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Ride the Lightning: Mozilla's calendar finally approaches 1.0

February 10, 2010

This article was contributed by Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier.

It seems appropriate when talking about a calendaring application to note just how long it has been in development. In the case of the Mozilla Lightning extension for Thunderbird, it's taken more than five years to get from the announcement of the project in late 2004 to a 1.0 beta. The Sunbird project has been in the works even longer.

It's been a long, slow trip, but the projects seem to finally be making their way to the home stretch. Lightning 1.0 beta 1 was released in mid-January only 16 months after the 0.9 release. To be fair, the Lightning project has been trying to hit a moving target because it needs to support Thunderbird 3.0. Now that 3.0 is out and Lightning is nearly finished, we decided to take it for a spin to see how it's doing.

For this overview, we looked at Lightning 1.0 beta1 and Sunbird nightly build 1.0pre2. Lightning requires Thunderbird 3.0 or SeaMonkey 2.0 and Sunbird is a standalone application. For the most part, Lightning and Sunbird provide the same features, but Sunbird (obviously) doesn't integrate with an address book or send mails to confirm event invites. Some distros have released packaged versions of Sunbird, but users who want the most recent releases will probably want to get them directly from Mozilla.

[Mozilla Lightning Calendar]

Setting up a new calendar is very straightforward. Out of the box, they offer a default "home" calendar. Setting up a new local calendar is as simple as specifying the name of the calendar and choosing a color (if one wishes) for the calendar to be displayed in. The process is slightly more involved for remote calendars, but mostly because finding the URL that points to the remote calendar will usually take some digging.

Lightning and Sunbird support CalDAV, iCal, and the Sun Java System Calendar Server. We didn't have a Sun calendar system to test against, but did try out the iCal and CalDAV support for our remote calendars. Sunbird choked on a public iCal file containing U.S. holidays, but otherwise handled most of the iCal files we threw at it pretty well. When working with Google Calendar via CalDAV, it was possible to sync events but not tasks. A Provider for Google Calendar is also available, but it isn't compatible with the recent builds of Sunbird and Lightning.

[Mozilla Lightning New Event]

Overall, the Lightning and Sunbird interfaces are pleasant and easy to navigate. Some groupware solutions are clunky and unpleasant to use, but Lightning and Sunbird have a nice layout and are mostly intuitive. They also have the advantage of being keyboard driven for many operations. Want to create a new task? Just use Ctrl-d. Want to create a new event, use Ctrl-i. (Ctrl-e is already reserved in Thunderbird for edit message as new.)

Typically, one thinks of Web applications as the slower and less convenient cousins of desktop apps. However, while working with Lightning and Sunbird, we compared with Google Calendar running in Firefox and Google Chrome. When clicking on the calendar on Google Calendar it spawns a new event dialog almost immediately. Each time we started a new event in Lightning or Sunbird it had a lag of a second or two to pop up the event dialog.

[Mozilla Lightning Reminder]

The Mozilla dialog is a bit more complete, but doesn't support a natural language event description, whereas Google Calendar can interpret "Beer on Friday at 8pm" and create an event automatically. The Mozilla calendars desperately need a "quick add" feature for tossing in an event. One can add tasks quickly, however, by just throwing in the task description in the Tasks text field.

Creating recurring events is easy enough, unless the event is sporadic. There's not a good way to create an event by just selecting days, or by specifying specific days of the week. So, for instance, if a user wants to add an event for going to the gym or a class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday then it'll be necessary to create separate events on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday that repeat.

[Mozilla Lightning Attendees List]

The interface also supports busy searching for attendees, but doesn't seem to offer much in the way of syncing with groupware that would provide the free/busy information needed for other users. It can suggest times that work for the local user, but doesn't give much information for others.

We also missed having the ability to display multiple time zones in the daily view. For users who work remote teams in other time zones, it's extremely useful to be able to see at a glance the time difference between local time and UTC or another time zone where the home office is located. It is possible to specify the local timezone in the Lightning preferences, but we'd like to be able to see a second time zone in the daily display.

Overall, Lightning and Sunbird are competent apps with some room for improvement. Sunbird is pretty limited, since it doesn't integrate with email, address book, etc. That limits it quite a bit in terms of sending event invitations, since it doesn't know who your contacts are or have a method for actually sending invites. Users who need a calendar or task manager without coordinating with others should find it suitable, but it probably won't do for professionals who need to coordinate meetings and so on.

[Mozilla Lightning February Calendar]

For Thunderbird users, Lightning is a serviceable calendar and task manager add-on. It doesn't have the same range of features that one finds in professional groupware suites like Outlook or GroupWise (which is twice as painful to use, but more full-featured nonetheless) but it's a good choice for individuals who don't need enterprise-level calendaring.

The Lightning and Sunbird projects are moving ahead, but not very quickly. The team recently announced that it would only support builds for Thunderbird 3.1 due to lack of developer resources. The team has also had problems keeping up with builds of Sunbird due to problems with all of the supported locales because the developers have been too busy with upcoming Thunderbird releases. To put it another way, the teams working on Lightning and Sunbird are stretched thin. While it doesn't seem likely the projects will go by the wayside entirely, it would be more comforting if they were not suffering from a lack of development resources.

One hopes that this will change once the 1.0 releases are out and the projects receive some additional attention. But it could be that with many users moving to services like Google Calendar, the demand for Lightning and Sunbird has passed.

Comments (6 posted)

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