Family-friendly enterprise calendaring

We need a technology that can bring order to our disparate electronic schedules

When Ray Ozzie posted an announcement to his Weblog about Microsoft’s proposed SSE (Simple Share Extensions) for RSS and OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language), I was delighted. On the technical front, it’s great to see the synchronization DNA of Groove and Lotus Notes finding its way, at last, onto the Web. But on the social front, it was a milestone, too.

We all bemoan the lack of a unified way to manage information about our dual roles as workers and family members. Combining our calendars, in particular, is a real headache. So it was refreshing to hear Microsoft’s newest CTO admit that he feels the same pain, and by implication that his company’s enterprise superplatform can’t yet do much to take the edge off it.

It’s high time we aired this piece of dirty laundry. True, the SOA revolution is finally forcing enterprises to rethink the walled-garden approach to security. As services begin to cross organizational borders, cross-firewall collaboration using XML over HTTPS is evolving into more nuanced uses of WS-Security, and that’s great. But “WS-Heavy”-style SOA won’t help us unify our professional and personal domains, at least not anytime soon. For that we’ll need complementary “WS-Light” approaches, too, and I hope SSE will be part of the solution.

How simple are the Simple Sharing Extensions? As I noted on my Weblog back in November, that depends on your point of view. To Ray and Jack Ozzie and their team, with their many years of experience building decentralized synchronization software, spinning out an RSS variation on the theme must feel like a cakewalk. But the change-processing algorithm in the SSE draft specification is by no means trivial, and neither is the human interface that’s needed to visualize and manage those changes.

I’m bullish on SSE, but I see it as just one of a number of ingredients in the mix. Others on my list include a couple of technologies that have been quietly percolating for a while: microformats and structured blogging.

Microformats create islands of structured data within less formally structured content. The strategy, one variant of which I’ve pursued on my own blog for several years, endows ordinary HTML pages with machine-readable properties. A page announcing an event, for example, might embed its time and location. Clicking a link injects the microformatted data into your calendar program.

At least, in theory, that’s what happens. In practice, even though the iCalendar specification dates back to 1998, calendar clients still struggle to implement it correctly. Here’s where I think structured blogging, which provides data-entry forms to gather instances of microformatted data and display templates to render them, can play a role.

Publishing events via RSS could be useful in a couple of ways. We want to be notified about upcoming events, and RSS is all about notification. We also want to combine events from different sources, and search across them. RSS isn’t pixie dust, and it won’t make incompatible microformats and applications work together -- not by itself, anyway. But intermediaries enabled by RSS just might.

Today, enterprise intermediaries operating in the SOA realm help us unify disparate messaging and authentication systems. A new breed of intermediaries operating in the RSS realm could help us unify our many work, home, and other calendars.

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