Sunday, April 24, 2011

Missing Features in Outlook Calendar

Just like many other knowledge workers (aka office workers), I am pretty dependent on the Microsoft Outlook calendar which I use many times every day. I sync it with my laptop, my iPad and my iPhone and since this is one of my top applications, I have had enough time to think about what else I would like it to do. To be honest, I have not seen any new features in the calendar over the last 10+ years. And so I have decided to lend a hand to the Microsoft product team by listing the capabilities that would make the calendar more usable and worth the next upgrade.

While I realize that the calendar is part of Microsoft Outlook email application, I will focus just on the calendar to keep this post brief. And so, here are my top 10 innovation suggestions for the Outlook calendar:

1. Audit trail
The calendar is very secretive with any feedback about appointments I schedule. Who has received it? Who’s opened it? Who’s accepted or declined while using the baffling option “Don't send a response”? I don’t know. I do understand that the message back for every email and appointment adds traffic and complexity. But honestly, in the days of video streaming, I don’t care. Besides, the feature could be optional. BTW, Novell GroupWise did this 15 years ago.

2. Agenda
Every meeting needs an agenda and the agenda should be a data object attached to every calendar appointment. All invitees should be able to participate in the collaborative agenda creation if that’s the option I select.

3. Forwarding
Calendar events can be forwarded today by invitees whether I like it or not. As the meeting organizer, I want to be able to decide if I want to allow forwarding, if I want to encourage it, or even mandate a stand-in for invitees who can’t make it.

4. Finding time
This is a common problem - I need to meet with a group of people and the next possible time slot when they are all free is at 3 am two month from now. I need some options here and one possibility would be to pick a few likely time slots and let the people decide or vote on which one is going to work best.

5. Priorities
Given that being triple-booked is not an unusual occurrence, I need a way to prioritize my appointments. The prioritization has to be visible to the originator as in “the invitee wants to come, but has two conflicting meetings with a higher priority”. As the meeting originator, I should be able to see the conflicting priorities of the invitees so that I can see what my meeting is competing with.

6. Notes
I want to be able to attach a note to an appointment. These notes should be viewable via the calendar as well as via the note tool. I need to be able to sort the notes by different fields such as date, meeting organizer, topic, etc. and share them with others. Oh, and please give me some more formatting options for notes.

7. Response
I need more options for appointment response than “accept”, “decline” and “tentative”. I need to be able to say “can’t make it but please reschedule because I want this meeting to happen” and “no, I can’t make it but I will keep the appointment in case my other plans change” and “no, I am not interested in this meeting” and - as noted above - “yes, I want to attend but I have other conflicting appointments that are more important”. These are all real life situations. Also, I want to be able to recover an appointment that I have declined before.

8. Conference calls
I would like to have a separate data field for conference call dial-in information with a simple button to dial it - particularly on mobile devices. This field needs to allow attendees to automatically use their own local phone number for the company’s conference call service. The conference call service is almost always the same for the entire company worldwide and its local numbers can be pre-loaded. And, please integrate directly Skype, Webex and other communication software alternatives.

9. Time zones
Scheduling appointments for next week when I am going to be in a different time zone is way too cumbersome today. Time zone selection has to be included in the appointment set-up window.

10. Branding
Even after 10 years I still don’t understand why the email client is called Outlook. That would be a good name for a business intelligence or sales forecasting application. Why is the Outlook client called differently than Exchange, the server? And what’s the purpose of the Outlook Express client? I know I should have known all of this by now but this branding strategy is puzzling to a marketer like me.

These are some of the capabilities that would, in my opinion, make Outlook more valuable - Outlook, and likely any other group calendar application. I just happen to use the Outlook/Exchange as my calendar.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Apple Gets Away With Magic

Steve Jobs delivering a keynote
Source: creative commons

Apple must not have a legal department. No other company would allow its spokesperson to get away with calling a product “magical”. Even if it’s the CEO. But the usual rules don’t apply when it’s Steve Jobs and Apple. Technically, there is nothing magical about the iPad and the Apple legal team has clearly failed to prevent this glaring lawsuit-waiting-to-happen.

Sure, the iPad is an awesome product. Fantastic. And it has taken the market by a storm, proving every doubter wrong. And Steve Jobs was rightfully proud when he claimed in his announcement that the product is “magical”. But it is pure technology, no magic. The legal department at every other company would have pointed out to the marketing team that calling it “magical” is not defensible and thus should be dropped or replaced by something generic and boring like “powerful” or “innovative”.

This is a frequent struggle today. Marketing is trying to do their job and market the product with an aggressive message that will stand out in the market place. They want to use terms such as “the leader”, “best-selling”, or “first”. But then, the legal team gets hold of the press release and checks for possible legal liabilities. And instead of “the leader”, we end up with “a leading provider”. Instead of “best-selling”, we end up with “popular”. And instead of “first”, we end up with “innovative”.

Because the legal team’s job is to reduce any risk of legal exposure from possible false advertising which such statements could represent. Unless you can prove that you actually are “the leader”, you cannot claim that. And unless you can prove that your product really is magical, your CEO should not be using such claim in his announcement. Right? That’s the way marketing teams often operate.

Of course all of this is just silly. Nobody really thinks that “the leader” and “a leader” make any real difference. Neither of these statements will make the product better nor will it justify the value of the solution. Marketing should be staying away from meaningless claims. And the legal industry around the world needs to take a chill-pill. Getting in the way of good business is not the purpose of the law.

Maybe this kind of defensive marketing is government’s making. Unlike Microsoft and now even Google, Apple has not been a target of a major government investigation yet. Apple is loved by customers and partners and rarely makes big, aggressive acquisitions. I can imagine that any experience with a legal challenge from the government changes the corporate DNA towards legal risk mitigation.

In the end, if Steve Jobs wants to call it magical, he should. And if we all believe him, we should buy 15 million iPads in a year. Which is what we did and that by itself is pretty magical.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Social Disconnect

There is a developing crisis in the enterprise 2.0 world. With every vendor rushing to grab a piece of the enterprise social pie, I as a user am finding myself in a situation where I am expected to be social in too many environments. This picture tells the story:
Where should I update my status now?
The picture shows the different social applications on my iPhone. Each of these applications is expecting me to be social and active to help harness the collective wisdom of the organization. But the practicality gets in the way: in how many environments can I feasibly update my status regularly? In how many environments can I really socially interact with my friends? I’d argue, only in one.

I use Twitter as the primary environment for my status messages. They are automatically syndicated to LinkedIn and to Facebook via Selected Tweets. I also update my status on OpenText Pulse which is our internal, secure and compliant social tool. But because it is secure, compliant, and work-related, my activity here is less social and more professional than on Twitter where I let my free spirit show its true face. All the other social environments don’t get any interaction from me other than sharing documents or answering questions. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I use Yammer and through my association with AIIM because that’s what AIIM selected - both are free for our purpose (or pretty cheap). We are not really using Salesforce Chatter but since my company uses, I wanted to check it out. Same for SAP StreamWork. None of these social environments get much activity from me - they are being used more as a traditional group collaboration tools than the “Facebook for the Enterprise”.

The bottom line is that enterprises will hardly succeed to convince users to be active in multiple disconnected social environments. There will be need for integration and there will be some winners and losers. And the likely winners will be the ones that touch the most users across the enterprise. In any case, it will be interesting to watch!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Struggles of a Professional iPhone User

A few weeks ago, I have made the switch from BlackBerry to iPhone. I’ve owned an iPad for almost a year now and there appeared to be no hope that most of the cool apps that iPad offers would ever appear on the BlackBerry OS. I was also getting increasingly disenchanted with the poor browser experience, with the lack of an iTunes-like tool to manage my content library (not that I am enamored with iTunes - a pretty poor program if you ask me) and with a variety of performance issues and freezes that plagued my BlackBerry lately. And so when the renewal time came up, I have made the switch into the promised land of Apple. 
iPhone Calendar

I should mention that I am at this point an all-in Apple user, having embraced at home everything from iMac, iPad, iPod, iTunes, AirPort, Time Capsule, AppleTV to now also the iPhone. I expected the iPhone to be inferior for making actual phone calls but who cares - the last thing I want to do with a smartphone is make phone calls. But actually, the iPhone makes phone calls just fine. I have, though, discovered numerous challenges that I honestly miss from my BlackBerry: 

1. Calendar
The calendar is pathetic which I knew from using it already on the iPhone. It does not not support the Exchange categories and so my iPhone calendar is monochromatic in contrast to the colorful experience in Outlook. That’s rather odd considering that this is an Apple calendar - as if the cool hip Mac guy swapped cloths with the chubby dull PC guy. I’m also having issues with the calendar not caching properly which means it always tries to rebuild itself by downloading all data from the server. Pretty annoying actually - even though this issue could have to do with our IT architecture rather than with my iPhone. 

2. Appointments
The most glaringly missed feature, one that suggests that Steve Jobs is secretly carrying a Blackberry under his black turtle-neck, is the inability to simply click on a phone number in a calendar appointment to dial it. Conference calls are apparently not something iPhone users are expected to do. This is such an appalling omission that I must suspect that Apple developers never actually used the iPhone 4 for anything but to track the performance of the Apple stock. 

3. Appointments (again)
The calendar does not allow some of the basic functions - I cannot forward an appointment, I cannot suggest an alternate time, the calendar message gets truncated and I don’t see a setting to prevent that. BlackBerry did these things and I need to use them daily. And while I’m complaining about the appointments, here are three requests I have for Microsoft: I want to be able to decline an appointment (saying clearly ‘no’) while keeping it in case my other engagement gets canceled which keeps happening all the time. I also want to see an ability to prioritize my appointments. And finally, I also want to have notes associated with calendar appointment before, during and after the appointment.  

4. Email Search
Where is the search button in email? Seriously? Is there some kind of magical four-finger flick motion I need to learn to evoke this basic function? C’mon, Apple! 

5. Contacts
My iPhone doesn’t allow me to look up people numbers in our corporate Exchange directory. Why not? Does Apple expect me to download the entire directory to the iPhone and maintain it by hand? Steve Jobs must apparently not be calling many people at Apple. Also,  phone numbers stored in incomplete format such as (519) 123-4567 cannot be dialed when roaming. Your number has to be in the complete format with a country code e.g. +1 (519) 123-4567. That limitation is regrettable and odd given that the OS knows when I am roaming and what my default country is and could thus easily complete the number automatically. 

6. No super-apps
I always thought that the super-app concept from BlackBerry was a little bogus - it touts cross-integration between apps that makes so much sense that I couldn’t imagine it would not be there. Well, I can imagine it now since the apps on my iPhone are completely isolated from each other. The concept is pretty straight forward - for example, every time I see a person in an app, I should be able to access that person’s profile straight from within the app - I should be able to call, email, IM, or whatever other means of communication I have. Similarly, I should be able to share (via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) any content asset from within any application. These things are inherent to the BlackBerry OS and yet they don’t exist on the iPhone.

7. Multi-tasking
Apple’s claim that multi-tasking is supported since iPhone 4 - true, as long as one of the tasks is listening to music. Something as basic as checking the calendar while on the phone is not possible. This one threw me off as I always thought that all those teenage consumers - the primary target audience for Apple - are heavily into multi-tasking doing chats in 10 sessions at a time while talking on the phone, tweeting, facebooking, and doing homework all at the same time. They might but not on the iPhone. 

These are some of the examples of functionality I miss from my iPhone. They are basic level features used daily by every professional in business. My experience is re-affirming to me what I have already suspected - Apple does not care for nor understand the business user. They will keep piling up awesome features for playing music, movies, talking to friends, taking pictures and all the other things consumers do and love but the business users are not Apple’s priority. 

I still think that the iPhone is a superior device and I am going to stay with it for now. I am locked into my 2 year plan anyway - courtesy of my customer-loving wireless service provider. But the lack of support for business users is a huge opportunity for RIM which has a massive head start in this space. This is where they grew up and this is where they should dominate. Their marketing messages should be focused on the business user rather than chasing consumers (which I wrote about in December 2010). Business users like me should be told to keep their BlackBerry but nobody is telling them that.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Acquisitions and Product Rationalization

It is not a surprise that most of us in the high technology industry are geeks at heart. Just remembering all the acronyms we use every day requires a brain that resembles a pivot table. And so it is logical that we like to look at acquisitions first and foremost from the technology point of view. “How will the acquired company’s technology add to your existing technology?”, “What holes has this acquisition filled in your existing portfolio?” - those are the typical questions I get from journalists and analysts after we acquire a company.

That’s of course not the complete view of acquisitions. Acquisitions are always about big money and as such they are not decided by software architects but by business people. And business people look at many objectives when they acquire a company - customer base, market share, market presence, strategic partnerships, access to new channels, source of new revenue, margins boost, etc. - all those reasons may be more important than the technology itself.

With all these reasons in mind, it is inevitable that in times of industry consolidation, companies acquire other companies with overlapping or even duplicate products. And this is when our natural instinct immediately kicks in and the geek way of thinking comes back. “How will you rationalize your portfolio?” is the immediate question I get. Or, more explicitly, “Which of the products are you going to kill?”. The industry pundits seem to immediately forget anything but the technology.

With no regards to product line’s profitability and other business rationale, the industry seems to struggle with the idea that a single vendor could have two distinct offerings in one space. There can only be one answer: “rationalization” - which is a fancy word for killing one product and migrating all customers to the other one, right?

As if all those customers wanted nothing more than to be forced to move to another architecture... In reality, customers want that both offerings remain strategic and that whatever innovation the vendor comes up with finds its place in both offerings.

Of course there is one challenge. The vendor needs to avoid having two sales teams calling on the same customer and pitching their respective products against each other. This kind of internal competition is against the overall interests of the company and tends to confuse the customers. But fortunately there is a solution for that problem.

The solution is segmentation - the two products need to focus on solving either different problems, targeting different markets or employing different channels. As long as the segmentation is clear, the vendor can very well market two or more distinct offerings in the same product category. If the segmentation and the respective channel strategy are in place, the respective sales teams will not compete with each other.

There is nothing wrong with having multiple offerings in the same space. Just look at Oracle and their many products. In the ERP category, they have offerings from PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and the in-house-built Oracle E-Business Suite. Oracle seems to be doing very well as it is. That’s because the products have existing customers depending on these products who don’t want the products to go away. And because the products address different market segments and because they are - probably - quite profitable.

In the end, two profitable products are better than none.