Let's take a meeting. Somewhere. Most of us hate going to meetings, and the promise of the Internet is that you can meet virtually in a chat room or using desktop video conferencing. But first you have to figure out a common time when to meet.
There are a variety of services available to help; most that use a Web browser and many are free or inexpensive. But there are different situations because not every meeting is held under the same circumstances.
The first situation is to synchronize your desktop calendar with something that is visible online so that others can see where you might be at a given time, or if you have an assistant or co-workers that want to track you down. These tools differ on whether they work with Mac or Windows, support Outlook/Exchange calendars, and have mobile versions that work with iPhones, Blackberries and Android phones. Some of them will only work with particular desktop operating systems versions, so it pays to check the fine print.
- Google Calendar can sync with Outlook, iCal and a number of mobile devices
- Yahoo Calendar is somewhat dated (there is no Outlook sync, for example, but you can sync with iCal)
- NuevaSync.com, offers a wide array of sync devices for two plans, $15 and $30/yr
- Calgoo.com's Connect allows you to synchronize multiple calendars across Windows, Mac and online services. (pictured below)
- Apple's MobileMe works just for Macs and iOS devices for $100/year that includes file storage and some other services
- SugarSync is more than just calendar sync and can share files with your mobile devices. There are a variety of monthly plans starting at $5.
- BusyMac's BusySynch another Mac product for $50
- SpanningSync.com also can synchronize Apple's iCal calendars with Google Calendar.
- Tungle.me was acquired earlier this year by Research In Motion, and has perhaps the widest synch support - Google Calendar, Outlook, Apple iCal, Entourage for Mac, Lotus Notes, Windows Live, Yahoo! and connects to major social networks including Facebook, Plancast, TripIt, LinkedIn and Twitter.
But these synch services don't always work correctly. Part of the problem is that most online calendar and scheduling products make use of email for notification of events and invitations, and it is difficult for different calendar programs to recognize or act on these emails in any consistent fashion. Or you get an email from the calendar program with an embedded URL that could be blocked by your corporate anti-spam service.
Another example is where two people are on two different Microsoft Exchange servers to try to schedule a common meeting. It is possible to hook up both Exchange calendars so that they are synchronized to the same Google Calendar account, but it can be tricky. One potential solution to this issue is to make use of Cemaphore's MailShadow to synchronize the Exchange servers with Google Calendar. The software costs $60 per email account per year.
What about the scenario where you want your clients or others not employed by your company to book your time directly? In the long-ago past, we had appointment secretaries who would be in charge of the boss' calendar and make appointments with pencil and paper. Google Calendar recently introduced this feature, calling it "appointment slots" and here is an explanation of how to use it, it is somewhat convoluted.
If you want to use a different service that just does this, there are a number of self- service Web sites available such as BookFresh and TimeTrade. They will display workers free and busy times and what remaining time "inventory" is available for appointments. They send out email notifications and don't require any special software beyond a Web browser to confirm the appointment. And you can easily adjust the schedule when you are going out of town or are unavailable. Both of these services are available for minimal cost: TimeTrade has a free 30-day trial and $50 a year thereafter and enterprise plans for workgroups available as well. BookFresh.com has three different plans, including a free one that allows three monthly bookings
Setmeeting.com from Meeting Agent and doodle.com are useful here. A meeting organizer can send out an email notification with a series of possible open times, and ask each participant to check off which of these times they are available. If you have ever tried to organize these kinds of meetings, you know you quickly get buried in a bunch of emails.How about another situation, where you want to arrange a common meeting time for a group of people that are coming from different companies? The free services
For SetMeeting.com, its biggest weakness is that once you initiate the process you can't change the meeting location without canceling and starting from scratch. Here you see a screenshot showing the initial setup screen where you enter your meeting information.
Doodle.com has less sophistication and fewer features, and is really more of a polling device to help you find a common time. But that may be attractive if that is all you are trying to do.
ServeMeHere.com is another service that is more of a professional referral community. You set up a free listing and then clients can book time on your calendar.
An alternative to these products is where you have a large number of shift workers or volunteers that you want to coordinate their available times. While not really a meeting scheduler, this can be a time-consuming effort if done manually, or using a lot of back-and-forth emails. The paid services Shiftboard.com and ScheduleFly.com are designed for this purpose. The former was originally constructed for the healthcare market while the later was developed for restaurant workers. ScheduleFly starts at $20 a month for up to 19 users while Shiftboard starts at $50 a month for five unique logins. The fees go up for handling larger groups. ScheduleFly has a Facebook plug-in, so you can work with your network of "friends," shown in the screenshot above.
A rather unique service is that offered by the Web site Tripit.com. The idea behind the site is for you to post your travel arrangements and use its social networking features to tell your network of friends and associates when your travels will take you to them, or they to your neck of the woods. Of course, this means sending out those annoying invitations to yet another social network and to get as many people as possible (or at least the ones that you want to see face-to-face) to join your Tripit network. But once you have your network of friends, it is relatively easy to notify them: you just send the email confirmation from your airline or hotel reservation to the special address email@example.com and the site will automatically parse the information in the confirmation email, figure out who is traveling and post your travel plans to your network. But the good news is that the service is free, and it can be integrated with your LinkedIn network so you don't have to start from scratch with assembling your network.
As you can see, there are a myriad of services to help your schedule and coordinate your meetings more effectively. Now if someone could develop a service that could notify everyone that you are running ten minutes late for your appointments!