The calendar has always had one sole purpose: to keep us organised. OK, and maybe to distract us during our monotonous days with photos of cute puppies and flawless beaches. Except now, between my many devices and my work and personal calendars, I need to schedule time to organise my organisers!
I'm overwhelmed just trying to do things that should be simpler: blending my work and personal schedules, adding new appointments in the right place and getting a top-down view of my life from my phone or my laptop. The calendars I use for different parts of my life might as well be oil and vinegar -- at first, seemingly impossible to blend.
But there's hope as many start-ups build tools to help make my calendars smarter, so I stocked my phones, laptops and tablets with some of the best options. While many are adding fancy features, I used them to try and solve my basic problems of consolidating, syncing and keeping my calendars up-to-date. Of the lot, two apps called Magneto and Sunrise are taking the biggest steps in the right direction.
One calendar everywhere
My first want: to manage my work's Microsoft Exchange calendar and my personal Google calendar in a single calendar that I can view on my phone, tablet or laptop. If I've got a dentist appointment on Tuesday AM on my personal calendar, at the very least it should be visible when I scan my work schedule.
Well, on a smartphone it is. The native calendar apps for iOS and Android support lots of calendar services -- including Google, Microsoft Exchange, AOL and Yahoo -- and let you manage them all in a central view.
However, getting that same experience on the web or a computer is much harder, mainly because our calendars have become a casualty in an all-out war between Microsoft and Google. Their respective calendars don't play well with each other. Even the best bridge between the two --Google's Windows-only calendar-syncing tool for Outlook -- will be turned off next month. There are workarounds (many of which I have explained in a separate article), including using the native Mac and Windows calendar programs, but they lack the power and polish of newer apps.
Magneto's iPhone app lets you share a personal appointment with your work calendar. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal.
Unlike the many calendar start-ups that solely focus on mobile apps, Magneto's well-designed web app allows Exchange and Google Cal to co-exist and even communicate with each other. Add a personal appointment, such as that spa visit I sneaked in Friday, and you can block it out on your work calendar without sharing all the personal details. It also means not having to deal with duplicate entries.
Unfortunately, my employer's Exchange server settings aren't compatible with Magneto -- a rare occurrence, according to the company. Sunrise also has extremely polished web and Mac apps, but its own Microsoft Exchange support won't arrive until later this year.
An easier way to add items
The second thing I want is an easier way to add appointments. I'm sorry, but creating a new event shouldn't take as long as filling out a medical history form.
Unfortunately, none of these services can automatically turn emails into entries, like Gmail's "Add to Calendar" feature. In fact, many of these apps are held back because they don't directly integrate with popular email services. But Magneto offers an alternative trick with its Chrome and Firefox extension. Highlight text on any website, click the Magneto button and it will open an appointment window with that text already in the notes field.
The Sunrise app integrates with TripIt to put all your travel information right on your calendar. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal.
While it isn't smart enough to autofill the date and time, it speeds things up, especially when adding detailed concert information from Ticketmaster or travel info from Expedia. Speaking of travel, Sunrise integrates TripIt, a service that automatically creates itineraries by scanning your inbox. Since I'm a big-time TripIt user, all my travel plans just popped up right on my Sunrise calendar.
Fantastical and Tempo, two other iPhone calendar apps, come closest to improving the experience of having to sift through multiple fields to add an appointment. Thanks to their natural-language text entry, just typing "coffee with Carolyn on Wednesday at 3" into their respective iPhone apps instantly created a Google Calendar entry. And since Fantastical's Mac app pops out of the menu bar, you can conveniently add an event while looking at an email.
Magneto and another service called Mynd also let you easily send your available times to friends and colleagues when making plans. Magneto even sends a website link to your potential meet-ups that will allow them to comment on when they are available.
Some extra brains
Once I've got those basics -- and only then -- I would appreciate some smarts that leverage the power of the internet to get me to meetings on time, and more prepared.
And all you want is to manage your Google and Microsoft Exchange calendars in one place. Nobody told you that's one of the hardest things to do on the internet? Here are some tips.
Sunrise and Tempo integrate Google Maps to show where you have to be next, but Mynd and Magneto go further by building travel time into your schedule, based on Google's mapping and traffic data. Had I actually followed the apps' reminders and left my office 30 minutes before a recent spinning class, I probably wouldn't have been five minutes late.
Sunrise, Mynd and Tempo also let you connect your social media accounts so they can surface photos and recent status updates from the people you'll be seeing.
Some have more advanced tricks, too. Mynd's $US6.99 monthly premium service will analyse how you spend your time (in case you've been unaware of what you've been up to), Magneto can track how many miles you've driven for work and add it to an expense report and Tempo will remind you to follow up with people you saw in recent meetings.
But Magneto and Sunrise are also working to fix the problems that have long plagued the digital calendar. If I could take the best of each, I'd pick Magneto's work and personal calendar interoperability and its web browser extension, and Sunrise's support for multiple software platforms and third-party services. And if I'm being greedy, I'd throw in Tempo and Fantastical's easier methods for adding new events.
Despite the fact that it doesn't yet have an Android app and is still in beta, Magneto truly feels like the first app that seriously wants to merge our work and personal calendars and sync them across devices. And the company hasn't forgotten about the all-important puppy pics -- you'll see a furry distraction any time you reach an error page.