"I wish we could share one central calendar on all our computers."
If I had a quarter for each time I've heard this request, I bet I could buy a decent steak dinner. Usually the request comes after an embarrassing calendar-scheduling tragedy that leaves one or more employees angry, or, occasionally, afraid for their jobs after the boss or a significant client misses or shows up to an appointment alone or at the wrong time. If the calendars had been synchronized, all would have been well.
Since most of the world uses Microsoft products, I'll focus on the calendar synchronization dilemma from a Microsoft user's point of view.
Once upon a time, the only way to share calendars while using Microsoft's calendar products (Outlook and Entourage) was to purchase a dedicated server called an Exchange server. This task entails a significant financial cost (hardware, software and IT set up) that many small businesses cannot afford. Ongoing maintenance of an Exchange server can also require specialized IT expertise to manage the complications of running an in-house mail server.
An alternative to Exchange is a web-based calendar. But despite the abundance and availability of web-based calendars, I've noticed a reluctance to use them because they are not as feature-rich as desktop-based calendars (MS Outlook for Windows and MS Entourage for Macs). Outlook and Entourage provide pop up reminders, the ability to attach documents to an appointment, group scheduling, special viewing permissions, ways to customize and view appointments and many more features that simply aren't available in web-based calendars -yet.
Thanks to some good entrepreneurial spirit, several companies have made sharing of desktop-based calendars easier and less expensive. Officecalendar.com offers software to share Outlook calendars without the expense of an Exchange server. For a fee that starts at only $99 per computer, users can share their calendar data, contacts and tasks, keeping them perfectly synchronized.
For those looking for an even less expensive solution for calendar-only sharing, I recommend Google's calendar. It is shareable and now there are tools that will let you sync it with your computer's Outlook or Entourage calendar.
Windows users can use a tool called Gsyncit ($9.99) which allows for two-way calendar syncing between Google's calendar and Outlook.
Mac users can sync their Entourage with Google's calendar by following some excellent, simple instructions found at kathymarks.com. (Type "sync" in the searchbox)
An Exchange server is a powerful addition to any small business that can cost-justify one. Meanwhile, these free and inexpensive tools are a great way to keep multiple calendar viewers on the "same page" without losing the useful features of desktop calendars.