Walt Mossberg

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Testing the Flexibility Of Web-Based Calendars

A few months ago, I decided to make a drastic change in my office by switching to new calendar software. Like many busy professionals, I rely on my computer calendar as a guide for everyday activities — reminding me where to go, whom to meet, when I’ll be traveling, and what dates are open for prospective meetings and trips. Though I’m lucky enough to have an ace assistant who helps to manage that calendar, we’d both be lost without it.

So my decision to abandon my old — yet reliable — Lotus Organizer software was a difficult one. But two serious issues prompted my switch: accessibility and flexibility. I use multiple computers in my office, my home and on the road — a mixed bag of Windows PCs and Apple Macintosh models — and I needed a calendar that I could access from every one. I also needed one that would allow both me and my assistant to update my calendar and instantly see the results.

For many people working in large organizations, with Microsoft Outlook or other calendars on servers, this is already a reality. But for consumers and small businesses, it’s a hassle. It’s a pain to keep updating calendar programs that live on multiple computers, even if you only use one type of computer, and even with the help of a PDA or smart phone, like my Palm Treo. And it gets far worse if you use both Windows PCs and Macs, or if you’d like to occasionally rely on public computers or borrowed computers on the road.

But there’s new hope in this area. Web-based calendars, which live on the Internet and can be accessed from any Web-connected computer, are getting much more powerful and sophisticated.

AirSet by Airena Inc.
AirSet by Airena Inc.

So, for the past three months, my assistant Katie Boehret and I have been testing two Web-based organizer programs to see which one would replace Lotus. We tested a free organizer called AirSet by Airena Inc., as well as a $39.95 per year (after a free two-month trial) program called Trumba OneCalendar by Trumba Corp.

Each company set us up with our own password-protected calendars, and we quickly learned a few things. Because of the Internet’s nature, we had to adjust to waiting a bit for Web pages to load before performing tasks such as viewing future months or dates to add appointments. The Web also prevented us from simply dragging and dropping appointments from one calendar square to another, like we did in Lotus. And of course, when the Internet isn’t available, neither is my schedule.

Trumba is primarily a calendar, while AirSet is a broader service that includes a rich address book, automatic map links to meeting locations and a coming program that will work with mobile phones to access and update your calendar.

But we focused on the calendar features in each, as calendars are the most heavily used feature in most people’s computer organizers. We didn’t pick a winner because tastes in calendars can vary with work style. For us Trumba was better and easier, but for you, it might be AirSet. Both work well.

If you’re hoping to transfer your currently used calendar over to either of these, both programs will automatically synchronize with Microsoft Outlook, and AirSet also syncs with Palm Desktop. But any other type of calendar can only be moved using a special file format and it won’t synchronize perfectly.

Both programs also allow you to “publish,” or share, your calendar with other people, using different colors to represent each colleague or family member. And each allows you to “subscribe” to other people’s calendars, or to public calendars, like sports team or school schedules. The dates on such calendars are added to your own, and can be turned on or off.

Trumba OneCalendar by Trumba Corp.
Trumba OneCalendar by Trumba Corp.

The two programs are similar in many ways, but a few differences stood out to us. For one thing, we liked the overall look of Trumba better than AirSet. Its colors and the Web-page design are simple and attractive.

We also noticed a few small organizational distinctions. For example, my calendar’s appointments are organized by times (12 p.m. lunch with rock star, 2 p.m. meeting with tech legend) while some people and families have weekly activities and don’t need to know times — just that the activity falls on a certain day. Trumba lists an appointment or activity’s time first, while AirSet may list the time or activity first (Soccer Practice 2 p.m., Piano 4 p.m.) depending on how much data you enter in an appointment. We prefer Trumba’s method, but this is a personal inclination.

I started off with AirSet, quickly setting up a group named Walt’s Office. Groups help you distinguish schedules — such as personal and professional — from one another. Each group is labeled with a different color; AirSet automatically assigns colors to groups while Trumba lets you pick each group’s representative color from 24 shades.

I gave Katie permission to view and change the content in my AirSet calendar, and both she and I were able to view these changes, as long as we refreshed the page on each of our computers. Tabs labeled with your group names run across the top of AirSet, and you can easily switch from one group to another by clicking on each tab. One condensed tab shows you all of the groups’ activities in one calendar.

We entered the Subject, Location and Address into our AirSet appointments after selecting a “New” link in the appropriate date box. When we entered specific address information, a “Map It” link appeared beside the address and we could click on it to be directed to Google Maps and a geographical view of the meeting spot. This feature would probably be handy for professionals who drive to new meetings often rather than parents who are more familiar with neighborhoods and locations for activities.

Next month, AirSet will offer another attractive feature for small businesses — Mobile AirSet. This is a miniversion of the program that will sync data from your cellphone to the Web site and vice versa using your cellphone’s Internet service. We tested this using a demonstration phone from the company, and calendar events were pretty simple to open and change by pressing a few buttons on the phone. This service from AirSet will cost about five dollars per month.

AirSet imports contacts from Microsoft Outlook or Palm Desktop, including names, phone number, Web sites and emails. Trumba, on the other hand, only lets you import lists of email addresses.

Trumba’s groups run down the left-hand side of your calendar in list format, labeled “Your Primary Calendar,” “Shared With You,” “Emailed to You” and “Subscribed To.” Katie accesses four Trumba calendars daily: my office calendar, her personal calendar, my personal calendar and a free public calendar that she subscribes to called U.S. Holidays.

A small box aside each calendar name can be check-marked when you want to view that group’s activities — if you’re given permission — merged with your own calendar. This means you can view a variety of combinations of groups rather than just all of the groups’ appointments at once.

Reminder emails for appointments can be set up on both programs, which we did easily. AirSet emailed us daily reminders of the next day’s schedule every evening at the same time. Currently, AirSet and Trumba offer to send free reminders to your cellphone using text messaging, and AirSet can also send free daily schedule summaries using the same method.

If you want to publish all or just one of your Trumba calendars on the Web, so others can view them, you can do so using a five-step publishing wizard. Katie and I each did this very easily in just a few minutes, making sure to keep my calendar password-protected as we published it online. Publishing might come in handy for sports teams, clubs or work-related appointments — allowing everyone to view and/or subscribe to your calendar’s Web page.

AirSet’s Web-publishing process is more complicated for the average user, including instructions on how to cut and paste HTML code to give you — and anyone you give permission — access to your calendar on the Web.

Whether you’re more tech savvy and like some of AirSet’s richer features or you just like the straightforward approach of Trumba OneCalendar, you’ll almost certainly find it advantageous to keep various schedules and calendars organized together in one easy-to-access Web-based calendar. Both programs are free to start, so it might be worthwhile to schedule some time for testing these two organizers.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

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