TimeBridge is an effective meeting scheduler for people who don't work in Microsoft-centric organisations - 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 email 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 organisation.

You can schedule meetings in just three steps on the TimeBridge site. You enter the email 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 email 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 analyses 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 organiser 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 10am to 11am in the interface in Apple's Safari browser created a meeting from 2pm to 3pm. Fixing the problem required only a simple drag and drop of the correct time, though.

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