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Google unveils Web-based calendar app

Free schedule keeper puts fire under rivals with ease of use, collaboration and interoperability with other programs. Video: Google wants to keep your calendar

Google on Thursday unveiled a free Web-based calendar application that is expected to heat up competition with Yahoo and Microsoft.

The beta version of Google Calendar, which can be accessed without a Gmail account, enables users to search for and add events from within the program or through Web sites that use open standards for calendars. Such sites are invited to add Google Calendar buttons next to events they list.

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Video: Google wants to keep your calendar
CNET's Elinor Mills looks at some features of Google Calendar.

Users of the new Google application can also access events from friends' shared calendars and import events from Microsoft Outlook. Once they add events, they can use a "Search My Calendars" searchbar to find them. Events can also be created by typing simple messages like "Lunch with Kate 11:30 a.m. Wednesday" in the program's "Quick Add" bar.

Taking a page from sites such as InterActiveCorp's Evite, Google also built invitation management into Google Calendar. Users can create event invitations to be sent to anyone with an e-mail account. They can also send event reminders via e-mail or cell phone text message, and keep track of RSVPs from within the program. People can see their schedules by day, week, month and four-day views, highlight any period from a monthly calendar for a customized view and display only certain events at a time on their calendar view.

The application interoperates with other calendaring programs that use Apple Computer's iCal or XML standards. In the coming months, Google Calendar will be able to synchronize with Outlook and mobile devices, Product Manager Carl Sjogreen said. The application works best with Microsoft Internet Explorer version 6 and higher, and with Firefox 1.07 and higher. Users must have JavaScript and cookies enabled, Google said.

Like it is doing with other applications, such as Google Local, the company is opening up the application programming interface so that outside developers can use it to build third-party programs that will work with Google Calendar data, Sjogreen said.

Several analysts said they were impressed with the product.

"Google, in the past six months or so, has put things out there that were good, but not the typical wow, and I think the Google Calendar has that," said Chris Sherman, executive editor of Search Engine Watch. "The interface is classic Google--clean, crisp and relatively uncluttered."

Privacy concerns should be quelled by Google Calendar's default settings, which designates all events in a person's calendar private unless the user makes them public, Sherman said. "The one down side to the program is, you have to be online when you use it," he added.

"I'm intrigued," Gartner analyst Allen Weiner said. "If it becomes successful, then it can also be the place to schedule a lot of content delivery. There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to go to your calendar and say 10 a.m. every morning, 'I would like to listen to a podcast'...and you listen to it through your calendar."

The major search and portal companies are in a race to offer the most useful Web-based applications to a growing Internet-savvy population that is increasingly moving its life off paper and onto the Web.

Microsoft is planning a major calendar upgrade for its Outlook 12 release later this year.

"The obvious competition (for Google Calendar) is Microsoft Outlook," Sherman said. "Microsoft recently purchased Groove Networks, which also has strong collaboration. Rumors are they've incorporated Groove-like features into the next version of Windows Vista. If that's true, this is kind of a pre-emptive strike."

Yahoo has said it is looking to integrate features from social-events calendaring site it acquired last year--into Yahoo Calendar, the market-leading program in the United States, according to ComScore Media Metrix. Yahoo said it plans to open up the APIs for Yahoo Calendar, which integrates with e-mail and the company's instant-messaging service.

Last month, . Rumors of the application's existence, however, have been around for at least a year.

Some Google watchers at a conference late last year, at which executives speaking on panels predicted that calendaring would be the next killer app for the Web.