I spend a lot of time looking at free stuff on the World Wide Web. While there is a lot that's useful, all too often I am reminded that in this life, you generally get what you pay for. That, I'm afraid, is the case with free personal-calendar services that are cropping up on the Web at popular portal sites.
The idea sounds good. The sites give you a basic personal-information manager for free, plus access to local movie showtimes, cultural and sports events, TV schedules, and other goings-on. You can pick up an event or a whole category of events--like a favorite team's schedule--and drop the information right into your personal calendar. Furthermore, you can get to your personal data from any computer with Web access.
ON TRIAL. I checked out two products, Day-Timer Digital (www. digital.daytimer.com), from a leading publisher of paper planners, and when.com (www. when.com) from startup When Inc. A third, AnyDay.com (www.anyday.com), is still in testing, and not enough of its features were working for a fair assessment.
Unfortunately, the execution of these calendars falls short of the potential. For one thing, like all Web-based applications, they are painfully slow compared with even so sluggish a desktop information manager as Microsoft Outlook.
Subscribers should also understand how these services work as businesses. The free calendars, of course, produce no revenues, and the banner ads don't generate much. The goal is to tell you about a play or basketball game and deliver you, for a fee, to an online ticket vendor or remind you of an anniversary and sell you flowers or an E-mail greeting card. The sites promise not to sell your personal information and subscribe to the TRUSTe privacy-auditing service. Still, I would be quite leery about putting sensitive personal or business information in any online calendar.
When.com has a slick design. Its basic display gives you a view of your daily calendar and, on the right side of the screen, a list of events from categories that you have selected. A click adds the event to your calendar or gives you more information about it, often including a link to an online vendor. A simple form allows you to put your personal appointments on the calendar.
Day-Timer Digital is proof that tremendous expertise in the world of paper may not do you much good in cyberspace. Linking your personal calendar to public events is far harder than on When's site, and the listings of events are far less complete. A search for opera in Washington failed to produce any listing, including a performance I had tickets for.
Worse, Day-Timer offers really awkward navigation. It is even slower than When, and attempting to move from one calendar day to another often produces incomprehensible error messages. Unlike When, Day-Timer does not save log-in information, so you must log in manually every time you use it.
These products will improve with time. Features under development for all the sites include the ability to print out calendar pages in the formats used by Day-Timer and other paper planners. Another feature-in-waiting is a facility that will allow you to synchronize your online calendar with either standard desktop information managers or handheld devices such as 3Com's Palms.
Online calendars are very attractive to Web portals, such as Yahoo! or Lycos, whose business model requires that visitors be kept on the site as long as possible. So portal operators are quickly lining up deals with calendar services. But in their current state, the value of these free online calendars to consumers strikes me as dubious.