Comment: Outlook and Pocket outlook ... a rant

by Guy Kewney | posted on 29 January 2004

On my desktop PC, I have the latest version of Microsoft Office 2003, including Outlook - the program that keeps track of all my contacts for me. On my mobile phone - an SPV from Orange - I have Pocket outlook. It's hard to believe the rubbish on my desktop comes from the same company.

Guy Kewney

<1/> Outlook: the right number, but unuseable ...

We'll imagine you just called me, and said: "Guy, can you put me in touch with someone at Sendo?" And I say: "Hold on a moment, and I'll call.

The phone numbers on the SPV E200 smartphone are all, without exception, numbers that it got from linking to the PC. We can do the same test on both:

So, when I want to call someone - say, Sendo public relations executive Marijke van Hooren - I just type four letters: M, followed by A, then R and I - which in fact, means I type the numbers 6274.

And the number 6274 is enough for Pocket Outlook to find her number (I could type the first few digits of her number, come to that, and it would find it long before I finished the whole sequence). Press the green phone button and it starts ringing.

Total time taken: about three seconds after getting the phone out of my pocket.

It is a masterpiece of user-friendly design, and it finds the number from the whole Outlook database instantly.

Now, let's go to the PC.

First I have to invoke Outlook. If it is already running, but in the background, I have to wait while it loads itself in from the swapfile - taking around the same time as it does to start up. It's often about seven seconds before the screen is refreshed.

Next, I have to switch from the email window, which is the default, and invoke the "Contacts" menu. Another three seconds, or more.

What I see on my screen is an alphabetical array, with several names starting with the letter "A" and it's a list of names. So looking under the letter "S" for "Sendo" won't work, unless I switch views to "company" - another three seconds or more.

I type "M" and the display jumps smartly enough to the first "M"s in the list. I have to scan them visually, because they go onto the next screen, and if I try to refine the search by typing the second letter, "A" it jumps back to the names starting with "A" again. No search refinement.

So, we look through the "M" list. it scrolls past with the right-arrow, and when we get to the end of the list, it looks like, somehow, we've missed her name. Scroll back; still can't see it. Scroll forward again. Nope! it's not there. Well don't give up! we know for certain she's in the book. So it must be my fault. I've stored her name under M in my head, but under her surname. Only I can't remember what that was, for the moment ...

I check through emails, and find one from her. Her last name is Van Hooren. OK, hit "V" for Van Hooren, in the book. Go to "V" and let's see ... right-arrow, right-arrow. Darn, can't see it.

It's under "H" of course! there it is. But the wretched display doesn't show the number: it's truncated!

So more clicking: hit the "business card" that represents her data, double click or hit Return, and up comes the whole business card. Now I can read the number. Of course, the PC isn't a phone, so now I have to pick up the phone, and start dialling, and hope I don't get a digit wrong.

I did this, and timed it. It took me two minutes, because I couldn't remember her last name: but even if I had, it would have taken around 25 seconds. Is there a quicker way? yes! - there is.

I can go to "contacts" and hit F3 - and the cursor is moved into a search dialogue box. Type in her name, and hit Return. Nothing happens. Silly me! you have to go to the mouse, and click on another data box which doesn't actually look like a mouse activated button, but will work, and start the search.

<1/> Where's the button ...

<1/> ... there it is!

Depending on how recently you did this, it will take from no time at all, to a couple of seconds.

There's a lesson here. Accepted wisdom says that Microsoft does produce incredibly complex, clumsy software with a baffling user interface, and performance which can cripple the most powerful computer. Some people take comfort from this fact when they compete with Microsoft, saying that at least they won't have any threat from Redmond.

The lesson of the SPV smartphone is that yes, Microsoft does indeed produce bloatware. But it doesn't have to; and when pushed, it can come up with some really neat technology.

And the lesson for Microsoft is that Pocket Outlook is actually an older version of the software. If the guys in the Office division weren't hopelessly mired down in their own habits and terminally trapped in "Not invented here" thought patterns, they could have provided the same simple search facility in Office 2003.

But they couldn't. They had too much else to do.

The phone is a tiny thing, with 48 megabytes of memory, and a 200 MHz ARM processor. By contrast, the PC is a monster with a Pentium M running at a thumping 1.4GHz (which is worth 2.2 GHz of a Pentium 4's clock!) with a 30 Gbyte disk and 256 megabytes of fast RAM.

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