Support for a rich set of calendar collaboration features in Microsoft Outlook is one reason for choosing Microsoft Exchange over a POP3 or IMAP4 mail server. This month I discuss an Outlook Calendar feature that users might not find on their own--group schedules--which Outlook has supported since Office XP.

In a nutshell, a group schedule is a list of people and resources that you can store for later reuse in checking their availability and creating new meeting requests or even mail messages. Users create and access group schedules through the Actions, View Group Schedules command in any calendar folder. When you invoke that command, you'll see a Group Schedules dialog box with the label, "Group Schedules saved with this Calendar." That's a major clue to the technical nature of group schedules: Outlook stores group schedules with a specific calendar folder.

A group schedule is in fact a special type of appointment item. To see this for yourself, create a group schedule in any calendar folder and then look at the folder by using the MFCMAPI tool or OutlookSpy. (Find out more about these tools at the first and second URLs below.) Use the IMAPIFolder interface if you're working with OutlookSpy. In the Associated Contents table for the folder, you'll see an item whose subject consists of a long globally unique identifier (GUID) followed by the name of the group schedule. The value of the message class for that item will be IPM.Appointment, which is the same message class Outlook uses for regular appointment items. The group schedule item also has properties that make it a hidden system item and that cause it to display only the Scheduling page of the appointment form with no menus but with a few added commands, which we'll look at shortly.

Given that a group schedule is a hidden appointment in a calendar folder, how do you share a group schedule with someone else? The group schedule is a hidden item, so you can't save it as a file and give that file to someone else, nor does Outlook provide a way to convert an existing appointment--with its list of attendees--into a group schedule item. The only way to share a group schedule is to share the folder that contains that group schedule. The minimum role necessary to view group schedules is Reviewer. Users with permission to read the items in the folder also will be able to access the Actions, View Group Schedules command and will be able to use any existing group schedules. However, only users with the Owner role on a calendar folder will be able to create new group schedules in that folder, because group schedules--like custom views and custom forms--are hidden items, which only an owner can create.

Let's look at the functionality available with a group schedule. When you first open it, you'll see the saved group of attendees and their free/busy time. You can zoom the free/busy view in or out, just as you can with a normal appointment. You can add more attendees by clicking Add Others, Add from Address Book, or by typing a name where it says "Click here to add a name." The group schedule does not distinguish attendees as required, optional, or resource.

One group schedule feature that the Scheduling page on a regular appointment doesn't support is the ability to see the free/busy availability of a public folder. Public folders don't publish their free/busy time like mailbox calendar folders do, so this feature helps organizations that prefer to use calendar folders in the Public Folders\All Public Folders hierarchy for resource scheduling, instead of setting up a separate mailbox for each resource calendar. To add a public folder to a group schedule, click Add Others, Add Public Folder.

Although an ordinary appointment would have controls for entering the meeting start date and end date and AutoPick buttons to navigate to the next time when all attendees are free, the group schedule has only a "Go to" field, where you enter the date you want the group schedule to display. Although this might make a group schedule less useful than a regular appointment when you want to schedule a meeting among many users, it does help you compare the availability of multiple conference rooms that have similar features. In that scenario, you'd create a group schedule that lists all the comparable conference rooms, compare their availability for the desired date, highlight the time block for the one you want to use, then click Make a Meeting, New Meeting as Resource. This creates a new meeting request for the selected time block with the desired conference room set as a resource attendee. All you have to do is add the other attendees and other meeting details.

To create a new meeting request with a single attendee from the group schedule, highlight the desired time block for that person, and choose Make a Meeting, New Meeting. To create a new meeting request for everyone in the group schedule, use the Make a Meeting, New Meeting with All command. To create a new meeting request for just some of the people in the group schedule, delete the ones you don't want, then choose Make a Meeting, New Meeting. (Remember to close the group schedule without saving it.) All these techniques create a new meeting request with all attendees listed as required attendees, with the exception of any public folders listed on the group schedule. If you want to include a public folder on the meeting request, you'll need to add it manually.

Surprisingly, you can also use a group schedule to generate a mail message. To send a message to one person, select that person, then choose Make a Meeting, New Mail Message. To send a message to everyone, choose Make a Meeting, New Mail Message to All.

If group schedules sound like a useful feature that your organization is underutilizing, Microsoft provides plenty of information to help you get users up to speed. In addition to the articles in Outlook Help that will appear if you search for "group schedule," check out the article "Manage group schedules in Outlook" at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/assistance/HA011959521033.aspx .

MFCMAPI: A Useful Free Tool http://www.windowsitpro.com/Articles/ArticleID/46539/46539.html

OutlookSpy http://www.dimastr.com