Since the average knowledge worker typically spends a lot of time in Microsoft Outlook, it is often worth the effort to customize the Outlook Today page.

In a recent series of articles, “Understand how to truly customize the Outlook Today page” and “Use these tips and examples to build a custom Outlook Today page,” I explained that Outlook Today is based on HTML and showed you how to customize the page by extracting it to an HTML-based document and then customizing it with additional HTML coding and scripting.

However, what if you’re the type of person who really doesn’t want to get hip deep in HTML and script code? Does that mean you are stuck with the plain old Outlook Today page? Fortunately, the answer is “no.”

A company by the name of XemiComputers has created a unique piece of software aptly named DeskLook, which is an Outlook Add-On designed to read your Outlook data and display it on the desktop in an interactive, Outlook Today-like format. In addition to the standard Outlook Today components (appointments, messages, and tasks), DeskLook adds a calendar view that displays three months—something I’ve always wished for in the standard Outlook Today.

I’m going to introduce you to DeskLook and explain how it works, and also show you how to use its features to your advantage.

The Outlook Today setting

It’s important to keep in mind that in order for DeskLook to function, Outlook must be using the default Outlook Today configuration. As such, if you’ve created a custom Outlook Today page as I showed you in previous articles, you must disable the custom Outlook Today page, by removing the Url setting from the registry. For more information on disabling the custom Outlook Today page, see the article “Use these tips and examples to build a custom Outlook Today page.”

Getting and installing DeskLook
To begin with, you’ll be glad to know that DeskLook is compatible with Windows 9x/Me/NT/2000/XP and works with Outlook 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can download a free 42-day evaluation copy from the DeskLook section of the XemiComputers Web site. It costs $19.90 to register DeskLook.

Once you download the file, simply expand the contents to a folder on your hard disk and double-click Setup to launch the installation procedure. Once the installation procedure is complete, you’ll have the option to immediately run the program.

Exploring the DeskLook interface
Once DeskLook launches you’ll see its interface on your desktop as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The interactive DeskLook interface appears as a transparent layer on top of your desktop wallpaper.

As you can see, the DeskLook interface, which XemiComputers calls the wallpaper, appears as a transparent layer on your desktop such that you can actually see your standard wallpaper through it. Let’s take a look around.

To begin with, DeskLook’s default layout is called the Side Bar View, which as you can see, places the calendar in the center and the appointments, messages and tasks on the side in a panel. The advantage of that layout is that it leaves plenty of room on the desktop so that your icons will not obscure the information. The other layout is called the Central View and it looks more like the traditional Outlook Today and takes up almost the whole desktop. This would be a good layout if you don’t keep a lot of icons on your desktop.

As I mentioned, DeskLook provides you with an interactive interface, which essentially means two things. First, DeskLook uses a COM interface communication channel to retrieve information from Outlook. In this way, DeskLook can display your appointments, tasks, and the status of the message stores. By default, DeskLook checks in with Outlook every 20 seconds to see if there are any changes and will update itself accordingly.

The second part of the interactive interface allows you to use DeskLook to work with Outlook. For example, if you want to create a new e-mail message, you can just double-click the Messages header in DeskLook. When you do, a blank message window appears. You can create new tasks and new appointments similarly by double-clicking the appropriate headers. If you want to view or alter an existing appointment or task, just double-click the item in DeskLook’s interface.

When you double-click the calendar or the Inbox, DeskLook will launch Outlook and display the appropriate area. In the upper right, just adjacent to the DeskLook title is an icon showing two people. Double-clicking this icon will launch Outlook and take you to Contacts.

Unfortunately, if Outlook is already running, double-clicking on any one of these items launches a separate instance of Outlook rather that simply switching to the running copy. However, double-clicking the DeskLook title will indeed switch to the running copy. It would be better if DeskLook were able to determine if Outlook is already running and switch to that instance rather than launch a new instance in all of these situations. In any case, as it is now, it’s very easy to end up with multiple instances of Outlook all running at the same time, so you may want to avoid this feature, or at the very least, be careful when using this feature.

The system tray icon
The other component of the DeskLook interface is the system tray icon, which serves multiple purposes. To begin with, the default icon looks like a single page calendar and displays the current date, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
The neat thing about DeskLook’s system tray icon is that it displays the current date.

When you double-click the icon, the default setting is Popup, which brings up an opaque version of the Central View, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
The default Double Click Action setting, displays an opaque version of the Central View on the desktop.

When you right-click the systray icon, up pops a menu that you can use to perform a number of operations (Figure D). The New Item menu allows you to create appointments, tasks, and messages. The Set Style menu allows you to choose one of the three color schemes. Blue is the default and the other choices are brown and green.

Figure D
You can right-click on the DeskLook systray icon to perform several different tasks.

The Hide Data toggle allows you to temporarily remove DeskLook from the desktop. This can be a handy feature if you happen to be running DeskLook on a laptop that you’re using for a PowerPoint presentation, and you don’t want to show everybody in the meeting room your Outlook data.

If Outlook isn’t running, you can use the Start Outlook command. This brings us to a cool feature and that is that DeskLook can run and communicate with Outlook even when Outlook isn’t running. You can view, edit, and create new Outlook items right from within DeskLook without having to launch Outlook first.

Using the Refresh command will make DeskLook check in with Outlook’s data store and update the information accordingly.

Configuring DeskLook
When you click on the Settings selection on the system tray icon’s menu, you’ll see the DeskLook Settings dialog box, as shown in Figure E, where you can alter a number of the default settings.

Figure E
In the DeskLook Settings dialog box, you can change the default settings.

The settings in the Data Style panel allow you to configure DeskLook’s overall display. As you can see, you can change the color scheme and switch between the Side Bar View and Central View. When using the Side Bar View, you can enable or disable any of the components. For example, there may be situations (such as a PowerPoint presentation in the meeting room) when all you want on your desktop is the Calendar. When you are using the entire Side Bar View, you can even set the width of the panel.

You can also control the percentage of the transparency. The higher the percentage the more transparent DeskLook’s wallpaper becomes. I personally find that setting the transparency to 50 percent is a nice blend—the data is still viewable yet the regular wallpaper remains prominent.

Moving down to the General panel, you can configure DeskLook to automatically run when you start your system as well as choose to have Outlook start at the same time. The Keep DeskLook Wallpaper On Exit setting is an interesting one in that you can specify that DeskLook wallpaper remain on the desktop even when the program isn’t actually running. Of course, the interactivity I described earlier is rendered inoperative.

Having DeskLook check in with Outlook every 20 seconds could be considered excessive and a waste of system resources. When you add appointments or tasks you can always manually refresh the display using the Refresh command on the system tray icon popup menu. As far as the Messages section goes, you might want to set the Data Check Interval to be more in line with how often you have Outlook configured to check the server for new e-mail (in a non-Exchange environment).

If you prefer a static view, you can disable the interactivity when DeskLook is running by clearing the Use Interactive Desktop check box. You can also specify the mouse-click setting. While I prefer a single-click setting in Windows, I found that using the double-click setting for DeskLook to be a better choice because it required purposeful clicking and reduced the accidental launching of multiple instances of Outlook.

Once you’re familiar with the DeskLook interface, you’ll want to disable the tool tips. You can also toggle the display of the Contacts icon.

If you’re running DeskLook on Windows 2000 or Windows XP, the wallpaper is automatically hidden when the system is locked. However, you can disable this feature if you wish.

As I mentioned, the default setting for double-clicking the system tray icon is to display an opaque version of the Central View. Of the four options available in the System Tray Double Click Action panel, I found the Show/Hide Desktop Data to be the most useful.

In the First Day Of The Week panel, you can obviously reconfigure the calendar display. However, the Show Week Numbers option, which is enabled by default, provides you with a unique perspective. If you look back at the opaque display in Figure C, you can see the light gray numbers just to the right of the calendar. These numbers indicate the week of the year. For example, February 21 is in the 8th week of 2004.

In the Time Style panel, I found the12h (am/pm) to be the best setting because, unlike Outlook, it uses lowercase letters for the am and pm portions of the time display in the appointment display. In the System Tray Icon panel, the default setting of Date Icon is preferable, since it allows the icon to serve the extra function of showing the date at a glance.

What about multiple monitors?
Unfortunately, DeskLook doesn’t exactly support multiple monitor configurations. It does in fact work with multiple monitors, but there are a few side effects. First, the DeskLook wallpaper will appear on each monitor. However, only one of the images is interactive.

I have a multiple monitor configuration that includes three monitors and found the repetitive display annoying. As such, I opted to remove the wallpaper via the Hide Data option and to leave the System Tray Double Click Action set to Popup Data. Now, even though I’m not using the wallpaper, I can still instantly view my Outlook data just by double-clicking the icon.

Final analysis
Even though I spent a great deal of time creating my own ultimate customized Outlook today page, I’ve grown very fond of DeskLook because I can instantly view my pertinent Outlook information without having to switch to Outlook and then accessing Outlook Today. Now, if the folks at XemiComputers would fix the situation where DeskLook launches multiple instances of Outlook rather than just switching to the running instance then I would be much happier. And I’d also like to see support for multiple monitors. Still, DeskLook is a great tool and I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to streamline his use of Outlook.