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TIME ZONES: Getting the time right when travelling with a Windows Mobile device
Posted by Carlo Guerrero - on Wednesday, 07.07.04 - 18:33:21 CET under 11 - Tips and Tutorials - Viewed 23228x
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The Time Zone feature of Outlook and Pocket Outlook is probably the most misunderstood concept implemented in any modern computing device. Some have managed to break it and bring it down to the level of the lowly paper based planner while some have, after a while, grasped the concept behind it and have used it to their advantage.

Understanding GMT and UTC

GMT is Greenwich Mean Time and is measured based on, Greenwich noon time which is theoretically, the moment when the Sun crosses the Greenwich meridian at noon. And since the rotation of the earth is irregular and slowing down, this means that GMT cannot be totally accurate.

Enter UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time. UTC is the successor to GMT and is still colloquially referred to as GMT. UTC is more accurate since it is based on Atomic Time. UTC is also referred to as Zulu time, a term most of us would be familiar with if you watch the TV series JAG.

All time zones are defined relative to UTC. The Prime Meridian (longitude 0°) which passes through the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, London, England is still the reference point for Time Zones.

Uncopyrighted image from Standard Time Zones of the World by the CIA

For example: If an appointment is held at 12:00 GMT on July 5, it will reflect the following times in different locations. New York which is GMT-5 will have the appointment at 7:00am on July 5, New York Time while this same event takes place in Japan at 9:00pm on July 5 Japan Time which is GMT+9.

The use of UTC/GMT has made it more manageable coordinating time around the world. With more businesses going global, transactions taking place simultaneously around the world, we must then learn and accept the concept of Time Zones.

Using the Time Zone feature on Outlook and Pocket Outlook

Outlook and Pocket Outlook use UTC/GMT as the basis for determining time differences depending on your location. This helps when you receive a meeting request from a client either on the same Time Zone, or half way around the World. If your client in the UK wants to have a conference call with you at 6pm on July10 for example, with your boss in Japan, your colleague in Africa and yourself in New York, you will have everything synchronized because the time you are using is based on only one standard, the UTC/GMT standard.

But how do you set an appointment so that it works as it should? Creating appointments in the Home Time Zone is not a problem really. It's when you create appointments that are supposed to take place in another Time Zone which causes much confusion. This happens when you set an appointment relative to another Time Zone and not yours, which can occur when your boss in Japan says "Call me up at 8:00am Japan Time" or if you set an appointment for a meeting you're attending in a week or so in a Time Zone several hours past yours.

Here are the basic steps needed so that your appointments do not get messed up. I will also point out some shortcomings of the current system which definitely does not mean that the system is broken, rather, it points out that there are some information which is lacking which ultimately causes all the confusion.

Situation 1: You are in New York and you set an appointment for a meeting in Japan which is supposed to happen in a couple of days. The meeting is supposed to take place on July 15 at 4:00pm Japan Time.

  • Set your Visiting Time Zone to Japan time which is GMT+9
  • Go to the specific date, in this case July 15. Enter the appointment at 4:00pm
  • Go back to the Clock Settings and revert back to your Home Time Zone.

What will appear is that you will have a meeting on July 15 at 3:00am. But remember that you reverted back to your Home Time Zone. So this time is relative to your Home Time Zone and not the location you will be visiting or the Visiting Time Zone. What is not shown is the appointment time made relative to the other Time Zone which seems more logical. This is the missing piece of information that needs to be entered which can take away all the confusion.

A work-around here is to write the time and Time Zone where the appointment is supposed to take place. This way even if the appointment seems to appear in the wrong time with reference to your Home Time Zone, you have the actual time and date embedded into the appointment. Here you will see the appointments as they appear in the different Time Zones. The first one being GMT+9 Japan, and the second one is GMT-5 New York.

Here is a different view of the appointment in GMT-5 New York Time Zone where I inserted the time of the appointment in the location field to reflect a fixed time relative to where the appointment will take place.

Situation 2: Why you should not mess around with Time Zones. This particularly works when you send out a meeting request. Let's say a friend in New York set a conference call for him, Arne and I to attend to, he sends  us a meeting request which is sent via email based on the appointment he made in his Pocket PC.

This in turn will be received by Arne and I, on totally different Time Zones. From there we simply accept the meeting request and the appointment is automatically entered into our Desktop PCs or Pocket PCs.

The appointment and meeting request made which is a Conference Call at 1:00pm to 2:30pm on July 20 in New York will look like this.

While the Meeting Request sent to me, actually enters the appointment based on my Home Time Zone which is in the Philippines. You will notice that the meeting now takes place at 1:00am on July 21 Manila Time.

Arne who is in Germany will get it at GMT+1, I'll get it at GMT+8 and our friend in New York would be ready at GMT-5 on his side.  While I'm up talking at 1:00am of July 21, Arne will be on the line at 6:00pm of July 20, and our friend in New York is enjoying our conversation at 1:00pm of July 20. All these different dates and times actually happen simultaneously.

When is this not applied?

When is the concept of Time Zones not used? Well, normally when the events are not based on an absolute time in the earth's timeline which is represented by UTC/GMT. These are occasions such as Birthdays, Holidays, and such where the event dates are rather localized. An example is New Year. When the clock strikes midnight in the UK, which marks the start of the year on January 1, certain countries have already celebrated it as much as 13 hours earlier. More countries will also be celebrating it hours after the UK.

Pocket Outlook handles such dates pretty well, and it may seem that it handles these dates even better than Outlook 2003. If you create a whole day appointment on the desktop PC via Outlook 2003, and you synchronize your Pocket PC to it, you will notice that even if you shift Time Zones these whole day events do not change dates. This holds true for appointments made in Outlook 2003, but seems to fail if the appointments are done in the Pocket PC.

On the other hand, Outlook 2003 exhibits these changes even though you would think it shouldn't. This makes me assume that Outlook 2003 was not intended to cross Time Zones, as it's supposed to be in a fixed location. (This then becomes a very big shortcoming if you use a laptop and traverse Time Zones quite often.)

If you create whole day events in the Pocket PC, these whole day events shift as you shift Time Zones. I think this is where the advantage of using the Birthday and Anniversary entries in Contacts to set these types of dates. The limitation though, is not being able to create whole day appointments via the PPC without basing it on UTC/GMT.

Now this shouldn't really be an issue. Other than Birthdays, Anniversaries, and Holidays, most other dates are dependent on UTC/GMT. If I were to keep track of  an employee's itinerary from half way across the globe, I could easily do so. Even with whole day and multi-day events, I can keep track of each meeting or seminar he attends. How? As long as I have the same set of appointments in Outlook, even with the difference in Time Zones, Each whole day event or individual appointment should be visible to me.

The appointments may happen in the wee hours of the morning where I am, but I know that if ever I had to get in touch with him, I would know where and how to find him.

Is it broken?

In my opinion, in no way is Outlook or Pocket Outlook broken. It works as it should but lacks certain elements that can help the Road Warrior who traverses Time Zones. I yet have to see a solution for Pocket Outlook that does not destroy the concept of Time Zones based on UTC/GMT. There are some applications though that aid in creating appointments across Time Zones.

To lessen the confusion, these are my recommendations which hopefully all may find helpful.

  • What - When creating appointments be specific about the subject and include specifics that will remind you a little about where this is also happening

  • When - be aware of the Time Zone. Is it happening in your Home Time Zone or another Time Zone. prepare to make adjustments in time right away.

  • Where - Be specific about the location and include the info on Time Zone here. You can also copy the time, date and Time Zone of the appointment here so that it remains visible to you even if you shift Time Zones.

These may look like so much work. But until a developer comes up with an easy solution that doesn't break the concept of Time Zones or Outlook and Pocket Outlook are improved to include such information in the displayed data, this for me has been a solution that makes most sense.

Mabuhay! ~ Carlo


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