Why Is Calendar So Hard?

My recent move to Ubuntu over the long weekend has reminded me of a pet rant of mine, calendars. You’d think something so basic for every cross-section of users, from personal to every size business, would have an easy solution.

But no.

I’m a long time Palm Desktop user, long meaning I had one of the second generation Palm IIs back in the day, one of the first 3Com-branded ones. I have over 10,000 entries in my Palm calendar dating back to 1997. My address book is pretty big too, but not as vital to me.

For about a year, I’ve been trying to move to a more modern calendar, either online or installed. This process has caused me nothing but frustration with the state of calendar applications.

My requirements are pretty simple:

  1. I want to preserve my legacy data.
  2. Goto 1.

That’s all. I’ve stayed with Palm Desktop for years, even after I stopped carrying a Palm handheld. Why? Because it’s fast and dependable.

Seems pretty simple. I don’t care that it’s 10,000 odd records and over a 1 MB of entries. This shouldn’t be hard. Apparently, I’m asking too much though.

First off, I know Palm stores data in a proprietary format, which is a bummer. So, I bought an extension that dumps to iCal format for this. So, armed with my 1.8 MG ics file, off I went. Let’s examine my quest.

Installed calendars
I prefer an installed calendar because: 1) they (should be) faster and 2) they should support more robust imp/export capabilities.

Let’s first rule out Outlook. I used Outlook in the past and didn’t care for it. I won’t ever use it again, if I have choice, which I will 🙂 I’m just not a fan. Let’s leave it at that. Yeah, I’m aware that Outlook does some cool stuff with calendars, but it’s still proprietary and only useful to a subset of users anyway. Don’t get me started on the mail features of Outlook, and don’t waste time trying to convince me how awesome it is. Deaf ears.

Initially, I thought I’d switch to iCal on my Macbook, which does just about everything I need for work, with a few notable exceptions. I could also sync to my iPhone, a huge benefit.

ICal imported the ics file just fine, although it took a while, but what a mess. I fiddled with it for a bit, but the amount of time required to cleanse the data was really high.

So I moved on to the Lightning, the Mozilla Sunbird calendar project add-on for Thunderbird, my email client of choice. Lightning also successfully imported the ics file, but man is it slow. Any action in the calendar took 15-30 seconds to complete, which is an eternity in computer/Intertubes time.

Moving on, I figured maybe Sunbird would be better, since there wouldn’t be any overhead for other features like mail. Not. Same story.

About a year elasped, and now I’m forced to find a replacement, since Palm Desktop won’t run on Ubuntu.

I tried the Evolution client that comes with the distro; it’s not bad. I handled the import well, and it’s not as slow as the other clients I’ve tried. Something about it just isn’t right for me.

So, I kept looking. Lightning is still a no-starter due to slowness. I didn’t even bother with Sunbird. I tried Zimbra Desktop, but couldn’t get it to run. I know I’m doing something wrong. But seriously though, if you have a snazzy wizard to install, why is it so hard to start the app, and why is it already running?

I also dug around to see if I could run Palm over WINE, but Google told me that was a rathole of bad news. So, I’m face now with two decent options: 1) run Evolution or 2) run Palm Desktop on the XP VM.

Neither is very good. I did find a few Palm-style apps for Gnome, but wow, did they look terrible. I guess there’s not much demand for connecting Palm devices to Linux.

Online calendars
Sure, so why not use an online calendar? It’s everywhere you want to be (with Intertubes). Rich and Paul use Google Calendar, so why not?

After a few tries, I determined that Google Calendar import is: 1) flakey and 2) restricted to no more than 500 entries per day, if that. Nice.

This is the part where I give up; why is this so hard?

Sure, most of this has to do with Palm’s proprietary format. I get that. It just seems like it should be easier to switch and take your data with you.

This has been a learning experience though. I’ve discovered you can’t export to iCal by date range from Palm using the extension I bought, bummer. I’ve also discovered that editing an iCal file is trickier than it looks, as is editing a CSV file.

Frankly, I just don’t want to invest more effort into something that should just work.
I’m blogigng this to get ideas about what I can do here, aside from Outlook. We went over that.

Thoughts? Sound off in comments.




  1. I've got no great ideas here, but I can sympathize. I stopped trying to do anything cool and stick with Outlook (for work and school only because everyone else uses it) with a one way sync into Google calendar (which I share with no one except my wife). If it gets to Google calendar I'll probably show up, or at least claim I did. I actually write all of my appointments in my hipsterPDA/moleskine thing that is always on my person, though. That is sad and old school, I know, but if it is really important and I need to show up, it goes in there.

    That is not to say that there should not be a standard solution — there should be. I work with enterprise systems and getting our scheduling system (R25) to integrate fully with our ERP (Oracle PeopleSoft) is easier than figuring out a bulletproof way to get events onto users' various calendars. Anytime ERP integration is EASIER than something, that something needs some serious help.

  2. I hear you; my desk is littered with Post-its b/c whenever I need a fool-proof way to remember something, nothing does that better than a little sticky note, in assorted colors.

    I want to try stuff like Jott and Sandy, but I really don't trust them. Just like I don't really trust GCal. I'm totally stewed that I may need to trim my calendar to fit a “modern” app. Even that's easier said than done, since the export doesn't support date ranges.

    Shouldn't be this hard.

  3. This is probably a dumb question, but have you tried Oracle Calendar? I don't particularly love it but it has a 'nix client and will read ics files. Supposedly the latest server will work with other clients too…

  4. why not just hack the file? you might be able to find a spec for it out there in the wild.

    A simple java application (even better, put it in the database!) could easily parse it once you know the delimiters (it HAS to have them right?).

  5. We run OCal internally, but again, it's not local, which is my preference. Plus, since it's inside the firewall, I wouldn't have the same flexibility that I would with GCal.

    I haven't tried importing through the client, which I haven't even spent time installing on Ubunutu yet.

    First I've heard of a client for parsing ics files, will check on that. Thanks.

  6. Hey, how's the new job?

    So, I could hack the file, and I did take a look at both the ics and csv versions. Frankly, I'm annoyed that I even have to consider that though, which is why I blogged it. Should be easier than that, since my requirements aren't that crazy. Are there?

  7. The new Ubuntu – “Intrepid Ibex” is supposed to add a bunch of things for Mobile devices. It wont be out for 4-5 months though : )

  8. Interesting. It would be nice to have iPhone integration, but like I said, iCal was a mess for me. Plus, I'd have to do 3-way sync btw all the calendars (Macbook-iPhone-Ubuntu).

    All I want is a good desktop calendar. Evolution is OK, so I guess it's the winner.

  9. You can try importing the ics into Zimbra. Not the desktop app, but into the server. Once there it's standardized… you might have better luck, and imports aren't limited on most of the higher-end Zimbra hosting providers like 01.com, which I mention because they have 30 day free trials and instant activation. I have signed up a few times just to test the state of that groupware, one of the only serious enterprise email/calendar/contacts solutions that runs on *nix and Mac servers. While I don't need all the features (no Blackberry or iPhone for me), a have a few clients that have moved successfully and seem to find the weather nice, and btw, imported ics files from google, or sync'd using the Zimbra iSync connector to get data up from apple os x.

  10. Nice, thanks for the tip. I see the suite is available for 6.06 (Drake), but will the OSE run on Heron too?

    If so, cool. I'll have to give that a try. I've heard good things about Zimbra, so I was a bit disappointed when I couldn't give a test drive.

  11. Did you try Yahoo! as well? I actually like a lot of their features better than Google, though I have to admit I've never tried to import anything. looking forward to a good solution because I know eventually I'm going to have to make this journey as well. People ask me why I have a Treo 680 phone, and the answer is that it syncs easily with my Palm desktop. What a way to choose a phone.

  12. Haven't tried Yahoo's online calendar yet. I think if Zimbra doesn't work out, I'll stick with Evolution, since it's working with my full ics file. I'm just not in love with it.

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