Online Calendars – An Opportunity Lost?

A great piece by Joel Spolsky on calendar software, where he complains that all these online calendars don’t really offer very much, are half-baked and may just be efforts to attract buyouts from the big boys:

For all the Ajax calendars that are appearing, it’s a shame I can’t find one which really meets my needs. I tried out Trumba, Kiko, 30 Boxes, Yahoo! Calendar, and Spongecell. I couldn’t recommend any of them.
My needs are probably weird, but not that weird.

As Joel then goes on to point out, actually these calendars allow very little customisation, and surprisingly little basic functionality, such as alarms, events that don’t fit neat intervals (like flights) and making some events private.

I’ve tried a few of these offerings, and I’d tend to agree with Joel. All the calendars I’ve tried are basically reruns of offline software, but without many of its deeper functionality. There are some nice elements — Trumba’s way of showing events that span more than a day is quite nice — but most are small potatoes in the face of a much greater potential. Surely calendars, of all Web Apps, should be almost endlessly customizable, given that their job is to try to reflect as accurately as possible the endless weirdness and variety of our lives? When was the last time you met someone who had even vaguely the same kind of habits, schedule and needs as you? We’re all different and calendars, of all things, should reflect that.

Let me offer some suggestions, just in case you’re not following (and any of these calendar developers are listening):

  • viewing options: If we’re going to go to the effort of entering all this data on your website, the least you can do is to offer us multiple ways of viewing said data. I’m not just talking boring day/week/month/listings, but color-coding time off, time on; how many 3–hour workday slots are still open in February; how many hours I’m spending in meetings with Client A; the best options for a long weekend where there are no, or few events on Friday or Monday.
  • synchronize with other calendars, especially Outlook. How many people are going to spend time entering data into an online calendar but not have an offline one? (Trumba offers synchronization with Outlook but I must confess: I haven’t managed to make it work properly yet.)
  • anticipate me: If I’ve entered a repeating event, say, notice it and ask me if I’d like to repeat it automatically. If I keep making the same trip figure this out offer to auto-fill the details next time I start entering that data in the calendar.
  • minimise the clicks: Let me enter data, including labels/tags/categories into the calendar. I don’t like pop-up windows, and I don’t like moving between fields if I can help it. Let me just type “Meeting Bob Conference_Room 12:30 Tues” and let the calendar do the heavy lifting: “Meeting” gives the event a specific color and label, Bob is a name from my address book and so can be automatically filled in with family name and company affiliation, “Conference_Room” is clearly a place, and so can be assigned to that field, if it exists, while the time and the date/day are self-explanatory (why would it be anything other than the next Tuesday coming up?) This saves us time (which we don’t have much of; that’s why we’re using a calendar) and it also helps build a database to let us slice and dice our information later (when am next meeting Bob/using the conference room/having a lunch time meeting?) (30 Boxes and spongecell offer something like this feature, but there are still too many dialog or OK boxes inbetween, and spongecell’s syntax was eccentric at best.)
  • move me: drag and drop, extending or shrinking events using the mouse should all be standard.

There are hundreds more ways that calendars could be more dynamic. I can hear the calendar developers already popping up and saying “You should check out this feature in our calendar” or “We’re working on just that feature in ours”. But my experience is that in fact most of these calendars don’t really have it. They may have one or two interesting new ideas, maybe even one that makes you go ‘wow!’, but there will always be some basic function that either isn’t there, or doesn’t work well. With calendars, it either works as a whole experience or it doesn’t work at all.

As Joel says, the trend these days is to get the stuff out there and add features later. That may work with other tools, because for the most part you can always switch to something else if those features are slow in coming. But a calendar needs to work well for you out of the box. After all, it is your life and you’re not in the mood to put it on hold for the promise of future features, future bug-fixes (how long are you going to stick with a calendar if it makes you miss an appointment?). As Joel puts it:

I’ve talked about this before — it’s the Marimba phenomenon — when you get premature publicity, lots of people check out your thing, and it’s not done yet, so now most of the people that tried your thing think it’s lame, and now you have two problems: your thing is lame and everybody knows it.

A calendar is the thing we build our lives around. Think hard about what you’re offering before you ask us to commit our daily schedule to it.

Synchronize Outlook with Others

Collaboration is the next big thing for software. Not that people aren’t trying, but I’ve not yet come across something that really solves the problem of people working together, needing to be able to see the same information etc. Here’s a new and quite simple offering that will synchronize your Outlook folders with other internet users:

OLFolderSync can synchronize any Microsoft Outlook folder with anyone else’s (except Drafts, Outbox, Sent Items and Deleted Items). The folders you allow to be synchronized will do so in the background by e-mail. You can easily synchronize Outlook folders through the internet without the need for both parties to be online at the same time.

If you have private data elements on Outlook you can exclude them from the synchronization process. It is also possible to synchronize only objects of a user defined category.

The German company that does this, Somebytes Software, suggests this would be useful for letting your

    • PA add and amend appointments, tasks or other Outlook objects while on the other side of the world.
    • Synchronize birthday dates with friends and family.
    • Work with a synchronized Outlook calendar, tasks and other documents across your team.
    • Synchronize Outlook data on your laptop with your desktop.
    • Check appointments with those of colleagues on the road.
    • Check club/association schedules with that of other members.
    • Facilitate schedules to team members.

All pretty useful stuff, though a little steep at $72 for a two person license. The web site is not easily navigable, but there seem to be other products that focus on synchronizing particular parts of Outlook, such as the Calendar, Tasks, or Contacts.

Eventful, a calendaring whats-on website I mentioned a few months back in a column, has renamed and relaunched itself, as Eventful. A Letter from the CEO explains some of the changes:

Among today’s changes, you’ll notice lots of new capabilities on the search front. You can now search for events, venues, calendars, and users. We’ve added a “When” filter so you can see how many events are happening today or at some point in the future, as well as what events have happened in the past.

We’ve also added the ability for users to connect with other users online: you can mark other users as friends, family, or contacts, and then create events or calendars whose access is limited to just friends, family, or contacts. We’ve had lots of requests for private events — here they are!

Nice work, and nice interface. Also includeds iCal and RSS support.

Update: More Office Woes

 My latest column (subscription only; very sorry) was about Microsoft Office 2003 and how, despite all the upgrades, a lot of old bugs never get fixed. That and why does every new feature appear to be more of a money spinning operation than a time saver?
Anyway, I’m not the only grumbler: Chris Pirillo, of Lockergnome fame, is also having problems, with Outlook 2003. “If you rely on POP3 or IMAP, you’ll be just as disappointed with the lame UI bugs and inconsistencies that plague Microsoft’s latest client”.

Under the Wire

Under the Wire

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Slow Upgrade Uptake

Have you upgraded yet from Windows 98 to XP? If not, you’re not alone. According to a survey by on-line-statistics analyst WebSide Story (, XP has taken three times longer than its predecessor to reach the same portion of the market. Windows XP first reached 33% global usage share in late March 2003, nearly 18 months after its launch in October 2001. Windows 98, on the other hand, reached the same benchmark in January 1999, only six months after its launch. My thoughts: While XP is a lot better than 98, users are showing that they’re not just going to blindly follow upgrades any more: While a third of them now run XP, a quarter don’t. Still, it’s not all rosy on the other side of the fence either: Apple is running into some familiar problems with its music-download service. According to WinInfo newsletter (, people have figured out how to use a software service that Apple built into its music player to illegally download music over the Internet from Macs running iTunes.

My column on MessageTag, a program that allows you to check whether folk have read the e-mail you sent them, elicited some interesting mail [Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored, May 22, 2003]. One user of a similar, but more limited, feature that comes with Microsoft Outlook points to one pitfall of the process: Knowing more than you really want to know about what happened to your e-mails. Steven A. Gray, from the United States, e-mailed his governor, Mitt Romney, complimenting him on a recent TV appearance, only to receive the following message, triggered by Outlook: “Your message to Goffice (GOV) . . . was deleted without being read on Mon, 24 Mar 2003 12:39:52 -0500.” OK, so MessageTag may not work for politicians. Other concerns were raised: Patrick Machiele, from the Netherlands, reckons the service won’t work well for those who, like him, dial in to grab their e-mail, but read it off-line. The guys from MSGTAG say this is true, but that overall the percentage of such users is very low. While Patrick has definitely pointed to a weakness in the system, I have to agree with MSGTAG: I’ve noticed very few mismatches where an e-mail is read but registered by MSGTAG as unread.

Finally, Nigerian scammers have judged on-line shopping to be a rich seam of inspiration. Here are excerpts from an e-mail from El-Mustapha, who claims to be the ex-personal aide to the Iraqi minister of education and research, Dr. Abd Al-khaliq Gafar (“that died in the war”). Before the war, he says, they travelled to France to negotiate a contract for educational materials and components for the ministry. UN sanctions forced them to pay cash. “In gust [sic] of this he had cleverly diverted this sum ($28.5m) for himself and secured it properly with a security vault in Spain for safekeeping,” he says. He did ask me to keep the whole thing top secret, but I’m still reeling from the last scam I fell for, so anyone interested in helping him recover the loot should e-mail him at