HP Palm Pre and webOS Review: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking

webOS Contacts - Setup AccountsProbably the most innovative feature of WebOS is its ability to consolidate contacts and calendar data from multiple web-based sources, a feature that Palm branded as “Synergy”.  Currently, the OS can consolidate calendars from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange and contacts from those same services plus LinkedIn.  Calendar entries and contacts entered directly into the phone can be directed to any of those services or to an online Palm Profile that is created during the initial set-up of the phone.

This ability to manage personal data from multiple cloud-based sources is the killer application in WebOS and other platforms (especially Android) are already implementing similar features.  At this point, the lack of a similar feature is probably the most glaring omission in Apple’s iOS.  It is becoming increasingly uncommon for anyone to have all of their contacts and calendars in a single location and the ability to effectively organize and consolidate it all is becoming vital.  Since I’ve had the Pre, it has become my primary calendar and address book.  Even when I’m near a desktop or laptop computer, I know that I’m likely to find the most complete version of what I’m looking for on the phone.

webOS Calendar - Setup AccountsWhile it generally works reasonably well already, the feature is somewhat in the infant stage.  HP/Palm especially needs to expand it to pull data from a wider variety of sources.  They are still missing a few major services such as MSN and AOL.  Native support for more generic formats such as iCal would certainly be a big plus as well.  Adding synchronization of tasks and memos is also an obvious need that I’m pretty surprised that they have yet to address. WebOS 2.0 reportedly exposes more of Synergy in its public APIs, which should allow more services to implement their own synchronization.

I also strongly believe that HP/Palm should beef up their own Palm Profile service for those that might prefer not to use a 3rd party service for managing their personal information.  At the very least, they should implement the ability to view and manage data stored in the Palm Profile via the web.  Currently the data are only accessible on the phone itself.  There have also been reports of data loss from the Palm Profile when people have replaced or had to hard-reset their phones and this is something that is simply unacceptable with a cloud-based solution and must not continue.

One other shortcoming that is often cited is that there is no out-of-the-box solution for synchronizing with desktop applications for those that are still generally avoiding storing this kind of information in the cloud.  They do provide a tool for doing a one time transfer of data from Microsoft Outlook or the older Palm Desktop (used with the old Palm OS), but it does not establish an ongoing synchronization.  I don’t personally feel this is a bad decision, though.  There are already third-party solutions available to do this kind of synchronization (admittedly at an extra charge) and I think it probably is wiser for Palm to keep their own focus on the cloud-based approach, which I do think will be the preferred solution for most people.

CalendarPalm Pre - CalendarIn the calendar application, the default view is a combined one with the events from each source (Exchange, Google, Facebook, etc.) color coded.  In the settings, you can select the specific color to use for each source and can also have it remove specific calendars from the combined view.  From the main screen, it is also easy to switch to a filtered view that only shows events from any single source.

GwebOS Calendar - Monthly Viewoogle’s calendar supports multiple calendars on a single account and webOS treats each as a separate source with its own color-coding and option to display or not in the combined view.  Since Google offers the ability to subscribe to iCal or other types of calendar feeds, this provides a method to pull in events from many calendar systems that aren’t directly supported by Palm.  I use TripIt for travel planning and scheduling and was able to subscribe to its calendar feed via Google.

I have found that there are some quirks/bugs in the system, which I hope Palm will work out in time.  Sometimes updates made online to a calendar have taken several hours to show up on the Pre and, occasionally, never made it there at all.  This problem was particularly common when subscribing to an external calendar source in Google and I eventually ended up dropping the TripIt subscription in favor of manual imports.

Looking at the calendar online at Google would show the correct information, but the information on the Pre would remain outdated for a while or, occasionally forever, even after tapping the “Sync Now” button.  There have been a few times (both with Google and Facebook), where I found that it stopped recording updates altogether until I removed the account and re-added it.  These are manageable inconveniences, but they definitely work against a hands-off approach to managing multiple calendars and also tend to undermine confidence.

The calendar application itself is somewhat lacking in features and could webOS Calendar - Weekly Viewuse some enhancement.  While it does provide options for daily, weekly, or monthly views, it always defaults to the daily view on opening with no option available for changing that.  More importantly, there is no agenda view (like Windows Mobile’s “Today” screen) to provide a quick-view summary of upcoming appointments/events.  The only third-party Agenda application that I’m aware of is a “homebrew” app since Palm currently doesn’t support access to the calendar data in its published application API, although hopefully that will change with 2.0.

Another major omission is the lack of any support for categorization, other than the color coding by calendar sources.  I would argue that color-coding by categories would, for most people, be preferable to the color-coding by calendar sources.  Generally, I’m more interested in being able to quickly visually distinguish business appointments, personal appointments, and family activities than whether these came from Exchange, Google, or Facebook. 

webOS Calendar - Day ViewAdmittedly, I am generally apt to keep like appointments in the same calendar (work appointments in Exchange, personal appointments in Google, event invitations in Facebook), but that isn’t going to always be the case.  In particular, I often have personal appointments in my work calendar if they require me to be out of the office during work hours while personal appointments outside of work hours typically remain in Google.

Another limitation in the calendar application is limited time zone awareness.  The phone appears to store all appointments internally according to GMT or some other standard baseline, which means that all appointments will shift in the calendar as you travel to other time zones.  During a trip to Florida , all of the calendar entries  I had entered into Google as Eastern time showed up 3 hours off while I was at home in California, although they were correct once the phone was in the right time zone.

It would be nice to at least have the option to have it always display appointments at the specified time regardless of specified time zone instead of adjusting for local time.  There is also no way to specify time zone in appointments entered onto the phone, which means you have to remember to manually adjust if you are in a different time zone than you will be at the time of the appointment.  While this probably isn’t a serious problem for a lot of people, it could be a big issue for those that travel a lot.

Admittedly, Palm’s ability at managing and synchronizing calendars has always been better than their built-in calendar applications.  On the Palm OS, most power users purchased third-party calendar software such as Iambic’s Agendus or Pimlico’s Datebk.  It is likely that the limitations of the webOS calendar application will also eventually be addressed by third party vendors.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet due to the API limitations mentioned before.  Hopefully the additional APIs opened up in webOS 2.0 will make this possible.

Contacts

When combining contacts from multiple sources, webOS Synergy takes into account that there is likely to be overlap.   As it pulls in data from tPalm Pre - Contact Listhe various services, it creates composite entries that combine data from all entries for the same name.  For example, for one contact, you might have home address, phone number, and personal email addresses stored in Google Contacts.  For the same person, a profile photo, a more public email address, and birthday might be in their Facebook profile.  Finally, this person’s company, work title, and business phone and email might all be in their LinkedIn profile.  The end result on the phone is a single contact entry containing all of that information.

The result of this behind-the-scenes processing is frequently a much more complete contact profile than from any one source.  In fact, the composite entries are so complete that I now generally use the Pre as my definitive source when looking for information about an individual.  It does such a good job with this that one currently missing feature that I would really like to see Palm add is the ability to tell the Pre to fill in and upload missing data on Google Contacts (or other writable sources) using the information that it gathered from your other sources.

Contact entries from different sources will only be recognized as being for the same person if there is an exact match on the name.  Nicknames, middle initials, maiden names, or other variations do result in multiple contact entries being created on the phone.  Fortunately, this is very easily corrected by opening up one of the contacts and tapping a “Link Other Profile” button to manually combine these entries.  I found that the number of these was relatively low and that it didn’t take long at all to clean it up.

For any conflicting, duplicate information (such as different profile photos or name variations), it is easy to select which information should be treated as the primary.  It also has no problems keeping track of multiple email addresses or phone numbers that might come in from different sources, even in cases where they are tagged the same (such as two different “work” phones).  When making a call or sending a text or email message, you simply tap on the phone number or email address that you want to use.

webOS Contacts - Edit ContactOne down side is that there isn’t really any flexibility about what information to pull down to the phone from each service.  Instead, it is pretty much an all or nothing prospect.  Facebook and Google both offer the ability to categorize contacts into lists or groups (LinkedIn does as well, but only with the extra-charge premium account) and it would definitely be nice to be able to tell the Pre to selectively include or exclude groups.  It does help that the Pre only pulls Google contacts from the “My Contacts” group, which allows for some exclusion.

To mitigate this limitation, it helps to go to the various cloud services and do some clean-up of entries for people that you aren’t really interested in staying in touch with.  Even still, you are likely to have some entries, particularly from Facebook and LinkedIn, for people you want to retain as contacts on those services, but are unlikely to get in touch with frequently, if ever, from the phone.  The impact of this problem is reduced somewhat by webOS’ excellent and very fast search mechanism, which makes it very easy to find the contacts you need without having to scroll through what is likely to be a pretty long list.

Another way to speed access to frequently-used contacts is to assign speed-dial buttons to their phone numbers.  Any letter on the keyboard can be assigned to a speed-dial number, which allows one-press access from the phone application.  While this is nice, it falls a bit short of what is really needed, which is a “favorites” screen for quickly accessing most-used contacts.  This is something that has already been addressed with a couple third-party applications, but it really should have been a standard feature of the contacts (and phone) application.

Coming up in Part 4: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging

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