I got an email from Microsoft today (Office Insider) that included an article about how to add a calendar to Outlook that would give you the March Madness schedule in Outlook as an example of publicly shared calendars.

Publicly shared calendars are nothing new, they’ve been around for years: Apple created the webcal URI to access iCalendar files using WebDAV (over HTTP) for iCal.

So I figured Microsoft probably wouldn’t have reinvented the wheel here and tried clicking the link in the article to see if it would fire up iCal.

webcals dialog box

Turns out that the URI in the link was very slightly different than a standard iCalendar, so instead of the normal “webcal://” it starts with “webcals://”, which interestingly enough tried to fire up Outlook (in my Windows virtual machine).

Luckily this URI isn’t yet associated with a particular app, so I was able to click on the “Choose an Application” button and pick the iCal application.

Once iCal is chosen, the dialog box shows both Microsoft Outlook and iCal:after choosing iCal

After choosing the iCal application, and clicking “OK”, iCal fires up with a dialog asking you to enter the URL of the calendar you wish to subscribe to, with the URI from the web page showing:

iCal URL entry

Now clicking “Subscribe” of course doesn’t work, since iCal has no idea what to do with “webcals” as a URL.

So to fix this, you have to modify the URI to be either “webcal://” or “http://”  (turns out “https://” works as well).

So even though the URI is not quite the standard webcal one, it is possible to open as a web calendar with iCal, and the same trick works for Google Calendar. Just copy the URI from the link in the page (webcals://calendars.office.microsoft.com/pubcalstorage/9rc05lhz2204226/2011_NCAA_March_Madness_Calendar_Calendar.ics) by right clicking and copying the link:

copy link location

Going to my Google calendar, I then click the little “Add” button at the bottom of the “Other Calendars” area, and choose “Add by URL”.

This brings up the dialog box that lets me add the calendar, and I paste in the URL I copied before, and just edit the first part to be “https”:Add Calendar by URL

Since it’s already a public calendar, I didn’t check that box, although I’m thinking that makes it a public calendar on Google, which might make it easy to find with Google.  At any rate, now the calendar shows up for me both on iCal and Google (obviously it would work in Outlook as well had I followed the original link).

Google calendar with March MadnessiCal with March Madness

Comcast logo I recently switched from DSL (which I’d had since it first was invented) to Comcast Cable for my Internet connection (and TV and phone). By doing so I saved about a hundred bucks a month over AT&T and DirecTV. Of course as soon as I switched, AT&T started calling me with a bundle that was roughly the same price, but that’s a different story.

One of the things that happened a while back was that Plaxo was bought by Comcast. I have always been a premium Plaxo user, feeling that I wanted to support them since I find the product so incredibly useful. What I learned was that if you are a Comcast subscriber, you are automatically a Plaxo premium user.

Now, being a premium subscriber used to only mean you got VIP support and access to a couple of tools (like the address and calendar deduplication tool). But now Plaxo has announced that the Outlook synch is a premium member only tool. While I worry that this decreases the value of the service (since there will be fewer reasons for people to sign up, therefore fewer members, and decreasing the number of automatic updates I get), what is interesting is that every Comcast subscriber gets access to these premium services.

To activate this, first you have to make sure that you are signed up for Plaxo through your Comcast email account. First, log in to your Comcast email by going to http://www.comcast.net and clicking on the Email link in the “My Comcast” portlet:

My Comcast

If you’re logged in already it will go straight to your email, otherwise you’ll get the login screen, where you need to log in:

comcast login

Log in with your Comcast email address. This will be something like your last name and street address unless you’ve changed it. Once you have logged in, you’ll be at the Comcast email screen, which uses the Zimbra email client. From the tabs, you’ll want to choose the address book:

Comcast email tabs

The first time you go to the address book, you’ll be asked to build your address book:

comcast build address book

If you click on the “build your address book”, you’ll go to an initial Plaxo setup screen. Since they already have some of your information (name and email), they don’t have to ask you for anything but where you want to populate your address book from:

plaxo uab

So now it gets interesting. If you click on Plaxo, you can link an existing Plaxo account to your Comcast email. If you were already a Plaxo user, this will get your current address book and calendar.

Plaxo Link account

If you’re not already a Plaxo subscriber, you can choose one of the other options to build your address book by logging you in and pulling the address book from there:

Plaxo UAB Gmail

Note that the GMail synch only works for accounts ending in “gmail.com“,  and not GMail accounts that are using Google Apps. I suspect that Yahoo accounts would also be restricted to “yahoo.com“, but I don’t know that for sure.

There’s a shortcut to signup to Plaxo immediately by simply going to http://www.plaxo.com/ftue/activateComcast, clicking the Activate button will get you set up:

Plaxo activate

This one does require you to fill in your name and basic information (or link to your existing Plaxo account by following the link at the bottom right). Either way, once you have the account linked, you are signed up and active as a premium member. Now not only can you set up synch points, but you can also install the Outlook synch tool on any computer you use.

Along the way the steps will ask you to update your address book, and if you want to invite your friends. I always skip that step, since I send my friends enough email already.

At the end, you can validate that you’re a premium member by clicking on “Settings” at the top right of the screen, and then choosing “Premium” from the list at the left:

Plaxo Premium

This shows my account has premium status.

If you use Outlook, there’s a few more steps to get fully set up with the Outlook synch tool. There are multiple ways to get there, but ultimately you want to download the sync tool from http://www.plaxo.com/people/tools?src=tools

plaxo premium tools

Note that you have access to all of these tools, some of which are very cool (like being able to roll back your address book). If you aren’t a Plaxo premium subscriber, you can download and install the tool, but you won’t be able to use it, since the synch verifies the account status when you run it for the first time.

Plaxo has a nice walkthrough of the install process here: http://www.plaxo.com/downloads/outlook?src=pulse_tools_outlook〈=en, so I won’t duplicate that. One thing that I did learn the last time I did this for somebody is that you have to install it with an account that has admin priviledges. The install won’t fail, but you just won’t get the Plaxo tool bar in Outlook.

Once the install completes, and you start Outlook up, it will walk you through a wizard that will sync your Outlook and Plaxo address books. From then on, you should see the Plaxo tool bar at the top of your Outlook screen:

Plaxo bar in outlook

There are lots of other neat things about Plaxo, not the least of which is that you can synch between multiple machines. There’s a version of Plaxo for the Mac, and it seems to do a fair job of interacting with the built-in Mac synch tools (including MobileMe).

I’d definitely recommend you take advantage of this “free” service if you are a Comcast internet subscriber.

I’ve been using some of the more interesting “cloud” applications recently: Google Apps, Live Mesh and a few others.

I’m really impressed with the capablities and use of these free web applications. It’s a really interesting marketing tool as well: give away the low end product to build user acceptance, and then add a bit more to give value to the enterprise.

My first foray into the personal cloud was Google docs. This product has to be the coolest idea ever: create your documents on a web site, and let them be shared and simultaneously editable. The concept is awesome, and works really well for some documents (most notably spreadsheets). I can share a spreadsheet with any number of people, and they can all edit it at the same time.

Sort of like Netmeeting on steroids, I open my spreadsheet and there’s a little notification that somebody else is editing or viewing it. As they make changes, I see them in real time, and they see any changes I am making. Now the interface is not quite as friendly as Excel, but for most of the spreadsheet light users like myself, it’s more than adequate.

This is supposed to work for documents as well, but I’ve had less success with them (changes seem to get overwritten if more than one person updates at a time).

The other beauty of this is it effectively gives you a network storage for all of your documents, solving the problem of how to keep them safe and secure. I no longer have to worry (as much) about backing up my hard drive, since I know Google is taking care of the hardware. If a drive crashes there, they are ready with a failover, and I never even know that it was lost.

After using docs for a while, I also started playing with the other apps and found them all well thought out and useful. One of the main reasons that I had a Windows VM on my Mac was to support Outlook because of it’s tight Exchange integration, and ability to handle my calendar well. I combined Outlook with Plaxo to keep my various calendars and contacts in synch, and was very happy with this.

The bad thing about Outlook however is the way it stores its’ data: the dreaded PST file. They’re notoriously tempermental, extremely space wasteful, and difficult to back up. So I started trying other methods for dealing with email, including the built in mail client for Mac, and Entourage. None of these were as easy or as complete as Outlook.

Then I tried GMail‘s client. I’d had an account for years, but had never really tried the mail client. But as I thought things through, the benefits were clear: I get a huge amount of storage for my email, and I don’t have to worry about losing any history ever. I’ve lost years of email in a single PST or drive crash before.

At first I wasn’t convinced. The UI seemed cluttered, and I wasn’t a big fan of the way the conversations were threaded (in Outlook I used to categorize, and had lots of options for sorting folders just so). With GMail, everything is in a big pile, and you filter by tags. After a few weeks, another benefit became obvious: the fact that I could search for anything in my mail.

In Outlook, there was always a find feature, that if you could get it to work, took a very long time. Worse, it wasn’t possible to search across different mail accounts unless you added some search add-on. I had been using Google Desktop for this for some time, which worked well as long as the index had seen the message I was looking for (it only indexes message as they are opened, so when they get archived the search may find them, but you can’t get to them because it’s pointing to the wrong place).

With GMail, everything is indexed, no matter where it is. And interestingly, this also includes your instant messages, so if I remember I talked to Warren about something, I can search for it and GMail will find it in both my email and chat conversations with him. And when I look at a message, it shows me the whole thread of the conversation, with the bits that match the search expanded, making it easy to put the whole thing in context.

So now I’ve got free document storage, free email with more storage than I’ve ever used (a PST with 10 years of email had to be split because it was over a gigabyte in size, yet contained less than a hundred megabytes of data). I don’t have to manage my email any more than to tag it in ways that are useful to me (and I can tag it for multiple things, and there is still only one copy of the message to worry about, unlike with folders where you had to have two copies if you wanted to categorize things that way).

So how does Google monetize this? Well, it turns out they have an enterprise version that they sell for $50 per year per user. Compare that with the cost of hosting Exchange, and a file server, and you have a no brainer for most small enterprises. And even for the standard version, they let you use it for free for up to 50 users, so a SMB can get started for even less than the $50 per user.

Considering the Microsoft equivalent functionality would require the full Office suite, and Exchange server, and some collaboration server, you’d be looking at an outlay of a few hundred dollars per user. The clear win here is that you’ve now got a suite that works for the home user, and can also be used effectively by business users. Google wins on the marketing front, leveraging the lessons of open source to gain customer base and entry into the enterprise market.

Next: Live Mesh …

Today I finally finished updating my application for the PMI PMP certification. I used a spreadsheet to gather all of the information that I needed for the forms that you can see here.

The process of filling out the application turned out to be a lot more involved than I had expected it to be for a number of reasons.

My original thought was that I would be able to use information from my resume as a starting point. That turned out to be much more difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the resume is far too condensed to contain individual project start and stop times.

So my fallback plan (part of my risk management plan for my PMP quest) was to wade through my timesheets and emails to get as detailed information as I could find.

Since 1994, I’ve been doing work through my own business, so I have detailed timesheets for every week I’ve worked. This is where I ran into my first SNAFU: file corruption.

Over the years I’ve kept backups of my files in all sorts of places: external hard drives, thumb drives, and network backups, and email folders (PST files). At one point in the not too distant past, I had backups scattered across a number of devices, all from different points in time. I had an external hard drive crash on me, which made me realize I should probably have multiple copies of the same data, so I built backup folders on several different machines from the data on my thumb drive.

That, I believe, was my biggest mistake. Because when I started looking at the files, I found quite a few that were unreadable. Thinking it was an isolated problem, I checked every location I had a backup of the files, and (no surprise), they were all corrupt. So for a half a dozen weeks or so out of those years, I didn’t have the detailed timesheet.

This turned out not to be a huge problem, because I had invoices from those same periods, and was able to at least get the hours to add up in my spreadsheet. I proceeded to print out the entire book of timesheets that were still valid, and note the missing hours in the binder I filled with them.

My next issue turned out to be with the way I kept the timesheets when I first was working on my own. I was billing through another company to Cisco, and was reporting my status to Cisco separately, so I didn’t bother to fill in very detailed information on a daily basis. The timesheets said things like “analysis for FDF project”, or “design of component X”, so I knew my estimates were going to be based on my own memory (the worst type of historical records according to the PMBOK).

So now I figured I needed to dig through my emails, which once again turned out not to be as simple as I had hoped. I have copies of archive files from every project I’ve worked on since the early 90′s, so I thought this would be easy. But of course, nothing is ever easy. Always prepared with my fall back plan for this part of the project, I dug out my email archives, and realized that I didn’t have a copy of Outlook running (I’d switched to Entourage on my Mac a while back, and Microsoft in their infinite wisdom didn’t build a way for Entourage to read PST files).

I went to my wife’s desktop, and clicked on the “switch user” button, where I thought I’d be able to open the PST files using that copy of Outlook, only to be thwarted by some mystery on that machine. Immediately after logging in as “Rob”, the mouse stopped responding. I tried a couple of times, even deleting the new user and adding another one, with no luck. This mystery was obviously something I’d need to deal with later, but this wasn’t helping my quest for information.

So I decided to pollute my wife’s Outlook by opening my PST files while logged in as her. I clicked on “open user data file”, and started looking for my projects, only to see that not everything was there. There were folders for each project, but some of them were empty, and others were incomplete. I was beginning to feel like this was a project that was doomed to fail.

I poked around all my old backups, and found a few more PST files, and after much hunting, found the missing data in an archive file (victim of autoarchive I suspect, gotta love Outlook, archiving an archive file).  So finally I had folders for each project, and could figure out the start and stop dates, and look at email to see if I could find the missing timesheets.

Once I figured out the start and stop dates, and thought I remembered enough about each project to get started on the application, I went back to see if I could find the missing timesheets. I then ran into yet another place where I had outsmarted myself. At one point I had a much smaller hard disk, and my Outlook files were approaching several gigabytes in size.

I had just rolled off a project where I had to write a VBA macro that sent attachments to a client using MAPI, so I did an experiment: I wrote a macro that would automatically save message attachments to a folder, and place a link in the message to that file. I played with it for a while and it worked pretty well, and it made a HUGE difference in the size of the PST file.

Well, needless to say, when my external hard drive crashed, the folder that all of those attachments were saved to disappeared with it. Which means that all of the emails that have attachments in them, really only have links, which means no help there either. That was OK (other than reminding me that I need to try not to be so smart sometimes), since I had all the information I needed for the application already.

Now prior to 1994, I worked for another consulting company, so all of my time and email should have been in the backup from that job. But when I searched, I didn’t find the backup for that, so I had to resort to a combination of email (luckily the work was also at Cisco, so the emails were in the same PST file as I had been using) and estimates based on work days.

Finally after assembling all of this it was time to fill out the spreadsheet with the details about the specific time for the process groups. Being a good PM, I decided to do a PERT estimate, using the hours from the timesheet as the pessimistic (since timesheets always only reflect billable time, and not time that is above the cap), 8 hours a day, with vacation as the most likely, and 9 hours a day with vacation as the optimistic value, I calculated total likely hours for each project (formula is [P+4M+O]/6).

I then took my understanding of what I’d done on each project, and tried to come fairly close to that number (although in most cases I actually ended up arriving at something closer to the lower number).

Finally, this morning at around 10am, after almost two weeks of work, I have a reasonable spreadsheet, and I start sending it out to the people I’ve identified as my contact for validation. Once I hear from them, I will hit submit, and hopefully I’ll be on my way again to being a PMP …

A couple of days back, I solved a problem I was having with Plaxo. For a few weeks, I was unable to connect to any of the Plaxo web servers from any of my home machines.

Being a fairly knowledgeable network person, I spent hours trying to diagnose the problem. I could get to all other web sites, but not to anything in the plaxo.com domain. Worse, I could resolve, ping and traceroute looked fine.

First I thought it might be something caused by Plaxo being bought by Comcast. Comcast had just recently been in the news for blocking traffic to keep bandwidth available, so I figured it wasn’t inconceivable that somebody made a mistake in a firewall somewhere that was blocking traffic between them and AT&T.

I sent an email to Plaxo to ask them if their site was up, and called AT&T to see if we could diagnose the problem. AT&T as usual was very nice (and annoying) and started me out with the normal insane steps:

  1. Turn off your firewall
  2. Clear your cache
  3. Turn off your router

After getting past all the annoying stuff, I got to their level 2 support, and then to the 2Wire support to see if they could find anything with my router that might be causing this. Naturally they found nothing, and everything looked OK.

So I escalated with Plaxo, calling them on the phone to see if there was anything they could do. There were emails and phone calls back in forth that never solved the problem:

  • First call I was told that there was a problem with one of their servers, and that it would be working the next day (not).
  • Another call I was told they had found the problem in their web server, and it would be fixed shortly
  • I got numerous emails telling me to uninstall the Plaxo software and log in again, which of course didn’t work since I couldn’t even get to the web site.
  • I had numerous emails diagnosing the problem as a Mac issue, or a PC issue, which again it wasn’t since it was happening on the Mac, iPhone and PC (and the iPhone doesn’t even have a Plaxo client).

Finally at some point, I got a support guy who told me that my IP address was indeed blocked at their server. Now we’re getting somewhere. But no, it still doesn’t work.

Luckily for me this guy is good, so he tells me that there was an old version of the Plaxo client for Mac that their servers were detecting as a bot attack, so if I uninstall that everything should be golden. I do, and lo and behold I can get to Plaxo again …

So it appears that Plaxo can be incompatible with itself …

I wonder how many people are blocked with the same problem right now.