Analysis

Why are calendar apps so awful?

Honestly it's a wonder we manage to schedule anything at all

Is there anything more symbolic of the absurdity of modern life than how hard it is to make plans with friends?

First, you must decide how to get in touch. Email? It's fine, but then you have to deal with 20 replies. Apps like WhatsApp or Signal rarely work because not everyone is on them. And relying only on Facebook guarantees you miss those friends who no longer — or never did — have an account. In short, it's a mess before you even get started.

Then there is the almost comical back and forth of trying to find a time and day that works for everyone in our busy, scattered lives. Meetings, soccer practices, vacations, tickets to see a show, babysitting dilemmas — they are all part of an endless litany of stuff we fill our days with. It's a wonder we see our friends at all.

Sure, it's great fodder for standup comedians, but it's also sort of maddening: As digital tech has made many basic things like communicating, shopping, or ordering food more convenient, getting some pals together for drinks is apparently beyond us.

The problem? The calendar app is broken and sorely in need of reinvention.

Consider how the calendar compares to email. Though they both started as "professional" tools, now essentially everyone who has access to the internet has an email account. The same cannot be said for calendars. That is an indictment of modern calendar apps all on its own. Sure, some of your nerdy friends send you a Google Calendar invite, but most wouldn't think to.

To explain why calendar apps are so bad, it helps to think about their roots. While scheduling applications were included with Windows and on the Macintosh from early on, they didn't really take off until the arrival of the internet. In the corporate world, it was Microsoft Exchange and Outlook that came to dominate, and in many cases, still do; even now, 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft software.

But those corporate roots are also why calendar apps are so clunky. For people on the same system, features gradually expanded to include things like setting up meetings, showing yourself as busy, and more. Yet, it also meant that while anyone with an email address could send a message to anyone else with one, calendars remained cordoned off. Now, despite efforts to develop universal standards for calendars, nothing has really taken hold. There are at least three or four choices, instead of just a single universal one.

Yes, fine, this all sounds a bit arcane, and it is. But that's just the problem. Regular people need calendars, too. Imagine how much easier the basic act of getting people together or organizing your family's time would be if everyone could simply propose times for an event and have other people sign on or not, or have a fast, clean, shared calendar that everyone can see and edit quickly. Right now, because there is no universal standard, that is either impossible or needlessly difficult.

What needs to change? First, the digital calendar needs to become more like email: Everyone should be able to have one, and regardless of what app you use, all the basic functions — you know, proposing or listing a place, blocking off time to prevent overlap, invite lists, and so on — should all be standard. It shouldn't matter if you were on a Mac or on Microsoft's Outlook or in Google Calendar. It should just work.

To talk of a calendar app as the solution to our social woes is perhaps to miss the bigger picture: If our lives weren't both so regimented and segmented, perhaps an app to carve out one's time into chunks might not be necessary. And that's to say nothing of the competitive market forces that would get in the way of making the calendar better: Facebook wants its calendar not to work with others so you stay on its platform, and Microsoft, Google, and others are no different.

But it's for this reason why it's important to push for a reinvention of the calendar app. The web and digital tools are at their most useful and equitable when they are predicated on standards — when they allow whoever wants to use them to do so, without restriction, and without the coercion of making everyone use the same tool.

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