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The Outlook for Outlook (and other PIMs)

Prologue Personal Information Managers---PIMs---have been around for a long time. They seem to be re-invented with every generation of computation. And, somehow, they just don't seem to catch on as we'd expect them to. So they die, only to be reborn in another cycle, often by people who don't apparently know much about the earlier history.

Let's see if we can figure out why.

What are Pims? I don't want to spend a long time describing PIMs in gruesome detail. For our purposes here it is sufficient that we focus on the hardware and software realizations of technology that allow us to manage personal information. This is principally:
  • Phone
  • Address data
  • Scheduling and Time Information; and
  • Some rudimentary Project / Financial Data.
Broader Picture Of course we could broaden the picture, as some PIMs do, to include more types of information, but it wouldn't any better serve our purposes here to do so. We can leave that for other more in-depth treatment later in other documents.
Hard Copy We will also not bother to spend time differentiating the computer-based aspects of PIMs from the well-known hard copy realizations of this technology that are so popular in the form of Filofax(tm), Day Timer(tm) and other paper-based instruments. These all relate---and to some extent at least cover the same territory.
Picking on Outlook? For the most part, while I think Outlook is a lousy piece of software, I really don't want to pick on it with a particularly heavy hand. Outlook is only the current candidate for most common core piece of software in this problem area. It is positioned to be in the center of the whole set of products that form The Microsoft Office, and since that is the most widely-used software suite in the commercial world, Outlook assumes the role of what is probably the most widely used PIM.
Worst PIM? Outlook probably isn't the worst PIM in existence, and it safely isn't the best either. And other than the disadvantages caused by the fact that it is the most common PIM (we'll track down and discuss some of these problems later), it's problems are generally shared with almost every other PIM.
Focus So, where necessary we'll use examples drawn from experiences with Outlook to give focus, but not to pick on the particulars of it's design or construction. It is, for most purposes, quite typical and what we about PIMs in general applies to it, was well as to a lot of other software.
Some History My first recollection of PIMs predates the world of PCs. I can't recall any software or hardware devoted to PIM-like purposes back in the days of the individual large-scale mainframes, but as soon as we began to get personal utilization of computers it was natural that some part of that technology would end up being applied to the problems of managing personal information.
First Encounters My first encounter with such technology was some crude programs which we developed as soon as we got our hands on a time-shared computer in the middle 1960s. It seemed to be a natural, at the time, for passing around information about our schedules, as we had to schedule project meetings in the face of lots of other demands on our time, so we created an early form of EMail as well as crude schedule management technology.
The OAP: The first publications that I can find in my personal archives that deal with this kind of problem are from our Office Automation Project in the 1970s. By then we had a well established EMail system as well as basic scheduling tools. I have in hand, for example, a copy of a Working Paper of the Department of Decision Sciences at Wharton. It is dated 15 July 1975 and is titled: Office Automation Project: Personal Scheduler Version: 2-1C(6); Since I remember our numbering scheme, I can conclude that the version information relates to the version of the software, not to the version of the paper. So I can say that we were obviously at least six versions into our software as of the indicated publication date.
Current `Vogue' PIMS Discussion of Chandler, Spring, Six Degrees, Other Candidates
Scheduling: I won't claim that the paper is very interesting---other than as a historical artifact---by modern standards. But it does detail the purpose and use of three modules The scheduling system consists of three modules:
  • SCHCRE---used to create new items on a schedule;
  • SCHSCH---used to print out a daily listing of events; and
  • SCHFST---used to format input in order to schedule a sequence of events easily.
Age: The point of mentioning this is just to establish age. The use of computers to help in scheduling tasks not only pre-dates the arrival of the net, it precedes personal computers by at least a decade. We have at least 25 years of experience (actually 35 is more like it) with this kind of technology.
Little Impact: And it seems to me that it has had remarkably little impact on our lives, and has lived through birth and death cycles with each new round of hardware and software advance since the 1970s. It would seem that the ideas are bound to be reinvented over and over again by each new generation.
Streams of Analysis There are two separate streams that deserve analysis. First, there is the issue of the evolution of problem domain that PIMs deal with. Second, there is an evolution of hardware from:
  • Time-shared computers; to
  • Personal Computers; to
  • Networked Computers; to
  • Handhelds
Each stage of this hardware evolution has presented different opportunities, and yet each has also proven to fail---ultimately---to gain the kind of hard won acceptance that allows them to function as a central part of our daily lives over a longer period of time.
Changing Problems for PIMs Modern PIMs exist in a hardware/software world that is changing quite rapidly. And our problems are changing as rapidly as the technology is developing to help us deal with the change.
Phones and Addresses: Phone numbers and addresses are nice examples of things that have been relatively easy to manage for decades that now are subject to considerable change and require a more active strategy to manage them.
333Phones: For example, the nature of telephone numbers has changed rather dramatically since the advent and widespread availability of the cell phone. Area Code is becoming insignificant or at least less and less related to a physical location. I currently carry two cell phones, one based at home and one based in my daughter's calling area. It's substantially cheaper this way. And the fact that one of my cell phones carries the same area code as my home phone means less and less every day. I have essentially free (at the margin) long distance service, so I no longer pay much attention to where I am calling. And when people call me they are as likely to reach me in some remote city as they are to find my in my home region, even though they call my home area code.
444Phone Numbers: All of this means that my phone number is a much more volatile piece of information than it used to be. I had only one phone number for the first seventeen years of my life. Today I have four personal phones, each serving different places or dealing with different problems, and it is not uncommon for each kid in many families to have a phone, and sometimes a cell phone as well.
444A Bigger Deal: So managing phone numbers is a bigger deal than it used to be. We have more numbers and they change faster than ever before. And less and less we rely on our memory to bridge the problem.
333Machine Readable Information: The fact that cell phones increasingly contain their own directories has two important effects on PIMs. And they have potentially differing effect.
444The Effect: In order to understand this effect, it is important to note that increasingly our lists of phone numbers need to be in some machine readable form.
444Modern Phones: First, the phones themselves increasingly store the numbers. This means that we have less and less occasion to use the numbers other than through the phone. So this decreases our need for having access to the numbers live. In fact many commonly report that they no longer have a clue about what real numbers are, `only their phone knows for sure.'
444Automated Load: Second, and pulling the other way, is the fact that increasingly we need to be able to load the numbers in some automated fashion. Every time we change cell phone, or have to live through the horror of severe battery failure, we have to reload our numbers. This can be a daunting task if the numbers have to actually all be entered again by hand.
444Increasing Importance: So PIMs, insofar as they can be used to manage the lists of numbers for uploading into the phones themselves, are of increasing importance, but insofar as they are needed as direct sources of the numbers themselves they are of decreasing importance.
333Addresses: And a similar thing has happened to addresses. It used to be that addresses only represented real, physical places, and as a result they tended to be rather stable over time. We changed addresses only when we moved. And we didn't move very often.
444Virtual Addresses: But in the last few years, we have started to create virtual locations: EMail addresses and Home Page URLs are two well-known examples. And while physical addresses are generally quite stable, the is certainly not the case with virtual addresses.
555Change of Address: For example, my ISP went bankrupt not long ago. This is common occurrence these days in the computer business. And my ISP housed by EMail address. So even though my business was transferred from one company to another without much change on my part (it took a couple of hours, and didn't involve anything other than software changes), my EMail address had to change to accommodate the new ISP.
555Volatility: So managing these more volatile and complicated addresses also presents new challenges.
The Changing Hardware Hardware is also changing dramatically. The past decade has witnessed a decrease in cost. When combined with the usual improvement in speed and capacity, coupled with vastly improved small computer screens this has changed the nature of handheld computers. Whether this change will, in the long run, materially effect the way we deal with computers remains to be seen.
The Material Changes: While everything changes with considerable rapidity in the computer business, some of these changes make more of a difference to personal information management than do other changes. Let's track down at least four threads of possible importance:
333Processor Speeds: First, processor speeds have increased dramatically. When the first PC's came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s they had speeds in the range of 2 million operations per second. Now we have wide availability of machines that run 1,000 times that fast.
444No Dramatic Effect: However, for the purposes we discuss here, this kind of speed change really doesn't have a very dramatic effect. None of the tasks that are commonly performed when managing simple personal information requires a great deal of processor capacity.
333Storage: Second, storage capacities have changed in similar magnitudes. When buying my HP200Lx a decade or so ago, the big decision was whether to get 1 million or 2 million bytes of storage. And a 5 million byte extra storage cost several hundred dollars.
444Tiny Disk: A year or so ago, I bought a little disk about the size of a quarter that holds a billion (US) bytes. It cost just about as much as the 5 million bytes bought roughly a decade before.
555Makes a Difference: Unlike processor speed, this does make a difference. A billion bytes is truly a lot of storage. A book of 1,000 pages might be a few million bytes. So it would now be feasible to carry hundreds of books worth of information. And this allows us to tackle and solve some potentially interesting classes of problems.
444Photography: A good example of the significance of this is the way digital photography has swept the photographic world. Modern cameras take pictures that might approximate a million bytes in size. This is quite a bit of space, and memory becomes important. With current storage devices we can now store hundreds of photographs on a simple small device. On my last trip to Europe, I made about 200 photos, and had room for 500 or 600 more on my CF hard disk memory.

Of course it should be noted that having this capability unfortunately doesn't make me a better photographer. It is my visual skill, not the availability of storage, that limits my capabilities as a photographer.

333Communications Bandwidth: Third, we are right in the middle of a parallel transition in the speed of communications. My first teletype allowed remote use of my computer at a rate of information flow approximating 10 characters per second. My current cable modem allows me to communicate with the net at more than 100,000 characters per second.
444Difference in Kind: This change in bandwidth capacity is particularly important because it is a good example of a place where a difference in degrees is large enough so that it becomes a difference in kind. At some rate of speed, probably in the neighborhood of 5,000 characters per second, it becomes practically feasible to transmit graphical information as well as text. At low speeds graphics simply aren't feasible.
444Cellular Phones: However, in the US at least, cellular phones don't connect at anything like those rates. My cell, when it works, allows me about 500 characters per second. That is slow enough that I rarely bother to use it, preferring instead most often to wait until I can have my high speed line. Whether I'd use it more if it were dramatically faster is an evaluation that will have to await some experience.
333Cost: The fourth factor is, of course, cost. The cost of carrying sophisticated computing equipment has dropped so dramatically that many things which weren't feasible become quite practical. But it will take some time before we gradually develop a notion of which of these feasible things will turn out to be of practical interest.
333Summary: So, some aspects of the technology now allow us to manage our personal information in different ways. Whether these will actually prove to be effective or useful, however, must await further experience and experimentation.
444Less than meets eye: Indeed, I rather think there is less here than meets the eye, and that the zealous projections of computer based PIMs gradually dominating more and more of our lives are way too optimistic with respect to the likely uses of the technology over time in the future.
Why doesn't it work better? I have suggested that we have seen cycle after cycle of PIMs being born in an environment of excitement and with all kinds of optimistic projections about their future, only to gradually wither and die on the vine.
Happening Again: And I think it's happening again. And further, I think there are reasons for it that we can understand. Let's discuss some of them.
The Problem is Time: First, and probably the most important thing to understand is that the there is a fundamental problem with managing Time. There, simply put, isn't enough of it. It is this fact, and not the fact that we have difficulty accounting for our time that is at the core of the difficulties.
333Time not Created: No PIM creates time. They simply allow us to manage it easier (if we're lucky). This is an essential core fact of our situation.
333A Lesson: I learned a parallel lesson one time long ago when I developed an on-line registration system for an educational program. We spent a lot of time and energy trying to make the allocation of seats in our popular classes more fair. But the real core problem was not actually the fairness but rather the fact that we simply didn't have enough seats in the popular classes. We could make---with luck---small improvements in fairness, but they were of truly marginal importance relative to the real problem. So we worked very hard and still had little positive effect on our real problems.
Disappointed Expectations: Second, this leads to disappointed expectations. We are subtly sold on the fact that we are wasting huge quantities of time. But, for the most part, only a little of this time is wasted because we fail to account for it in some appropriate way. And thus, when we get our fine new PIM we not only have to use some of our valuable time to learn how to use it (increasingly, it would seem, these devices get complicated), but we are also then disappointed to find that at the end of the process we actually haven't actually found any huge quantities of time released by our dependence on the new technology. And in the process we run the risk that in addition we may actually become dependent on the technology in a way that is detrimental.
Pandering to Organization: Third, PIMs pander to the God of Organization. This is the (often unfounded) belief that better organization will lead to our being able to more effectively deal with our problems.
333Unproven Case: While it is likely true that some people are able to improve their organization of activities in a way that is effective for them, I regard the case as unproven with respect to most of us.
333Compulsive Need: Some of us have a compulsive need for organization. Indeed I have known some truly pathological cases of organization. I know someone who got up at 4am every day to make lists and organize the day. It took hours. And, if my observations as an outsider were any indication, few of the tasks on the list were ever accomplished. The objective became generating and managing the list not getting the tasks on the list done.
333A Downside: So that's one of the downsides of PIMs. If we are not careful keeping the PIM up-to-date and organized becomes the objective, and replaces the original objective which had something to do with improving our life, not improving our PIM.
The Technology can be Exploited: PIMs also are a technology which can be exploited, sometimes to the detriment of its users. This is particularly true if the PIM in question is very widely used. This happens because a PIM can become an attractive nuisance to people not unlike those who are so interested in SPAM.
333Virus: Since PIMs are used to maintain a lot of the addresses that are used---particularly for EMail---on the net, they are a natural focus for spreading a virus if someone wants to do that.
444Wide Use: This is particularly true if a PIM is widely used. Then it is even more attractive as a focus for such efforts. Presumably those who spam and spread virii are interested in reaching (and causing havoc among) as wide a community as possible. By understanding how to do this in Outlook for example, one can have a much larger (negative) impact on the community of users than if one targets some much less widely used program.
Technology is Superficial: Another aspect of the technology which contributes to its lack of staying power in dealing with these problems is that the technology is often rather superficial. For example, it was very much a vogue for a while to exchange business cards by `shaking hands' with Palms or other PIM hardware.
333Passe: This already seems passe. While there were many PIMs in evidence in most meetings a couple of years ago, I have noticed a distinct decline in their presence in more recent days. After all, while it is possible to use a PIM to take notes or exchange information, it is also possible to do so with pencil and paper, and after the initial flush of excitement associated with the absorption of any new technology, after a little time passes we often return to older, more comfortable ways.
Some Examples: There are lots of examples. We have already given some. Let me close this section by telling a little of the further history of the Office Automation Project Scheduling System that I introduced above.
333High-Water Mark: That particular system reached a high point of about two dozen users. This was a fair percentage of those of us who had access to the technology in our department. (Remember, back then computers were rare, and there was no widespread use, so not many people were in the community of potential users.)
333Dwindling Interest: After a few months, though, the interest dwindled, and I well remember noticing that about a year into the project we had dropped back to only a couple of users of the scheduling system---the author of the system not among them.
333Omen: It was an early omen.
333Agenda: Witness the history of widely used products like Agenda for example. Agenda had (indeed it still has) a dedicated band of adherents. Many of them claim that no `modern' software can hold a candle to its basic capabilities. And yet even a company with the market impact and strength of IBM/Lotus couldn't (or at least didn't) make a go of it. And follow on products, notably Notes, have been less than overwhelmingly successful.
333Ecco: Similarly for Ecco, also conceded to be a fine product. A very active community of Ecco users was deeply chagrined when Ecco was simply abandoned several years ago. Again, many Ecco users would claim that even today there is no product that compares with its flexibility and capability. Yet even with and active user community and a good product, sufficient interest couldn't be sustained to keep the product available.
333Few good examples: So the long run history of PIMs is not replete with optimistic examples.
Lemming Problems All of this leads to a an observation about the nature of some problems. It bears repeating here in this context as it is relevant to the problems we are discussing.
Lemmings: Some problems are what we came to call Lemming Problems, named after those little furry Norwegian creatures that mythologically engage in an odd form of ritual suicide. (Best evidence is that real lemmings don't do this, by the way, but we are interested in the lemming of `myth,' not the real animal.) Lemming problems have just the same characteristic. They are suicidal---consuming time and energy far beyond any return that is obtained from dealing with them. And they kill not only systems, but careers as well.
Characteristics: Lemming problems have some characteristics that are relevant here. The are:
  • Falsely attractive;
  • Have little upside potential; and
  • Have huge downside potential
Earlier: In an earlier generation, payroll was just this kind of problem. Indeed payroll was both the driving force and the bane of the early stages of computerization in the corporate world.
333Payroll: Think about payroll. First, it looked attractive. It was easy to understand, and conceptually simple. And management could positively taste the savings involved in being able to get rid of hordes of payroll clerks.
444Payroll Complexity: But think about the problem a minute. It was, indeed, conceptually simple: Pay = Rate * Hours described a lot of it. But, as they say, the Devil is in the details. And for payroll the details were bewilderingly complex. Not only did we have many kinds of federal taxes to worry about, there were state taxes, city taxes and many different sorts of withholding. Getting it all straight took a lot of time and energy.
444Little Upside: And there was little upside. Sure, some money could be saved in the salaries paid to payroll clerks, but for the most part these were not expensive employees anyway. And other than these savings there was no upside to payroll. You can't really imagine anyone talking about a good payroll.
444Bad Payroll: But there sure was such a thing as a bad payroll: one that was late, for example. Don't bother to eat this weekend, we'll get you your money on Monday doesn't make for happy employees. The downside potential was huge.
Calendaring: I'd argue that the calendaring aspects of PIMs are just such a Lemming problem. Calendars are superficially simple, but again when you get into the details things can get very complicated indeed.
333Time Representation: One example. What should a calendar say when it is asked if I am `busy' at a particular time? The real answer depends, surely, on who is asking. I might well be `busy' with some low priority event, and therefore quite ready to make time available if it were to fit with some other agenda. And the relative importance of events can shift as circumstances change. If I haven't seen someone in a long time, I may be more likely to cancel an existing appointment on their behalf.
333Complexity: So even something seemingly simple like `is a particular time available' has a very complicated answer.
333Missed Appointments: And there are more details. One of Outlook's most disastrous mistakes, for me at least, has to do with the way it handles appointments in other time zones. To be fair, this problem may have been corrected---I gave up using Outlook a long time ago for this and for other reasons so I'm no longer au courant with any changes---but simply put it scheduled appointments effectively in the time zone that was in play when the appointment was made, not those that were relevant when they were actually going to be kept. No person would make this kind of mistake. When I call from New York to make an appointment for lunch in Paris, we can set a time without discussing time zone. Neither of us will be confused.
333The Downside: The downside of mishandling a calendaring problem is substantial. It is measured in missed appointments and missed planes. And perish the thought that your battery runs out at an inopportune time. Appointments can disappear with the loss of a few electrons. In addition, while someone interested in your appointments might equally well steal either your appointment book or your computer with your PIM data, someone stealing things for their monetary value would probalby have little interest in your appointment book. A $1000 to $5000 notebook computer would be a much more attractive target than a $50 Filofax.
333The Upside?: And what about the upside. Aren't meetings, for example, easier to schedule? Perhaps. But this saves my secretary time, not me. And actually, if the truth be known, I'm really not very interested in making it easier to schedule more appointments. I go to plenty of meetings already. Making it easier to schedule more is necessarily helping.
The Sound of Music (and Video) We might want to regard both audio and video as a new form of personal information. This would certainly be reasonable, and there is a lot of evidence that this form of personal information use and exchange has become very important.
MP3 Players: This is something well supported by the technology. The MP3 players, for example, allow us to store from dozens to thousands of songs that we can carry with us and play with considerably more convenience than is the case with devices of earlier generations.
Old Radios: These devices differ from the radios of past times because they are under our control and will play whatever interests and amuses us---so long as we are willing to pay the cost of the effort involved in adapting them to our wishes.
Piracy: Whether these devices are popular because of this freedom and flexibility or simply because they allow the piracy of otherwise copyrighted information remains to be seen. That particular battle is being fought out in the marketplace, the courts and in Congress right now.
Different Form: But, in any case, management of this form of personal information is quite different from that handled by conventional PIMs. We'll have to leave that for later discussion after some more time has passed.
The World's Fair 1939 Moving to the beginning of the end of this discussion, it's worth mentioning the view of the world implicit in the futuristic promise of the 1939 World's Fair. A lot of the current discussion of PIMs has the same flavor of over-optimistic hyped futurism.
World's Fair Vision: The vision of the world embodied in the 1939 Fair was essentially that of three-dimensional life. People floating around in individual little helicopter-like devices. Streets that far overarched the ground. Airships `landing' and `taking off' from the high floors of buildings.
Never Realized: The pictures have proven, so far at least, to have an odd, and now since September 11, eerie quality that suggests they probably won't be realized for many decades at a minimum or perhaps ever.
Life Today: Life today, in fact, looks a lot more like it did in 1939, than it looks like the futuristic picture portrayed back then. New York certainly has more tall buildings than it did in 1939, and the 3rd Avenue El is gone---leading to some clear improvements---but people alive in 1939 would have little trouble recognizing the City of today, even though many of the details may have changed.
Differential Impact PIMs certainly have differing impact on people. For some, particularly perhaps those who bill `by the hour' they are an effective and easy way to capture initial data. They avoid the stage of committing time utilization notes to paper and then needing to have them entered into a machine readable form.
Lose the Data: But there is lots of room for negative impact as well. For example, while it is true that one can lose a physical PIM, I have only done so once in the last thirty years (at Heathrow in the 1970s). I have `lost' my PIM four times within the past year---due to battery failure, not due to an increased sloppiness about the physical object.
Restore: And while in the latter case, I am able to restore my records, it generally costs me several hours to restore everything to my PIM, as many pieces of software have to be reloaded, and have their keys re-entered.
Different Impact: So the technology has a different impact. Good for some, though I think the number is small, and not as good for many others.
Conclusions All of this makes me not optimistic about the futuristic pictures painted of the PIM connected world. I do see the opportunities for some dramatic changes---GPS are one example, being `lost' is pretty much a thing of the past for me given that I carry my GPS with me all the time. And the implications of our ability to keep track of our location remains largely uninvestigated.
Room for Improvement And there is room for a lot of improvement in personal information that relates to important things like our medical condition. For example, as a diabetic I can now measure and carry blood glucose information that was essentially impossible as recently as a decade ago. As we develop more devices that allow us to capture historical data, significant opportunities may emerge.
Opportunities But, while I see the opportunities for many of these things to have some dramatic impact on our life, I remain unconvinced that PIMs and their related technologies will provide much of this impact.
A Later Paper I am also pessimistic about the related issues of the world of the wireless connection, but that will have to await a later paper in this series.
To Be Added Sections to be Added
Current `Vogue' PIMS Discussion of Chandler, Spring, Six Degrees, Other Candidates
Some Past PIMS Discussion of Ecco, Agenda, Zoot, Outlook

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-02-09 13:49:18 EST