4/27/07

Google Calendar on Your Desktop

Wouldn't it be great if your Google Calendar was right there where you wanted it whenever you wanted it without having to open another browser window or tab? Wouldn't it be great if it just sat there passively, out of the way, awaiting your command? Well, it's possible. In fact, the technology for this kind of integration has been around since before Google Calendar even existed.

Windows XP (and probably previous generations, too - I don't remember) integrated the unique ability to put web pages directly onto your desktop. This ability is called Active Desktop and, since the advent of AJAX, it is possibly the most useful thing on Windows XP. Unfortunately, when it was created websites were updated manually using clunky HTML. The idea was to be able to synchronize your favorite website so that whenever it changed you'd see it on your desktop. This really didn't work out too well since everyone had their browser homepage and that was enough for them. Active Desktop kindda fell on the back burner and no one really talked about it.

Then AJAX came into the picture. AJAX, the programming method used in all of Google's apps, provided rich improvements to the old HTML standards with its ability to dynamically update a web page without having to refresh it. This works perfectly with Active Desktop because if you had to press a button or a link in a normal HTML page Active Desktop would open up your browser and render the fact that you have it on your desktop useless. Now you can click a button or a link with AJAX functionality and it dynamically updates on the desktop.

Needless to say, this means you can use all of Google's rich applications with Active Desktop, but I've found the most useful to be Google Calendar. Here's how you do it.


Right now your desktop should look something like this. A nice, beautiful, useless picture. Now to change all that.


Right click on those rolling hills and click Properties. You can also get to this dialog by opening the Control Panel and clicking "Display."


If you have a custom wallpaper or screensaver, then this dialog is familiar. We're going to act like we're changing the wallpaper and go to the Desktop tab.


The only difference is, instead of finding a picture, we're going to click "Customize Desktop."


Here we have the Desktop Items dialog where we'll go to the Web tab . . .


. . . and click "New."


This will open up a new dialog where you'll tell Active Desktop where to get your Google Calendar. The URL to enter for this is http://www.google.com/calendar/render/ (add the slash at the end for good measure). Click OK and the magic begins.


A dialog will pop up for confirmation and tell you if you need to enter a password, enter it now. Ignore this and press OK. I'll get to your Google password later, but suffice it to say, the kind of password they're looking for is not your Google password. When you press OK it will go into a sync dialog. You might also notice later options to sync on a schedule or manually by pushing a button. You can ignore all these, too. This was designed for HTML websites that upload manually. Since Google Calendar updates dynamically there's no need to sync it besides this one time.


There! Now you should see your new item in the dialog. Make sure it is checked and nothing else is. Not "My Current Home Page" and not "Lock Desktop Items." Click OK until you get back to the desktop.


Which now looks like this! That small square is going to be your calendar. Right now it doesn't look like much, though, does it? Roll your mouse over it and you'll notice an outline appear around it. Move the mouse to the top of the square and you'll notice this:


Some familiar icons! The first box tells the square to become full-screen; the second box tells the square to become full-screen, but leave room for desktop icons (which is adjustable in case you have more than one row of icons); the X, of course, closes the square. If you have the desktop space and you want to separate your icons from the calendar, go ahead and choose the second option, but for the purpose of this article I'm going to make it full screen.


You'll notice something right off the bat. You're not logged in. Now, this might not be true for some users. It all depends on whether and how long ago you were logged in to Google from IE. If you don't see a log-in dialog and, instead, see your calendar I suggest you open Internet Explorer now and log out of Google. It's important that it's Internet Explorer and not some other browser such as Firefox. Windows integrates with IE no matter what your default browser is. When you are logged off, go back to the log in screen and continue.

Now you may be tempted to log in from your desktop, but this will not work. When you press the button it will open up your default browser and tell you that you haven't entered your password. This is because Active Desktop is designed to open your browser when you have decided to go to a different web page (which the log-in process happens to be) and it will not pass on sensitive information like a password. In order for this to work, you have to open Internet Explorer (not Firefox, not Opera, not Netscape or any other random browser) and log into Google from there. If the only reason you ever open IE is to log into Google, that's fine - it will have served its purpose.


This is important. Since Active Desktop and IE are considered two different web browsing instances, AD will not recognize if you are logged in unless you check "Remember me on this computer." This will set up a cookie telling both AD and IE that you are logged into Google no matter what the session. Once you check the box, enter your account information and click "Sign in," right click on your desktop (the Google portion of it, for those of you who still have icon space) and click Refresh. It should now look like this:


Et voila! A fully functional Google Calendar right on your desktop! You can do just about anything you would do in your browser. You can add an event, move an event, edit event details, etc. You'll notice in this screenshot I've moved my icons to the bottom where there is some open white space. You don't have to do that, but I think it looks better and more integrated.

As I said in the beginning, you can do this with pretty much any Google app. I've done it with Google Reader when I had two monitors. One was my news monitor and the other was my calendar monitor. Gmail and Google Maps would probably also work this way.

All the thanks goes to Google for making some incredible applications. And I guess some thanks goes to Microsoft for creating Active Desktop. Hey, they had to do something right. Although, last I checked, this feature was absent from Vista. . . . yeah . . .