The Missing Sync

I’m trying to come up with a reasonable solution for shared calendars for the staff in my district. Administrators, especially, need to be able to find times when key people are available for meetings. It’s also useful for administrative assistants to be able to manage the calendars for the administrators, without having to check that person’s computer or paper calendar to determine availability.

Most organizations use a groupware product for this that combines email, shared documents, calendars, address books, and other resources in a single application. Microsoft Exchange is very popular for this, as are Novell Groupwise and IBM/Lotus Domino.

When we set up our email server three years ago, we decided not to go with any of these products. Instead, we selected a mixture of open source products, providing email and directory services. They use open protocols and standards, and can interface with lots of different things. We use the LDAP backend to authenticate against a number of other applications. We can run nearly any email client on the desktops. And we have lots of choices when it comes to webmail. Best of all, we don’t pay any licensing fees, and we can have as many accounts as we want.

For the most part, we’re happy with our email solution. We just need to add the ability to manage calendars. This year, this has become a higher priority, as new administrators are leading the charge against the dreaded (printed) Franklin Planner in favor of something a little more accessible and extensible. In talking to the administrative team, they’re looking for a product that does these things:

  • Allows users to share their calendars, either with the events listed, or with just “free/busy” status. I should be able to give different calendar access to different people.
  • Allows users to delegate calendar administration. If I had a secretary, I’d want him or her to be able to add or change things on my calendar.
  • Includes a web component. I should be able to access my calendar from any computer with web access.
  • Includes a desktop component. Web apps are fine, but they can be slow. And if I don’t have Internet access, I still need to be able to see my calendar.
  • Has the ability to sync with a Palm device.

We didn’t do it on purpose, but somehow we managed to standardize on Palm PDA devices. Even the people with Smartphones have Palm over, say, Blackberry or iPhone. This should make it a lot easier.

When no fewer than four different people suggested taking a look at Google Apps for Education, I finally broke down and signed up. It’s very cool. I registered our school district, which gives us access to the premium stuff, without advertising, for free. We can use Gmail for email if we want to (we don’t want to). We can use Google Docs, Google Calendar, and a host of other applications. The management tools allow me to create, manage, and import accounts, so it’s like running our very own copy of these Google tools.

The calendar is fantastic. I’ve always liked the Google calendar, and the fact that you can subscribe to multiple calendars, and just turn them on or off to display the events, is very attractive. We can also share those calendars in several ways, and allow others to edit them if we want. In short, it does everything we need. Almost.

We need a desktop application. In truth, I could probably talk the administrators out of this, especially if I could get them to try Google Calendar. But I really need Palm syncing. As I’m finding out, that’s much easier said than done.

Here’s the thing: Google calendar will sync with nearly everything. Using GCAL Daemon, we could have it syncing with any calendar application that supports iCal. If I wanted to use Microsoft Outlook, I could use Google’s Calendar Sync. If I wanted to use Mozilla’s Sunbird or Lightning, I could use the Provider plugin. But I want to talk to the Palm Desktop software. It doesn’t use iCal. It doesn’t work with Calendar Sync. The only application that will do real syncing (as opposed to just import/export) is CompanionLink. Because Palm uses its own proprietary format for managing calendar information, getting it to talk to other software is a bit of a pain.

CompanionLink is commercial software, and, while I prefer free, open source solutions, I’d gladly pay for it if it did everything I needed. But there’s one problem. If I create an event in the Palm Desktop software, and sync with Google Calendar, the event transfers with a status of “available.” That means people who only have access to my “free/busy” status, will see that I’m free, even when I’m not. The fix is to manually edit the event in the Google calendar and change the status. But you have to do this for every item, which isn’t practical.

I contacted CompanionLink about it. They were able to reproduce the problem, and they recognize that it could be a significant issue for some people. They handed the issue off to the programming team, and we may see that functionality in a future version. But that doesn’t help me now.

The only other contender that can sync directly with the Palm is Microsoft Outlook. We have Outlook. It’s installed on just about every computer in the district, because it’s part of Microsoft Office. But we don’t use it. As it turns out, it’s a horrible email client, especially if you’re not using a Microsoft Exchange server (and we aren’t). We realized very quickly during our email migration that our users would have a much better experience with Outlook Express, the email client that comes bundled with Windows XP, than with the enterprise-class Outlook. So we’d rather not migrate to it, especially since it would be a step backward for the much-more-important email application.

That leaves one other solution. GooSync will sync a Google Calendar directly to a Palm device, without going through desktop software. This works if you have a network-enabled device (like a smartphone), but it doesn’t work for Palm devices that are connected via cradle or USB. Those devices can’t talk to the network, so they can’t use GooSync.

So I’m back to square one. I haven’t given up on Google Calendar yet, but the Palm’s inability to talk to just about everything is making this a much more complicated task than it really should be. I’m also hoping to come up with a single solution that works for everyone in our district. If you have the solution, let me know.

One thought on “The Missing Sync

  1. Problem solved.

    I’m still not happy with Palm, but CompanionLink came through in a big way. Generally, when you receive the standard “thank you for your feedback. We’ll forward that to our programming team” kind of response, you don’t expect to hear from them again. Instead, I found this in my inbox today:

    “We made some changes to CLGoogle that should resolve the issue that you were having. Please download this new build of CLG from the link below. This build should put all time events from palm to google as “busy”. Please let me know how this works out for you.”

    How did it work out for me? Who do I talk to about volume licensing? I create or modify an event on my Palm, in my Palm Desktop software, or on my Google Calendar, and it shows up in all three places on the next hotsync. Now it’s time to buy the product and try it out with some real users.

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