Tag Archives: Mac OS X

Why the Outlook for Mac folder pane changes colors

I mentioned in my review of the new Outlook for Mac client that the background of the folder list seemed to randomly change colors:

It may also be a feature that there is a color gradient fill in the folder list. At first I thought the color was the same as the color of the category of my current calendar appointment, but after changing all the category colors, waiting for sync, and quitting and relaunching Outlook, the color didn’t change, so I’m not sure what Microsoft had in mind here, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn it off.

Thanks to the most excellent Bill Smith, long-time Mac Office MVP, now I know the answer:

You’re seeing translucency in the navigation pane. So long as you have a window or other white object behind Outlook you’ll see a whitish background, but arrange Outlook over your Desktop picture and you’ll see those colors peeking through it. Choose Outlook menu > Hide Others to quickly show Outlook over your Desktop.

Sure enough, that explains it. I use SatelliteEyes to update my desktop background, and as I move around (and thus get new satellite maps), or as change the Z order of other open windows, voilà color changes. I normally don’t mind window translucency, but I don’t care for the combination of OS X Yosemite and this effect. Looks like I’m stuck with it, though.

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CrashPlan “Cannot connect to backup engine” errors on Mac OS X

I recently updated to Java 1.7 for work, and after doing so I noticed that CrashPlan was no longer performing backups. (I’m a bit ashamed to admit how long it took for me to notice though!) The company’s support forum suggests uninstalling and reinstalling the client, which didn’t fix the problem. A bit more searching identified the problem: CrashPlan expects Java 1.6, the official Apple version, and it gets unhappy if you replace that with 1.7. The instructions here outline a workaround: you have to stop the CrashPlan background service, modify its configuration file to point to the official-Apple version of Java, and then restart the service. Happy backups!

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On re-kerberizing services on Mac OS X Server

Wow, this week has been a productive one for finding new and interesting blog topics, mostly based on things that broke!

As much as I rely on Apple hardware and software for my work and personal life, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give them a free pass on issues like cost (note to self: update the laptop price comparison with the latest models) or capability. I’ve mentioned before how much I dislike Apple’s sloppy approach to system administration on OS X Server. The logging is poor, with log entries scattered all over the place; the documentation is hit-or-miss (both in terms of coverage and quality), and there can be a wide range of behavior between different tools– some give you lots of detail (or at least more verbose messages on demand), while others don’t.

Our primary OS X server is bound to our Active Directory domain, and the services on it are “kerberized” so that users can use their AD accounts, via Kerberos, to ssh into the machine, log in to the wiki, and so on. After a bit of initial flailing around, this has worked steadily for a year or so.

We have recently been working to set up single sign-on (SSO) for Subversion on Mac OS X. This has proved challenging for lots of reasons that are too tedious to go into here (and speaking of tedious: please don’t bother telling me we should be using Git instead, kthxbai). As part of that process, someone accidentally deleted the machine account that the OS X server had been using and replaced it with a user account, with the same name, for use with a manually-kerberized service.

In the Windows world, deleting a computer’s account causes all sorts of fairly immediate breakage. To OS X’s credit, it didn’t seem to be bothered that the computer account was gone.. I mean, it didn’t log any errors or anything, so it must have been happy, right? (That’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering.) The server kept right on working, except that the previously-kerberized services would no longer accept AD credentials.

The fix for this seemed straightforward: first, remove the OS X server from the domain, then add it back. This would re-establish its machine account. That step went swimmingly, although we first had to rename the user account that was created for SSO.

The only problem was that after doing this, single sign-on still didn’t work.

It turns out that when you remove an OS X server from AD, the services are essentially un-kerberized. This seems like it would be easy to fix with the “Kerberize” button in Server Manager... except that it’s apparently broken, or something, given that no combination of inputs would be accepted. So, my next attempt was to use sso_util from the command line, which also didn’t work; I got a nondescript message telling me that there was a communications error, and that was it.

The correct answer, at least on Snow Leopard: use dsconfigad -enablesso. You can be excused for not knowing that, because if you go to Apple’s own documentation, it says to run a command called “disconfigad,” whatever the hell that is. Once I ran that command, Kerberos logons for the wiki, ssh, and console logon immediately started working, yay. Now with any luck I won’t have to fool with this stupid server for another year or so.

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Syncing Outlook for Mac calendars, and when “Outlook” isn’t Outlook

Although I’ve been working with Outlook for Mac for quite some time, there are lots of its features that I don’t use. Because all my mailboxes are hosted on Exchange, for example, I don’t ever use any of the IMAP functionality. In the same vein, because all my calendar and contact data live on an Exchange server, I haven’t had to fiddle with calendar sync for some time. I used to sync my calendar with various Palm devices back in the day using Entourage, Outlook’s predecessor, but it was always a painful and error-fraught process, and I was happy to move to an all-Exchange, all-Exchange ActiveSync environment.

A friend and fellow MVP mailed me with a Mac Outlook calendar sync question, and I didn’t have the faintest idea of what the right answer was. Accordingly, I dragged a third MVP into the fray: Mac/Windows interop expert William Smith. He came up with a workable solution, and as a bonus he wrote a detailed tutorial on how to set up calendar sync.

That got me to thinking about the differences in the Outlook brand between Mac and Windows. The functional differences have been discussed at length elsewhere (like on Steve Goodman’s excellent feature comparison table.) As Steve points out, the Mac version of Outlook feels much like Entourage. Although the user interface has been revamped, and is much more pleasant as a result, many of the same issues that plagued Entourage are still around. For example, I’m running Outlook with 3 Exchange accounts on a MacBook Pro with a 2GHz quad-core i7 and 8GB of RAM. This is a snappy machine… and yet Outlook still frequently takes leisurely breaks to show me the spinning rainbow when I click on messages, and it often gets confused about exactly which messages are, or are not, part of a given conversation.

That’s not to say it’s more or less buggy than Windows Outlook, which of course has its own set of issues. I use both on a daily basis. There are some things that Mac Outlook does better; for example, I love having a single unified inbox for all my accounts, and the integration of Outlook with other apps (like iPhoto) is better than it is, in general, with Windows counterparts. On the other hand, I find it much easier to work with the schedule and calendar views in Windows Outlook; I really like the Outlook Social Connector, and the “Ignore Conversation” and QuickSteps features are both super valuable for plowing through large volumes of mail.

I find Apple’s Mail.app weird and unsatisfying: it doesn’t include all the data I want (like calendar and contact info), and it doesn’t do many of the familiar things that I expect from the Outlook family. That would be OK if Mail provided a better experience than Outlook but in my judgement it doesn’t– I’d rather use Windows Outlook in a VM than the native mail app. In that light, rebranding the Mac client as Outlook has been a success: Outlook users on either platform will find familiar things to like (and perhaps to gripe about) on the other platform. Throw OWA into the mix and overall I’d say that Microsoft has done a good job of building consistency between the platforms.

There are still some major differences between platforms. For example, Outlook 2011 has little to no SharePoint integration; it lacks proper conversation threading (plus the aforementioned QuickSteps and “Ignore Conversation”); it doesn’t integrate properly with Exchange UM, there’s no Personal Archive access, and it doesn’t support VBA (although its AppleScript support is quite extensive, and much improved from Entourage).

Most users, of course, will use whatever version of Outlook happens to run on their preferred platform. That’s natural enough. Overall I’m quite satisfied with Outlook 2010 (well, except that for some reason 64-bit Office Communicator hates it). I’m hoping that the Mac Office team can address some of the performance and behavior issues in Outlook 2011 in the forthcoming Service Pack 2. I’m not as concerned about missing features, as those will come in time, and the Mac team has the benefit of seeing what features in Outlook 2010 are actually worth porting and which ones are not.

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Henge Dock mini-review

As part of my ongoing downsizing, I sent both my 2008 MacBook Pro and my 2006 Mac Pro to the great used computer yard in the sky and consolidated to a single 2011 MBP. After years of using ThinkPads with docking stations (and being well pleased therewith), I went looking for a Mac equivalent. When I’m home, most of the time I’ll be working at my desk, but when I’m not home the MBP needs to go with me, and I didn’t want to mess with endless plugging and unplugging of cables.

A friend at Microsoft mentioned the Henge line of docks, so I ordered one to try it out. I liked their look, and I liked the fact that there are no mechanical parts (like the old NewerTech claw-style dock I had back in the day.)

When the dock arrived (promptly, I might add), I immediately got to setting it up. Here’s what it looks like with the cables installed:

cables through slots

Each cable is installed in a slot cut into the dock. You fasten the cable connector into the slot with a setscrew. Henge includes extension cables that fit into the slots; the idea is that you put in the extension cables you want connected, fasten their setscrews, and dock your laptop. I quickly assembled everything and docked my laptop. Although it fit, it wouldn’t wake up from sleep. The MacBook Pro requires 3 things to wake with the lid closed: the power adapter, a keyboard or mouse, and a video display must all be connected. I quickly determined that this wasn’t happening, but I couldn’t tell which because the shape of the dock prevents you from seeing the plugs. I put it aside for another day, then last night, I decided to experiment some more to try to get the dock working.

I pulled the cables through the dock openings so there was enough slack to plug everything in without fully docking the laptop. This let me verify that everything was plugged in. I have the MagSafe, 2 USB, DisplayPort, and audio out cables in place. This took me a while because I accidentally pushed the head of the video cable all the way through the dock opening and then couldn’t get it back through! After a bunch of fiddling, I finally got the connector back where it belonged.

Flushed with success, once that was done, I was able to ease the plugs back into the dock openings and screw them into place. I docked the laptop, woke it up, and enjoyed working with it for a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, the video adapter (I’m using Apple’s DisplayPort-to-VGA) wouldn’t seat until I manually jiggled it. The plug fits in the opening in the dock, but in its default position it’s ever-so-slightly misaligned with the opening in the MBP case, so it won’t seat unless I rock the MBP back and forth.

After some jiggling and rocking (boy, that sounds wrong), I got it to seat and worked with my machine docked all last night. This morning, I undocked it and tried to redock it, and the same problem– the USB plugs engaged (so the external keyboard was active) but the video plug didn’t seat properly.

When I e-mailed them, Henge told me that some Apple VGA adapters are sized funny and that I could either try another adapter or trim the one I had to remove some of the excess plastic. They kindly offered me a discount coupon for their brand of adapter, which is basically an extension cable that simplifies the routing quite a bit. I have a Monoprice DVI adapter that I’m going to test tonight. I like the industrial design of the dock, but if I can’t make it work reliably, back it goes.

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Apple and customer service

Apple gets a lot of flak from the technology press and a certain segment of users. Their complaints range from the fact that Steve Jobs comes across as an arrogant jerk to Apple’s refusal to support Flash on its mobile devices to its walled-garden model for apps on the iTunes App Store.

I’m perfectly prepared to cede many of these points. Yes, Jobs seems arrogant, which is why I haven’t invited him over for dinner. Yes, Apple hardware isn’t always as expandable as competing products; no, you can’t run Flash on iOS devices. (Of course, running Flash means you’d be much more likely to need that expandable battery that Apple won’t provide.)

Having said that, I am a huge Apple fan. Let me share a few stories, and you might see why that is. I’ll note the fan reasons, or FRs, in line.

Story #1: I have an iPhone 4 that I bought last year. Its home button was only working intermittently, so I took it to the Apple Store in Huntsville. I made an appointment using the Apple Store app (FR 1: you can schedule service appointments online at any time, and the service hours are generous, not just 8-5) (FR 2: every Apple store has access to all your purchase and maintenance records, so you can take any product to any store for service.) They looked up the phone and determined that I was out of warranty by one day. FR 3: they replaced the phone anyway.

Story #2: the week after I got my phone fixed, it fell from my pocket onto the kitchen floor, cracking the screen. Thankfully I’d purchased an extended warranty from SquareTrade, but to activate the warranty I needed a copy of my purchase receipt and the replacement work order for the warranty replacement. I went to the Apple Store at Oakridge to get the work order. When I explained why I needed it… they replaced my phone! Broken screens are not, of course, Apple’s problem, and they were under no obligation to do this, but I was certainly delighted by their doing so. Call that FR 4, with a big fat asterisk next to it.

Story #3: my MacBook Pro’s optical drive had been failing to ingest disks properly, so I took it to the Apple Store at Valley Fair to have it checked out. The Genius Bar folks determined that the drive needed replacement. I dropped it off about 4:30pm on Saturday and was given a 1-3 business day repair window. At 10:45am Sunday, they called: the laptop was ready for pickup. FR 5: under promising and over delivering.

These anecdotes don’t mean that Apple’s perfect; they’re not. They don’t speak to the design or implementation of Apple products, which often have flaws (yes, Mac OS X Server, I’m looking at you.) They ignore all the hullabaloo about Apple’s policies, corporate behavior, and so on. But they point out why I am a satisfied Apple customer: Apple provides a degree and level of customer service that very few other companies match. Notice I didn’t say “can match”; Apple-style service is well within the reach of Microsoft, Samsung, Sony and other consumer electronics companies that have similar retail models.

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The Conversation Action Settings folder

I recently got a query from a Mac-using coworker:

When looking at my email account, I see an extra folder called Conversation Action Settings. Is this something I can safely dispose of?

If you’re used to using Outlook on Windows, you may never have seen this folder. In fact, you might not have seen it if you are a WIn Outlook user, because it’s only present on Exchange 2010 mailboxes. Outlook 2007 doesn’t display it, but Outlook 2011 for Mac OS X does, as does Apple’s Mail.app. This has engendered a lot of discussion about what the folder is and whether it’s safe to get rid of it.

So let me answer those points in reverse order. Yes, it’s safe to remove the folder… but if you do so, it’s just going to come back again. I expect that Apple will update Mail.app in Mac OS X “Lion” to hide the folder; they’ve done similar work to hide other Exchange/Outlook-specific folders in the past.

It’s arguably more interesting to talk about what’s in the folder in the first place. The Conversation Actions folder holds (drum roll)… conversation actions. These actions tell Exchange 2010 (and compatible clients, which for now means “OWA 2010” and “Outlook 2010”) what to do with message items under specific circumstances.

One action is the now-famous “ignore” button (see Clint Boessen’s description if you’re not hip to this very useful feature.) When you hit the mute button, Outlook creates a conversation action that automatically moves messages in the target thread to your Deleted Items folder. It can do this because Exchange 2010 automatically tags incoming messages with a conversation ID. Related messages (like replies or forwards of an existing message) get the same conversation ID. It uses a variety of heuristics to do this, and in general they work well to keep related messages together even when people do things like change the subject line mid-thread.

The other data items stored in this folder are Outlook 2010 Quick Steps. I love this feature and use it heavily; in fact, it’s one of the things I miss most when I’m using OWA 2010 and Outlook 2011.

If you’re not using a client that supports these features, then there won’t be anything in the Conversation Action Settings folder. However, just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does Exchange, so if you delete the folder expect to see it come back.

There’s more on conversation actions, and some other interesting Exchange 2010 and Outlook 2010 features, in this article.

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