Google taking over - now for the calendar and contacts

Posted on June 17, 2009

Trusting Google with an even bigger part of my on-line life.

The background

For quite some time now I’ve been slowly handing my life over to Google.
In 2005 I started by entrusting it with the access stats of my site.
Then in 2007 I made the big move of having it handle my mail by way of supporting my domain in Google Apps. This also meant that I automatically gained XMPP accounts (or Google Talk accounts if you prefer) for the accounts on my own domain.
By early 2008 I tried (without success) to have Google support my calendars and contacts and by late 2008 even my feed reading needs were taken over by the big G.

The old setup

Thus far I’d been using a system based on my own server at home which basically consisted of using MAC OS X’s iCal for the calendar and Address Book for the contact management.

One of the most obvious and important features I absolutely had to have was full two-way integration (i.e. synchronization) with my phone which, with my recent acquisition of the HTC smartphone, meant that I had to install a program that provided an ActiveSync interface to the MAC OS X sync service. I found that “The Missing Sync” by mark/space was ideally suited to this end and I was a happy user for quite some time.
Apple’s products work great and are more than sufficient for my needs, and I grew ever more fond of the features they provided and which Google Calendar and Gmail contacts’ support sorely lacked.

Time passes… And since I’m not eaten by a Grue I keep looking around for alternatives.
Not that I dislike my old setup all that much, but I’d rather have something that automatically synchronizes over-the-air (thus releasing me from the need to dock my phone at home and only then have it synched-up) and that would let me edit my appointments even if I can’t use my phone at that particular time and I’m not home (I grew fed up with running VNC over my home ADSL line, especially since it’s reliability is less than stellar). Also I’ve grown way too tired of managing my own infrastructure. Life’s too short to waste it managing servers, connections and stuff. I’m old, I want things to “just work”. Preferably by magic. Or something undistinguishable from it.

Are we there yet?

It has been apparent for some time now that Google is starting to pay much more attention to the needs of the “enterprise users”. Indeed it has been wooing the corporate folks with increasingly better features in it’s Google Apps offering, for example, and quite recently I came across news of it offering nice ways for the suit-and-tie crowd to connect their Outlook clients to Gmail’s servers (or something to that effect).
This got me thinking that it was high time that I went over to the admin pages of my Google Apps account and looked around for new stuff that might have popped up in the mean time.

And lo-and-behold, we now have the ability to sync up a mobile device both with Google Calendar and Gmail (for the contacts). This sync service is provided for a number of platforms which I already new about, but what struck me the most was that they provided an ActiveSync server for the users to sync up with.
Woha! The announcement of this feature must have slipped by me some time ago, but this means that I can now sync my phone effortlessly with Google’s services. Over the air. “Magically”.
This together with the fact that Google Calendar’s been getting pretty decent lately (feature- and stability-wise) and that Gmail’s handling of the contact’s information got a really nice bump (feature-wise) some time ago means that it was indeed high time I gave it another go. And a rather serious one at that. Even with all the warnings that Google plasters in our face when we go through all the hoops of activating the sync service. What can I say, I like to live dangerously.
Well… No, not really, I’m just rather lazy and I’d much rather the good folk at Google deal with supporting the servers than having to do it myself. :-)

The new (currently under evaluation, but looking rather good) setup

So now the time has come to finally switch over my calendar and contact management system to Google’s care.
I then proceeded to subscribe my external calendars on my Google Calendar, exported my own calendars from my server at home and imported them into my own calendar at Google, cleaned-out the mess that was my contacts list at my main Gmail account (and did so by nuking it entirely, a move which, in hind-sight, was not all that smart, as it forced me to re-request the authorization for every XMPP contact on my pidgin roster, but I digress), exported my contacts from my address book at home and imported them, nice and clean, into my Gmail account.
I then proceeded to zero out my phone (first sync is always a bitch if you have information on both sides, I’d rather not risk it. Well, that’s not entirely true, I did risk it and ended up with loads of duplicate information, so the second time-around I just nuked the phone’s data and was done with it) and sync it with my Google Apps accounts.

And I found…


So far I’m rather impressed with the result. I’ve been toying around with changing things on the phone and on the web interface and so far all is smooth sailing. What small differences I’ve noticed from my previous experience with data synching are easily overlooked for the benefits I get from this setup.

As it would happen, just this morning the “sync” link on my Google Calendar page stopped working (which got me worried about the possibility that the service might be pulled off the air), but then this afternoon the link returned and, with it, a new calendar emerged automatically on the “My Calendars” list –the “Tasks” calendar– together with the “Tasks NEW!” link on the top of the page.
Now Google Calendar’s documentation on synching (the link which disappeared temporarily) clearly states that Google’s sync service only supports calendar and contact data, not tasks, but maybe this is up-and-coming soon? Not that I care really, I never used tasks all that much and for the really important stuff I’m perfectly happy with using Hiveminder anyway.

So now I’ve taken the plunge and switched to using Google’s services to manage my contacts and calendars and I’ll force myself to keep at it for a few days until I reach a final decision on whether I should keep it up or drop it and roll back to my previous solution.
Please, please, let it work! I really want to drop the home server and this is a huge step in that direction!

Please note that I’ve enabled the testing of Beta(er?) features for my Google Apps, something that more sane (or less risk-inclined) people may not want to do and some of the stuff I described surely falls under this category.