Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Outlook/Google Calendar Revolution

That screenshot from my iPhone to the left is not a simple view of my calendar with multiple colors. Oh no. No, what you are seeing is, in no uncertain terms, a complete revolution. That's right: a revolution.

Here's the problem that is being so elegantly solved with that innocent image. The most popular way to see calendar data in multiple applications is the popular iCal standard; iCal essentially works like an RSS feed for calendar data. Why is this interesting? Say you want to see your favorite sports team's schedule: just subscribe to their iCal feed, for example. In my case, I wanted to get my travel plans from the superb TripIt site into my Outlook and iPhone, so I'd have the details without having to have online access. Seems easy, right? Sure, but one thing: Outlook 2003 does not handle iCal feeds. I know, you're saying "Outlook 2003? Um, that's almost 6 years old, and why the heck are you using Outlook for e-mail still?" Valid question. Answers:
  1. Outlook 2007, which is the latest version, does indeed handle iCal feeds, but does not pull the data into your calendar. Instead, it creates separate calendar folders. Not bad, but not great.
  2. I still use Outlook, as I run off of Exchange at work, and I need to sync with Salesforce, Plaxo, and more. There is not a desktop client that does this. And web suites, like Google, do not run offline without some seriously kludgy solutions. Plus, I love Outlook's integration with Word, which offers real-time inline autocorrect for spelling.
  3. Many of the things I need to sync my data with, such as Salesforce, have had serious limitations in syncing with Outlook 2007; Outlook 2003 is still the "gold standard."
So, how to get an iCal feed into Outlook 2003? Well, I tried using RemoteCalendars, which worked beautifully, but the sheer bulk of it and it's unstable nature caused Outlook to eventually freeze and crash, repeatedly. Another option was to try to move exclusively to Google, who's Google Calendar uses iCal feeds perfectly, but then so long to Exchange: not an option. Eventually, I came across the idea of setting up a Google Calendar that would pull my iCal feeds down, and then syncing the Google Calendar with Outlook 2003. Google themselves make such a utility...but of course it does not sync with iCal calendars. Sigh. I resigned to be defeated.

And then I found OggSync. A utility with the specific goal of syncing Google Calendar with Outlook 2003. Could it be? Oh yes, it could be. A quick, lightweight install later, and I was set. So, I created a new Google Calendar, and created a new corresponding Outlook calendar, hooked it up to my TripIt iCal feed, and a trembling press of the Sync button...voila. Thanks to the elegance of Exchange, and it's iPhone integration, you see the color-coded joy that is my ideal.

Now, there are some downsides. First, the free version of OggSync will only sync 3 days in advance, and there is no automatic sync, so I have to remember to sync. And I had to do some jiggering to get my Exchange calendar in red and the TripIt calendar in blue (instead of orange), but a solution nonetheless. The paid version of OggSync claims to support both automatic sync, and unlimited days in advance, but the price is a bit steep for those minor improvements.

In truth, I could explore Outlook 2007 a bit more and hope for the best, but this ultimately gives me the ability to have multiple iCalendars in Outlook 2003, and for free. Good enough for me.

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