Anyone who has planned a party before knows that one of the hardest parts is making a cool invite and sorting through your contacts to figure out who's coming. A new party collaboration tool called MyPunchbowl launched this morning, aimed at making invitation creation and guest lists a little bit easier. It has Google Maps and directory services built in to help your guests find the party, and to help you find local stores to buy streamers, pirate hats, and silly string to your heart's content. Most important, it's just easier to use than Evite, the most popular Internet event invitation service.
Designing a MyPunchbowl invitation is easy. You're given two options for a new party, a save-the-date or a full-on invitation. A save-the-date is a little simpler, with a short message and a list of e-mail contacts. What's really cool here is that if you want to add a picture to the event, there's some simple Flickr integration that lets you search all of Flickr's pictures to find one that matches what you're looking for. If that doesn't do it for you, you can simply upload one from your PC. In most cases, you're able to find a really great picture very quickly. There is however a lack of invitation skinning, which is something competitor Evite does a really good job of. I asked my girlfriend what she likes about Evite when she was looking at one last weekend, and above all else she told me it was seeing what theme people had chosen for their designs. Hopefully users of MyPunchbowl will be given some more extensive design options later on in the life of the service.
There's some neat Google Maps integration within MyPunchbowl. After adding your address to the invitation, a small map shows up under the event info, telling guests where the event is and offering driving directions. MyPunchbowl also has some basic party supplies functionality built in, letting you quickly search for party supply stores near your zip code, both locally owned and big retail chains.
Actually inviting people to your event is made easy using Plaxo, the online service that lets you pull your contacts from a variety of e-mail and chat platforms. If you've never used Plaxo before, it's ridiculously easy, and not having to leave the MyPunchbowl site to add people from two or three different accounts is just great. What's also nice is that you can choose on an individual basis whether or not you want certain people to RSVP to your event, which means if you know for sure that certain people will be going, both parties need not worry about an additional e-mail exchange. You also have the ability to send personalized messages to each of the people you're inviting, which makes your invite less spammy and more like a real invitation.
Strangely enough, there's no way for other guests to see the guest list and who is or isn't coming. MyPunchbowl owner Matt Douglas told me it was intentional, leaving any potentially embarrassing low attendance or guest cancellations out of the public eye. Obviously the system is designed to protect the host, but what about the guests? What if the host has invited people I don't want to hang out with, and more importantly, what if one (or more) of my socially awkward ex-girlfriends is going to be there? I might want to know about these things before I show up.
When everything is over and done with, MyPunchbowl has a section devoted to the after party, so attendees can add photos of the event into one central area. There's one hitch, though; you can add only Flickr photo sets, which means any of your guests who don't use Flickr can't share their photos with everyone else. One work-around in the meantime is posting where your photos are on the guest message boards, as each event you create on MyPunchbowl gets its own message board. Ideally MyPunchbowl can come up with something similar to Plaxo but for pictures, where users of rival services such as Yahoo Photos, Fotki, and Webshots can add their photo sets as well.
MyPunchbowl is a nice little service. It's easy to use, and the invitations you can make are simple and easy to understand. What it lacks in themes it makes up for in tying several handy Web services together in a way that makes sense for both host and guests. In comparison to a competitor like Evite, its simple interface is much easier to deal with and, I'd bet, a lot less daunting for non-Internet-savvy people to get the hang of. I'm still not sold on the hiding of the guest list, though. To me it seems like a crucial element, and it will be interesting to see whether people are willing to put up with that in the long run.