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Wednesday, August 13, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Inside MobileMe: iPhone's Exchange alternative for contacts and calendar


iPhone MobileMe calendar

Calendar sync is a bit more complicated still. The iPhone 2.0 software introduced support for multiple calendars to the iPhone, which while being standard in iCal for some time is still unique among many smartphones. 

While iCal has been around for years on the Mac desktop, it previously just drew calendars for the .ics "iCalendar" files it created or imported. In Mac OS X Leopard, Apple added a centralized calendar store that does for events what Address Book did for contacts; developers can add events to iCal and use it as an OS-level service. Leopard's Mail demonstrated this feature by integrating ToDo events that could be created from dates appearing in emails. Mail creates a ToDo event directly in an iCal calendar rather than tracking the events itself, making those events available to any other app that also draws upon iCal's calendar store. 

Windows Vista also now offers a centralized Windows Calendar, although it does not seem to be finished yet, and neither iTunes nor Vista's native sync for Windows Mobile can sync to it. There are also some issues in syncing with Outlook, which iTunes can do. Those problems are related to peculiarities in Outlook or limitations in EAS that some MobileMe reviewers have blamed on Apple for not being able to "overcome." One example is that EAS does not properly sync the read status on emails, either on the iPhone or on Windows Mobile. The Mac does make for a better sync environment for MobileMe due to its clean and modern APIs for contact and calendar stores.

The iPhone syncs events with the desktop occurring over the last month by default, but offers the ability to only sync the last two weeks or alternatively the last three or six months back, or all events in the calendar. More events means longer syncing. Like the new version of iCal, the calendar on the iPhone also supports time zone support on events, so even if you travel into a different time zone, your existing events will remain in the zone they were assigned. If you turn this off, events will be displayed in the local time zone. With time zone support, a meeting scheduled at 10 AM PST won't change as you travel to New York, but a reminder to wake up a 6 AM would need to be set to "floating" rather than a time zone (below). 

MobileMe


Missing in calendar

The desktop iCal supports a number of features missing on the iPhone, starting with To Do items, which sync with MobileMe but are not presented on the iPhone at all. These reminder events are a critical element to still be missing from the iPhone. As noted under the section on contacts, there's also no facility for only syncing specific calendars from iCal to the iPhone, which seems to be a more pressing feature than selective sync of contact groups. 

Also missing is support for subscriptions, which draw events from a web hosted .ics file and update automatically as the feed owner makes changes. MobileMe currently simply ignores any subscriptions, and won't even sync its items over to the iPhone as a static synced calendar; you have to export subscribed calendar items into a standard calendar to get them on the iPhone, which runs counter to the idea of the subscription. Apple made a big deal about iCalendar subscriptions in iCal when it released the feature, so the lack of support on the iPhone is odd.

There is also no weekly view on the iPhone's calendar, but this would be difficult to cram into the iPhone's screen, particularly if you expected to maintain the ability to edit items. Conversely, the iPhone does have a list view, which offers a handy flat listing of events that is missing in iCal. And while events appear at the correct time, there is currently no ability to view or set time zone (below; or see if it's set to a floating time stamp, as above). 

MobileMe


While iPhone can respond to meeting requests sent from Outlook, there's currently no way to create meeting requests from the iPhone (invite other users and request an response). This feature was pulled after the initial beta releases. There's also no color-coded indication that a calendar event is marked as busy, free, or tentative. You can't delete a single occurrence of a repeating event, only the entire series. You also can't access the attached files on an iCal event, or view or change attendees or the URL field set in iCal. 

While the iPhone supports using multiple calendars, you can't create new ones on the iPhone itself. You also can't reconfigure the colors used by each calendar, and some users have reported having their color coded calendars not matching between the iPhone, web, and desktop. If this happens, resycing should solve the problem.  

Apple's Calendaring Strategy

Overall, MobileMe's Exchange-like features on the iPhone compare pretty well to Windows Mobile devices, but there are still a number of missing features that need to be addressed. For an initial release, the software seems stable and well designed, although heavy calendar users will be left wishing for some additional sophistication. 

Apple's interest in calendaring on the Mac desktop remained stuck with a disappointingly simple placeholder version of iCal for years. However, once Apple dumped Meeting Maker as its corporate calendar and actually began using iCal, it rapidly improved into a product worth using. As Apple pushes the iPhone into the enterprise, calendar features will be on the top of the list for improving. Calendaring also plays a big role in Apple's Mac OS X Server strategy with its open source Calendar Server

In the next Inside MobileMe segment, we'll take a closer look at Apple's web apps.