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Best Practice Makes Perfect

A collaboration with Domino developers about how to do it and how to get it right in Domino

It's been an ordeal. I have an Android smartphone and use Gmail's calendar. My wife has an iPhone. You'd think it would be simple to have a shared calendar -- this is, after all, the future. As it turns out, it is possible, but the arduous process has made me wonder whether Apple considers it a form of apostasy for their customers to associate with someone who doesn't use their products.

We had two alternatives to start with: we could create our shared calendar in Gmail or iCloud. No preference, so long as we could both create entries and edit any existing entry. But Gmail is an open system -- anyone can create an account and make full use of the features, without owning any particular hardware. Apple, we found, limits access to iCloud to owners of Apple hardware. So we created a Google calendar.

Really, if Apple makes it difficult to share a calendar with people not using their hardware, any group who wants a shared calendar on the cloud, will have to create it in Gmail, since not every member will be an Apple user.

It isn't hard to synchronize a shared Google calendar onto the iPhone, but the sync is buggy. Two bugs in particular caused problems:

  • If a calendar entry wasn't created on that iPhone, or if it has since been edited elsewhere, iPhone won't let the user edit it. The same user has no problem editing the entry in the Google Calendar web interface, with Android, nor, I understand, with Windows smartphones. I'm not certain whether this is a case of everybody misinterpreting the CalDAV spec except Apple, or whether Apple is the one with the error (but I have my suspicions). I read that this is a new problem with iOS 6.0.1, an apparent regression caused by Apple's attempt to fix a problem with accepting invitations, so I'm inclined to think that this is Apple's problem to fix. Every tech in the local Apple store knew of this, none of them had a workaround, and they said there was no official notice of the issue from Apple nor any planned date to fix it.
  • On the iPhone, my wife has a default event notification of one hour before. On one event in the shared calendar, my wife wanted a two-hour notification, so she changed the notification time. When the entry synchronized with Google, a second notification was added at the default one hour before, so now the event had two notifications -- two hours and one hour.
Neither of these problems were acceptable. It looked like an iCloud shared calendar was our only option. But as I said, iCloud doesn't allow access unless you've set up an Apple device with your iCloud ID. By this time we were both tired of dealing with this issue, which we felt should have been drop-dead simple. My wife suggested I just get an iPhone. I have no intrinsic objection to buying Apple gear, but on principle, I refused to reward Apple for having a buggy sync and a closed system.

By the way, it's amusing how when you share an Apple calendar with an email not already in Apple's system, it sends them an "invitation" to join iCloud, then if they accept the invitation it's, "Oh by the way, did we forget to mention we expect everyone with an email address to also own an iPhone?"

Fortunately, a tech we talked to at the Apple store told us that doesn't require that the device originally registered to get access to the site, remain registered to the same ID. So we deleted my wife's account from the iPhone and set mine up instead, logged me in to iCloud, then switched it back to hers. Apple, if this is in violation of your TOS or something, sorry, but you left us no choice. I'd be happy to discuss this with any representative of your company who can also answer why no public notice has been taken of no-edit issue, which thousands of people have been complaining about all over the internet for months. I'd gladly switch back to the Google shared calendar if it worked

So great, we have a shared calendar in iCloud and I can access it via a web browser. Now, how do I get it onto my phone, and how can I have an offline copy in my preferred mail reader, Thunderbird (with Lightning calendar add-on)*? For that, you need a CalDAV URL to sync with (or iCalendar if you prefer, but I understand that's read-only). You would think that, in the spirit of interoperability and customer convenience, Apple would make it simple to determine what the URL is.

Well, no. They didn't get that memo. Not only does the iCloud UI not make this information available†, Apple's lawyers come after you with long sharp knives and gleaming teeth if you provide people a tool to tell them what the URLs are. Daniel Mühlbachler has written such a tool, and apparently can get away with making it available if he makes it impossible for anyone but developers to use, by only providing Java and PHP source code. To be fair, this does make it harder for someone to steal people's IDs, since you can read the source to check whether it's sending your login information off somewhere. But it makes the functionality unavailable to the average user. Fortunately, I know these programming environments, so I was able to compile the tool and use it to find the URL I needed. But why does Apple make this so hard?

Now for my Android phone. By this point it came as no surprise to me that there was nothing already on my phone to do this, and I wasn't too shocked that Apple didn't offer a free app for it. But fortunately, an enterprising third party has made this capability available for the low low price of $2.81. Who knows whether it will continue to work... Apple or Google might make some change that breaks it. But anyway, we're set for now -- provisionally!

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* My preferred mail reader is Lotus IBM Notes 9.0, but among free, open-source software such as I can put on my netbook without being obligated to pay anything to anyone, I think Thunderbird is best. Or at least, Lightning is a little buggy, but I don't see enough benefit in looking for something better.

† It's possible to get the URL of a private calendar if you read a lot of Apple forums to find out how, and copy and paste long hex IDs from URL they do provide, into a template CalDav URL. But private calendars are read-only for the people you share them with, and the same technique doesn't work for a shared calendar.

Andre Guirard | 21 January 2013 12:42:22 PM ET | | Comments (0)

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