If you’re as obsessed as I am about communication, you don’t go a day without checking your e-mail. An unavoidable aspect of my position as a consultant is the time spent on the road. For out-of-town projects, this usually involves staying in a hotel, with a dial-up connection through the hotel room phone line as my only communication back to the home office.

When you’re connecting your laptop through a hotel private automatic branch exchange (PABX) system and trying to synchronize your inbox, the process can be arduous. Who wants to wait for Outlook and Outlook Express to finish synchronizing when you could be checking out the sights and sounds of a new city or meeting the client socially to firm up that business relationship?

Microsoft Windows has its own task scheduling program, which is great for e-mail: You can schedule Outlook to open, have the connection automatically kick in, and have your messages come down the wire, all while you’re sleeping. But being the information junkie that I am, I find that Windows’ scheduling program falls short for my newsgroups. For example, although Outlook can spawn a newsgroup browser, there’s no way to automate the downloading of newsgroup articles (as can be done for e-mails). Similarly, for Outlook Express, no matter what combination of Express settings and scheduler settings you pick, there’s no way to get newsgroup messages onto your hard drive automatically.

So what the best solution for a travelling consultant?

The solution: A scheduler that can schedule keypresses
Splinterware’s Windows Scheduler performs similarly to Windows Scheduler but differs in one important aspect: It allows keystrokes to be sent to the active window. What’s more, it’s freeware.

I find that keeping up with information on newsgroups can make a huge difference with my clients. A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of newsgroup knowledge for solving technical problems. Having quick access to newsgroup articles while onsite can be crucial. Splinterware’s Windows Scheduler lets me log on to Outlook Express while I’m sleeping and synchronize all my e-mail and newsgroups so I can read them offline when I wake up.

How to set up Windows Scheduler
Once you’ve installed Windows Scheduler and opened the task list window (it appears when you open the application), you’ll see the tasks that you currently have scheduled (see Figure A).

Figure A

Although configuring an automatic dial-up and full download of e-mail and newsgroups may seem complicated, it’s quite simple. To do so, we’ll create four tasks: one to open the dialer, one to type in the login and password, one to close the redial window if the line is engaged, and one to synchronize Outlook Express.

First, we’ll create a new task for the dialer by clicking the new task icon (the blank piece of paper with the corner folded) on the Windows Scheduler screen and filling in the information for our task. Note that to open the dialer you’ll need to create a shortcut on the desktop or have an entry in the quick launch bar. Here, I’ve also told the program to wait 5,000 milliseconds and then press [Alt][Tab] to raise the automatically minimized window (see Figure B). Note: Windows Scheduler uses the percentage character (%) as [Alt] when used with certain keys, like [Tab]. The program also represents seconds in milliseconds—in this instance, 5,000 milliseconds, which is the same as 5 seconds.

Figure B

You’ll also need to schedule the event by going to the Schedule tab and selecting the frequency of the event (see Figure C).

Figure C

Here, I’ve told the scheduler to run the task every day at 2:00 A.M., 2:05 A.M., and 2:10 A.M. Once you’ve completed this step, save your task and it will appear in the task list. The second task will type in the login and password for us. Note that for this example, I’ve configured the dialer not to automatically dial up when launched but to accept the login and password from the keyboard.

To configure Windows to accept the login and password from the keyboard rather than storing it automatically, open the Network And Dial-up Connections window from the Control Panel, right-click on the specific Internet connection you’re using, and go to the Options tab. Select the Prompt For Name And Password, Certificate, Etc. check box and click OK (see Figure D).

Figure D

Note that this description is specific to Windows 2000, although the procedure for other Windows flavors is essentially the same.

This approach has the advantage of not having to rely on a clean connection or Windows remembering the login and password. Often, if you connect on a “dirty” line, your connection can be dropped “midhandshake” and fool Microsoft into thinking a bad login and password were entered. Your computer will then remove the saved login and password from memory, which means any future dial-ups will be doomed to fail. By typing in the login and password through Splinterware’s Scheduler, we don’t have to rely on a clean connection.

Back to step two: Rather than use the Run Application event type as shown in Figure B, we’ll use another feature of the Windows Scheduler called Window Watcher; it also runs at a specific time and looks for a specific text string in a Windows title bar. If Window Watcher finds it, you can either tell the Scheduler to type in keystrokes or to run another program. To type in our login and password, we’ll schedule the event to run at, say, 2:01 A.M., 2:06 A.M., and 2:11 A.M.—again from the Schedule tab—and configure it as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Here, we’ll wait for 1,000 milliseconds before typing in our login and password and then tab through to the Dial button on the Windows Internet Connection screen to press [Enter] (see Figure F).

Figure F

Once these events have run, we should have an Internet connection established. In case we get a busy line, we’ll schedule another Window Watcher to look for the redial box and clear it. Again, we configure this event to run, say, another minute later, at 2:02 A.M., 2:07 A.M., and 2:12 A.M. For this example, we’ll assume that we’ll be able to eventually connect with three attempts, five minutes apart (see Figure G).

Figure G

We can move on to our final task of synchronizing Outlook Express. Again, in the Schedule screen, we’ve scheduled the next task to run a minute or two later to allow for the keystrokes to be entered and the connection to be fully established. We’ll then enter the details for our final task (see Figure H).

Figure H

This task opens Outlook Express, waits 10 seconds for this to complete, presses the [Enter] key, in case the “You are offline…” window appears, waits another 10 seconds, and then sends the key combination [Shift][Ctrl]M to the program, which triggers a full synchronization of all accounts, e-mail, and newsgroups. It waits another 10 seconds and then presses [Enter] again to minimize the synchronize details window.

For my Internet account, there is an automatic cutoff after four hours, but it would be simple to automatically disconnect by creating a task that re-opened the dial-up window and sent the appropriate keystrokes to disconnect at a certain time.

Splinterware’s Windows Scheduler also has the Popup Reminder feature, similar to the Outlook function of the same name. You’ll find this feature useful while on the road, and you may find a use for it on your network computers, for scheduling large downloads overnight, updating your virus checker, or regularly running a defrag on your machines. Try it out; if you like it, consider keeping Splinterware’s bottom line healthy by buying the Professional Edition with its extra features. Otherwise, enjoy the freeware knowing that occasionally there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Where to find freeware

A number of sites have useful shareware and freeware software such as Splinterware’s Windows Scheduler. My list includes: Shareware.cnet.com, Download.com, NONAGS, and TUCOWS.