Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The trouble with relying on free things

Screenshot of the Sunrise blog

For some years now, I’ve been a user of Sunrise. It started off as a daily email with your events from Google Calendar and Facebook, but over time it evolved into a series of mobile and desktop apps, and a web site, where you could combine all of your various calendars together in one, intuitive interface. This meant that you could have events from Google, iCloud, and any Exchange server, all combined together with your Evernote reminders, gigs from Songkick, Eventbrite bookings, TripIt itineraries and more besides.

It was great, but at no point did Sunrise ever ask for money. Surely it must have cost money to run, and funding from venture capital only goes so far. So I wasn’t all that surprised when, earlier this year, Sunrise announced its acquisition by Microsoft. At the time, they promised to keep everything running, and for free.

At first, there were promising developments. Integration with Wunderlist, another recent Microsoft acquisition, a new keyboard for iOS and Android designed to help you plan meetings whilst in another app, and support for the Apple Watch are all additions made following Microsoft’s takeover. But then the Sunrise team dropped a bombshell this week: development of all of Sunrise’s apps has ceased.

Sunrise’s development team have joined the team working on Outlook for mobile devices. Mobile Outlook was also the result of an outside purchase by Microsoft, this time of Acompli. As you’d expect, the aim of the integration of the Sunrise developers is to improve Outlook’s calendaring capabilities, and, sure enough, a new version of Outlook for iOS was released this week. There’s a bit more background on the Microsoft Office blog, and an update for Android is due soon too.

As it stands, Outlook isn’t yet capable of doing all of the things that Sunrise can do, and so the Sunrise apps will still be available to download for a little while longer. But once Outlook has fully absorbed Sunrise’s features, I expect the apps will be withdrawn.

For me, this is a bit of a bummer. I used both Sunrise and Outlook on my iPhone and iPad; Sunrise to manage all of my calendars, and Outlook for my work email. I deliberately keep my work and personal email separate, and, crucially, don’t have notifications turned on for work messages. My job doesn’t require me to be reachable out of hours; therefore, whilst it’s useful to be able to use my phone to access work email whilst at work or in an emergency, I want to be able to completely ignore it away from work. But I do like to be able to see my work calendars outside of work, and get a holistic view of my diary across both personal and work calendars.

I won’t be able to do this once Sunrise has gone. If I make Outlook my primary calendar app, then it’ll have all of my work emails in there, whether I want to see them or not. Outlook on iOS, as it stands, is still an email client first and foremost; opening the app takes you to your email inbox by default.

So, reluctantly, I decided to take the nuclear option and delete Sunrise from my devices. Sure, it’ll carry on working for a while – probably. But it’ll disappear eventually and I don’t want to be hanging on to a product during its deathrattle.

For now, I’ve gone back to the built-in iOS calendar, which is okay, I guess. Part of the reason why I switched to Sunrise was its superior interface when compared to the stock iOS calendar in iOS 6 and below. More recent versions have been less ugly, but it’s still not got a great user experience even in iOS 9.1, in my opinion. I’m open to suggestions of alternatives – I may give Fantastical a shot, which is £3.99 on iPhone and £7.99 on iPad, both sold separately.

I suppose I shouldn’t have put so much faith in a free service which has no obvious income from users or advertisers. And I think that’s a good lesson in general – if you can’t work out the business model for something, it’s probably best not to rely on it.

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