Friday, April 21, 2006

Peter Griffin: Google comes up with an organiser for the disorganised

They arrive with the minimum of fuss but end up having maximum impact. They're new free products from that ingenious internet company Google, and its latest gem is aimed squarely at bumbling, disorganised fools like me.

Electronic and internet-based calendars are nothing new. Internet provider and Google rival Yahoo has been in the game since 1998 and has millions of users.

Microsoft's Outlook calendar, which is packaged with every copy of Windows, also organises the lives of millions of computer users. But both have passed me by. I've even got a Pocket PC handheld computer with Outlook on it. There's nothing to stop me syncing the little gadget with my computer to transfer all my calendar entries and have them at my fingertips. I never do it.

After four years of tinkering around the edges of the Herald's elaborate IBM Lotus Notes calendar, I finally admitted that I was never going to use the thing properly and went back to shuffling bits of paper.

I'm the sort of person who starts out with good intentions, making diary entries, setting electronic reminders, referring to my neat little schedule, then giving up after a week.

I get the feeling it's going to be a different story with Google Calendar (See link below). It helps that I'm already a consummate user of Gmail, Google's free webmail service, and therefore can easily access the Calendar with the same password.

But there's a user-friendliness and richness of design about Google Calendar that makes it appealing to those of us less predisposed to spend time and energy organising our lives.

Part of it is the quick-loading and flexible design of Google Calendar, which, like the rest of the company's applications, is built on AJAX, a mix of Java and XML programming languages.

The design is simple, easy to use and surprisingly intelligent. You can view your calendar by day, week, month, the next four days and also as a useful agenda, which can be printed off.

You can drag and drop calendar entries and quickly modify the information. Running your mouse pointer over the entries brings up a speech bubble outlining all the details.

Google is playing smart and knows that, in taking on Yahoo, it is engaging the web calendar king. The company is allowing its calendar events to be shared with those on Yahoo and Outlook, and Apple's iCal entries can also be integrated.

In the end, Google's offering has a number of great features that won me over. The first is a natural language feature that identifies appointments from simple sentences and embeds them in your calendar.

For a quick calendar entry you might jot down: "Birthday dinner at Tony's, 7.30pm." The calendar seizes on the time given and puts the entry in at 7.30pm. It's easy and quick.

While you can build your own calendar for years out, RSS (really simple syndication) feeds give you access to other, publicly available calendars. Accessing calendars relevant to New Zealand, I was able to automatically enter public holidays and the dates and locations of conferences, film festivals, World Rally Championship events and All Black games for later in the year.

For other Google Calendar users, the invite you send out can automatically appear on their calendar. You can also share your calendar with friends and workmates. Businesses already do this with Outlook, but Google Calendar makes it easier for the user to do this less formally with friends.

You can throw open your diary for friends to peek at, or just divulge the free gaps in your schedule. I can see small businesses using this as a quick, cheap way to co-ordinate schedules.

But Google Calendar's greatest feature is its integration with Gmail. It searches the Gmail inbox for references to dates and events and asks users if they want them entered automatically.

This is hugely useful for me. I use the search function of Gmail to retrieve all sorts of information from the clutter of my inbox, including flight and appointment times and important dates.

If you're a Gmail user, don't expect to find the Google Calendar function integrated straight away. It seems Google is staggering the launch of the service, starting with its key demographic - North America.

It may take a few days before your Gmail account displays Google Calendar related features, Google explains on its website.

Once Gmail can integrate those key dates into my calendar, it will seem as if I have a personal assistant working for me. Maybe someone at Google could start clearing my email for me.

Cynical observers, of course, would point out that Google already does read my email for the purposes of finding key words to generate advertising tailored to my interests. I'm okay with that, as long as my personal information isn't passed on to advertisers or governments. Google has taken a laudable stand to avoid divulging information to the latter.

Still, things like Google Calender also integrate our lives even further with the company.

I'm more comfortable with that since Google listed on the stock market. In many ways it's more accountable now and also more susceptible to the scandal that wholesale security breaches would generate. Imagine the hit the share price would take if it was discovered Google was spying on us for reasons other than to sell advertising.

Maybe Microsoft will come up with something better for organising my life when its new operating system Vista finally appears. In the meantime, you'll find me Googling.

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