Choosing a Web Calendar

The web calendar market is a very crowded and confusing one. It's really difficult to understand what to purchase. As a web calendar vendor, MH Software, Inc. understands the market and what features people are looking for in a calendar system. Our goal is to help you find the right calendar to meet your needs. We're going to focus on helping you select a web calendar, but before we can get there we should review the types of calendars on the market.

The Basics

Broadly speaking, the kinds of calendar programs are:
PIM
A PIM is a personal information manager application. An example of a PIM would be Outlook without Exchange, or Palm Desktop. PIM's typically include a to-do list function, contact manager, and may include Email capability. PIM's usually do not have a web publishing feature.
Meeting Scheduling/Groupware
Software designed to coordinate large numbers of people. It's usually deployed in a corporate environment. The major use of this software is to allow scheduling meetings between many people. Typically this kind of software can check free/busy schedules and tell you if a proposed meeting time will work for the selected attendees. Examples of this type of software would include Microsoft Exchange, IBM/Lotus Notes, and Novell Groupwise.
Event Publishing Software
This kind of software is designed to publicize events on a web site. Examples of people using this kind of calendar are schools, churches, universities, corporations, etc. In general if you want to put a calendar on your web site, this is what you want. Sometimes this software can be used by small groups to coordinate their activities. If your greater need is to know what people are doing rather than coordinating group interactions such as meetings, this category can be a cheaper alternative to Groupware.
Specialized Calendars
This is a kind of catchall grouping. Things that would fall into this category would include employee scheduling, and appointment scheduling software. Some event publishing software calendars may be suitable to these needs. If event publishing calendars can be used for your application, they will usually be much cheaper than specialized software.

Sorting Out What You Need

It's important to understand that each kind of calendar application has unique features that make it better suited for its niche.

Now that you know the types of software, we can probably eliminate two categories from your search. PIM's typically do not have an event publishing feature. For example, there's not a built-in feature in Palm Desktop to publish your events to the web. Groupware/Meeting scheduling software typically has a lot of sensitive corporate data and network managers will usually NOT permit direct public access to these kinds of systems. Another barrier is that these kinds of applications are usually selected and maintained at the corporate IT department level.

If you're looking for an individual unshared application, search the internet using the terms PIM or personal information manager. Pricing for PIM applications runs from $30-$200.

If you're looking for groupware, then searching the internet for "groupware", or "meeting scheduling" should get you going in the right direction. Pricing for groupware typically runs around $100 per user.

If you're looking for event publishing software, search the internet for "web calendar software", "web calendars", or "online calendars" Fair warning, the results here can be overwhelming & confusing. The next section, will help you with the task of finding the right web calendar for you.

Features to Look For in a Web Calendar System

Listed below are some of the features we think you should consider when shopping for a web event publishing calendar. While you may not need each feature listed below, it's good to know which features to look for. The conclusions section has links to spreadsheets with feature checklists you can use for comparing different packages.

Calendar Views
A good web calendar should have support for month view, week view, and day view. A list view is also very helpful.
Support
When you really need support, there's nothing more important. Find out what kind of support the vendor offers. Standard support types are:

  • Email Only
  • Email/Forum Support
  • Telephone Support
  • Telephone Support w/ Remote Session

Telephone support is the most desirable, and Email Only the least desirable. Remote session support can allow support staff to actually view your computer's desktop to help troubleshoot very difficult problems. When shopping for a calendar, look for the phone number of the business. If it's not published in the Contact page and Support page, you're dealing with a company that actively doesn't want to talk to you. You can draw your own conclusions about what that means.
Security System
Your needs really dictate this. If you're going to have only one person maintaining the calendar, then you won't need an advanced security system. If you're going to have many editors, with approvals, and other controls then you should carefully look at the security features each calendar offers. If you only want people with logins to view your calendar, make sure that's a supported feature as well.
Documentation
It's important that users have access to high quality documentation. Having good documentation helps users help themselves with questions and reduces your support load. A printable version of the manual is also desirable. Manuals and tutorials are a sign that the vendor is a professional business and cares about it's customers.
Resource Management
Many organizations want to schedule and manage resources like class rooms, conference rooms, vehicles, etc. A web event calendar with resource management can solve two issues at once; it prevents double-booking resources, and it publishes events on the web. A lot of web calendar vendors will tell you their product does resource management. Well, kind of... What they usually mean is that you can create a calendar for each room. This approach has three issues. First, it raises your licensing costs. You have to buy a calendar for each room. If you're a school with 28 rooms, that's 28 calendars. Second, it forces you to create duplicate event entries in your calendar if a single event uses more than one room. Finally, it doesn't allow you to organize your calendar in a way that is natural for your environment. For example, a school might want to have a calendar for Sports, or Extra-Curricular activities. If you're making a calendar for each room, your ability to organize events is lost. If you need resource management, look for a system that makes resource management an integral part of the product. Additionally, you should look for planner/Gantt/bar chart views for resources.
Data Export
It is important to be able to extract data from your calendar. This can be used for importing events into newsletters, extracting data for use in other areas of your web site, or creating custom reporting and billing statements. Any web calendar should support CSV and iCal (RFC-2445) format at a minimum. Support for RSS/XML is also becoming a desirable feature.
Data Import
Whether you're just setting up your calendar, or if you want to regularly bring data from other systems into your calendar, you'll need to import data. At a minimum, import should support CSV and iCal format.
Email Notification and Reminders
Most organizations want a calendar system that can notify interested parties when new events are added to the calendar, and generate reminders for upcoming events. If this is a feature you need, check that not only regular users can subscribe to reminders and notifications, but also make sure that system administrators can create reminders for other users.
Section 508 Compliance
Section 508 refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It provides guidelines on web accessibility. Government agencies and supported institutions (universities for example) must create web sites in such a way that the vision impaired can access them. This is where the list view mentioned earlier can be useful. A normal calendar grid is of only limited usefulness to the sight impaired because much of the information is encoded in the column/row relationships of the display. A list view provides friendlier and easier use for the visually impaired. A good indication of whether the software may be compliant is whether the web pages that are generated pass validation using an HTML validator like the W3C Web Page validator. If a calendar generates 1000 errors, it's probably not going to work with a screen reader used by a disabled person.
Advanced Features
Advanced features that may be desirable in a calendar include:

  • Custom Fields - Can you add your own entry fields for events?
  • Ajax Support - A web technology that let's you use calendar data in other areas of your web site.
  • RSS Feeds - Provide a way that users can subscribe to calendar information without having to visit your site each time.
  • LDAP/AD Authentication for User Authentication - Simplifies administration and password management.
  • Time Zone Support - If you have users in different parts of the world, then this is necessary to avoid time confusion.
  • Localization/Internationalization - Supports different languages, date, and time formats.

Hosted or Installed Calendar Software

When you're shopping for calendars, you'll need to make a choice between software that installs on your web server, and a hosted version of the product. In the hosted version, the software vendor runs the application on their computer for you. There's no software for you to install. Here's a table that shows the pros and cons of each kind of software.

Type Advantages Disadvantages
Installed Software
  • No recurring fees unless you upgrade.
  • Software under your control - No dependency on vendor.
  • Requires IT buy-in of selected package.
  • Installation and Upgrade require technical staff.
  • Data may or may not be backed up.
  • Application Rot - You're usually running an older version without current fixes or enhancements.
  • More difficult to support. Vendor support staff usually can't login and manage the system.
  • Target installation server must support scripting language/database supported by application.
Hosted Calendars
  • Vendor usually upgrades to latest versions when released. You always have the newest features and bug fixes.
  • Data is backed up and can be restored.
  • Simpler Support. Vendor support staff can easily login and troubleshoot problems.
  • Typically, no buy-in or approval from in-house IT staff required.
  • Recurring Fee
  • System will be unavailable if internet connection is down.
  • If vendor goes out of business, data may not be accessible.


One advanced feature to look for in a hosted calendar is virtual host name support. Ideally, you want the URL to the calendar to be http://calendar.yourdomain.com, not http://some.calendarvendor.com/some_long_stuff/Calendar=?YourDomain

In the calendar software category, you want to look out for calendar generators. These are desktop applications that install on your computer. They generate HTML calendars that are then uploaded to the web server. The issue that arises with this type of software is that only one person can make changes to the calendar, and changes must be uploaded each time.

Free Calendars versus Commercial Calendar Systems

Free Hosted Calendars

There are major issues with free hosted calendars:
  1. Service - They're not charging anything, so they can't provide support.
  2. Advertising - Most free calendars are supported by advertising. A more professional appearance is achieved without annoying ads. Sometimes ads can be inappropriate.
  3. Accountability - In general, these providers are not accountable to you, and if your data is lost and it's inconvenient for them to restore it, they won't.
  4. Loss of branding. The URL will not have your name in it, but will have the name of the calendar provider.
  5. Limited features. These calendars have only the most basic options.

Free Calendar Software

The open source movement has brought a lot of attention to the idea of free software. While there are many free calendar systems available, you have to examine the specific ones to determine how well they meet your needs.

The price of free can be misleading. When considering software you should think about the return on investment. For example, if a staff member is working 1 hour per week maintaining a resource calendar, then the cost of that is roughly (52 x Hourly Wage) x 1.2. For a person paid $15 per hour, the annual cost would be $936. If you can reduce that to 15 minutes per week, you save $700. A software package costing $250 still represents a savings of $500. Another issue with free software can be the time to implement it. Since free software usually has little or no documentation, it can be extremely difficult to install and configure.

Some problems with free calendar applications are:
  1. No service or community support only.
  2. Poor or no documentation
  3. Very limited feature set.
  4. Niche ecology. A commercial calendar may support several different databases, while free calendars usually only support one.
  5. Spotty maintenance/new versions. Years may pass without a new release for bug fixes and new features.
In addition, all of the issues for Installed Software mentioned in the Hosted or Installed Software section apply.

Conclusion

The web calendar market is a very crowded one and it can be really difficult to sort out what is available on the market. It's our hope that having this paper will help you select the web calendar application that will best meet your needs.

As an additional aid, we have a spreadsheet that you can download from our web site to use as a feature checklist.

Feature Comparison Check List (Excel Format)

Feature Comparison Check List (Open Office Format)

By using the spreadsheet, you can compare Connect Daily's features with other web calendars. We at MH Software believe Connect Daily has the features you are looking for with the support you need. We believe you'll find Connect Daily the best solution for your web event calendar needs.