I take a lot of meetings with a lot of software and Web site companies, most of them arranged through at least half a dozen e-mails. It's not the most efficient possible system, to say the least; and the more people you try to coordinate with, the worse it gets. Who's available? When? Where? What time zone? What if someone's availability changes?
What if two people reply to the e-mail at the same time with different proposed times—the dreaded mail-thread split! Outlook and Lotus Notes can solve most of these problems, but only if everyone is in the same company and they actually use those products. If not, all these issues—not to mention the resulting mess in your inbox—can make scheduling meetings through e-mail a nightmare. Enter TimeBridge, a Web-based service that works with multiple calendaring applications and handles availability and time-zone issues with aplomb.
TimeBridge's makers claim that it's like having a personal assistant to handle your scheduling. That's an exaggeration, but the service does handle many of the issues surrounding the planning of meetings and events. The service's "one-step" scheduling automatically handles the three stages of setting up a meeting: contact, confirm, and remind. It also suggests alternatives when conflicts arise, and attendees get some pretty deep integration with TimeBridge and their Outlook Calendar or Google Calendar, though neither is required. The service is still technically in beta but should be fully fledged very soon.
Sign-up is similar to most simple Web app registration these days: Submit a name, e-mail address, time zone, password, and CAPTCHA You get a confirmation in the inbox of the e-mail address you supplied. One problem I ran into: Hotmail marked the registration as spam, so you may want to check your spam box and mark the sender as safe. After clicking on the confirmation link in that e-mail, your registration is complete, and you're offered a tour of the service. I recommend this, as it succinctly explains the meeting setup process in under a minute. You can also take a test-drive meeting in case the tutorial leaves you with questions.
Let's Do Lunch
I decided to initiate a meeting with some coworkers and a couple of "virtual me's" using different e-mails and calendars. On my TimeBridge home page, I simply hit a big "Create a New Meeting" button. I then got two simple fields to fill out: a big one called "Send to," into which I entered several e-mail addresses for my coworkers and my virtual selves; and "Meeting topic," in which I named the meeting "Emergency Meeting" (I wanted everyone to respond).
If you've already created meetings, TimeBridge will remember your invitees' addresses and suggest them as you start typing. Two more optional entry boxes below let you write a message that will appear in the invitation e-mails and designate a location. Both these boxes have Edit buttons in case you need to make changes. Next you propose potential times for the meeting—up to five time slots. Proposing the same meeting time for different meetings is allowed, as is choosing overlapping time periods: TimeBridge will resolve any conflicts, allowing only one of the meetings to use a given time slot.
And that's it: Hit Send and TimeBridge goes into action. My invitees received an e-mail with a link to the meeting scheduler. Invitees don't need to sign up for a TimeBridge account to respond to a meeting request, and they get handy help dialogs that make what they need to do perfectly clear. For each of the meeting times I proposed, they choose one of three answers: Best, Yes, and No. One of my coworkers found a tiny bug with this feature in his Firefox browser, which didn't immediately display his choices as he made them, but the next "Review Your Response" dialog got his choices right. Other installations of Firefox didn't exhibit this problem. As for browser compatibility, I couldn't find a Windows or Mac browser with which TimeBridge wouldn't work.
If some participants cannot meet at the proposed times, TimeBridge immediately sends the organizer an e-mail requesting more times to be proposed. Otherwise, it automatically schedules the time chosen by the most invitees as Best. TimeBridge sends each participant a confirmation of the time, with an option to download the appointment to an Apple iCal, Google, Outlook, or Yahoo! calendar. This worked perfectly for both my Google and Yahoo! calendar, but oddly, the Outlook iCalendar entry was buggy. On subsequent attempts, the Outlook calendar entries for meetings got the time wrong, too, even though both the TimeBridge account and the Outlook setting were set to eastern time. Hopefully this is a beta issue that will be ironed out; in the meantime, check those Outlook times before adding them. It's an irritating bug, but it's such a small thing that I didn't penalize the service much.
For deeper calendar integration, there's the Connect My Calendar option, which works with Outlook (2003 and 2007) and Google calendars (still called beta), but not with Yahoo! Calendars, Windows Live Hotmail Calendars, or 30Boxes.com. The Outlook connector requires a small program download and installation. A tray icon appears in the system tray, and right-clicking on that brings up a menu with options to create a meeting and sync with the server. This software also adds a top-level menu item to Outlook itself, with choices that take you to the TimeBridge site for scheduling meetings, and so on. Comfortingly, you don't have to enter your Outlook log-in, which could make some people apprehensive about security/privacy issues: It just talks to the locally running Outlook software and doesn't interact with your Exchange server. Some still may want to avoid running any software with the slightest hint of giving a Web site access to private data.
The Create Meeting choice brings up the standard Web interface, but when I went to create a meeting, a dialog warned me that I'd have to start Outlook to sync calendars. Alas, I couldn't get my Outlook calendar synced at first. I'd added the Outlook address to an account with a non-Outlook main address. (You can have more than one e-mail address specified in an account.) This is a little confusing—a rare case where TimeBridge ought to make the process a little simpler. Still, it was easy enough to fix, once I realized what the problem was.
Once I cleared this up, my TimeBridge-Outlook connection worked smoothly. As advertised, I could see all Outlook appointments in TimeBridge's meeting scheduling calendar. And now, when I went to add e-mails to invitees, all my Outlook contacts starting with the same letter would drop down when I started typing addresses. Google Calendar integration gets you the same results, except that it doesn't require any software download.
At present, that's all you can do when it comes to calendar integration. Once you've connected either to an Outlook or Google calendar, you can do what TimeBridge calls "sharing your availability." For this, you build what's called an "Availability Network." Once a user has connected her Outlook or Google calendar to TimeBridge, she can go to her My Account page, choose Availability Network, click on the Enable Sharing button, then click on the Build My Network button. From here, you just add the e-mail addresses of the contacts who need to see your availability. Luckily, you don't have to worry about oversharing: Contacts won't be able to see your appointments. They only see blocks of time designated as Busy for when you have appointments—certainly handy for trying to figure out when to schedule a meeting. Nonetheless, I could still propose a meeting at a time where I saw the invitee was "busy." This makes sense, since my meeting may be more important than my contact's other commitment.
TimeBridge is good about providing visual help every step through the process—for both the person proposing the meeting and the invitees, making it easy for everyone even if they've never used it before. One final convenience is the browser button, which you can drag to your links menu for easy access to meeting creation.
Aside from the Outlook appointment file glitch mentioned above, the only other shortcoming I noticed was that TimeBridge doesn't let you designate "required" or "VIP" attendees, whose schedules could take precedence over other invitees—something similar to what theMyPunchbowl.com party planner service offers.
TimeBridge is currently free, but the company plans premium paid features in the future. A similar service, iPolipo, which requires you to share your calendar, works just with Outlook, doesn't let you propose multiple times, and costs $99 per year.
Given a concept that makes a lot of sense and a well-executed design, I expect that TimeBridge will be a real boon to a host of organizations that need to set up meetings with people outside their own companies.