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A Free Web Service Helps in Scheduling Peripatetic Colleagues
ScheduleOnline.com's calendar caters to small businesses on a limited budget

Telecommuting, remote offices. All great ideas until you, the time-pressed entrepreneur, try to plan a meeting. Good luck finding everyone. If you don't have an intranet with scheduling software -- or an assistant who's adept at herding cats -- here's a free alternative: www.ScheduleOnline.com. Created by Jintek LLC, a software company in San Diego, this personal and group scheduler lets you plan meetings, determine where they'll be held, and book other office resources day-by-day, a year or more in advance. The site even adjusts event times for colleagues in other time zones. An added convenience: ScheduleOnline.com automatically informs you if there is a scheduling conflict -- for example, if another staffer will be out at a certain time or a conference room is booked.

The site, which went live in January and currently has 3,000 users, is designed to save time for small- and medium-size businesses, says Hans Hartman, vice-president for sales and marketing at Jintek. He claims his free service is as good as scheduling products that can cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the number of people who use them.

Why is Jintek giving the service away? Hartman says he hopes to draw paying customers to a customized product down the line. Meanwhile, he's depending on ad revenues to cover costs.

Sure, there are other free office-calendar sites on the Web, such as When.com and Visto. But those didn't appear to lend themselves as much to group use as ScheduleOnline.com. For example, they don't alert users to schedule conflicts.

Here's how ScheduleOnline.com works: When you first use the program, someone must enter all your company's departments, users' names and E-mail addresses, and office resources -- such as space and equipment. Everyone gets a password to access the site.

Once your basic data is in the system, you call up a personal calendar for a given day. To schedule a meeting with colleagues, click on the "meetings" icon. A form pops up listing the departments and people in your organization. It then asks you to enter what time your meeting will start and end, on what day, who will attend, and what office resources you'll need. Then click on the "create" button, and the program automatically checks the availability of the people and resources you listed. If there are no conflicts, you click on another button to automatically E-mail all the attendees the time and place of your meeting.

If there are conflicts, you get a message back with the details. You can revise the time or resource request. You can also set yourself an E-mail reminder that pops up 10 minutes before the meeting.

REMOTE SCHEDULING. One user seems happy. Mark Barlow, vice-president for information systems and a founder of Trader Publications, a publisher of 13 weekly trade magazines in San Diego, says ScheduleOnline.com has become indispensable. He has 25 technical people for his 120-person company. Before he began using ScheduleOnline.com, he and his staff kept track of meetings on a blackboard. "That was not efficient. It was too easy to forget to mark it down," he says. Barlow is also on the road a good deal, which makes it difficult to plan meetings with him. Now, he says, he can check schedules from anywhere in the country. "This is the easiest way for them to continue working without my being there all the time," Barlow says.

Of course, ScheduleOnline.com requires that all your staffers update their schedules at least daily. "If only half the people fill in their schedules, you are going to invite a lot of people you think are available. And then in reality, they have something else going on," Hartman says.

What will you forfeit by using this program? After all, it's publisher is offering for free what other companies charge for. There are subscription sites that allow file sharing, project managing, and online scheduling (see "Can't Afford Your Own Intranet? Rent One," Business Week's Frontier Online Mar. 1, 1999). Still, Hartman insists his product can stand up to any on the market. Of course, scheduling is only a small piece of such time- and project-management systems as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, which require a networked computer system. Lotus Development Corp. of Cambridge, Mass. says free products like ScheduleOnline are far more elementary in their capabilities than its software, which works on a company's internal server. Lotus also says that its security features afford better protection than free Web services do.

Some entrepreneurs may also be uncomfortable posting private office information on an external server, even if each company's material is password-protected. Hartman assures that the site is secure. Another drawback to Internet scheduling systems: A slow modem may make updating calendars a headache. On the other hand, the price is definitely right.

By Jeremy Quittner in New York
jeremy_quittner@businessweek.com

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