Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Getting Families Synched up

Families everywhere are constantly searching for better ways to coordinate their schedules, and many have looked to technology for help. While emails and text messages are useful, parents are hard pressed to find a simple, efficient digital replacement for Post-It notes and wall calendars.

Numerous companies have tried to design computers made specifically for the kitchen, with hopes of becoming the best digital hub. The latest of these, the H-P TouchSmart PC from Hewlett-Packard Co., boasts a beautiful touch screen for quick access, but is expensive and enormous. Even worse, the TouchSmart’s calendar software program is limited and unintuitive.

This week I tested Cozi Central (www.cozi.com), a free, downloadable calendaring program from Cozi Group Inc. that works on most Windows PCs, not just expensive new computers that hog kitchen-counter space. Cozi offers a built-in family messaging system, and shopping or to-do lists that the whole family can edit. Starting today, Cozi also automatically synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook calendars, allowing work events to be considered in the family calendar and vice versa. Plus, it can be used well beyond just the family Windows PC. It has a Web-based version, so family members can use it from a browser on any computer, anywhere — even a Macintosh. And it will send schedules and shopping lists to your cellphone via text messages or through an audible text-to-speech program.

Cozi Central organizes family activities.
Cozi Central organizes family activities.

Cozi sounds complicated because it does so much, but it’s actually pretty simple. It was designed specifically with its audience in mind: busy moms and dads who will quickly revert to the paper calendar if a program is too complicated or time-consuming.

Cozi Central impressed me with its functionality and attractive overall look. It incorporates various ways to connect families with their calendars at home and on the go, and every screen is clean and uncluttered. It could stand to improve in three areas: adding notifications of changes made by other family members; allowing response messaging from family members to Cozi (now, messages can only be sent out from within Cozi); and improving the way an entire month’s schedule looks on-screen. But Cozi’s attributes are overwhelming enough for you to want to use it with your family.

I used Cozi in both of its formats: as a downloaded program on my Windows PC and as a Web-based program. Both coordinate and sync with one another, Web access provided. The PC-based version of Cozi Central has a few extra features, including the ability to show a month view and to automatically generate photo collages.

After downloading and registering the names of two main users and up to six additional users for the calendar, I named my calendar and created a password. This password can be shared with family members (or whomever will also use the calendar). Nothing in Cozi is private. I also installed Cozi’s new Outlook toolbar, which syncs your Outlook calendar with your Cozi calendar. The first sync took about 10 minutes, but thereafter, synching was quick, under a minute each time something changed on either calendar.

Cozi Central’s main page is appropriately called Home, and it reminded me of a bulletin board with four things tacked on a solid-color background. In the top left, a photo of your choosing is displayed. The top right shows a brief view of your family’s calendar over the next few days. The bottom right shows one of your lists (such as groceries or to-do) and another space on the Home page lets you type and send emails or text messages to family members.

In the calendar section, the names of those registered are designated with color-coded tabs across the top of the screen. To see one person’s calendar, select his or her tab. The All view shows everyone’s events on one calendar; each person is represented by a different colored dot.

All calendar entries can be typed into a designated space at the bottom of the screen in just about any format. I typed “Bridal shower tomorrow from noon-three,” and “Bridal shower” was added to the next day on my calendar from 12-3 p.m.; specifics such as reoccurrences and locations can be added by selecting the event. This lean toward the casual allows for fast, easy entries by all family members — not just the person who uses Cozi most often.

The Cozi program that was installed on my Windows PC showed a variety of calendar views. I prefer to see an overall month view of my calendar at all times, but couldn’t see all weeks of the month simultaneously in Cozi. The more events you have per day, the less you’ll see of your month. The Web-based version of Cozi only offers a vertical view of the next few days.

For users who integrate Microsoft Outlook Calendars with Cozi, special settings can be adjusted so that hundreds of business appointments don’t start cluttering up the family calendar.

The Shopping List section on the Home bulletin board opens current lists. By default, lists called Groceries, Wholesale and Other are already set up, but new lists can easily be added. Items are simply typed in, and the PC version of Cozi uses a list of popular items to automatically finish words as you type. Items can be crossed off by selecting a check mark.

The Cozi calendar coordinates schedules.
The Cozi calendar coordinates schedules.

The message section of Cozi’s Home page sent text messages and emails to others almost instantly after I entered text and selected Send. I never had to open a separate email program or type an email address or phone number. But the recipient of these messages can’t respond; Cozi only sends outgoing messages and can’t receive replies. The company hopes to add this feature in the future.

The phone and email options that work with Cozi could be useful in a bind. If you’re away from home and need to know a schedule or grocery list, you can dial in from a Cozi-registered phone number to hear these things read aloud or sent to you via text message. You can also send text messages to Cozi to request information. Or whoever is at the computer can send this data out directly from within the Cozi program itself.

If a family member changes or adds something to Cozi, there’s no way of knowing. Cozi needs to implement some kind of notification system that gives you the option to be told of any changes.

Photo collages are started from the Cozi Home page. These immediately fill your screen with about five to seven related photos at a time, without any work on your part. Each collage lasts for about 10 seconds, by default, and typing “S” will let you send the currently displayed collage to anyone.

As of now, Cozi is free of advertisements. This summer, a series of interactive advertisements will appear alongside your calendars or lists. These ads incorporate content into your Cozi, but only if you ask for it. For example, if you create a shopping list for a certain store and an item in that store is advertised on your screen, you can click the ad to put that item in your shopping list.

Cozi just works. It looks clean, organized and uncluttered, regardless of hectic schedules. It’s also easy enough for anyone to use, and Cozi Group Inc. is constantly working to improve the program, which is a good sign. But even its smaller faults can be overlooked for usability. Cozi makes kitchen computers, or family computers anywhere in the house, more useful.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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