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4/17/2006
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Google Calendar Beta: A Hot Date

The beta release of Google Calendar offers a lot of interesting features, but may have been premature.

Usually, when Google announces a new public beta, it means that the company doesn't want to absolutely commit themselves, but are pretty sure that they've got a reasonably finished product. However, Google's new Calendar is, it turns out, truly a beta product — if not alpha. While it has an impressive feature set and is very nicely designed, Google Calendar has enough glitches to make one wonder whether, this time, Google was too fast off the mark.




Click image to enlarge.

Google Calendar is one of the new online applications that uses the popular Ajax (Asynchronous JAvaScript and XML) Web development technique. Because data updates are faster and more responsive, Ajax-based online calendars offer a great deal more flexibility that their more static predecessors. For example, users can enter appointments and other info quickly and easily using either menus or by typing in simple sentences ("Lunch with Valerie noon-1pm May 14"), share calendars with either specific contacts or the public at large, and incorporate other calendars that follow the iCal standard.

Quick And Easy Entries
Google Calendar offers all these features in an excellent, easy-to-understand, and well-designed interface. You have five calendar views to choose from: day, week, month, a specific number of days (for example, four days), or as a list of appointments.

You enter a new appointment by clicking on the Create Event or Quick Add links, or by clicking directly on the day itself. As with other Ajax apps, you are then offered a single line in which you type as much or as little of your appointment you like. For example, typing "Staff Meeting every Monday 4-5pm" will result in an entry of "Staff Meeting" to appear each Monday at 4 p.m. on your calendar. Add an address, and a Location line will be added, with a link to a Google map.

If you want to alter an existing entry, just click on it and you are taken to an edit page, where you can change the name, time, location, and description of your event; start a newsgroup-like discussion; add a reminder (which can be a pop-up, or sent from your e-mail or mobile phone); and change the privacy level.

Pop-Up Blocking? Sorry About That
This is the point, however, where Google Calendar's beta status becomes obvious. When I first began working with the app, I hit a wall when I tried to edit existing entries: If I made a change and hit the Save button, the edit window just sat there. If I hit the link to take me back to the calendar, a pop-up box let me either cancel the request or lose all my changes. There were other quirks on the edit screen as well: For example, the fields that would have let me create a repeating event were missing.

After some searching, I found the answer on Google's discussion board. Apparently, the problem was with my security software: Some users reported that when they disabled the pop-up blocking in Norton Internet Security (or other security applications), the problem went away. I tried disabling pop-up blocking in my copy of NIS, and it worked — I was able to freely edit the entries, and the field for repeating events reappeared. Hopefully, Google will fix the problem quickly — you've got real problems if people need to disable their security features in order to use your product.

Let's Share!
The coolest thing about Google Calendar — and about most of the online calendars — is the ability to create and share your calendar among friends or the public at large. When you create a calendar, you choose whether you want to make the calendar completely public or not; if you do, you can either share all your information or just show your free/busy information. If you don't want to make it public, you can still share it with specific people (for example, family members or colleagues).

You can also add as many other calendars as you want. Just click on the plus sign next to "Other Calendars" on the side of your screen, and you can search for public calendars, or for calendars from friends who have given you permission to share. (If not, you can contact them through Google to get that permission.) All the calendars you've added are listed on the side of your calendar; their entries are included in your single calendar view and the entries are color-coded so that you know which calendar they come from. If things start to get a bit crowded, checkboxes let you decide which calendars you want to view.

This alone could be the reason to use Google Calendar. You can, for example, have a separate calendar for each member of your family so you can track their separate schedules; you can include the schedule of your local sports team or favorite television programs (for example, I found a calendar that listed all the showings of Dr. Who). It could also be a great way to publicize an event. Anyone can create a public calendar listing, so that you could, for example, have a separate calendar for your local political club's meetings and events. (You use Google's search engine, of course, to find available public calendars.)

Google Calendar isn't the only one to try something like this, of course. Other Ajax calendars such as 30 Boxes and CalendarHub also allow you to share other people's calendars and add iCal calendars. (30 Boxes also lets you add updates from such personal networking Web sites as Flickr, MySpace, and LiveJournal, as well as weather forecasts; a nice touch that Google might do well to imitate.) However, Google has the advantage of its popularity — its multitudes of fans are probably already working on a wide variety of snazzy calendars.

Conclusions
Google Calendar has a huge amount of potential. Its practical design and the ease with which you can create and add public and shared calendars can make it another popular way for people to interact with the Web and each other. There are still a number of major glitches to work out — more, perhaps, than should have been allowed for a publicly released product, beta or not — and, as with most of Google's products, the amount of personal information you'll want to place on its servers is up to you.

At the very least, Google Calendar is worth checking out.


Google Calendar Beta
Google
www.google.com
Price: Free
Summary: Google's new Calendar can be a fun and useful Web app, once they get all the kinks ironed out.

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