O'Malley's Mashup: Save time by syncing calendars

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Hello, this is my new column about one of the most important aspects of our increasingly digital lives: making our tech talk to our other tech. In the past, both applications on the web and your desktop and tangible consumer gadgets were all rather solitary and lonely beasts, doing their own thing and not really talking to each other – but thankfully, times are changing. Thanks to the magic of Web 2.0, people are creating things that talk to other things – and this can make our lives infinitely more efficient. For this week’s example, I’m going to be looking at calendars.

If you want to keep track of your schedule, there’s an awful lot of choice out there – given that practically every new gadget, be it an MP3 player, a mobile phone, or even a piece of software such as Microsoft Office or Mozilla Thunderbird comes with and offers you a calendar. So which one should you use? There’s trade-offs involved in all of them: use the calendar on your mobile phone, and every time you want to add an event you’ve got to faff around on a tiny keypad, use the Mozilla Lightning Calendar add-on and you’re tied to your computer, or use Google Calendar and you’ll have to navigate using a clunky web browser. Fortunately however, there is a way to make them all play nicely with each other, so you’ll have access to your calendar everywhere.

I use Google Calendar as a back-end for all of this communication. Sure, I’m giving away yet another slice of information about my life to Google, but it really is rather good. Aside from being able to talk to other software, there’s a lot of ‘social’ functionality – you can share calendars with others, for instance, meaning that more than one person can update a shared calendar, and there is plenty of support for multiple different calendars.

So what I’ve done is setup a number of different calendars for my various activities: “University”, “Gigs”, etc (take a guess at which calendar contains more entries). But this is all well and good – but how do you make it work with calendar software?

I use Mozilla Thunderbird for my e-mails and calendar – though it doesn’t have a built in calendar, there is an official calendar project by the Mozilla people called “Lightning” – and because it is written in the same way that Firefox and Thunderbird add-ons are, it can be installed into both Thunderbird and Firefox (though I’m not sure why you’d go for the latter) – or if you really want to, you can download a stand-alone calendar application called Sunbird.

When you’ve got Lightning installed, if you want to access your data on the aforementioned Google Calendar, you then need to install another add-on: Provider for Google Calendar, which acts as an interface between the two, and turn your calendar into something Lightning can understand. Now this is the only tricky bit – in lightning, click “New” on the menu at the top, then “Calendar” – and you’ll be presented with some choices. Choose “from network”, and hopefully if the provider add-on was installed correctly (you did remember to restart, right?), there should be an option for Google Calendar. Now you just need something to put in the box at the bottom.

Head back to Google Calendar in your web browser and on the left you’ll see a list of your calendars – on the calendar you want to import, click the downwards arrow next to it and choose “Calendar Settings” from the menu. When the page changes, have a look for “Calendar Address” towards the bottom, and you want to click the orange XML button – this is an XML feed of your calendar that can be read by Lightning. Copy and paste the long address into the box in Thunderbird, hit next and you’ll be prompted for a login – this is just your Google username and password (delete any gibberish already in the login box and ignore it). And then, as if by magic, you should see your calendar entries appear on your Lightning calendar too. Then all you have to do is repeat this process for the rest of your calendars.

If you’re one of those people who still use Outlook, this is slightly more straightforward, as Google have written some software that will do it all for you – which you can find and is explained rather comprehensively here.

So that’s that sorted. Now you can get your calendar in your mail client and still have access to it when out and about, at high-flying business meetings, or whatever it is that you do (maybe if you’re the sort of person who waits outside pubs at 11am for them to open, this isn’t the article for you). But what if you want calendar access on your mobile phone?

By far the simplest way to view your calendar on your phone is to simply go to the Google Calendar Mobile site at www.google.com/calendar/m, and it will give you an “agenda” style list of your appointments. This isn’t really doing it properly though – ideally you want calendar entries to appear on your mobile phone’s calendar application, that way appointments can appear on your home screen, and so on. Well, depending on the type of phone you have, you might be in luck.

If you have a phone that runs Nokia’s s60 operating system – an N95 or N80, that sort of thing, there’s a variety of choices available for how to integrate Google Calendar. Whilst there are no official means of making s60 and Google talk to each other, several other applications and services have stepped up and offered to arbitrate communications. GooSync, for instance, does the job properly, using the SyncML protocol supported by Nokia to make everything work correctly. It comes in two versions – a free version and a premium version. Whereas the premium version will sync multiple calendars and events for the next year in advance, the free version will only do one calendar for the next 30 days. Being a cheapskate, I’ve only tried the free version but it seems to work well.

Incidentally, because GooSync works through SyncML, a wide range of devices are supported as it has become a standard protocol for this sort of syncronisation – meaning that it works for iPhones and the like too.

An alternative for s60 though could be CalSync60, which is dead easy to do. After installing the software all you have to do is fill in your username and password, choose and access point and moments later your main calendar’s data will be transferred. Unfortunately, because it appears to be version 0.3.3, there doesn’t appear to be any support for multiple calendars yet, and because it’s an unofficial project coded by maybe one or two people, it’s at risk of simply disappearing if the programmer gets a new job or girlfriend.

So far I’ve looked at very traditional calendars, but maybe there’s another emerging platform that I’m ignoring. I’m talking about Facebook events. How on earth are you supposed to keep track of all of the wild parties you get invited to on Facebook? Copying the details into a calendar sounds like far too much effort… so why not do it automatically?

If you want to import you Facebook events into Google Calendar, and have them cascade down to your calendar in Thunderbird or whatever you have Google Calendar now plugged into, head over to Facebook, click into the Events section, and look at the top for a link called “export events”. Clicking it will bring up a dialogue with another long web address in – similar to the one I mentioned earlier that Google Calendar provides. Copy this web address and head over to Google Calendar. On the left you should see an “Other Calendars” section – click “add” and then “Add by URL” from the menu. Paste in the Facebook URL, and your Facebook events will appear on the calendar too. Then all you have to do is go on to Calendar settings and get the URL from Google and paste it into Thunderbird to get it there too.

And then the next step is to simply breathe a sigh of relief as your life now more ordered than efficient than before.

If you have any more tips and tricks about synchronising calendars, why not share them in the comments section below?

Related Posts: Google Calendar came to the UK a few years ago | Tiny advent calendar

James O’Malley

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