The company whose name has become a verb for searching the Internet has once again expanded its franchise by adding yet another service. Along with its mapping feature and its Gmail email service, Google has now added a free calendar function that is arguably easier to use and more powerful than competitive calendars from Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL.
The "beta" test service, which is now available at google.com/calendar, is both a personal productivity tool and a social networking tool because it allows you to maintain your own schedule as well as events for groups of people.
If you already have a Google or Gmail account, you can sign in and get started immediately. If you don't, you need to establish a free Google account, which takes just a few minutes. Then you can return to the calendar page and start scheduling events.
If you already maintain a calendar in Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo Calendar or Apple iCal, you can import events from those sources. So far this is a one-way import. The service is not yet set up to do a two-way synchronization between itself and other programs or handheld devices but stay tuned. Google plans to make it relatively easy for others to add functionality to the calendar.
The first thing I noticed about the calendar is its simple interface. Like most PC and web-based calendars, you see a month by month calendar along with a grid with days of the week and times. Click on a time and a box pops up where you can type in an event to be scheduled for that time slot.
There's another way to do this. You could use the very cool Quick Add feature to type in the information in natural language, such as "breakfast next Thursday with Tim." The calendar will then automatically figure out the appropriate date and enter the information. You can also enter reminders by typing in the date such as "Patti's Birthday December 3rd or "Meet with Jack May 1st at noon." The calendar then figures out the day of the week.
One of my problems is that I sometimes forget to check my calendar but I always check my email and pay attention to any text messages that arrive on my cell phone. This service has a notifications setting that allows you to have reminders sent to your email and/or cell phone.
Another option is to have your daily schedule e-mailed to you every morning at 5:00 AM. For each item on your schedule, you can choose the amount of advance notice (from one week to 5 minutes) you would like when receiving an appointment reminder. Personally, I'd like to see a little more flexibility in this feature - such as the ability to receive a reminder notice both 10 minutes in advance and a day in advance.
to check out Larry Magid's podcast chat
with Carl Sjogreen, product manager for Google's calendar service.
In addition to keeping track of your own schedule, you can also use Google Calendar to schedule group events and send invitations. Let's say you're scheduling a softball practice for next week. You could start by typing "softball practice next Friday at 5:30 PM" and then go to that time in your calendar and click "edit event details."
For each event there is a guests section which, by default, is empty but you can then type in the e-mail addresses of all the people you want to invite. Each person gets an invitation by e-mail, which they can accept or decline. Invited guests can also make a comment about the event. The next time you go to that event in your calendar you can see who who's coming, who's not and who hasn't responded yet.
By adding this invite feature, Google has incorporated one of the key features of Evite – a site designed to facilitate parties and other events. It's not as elaborate or graphically sophisticated as Evite and other similar sites, but that's part of Google's appeal. It tries to keep things simple and uncluttered.
Google says its calendar will be tightly integrated into Gmail, but I haven't yet been able to get that to work. In theory, you'll be able to create events from within Gmail and if you get a message about an event, it can be automatically added to your calendar.
Google is publishing an "application program interface" (API) which will enable independent programmers and web developers to create applications that work with the calendar.
That will almost certainly result in a number of rich applications including event web sites using Google calendar as well as added features such as two-way synchronization between Google Calendar, Blackberries and programs such as Microsoft Outlook.
Based on a day's worth of testing, I'm pleased enough with the new service to start using it to track my own schedule.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid