The Travails of Entourage Tasks and Exchange in a Dashboard Widget

OK, here’s my complaint. I use a Mac. Well that’s not really my complaint. My complaint is about how Microsoft doesn’t play well with others. What else is new? I love using my Mac, even though I program for Windows. Of course my organization has Exchange as its collaboration server. As a manager I use the Task functionality of Exchange to track what I need to talk to each of my direct reports about at our weekly one-on-one sessions. This is convenient for a number of reasons not the least of which is that my assistant can take my notes and update the tasks for me.In order for me to use tasks in this fashion they need three characteristics: they must have 1) Description or the text for the task, 2) a due date, and 3) a category. I use the due date to make sure I am not overwhelming my people by constantly asking about the same topic. When I talk about a topic, I usually reschedule it out a couple of weeks or more depending on the urgency. That way I don’t forget about the item, but I’m also not nagging about it either. I use the person’s name as the category. The category is useful so I can print off a list for each person and have it on hand for our meeting.So, on the Mac, I use Entourage. All-in-all Entourage is OK, but the task functionality is seriously lacking when compared to Outlook. While Entourage uses WebDAV to connect to the Exchange server, it didn’t include the task functionality of Exchange, but implemented its own with some annoying quirks – like the fact that it takes 7 or so clicks to create a task as opposed to the nice task creation bar with one-click simplicity in Outlook. More importantly, Entourage doesn’t sync tasks with Exchange so my assistant wouldn’t be able to see the tasks I have in Entourage or any changes.With my background in programming I set out to find a solution. Strangely enough Microsoft doesn’t make APIs public for Entourage like they do for Outlook. So I began to think of other approaches. I determined that it really wasn’t necessary for me to have my tasks in Exchange as long as I could have the structure that I wanted and it was easy for me to maintain. I began looking at Dashboard Widgets. There are surprisingly few and none with all three features that I need.So I began thinking of a way to make my own widget that would read the Entourage tasks. Entourage recently has added support for Mac OS X Sync Services so it can Sync with iCal. This seemed like a simple enough approach. However, the problem is with iCal and the weird schema that Apple uses.Instead of taking a normal approach to Calendars and Tasks, Apple was “Thinking Different”. It seems to me that the concept of having tasks tied to multiple calendars as a way of categorizing them is rather non-standard. This normally wouldn’t be a problem except when it comes to syncing different applications. In this case Entourage only has one calendar and iCal doesn’t have the concept of categories for tasks. You can see the problem. So Entourage implemented the Apple sync schema and puts all the tasks in one iCal calendar. The Apple sync schema doesn’t have a place for task categories and Entourage doesn’t know what to do with multiple calendars. Scratch that idea. Still, a better implementation could have been done that would have created multiple calendars in iCal from the list of categories in Entourage, but the Entourage team took the easy way (for them) out.The next thing that I began to look into is accessing my tasks through a widget in Exchange directly. This would be the ideal solution. Imagine the harmony as I work on my Dashboard and my assistant works in Outlook! As I said previously, Entourage uses WebDAV to access information on Exchange. WebDAV is an extension to the http protocol and uses the XMLRequest/Response mechanism. Hmmmm, this seems like an ideal task for Ajax and JavaScript. But not so fast.Yes, leave it to Microsoft to implement a non-standard version of WebDAV. So far, all of the examples that I can find of Accessing Exchange with JavaScript requires the instantiation of an ActiveXObject(“Microsoft.XMLHTTP”). As we Mac users all know for other Microsoft applications, there is no ActiveX on a Mac. Then all of the documentation points out that standard methods of accessing entities in WebDAV don’t necessarily work in Exchange. Why should this be different than any other time?Another and more curious issue seems to be that very little attention is being paid to WebDAV in the midst of all of the Ajax hype. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. WebDAV seems to be an ideal compliment or even an essential part of Web 2.0.I did find an example of accessing Exchange’s WebDAV through the use of PHP and it doesn’t seem to use the ActiveX object. Troy Wolf has all the scripts and a number of examples on his website. There is also an interesting JavaScript from Apple that they use to access iDisks via WebDAV that can be found here. Another thing that looked really promising is the Tibet framework. It seems to provide an incredible amount of functionality. But I could not find anywhere to download a copy – or even buy one for that matter.For now I’m turning the task of creating the JavaScript that doesn’t require an ActiveX object to a friend of mine who loves these kinds of challenges. Hopefully we will have a really useful tool for Mac uses stuck with Exchange in the near future.

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12 thoughts on “The Travails of Entourage Tasks and Exchange in a Dashboard Widget

  1. God please, I need this widget. I work for a company that passes all the thing’s I’m supposed to do down through tasks. All I use is a Mac and I have a friend that sends me every task I get and updates them for me. PLEASE, don’t stop working on this

  2. Something to look into:
    I just installed the trial version of Groupcal (from http://snedware.com). This allow for syncing tasks between iCal and Exchange (I switched off calendar syncing as I’m doing this through Entourage).
    Once your tasks are syncing with iCal, if you have Sync Services in Entourage, you’ll be able to Edit them from there… So far it appears to work quite well. I’m considering getting the license to fully evaluate this.
    Other useful pointers in this area:
    – You can use DoBeDo widgets to edit/check on your tasks
    – In Entourage Tasks pane, use custom view to view your Outlook categories (they get added at the end of a task)

    (but… yeah… would be much easier if Erage would do it directly!)

  3. Will it work?

    I am ‘blessed’ with Internet Explorer, i.e. xmlhttp, yet I cannot retrieve some crucial fields on journal/task items: all fields are not documented/supported over WebDAV, but one is refered to using the Outlook Object Model!

    Make sure you will be able to access all the information you’ll need if you go for WebDAV!

  4. why not run Outlook through Parallels? I’m thinking of doing this until Entourage Exchange includes tasks. Any reason other than the obvious not to do this?

  5. I am with you Edj. Just installed Office 2007 on my parallels image and I have to admit that as much as I love my mac, when it comes to adapting the system to work in the typical corporate environment there are a few nuisances that still need to be addressed. In the meantime, accessing my exchange data with Outlook 2007 in coherence mode and even shortcuts on the dock is the answer for me. btw, I find myself using Word 2007 and Excel 2007 more that the Office.Mac 2004 these days. Maybe I should go buy a PC? or not.

  6. Entourage 2008 is set to be just as broken. The syncing of Tasks and Notes is not on the list of features to be included. Can you believe it?!

    I can’t help thinking that the head-office types in Redmond are directing the MacBU people not to add this. They want a broken Entourage to try to stem the tide of people dropping their broken Vista machines for Macs.

  7. There is no doubt that the directors of software development are intentionally keeping Office2004 and Office2008 “weaker” on the Mac. (There’s no Halloween memo to that end, but there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence!) For years and years, Microsoft has been threatening to stop making software for Mac entirely as a means to convince them not to compete with them. (If Microsoft was broken up as they should have been, Microsoft-Office would no longer have any incentive to support only Windows this way, but since they want Windows everywhere, their motives are obvious.)

    It’s okay though. There are alternatives to Exchange and Microsoft Office. It is inevitable that as long Microsoft keeps annoying their customers, their customers will look to the alternatives and the alternatives will grow and improve.

  8. Is there any real solution to this underlying problem yet? I’ve just purchased my first iMac with the Leopard OS installed, and I’m converting to Mac from PC. I’m gung-ho to use Office:mac 2008, but I am just frustrated with the handling (… i mean lack thereof) of categories for calendars and tasked events. I see that the last posts on here date about a year and a half ago… has there been any solution since then (I can only hope that such a development would have stopped this conversation) 🙂

    Thanks in advance,
    Brian

  9. i believe that Entourage can now sync with Exchange, but it has to be a new version of Exchange, and my company works off 2003. If someone would figure our how to get Entourage tasks to sync with Exchange so that my assistant who is on a PC could read them, you’d be a very rich man (or woman).

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