Tech executives: Time is of the essence

Executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, IBM and other companies gather to talk about the next killer app: calendaring.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Busy? A slew of technologists want to help you manage your time, by overhauling the wall calendar.

That's the impression here at When 2.0, a one-day conference where executives from Microsoft, Yahoo, IBM and Google, as well as a cadre of upstarts, have been discussing what could be the next, albeit somewhat surprising, killer app: calendaring.

In other words, the confab's list of priorities includes helping you remember your child's soccer match along with the five scheduled meetings you're trying to make.

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"Time management is undergoing a major shift from a paper-based world to an electronic one--not unlike (the transition to) e-mail over the last 12 years," Hans Bjordahl, program manager for Microsoft Outlook, said during an early panel, calling himself the company's "calendar guy."

"There's a huge opportunity to be part of that shift," Bjordahl said.

To be sure, digital calendars have existed for years. In the late 1990s, Microsoft Outlook introduced the basic calendar that exists today in the popular Windows e-mail program; and Yahoo runs a sophisticated online service on its network. But admittedly, Microsoft and other providers have not made vast improvements to digital calendars, instead focusing in recent years on bolstering e-mail, the No. 1 application on the Net.

But by Bjordahl's and others' accounts, that's changing. And innovation is bubbling up from the major portals and software companies to prove it. For example, Microsoft plans a major calendar upgrade for its Outlook 12 release in 2006; Yahoo bought event-aggregation site Upcoming.org last month; and Google is expected to introduce an online calendar sometime soon. IBM's Almaden Research Lab is also developing a sophisticated contact-event-networking program.

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Meanwhile, the portals have competition, if not potential acquisition targets, in the form of emerging upstarts.

What's the opportunity, given that typical offices have a networked calendar that lets employees share schedules, plan group events and schedule reminders? Executives say there are several--along with challenges such as forming standard protocols.

Consumers, for example, don't yet have an efficient means of sharing and syncing a family calendar with a work calendar, or of maintaining privacy controls over who sees what event. Transporting information from one calendar to a mobile phone or PDA, or even another PC, can also be difficult. Graphical interfaces can be restrictive on a phone, for instance.

Another frontier will be to add wiki functionality to services for organizing group events, Yahoo executive Raymie Stata said during one panel discussion.

Improving work productivity and collaboration will also be paramount. Microsoft's Pavel Curtis, for example, founder of PlaceWare, a group-conferencing software company acquired by the giant about three years ago, discussed his work on new productivity tools. The products are intended to let a group of co-workers more easily coordinate edits on Word documents, presentations or project schedules.

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