Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Toward an Office Anywhere Work Environment: Weaning Myself Off Outlook

Mike Smith on the the Mike Tech Show podcast recently talked about his efforts to break away from relying on Microsoft Outlook. I have been thinking about this myself, mostly due to a desire to be able to create an Office-Anywhere / Ubiquitous Computing work environment.

Where I Am Coming From

After many years of using Netscape and the early generations of Thunderbird for my email, and Sony Clie/Palm Desktop for my calendar and contacts, I made the move to Outlook for both about three or four years ago. I made the move because Thunderbird was not able to handle the large number of emails that I had stored in it. In fact, it was excruciatingly slow, and I had read on a blog somewhere that this was due to Thunderbird's poor database structure. At about the same time, I had purchased my first Windows Mobile PDA/Phone (and Audiovox 6600) after Sony had pulled out of the U.S. PDA market -- I had no interest in Palm devices, which I considered physically ugly.

So, for the past several years my life has been organized by Outlook (2002 at first, then 2003). I ran Outlook off my laptop computers, which had served me well as my principal work stations -- carrying them between home and work (I now mostly work at home) and on the several long trips I take every year.

The problem with this scenario is that even the 100GB/7200RPM hard drive that I put into my last tablet PC did not offer enough space and speed for it to serve as my principal work computer. What I want is to be able to go anywhere at anytime, and without limitations to my calendar, email and documents.

What I am Currently Experimenting With

- A new Fujitsu P1610, 2.2 lb, 8.9" screen, tablet PC - mostly for traveling, taking to meetings, and syncing my PDA with Outlook and Airset (see below).

- My PDA Phone - I have the Verizon Audiovox XV6700 with Windows Mobile 5. I do not have EVDO -- I tried that in the past and found that I am seldom in situations where I needed it, and when I am it is easier to just pay for Internet access. I do use the Wifi feature when I can access a wireless router.

- I use for online access to my calendar and contacts, which I sync with Outlook on my tablet PC. The tablet PC is then synced with my PDA phone. I originally tried using Google Calendar, which has a nicer look and feel to it than Airset, but I could not get it to sync properly with Outlook, and Airset also syncs my contacts, which Google Calendar does not do. (To sync to Google Calendar I tried CompanionLink and GMobileSync - both of which caused significant problems, though none that I could not fix with some time and effort. I just came across GooSync, which I might try.)

- I use Google Mail as my primary email reader. I forward email from several different accounts into a single GMail account for this. I also have Gmail set up to send mail using my work email address (a great feature!), which is necessary for the many listserves that I am on and manage.

I download my email into Outlook for backup and to use Outlook's better sorting and searching tools, when I need them. By using Pop3 (no IMAP) I can access the email offline, when I need to.

This has been a real challenge. I get at least 50 emails a day that I need to read and most of which I store for future reference. Changing from storing them in folders in Outlook to organizing them by tags in Gmail takes quite a mental shift.

[Addendum: I just discovered a very useful feature in Outlook. The Archive button removes messages from the Inbox without deleting them. You can see the whole "messy" Inbox by clicking the All Mail link. So by tagging and then moving emails out of the Inbox, this comes pretty close to using Folders in Outlook.]

I am not yet convinced that tags are better than folders -- but I am still forcing myself to try and adjust to this approach. Google Mail is very fast, which helps a lot! And of course the more emails that I have tagged, the less I am going to want to spend time reorganizing them again into Outlook folders.

- Foldershare is a free online utility (purchased by Microsoft) that allows me to sync folders between my home computer, work computer, and tablet PC (and any other computers that I allow), and search and download the files on any of those from any Internet connected computer. Foldershare works really fast and is quite amazing for a free utility. While I would love to have something with the functionality of GotoMyPC, I just can't justify spending that much money -- at least not yet.

So that is my Office-Anywhere / Ubiquitous Computing setup. In addition, I run the Juice (podcatcher) on my tablet PC, and sync the podcast folder with my office and home PCs. I originally tried to run Juice on two computers and sync the folders, hoping that files in one folder would cancel the other when they are downloaded by both computers . But I mostly ended up with two copies of podcast episodes, which quickly became a hassle.

One other utility that I use is Cabonite for backing up my main home computer where all my documents reside. I also back up periodically to an external hard drive.

What I like about this arrangement is that it is keeping things that I do not need off of my tablet PC, and even off of my office computer, which I only use a couple of times a week.

Is It a Perfect Setup?

It is working so far, but I am also still getting used to it -- putting it through its paces for my work style. I have not yet tried it on a long trip (I have one coming up soon), and it may prove especially challenging on an overseas trip. However, I think I can manage that if I can anticipate what documents I need before I leave town. I will find out this summer!!!


Anonymous said...

Just a thought (not sure if it's what you're looking for) but I think a similar product to GoTomyPC is LogMeIn, though I'm not 100% sure what GoTomyPC can do nowadays. Check it out at and if it looks like what you need then I highly recommend it.

Alan A Lew said...

Thanks for the tip, Martin. I finally got around to trying LogMeIn and I love it. See more in my blog post on LogMeIn.

Anonymous said...

i dont think i could break away from outlook... especially since its quite easy to use and access from my phone o_O

Alan A Lew said...

I still use Outlook on my phone. I sync Airset through Outlook on my PC. But I do not use Outlook on my PC -- it is just there for syncing. -- Alan