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Magneto tackles the five things that are broken in calendars

I got access to the Magneto beta this week — the calendar start-up that I mentioned in a recent post (see Farhad Manjoo has the same problem with calendars we all do ) — and also got a chance to chat with some of the founders. The top line is that there is a great deal to link about Magneto, and the bottom line is that the tool is a totally usable calendar appliance that still has a few rough edges.

Why do I call it a calendar appliance? The reality is that most people — especially business people — keep their calendar in Google calendar or Microsoft Outlook. However, many also use auxiliary apps on mobile devices, web or desktop to add additional functionality. For example, I use Sunrise on my iPhone because various features that make it more attractive than Google’s own app there. But the underlying system is still Google calendar: Suntrise pulls from and posts to Google when I access and update my calendar. Magneto works in the same way: syncing with Google and Microsoft calendar systems. (I guess Magneto can operate as a standalone calendar, although I didn’t try  that.)

The team started with a realization: calendars are broken:

We started Magneto by interviewing dozens of people. As they showed us their calendars, we saw five key patterns of hacks emerge — five ways that calendars are broken.

1) Being on time is important and hard.
Our calendars know where we need to be and when we need to be there – but the time it takes to get between appointments is a black hole. Some people hack this by manually blocking out time in their schedule; others simply wing it and are often late as a result.

2) We have to schedule meetings with people who work at different companies.
On average, it takes 9 back-and-forth emails for two moderately busy people to schedule a meeting. We’ve come to expect the ability to share our files and documents with anyone, but it’s simply not possible to easily share your availability with professional or personal contacts who use a different calendar system.

3) Calendar events come from everywhere and anywhere.
It may be a Facebook event, an OpenTable reservation, a Paperless Post invite, or just an email. And by far the most common way for people to get events into their calendars is to copy and paste. Copy a field, paste the field. Over and over. It’s tedious and error-prone.

4) To-dos are isolated from our schedules.
We saw a lot of people blocking time in their schedules to work on projects. We saw them add reminders to pay rent, run errands, or send a document before a deadline. Lots of people make time for their to-dos in their calendar — but the thousands of to-do apps just require you to check your to-do list. They don’t help you find time to do your to-dos.

5) Work and personal have to be manually managed.
Busy professionals tend to have multiple calendars: one for work, one for personal. (Or more!) The only way to make sure your colleagues don’t try to book you for a meeting during your doctor’s appointment is to manually make copies of each personal appointment.

And they geared the features of the appliance to counter this breakage:

  1. Automatic travel times (walking, biking, auto) calculated and added to calendar.
  2. Make it easy to schedule with people that don’t use the same calendar server as you.
  3. Pull calendar events from websites.
  4. Integrate todos right in the calendar.
  5. Allow for both personal and work time in the calendar that can be used to block out times that you aren’t available.

Let’s explore how the tried to accomplish these things.

The first feature they accomplish by letting users set a location for work and home, and then to calculate — using Google Maps — how long it will take to get from where you are to your next meeting by car, on foot, or by bike. (Strangely, the Google transit information is absent as yet.) In the screenshot below, the enlarged column on the calendar is today, and you see that I have an 11 minute walk to make a meeting at 2pm at a coffee house near my home. (Note the absence of an 11 minute walk afterward, because I hadn’t set up another meeting in the afternoon.)

Screenshot 2014-03-07 12.05.21

 

A few words about the general layout. You can toggle different calendars on and off in the menu bar. I find the term ‘tags’ confusing: they use as a synonym for names of calendars. In my case, all my calendars are pulled from Google, but they could be native, Google, or Microsoft calendars. You can move through dates in the past and future by clicking on the navigators at the upper left, or selecting the calendar to choose a specific date. Clicking the calendar icon in the upper left brings you back to this calendar view as opposed to todo and map views.

Here’s the map view, which would be more interesting if I were having a series of meetings in Manhattan, for example:

Screenshot 2014-03-07 12.04.34

The second point on their list of breakages is scheduling. The approach they take is interesting, and could cut off the headaches of email threads around scheduling meetings. A user can create a link to some range of days — for example, the next two weeks — and send that to some list of other people. This is how:

Screenshot 2014-03-03 10.15.54

This shows what an invited person would see after getting an email invitation to a provisional event. They would not have to be a Magneto user, although that would allow them to pull their own calendar in to show blocked off times. That user would see the greyed out times that I am not available, and then would drag on the days to show their favored times, here shown in blue.

When I return later to read notifications I would see that the invited other had selected two possible times. At this point I am the last in the chain — since there are only two people in this meeting — so I would see the following after clicking on ‘select meeting time’:

Screenshot 2014-03-03 10.26.11

 

I admit that this bidding process is where Magneto confused me. Since the previous step clearly guided me to drag on the calendar to select days and times, I thought that the ‘select meeting time’ button would pop up a list of alternatives — perhaps a list of alternatives — and I would select one. In fact, the tool wanted me to use the same drag technique over again. I had to ask customer support to get back in the swing of things. Once I did that, all the attendees are notified, and the event is placed on my calendar — and theirs if they are using Magneto, too.

One concern is that the UX may be too unusual for newbies, and therefore lead to fallout. We’ll have to see.

One other snag: the pending meeting slots that I have offered to others in potential meetings don’t show up on my calendar, so I might inadvertently schedule something else on top of those. I think they should be indicated in some way on my calendar, maybe with a dotted line and the name of the proposed meeting.

The third point of breakage was getting events into the calendar. Magnet allows emailing into the app, as well providing a Chrome extension. I’ve used both techniques, and they ‘work’, but Gigaom Research titles aren’t captured: perhaps we’ve fooled with our WordPress templates too much.

The integration of todos into the calendar is a fourth pitfall they seek to fill. Nice in principle, but to get me to ditch a tool like Todoist, they have to support the minimum viable task manager tool (see Setting the bar for team task management apps), and Magneto isn’t close in that regard. But I can see using it in a very specific category: todos surrounding scheduling or otherwise related to meetings. For example, if want to recall to bring someone a book and I am meeting them next week it makes sense to place that on my Magneto to-do list. (Sadly, Magneto tasks do not have their own URLs, so I can’t link to them externally from Todoist or other tools.)

I do like the fact that Magneto objects can be converted from todos to events and back. When someone has to reschedule, you don’t delete the meeting, you simply click on the todo toggle, and once a new time is selected, toggle it back. (Note however in this scenario you can’t reinitiate the elaborate ‘share days of your calendar’ user scenario. You have to start over for that with a new event.)

And their last point: work and personal calendars need to both block your availability. I have used a single calendar for all my scheduled events for years, giving up on the notion of a work/life separation. I do use a calendar from TripIt for travel information — since that service builds that for me from emails I send. For this review I created a personal calendar, and it works as advertised.

The Bottom Line

As I said at the top, Magneto a totally usable calendar appliance demonstrating some good thinking about the flaws in calendaring, although the tool itself has a few rough edges.

What I’d like to see is this:

  • Smoothing off the somewhat mis-explained steps in the shared event bidding process, and indicating the potential times offered.
  • A richer model of sharing for tasks and events. If I can propose dates for a shared event, why can’t I propose a possible end date for a shared/delegated task?
  • Making it possible to rebid on a formerly settled date for a shared event as part of resceduling.

And I’m interested in the immediately adjacent areas, like publishing public events — for example, a webinar series or the upcoming Future of Work meetings — where a different semantics is needed, and integration with other services might be desired, such as Eventbrite.

I will be watching their progress with real interest.