The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 7, 2006

9 Min Read

A large market that collaborative technology vendors seem to ignore is outside of the enterprise. Families, volunteer organizations, sports leagues, and a host of other groups many of us associate with are always trying to organize themselves better. These areas have the most challenging problems that are often rooted in the difficulties of collaboration and are in desperate need of inexpensive but effective solutions. I believe if you can solve these challenges there are few problems in the enterprise you cannot solve. In addition, many of the people served in this market are influential corporate workers who take good ideas into the enterprise. One example of this is family calendars.

Our family, as I expect most families, is calendar-challenged. We have to make a constant, concerted effort to keep up to date on where everyone will be at any particular time. Until a few weeks ago our family calendar was my wife's PDA. She printed an update every week and posted it on the refrigerator. Often there are weeks when the refrigerator gets updated a second and third time.

We have to keep track of school days (and days off), school events, sports practices and games, Girl Scout meetings and events, dance practices and recitals, volunteer events, family trips and events, homework, and Mom's and Dad's business schedules (business trips, early or late meetings –"Can you be home for the kids?"). Plus, it is only going to get worse as the kids grow up and – guess what? – have calendars of their own.

Now, I am not talking about scheduling meetings or viewing free/busy time. Most events we track are not scheduled, they are announced and we do our best to attend them. We are just trying to understand all of the things we should be doing, or track events that interest us. The sad part is much of what is on our calendar is published somewhere. Maybe it is on a handout sent home, on the school district's website, in email, or in a calendar system where I work.

The family calendar problem can be segmented into two areas:

  • How can family members share a calendar?

  • How can the family keep up with changes in schedules of activities in which they participate?

In the rest of this post I will be covering the issue of sharing a group calendar. The second point, keeping up with schedule changes, will be discussed in a subsequent post. But you will see how many of the concepts and technologies work toward solving both issues.

After doing some investigation I found one option for sharing a family calendar is to use an application called iCal that comes with Mac OS X. iCal is on version two and has been around since 2002. In this short time iCal has done more to promote interoperable calendar sharing than any other product.

iCal can manage multiple calendars; your work, home, sports league, etc. In addition, iCal can publish any of your calendars to the iMac service. iCal can also subscribe to calendars available on the service as well. A good use case is a professor publishing a class schedule and instructing students to subscribe to it so their calendars are automatically updated as it changes. Anytime the professor changes the class schedule it is published to .Mac. The next time a student's iCal checks the professor's published calendar it notes the changes and reflects them on the local copy of the calendar.

In addition to the .Mac service iCal can also publish calendars to any webdav-compliant webserver. This qualifies just about any popular webserver so it is just a matter of finding an ISP that has the protocol enabled on their servers.  iCal publishes calendars in iCalendar format, a popular format that is also used to send calendar events via email. For those who use Microsoft Outlook, iCalendar files use the .ics extension. However, Outlook only supports individual events in iCalendar format.

Incidentally, Microsoft is a big user of webdav. It is an underlying protocol in many of their products such as Windows Webfolders, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft Sharepoint. Microsoft IIS provides webdav natively and can easily host a .Mac calendar file. However, webdav has taken on a life all its own outside of Microsoft. For more information go to http://www.webdav.org.

A popular Apache module, mod_dav, enables webdav capabilities directly in the Open Source web server itself. Other Open Source projects have embraced the use of iCalender and webdav for sharing calendars. The Mozilla Sunbird and Mozilla Calendar projects both support publishing and subscribing to iCalendar-formatted calendars.

Unfortunately, and to the amusement of my Mac friends, we do not have Macs in our house. So I continued looking for a solution.

Our family's need for sharing a group calendar isn't much different than most small organizations. If we were using an enterprise class solution, such as Microsoft Exchange, we would simply setup a shared Exchange calendar. Alternatively, we could also setup a calendar in a collaborative workspace. Since we can't afford any of these on our budget I investigated what was available from Yahoo! or MSN.

I am a big Yahoo! Groups fan so I thought this might be an option. Unfortunately, Yahoo! Groups does not provide a group calendar. The only option at Yahoo! was setting up an individual calendar and allowing others to share it. This was the same with MSN Groups. Yahoo! 360 and MSN Spaces also looked like viable candidates. But they do not offer calendars and are focused on communities of interest, rather than on supporting a team (which is how families occasionally operate).

Yahoo! and MSN are really focused on email as being the center of collaboration, with possibly the blog also coming into the picture. However, if our challenges are anything like other families then perhaps they are missing a big opportunity.

One potential service I found is Microsoft Outlook Live. Outlook Live costs $60 a year for each account, includes the use of Microsoft Outlook, and provides Exchange-like (or Exchange-lite) server capabilities. You can create a calendar that is shared with other Outlook Live users. This may be an option for families willing to change how they read email and willing to pay the $60 per year per user (which includes the use of Microsoft Outlook, so that is a plus) but for us this was too much change. This service looks very cool and is similar to Apple's iCal with the exception that calendars cannot be shared outside of the Outlook Live service. However, I should note that Outlook 12 reportedly will support calendar sharing via iCalendar.

After some searching I came across Trumba and Airset. Both of these services provide web-based calendars. After some investigation I decided to try Airset and we have been happy since.

With Airset we get a family calendar that is accessible from just about anywhere. My wife didn't like the web interface but they provide the Airset Desktop Sync PC application to synchronize with Outlook and Palm calendars. She decided it was time to switch to Outlook 2003 (which she had been using for email the past few months) since she was using the PDA less often and the Palm Desktop that came with it was starting to show its age. A side benefit of Airset Desktop Sync was that it made moving the calendar to Outlook almost trivial.

So now we have a family calendar that both my wife and I can manage; she uses Outlook and I mostly use the web interface. I also synchronize with Palm Desktop (which, by the way, you can freely download and install from the Palm website and does not require a Palm PDA) and it works flawlessly. However, since Airset can manage several calendars you need a recent version of Palm Desktop because of the heavy use of categories; each Airset group calendar is assigned to a category in the Palm Desktop or Outlook.

There is no cost for using the Airset web-based calendar and Desktop Sync. How they make money is, perhaps, the coolest part of the service. Airset Mobile is an application that runs on Verizon cell phones and is available through the "Get It Now" service. It synchronizes with your calendars over the cell network, so no need to use a docking station or connect the phone to a computer in any way. Cost for Airset Mobile is $6.49 a month. As a user of Airset I can tell you it is well worth it. It is a family calendar in a pocket that runs on my free-every-two-years cell phone. There is no need to pay for an expensive PDA or for cellular data services.

There are also some cutting-edge features available with Airset. You can create any number of group calendars and they can be made shareable via a URL in iCalendar format.  In addition, Airset can subscribe to iCalendar-formatted calendars. Airset also can work with your Skype client and embeds a Skype icon (indicating your present status) next to your name when displaying a group calendar.

Airset can also publish calendars via RSS feeds.  I use an RSS feed containing upcoming family calendar events. I put this on a family walkup computer using a Yahoo! Widget that displays an RSS feed. Other Yahoo! Widgets display the current temperature, five day forecast, and phase of the moon. I also have the latest regional radar displaying in Active Desktop. I turned off the screen saver and auto-shutoff settings for the monitor so now we just walk by and can quickly see current weather conditions, forecast, and next-up events on our calendar.

This has all but eliminated the need for posting printed versions of the calendar on the refrigerator. Actually, if an interface like this was available on a refrigerator I might just buy it. It is obviously more useful than the plasma screens showing television re-runs I see on refrigerators at Best Buy. After all, what really belongs on the outside of a refrigerator?

In my next post I will discuss simple calendar standards and how they might just change the way you keep your calendars up to date.

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