The quest to get users organised has been a consistent desire of PC software firms and now a new crop of companies are using the Web to tackle the market.
Backed by buckets of venture capital these vendors are developing Web-based tools that not only check email and stock quotes, but keep track of appointments, to-do lists and business contacts.
Instead of buying packaged software, these organisers are stored at a service provider and accessed via the browser. The tools aren't yet sophisticated enough to replace their PC counterparts, but they are adequate for those who don't have a desktop personal information manager (PIM).
Today's web-linked PIMs enable users to share calendars and address books and store email addresses and URLs in contact records. These PIMs can automatically launch Web applications such as browsers and email programmes, and even import HTML page information into notes, contact records and other data objects.
Companies such as Anyday.com, Visto Briefcase, Jump (whose acquisition by Microsoft is pending), When.com and Schedule Online are among the newest players in this market.
Anyday.com, the startup venture headed by Lotus and IBM veteran John Landry, recently launched its Web-based calendaring product. Free to download, it presents users with a day calendar that takes up two-thirds of the left-hand side of the screen, with an events calendar on the right side that lets users select areas of interest such as sports games, films and business events. Anyday.com's online Dayplanner combines an integrated calendar, address book, reminder service and task manager with an event directory.
According to Landry, the product gathers up a vast array of websites into one location , allowing users to organise and manage them through a personalised interface, and to share that information with business associates and friends.
"It's this notion of extending the calendar through email and eventually through group scheduling capabilities that we think we can do in a powerful way, especially since everyone's calendar is on the same database," Landry said.
The company is also adding the ability to synchronise with various handheld systems such as 3Com's Palm Pilot and similar Windows CE devices. While Anyday.com is giving the software away, it hopes to generate revenues through advertising, sponsorships and transaction fees. Anyday.com is funded by leading Internet venture capital firms, including Softbank Technology Ventures.
A pioneer in the PIM arena, Visto, introduced its Visto Briefcase in 1997. The Visto Briefcase combines an individual's personal information, email, calendar, files, address book and bookmarks, in a secure, private place on the Web, and is accessible from any Internet device. The information can be automatically imported from the user's computer to the Briefcase, shared with colleagues, family members and friends, with any changes to the content automatically synchronised across all the computers an individual owns.
Personal content has a strong attraction for today's Internet user. According to Jupiter Communications, about 97 per cent of users send and receive email and 64 percent have created or visited a personal web page. Even when searching, people show a strong preference for personal content.
Visto offers its service free of charge with up to 15Mb of storage. The company has partnerships with Compaq to distribute a co-branded service as part of Compaq's online services initiative for small and medium sized businesses. Visto also has strategic and co-marketing partnerships with Microsoft, Traveling Software, Puma Technology and RSA, and has raised a whopping $38 million in venture capital.
Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group, said that while a slew of startups have recently emerged in this space Visto's main competitors will be the big players such as AT&T and America Online. Enderle added "the market has a lot of growing up to do."
Earlier this year, Microsoft said it would acquire Jump Networks, a Web-based calendar service provider. Jump's technology enables consumers to access their email, address books and calendars from any Internet-connected computer.
When fully integrated with the MSN network of Internet services, Jump's technology will complement MSN communication services, including the MSN Hotmail Web-based email service and MSN Web Communities.
Founded in 1998, Jump Networks developed the Web's first free, completely connected calendar, email and address book technology. Guided by the belief that interface design and task flow are key to the user experience, Jump Networks has created a Web-based product that allows users to communicate and organise the flow of information during their day without losing continuity of data or being forced to change windows, services or applications.
Techreations has introduced a free website service storing phone numbers, email addresses, Internet bookmarks, notes and appointments online. This service meets a growing need for universal access of information said Lisa Chan, marketing developer of Web Address Book. As people become more computer literate, they also become more dependent on the data stored on their computers.
"Because all of the data is stored on the Internet and not a single PC, a user can access their information from any computer," said Chan. "Web-based email, such as Hotmail, has already become popular for this reason. Web-based personal organisers will be the next emerging area of the Internet."
Founded in 1997, When.com provides a personalised event directory and calendar service to consumers at work and at home. The service allows consumers to tailor event information, such as concerts and trade shows, provided by leading content companies and add it directly to their personal calendars.
The When.com service combines clearly organised event listings with easy-to-use personal or group calendars. The service includes four components, event directory, favourite events tracker, personal calendars and group calendars.
Scheduleonline, from Gintek, seeks to distinguish itself by offering a scheduling calendar for groups, such as people who work together or members of clubs and volunteer organisations. People can use the application to keep their own agendas and when it's time to plan a group meeting the software will check for scheduling conflicts, explained Hans Hartman, Jintek marketing vice president.
"It's like Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange, but the difference is those systems are complex to manage, you need a system administrator and local or wide area network to get it to work," Hartman said.
Scheduleonline differs from free calendar Web sites by enabling meeting schedulers to immediately view the availability of colleagues and resources. The company also announced a linking program encouraging other websites to link to Scheduleonline.
Whether users will end up using the Web for most of their office activities, consulting news and reference materials, taking notes, organising their time, remains to be seen. Web calendars still are not as simple to use as picking up pencil and paper and jotting down a to-do list.
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