Getting organised

DTSTART:20050707T161500Z

Getting organised

DTEND:20050707T173000Z

CLASS:PUBLIC

LOCATION:Room: 2c

END:VEVENT

END:VCALENDAR

That Z on the end of the start and end date/times indicates UTC (I think it came from the military who refer to UTC as Zulu). Now, here in Amsterdam, we’re on CET (Central European Time) and Summer (daylight saving) Time, which means we’re currently two hours ahead of UTC – Outlook knows this and so shows the appointment running from 18:15 to 19:30 CET. If the date of the appointment were to be after the clocks go back in the autumn, Outlook would have only added one hour, because Windows knows about Summer Time changes.

Of course, things are never that easy, though. I was in the UK last week when I actually added some of the sessions to my calendar and, although the website quoted the times in CET, adding the appointments to my calendar made them show up apparently one hour earlier than the website said, which was in fact correct, as my PC’s clock was set to GMT (plus Summer Time = BST), which is one hour behind CET. An appointment for 18:15 CET would be placed at 17:15 BST. To aid understanding, you can right-click in the time bar down the left of a Day or Work Week view of the Calendar folder and choose Change Time Zone… from the menu. (You can also get there through Tools | Options… | Calendar Options… | Time Zone.) Here, you can choose a secondary time zone to be displayed and label it, so for this trip I chose to show both GMT and CET. On Sunday, when I’d got to Amsterdam, I could go to the same place and click the Swap Time Zone button. At this point, Outlook obligingly tells Windows of the change of time zone and all your appointments will slide into the correct places.

Unfortunately, all your other appointments slide too. Given the dual time-zone display, you can see they’re still correct against GMT so that’s all right, but what isn’t okay is that all the whole-day or multi-day events will now appear to occupy two days. A whole-day event is a special type of appointment that starts at midnight on one day and ends at midnight the following day, but of course that means midnight to midnight of the time zone you were in – now you’re in a different time zone, such as CET, so what once were midnight-to-midnight appointments have now become 1am-to-1am appointments and therefore span two days… And if this problem is annoying to me, who attends a handful of foreign conferences a year, imagine how frustrating it must be for someone who travels more frequently and might visit three time zones every week.

This little ‘feature’ has afflicted Outlook since it was first released in 1997 and we can only hope it might be fixed for Office 12 next year. However, although it messes up the display pretty horribly, the good news is that when you return home and swap the time zones back again, all your appointments slide back to their rightful places and all is well again. I think what needs to happen is that whole-day events need to be tied to dates only rather than times of day, and the user should be able to enter the time zone manually when creating appointments. At present, whenever you enter a time, it’s assumed to be in your current time zone and is then translated into and stored in UTC – Outlook then displays the time adjusted to the current time zone, whatever that happens to be. I think this assumption of the current time zone when recording a time is wrong – if you could enter the desired time zone explicitly on each appointment, you could manually create an appointment for 16:00 CET even while you were in the UK without having to calculate that it’s 15:00 GMT.

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