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Google Calendar Makes an Impressive Debut

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Google has released its long-rumored calendar service, offering an appealing set of features that makes it easy to keep track of your own schedule and share calendars with others.

It's an impressive new service, though not without rough edges. It should appeal to anyone who's been frustrated by the current generation of calendar applications that all seem to be lacking in one crucial aspect or another.

"We wanted to address the challenges that we found in other calendaring products," said Carl Sjogreen, product manager, Google calendar.

The new Google Calendar is available to anyone who has a free Google account. To access the calendar, visit http://www.google.com/calendar and sign in, or register for a free Google account if you don't have one. If you have a Gmail account, you'll now also see a link to your Calendar in the upper left corner of the screen.

Like most Google services, the Google Calendar sports a clean, uncluttered interface. A small "mini-calendar" on the left side of the screen shows the current month, and a larger view to the right shows either the current day, week or month view, the "next 4 days," or an "agenda," a linear list of all of your scheduled events.

There are a number of ways to add events to your calendar. You can simply click on an area of the calendar where you want to place an event and a pop-up window appears with a form that lets you enter the event (the date and time are automatically filled in). Click the "edit event details" link if you need to add additional information, such as location, description, a reminder and so on.

Alternately, you can use the "quick add" link that opens a form that lets you type natural language sentences like "dinner with Michael 7pm tomorrow," interprets them, and makes an appropriate entry on the calendar. This feature is a big time-saver, especially for people who hate filling in forms. If your entry is ambiguous (e.g. "call Mom on Mother's Day) an entry form is created allowing you to complete the entry with more precise information.

Gmail users will find a new feature that recognizes events in mail messages and gives you an opportunity to add the event to your Google Calendar. Google is also offering a "remind me with Google Calendar" button that lets you add events from web sites that display the button with just a couple of clicks.

One of the nice features of the programs is that you're not limited to a single calendar. It's easy to create multiple calendars for specific functions, to track things like family or work events, though figuring out how to create a new calendar takes some unnecessary work (click the "manage calendars" link, then the "calendars" tab on the Calendar setting page, and only then you'll finally see a "create new calendar" button).

You can also import calendars that use the common iCal or CSV formats—for example, an Outlook calendar. I wish Google had made this easier. Rather than simply locating common calendar files and importing them directly, Google Calendar makes you go through the process of exporting and then importing calendar data. You can learn more how to do this with common calendar formats at www.google.com/support/calendar.

Each individual calendar you create is listed in your list of calendars, and is color-coded so its events are clearly distinguished from events in other calendars. To see events in a specific calendar, simply tick the check box next to its name. You can view events from as many different calendars as you like. Being able to manage multiple calendars within this relatively simple, straightforward interface is one of the most powerful features of the program.

By default, your calendar is private, but Google has created a number of features that make sharing calendar information with others quite easy. "We realized that managing your own events is only one small part of what's going on," said Sjogreen.

You can share calendars with other Google Calendar users, or publish your calendar events so that anyone can view them, whether they are a Google Calendar user or not. More on this feature in a moment.

Options give you quite a bit of control over how your calendars are shared. You can make a calendar completely public (be careful with this—public calendars are easily searchable by anyone who has a Google Calendar), or share only your "busy/free" information, hiding the details of your calendar.

You can also share your calendar with specific people, and even give them permission to make changes and manage the sharing of the calendar, though they must also be Google Calendar users to do this.

Sharing events with others who aren't Google Calendar users is straightforward. In essence, every event on calendar has a web page associated with it—Sjogreen calls it a sort of "mini-blog associated with an event," where people can leave comments, respond to others and so on. To enable this interactivity, simply add "guests" to an event by including their email addresses in the event details section.

Google hasn't neglected search capabilities with Google Calendar. You can search across your own calendars, and if you click the "search options" link next to the search form, you'll see fields that allow you to limit your search to "what," "who" "where," "doesn't have," or a date range. There's also a drop-down menu that allows you to limit your search to all calendars, your calendars or other calendars.

There's also a search form beneath your list of calendars that searches all public Google Calendars, helpful if you're searching for public events that others have included on their calendars. This ability to search for other events, combined with adding your own events, makes it easy to create very comprehensive calendars. "We tried really hard to make it easy to get calendaring information from any source so you have a complete picture of events in your life," said Sjogreen.

What about privacy? As with all online services, there's a tradeoff between utility and the security of your personal information. By default, your calendar entries are private—you must explicitly share them to make them public. But as we've seen recently, government agencies have requested what's considered private information from Google and other online services, so it's prudent to think carefully before using Google Calendar. Be sure to read the Google Calendar Privacy Policy for more information.

Bottom Line: Google Calendar is a very strong initial release, with a good balance between powerful features and ease of use. The ability to easily work with multiple calendars and the sharing features are particularly appealing, especially for people who are dissatisfied with their current calendar application.

Trying the Google Calendar is low-risk—if you don't like it, you can simply export your information and import it back into your current calendar app.

The most significant downside of Google Calendar is that it requires you to be online and logged in to your Google account to use it. For someone who spends a lot of time on airplanes and in countries with limited net access, that's a significant pain factor for me. Sure, you can make printed copies of your calendar, but you lose most of the functionality in doing that.

It'd be great if Google would offer an option to work with your calendar while working offline. If they do, I won't look back at Outlook again.


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