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Technology

Calendars, online and on paper

Last Updated April 20, 2006

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On one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the ship's chief engineer, Geordi La Forge, is faced with a dilemma. The Enterprise has gotten itself stuck in an asteroid field studded with mines that are draining the ship's power and converting it into radiation. The crew will be dead in three hours if they can't get out.

La Forge decides there are two options to getting out of the booby trap. They can turn control of the Enterprise over to the computer, which will attempt to manoeuvre the ship around the asteroids and get out as fast as it can, before the radiation kills them all. Or they can turn off all the ship's systems – engines, computers and all – and let Capt. Jean-Luc Picard slowly pilot the Enterprise out of the minefield with a couple of the ship's thrusters.

Of course, they go with Picard.

People with busy lives are facing a similar dilemma when it comes to organizing their schedules: put their trust completely into technology – computer programs, online services and mobile devices – or shut it all off, keep it simple and write it down on paper.

Last week's launch of Google Calendar may push a few more people into the former camp.

Online calendars are nothing new. Both Yahoo and Microsoft have included calendars in their suites of online services for years. All of the services offer e-mail reminders of upcoming events, appointments and other basic features. Yahoo offers a program to sync its calendars with PDAs and desktop programs.

Google is a late-comer to the calendar business, as it was to e-mail when it launched Gmail, but it's offering features and a level of usability that sets it apart from the competition.

Google's calendar, like Gmail, is built on a collection of web technologies called Ajax. This allows you to click on the calendar to create an appointment, click and drag it to a new time, stretch it so that it lasts two hours instead of one and then delete it, all without your web browser reloading the page. The program's Quick Add bar allows you create an event by typing something like "Interview with Clive 3:30 p.m. Friday." Creating an appointment is intuitive and very fast. The difference between clicking a block of time and fiddling with a dozen pull-down menus is huge.

Because it uses Ajax, the service works best with Internet Explorer 6 and higher and Mozilla Firefox 1.07 and higher. Other browsers have trouble displaying the calendar properly.

Unlike its competitors, Google Calendar allows you to keep several calendars at once, each with its own custom colour. You could have work appointments in blue, spinning classes in red, dates in orange.

Calendar sharing is more sophisticated with Google's service than the others. You can subscribe to any number of public calendars – each, again, in its own colour – including Google's own selection of national and religious holiday calendars. (Hey, Google! You forgot Victoria Day.)

You can share your calendar publicly or only with specific people. And, if you don't really care when your mom's bowling this week, you can hide a specific calendar without removing it from your list.

You can import and export calendar information using formats used by Yahoo Calendar, Microsoft Outlook and Apple's iCal. The service doesn't offering syncing with PDAs yet, but Google has released the calendar's API (application programming interface) to the public, so it's only a matter of time before some enterprising geek writes a program to do it. (Someone has already written one to sync with an iPod, of all things.)

It's slick and shiny and everything, but what if you're away from your computer and your PDA is dead? Or you're stuck in an airport for two hours and don't want to pay 10 bucks at an internet cafe? Or you're lost in the jungle and can't remember when your next judo class is?

To some people, the technological solutions for keeping track of dates and appointments are too complicated and too unreliable. For them, just writing it all down in a pocket calendar makes more sense. It's light and compact, its battery won't die, and adding a new appointment is as easy as writing it down.

Some people reject the portable computer concept entirely, instead opting for the paper version, the Hipster PDA. It's a stack of 3" by 5" cards held together with a binder clip. Its proponents say it's cheap, customizable, useful and a lot less likely to be stolen than the latest technological doodad.

A calendar on paper, of course, can't be shared with other people such that they'll see updates to your schedule as soon as you make them. Searching for a specific appointment involves a lot of flipping. Adding a regular appointment, like that weekly judo class, involves writing it down 52 times. And unless you're obsessive about copying, your data isn't backed up anywhere.

Of course, it's possible to have the best of both worlds. You can keep track of your schedule using an online service and, at the start of your day, print off that day's appointments, fold the paper twice, and stick it in the back of your Hipster PDA. If you're stuck away from a computer, at least that day's events are in your pocket.

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