Lightning, Google Calendar, and calendering in Thunderbird

I had this sudden urge to get my calendar maintained. Google Calendar is what I’ve been using, on-and-off, and its generally been a bit of a love/hate relationship I’ve had with it. Its good that its online, but that also makes it bad – i.e. what happens when I need to pen something down when I’m offline? It supports SMSing me reminders for events (good), it works via my mobile phone (good), there are Twitter interfaces to the calendar (good). It lacks integration from my main email client, Mozilla Thunderbird.

Why Thunderbird some might ask, and not Evolution? Its cross-platform. And if I were placing bets, I’d be betting on Thunderbird over Evolution, any day (in fact, I’m surprised Linux distributors haven’t figured this out as the easiest migration path – Firefox is shipped, but paired with Evolution). But I digress, lets focus on calendering.

There is the Mozilla Calendar Project, which creates SunBird (standalone) or Lightning (a plugin for Thunderbird). Naturally, I’ve chosen to align myself with the latter. My first snag was finding out that the add-on I downloaded, did not work on Linux x86_64. A little work on Google, showed me how to build it; a little further, and I found a contributor build of it, on the Mozilla site. So download Lightning 0.7 for Linux x86_64.

Thunderbird changes: Today Pane button on top-right, all right there is the option of the “today pane”, and bottom-left, there are two new buttons to toggle between email and calendering view

Once that was complete, Lightning offered to import my calendar entries from Evolution. I don’t know if on OS X, it will offer to import from iCal, but it seemed like a good enough feature to have – I however, did not use it, as I’d not been using Evolution before. When Thunderbird starts, you immediately notice options to change to the Calendar, or even bring out the Today Pane.

The secret sauce is however, in installing yet another Thunderbird add-on, the Provider for Google Calendar. Once that is installed, and you’ve read the notes on the GDATA Provider, and understand its limitations, you’re on your way to using Google Calendar, right in Thunderbird!

Lightning, in calendering view in Thunderbird

Its got limitations though. Google Calendar doesn’t support categories, so they don’t show. If you decide to edit/delete a recurring event, it doesn’t work (known bug), and you still need to login to the web interface. If you create a Task in Lightning, and so happen to tack it onto your calendar on Google Calendar, it just disappears (so make sure tasks are tracked in the local calendar); this is because GCal doesn’t do tasks. By default, all alarms are set to be popup’s, and not SMS messaging like I prefer. If you’re offline, it doesn’t show entries (c’mon, cache entries at the very least). This is something that I’d love, and there is work going on to make this happen.

Verdict? These add-on’s are going to stay in my Thunderbird install. There are quirks, I still have to hop on the web interface from time to time, but it looks like as long as I’m online and in Thunderbird, I’m going to be a happy camper when it comes to calendering.

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  • Hey Colin, great writeup. Just FYI, Thunderbird 3 is in development at the new Mozilla Messaging company (subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation.) David Ascher is heading up things there and he’s got calendar integration as a top priority.

  • cos

    If only it worked with OS X Server 10.5’s iCal server. I don’t know whose fault it is, but i don’t particuarly have to care – Apple claimed iCal server was “cross-platform”, which might be true if it actually worked with anything else. Sunbird failed. So did Chandler. So much for sharing calendars with my Windows-using bosses…(also, iCal sucks keeps wanting to unlock my OS X keychain all the frigging time. i feel like I can’t win!)

    you don’t use Evolution? what kind of Linux nerd are you? (I know, I know, I can’t stand it either…)

  • @cos: iCal Server is most definitely to blame and isn’t standard… I remember this from actually looking at it closely the last WWDC I attended (2006 I think). But I do hope that the Thunderbird 3 folk look closely to ensure that iCal Server and Thunderbird 3 just work

    @Gen: Thanks for the links, I know Mozilla Messaging, because Marten Mickos is also on the board of directors ;) When can we be expected to see the magic of Thunderbird 3? I can’t hardly wait…

  • Just to confirm, you only have read only access from Thunderbird right?

  • oooopps my extension was old and one way. forget about my ealier question thanks man…

  • @danny: no, read, and write access :)

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  • Marnie Hartill

    Hey, I read your post while doing a search research on which is better: running gmail through the Firefox browser or using Thunderbird? I use Google Calendar too, and found Lightening interesting. But You forget that Google Calendar’s lack of combatibility with tasks can be remedied with RTM (Remember the Milk) Add Ons. I love it. Remember the Milk is awesome and I even added it to my Gmail screen in Firefox. After some research, I’ve realized the support for Thurderbird is waning since Mozilla is turning towards more innovations in Firefox browsing. For example, PRISM has really hit the discourse and I recently downloaded it. PRISM allows you to run any firefox browser page as a seperate program. So I can create a Gmail, a GCalendar, and a RTM application for each, click on the Start Menu, Alt-Tab and go. It’s a good solution. So I’m opting not to use Thunderbird afterall. Why? I would have to download it at work and at home, and at the guest office… and…. Why do all this if I can run it all through Firefox? Yeah offline work is important too… but being offline sucks enough that I know how to use a printer or a sticky note. So it sounds like it’s time for us to let go of Thunderbird.