Friday, 1 June 2012

Google Calendar behind the times

Task, memo, birthday integration

Back in my Symbian days I could schedule four types of events in the built-in calendar of my Nokia. Meetings, memos, anniversaries, and to-dos.

The advantages of having memos and to do lists integrated in a single app and a single widget are obvious. Anniversaries (birthdays etc.) could fit in one of the other categories, but having them as a separate type with a separate icon makes 'em easy to spot. And setting reminders is a lot easier too.


Anniversaries last from midnight to midnight, but setting a birthday as an all day event in Google Calendar is not a good idea. Google Calendar can only handle reminders before an event, not during an event. If you want to be reminded of a birthday, Google Calendar only lets you set a reminder for the day before. Having the reminder sound on the day itself makes more sense, unless you want to call to say happy birthday on the night before. And you don't want to show up at the party a day early. Workaround: set a time for birthdays until Google wakes up and codes a fix.

More reminder issues: the Google Calendar app won't let you set your own reminder times. You can only choose from a list of presets that just doesn't cut it. Want to be reminded an hour and a half before an appointment? The list of presets only offers one or two hours in advance. Too late too make it in time, too early if you don't want your phone to ring a reminder in the middle of the previous meeting.

There's a way out, but it requires a trip to the Google Play store to buy Pocket Informant or CalenGoo. If you don't want to pay for a calendar app, point your web browser to to set a custom reminder. If 3rd party apps and Googles own website are able to let you enter any reminder time you want, why can't the built-in calendar app do it? Custom reminder times could and should have been in the Android calendar app from day one.

Time zones

Enter the times of your flights, and risk missing your flight back home because Google Calendar shifts the times.

Airlines don't bother you with time zones. They just give you the departure and arrival times followed by a line that says "all times are local." They have a very good reason for that.

But Google Calendar times are tied to the time zone your phone was in when you entered the times. Your early morning flight to Europe moves six hours in your calendar when you arrive at JFK and the Android clock switches from CET to EST. If you're from Dublin and agree to meet your friend from Athens in a restaurant in Paris at 8 PM you better not let Google Calendar have its way, or you'll arrive at 9 and find your friend waiting since 7.

You could do the maths yourself and convert the times to compensate for your calendar drift, or switch off automatic time setting and manually change your clock (not your time zone) when you get out of your plane. It's how people used to change their watch before phones replaced watches.

Recent versions of the calendar app let you choose time zones for the start and end of an entry, but your calendar and its widgets will show the wrong time until you arrive in the matching time zone. You still have to do the conversion if someone across the ocean asks you at what time to pick you up at the airport. Or write the local times in the subject field instead of relying on your calendars erratic times. Or manually switch your phone to the destination time zone, and back.

Why enter time zones in your calendar? For international conference calls. Another reason: make your calendar wake you up in the middle of the night to watch Barcelona-Real Madrid in your japanese hotel room, because that's afternoon in Europe. If we add up conference calls and football games Google calendar still gets it wrong 99.99% of the time.

And it's so easy to fix! Just let us choose between time zone agnostic and time zone aware. The default behaviour of Google Calendar should be "all times are local unless I say they're not." It's how you'd write times in a paper calendar, and it matches the "all times are local" airline method. Let the 0.001% who fill their days with conference calls flip a switch in the settings to change their defaults instead of annoying everyone else.

Google, tell your calendar to adapt to people instead of the other way 'round.

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