Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?

User Cheesmo1 posted a question on the message board of the Los Angeles Windows Mobile Users Group about a problem he encountered when using appointments while traveling. You can read the question and my reply here: LA Pocket PC Message Board

To paraphrase the issue raised: Cheesmo1 had an upcoming appointment in another city, it might have been a lunch meeting in New York. So he would have entered this appointment at 12:00PM on the day he was going to be in New York. Unfortunately, when he traveled from Los Angeles to New York and changed the Pocket PC's time zone to Eastern Time, he discovered that his lunch appointment now appeared in Outlook at 3:00PM! Plus, all his other appointment times changed as well. He was naturally confused by this odd behavior and wanted to know how he is expected to enter appointments for use in different locations.

Time Zone Setup Screen

Ah the infamous Outlook time zone bug! I know that a few people actually call this behavior a feature, but in my (not so humble) opinion, it's just a poorly thought out design that was clearly never intended for mobile computing.

This issue has been discussed since the first Windows CE based Handheld PCs. The problem itself traces back even earlier - as it is an inherent "feature" of Outlook - including the first version for the desktop.

There are a number of ways to deal with how Outlook deals with time zones and we'll discuss them here, but first, let's look and why Outlook behaves the way it does…

Outlook was designed back when most people used desktop computers, and certainly before there where Pocket PCs. The concept of "workgroup collaboration" - planning meetings, conference calls, etc. with people in other locations was a much more likely usage scenario than taking your computer with you to a different location. Outlook handles workgroup collaboration very well. It does this by storing appointments in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) then calculating the time to display to the user by applying the offset for the time zone of the user. This means that if a user in Los Angeles sets an appointment for a conference call and invites an associate that is in New York. The user in LA sets the time of the appointment for 1:00PM, but while Outlook shows it at 1:00PM for that user, the call appointment is actually stored in the Outlook database at 9:00PM GMT (1PM +8 hours offset for the difference between GMT and Pacific Time). Now, when the user in NY opens the same appointment in Outlook, the time displayed is 4:00PM (9:00PM GMT -5 hours offset to the Eastern Time Zone). This design assures that all attendees for the conference call will see the time based on where they are. Sounds like a great idea right? Certainly the designers of Outlook went to a lot of trouble to make this work.

Unfortunately, in today's world, people travel with their laptops or Pocket PCs more often than they schedule conference calls, and so this design has become more of a burden than a feature.

I discovered this problem myself the hard way many years ago when I first started using a Windows CE Handheld PC. I entered the time for my airline flight home based on what the ticket showed. Of course, I was late for the flight because I changed the time zone on my Handheld PC.

The good news is that starting with Windows Mobile 5.0 when you attempt to change the time zone in Settings, you getting the dialog box shown below that gives you the somewhat cryptic message: "Warning: Appointment times will shift to match the new time zone." Of course, now that you have read this blog article, you know exactly what this means. And I hope that those that haven't read this, will at least take a look at the Calendar to see what the dialog message meant.

Windows Mobile 5.0 Time Zone Warning

So what's the solution to working with time zones? Actually, there are a number of ways to deal with Outlook when you travel.

  • The first, is what Microsoft recommends. That is to calculate the time of your appointments in the time zone where you will be. For the lunch appointment in NY, the user in LA could enter it at 9:00AM while in LA. Then when the user arrives in NY and changes the Pocket PC's time zone to Eastern Time, the appointment will be displayed as 12:00 noon. Personally, I think this is extremely cumbersome. If you don't believe me, imagine having a round trip from LA to London with a stop in New York and entering all the departure and arrival times by calculating the offsets to the time zone you're in now. It's far too much work - and don't we have these devices to do such calculations for us?
  • By using a third party application, we can have the Pocket PC do the work for us. For example, the versatile program CityTime from Codecity includes the ability to include the time zone when scheduling appointments and it enters the appointment for you at the correct time.
    CityTime Flight Appointment Screen
  • Of course, the easiest solution is to simply not change the time zone on your Windows Mobile device when you travel and instead, simply change the time of day. This will leave your appointments where they are in your calendar. Of course, as with all such choices, there is a down side to this method. That is, if you do have a shared appointment with others, you will not see them at the correct time while you are on your trip. Also, while you are away, you will not be able to use the "visiting time" to see what time it is in other locations around the world.

Ultimately, I believe that Microsoft can solve this issue in the future by expanding the "location" field in Outlook to include the city list (much as CityTime does). This would allow appointments to be displayed with both local and home times. That is, the appointment for lunch in New York can be entered as "12:00PM in New York" and would be displayed as "9:00AM Home time, 12:00PM Local". Until Microsoft adds such a feature to Outlook, be aware of how time zones are handled and choose the method to deal with it that works best for you.

Thanks David. This is such an important issue. It comes up again and again and again as new users discover this feature. (I wonder how many appointments have been missed). I am amazed the problem, if not "fixed", hasn't been better documented.

Thanks for the comments Hal. Certainly the warning box introduced with Windows Mobile 5.0 is a step (abet a small one) in the right direction. As I pointed out in the blog posting, I really think the correct solution needs a time zone field added to the location in Outlook. This would require a change in both the desktop version as well as the mobile version of the program.

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