By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page E01
I once had a highly organized boss who kept a color-coded paper calendar. There was green for office meetings, red for Boy Scouts, black for family and blue for church.
Now the Internet is taking his idea of a color-coordinated life a step further by offering free electronic calendars that can synchronize our schedules with the rest of the rainbow--the outside world. The calendars are becoming important tools in the struggle to attract loyal audiences to commercial sites.
It's already possible, for instance, to schedule a beach vacation with relatives scattered throughout the country by peeking at their online schedules to make sure that no one has anything booked for the second week of August. This assumes, of course, that your relatives are all using the same calendar as you.
Getting the whole country organized this way is the tantalizing promise of the nearly two dozen free personal scheduling services that have sprouted on the Web this year. If they catch on--and I believe they will--they will be yet another way in which the Internet takes a central role in day-to-day life.
Web datebooks are still slow and need a common communication language to achieve their full promise, but their rapid evolution reflects how the Internet itself is taking shape.
All the leading Web "portal" sites have either purchased or licensed electronic calendars. In the past six weeks, Microsoft Corp. announced it will buy Jump.com, America Online Inc. acquired When.com, and various special-interest Web sites licensed their own calendars from smaller companies. Yahoo bought a calendar last year, as did Amazon.com.
For now, the Web calendars are lightweight versions of the all-in-one scheduling, e-mail and address-book software that you often find on desktop computers. But in the long run they may be more useful, for several reasons. One is accessibility: Because they store information online, not on your computer, you can reach your data from any computer with Internet access.
An even bigger advantage, though, may be that while paper calendars are inherently disconnected from everything, Web calendars are communal, plugged in, wired to the world.
Web datebooks are starting to offer point-and-click access to event databases--movies, trade shows and lectures, as well as to the schedules of friends and colleagues.
When.com, for example, is integrated into AOL's Netscape portal, where its calendars are tied not only to each person's e-mail and contact lists, but to thousands of public events such as initial public stock offerings.
That is the true power of the Web: its ability to connect people and information so swiftly.
As with many Web visions, we've heard this one before. The online city guides that sprang up in the mid-1990s often offered online calendars. But for the most part, the guides failed to gather enough event listings or users to make their calendars worthwhile.
Now we have portals that millions of people visit daily and that are overflowing with listings. Still, the question mark looming over their calendars is whether people will be willing to enter personal information and take the time to share schedules. Industry consultant International Data Corp. predicts they will, to the tune of 22 million calendar users by the end of next year.
It will not be easy to keep the calendars simple while plugging them into the many other databases the portals are adding. But ultimately, those tie-ins will be the key to the portals' strategies to become the Grand Central Stations of our lives. Their ultimate goal may be to sell advertising and event tickets, but first they must make the calendars truly useful.
Richard A. Rasansky, founder of Philadelphia- based eCal Corp., saw how useful they could be several years ago when he was trying to schedule meetings for a big computer show in the United States. He found it required an annoying number of telephone calls and e-mails because the participants lived around the world.
Rasansky envisioned a calendar that would be globally networked, unlike the desktop datebooks that at most tend to be coordinated within a single office, and could also serve as a personal assistant: "The Web calendars can go out and get information that may be of interest to you, so you don't have to search for things."
While eCal has sold its service to 10 Web sites, another start-up, MyCalendar.com, is offering to plug its calendar into any site for free in an effort to build audience and sell ads on it. Other calendars are popping on the Web weekly, such as the Washington-based Bantu.com that debuted this month with an automatic translator for six languages.
Officials at several calendar companies said consumers have not expressed much concern about the privacy or security of their schedules. I suspect that is because so far not that many people are paying attention.
Of all the portals, Yahoo has accomplished the most in integrating its calendar with e-mail, address books, instant messaging and areas where community groups can publish material.
Yahoo also offers three levels of permission that people can grant when they put up their calendars: They can make any event totally private, totally visible to everyone from anywhere on the Web, or a hybrid in which other people can see which time slots are booked but not for what purpose.
The real payoff for group calendaring will come if and when the competing companies adopt a common language so different-brand calendars can easily swap data, much as we now read one another's electronic mail even though we are using different mail programs.
A group called the Internet Engineering Task Force, made up of industry volunteers, is drafting a proposed set of calendaring standards. But as usual, Web applications are racing ahead of standards.
Let's hope the task force catches up soon. We are going to need all the organizing help we can get, I suspect, to deal with the avalanche of data that the Internet is dumping on our not-so-infinite brains.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company