Schools and colleges rely on scheduling and calendaring software for everything from making personal appointments to propagating class schedules. But as the popularity of these tools has grown, the absence of true interoperability between various proprietary programs has become a major concern, according to a new group called the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium (CalConnect).

The group has come together to build greater interoperability among calendaring programs, platforms, and technologies. So far, it includes seven commercial software vendors, seven universities, a research center, and two open-source foundations.

The founding members of the consortium include Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MeetingMaker, the Mozilla Foundation, Novell Inc., Oracle Corp., Symbian, and Yahoo! Inc. More are expected to join once word about their work gets out.

The group expects to work on the project for up to five years. During that time, the consortium will provide a forum for competing vendors and other organizations and institutions to develop interoperability standards for calendaring and scheduling. It will do so by organizing interoperability testing events, roundtable discussions, technical committees, and other proceedings as appropriate.

When the group has completed its study, it will report its findings to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and other standards-setting institutions. Those groups will then consider the consortium’s findings when developing new open standards for interoperability.

Calendaring programs allow users to record events and appointments electronically. Most calendaring software can be set to re-enter regular events automatically. In addition, most electronic calendars will let you know that an event is approaching by issuing some sort of reminder. A special type of calendar, called a scheduler, permits universities, businesses, and other institutions to coordinate schedules within their specific networks–and that’s where problems with interoperability typically arise.

“Like most large institutions, we have some of everything on the calendaring front,” said Oren Sreenby, assistant director of computing and communications at the University of Washington (UW). UW has designed its own web-based, open-source calendaring system called uCal, which is used mostly by students through the university’s web portal, Sreenby said. For administrators, Oracle’s calendar software is installed on the school’s desktop computers.

“A lot of different departments use different calendaring and scheduling software to meet their individual needs,” Sreenby said. Departments within UW use such diverse calendaring and scheduling programs as Microsoft Exchange, MeetingMaker, Web Events, and any number of other brands. Many different types of standalone software are used on the individual desktop level as well. “You name it, it’s out there,” Sreenby said.

Naturally, the organizations involved in the consortium have a vested interest in seeing it succeed. Consortium member MeetingMaker reportedly is the market’s largest independent scheduling and calendaring company, with a large education customer base. By “embracing standards and increasing interoperability,” company president John Anderson said, “MeetingMaker will be able to further strengthen its leadership position.”

John Degory, chief executive officer of ISAMET Inc., said his company has been involved with IETF “since early on,” and its flagship Mulberry eMail client is used by universities, K-12 schools, businesses, and government institutions nationwide. At universities, “you have people coming from different walks of life, using different tools. Developing an open standard just makes it a much more user-friendly world,” Degory said.

The consortium will begin by examining the calendaring and scheduling specifications originally developed by IETF. Those base specs are known as “iCalendar,” or iCal, a schema for sending calendaring messages that has to do with communications protocols. iCal specs are currently the basis for Outlook, Exchange, Lotus Notes, Oracle Collaboration Suite, and other programs.

According to calendaring and scheduling guru David Thewlis, the consortium’s executive director, iCal specs have actually helped create interoperability problems among proprietary scheduling software. “The specs are overly complicated, some parts are ambiguous, and nobody has implemented the whole thing,” Thewlis said. In fact, it might not be possible to entirely implement the iCal standard for interoperability. “No one has ever tried,” Thewlis said.

UW’s Sreenby said part of the consortium’s effort will be to simplify the iCal standards: “We are actually going back and simplifying that standard, because there are parts that nobody understands. Most programs have iCal functionality; they just don’t have the same pieces.” Consortium members refer to this effort to streamline existing iCal standards as CalSify.

Instead of working with standards organizations to develop guidelines for interoperability, owners of different proprietary applications have attempted to create interoperability features to connect one proprietary model to the next in a fashion that has been largely piecemeal.

Consortium members believe this vendor approach to creating interoperability has done little to address the actual problem. “Right now, with the current system, it’s like you’re building a building in San Francisco, and you haven’t driven pylons down far enough to make sure the foundation is built on bedrock and will sustain earthquakes,” Thewlis said.

MeetingMaker’s Anderson believes one of the first issues the consortium will face will be a cultural one. He noted that developing a calendaring standard is different from an eMail standard. “Your own calendar is very personal. I send you an eMail, and I don’t know what you do with it. You may read it and not respond, you may delete it without ever looking, I don’t know,” Anderson said. “I may not want you to know who I’m meeting with all day. To get to the next level of interoperability [in calendaring], the next standard, we are going to have to reach some kind of agreement on how you’re going to define these hierarchical issues like privacy.”

Bill Scheuerell, director of Enterprise Internet Services at the University of Wisconsin, agreed: “A good open standard will naturally provide the end user with the ability to limit access to [his or her] calendar information.”

The consortium will address the issue of privacy, in part, by building calendaring and scheduling standards on top of the web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning (webDAV) standard developed by IETF. Consortium members call this effort CalDAV.

UW’s Sreenby said the most recent webDAV specifications have support for access control lists that would allow users to limit the amount of information others can see. A calendar could be manipulated so that one set of users could see one version of the calendar, another set could see a more detailed or differently edited version, and so on. “Building CalDav on top of webDAV is great in that we don’t have to reinvent that feature,” Sreenby said.

Apple Inc. and Mozilla were working together to develop better CalDAV specs before the consortium was formed. “Our most substantial contribution to the first technical meeting was, in our opinion, the presence of our experimental CalDAV client for use in the interop testing, and as the basis for some important feedback to the protocol designers,” said Chris Hofmann, director of engineering for the open-source Mozilla Foundation.

According to Sreenby, however, the problem with the way Apple and Mozilla have implemented CalDAV “is that it is monolithic–you have to do it a whole calendar at a time. We want to make it much more granular, in a way that you can invite people to do individual events without opening up a whole calendar to do it.”

Despite an anticipated time frame of up to five years for the consortium to complete its work, schools can expect to see calendaring products that incorporate the consortium’s recommendations sooner than that.

“We will build as we go if we deem that there are market-driven opportunities to leverage these [developments],” MeetingMaker’s Anderson said. “We’ve done some of that already with the initial iCal standard that provides some interoperability. We’ll continue to do that.”

“Unless it will potentially alienate customers, we will be on the forefront of implementation,” ISAMET’s Degory said. “We are supporting this because we want to see the standards adopted in a way that creates business.”

Consortium director Thewlis believes web-based scheduling eventually will become as ubiquitous as eMail and instant messaging after interoperability standards have been completed.

“Our members’ intent is to enable calendaring and scheduling to enter the mainstream of computing,” Thewlis said. He believes the consortium’s mission is to figure out ways of “connecting your calendar with others so that your professional and personal life runs more smoothly.”

Thewlis said the end result of the work done by CalConnect will be a set of standards from IETF that will be stable enough for universality, yet flexible enough to suit the specific needs of the institution or individual. “We’re building a skeleton on which people can drape a body,” he said. “The skeleton [will be] flexible enough that the body draped on it should be able to meet [the user’s] needs.”

Links:

Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium
http://www.calconnect.org

Internet Engineering Task Force
http://www.ietf.org

MeetingMaker
http://www.meetingmaker.com

ISAMET
http://www.isamet.com

Mozilla Foundation
http://www.mozilla.org