Outlook

The Death of Outlook & Exchange for Task Management

Windows Mobile

Rewind to around 2005 – 2006, I had recently discovered the works of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and I had started looking for more resources and found the likes of Merlin Mann and others. These people were telling me that it was possible to do all the things you want to do by keeping track of all the tasks and commitments in a simple, trusted system.

Just like now, I was living mostly in a Microsoft ecosystem – I had a Windows Mobile Smartphone, I used Outlook & Exchange for my email and all my computers ran Windows.

I read a book called ‘Take Back Your Life! Using Outlook to Get Organized & Stay Organized‘ which took many of the principles behind Getting Things Done and implemented them in Microsoft Outlook to help keep track of what’s important.

  • Outlook Tasks – universal capture for all ideas as well as a single place for next actions
  • Outlook Calendar – the ultimate way to track professional and personal commitments
  • Outlook Email – a large amount of incoming tasks would come through email and processed directly from the inbox
  • Outlook Notes – sticky notes that could be used to make lists and capture ideas to be processed later, this was later superseded by OneNote for Windows Mobile – a separate download.

Outlook was ideal for this, because it also synchronised using both Microsoft Exchange and ActiveSync – software that ran on your computer and would sync your Windows Mobile device when attached. As Windows Mobile was my mobile operating system of choice it included Tasks, Calendar, Email and Notes without any extra software. It was Outlook, in my pocket.

Windows Phone

Fast-forward to 2012 – 2013, and the importance of Outlook has diminished significantly. Not by my choice.

The support for Outlook or Exchange Tasks in Windows Phone is very low. In Windows RT the situation is even worse, there is no way of getting access to Exchange tasks without third party software, and no way to flag emails to follow up. If I can’t use it on all my computers, it’s not worth using the feature at all.

These days I use a combination of other apps to follow up on actions – the Mail, Calendar, People, and Messaging applications allow me access to Exchange Mail and Calendar – but I manage notes and tasks through OneNote – which is fantastic for capturing but not so hot for reviewing, processing or planning.

Over the years I have actually moved away from using purely digital capturing and planning tools, favouring paper notebooks in some cases. However, I feel that Microsoft has not done enough to keep the functionality that they used to have for task management, and that they’re missing a trick by letting the functionality fall behind.

By focussing their smartphone and tablet efforts on consumer tasks and social networking, I believe they have lost a lot of the value they had by giving users ‘Outlook in their pocket’ – I hope they bring it back.

Using Windows 7

I have used Windows 7 since the early betas, as is always the case with new Windows releases – I was very interested in what new features were coming. Over the years I’ve come to rely on these features quite heavily, and like millions of other people I’m currently use it as my primary operating system.

My use of Windows 7 has changed quite a lot over the years – from simply changing themes to using totally different applications. But as Windows 7 is coming to the end of its life (for me anyway) I’m interested to see how my computer usage will change and evolve when Windows 8 takes over as my primary operating system.

So I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how I’m using Windows on my MacBook today…

I like to keep things simple, a trend that will no doubt continue to Windows 8. As part of this I usually keep the number of applications I pin to the taskbar to absolute minimum. On my home computer this is PowerShell, Outlook and OneNote.

In the notification area I tend to have only power, networking, and volume icons, as well as the awesome Process Explorer. This is pretty much all I want to see down there, and everything else gets hidden away. (Remember when we couldn’t hide stuff down there? Ugh!)

Because this is a laptop, I tend to run a lot of my programs either maximised or side-by-side using Aero Snap. This is by far one of my favourite features in Windows 7, and I use it all the time. Just grab the title bar of any window and drag it to the top, left or right of the screen to snap the window into place.

Windows itself is just the shell that works around the applications, and right now the applications I tend to use the most (other than the web browser) are:

  • PowerShell
  • Office
  • Visual Studio
  • Expression Studio
  • WebMatrix
  • Windows Live Essentials
  • Zune
  • WorldWide Telescope

All of these applications are made by the same company as the operating system they are running on, so you’d think that they’d all behave exactly the same. This is not the case – each one tends to have its own UX and personality. Something that’s probably going to change in Windows 8 thanks to the advent of the Metro design language.

There are plenty of other smaller applications that I also use, including (but not limited to):

  • Paint.NET
  • EOS Utility
  • FileZilla
  • Flux
  • KatMouse

Oh and as for the browser? My current choice is actually Google Chrome. Mostly because of the spell checking functionality. I’ve used Internet Explorer 10 pretty extensively on the preview versions of Windows 8 and I quite like it, so the chances are I’ll probably move back to IE when it comes out at the end of the year.

Finally I also spend a large amount of time in PowerShell console windows. I have a lot of applications and scripts that I use in this environment, and I’m really hoping we get some kind of full screen Metro treatment to PowerShell – until then I’m probably going to have to use the Desktop to run these kinds of apps.

Windows 8 will definitely let me work in exactly the same way I do today – you can get access to all of the desktop and features of Windows 7 (with more stuff) so there’s no doubt about that. But will things change?

Eventually Metro-style applications will take over from the desktop applications we are using today. It just might take a while.

Still Missing in Task Managment for Windows Phone Mango

So a while ago I wrote about some exciting additions to task management in Windows Phone Mango, and I thought I’d touch on what I still think is missing.

OneNote

OneNote for Windows Phone is pretty good and I use it all the time, I especially like the fact that To Do tags can be shown in notes.

But unfortunately other types of tags that you can add in OneNote for the PC still don’t turn up. They do turn up on the web client though. The same happens with tables and ink and other formatting.

Also you still can’t pin a section to the home screen, but you can pin a notebook or a shortcut to creating a new note.

Tasks

Tasks in Windows Phone Mango are great, and even support different exchange accounts with highlight colours that match the calendar…

But tasks are hidden away inside the Calendar app. I’d much prefer to be able to pin the tasks directly to the home screen, with a count of tasks due. I’d also like to see a way of pinning ‘new task’ much like you can pin a ‘new note’ in OneNote – unfortunately this hasn’t been implemented in the current release of Windows Phone.

What else is missing

On the topic of being unable to pin things – here’s a selection of things that I’d like to see pinnable in future versions:

  • Wireless Settings (on and off)
  • Flightmode Settings (on and off)
  • Blueooth Settings (on and off)
  • Task List
  • Individual Tasks
  • New Outlook Task
  • A OneNote Notebook Section
  • Individual Pictures (you can pin an album though)
  • Individual Calendars

While this is not a list of everything anyone could possibly want to pin (I’m sure there are lots) these are just the things I’d like to be able to pin today.

Task Management in Windows Phone Mango

At least one* of the 500 new features in Windows Phone Mango is the addition of the to-do items in the Calendar app.

The fact Exchange Tasks was not supported in Windows Phone 7 was a very sore point for a lot of users. Some even going as far as to say that the platform was not suitable for business at all until this was rectified.

It’s understandable for users to be upset. Task support has been in the Windows Mobile platform since forever, and users have come to expect it to be there. Currently the best solution is to buy a task application like the one by APPA Mundi which I use (and seems to be the best of the bunch) – but paying for something that many feel should be baked into the operating system leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

The to-do list is included as part of the Calendar application in Windows Phone Mango – not a separate application. There is no support for folders or categories – which is somewhat annoying – and all tasks from each account is just shown in one list. But the synchronisation of the tasks is much more robust than is available in third party applications, and includes the handy features of being able to see tasks with a due date on the calendar (though  this doesn’t seem to show up on the tile) and the ability to have reminders pop up just like an alarm or calendar appointment.

As a ‘power user’ of tasks in Outlook, I’d much rather the this as a separate application in future versions of Windows Phone. I’d also like to see the ability to use organise tasks with folders and categories, and to be able to pin each of these to the start screen in a similar way to OneNote’s impressive implementation of tiles.

Until then, I’m probably going to end up using some combination of APPA Mundi tasks and the built in support.

* I’m unsure how they count a ‘feature’

Outlook Tasks in PowerShell and Vim

Getting Outlook Tasks in PowerShell is actually pretty easy. All you need to do is use the Office Interop to get access to the default tasks folder, then iterate through the items that are returned.

Create a file called Get-OutlookTask.ps1 in your scripts folder, and paste the following code:

Add-Type -AssemblyName Microsoft.Office.Interop.Outlook
$folders = "Microsoft.Office.Interop.Outlook.OlDefaultFolders" -as [type]
$outlook = New-Object -ComObject outlook.application
$mapi = $outlook.GetNameSpace("mapi")
$tasks = $mapi.getDefaultFolder($folders::olFolderTasks)

foreach($task in $tasks.Items)
{
  if(!$task.complete)
  { 
    $task.subject 
  }
}

Naturally, you could customize this script to work any way you like – for example, you could sort by priorty or date, or you could show an extra column for category information. I have actually set up an alias to this script, so all I have to do is type tasks to see all my current tasks.

If you have set Vim to work with PowerShell, you can import your Outlook Tasks directly into the open document by using the Vim command:

:r! tasks

Pretty cool huh? If you’re looking to add Outlook Tasks in a similar way, you can check out this script by Lee Holmes. I use this one with the alias of nt to save on all that extra typing.

If you want to be able to add Outlook Tasks from Vim, I suggest you add the following function to your vimrc file:

function! Task(args)
  system("nt \\\"" . a:args . "\\\"")
endfunction

command! -nargs=1 Task :call Task('')

Now you just need to call :Task buy milk and it’ll get added – without switching to the shell itself.