402 events out of 4,074 total):

FreeMiCal Outlook

In other words, it too doesn’t see my other calendar (the one with 3,672 events in it). Sigh.

So I’m back to square-one again, trying to find a solution that allows me to keep my calendars separate in Outlook (or Sunbird or Evolution or whatever desktop-side PIM client I choose), and aggregate them on my handheld device, but then keep them separate when they get synchronized back.

Here’s what I’ve used and excluded thus far, because nothing fits what I’m looking for:

  1. Blackberry Desktop Manager
  2. SyncMyCal
  3. CompanionLink for Google
  4. FreeMiCal
  5. Google Sync for Outlook
  6. Google Sync for Blackberry
  7. Funambol

Still nothing, still searching, and any suggestions or ideas anyone has… I’m all ears and eyes.

Finally done with Xobni, for the 9th time (and for good)

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Xobni graph
After extensive testing of Xobni’s Outlook search tool through several versions and iterations (including being on their beta testing team), I’m finally giving it up, for good. It simply does not work for an Outlook user at the level where I use Outlook (hundreds of emails a day, hundreds of thousands of emails in the archives). I’ve posted about my Xobni frustrations before.

Let me explain:

I use Outlook primarily in two places:

  1. Work desktop machine running Outlook 2007, connected through Exchange. This machine is tightly controlled, monitored and locked-down. I can’t reconfigure or install anything within this Outlook instance at all.
  2. Personal VMware session running Outlook 2007, connected through work VPN to Exchange and locally to a .pst file which contains my Personal Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Notes, etc.

When I’m working from the NYC office, I use Exchange through Outlook, with no add-ins, extensions or anything other than a locked-down instance of Outlook 2007 for managing email, calendaring, tasks, notes and contacts.

When I’m working from the CT office (the other 90% of the time), I use Outlook through VMware Workstation, connected to the work Exchange server over the VPN to retrieve and compose/respond to my work-related emails. I also have my work Calendar, Tasks and Notes available in the same instance. I have my Personal Calendar (in it’s own .pst file) overlaid on top of my work Calendar, so I can see my appointments in aggregate for both personal events as well as work meetings.

So far, this is a pretty normal usage scenario for any user of these kinds of tools.

When I install Xobni into Outlook, I make sure that the VPN is disconnected and that all mail in the cached .ost file was properly indexed, checked and verified to be intact and not damaged in any way. I also went into the Xobni settings and:

  1. …disabled all of the “phone home” features of the product
  2. …disabled the Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype integration. I don’t use those additional features of Xobni, and while connected to the VPN, they would simply fail anyway. Xobni doesn’t allow me to set a proxy server anywhere, and it can’t use the default one as configured in MSIE or the environment.
  3. …disabled any and all automatic indexing and background indexing

But when I log into the VPN, launch Outlook, and Xobni tries to start up, it will start up and then completely hang Outlook at random points during the function. When Xobni hangs Outlook, I have to hard power-off the VM and reboot. I can’t shut Outlook, and I can’t shut down the VM cleanly, because whatever Xobni does, hangs the entire machine itself. I suspect (and this is just a theory), that Xobni is trying to get outside to the live Internet, and blocks, hanging Xobni, which hangs Outlook, which hangs the underlying VPN, which hangs the network interface, which hangs Windows.

I’ve installed Outlook Shutdown for Outlook and KnockOut, in an attempt to get Outlook to close completely and fully when requested, but it still hangs. I can’t kill Outlook.EXE via Task Manager (Task Manager hangs too, and running any other Windows application also hangs, including Start -> Run -> CMD.EXE and opening Windows Explorer). It’s a huge mess when Xobni hangs everything up.

And what’s worse, is that when I have to hard-power off the Windows VM, it corrupts the open .pst and .ost files that Outlook uses, which necessitates that I run SCANPST.EXE and SCANOST.EXE on them to repair them.

Not fun.

But when I run Outlook with /noextensions /safe (other Outlook command line switches can be found here), all works fine and dandy. When I uninstall Xobni using Totall Uninstaller (great tool, highly recommended), and run Outlook in “normal” mode, all works fine and dandy.

I reported my issues in great detail, as well as the steps to reproduce them, on the Xobni Community Support site, and received thousands of post views, but not a single response to any of them. I just visited their support forum, and noticed that it’s been revamped with a whole new interface, and a whole new hosting provider (“Get Satisfaction”, an ironic name considering Xobni does nothing of the sort for their users).

But they’ve purged and deleted all previous threads, discussions, topics, and users from the system. So now my posts are gone, as well as my account, account history and any threads or comments I’ve created or responded to. Nowhere on the Xobni blog do they mention revamping their community site nor do they mention any sort of migration path from the old community site to the new one.

TrogBar logoStupid, stupid, stupid. That is the last thing you want to do to help germinate a community of enthusiastic users around your product is to purge them, boot them out and tell them to start over again from the beginning.

And so, I’m doing the same with Xobni now. Their product is buggy, hangs, crashes and corrupts Outlook and its data. Avoid it and look for other Outlook search solutions (X1 seems to be gaining in popularity these days).

Something else that I found while searching for Xobni alternatives, is Trog Bar, a very odd name for a very slick product. It’s a tool that docks on your desktop, and can ferret through all of your email, looking for “actionable” emails. It then uses something called “Task Sense” to determine the priority of those actionable items, and sorts them accordingly.

I’m still searching for a better way to search, sort, and analyze my emails in Outlook because there really is nothing else out there that works right.

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