It has long been the dream of Act! users to have their contact and calendar data mirrored with Outlook. Not only would this feature provide a handy duplication of data across two applications, it would allow users to easily sync their vital data to all their mobile devices without the aid of any third party add-ons. After all, everything syncs with Outlook, right?
Well as dreamy as this feature would be for POP3 and IMAP email clients, it would actually be more versatile for MS Exchange users, who would see their contact and calendar data from Outlook synch wirelessly by Exchange out to all their mobile devices. Data nirvana for everyone, instantly. What could be better?
Well, as many reading this post are likely aware, this dream gave rise to Act! 2011 (released in the fall of 2010), which featured Sage’s first attempt at such Act!-Outlook integration. It was a noble attempt, and one that the market demanded, but one that ultimately failed spectacularly.
Two-way Act!-Outlook synching stumbled out of the gate with scheduled syncs that would fail instantly, or require constant nursing to keep going, or, better yet, wipe calendar data outright. What’s worse, corrupted calendars became commonplace, as items would appear in the task list but not be invisible in the daily, weekly or monthly calendar.
It was a mess, and one that would not be fixed in subsequent versions, despite their attempt to deliver the same flawed two-way synching with Google in the next version – Act! 2012.
Little changed in Act! 2013 or v16, and the clunkiness of this feature became such a pain point we started downplaying two-way sync expectations during pre-sale discussions with prospects, and later outright refusing to support customers that insisted on using this feature. Use at your own risk, we would tell them, which created strain with those that reasonably expected it to work as advertised.
In June of 2014, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and flew down to Scottsdale for a week to see whose cages I could rattle to affect some change. The problem, from my perspective, was not one of programming, but rather one of philosophy. Two way synching was a flawed concept that was predicated upon the notion we should be entering data equally into Outlook as we do Act!. Adding contacts & calendar events in Outlook may seem like a handy way to pass data back to Act!, but the reality is the two programs are so different such a data flow should be avoided.
The best, most practical setup for synching between these two applications is to cast Outlook as an “extension” of Act!, and not a data source for it, and the only way that could be accomplished is with “one-way” synching from Act! To Outlook. To be more precise, it’s not even “synching”, so much as pushing Act! Contact and calendar data to Outlook on a scheduled basis.
This was my argument to Swiftpage, and to my delight they were open to it. The coding for Act v17 was nearly baked, so my timing in late June could not have waited another week if they were to have time to make the appropriate changes for the upcoming release.
The one point they couldn’t refute is no one was using the Act-Outlook synchronization feature as it was, so some form of change was required. Since Act! had previously supported one-way synching for calendars back in Act! 2010, the development impact to add contacts this time around seem low.
Consider the following for why Act! had to move in this direction:
- Separation of Church and State: While customers liked the idea of two-way contact and calendar synching, they like the separation of church and state more. That is to say, they did not want their personal data to flow back into Act! for others to see. This was less an issue for individual real estate agents, mortgage brokers, or financial advisors, but people on larger sales teams would be predictably chagrined to discover everyone in his company had his mother’s cel number, or his sister’s home address.
- Provides better reporting: Creating activities in Act! and then clearing them in Outlook can severely impact the accuracy of your company’s History reporting. For instance, Outlook does not allow you to control the outcome of any activity once an alarm goes off. You may think you’re clearing an activity, when in truth you’re simply recording that it’s over, without any indication as to the nature of the outcome (positive or negative), or even changes to the duration or venue.
Imagine showing up for a meeting, and being unable to record whether the other party showed or cancelled? Whether a scheduled call actually took place or if you simply left voicemail.
And finally, Outlook does not offer you the easy ability to schedule a follow-up when clearing an activity. We’re all painfully familiar with Outlook alarms that offer us the choice of dismissing, snoozing, or cancelling - none of which are helpful when reviewing History reports.
- Brothers from another mother: Act! and Outlook are not the same. They designed differently, they’re intended for different purposes, and ultimately they treat certain data types differently. Phone fields for instance, in Outlook include extensions, whereas Act! creates a separate field for such. Annual events like anniversaries and birthdays are treated as recurring events in Outlook, whereas in Act! such data is recorded at the field level. Act! treats “date” fields differently than “annual events” fields, and accordingly builds trigger support for them in distinct ways.
These two examples alone can lead to significant data loss on the contact side or countless duplications in the calendar.
- One way synching works. I know that all features should work as advertised, but this one works because it doesn’t attempt to fumble around their different data structures. Anything you schedule in Act! ends up in your Outlook calendar, and by extension your mobile devices. That data resides offline on your phone or tablet, and alerts you to scheduled events as intended.
Similarly, contacts you add into Act! reliably appear on your phone the next time you want to call someone.
- Data corruption CANNOT be undone: Despite what anyone tells you, data corruption that occurs during a bad sync between Act! and Outlook cannot be undone with a CTRL+Alt+Z, or some similar set of hotkeys. The only way to repair a database that has had countless contact duplicates created, or calendars with wiped events is to restore from backup. This type of remedy is reliable, but typically involves exchanging one form of lost data for another – namely the work added to the database since the backup.
Don’t get me wrong, as happy as I am with the current iteration of Act!-Outlook synching, certain improvements can be made. For instance, single calendar contacts or activities should be able to be selected and pushed from Outlook into Act!. Not only would this furnish the user control of what data gets sent from Outlook, it would also provide a convenient conduit for voice activated data entry like “Siri” into Act!, or expand the use of business card scanners, as well.
And if I were being completely honest, I’d say one-way synching between Act! and Gmail accounts is long overdue, as well, but I’ve learned to be patient, while applying what influence I have, when I can.
In summary, Act-Outlook integration is a mature feature that has worked pretty reliably for email History recording, converting emails to Contacts or Activities, and managing Outlook Invitations. Some of these features have been around for over a decade, and millions of customers rely on them every day. In theory two-way syncing should work, but in practice it is a bumpy road unworthy of navigating.
When I look down at my phone, I want access to my contact and calendar data, and to be alerted to tasks that need my attention. One-way syncing provides that.
If I require two way syncing, I look to third party add-ons like Handheld Contact for that functionality. HHC installs what amounts to an Act! client on your device that syncs with Act! in much the same way as Act! databases sync with each other – by the Contact GUID. This approach delivers more reliable results, and avoids the alchemist mistake of trying to turn Outlook into Act!.