February 15, 2006

Test drive: Chandler PIM

Author: Nathan Willis

Back in 2002, the newly formed Open Source Applications Foundation announced that it would change the way corporate and consumer users looked at email and calendaring by releasing an application called Chandler. Workable Chandler 0.6 builds are now available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. As a work in progress, it shows plenty of promise.

Chandler is a personal information manager (PIM) suite, designed, according to the OSAF, to cater to "info-centric" users. OSAF's plan is to sidestep all of the entrenched thinking about PIM applications that derive from the dominance of Microsoft Outlook and come up with new ways to work with PIM data.

That's a wide target, to be sure, but even at this stage Chandler is incorporating unconventional ideas. For instance, every item Chandler manages can be viewed as an email message, a to-do task, a calendar event, or as any combination of the three. The rationale is that most tasks pass through multiple phases over the course of time, so strictly separating them -- though common in PIM interfaces -- is unnecessary and impedes usability. The Chandler team has other esoteric concepts on tap for the future (e.g. a "partially read" state for email messages -- why limit us to "read" and "unread"?); the Chandler 1.0 vision document makes for interesting reading.

For the time being we must settle for a limited feature set. Chandler 0.6 is the first release to support usable calendaring -- a feature implemented before fully-usable email. This decision may strike some as odd, but it makes sense given the wide selection of robust and mature email clients available today. Good calendaring software (particularly on Linux) is not nearly so common.

Could I be any more organized?

You can download an 0.6 Chandler build for your platform from the project's home page. It is written in Python and uses the wxWindows toolkit, both of which are standard on most modern Linux distributions. The download links on the OSAF site link directly to an RPM; for non-RPM systems you should read the installation instructions on the OSAF wiki.

Click to enlarge

Chandler supports the iCalendar (RFC 2445) standard for event data, including import and export, which makes testing and transition from other software painless; CalDAV for remote calendar sharing and retrieval; and SSL for transport. OSAF runs a CalDAV server at cosmo-demo.osafoundation.org at which users can open a demo account to test calendar sharing. As with most calendaring programs, users can create multiple personal calendars, sharing some and keeping others private, and overlay them as desired.

Looking beyond the technical details, several nice features separate Chandler from the rest of the calendar pack. You can define events more flexibly than you can in most applications. Events can have unknown or no durations, and can be moved between different calendars.

Chandler's user interface is slick. Small details like the terminology in the menus and event creation dialogs are user-friendly, avoiding "programmer words" like classification and recurrence and adopting familiar, natural language.

The layout is intuitive, which cannot be said for Evolution (beginning with the Mail/Calendar/Tasks major mode selector). Chandler's on-screen elements are simple, which reduces visual clutter. You switch between month-, week-, and day-views by clicking on elements in the calendar pane itself; in Evolution there are nine buttons taking up space in the top tool bar for the same functions.

Manipulating calendar events in Chandler is exceptionally fluid. Events are represented as colored blocks that can be stretched, compressed, or dragged and dropped with the mouse, each change automatically updating the start and end times. You interact with calendar events as if they were tangible objects, which is a tremendous boon. This is the first calendar application to implement this behavior usably in Linux (Evolution allows you to stretch or compress items, but not move them around).

Chandler also sports a flexible time zone system. Users can schedule static events (like meetings) and have them appear in their calendar auto-adjusted to whatever time zone is appropriate, or they can specify floating events (such as morning jogs) that shift with the time zone. OSAF has a sample video demonstrating this feature. Look at it and the accompanying event manipulation video to get a feel for it -- a static screenshot would not do it justice.

The simple art of calendar

There is a scene toward the end of the documentary film Hearts of Darkness where Francis Ford Coppola is struggling to piece together an ending for Apocalypse Now. He sits in his hotel room, shuffling and rearranging dozens of index cards on the wall, the bed, and the desk, each one labeled with a scene from the unfinished film. He can't figure out how to get the order right without seeing all the pieces in front of him and physically moving them.

For me this sticks out because it is exactly how I work: I need calendar appointments to be visual objects I can rearrange as necessary. I have a friend who could not be more different; for him, everything in his life can be boiled down into a single to-do list, each item scratched off as it is completed.

Calendaring is tricky in part because so many people plan and work in such different ways. Good calendar software allows users to tackle their schedules in different ways. For some, the conventional approach of Outlook or as copied by Evolution is adequate to the task. But so far, the work OSAF has put into Chandler shows that there is a lot more potential in calendaring software than is being exploited by the old approach.

I am looking forward to seeing what surprises the Chandler team has for us in its email client as it gets closer to version 1.0.