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In its latest challenge to Microsoft’s desktop-based productivity software, Google yesterday launched a public beta version of the long-rumored Google Calendar tool, which allows users to create and track appointments through a Web-based interface accessible from any computer connected to the Internet.

Like most beta products at Google, the calendar was rolled out without hoopla, but is already generating interest – and praise – among Web users worldwide, including thousands of bloggers. “My first impression: It’s fast, slick, and stable,” writes Michael Arrington, publisher of the widely followed product review blog TechCrunch.

The reason: Google remains true to its tradition of building interfaces that echo but simplify tasks historically done using desktop software such as Microsoft Outlook. As with Gmail, Google’s Web-based e-mail manager, Google Calendar runs entirely inside a browser program such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. It takes advantage of a programming approach called AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) to reproduce the look and feel of desktop software over the Web – while adding features of Google’s own invention, such as the ability to transfer events mentioned in Gmail e-mails directly to the calendar.

“Calendaring is one of those problems where we felt like it hadn’t been done right before, and we felt we could add some value to it,” says Carl Sjogreen, Google’s product manager for the calendar project. “We really set out to make a calendar program that made it drop-dead simple to get information onto your calendar. With one easy graphical click-and-type interface, you can enter data, and we have some pretty sophisticated natural language processing technology that lets you type in a description of an event – like ‘Meet Bob for coffee Thursday at 7 p.m.’ – and add it to your calendar without filling in a big form.”

That’s in stark contrast to Outlook’s calendar, which requires users who are creating calendar entries to fill in a minimum of three separate boxes: one for the subject, a second for the start time, and a third for the end time.

Google Calendar is not the first Web-based calendar to emerge in recent months; its features are largely matched by existing calendar services, such as Kiko and 30 Boxes, and it joins a raft of other free tools for personal organization and time management, such as Upcoming, Gootodo, and GTDTiddlyWiki (a note-taking program customized for followers of David Allen’s Getting Things Done). And it’s just one advance in the larger Web 2.0 movement, a flowering of free online tools for creating, organizing, and sharing personal information (see “Web 2.0’s Startup Fever”).

But because of Google’s prominence, wealth, and well-known ambition to organize all the world’s information, its move into calendar software underscores the tectonic shifts underway in the market for home and office software – from standalone desktop applications to more easily accessible Web-based applications, and from complex, feature-laden programs written over the course of years by huge development teams to simpler tools created by small, agile teams using standardized approaches like AJAX.

Google’s recent purchase of Upstartle, creator of a free online word processing service called Writely, is another clue to the company’s intentions. “The current suite of office tools, Word and Outlook chief among them, are simply too hard to use,” says Mark Hurst, author of Gootodo and founder of Creative Good, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in user interface design. “Microsoft has been promising for about 10 years that a big improvement is just around the corner, and it has never come. Google is in a position to fix that for a lot of users.”

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