Get your email and calendars synched up without the expense

Today I wanted to share with you all my preferred set up for e-mail and calendaring. If you are familiar with the corporate world, you will understand that having a good messaging and scheduling system is really important. Usually this involves using Microsoft Exchange Server in tandem with the Microsoft Outlook e-mail program.

Thursday, 13th March 2014, 7:18 am
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

Well, small businesses often find it hard to justify the expense of using Exchange and Outlook, especially during the ongoing economic woes that are gripping the country. I myself don’t use either, but have a work around which does the job nicely and is virtually cost free!

First of all, I use Mozilla Thunderbird as my e-mail client. It is made by the same people that created the Firefox web browser and is available on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Importantly (and just like the browser) it is free and easily customisable with extensions!

POP3 is a common connection standard for e-mail. It downloads messages from the e-mail server to your computer and (optionally) removes them from the server. The problem is, if you use your e-mail on multiple devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs) the changes you make on one will not be present on the others. Exchange synchronises things for you in its own way. You can get the same benefits that Exchange offers by using IMAP instead of POP3. IMAP connects to remote files and folders on the server and any changes you make on one device are automatically replicated on all devices you use. So, your read/unread marks and whether you have replied to something all remain consistent across the board. You need to watch your mail box size with IMAP, but luckily Thunderbird will indicate how much space is used up.

So, we can now get e-mail nicely synchronised, what about calendars? Calendars are a little more tricky, in that there are standards available for synchronisation, but support for those standards is not always consistent. I have found the following to be pretty useful.

First of all, you’ll need to have a Google account so you can create a Google Calendar. Then in Thunderbird download and install the Lightning calendar extension and the Provider for Google Calendar extension. When Thunderbird has restarted you can then add a Google calendar by copying its private address and pasting it in.

When you are done, your Google calendar will appear in Thunderbird, together with reminders. The great thing is, you can edit and create events right from within Thunderbird itself.

If you are using Android or iOS, then all you need to do is install the Google Calendar app to get get going. Windows Phone does not have that option, however the latest version does allow you to synchronise your Google Calendar using the CalDAV standard.

There are similar plugins for Thunderbird which allow you to synchronise Google Tasks and Contacts. If you would like to learn more, feel free to ask me or another boffin you may know.