I was one of those that was irritated that Google (and the NSA) were snooping through my email and sending me ads based on the fact I was sending mail about camera lenses. But then again, I didn’t use the Gmail email client so I didn’t see the ads; I use Office’s Outlook—I always have and I’ve grown to trust it and understand it. I still do.

About 10 days ago, I forgot my basic mantra “If it’s working don’t fix it.” I was lured in by promises of… well, to quote Microsoft Outlook.Com’s own blog:

    • A fast, modern UI that shows you more of your email with less clutter
    • An address book that connects to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, so all your contacts are in one place
    • Pictures from Facebook in messages from your friends, messaging that lets you chat with your friends on Facebook right from your Inbox
    • Great tools to help handle newsletters, deals and more
    • SkyDrive and Office built-in to make it easy to share and collaborate

It sounded appealing. And I was actually thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have my Office Outlook contacts and calendars sync with Facebook and my iPhone and my laptop without having to use gSyncit (a third-party sync tool). Admittedly, I didn’t think that through. My Facebook friends are not the same as my business and personal contacts. And I was thinking the all-Microsoft solution one with Office Outlook on one end and Outlook.com on the other would better integrate with my Windows 8 OS. Perhaps I would give up my iPhone for a Windows 8 phone. Yea, pretty thin reasoning in hindsight. But I assumed that Microsoft would not lead me astray. I was wrong.

Converting my Custom Domain

So, since I have my own domain and email address, I was lead to a site that walked me through the process of setting up my MX and TXT records to point to the Outlook.com mail host and validating the configuration so Outlook.com ‘trusted’ my site. Totally understandable and while the process was a bit clunky, Peter Blackburn and I got it done in an hour or so. Too bad my site wasn’t really trusted.

Consider that Google also provides these custom MX and TXT records but also provides an easy to use step-by-step wizard to set them up. I’ve used it before and as we’ll see, I used it again just recently. Fortunately, I had been using the free version of Google’s custom domain service for years so when they started to charge for it, I was grandfathered in. To the rest of the world, creating a custom domain with Google means a $50/year fee.

This conversion went fairly smoothly, despite having to figure out some of the finer details as to priority and timeouts myself (with the help of Peter Blackburn, my IT guru). The one important fact that the blog post left off, there is no way to get your mail out of your Gmail account into Outlook.com but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Getting Connected

So in Office Outlook 2013 (OO13) I was not able to connect as many of the blogs described because I did NOT need the Office Outlook Connector. This (apparently) has been removed and replaced with a version of ActiveSync (EAS). This means that the server name you provide must be m.hotmail.com and not m.outlook.com. And that’s just the beginning. All-in-all many of the blogs are outdated and don’t apply to Office 2013 where a lot of things have changed.

Once connected with OO13, I discovered that three new calendars were born:

  • Birthdays
  • US Holidays
  • INETA (a speaker’s bureau I once belonged to)

Swell. Now my calendar (and my iPhone) were filled with birthdays for people I barely know and a litany of religious and national holidays. BUT my own calendar entries were nowhere to be found. Nothing I tried could get my OO13 calendar entries to sync with the Outlook.com calendar. I did notice that items added to the Outlook.com calendar appeared in OO13 (eventually) and on my iPhone which I had connected to Outlook.com without issue but not those items changed/added in OO13. They remained on my laptop.

I eventually (more blogs) found that if I changed the category of all of the OO13 calendar entries they would sync. This took hours to complete. So now I have my appointments in sync. But OO13 did not let me delete the birthdays or holidays—they were read-only. I eventually found that I had to do that in Outlook.com browser app. The disconnect here is that the “support” people on the forums did not know anything about Office Outlook (any version) or if they did, they didn’t know anything about Outlook.com (or so it seemed). 

I also discovered that (some of) these calendars can be removed in the Outlook.com interface but not in Office Outlook (any version)—but not all of them.

No Way to Import Mail From Custom Domains

Since I have a LOT of mail and archived historical data stored on Gmail, I needed to get that all imported into Outlook.com. The blogs said there were custom apps like TrueSwitch. Too bad it doesn’t work for custom domains like mine. My host “Betav.com” was not on the ‘recognized’ domains list despite being recognized by the MX and TXT records by Outlook.com and the world-wide DNS providers.

I was also lead to a number of blog posts that said you could simply drag your messages (in Office Outlook) from one folder to another. All you need to do is setup accounts for both the Outlook.com and Gmail hosts in Office Outlook and start dragging. Okay, I have about 45,000 messages in about 70 folders (about 1.3GB of mail) and I actually tried this (I thought I had 3 days to waste). Sadly, it didn’t work—at least not completely (okay, almost not at all). As far as I can tell, Office Outlook and/or Outlook.com got overwhelmed and while it might recreate the folders, it does not always copy the mail. And if the folders have any special characters like parenthesis, the process fails with an irrelevant (generic) error message. And it ONLY works if you are using an Office 2010 or 2007 that has the old (but functional) Hotmail Connector.

So I spent 3 days painstakingly copying folders from one account to another using an old Office 2010 system. Yes, some of the Gmail folders survived the trip so I had to go back and check one-by-one against the Outlook.com folders (using the IE interface) and repeat the process over and over again until they were all there. Thank the stars that I had backed up my Gmail account (Gmail backup) and was able to restore it totally as I accidentally “moved” instead of “copied” some of the folders.

Now that my mail was (mostly) in Outlook.com on my old Office 2010 laptop, I went over to my OO13 system. Was all of my mail there? Ah, no. Only a portion of the folders were synced—lots of empty folders. Swell. Again, no amount of pleading or syncing or slamming the system in the side with a board would get it to sync. I even left it running overnight. Yes, more folders seem to be populated, but it was like being on the end of a tight-string-and-two-cans broadband connection. At every step Outlook.com was painfully slow. My broadband connection? 25mb/25mb and the system is a i7 980x.

I started hunting around for another third-party solutions to import mail and found a few—none of them support Outlook.com. Roadblock.

Support? Ah, No.

At this point I started looking for help from Microsoft. I went to the MSDN developer blogs and was sent packing. Yea, I agree, it wasn’t a “development” issue. I was sent to Answers.Microsoft.com and bounced from one forum to another, but got mostly canned responses that didn’t help. I finally had someone ask for a private session, I sent some screenshots and my account details and apparently he “fixed” something. After that I noticed that at least 50 messages where missing and I was no longer able to connect to my account from OO13. I waited for 24 hours before giving up.

Junk Mail?

Some of the proponents of Outlook.com mention the ‘stellar’ junk mail handling in Outlook.com when compared to Gmail. I’ve worked with Gmail for a decade and I get about 2 false positives and 2 false negatives a month from messages that slip through Gmail’s spam/junk filters. I had about the same result in the week I tried Outlook.com. However in Outlook.com, there was no way to create a permanent filter to make sure that messages from specific clients were not thrown into the Junk mail folder.

What Really Works

So let’s go through the list of features that were promised and the reality of what was delivered.

  • A fast, modern UI that shows you more of your email with less clutter.

I agree that the Outlook.com is less cluttered. It’s less cluttered with necessary features. For example, in Gmail I can easily manage filters to move mail to folders based on content or sender’s email address. There are a several cool options for the filters as in “Never send to SPAM” or “skip the Inbox”—these were missing in the Outlook.com filters. And guess what? Even when a message was filtered to a folder, it still triggered the “New Mail” event. I did like Outlook.com’s list of folders but since I have about 70 of them, it’s pretty clunky when you have that many. I also didn’t like the fact that the OO13 rules were not kept in sync with the Outlook.com ‘rules’. Gmail also has a host of other options from the ability to customize the UI to managing visibly of folders (labels), to being able to assign an email message to more than one folder.

  • An address book that connects to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, so all your contacts are in one place

This would be cool if it actually worked. As it is, my business calendars and contacts were contaminated with my acquaintances and friends in Facebook and LinkedIn. Synchronization of calendars and contacts only started to work when I reactivated my gSyncit application. 

  • Pictures from Facebook in messages from your friends, messaging that lets you chat with your friends on Facebook right from your Inbox

Ah, I’ve heard any number of reports of being unable to attach files of to email and how the cloud censors pictures someone thinks are offensive. I didn’t try any of this. I didn’t get that far.

  • Great tools to help handle newsletters, deals and more

I have no idea what this means.

  • SkyDrive and Office built-in to make it easy to share and collaborate

I have SkyDrive and Cloud (Apple) and Google’s Cloud Drive already. How is this an Outlook.com feature?

None of the Outlook.com features mean anything at all if the product is unreliable. I need mail to be up 99.999% of the time. In the one week that I used Outlook.com, it was down several times with “intermittent” failures and down completely for the last 36  hours—right up to the time I pulled the switch and changed back to Gmail.

In Summary

My advice to those who are thinking about Outlook.com as an alternative to Gmail? Think long and hard before doing so. You may hate Google for snooping in your mail, but what’s more important? Getting your mail quickly and making sure its available 7/24/365 or having another ad pop up trying to sell you a camera lens that you might really want in the first place? And no, I’m no longer considering the Windows 8 phone.

When my mom was making dinner, my brothers and I would stick our heads in the kitchen and ask if it was time to eat. My mother was what they used to call a “housewife” and she actually “cooked” stuff—not just assemble the parts out of a box. All too often she would tell us “It’s not soup yet,” when the food on the stove had not been sufficiently cooked. It might have smelled delicious and looked edible, but it took time to soften the beans and work the spicy flavors into the meat. She would know when it was ready, even if it took another hour to cook. We never starved. Her cooking was worth waiting for.

I’m afraid Windows 8 isn’t soup yet. I was as anxious as a hungry teen when it came to the official launch of Windows 8. I had heard so many stories about its marvels that I wanted to be one of the first to try it. No, I didn’t try the betas or “nearly ready” versions because I didn’t have the time to build up a separate system or a Hyper-V to host it. I’ve been working with pre-released software for too long to install it over a functioning OS. So I guess I must take part of the blame in Windows 8’s shortcomings.

As I said, I’ve been working with Windows for a long time—since Version 1 when it was delivered on floppies and ran as an application on top of DOS. That was in ‘86 when I first joined Microsoft and worked with the Windows Developer Liaison team. Windows has come a long way since then.

So what happened? Well, there’s a laundry-list of stuff that worked and didn’t work, but I’ll get to that. First consider that I know how complex operating systems can be. I’ve written new OSs, modified other company’s OSs and taught developers how to program to them. I’ve also installed early versions of every version of Windows since the early days—many, many times. Windows 8 is following the same pattern as all of the others. Too bad it seems more like Vista than Windows 3 or Windows 7.

If you don’t want to read the list of issues and just want my recommendation, here it is: Wait. Wait until SP1 comes out. By this time, the hardware and software companies that are still alive (they fall by the wayside faster than old runners in the Boston marathon) will have released updated Windows 8 drivers, application updates and patches so their stuff works. By that time Microsoft will have released Media Center and added a “What happened to my XXXX in Windows 7” help topic.

The Hardware

As a point of reference, my hardware platform is a i7 980x with 12GB of RAM, SSD drive and dual monitors being driven by a NVidia high-performance video card. The system profiles at 7.6 (it’s fast).

My references to the “unmetro” user interface address the copyright debacle caused by Microsoft’s inability to find a name that someone else isn’t using (again). Might I suggest “Google” before picking a name? I’ll just call it “UM” for reference sake.

Surprises and Disappointments

Here’s what I found (or didn’t find).

  • I have an MSDN license (thanks to the Microsoft MVP program) so I tried to access the site on August 15th—the first release date. Unfortunately, the site could not take the traffic and repeatedly crashed. The MSDN staff on the phone had no idea what was going on. Apparently, there were no Clouds in Redmond that day. I decided to get some lunch, and later in the day the site was working again. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing like success to bring a company (even as large as Microsoft) to its knees.
  • While I  waited, I did some research on the new versions. It looked like I wanted the “Enterprise” version. No, it’s not because I’m running a starship here, but it had some worthwhile features, and I hate it when you have invested months in an OS only to find that the feature you really need isn’t in that SKU.
  • I tried to upgrade my current Windows 7 Ultimate to Enterprise. Nope, no go. I hade to settle for the “Pro” version. Thankfully, this version was happy to overlay my existing Windows 7 system. And yes, I had done a full backup the previous day using Windows Backup. First mistake.
  • Once Win8 installed and settled down, I started getting lost in the new look and feel. The “unmetro” (UM) user interface (UI) was a big change. I discovered at once I had quick launch toolbars on both monitors. Not good. I use every bit of the second monitor for work. Icons and toolbars belong on the “primary” monitor. No work-around—minor irritation.
  • Discovering how to get the UM to work was helped by the (very brief) intro video. However, when clicking on the “Start” chicklet at the lower-left often triggered the application on the second row of the quick-launch toolbar. I’m not going to get started on the UI. I expect that I’ll get used to it in time. There are far more serious issues to discuss. And yes, I did discover a nice new Remote Desktop application. Intuitive, innovative and useful. But my gadgets were all gone—never to return. Not good.
  • I use this system for a variety of purposes. While my office apps still work, many of the others do not. These include my fingerprint reader, WinTV, Windows Media Center, my security camera apps, Camtasia Studio, SnagIt and Windows Backup. You can add about six gadgets to this list that I used heavily to give me real-time feedback on applications and OS performance. Strike 1. I use this system to record video from external cameras—none of which work with Windows 8.
  • Once the OS was installed, I immediately tried to get a “starting point” backup established. Unfortunately, there was no Windows Backup visible and no references to it in “Search”.  I did some research (on Google) and discovered it’s been replaced with new technology because “no one” was using Windows Backup. Isn’t that special. I’m someone, I use it. Silly me. I did find an old reference to “Windows 7 File Recovery”. And there it was. Dumb. So I didn’t want to overly my existing Win7 backup image so I told it to backup to a web server. After many (many) hours, (over a 1Ghz backbone to a dedicated file server), Windows 8 dropped the LAN. After repeated retries and resets, the only solution was to reboot and start over. Strike 2. I can’t have a system with an unstable LAN.
  • I also use “System Restore” to roll back the registry and other systems software when things go wrong as they invariably do in my work. There is no sign of this functionality. This is serious but I hope to work around it with other backup software.
  • I finally pulled the backup target drive and replaced it with a clean drive. I keep my backup drives on a USB3 drive carrier so they can be easily pulled for archival and emergencies. Unfortunately, the system would no longer boot without this drive in place. Strike 3. Saving critical boot information on external drives is unacceptable.
  • Throughout all of this I was constantly using Search to try to find out how to do stuff. Some of the time it helped by all too often it came up blank. “Gadgets” nothing. “Backup” nothing. Actually, that’s not true. “Backup” found an old copy of a Norton Ghost backup manual, but nothing from Microsoft. In frustration I typed “Help” and way down on the list was Microsoft’s help interface. Why isn’t Help and Support on the same top-level menu with Search? The problem we’re facing is the mountain of information, misinformation and rumor exposed by Bing and Google searches. Given the length of time Windows 8 has been in public beta, there is a landfill of articles out there—many of which are no longer applicable. This means that Microsoft needs to ensure that their system-resident help topics are the first point of information. And folks before you ship a product, expunge the “This stuff is preliminary” warnings. I was on the help team and it does not have to be this way.
  •  

    My Plans

    Because of these serious issues and the host of not-so-serious-issues that I’ve discovered just in the last 48 hours, I’m going to have to take the following steps:

    Restore my Windows 7 system if I can. If I can’t, I plan to do a clean install of Windows 7 on this system. It will take a week to do, but I can’t have an unreliable system that’s not ready for production. Sure, a year from now, I might try again. By then the video hardware and software companies will probably have sorted out their Windows 8 issues. Until then, I’ll be sticking with Windows 7. It’s too important to me. I expect it is for you too.

    I’m not a new author—far from it. I’ve written over a dozen books and contributed chapters to a handful of others. I’ve written more magazine and Internet articles than Justin Bieber’s hair stylists, and I’m not counting the documentation I pumped out for Microsoft. Except for my two novels, these were all ‘technical fiction’. You know, books written about Microsoft software for developers. One has to be pretty imaginative to write an easy-to-read book on the data access interfaces SQL Server and still keep the reader awake.

    Apparently, none of this experience helps get one recognized as a competent writer in the young adult world. That’s understandable—very few teens read Hitchhiker’s Guide to Visual Studio and SQL Server (7th Edition), and they wouldn’t get the jokes anyway. That’s fine. I know how to restart my career on a new path. I’ve had to do it many, many times over the last forty years. Anyone who’s worked in the personal computer industry also knows how to file for unemployment.

    So I had an idea for a novel. I wanted to tell a story about our turbulent times. I saw political corruption, corporations buying their own laws and media spigots to dump their propaganda on the public. I saw many social problems ignored or glossed over by the books impressionable teens were reading. I was convinced that our future leaders needed another 1984, Animal Farm or Alice In Wonderland. Ambitious? Of course. I expect that Don Quixote and I are cut from the same cloth.

    The Owl Wrangler POD Cover (just front)I spent about three years and a bunch of money on classes, books, editors and illustrators to create The Owl Wrangler. On the surface, it’s a young adult story about tiny forest elves. No taller than a pinecone, they live in the forests around the Northwest. They have parents, teachers and village elders that expect and demand quite a bit from them. They’re faced with many of the same hormonal and social pressures that my own kids faced when they were in their teens. But these elven teens are special. Many of them have fledgling magical powers that they’re just learning to wield.

    The result? Tepid sales but 99% 5-star reviews—but only 9 of them. I thought it was time to start marketing in earnest. I found a publisher that was “very interested”, but communicating with them is like standing in the back of a busy bar trying to get a drink on a Friday night. I’m still looking for a sincerely interested publisher. Sure, I’ve been racking up rejection letters, but my ego can only take so much rejection. I’m not as frail as George McFly, no experienced author is, but given the state of the publishing industry, does it make sense to keep prodding publishers that only want best sellers? One of the blog articles that clog up my browser like malware pop-ups, suggested that the only key to success for a new author was to write—and keep writing. So I did.

    Copy of Front Cover Cats EyesThe story continued with Guardians of the Sacred Seven. This took another couple of years, more classes, editors, copyeditors, conference fees and thousands of hours on Facebook, Twitter and countless blogs and reading similar fantasies. Two years later, volume two of The Owl Wrangler trilogy is done. I’m happy with it. Taking my own advice, I’m writing the third. Frankly, the characters are calling me now to come back and listen to their stories.

    Sure, I keep getting the occasional request to consult on SQL Server or Reporting Services projects, but I’m having too much fun. I’ll keep writing and until my arthritis locks up my hands entirely, I’ll keep doing so.

    Follow me on @vaughnwilliam or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/OwlWrangler.

     

    Tip: When working with the MovableType (Movable Type) dashboard, be sure to enable the “compatibility” mode in IE9. Otherwise several dialogs won’t work. It’s just another joy of working with IE9.

    SMTPAuth (Settings panel does not appear)

    A developer asked a question on MSDN that was similar to a question a few days earlier so I decided to help folks get over the problems of setting report parameters in ReportViewer projects.

    For those of you that don’t use Facebook to follow the Microsoft teams, I commented on a Facebook entry from the Denali team that pointed me to their new Denali blurb.

    Nine Hours of Fast-Paced Training

    Tomorrow (July 12th) I’ll be presenting my monthly webinar. It’s been updated to include more information about SQL Server Reporting Services (R2) and Visual Studio 2010. This high-impact series of six 90-minute webinars held over three mornings (Pacific time from 09:00-12:30) is for anyone who wants to leverage Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS), SQL Server and Reporting Services best practices—learning what works, what doesn't and why. These sessions are for developers, architects and managers who want to know how and (more importantly) when to leverage the power and benefits of SQL Server and Reporting Services. The fee also includes both of my Reporting Services and Visual Studio books.

    Incidentally, Progressive does not care how many people sit in on the sessions so you can fill a meeting room or the local theater if you want to. These are also designed to be interactive—that is, I encourage the attendees to chat in questions anytime or ask over the phone at the end.

    Want a front-row seat in my next Webinar? If so, I’m accepting applications for the live studio audience. All you need to do is send me an note saying why you would like to attend. I can comfortably sit about four people so get your application in early. Let me worry about the conference $999 fee, but if you bring doughnuts for everyone... I’ll pick the audience the Friday before the next talk.

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