RealTime IT News

HotSync Heats Up With Outlook

With the introduction of its new fall line-up Wednesday, Palm is trumpeting its ability to respond to its customers' needs. And one user group in particular will likely benefit from the Santa Clara, Calif., handheld computer maker's renewed emphasis on customer feedback.

Along with three new PDAs, Palm's Core Software division, the group in charge of the main desktop applications that sit atop PalmSource's OS, has unveiled significant improvements to its Personal Information Management (PIM) capabilities -- measures designed to increase the Palm's compatibility with Microsoft Outlook.

"The fact that Outlook has had this information and our users couldn't take it with them" has always presented a challenge for Palm, explained Brian Frank, Product Manager of Palm's Core Software.

"I think this is going to be a huge win for our Outlook users," he told internetnews.com.

For new customers, Palm has expanded the number of PIM fields to include additional contact, calendar and memo info; custom fields; a new user interface called "Agenda View" that uses colors to aid in organization; as well as improved navigation.

"We made a lot of improvements that just so happened to be the same items that Outlook users needed to take with them," Frank said.

To be sure, the user base is certainly not a group that Palm can afford to ignore. While no one knows exactly how many Outlook users also use a Palm PDA, Palm definitely knows that 50 percent of its user base 'hotsync' with Outlook. But users have been frustrated in the past by lost or reformatted data because Palm's desktop software either lacked the data entries or the ability to transfer them.

"From a software standpoint, we are giving customers what they want," Palm Vice President of Product Management David Christopher explained during a recent product overview briefing.

But to get to this point was no simple task. Adding to the headaches, Palm has also had to contend with a new version of Outlook within the Microsoft Office 2003 Suite, set for release on Oct. 21. And with Palm's new fall line-up already out the door but Office 2003 still in its final testing phase, Frank characterized the incongruity simply as a case of "bad timing."

Frank, like all beta-testers of Office 2003 including the author of this article, have had to endure data formatting problems or at times even data lost during transfers -- an inherent risk with beta-testing any new software. But because Palm isn't an official partner of Microsoft, Palm has had to anticipate some the problems associated with the 2003 rollout, essentially re-learning how Outlook treats them and deal with it accordingly.

For example, the new Outlook 2003 is built around added security measures so that it no longer handles accessing the data the same way as previous versions, explained Frank, who is himself one of the beta-testers of Microsoft's new software suite. If protocols aren't followed properly, Outlook might even shut out Palm's software and data would be lost in the transfer.

"We're anticipating our customer problems. The data access model changed significantly. We've worked to make sure we're accessing the data properly. There are a whole lot of new security procedures. We had to make sure we weren't getting locked out like a malicious program," he said.

To support users of Palm's new T3 and Tungsten E models, Palm on Wednesday will release a patch specifically to address hotsync-ing issues with Outlook 2003, Frank said. But users of older Palm PDAs need to buy Chapura's new PocketMirror v3.1.5 priced at $39.95 in order to hotsync properly with Outlook 2003.

Frank said his team worked with all versions of Microsoft's software dating back to Outlook 98. Still, the Palm executive acknowledged that his team still has more to address, such as hotsync-ing from multiple locations.

"I don't know if we've solved everything so long as we don't cause any conflict with their data and lose their data. I think we're getting better with those interactions with the synchonization tools," he added.

Among the other new features are entries for IM handles and website information and a new field for birthdays that Palm executives have affectionately dubbed "the marriage saver."