The complex world of calendars

Organizing your life digitally is hard.

When it comes to e-mail and calendaring, I’m very picky about keeping it universally accessible. I want my mail available whenever I need it, regardless of where I am and what computer/mobile/OS is the current flavor of the month. My mail and calendars are the most important digital bits of my life.

When it comes to e-mailing, I’ve pretty much found a working solution where I can access my mail anywhere, anytime. A big part of the solution was the switch to a web-based mail solution: GMail (once again, Google comes to rescue). It lets me store all my mail on secure and reliable servers, while at the same time allowing me to access it using Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s a very good combination. If I’m at work or at home, I use Thunderbird and has direct access to all my mail, both sent and received. It doesn’t matter if I’m running Windows XP or Linux, because Thunderbird can share your mail on a dual-boot system. When I’m on the road (actually the rail), I can access my mail using the web browser of my mobile. While it’s not nearly as convenient as using a real computer, it works. Sometimes, it’s a lifesaver to be able to send a quick e-mail when you’re not in front of a computer. It even let me keep contact with my friends while on the Azores.

Now, to the problem: there is no universally accessible calendaring solution.

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Since Gmail proved to be so successful in fulfilling all my mailing needs, picking Google Calendar as my calendar of choice was only natural. It has a great web interface with drag-and-drop functionality, multiple calendars support, and the ability to subscribe to public calendars. It also allows you to export your calendars if you would like to switch calendar service in the future. However, you can only use Google’s web interface to modify your calendars. While there is support to display your calendar in e.g. Mozilla Lightning, any attempts to modify it within Lightning will only result in error messages. That’s because Google’s calendars are read-only for other clients. To be fair, I regard Google’s web interface far superior usability-wise compared to Lightning, but not being able to modify your calendar while offline is a great limitation. Also, I have not yet been successful in synchronizing Google Calendar with my mobile, even though there is a program called GCalSync that claims being able to do exactly this.

So my question is, what is the perfect calendaring solution? Is there any free calendar solution out there that supports editing your calendars in any client, and has a decent web interface for those occasions when you’re not using your own computer? Or am I better off trying to set up a CalDAV server myself in Linux?

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18 thoughts on “The complex world of calendars

  1. Andrew Z

    There’s nothing really great available. Our office is using iCal on WebDAV to share between Korganizer, Apple iCal (the application), and phpicalendar. Now that Mozilla Calendar is up to 0.3, I might try it.

    Strangely, it’s hard in an office enviroment for multiple people to share calendars between Evolution, Korganizer, and smartphones.

    I wrote a list of the possible solutions. The published copy is not compeltely up to date, but you get the idea:

    http://techsoup.org//fb/index.cfm?fuseaction=forums.showSingleTopic&forum=2016&id=62976&cid=117&mid=216700

    Reply
  2. Sparx

    Hi !

    Take a look @ ScheduleWorld – http://scheduleword.com

    It has the ability to sync with Google Calendar as well as your cellphone’s calendar and tasks list if it supports the SyncML protocol.

    There are clients available for offline use and then subsequent syncing.

    Reply
  3. raul

    I have exactly the same calendaring issues and after investigating many different alternatives, settled on a customized ical setup.

    iCal via a local webDave server allows me to share calendars locally over a network and
    allows me to view and edit calendars online from any webbrowser via a phpicalendar.

    The problem with this solution is that it is far from ‘out of the box’. It required having a web connected webdav server with a static ip address, a custom php app, and lots of massaging…… still once it’s set up it works well.

    Apple has announced a new version of iCal in OS X 10.5 which should make all of this much easier.

    Reply
  4. Alex Bishop

    I think the problem with calendars is that we’re only really just getting to the stage where there’s a universal open standard for calendars. With mail, POP3 and IMAP have been around for years so early webmail systems, even if they didn’t support POP3/IMAP directly, had to exist in a world where these standards dominated (and absolutely had to support SMTP).

    However calendars, both standalone (e.g. Apple iCal), client-server based (Outlook/Exchange) and Web-based (Google Calendar), have usually been proprietary systems up until now, generally designed to be used by individuals or within organisations, with large-scale sharing usually primitive (Web views, emailing invitations etc.).

    Things got better with iCalendar (successor to vCal) but that’s just a file format. CalDAV, which is still fairly new, is the full-blown protocol. I think once we get a decent client implementation of CalDAV (hopefully Sunbird/Lightning) and a solid server implementation, the world will be a better place. Even if proprietary systems are still used, CalDAV will provide an open way to interact with the data. For example, many organisations use Exchange and Outlook for mail but enable IMAP access, which at least allows a choice of mail client. If Exchange allowed CalDAV in a similar fashion, users would have the same choice of calendar client.

    The company I work for used to use Novell GroupWise for email and calendaring. It sucked like a tornado. If I was in charge, I would have just tossed it out and replaced it with an IMAP server, allowing users to use a less sucky mail client, but the sales people need their calendars. Today, we use Outlook/Exchange, which sucks less but still sucks (in particular Outlook’ s search facility is almost worse than useless). I have great hopes that CalDAV could rescue us all and allow a free choice of mail and calendar clients.

    In the shorter term, I’m hoping that the Windows port of Evolution will make a suitable Outlook replacement once it’s a bit more finished.

    Reply
  5. David Tenser

    Myk, if you send the e-mail from Thunderbird, it is automatically placed in the Sent folder in both Thunderbird and Gmail. If you send the e-mail from Gmail, it is only placed in the Sent folder in Gmail, but sent as a normal mail to the Inbox in Thunderbird. By setting up a simple filter in Thunderbird, you can redirect it to the Sent folder there too.

    Reply
  6. Martin

    When it comes to synchronizing calendars (and addressbook, todos, notes, etc) I believe opensync is the way to go: http://www.opensync.org
    I is not a stable release yet, but it is worth a try. And it is plugin based, so it should be easy to make it compatible with whatever :)

    Reply
  7. Jon Pritchard

    I’d be interested in where you found your information in how to share Thunderbird’s profile on a dual-boot. I’ve been trying to do the same thing.

    Reply
  8. David Tenser

    Jon, I wrote the dual-boot information myself, but I haven’t had a working CVS account until now so it hasn’t made it to mozilla.org/support/thunderbird yet. Here’s a slightly outdated local copy: http://djst.org/share_mail.html

    The howto works, but it’s actually slightly easier than that. You can just create some symbolic links in the Linux profile to get everything up and running. I’ll rewrite the document and then publish it on mozilla.org.

    Reply
  9. Jon Pritchard

    Thanks very much, I appreciate it. I’m not new to Firefox and Thunderbird, but I am to Linux. People like you make the transition a whole lot easier. Thank-you.

    Reply
  10. David Tenser

    Jon, I’m glad I could help. If you ever need help with Linux or Mozilla, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m not an expert, but I like helping people out.

    Reply
  11. Terrence

    http://www.ifreebusy.com like iCalXchange except it doesn’t stop working 3 times aday… I used to carry a calendar around on a USB Key, but since that wont work with lightning I had to track down this solution… so far I’m pretty happy with it… though I do still back it up to my USB key & my Google Calendar every few days just to be safe… this doesn’t provide a web interface to edit though… so maybe not quite what you’re looking for

    Reply
  12. David Fraser

    I use Zimbra (http://www.zimbra.com/) to do my mail serving (over IMAP or a nice web interface) and calendaring (which works fine with Lightning and also has a nice web interface)
    The same advantages as GMail / Google Calendar but I’m running my own server which is nicer IMHO… and its all open standards and open source

    Reply
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