How Google Powers Apple Calendar on iPhone

Google hasn’t yet delivered a final blow to Microsoft in the Office Suite business, but analysts continue to point to faster adoption of Google’s G Suite than Microsoft Office 365.  This means an increasingly common software combination is G Suite’s Google Calendar and Apple Calendar on iPhone.

Given this trend, a brief expose into how this software works together serves as an important lesson in how to bring corporate strategy into technical execution – and what it ultimately means for consumers who’re often caught in the crossfire.

The Early Years

Google Calendar was first unveiled to the world in 2006 and finally emerged from beta in mid-2009.

While not revolutionary for corporate user’s who relied on Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes for robust calendaring, Google’s entry into the space proved a clear differentiator.  They were the first truly web-scale shared calendaring solution.

Many initial adoptees were personal accounts rather than corporate.  The feature set was a sufficiently compelling addition to Google’s collaboration suite (including Mail, Docs, etc.).  Small and medium sized businesses who did not already have a significant Microsoft footprint were increasingly selecting the scrappy Google solution.

Adoption increased as the smartphone gained market-share downmarket.  Apple’s iPhone included a built-in calendar app (Apple Calendar) which offered a similar look and feel to what they offered on Macs.  The app included a built-in connector to natively connect to Google accounts.

Pulling Beyond the Cooperative Period

Software from Google and Apple alike drove huge advances with increased corporate and end-customer adoption.  Powered by what appear to be a stable technical relationship between the two provided years of near frictionless consumption of their services.

That all changed as the two corporate behemoths increasingly found themselves in direct competition across their portfolios.  Android and iPhone.  Mac and Chromebook.  Silicon Valley employees.  Mapping.

To consumers this war became more apparent with the evolution (or lack thereof) of technology that had always just worked together.

Google Calendar Stagnation

Though the outward affects of Google and Apple were spotty across their product segments, Google’s lack of visible investment in their calendar product afforded a truce of sorts in the compatibility competition for a number of years.  Though this helped “keep the lights on” with calendar compatibility, it did nothing to help customers who experienced many rough edges in the Google product they used on a daily basis.

Google Calendar’s interface remained largely unchanged from its beta in 2006 through the end of 2018.  That’s an eternity during which web-based interfaces completely changed how we interacted with software.  “As an integrator,” writes Keith Resar of Calenzen, “how we automated against and interfaced with Google Calendar’s internals was frustrating and static compared to everything else in the space.”

“It’s about a lot more than a decode-old web interface and some backwards user patterns that didn’t survive the test of time anywhere else on the web.  The rough edges went from surprising, to infuriating, to just – confusing,” relays Resar.

At the time, the focus was “We’re Google. We know what’s best for you,” says Mitch Greenwald, managing partner at G Suite sales partner Cloudbakers.

That’s awfully tough medicine to take when you’re working to solve the HTML formatting issue.  Here’s how that panned out – Google Calendar does not support HTML and there is no way to add HTML to your appointments from the web UI.   The thing is, that’s not the only way to create calendar events.

Any appointment you receive that was created by another client program (like Microsoft Outlook), was automatically generated by a vendor (like the airlines sharing your travel schedule), or directly via the API does permit HTML formatting.  Ordinarily that isn’t a big deal – after all the Google Calendar web UI did correctly render a large subset of HTML.

The huge problem came if you attempted to edit the appointment, at which point you’d be faced with a screenful of raw HTML entities.

 

If any HTML formatting found its way into your calendar appointment it would display correctly unless you attempted to edit the event. Editing the event exposed raw HTML as shown above.

Google’s support forums lit up over this issue.  One noteworthy thread contained hundreds of responses in a wide-ranging discussion.  The consensus was exactly as you’d expect – this is a real issue that hurts consumers, but Google was not responding nor making actual changes.

Google Calendar’s 2019 Facelift

Google Calendar’s 2019 UI update was significant, refreshing, and long overdue.

As the venerable Google Calendar web interface reached its 10th birthday, it finally got the UI update already afforded to its peers in the G Suite collaboration suite.

Nestled among other visible changes were updates to the meeting notes field interface which, for the first time, supported basic text adding.  With this change the app jumped forward and was once again a competitor in the corporate collab space.

The newly refreshed edit notes field includes basic styling that is ultimately delivered using standard HTML and CSS.

Google implemented this new feature using a backwards-compatible phased-in approach:

  • Old and new events that are entirely plain-text will continue to be so
  • Events with any HTML in them (even just a link) are converted to the new formatting engine

A thorough analysis by Calenzen showed that the conversion process consisted of:

  • Extracting all HTML and CSS tags that aren’t on a Google whitelist
  • Rewriting some HTML tags to Google’s preferred elements
  • Transformation all linebreaks (“\n”) into HTML (“<br>”)

These transformations actually change the content of meeting events regardless of where they originally sourced from.

Today’s Standoff Between Google and Apple

That brings us up to speed.  Google finally updated their software, but how did Apple respond?

Ordinarily no one would be exposed to the details of how Google makes sure the content in your meeting invitations is “safe” for consumption.  After all, the last thing we want is to be exposed to malicious code just be receiving a meeting invitation.

Unfortunately, due to the brinksmanship between these giants that’s not the case.  Below is the screenshot from a simple meeting invitation created in Google and opened in my Apple calendar.

See the content in the notes field for this Google Calendar event when viewed on an iPhone with Apple Calendar.

So who is to blame in this whole mess?

Given that Calenzen lives and dies by calendar formatting, we’d like to see this solved by anyone, and soon!  And we aren’t alone, judging by the forum threads throughout Google and other communities.  One quoted expert speculated that “Google is doing this intentionally so that it creates friction and discomfort for you to use iOS mail so that you will migrate to Google Calendar as your default viewing app on IOS.”

Calenzen’s Resar disagrees, “We see Apple Calendar using a hard-coded and very specific integration to consume Google Calendar data.  They are using well-documented APIs.”  Google isn’t in control of this, Apple is.

Just how long will Apple drag their feet on supporting this?  One data point that must not be lost is that Microsoft Office 365 has supported HTML formatting for years and viewing those events in Apple Calendar results in perfect rendering.  “The Apple Calendar app clearly supports this, so I assume this is a lack of will on Apple’s part more than anything else” concludes Resar.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While we can’t immediately fix Apple, or even Google for that matter, you aren’t powerless.

Calenzen is built to update appointments and make it easy to connect into your next conference call.  So even if the invitation itself is mangled, Calenzen will still surface and format the relevant data you need.

At left is a mangled HTML event in Apple Calendar. That’s fixed at right after Calenzen extracted the dial-in information and formatted it for easy consumption. The formatting is so perfect that Apple Calendar itself even successfully pulls out the dial-in and meeting ID.

Calenzen fixes all the invitations in your calendar so you never arrive late and frustrated after misdialing. Learn more.