You know what’s kind of wild? We can identify products by their container designs. You’d know a ketchup bottle, even if it was empty and unlabelled, no matter what the brand. You’d know a pickle jar, or a milk jug, or a bottle of salad dressing, or a cereal box just by their container shapes.
Same goes for the big software categories. You’d know a spreadsheet anywhere—formula bar at the top, grid below—no matter what company made it. Or email programme, word processor, Web browser. They all work pretty much alike.
But there’s one software category, an incredibly important one, where there’s no standard design or set of features: calendar software. Each one seems to have evolved on its own Galapagos island.
Take the new Calendar app in Windows 8. So much of Windows 8’s touch-screen mode is modern, updated and fresh—colour, gestures, typography—that you’d expect an equally modernized calendar app at its heart.
Wow, would you be wrong. Listen, Microsoft: 1990 called. It wants its calendar back.
You can’t drag vertically through the Day-view column to create an appointment. You can't drag an appointment to reschedule it. You can’t record an auto-repeating appointment like “Monday, Wednesday, Friday” or “first Tuesday of the month”.
And incredibly, you can’t create separate categories, like Home, Work and Social. There’s no way to colour-code your appointments or hide certain categories.
That same week, on another computer, I installed a Mac calendar programme called BusyCal 2.0. You know what’s so brilliant? When you open it, today’s date is always in the top row, no matter what week of the month this is. You always see the next four or five weeks, even if some are in the following month.
And why not? Almost always, you open your calendar to check coming dates—so why fill the screen with dates that have already gone by? That’s a limitation of paper calendars, where every month shows 1 in the first square.
And that’s when I had my epiphany. Our electronics are capable of fantastic flexibility, features and design; why are we still modelling our digital calendars on paper ones?
Apple’s Calendar app for the Mac goes so far as to display a little leather “binding” at the top, complete with scraps of torn-off “paper” to indicate where previous months’ “pages” have been torn off. Why?
If you spend enough time with the world’s calendar apps, you can see, through the mist, a vision of the ultimate digital calendar programme. If you could mix and match the best of all the motley calendar apps, here’s what you might come up with.
• Give us an alternative to tabbing from Start Time to End Time and typing numbers into a tiny New Event box. Let us drag to indicate a meeting's length. Or give us speech—intelligent speech, like Siri on the iPhone. “Make an appointment next Tuesday morning at seven: tennis with Casey,” you can say. Your hands never leave the wheel, the cat or the delicious beverage.
We should also be able to type plain-English phrases like “tomorrow 1pm lunch mtg” or “4/15 730p Dinner with boss”, and marvel as it creates the right appointment on the right calendar square at the right time. (Google, Apple’s Calendar for the Mac, BusyCal and, in particular, the iPhone app Fantastical can all do this.) Here again, you’re not fiddling with a dialogue box to enter a new event.
• Microsoft’s greatest calendaring effort remains Outlook, the email programme that comes with some versions of Microsoft Office. Outlook has its detractors, but one thing it got right is integration with your email and address book. What are appointments, after all, but interactions with people you know—and how better to set up meetings with them than with email? Some calendars, like Apple’s Calendar and BusyCal, offer a “heat map”. It’s a year view in which deepening colours in the yellow-orange-red scale indicate increasingly busy times of your life. When it’s time to figure out when to schedule time off (or time to finish writing your novel), you can easily spot the best months—those with the least red on your year calendar.
• Why are we limited to words when our gadgets are digital? We should be able to put pictures, voice recordings, videos and documents on our calendars, too.
• Any decent calendar programme lets you put appointments into categories like Home, Work and Social. (These categories are usually called, confusingly, “calendars”.) The really good ones, like BusyCal and VueMinder Lite (free for Windows), also let you put those categories into groups. If you’ve created a category for each of your three children, or five salespeople, or whatever, you can turn off the Kids or Sales group with a single click, hiding them from the calendar for less clutter.
• We should have complete flexibility in repeating events (“Fourth Thursday”, “Tuesday and Friday every week”), and we should be allowed to delete or move one repetition without disturbing all the others. (BusyCal, VueMinder, the Mac’s Calendar, Outlook and Google Calendar all score here.)
• For multiday events— trips, vacations—we should have banners that stretch across multiple squares. We should be able to drag the ends of these banners freely to adjust them. (Google Calendar is great—it’s free and offers a lot of the features described here —but it still doesn’t let you drag banner ends.)
And because this is a digital calendar, we should have complete flexibility in what we see. Why force us to look at four-week month views? Why not five or six scrolling rows of weeks? Why should week view show seven days? Why not just five, if our weekends are always free?
• Why should all the squares be white? Why can’t we colour in important squares to denote deadlines, celebrations and historic moments? Only Christmas should be white.
• On the phone—well, let’s just say there’s a lot of work to be done. In Android, the month view doesn’t show you the text of any appointments; you can’t see your agenda without switching to day view. On the iPhone, you can see a couple of appointments beneath the month grid, but it’s ridiculously clumsy to scroll when the total finger-swiping area is only half an inch tall.
The screamingly obvious solution, of course, is to make a bubble pop up, showing that day’s events, when you tap a calendar square; that’s how Business Calendar works (an Android app with free and $5 versions).
Or why not show actual text on the calendar squares? Yes, the phone screen is small, but Week View manages it ($2 for iPhone).
The mobile apps miss a lot of touch-screen opportunities, too. On Android, you can spread two fingers to zoom in or out, but the iPhone wastes that opportunity. Neither Android nor iPhone lets you drag appointments to reschedule them.
Overall, lots more could be done with multi-touch, turning the phone and swiping. For example, in Business Calendar, you can swipe across several month-view squares to open a “week view” showing only those dates. Brilliant.
What else should be there? Reminders—via text message, email or pop-up bubble. Invitations to meetings and events, and RSVPs. Duplicate removal. Smart time-zone adjustment.
Finally, it goes without saying that all modern calendars should sync. To our other computers. To our phones. To the Web. We should never, ever have to enter an appointment on more than one machine.
The world’s software makers have made great strides helping us manage our money, our phone numbers and our files. Now how about equal time for time? ©2013/THE NEW YORK TIMES