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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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Video: Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie
When 2.0 conference at Stanford

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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.

The central theme of the When 2.0 conference is time, and how it relates to different services and applications. In one extrapolation of this, Mitch Kapor, president and chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation, talked about "stamping" tasks or events, or annotating them with meaning in time, with a beginning and end, a structure and notes. Without giving much more detail, he said this functionality will be part of an upcoming version of an open-source personal identify manager code-named Chandler. Chandler integrates calendar, e-mail, contact management, task management, notes and IM.

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Video: Not just calendars anymore
At When 2.0, a discussion about developing software that can help people manage their time.

"This will be experimental at first...No one has figured out a great way to do this," Kapor said during an early panel called "Schedules and Calendars."

Microsoft's chief technical officer, Ray Ozzie, said he spends most of his day managing and juggling things. The home calendar, he said, is a "convenient place to communicate with my wife" and maintain a work schedule, which he prints out before the beginning of each day. "I jot notes down on that paper about meetings during the day," he said, having to write them down again later.

Microsoft, Bjordahl said in a later interview, has made a "significant investment" in its calendar program for the next release of Outlook, which is version 12 and is scheduled for late 2006. Since Outlook's first release in the late 1990s, its calendar component has largely been neglected in favor of improvements to e-mail, he said. But the coming version, which is available in beta release, will include a "cleaner, frictionless" user interface design and improved support for the industry de facto standard Internet Calendar Protocol, with bolstered sharing capabilities.

While major companies like Microsoft are making improvements, several upstarts are trying to capture the opportunity. Here's a look at some players.

• Renkoo. One of the hot names at the conference, the 9-month-old Silicon Valley company hasn't launched its product yet, but it showcased a Web site that CEO Adam Rifkin said it plans to launch early next year. Renkoo is a quasi-lightweight version of Evite, the event site, but rather than specializing in large groups or set events, the site will let people schedule and plan events with a small group of friends, e.g., a dinner out, an afternoon movie or a beer after work with friends. Visitors can create a small profile, query friends about a proposed gathering and negotiate the details with them over the Web, e-mail or a mobile phone via SMS (short message service). The company plans to make money by advertising.

• Zvents. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Zvents, which launched in October, is capitalizing on the absence of a powerful event search engine on the Internet. (It even demonstrated its search engine to Google executives attending the conference.)

The upstart lets people search for thousands of events by location, time and theme. People can view the results in the form of a map, a list or a calendar; and then save events to a personal calendar or export it by RSS (really simple syndication). Then visitors can view the monthly or daily events of their social contacts, or by social filter. That way, a user could presumably meet up with a friend or family member easily. Finally, the site is designed to make it easy for people to embed a social or specific event calendar (like that of a baseball team) into a blog. The free service collects fees from event organizers or local advertisers.

• Trumba. A Seattle-based software upstart, Trumba showed off its event-publishing tools at the event, as well as trumpeting a partnership with newspaper company Knight Ridder. The company develops and sells tools to publishers like Knight Ridder and Tribune Company (a pilot tester), and those tools let the sites aggregate and display information on local events. Visitors can add new events, save and export events to a personal calendar, share a scheduled calendar with friends and e-mail events to friends.

Still, some attendees were uncertain of the market opportunity.

"I'm surprised that there's so many people here doing the same thing, but it makes me wonder whether it is such a pain-point as everyone says," said one attendee. "Outlook works pretty well for me, and families work well with paper (calendars)."