Calendars have gone backwards since the Bronze Age. It’s time to evolve

OPINION “I don’t want AI,” the message read. “I don’t want the metaverse. I just want my Teams calendar to sync with my Google calendar.”

This cri de coeur from a very tech-adept prof on academic Twitter hit home. Some blamed their inability to sync their two electronic lives together on overweening security policies, others on the complexities of the problem. All agreed that the various methods suggested didn’t work, or if they did work they were so broken you wish they didn’t. The old saying is that someone with two clocks never knows what the time is. That’s been fixed by GPS-disciplined and NTP-sniffing timepieces that agree with each other to milliseconds.

But if you have two calendars, you are doomed to constant, wearing, low-level paranoia of miss or clash. The sound of someone else’s 10-minute warning going off provokes Pavlovian panic. Was that a meeting you’d forgotten about? Is that an important presentation? Are you still in your nightie?

And it’s pure fantasy to dream of calendars actually going above and beyond. Want to store the date of an event in Twitter or an upcoming broadcast? You can’t share to calendar, you’ll have to type it in. Want it to know what a birthday is, more than just an annually recurring date, so you can stash present ideas or other notes as they occur to you? All these human things are alien to Outlook and Google.

Calendaring is massively broken. Ironic as calendars are the oldest data management groupware on the planet. One of if not the first is a lunar calendar created as a series of pits by hunter-gatherers in a field in Aberdeenshire in 8000 BC, hopefully to predict when local fruits were ready to ferment. Since then we’ve created a timeline of megalithic circles, rock marks, increasingly sophisticated records and mechanisms, all improved by and improving astronomy and mathematics, and woven into human society.

Nowhere in the archaeological or historical record, however, is the madness recorded of two calendars installed side by side but showing different things. That had to wait ten thousand years. That had to wait for computers. It is tiresomely obvious why things are so bad. Calendars are intrinsic to office work, and every maker of office software hates interworking – reason number 76 why metaverses will fail, by the way. There are standards, there are protocols, there are how-tos, but nobody who writes the big-gun calendars wants them to work. And in the magic world of yesteryear inside office software designers’ heads, you only need the one calendar because you work in one place for one firm and your life is devoted to that service.

In reality, not so much. Academics get it bad as they work across multiple teams from multiple institutions, with multiple calendars and multiple rules. If you’re a half-decent dev you’ll have projects outside work that involve other people. In fact, if you’ve got any sort of second gig, you won’t really want it all living in your company calendar.

From every angle, sheer practicality to personal data privacy, you should have one canonical calendar that you and only you can see, one that can share events with others by your rules, and one that has the chops to smartly absorb any appropriate data, be simple to manage and be portable.

The engineering for this is harder than it might look – Eric Schmidt was openly amazed when Google started putting its calendar into organisations, and he found out how much it mattered and how much people cared. There gawps a man who has the ultimate smart calendar, a PA. But the engineering can be done, and the data structures and standards to support it in all workspace environments need no magic.

What there isn’t is a business case for this. Lots of people have tried and continue to try to build paid-for solutions, but so often they end up being as painful to manage as the free stuff, just more expensive. They can’t even wash their faces, as entrepreneurs so annoyingly say.

So who could build and give away a really smart solution, one that married the practical and anthropological for the user experience. One with the auto-adaptive and analytic to keep the back ends going no matter what curveballs the big guys throw, and the fearsomely open approach to create a sustainable developer community?

This is a job for academics, and not just because they’re victim numero uno. The project: to analyse and define one of the most systemic failures in modern personal and corporate computing, and in phase two, to heal it. Humankind is suffering. We’ve gone backwards since the Mesolithic. It’s a major under-researched phenomenon that touches billions, and it suggests a thousand onward research directions in UI, AI, automation, data security and pretty colour schemes.

Data-driven denizens of the ivory tower, this is what you were put on Earth to do. Save us from that 10-minute alarm. You are our only hope.

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