The parcel I went off to pick up from TNT last night was an upgraded version of Office for Mac. Up until now, I’ve not bothered to upgrade our version of Office X to the latest 2004 version, as I haven’t really seen the need. But as part of the ongoing attempts to get my PDA and the Mac synced, I thought I’d give it a go.
The thing that tempted me to make the upgrade, was that Office 2004 for the Mac can now hook up to an Exchange server, which as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, has been quite happily keeping in sync with my PDA, so whilst Missing Sync to iCal and Address Book has proved to be a dead loss, in a roundabout sort of way I would be able to get my calendar onto the Mac.
Firstly, a bit of background. Whilst both the Mac and PC versions of Office contain versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint, the e-mail and calendaring application on the Mac, called Entourage, is not a clone of Outlook. Whilst the general thrust of what the application does is the same, there are a number of differences. One of the big missing features has, until Outlook 2004 came along been an equivalent to the Outlook to Exchange Server connectivity.
That changed with Entourage 2004, indeed the Mac is the only machine I have that is even able to connect to the work Exchange server. Whilst I can run Outlook on my own PC, it cannot connect directly to the Exchange server, as the only access is when connected to the work network over a VPN connection – something which is only available on my work provided laptop. Having said that, if I wanted to access my outlook mail and calendar from another machine across the internet, I could do so using a fairly painful web based interface called Outlook Web Access, or OWA for short. Whilst it does the job in an emergency, it is not the nicest interface to use.
Now Entourage 2004 has a really impressive party piece. When you opt to create a connection to an Exchange server, one of the options it gives you is to fill in a web address for the OWA page, at which point it goes off, and synchronises quite happily using the underlying web interface, something which the PC version of Outlook can’t do at all. For perfectly reasonable security reasons, network administrators don’t want to expose their Exchange servers to the internet – but this totally avoids the problem. It got a glowing report from Howard when I pointed out the feature:
That is possibly the most useful thing I’ve ever seen an MS product do, and I had no idea it was possible. Thanks!
I’ve just sync’d my Microsoft exchange account with Entourage via OWA, and it’s working seamlessly.
Having said that, having tried it out tonight with the server at work, I’d give it 7/10 for effort, but it still doesn’t achieve the whole of what I want. The major problem from my point of view is that the reason it works, is precisely the reason why it can’t do everything. OWA doesn’t show you your categories.
On my calendar on both Outlook and the PocketPC, all the events are categorised, to separate my church appointments from my work appointments. Indeed the church appointments are further subdivided into meetings, social events and choir events. Since OWA doesn’t show your categories, Entourage is unable to retrieve them, and although you can use the categories in Entourage to sort appointments, this is totally separate from the categorisations you have on Exchange, and on the PDA. So for the moment it is a good try, but ultimately until categories come through too, is not really much use.
Anyway, I’ll ponder whether I want to move my e-mail and so forth over into Entourage – since the calendar is not quite what I want it is not urgent, however whilst it isn’t all pretty colours, it may well still be useful. However, one thing I won’t be doing is making any more attempts to try and sync in the other direction, by using Missing Sync to link between Entourage and my PDA.
After the disappointment of the Entourage link not being quite what I wanted, I thought I’d see if the synchronisation with Entourage from Missing Sync was any better than with ICal and Address Book. Effectively I gave them the benefit of the doubt, that the problems with the Apple applications were caused by problems with the Apple Sync services, rather than issues with the software.
With hindsight, I should have gone with my previous experience, and not touched Missing Sync with a barge pole. Luckily I did a complete backup of the PDA before I started, otherwise I would have been in even more of a mess. When I plugged the PDA into Entourage, there shouldn’t have been anything to synchronise. The calendar and contacts in Entourage were fresh from the server at work, and the PDA had been synced with the work server last thing before I came home. However Missing Sync quickly set to work moving regular events around my calendar, duplicating events – for some reason all the lent lecture series was duplicated at 9pm, alongside the correct 8pm version from both the PDA and the server. It even managed to make mothers day extend into the following Monday. Frankly it was appalling, worse than with ICal – and more than that, it wasn’t adding them to my local Entourage, all of these changes where propagating through and updating the server at work! At this point I went straight for the disconnect button and terminated the process, but by that time it was too late.
Thankfully, because I had taken the backup, it was a straightforward, albeit tedious process to sort the mess out. Although neither the work server, nor the Mac had a decent version of the calendar, I did have a backup on the PDA. All I needed to do was restore the correct calendar to the PDA and force Outlook and Exchange to rebuild their calendar from there. It is slightly more of a pain as Outlook only ever gives you two options when it is doing an initial synchronisation – to replace the contents of the PDA with what is on the server, or to merge the two – it is missing the option to rebuild from the PDA. As a result you need to manually clear out the contents of the server calendar, and then remove the partnership from ActiveSync, so effectively the PC and PDA start out from scratch. Considering that I was doing this all over the VPN connection with my work laptop – it was all a bit slow, in fact to get to the point now, where the calendar is all straight on the PDA, the Mac and the work server has taken the best part of three hours.
So the moral of this story is never, ever, ever, let Missing Sync anywhere near your PDA. All in all it’s been a total waste of money, and I’ve taken great pleasure in un-installing it from the Mac tonight. I also don’t think I’ll be going near PocketMac either, as I’ve heard a lot of bad stories about that too. Hopefully in the future the Entourage exchange synchronisation will manage categories, until then, I’m further on than I was – I have a calendar that is visible on the Mac and at work, even if I don’t have all the pretty coloured categories at home.