An effective meeting scheduler for people who don't work in Microsoft-centric organizations--and for those who do.
Meetings may be a necessary evil, but the time required to schedule them can be a real productivity killer. Microsoft Outlook has helpful tools such as shared calendars and auto-selection of meeting times, but its usefulness is limited to people within the same company. TimeBridge, a free Web-based service, surpasses Outlook's approach, allowing you to quickly and easily schedule meetings with anyone, no matter what e-mail service, calendaring app, or browser they have--and they don't even need to be TimeBridge users. The service is especially useful when you must schedule meetings with people outside of your organization.
You can schedule meetings in just three steps on the TimeBridge site: You enter the e-mail addresses of your attendees, type in a meeting topic, and then choose up to five proposed meeting times. You select the proposed times from your TimeBridge calendar; if you've linked it with your calendar in Outlook (using a small, free plug-in) or Google, your existing appointments will already appear. (If the meeting attendees are TimeBridge users who have linked their calendars, the meeting organizer can see when they're free and use that information to further narrow down the potential times.) Since TimeBridge uses the linked calendars only to show basic availability, not details of already scheduled events, privacy is maintained.
Once you've completed these steps (and added an optional note for your attendees), you click Send to set TimeBridge in motion. Your attendees receive a well-designed e-mail form that lets them vote for their preferred time, by designating which times are 'best', which are 'acceptable', and which are 'not available'. TimeBridge gathers and analyzes the results, and uses the weighted responses to book the most convenient meeting time, greatly reducing or even eliminating the back-and-forth communication that often happens when colleagues attempt to coordinate multiple schedules. Attendees with a calendar linked to TimeBridge will automatically see the event added to their own calendars, while others will receive a confirmation e-mail along with a link to download the meeting to their calendar platform; Google, Outlook, Yahoo, and both iCal and Entourage in Mac OS X are supported.
TimeBridge lets a meeting organizer operate almost in "fire and forget" mode--after you enter the initial information in TimeBridge, the service takes care of the rest. For fast access you can even create or drag and drop a TimeBridge bookmark into your browser to quickly click and begin the simple scheduling process.
The service still has a glitch or two to be worked out, though: For example, choosing 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the interface in Apple's Safari browser created a meeting from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Fixing the problem required only a simple drag and drop of the correct time, though.
Outlook 2007 does provide an adequate method of scheduling meetings. It can automatically pick the best possible time based on criteria you set, such as scheduling the meeting when all of the attendees are available, and it can show the free or busy schedules of potential attendees. It works effectively, however, only when resources are on the same internal e-mail system such as Microsoft Exchange--and that simple requirement might not be met for weeks or months out, as calendars can easily fill up with a myriad of events. The more attendees needed for a meeting, the more schedules enter the mix, so it's not unheard of for Outlook to find a time that's suitable for everyone but too far off in the future to be practical.
People in different organizations can share their calendars through another interface such as Microsoft Office Online, but even in this case the burden of scheduling still lies with the meeting organizer--that is, the organizer has to set a single meeting time and then try to reschedule for a time acceptable to all once the inevitable decline responses come back. Another option is Outlook Web Access (OWA), a Web-based client that mimics the full Outlook desktop software; but if you don't use Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser (version 5 or better), you'll see merely a "light" version of OWA. Scheduling a meeting in the OWA calendar with Firefox, Opera, or Safari in the light version shows only a daily calendar view, with no auto-selection of time available.
If your meeting invitees are all internal to your organization and on the same Microsoft-based mail and calendar systems, Outlook 2007 may provide all the scheduling tools you need. But TimeBridge offers much more flexibility and time savings for people who collaborate in many environments and in various browser platforms.