Sunrise dawns a new iOS smart calendar app from its daily email digest

When Sunrise debuted last year, it was somewhat of a throwback idea in our hyper-connected, location-aware, status-updating world: it was a static, daily snapshot of your day — meetings, appointments, birthdays — that arrived your inbox each morning. On Tuesday, the team behind Sunrise is debuting a new product that pushes that idea forward: a smart, connected calendar app for iOS,(s aapl) also called Sunrise.

It’s not that the email product wasn’t doing well, they had 20,000 people signed up for it, founder Pierre Valade told me in a phone call from their New York City headquarters last week. But, “people were saying, ‘This is cool in the morning. But it’s hard to go back and find it throughout the day’ because they get so much email.”

He and his cofounder, Jeremy Le Van, realized people were looking for more than what the Sunrise email was designed for. “We were like, it’s not really meant to be read twice, or three times. We had the idea that if we had an app, people would be able to go back to it, so we decided to replace the calendar.”

A culturally current analogy to understand the difference between the original and new Sunrise: On House of Cards, the congressmen get printouts from their assistants of their entire daily schedules first thing in the morning; that’s what Sunrise was meant to be originally. As an app, the better metaphor for Sunrise on iOS is having that assistant follow you through the day, adding and deleting things on the schedule as they come up and giving you all the important, personal details on who you’re meeting with and where. The app is not just a schedule, but a full-on calendar that knows a lot about you and the people you’re meeting with.

Its smarts come from how Sunrise is connected: not only can you link up your Google(s GOOG) calendars, both personal and professional, you can sync Sunrise with LinkedIN(s LNKD) and Facebook(s FB). This allows Sunrise to know all of your planned meetings and events, but also who your contacts are, how you know them, and when their birthdays are. The way Sunrise has implemented all this information is with some delightful design flourishes. As you might imagine from guys who cut their teeth on mobile apps at Foursquare, design and the user experience are high priorities here.

sunrise_screens04The top of the screen is where you take care of your settings, a simple “+” sign lets you quickly add events in the app — the mechanics are very similar to adding events to the stock iOS Calendar app. In the center bar is an icon that has a number badge showing if you have new event invitations. Below that is a calendar that you can scroll through an adjustable window to find the date you want.

But most of the screen is taken up by the day view of the calendar. There is where you see the close attention to detail Sunrise’s designers have dwelled on. For example, next to each meeting event is a small profile picture of the meeting attendants; a small gift icon lists birthdays that day along with their Facebook profile shot. You can click on the person’s picture, and you’re given the option to post a birthday message on their Facebook wall right from the app, or — if you have them in your iOS contacts — text them a private “happy birthday.” Similarly, when a location is listed in an appointment, a map pin appears that lets you, in two clicks, jump to directions in the maps app of your choice — Google’s or Apple’s. If the appointment is a Skype(s MSFT) call, the Skype icon appears in the list view; if it’s a lunch meeting, a food icon will appear. Each weekend also helpfully includes temperature forecasts for your location, along with small icons representing the forecast for each day.

sunrise_screens02Now, replacing the iPhone calendar is quite a popular undertaking these days. I wrote last month about Fantastical, which is much simpler and focuses more on helping you quickly add events to your calendar through natural language processing. Last week, Tempo debuted from the same folks behind Siri — it’s a smart calendar that uses artificial intelligence technology to learn about you and infer information about events and meetings based on past behaviors and other context. There’s also a handful of others, like Cue, from Greplin, which is a combination calendar and personal assistant — it integrates not just appointments and meetings but tracks travel info, package deliveries and more.

Sunrise is betting that its focus on using design to make a beautiful app that appeals to users’ emotions, and on making the user experience easy by not having to jump between a lot of different apps, will help it rise above the rest.

The email product was a side project when Valade and Le Van were at Foursquare; to pursue building the mobile app, they’ve struck out on their own. They are currently self-funded, but will be looking for funding soon to continue building out both the app and the standalone email product.