Do you really need a calendar?

Historically, calendar programs for the Mac never have been in short supply, ranging from commercial software like "Now Up-to-Date & Contact" to freeware programs like "Right on Time."

Some are fancier than others, but all do basically the same thing -- keep track of your schedule.

So despite the apparent lack of need, Apple Computer Inc. introduced iCal on Sept. 10. The freeware calendar program runs only in Jaguar, the just-over-a-month-old incarnation of Mac OS X.

As one who uses calendar programs primarily to check for birthdays or to print blank monthly calendars, I had low expectations. Yet, iCal soon impressed me enough that it could become the first calendar program I use daily.

In general, iCal is logical, clean and easy to use. It has intriguing features not found in other calendar software.

Like most calendar programs, iCal lets you view events by the day, week or month. But where other calendar programs force you either to put everything in your life on one calendar or to create separate, unrelated calendars, iCal allows you to integrate individual calendars, switching them on or off with a mouse click.

And iCal makes scheduling conflicts easy to spot by using Mac OS X's transparency capability; an event that falls beneath another remains visible.

But what sets iCal apart is calendar-sharing. Until now, this only could be done in private business networks. A company's calendar software would allow employees to see one another's schedules to, say, plan meetings more easily. But you couldn't coordinate schedules with those outside the company.

ICal's publish and subscribe feature not only brings this capability to the home user, but greatly expands the possibilities.

Using a .Mac account, you can "publish" a personal calendar to your Web space and send the address to another iCal user, who then can "subscribe" to this calendar and see it on his or her Mac.

Better yet, whenever you change your calendar, any iCal user who subscribes to it can get the updated version automatically when they connect to the Internet.

In addition, with a .Mac account, you also may easily publish a calendar as a Web page, viewable by any Web browser on any computer. While the mail-calendar client in Entourage, part of Microsoft Office for the Mac, can also save calendars as Web pages, the user must get the numerous files on a Web server so others may see it -- steps saved by iCal.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of this sharing business, though, is how users have run with the idea of it. Apple planted the seed by providing a page on its Web site, where iCal users can subscribe to all sorts of general-interest calendars -- release dates of movies and DVDs, sports team schedules, concert tours and television premieres.

Within a week of iCal's release, Apple's page was joined by a private Web site called Here, iCal users may create and share calendars. As of Monday, the site had more than 280 published calendars, covering everything from Islamic holidays to the soccer team's schedule in Milan, Italy.

Because iCal uses an open, standard format called "ics," people outside the Mac universe also have jumped on the calendar-sharing concept. At Mozilla, the Netscape open-source project through which programmers worldwide collaborate on software projects like new Web browsers, now has a calendar program for Windows and Linux that uses the same format as iCal.

That means people running Windows and Linux may share calendars with Mac users running Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar.

Unfortunately, since iCal runs only in Jaguar, Mac users running OS X 10.1 or Mac OS 9 won't be able to get in on this Mozilla cooks up calendar programs for older Mac operating systems.

Despite iCal's benefits, the calendar program does have many problems.

For instance, it took me days to figure out that in month view mode, I needed to double-click on a dot in an event's title line to get it to open for editing. Double-clicking elsewhere on the line did nothing.

Another sticking point is that only those Mac users who have purchased Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar may use the new software.

This restriction stems from Apple's strategy of building its future hardware-software integration on a Jaguar foundation. This was reinforced on Sept. 28 with the release of the public beta of iSync, another Jaguar-only program.

With iSync, you can synchronize the contacts in your Mac OS X Address Book and your data in iCal with a Palm device, an iPod, certain Ericsson mobile telephones or other Macs via a .Mac account.

Apple is somewhat ahead of most of its customers on this score, but moving in the right direction.

In the near term, Mac users will fuss over the trouble and expense of acquiring its "digital lifestyle" tools, but eventually, we'll probably wonder how we lived without them.

But back to the iCal. Aside from the Jaguar requirement, some Mac users have complained that iCal is buggy and slow.

On my Quicksilver 867 tower, resizing the iCal window is sluggish. Activating a hidden calendar causes the program to hesitate for a few seconds.

On less-robust Macs, like older iMacs and iBooks, performance will be frustratingly slow. It's iCal's greatest weakness.

As for bugs, I haven't encountered any, but some Mac users in Web forums have reported problems importing calendar data, particularly the shifting of dates and times.

But considering that it's a free, initial release, I think iCal's distinguishing features outweigh its flaws.

For Mac users already running Jaguar, it's worth the download. For those still pondering the upgrade to Jaguar, iCal gives you one more reason make the move.

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Apple comes to Towson: The grand opening of the Apple Store in the Towson Town Center is Saturday. It will be the 42nd store in the company's national chain, which begun in May 2001 with the store in Tyson's Corner in Northern Virginia.

Store hours will be 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.

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Deadline extended: In last Thursday's column on Apple's .Mac Internet service, I noted that the deadline for existing iTools members to sign up for $49.95, as opposed to the $99.95 regular price, was Sept. 30.

On Friday, Apple extended the deadline to Oct. 14.