How Online Reminder Services Work

The online reminder service Remember the Milk debuted online in 2004.
The online reminder service Remember the Milk debuted online in 2004.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

It's happened to all of us. You're in the middle of a task when a thought in the back of your mind begins to nag at you. You were supposed to take care of something important but you just can't figure out what it was. And the story always seems to end in one of two ways. You either remember after it's too late to do anything about it or you find out what it was when someone else scolds you for forgetting your responsibilities.

While we could try to improve our memory skills, that's not the way most of us address this problem. Instead, we've come up with a lot of ways to keep track of events without actually having to remember them ourselves. Some people go through life coating every surface with sticky notes covered in reminders. Others rely on high-tech personal digital assistants to keep them on track. The Internet gives us another useful tool: online service reminders.

­While they come in many forms, the purpose for all online service reminders is the same: to send you messages so that you don't forget important tasks or events. Whether it's a birthday, an anniversary, a doctor's appointment or a conference call, online service reminders can help you remember your obligations. But they're only useful if you do a little of the legwork too.

­­­Some programs have rem­inder services built into t­he­m. If you use a calendar program like Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar, you can tell the program to send you alerts about impending appointments or events. But there are several Web-based applications on the Internet that provide reminder services even if you don't use a calendar program.

Let's take a closer look at what you need to do to take advantage of online reminder services.

Getting Started with Reminder Services

HassleMe "nags" users by sending reminders at unpredictable intervals. HassleMe works well for things you do on a regular basis (like cleaning your fridge) rather than for specific events.
HassleMe "nags" users by sending reminders at unpredictable intervals. HassleMe works well for things you do on a regular basis (like cleaning your fridge) rather than for specific events.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

Most reminder services require users to create a profile before they can take advantage of the application. The profile creation process usually asks users to provide information including:

  • The user's name
  • An e-mail address, cell phone number and/or an instant messaging ID. If it asks for a cell phone number, the service may also ask which cell phone service provider the user subscribes to
  • The time zone the user lives in

Some services ask for additional information, such as the user's gender or birthday. Most services also require users to click a box saying that the user has read and agreed to the application's terms of service and privacy policy.

The terms of service vary from one provider to the next, but in general they protect the provider from being held responsible for any account activity. In other words, if users decide to arrange a bank heist through an online reminder service, the service won't be held accountable for transmitting that information to the parties involved.

After creating an account, users must submit information through the service's user interface. Here's where the user can tell the service when he or she wants to receive updates and information about the appointments or events. These services only work if the user puts forth a little effort -- it's not going to automatically know when you need to be reminded about something.

Most services have an option that lets you repeat an event at specific intervals. For example, you can enter important dates like birthdays and anniversaries into the service and tell it to repeat the reminders annually. That way, you don't have to put the information in again the following year -- the service will know to send a reminder at the same time each year.

You can use most service reminders to send messages to you about specific events and appointments, but you have to give the information to the service first. That means you'll still have to input data into your account regularly to benefit from the service.

Next, we'll take a look at online reminder services that send users messages in text format.

Types of Task Reminders: E-mail, IM, Text

PingMe's user interface lets users send reminders to e-mail services like Gmail.
PingMe's user interface lets users send reminders to e-mail services like Gmail.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

The most common kind of online reminder service sends messages in text format to users. It might send messages through e-mail, an instant message client or to your cell phone via short messaging service (SMS).

Depending on the service, users might have to visit a particular Web site to submit information and set up reminders. Most services have a pretty simple user interface (UI). There's usually a section in which the user types in the reminder message. Most have another section that allows the user to tell the service on what date and at what time it should send the reminder. Several also give the user the option to set up multiple reminders for the same message -- like an alarm clock on snooze, the service will send the same message multiple times. Other services require the user to set up each reminder instance separately.

With some services, users can send an e-mail message to a specific address and set up a reminder for later. Each service has its own format users must follow to create a reminder. Many send the user a confirmation message letting him or her know that the service received the request.

Online reminder services use simple sets of instructions called algorithms. The service sets a time trigger for each reminder as directed by the user. When the time arrives, the service follows a simple set of steps and sends out the reminder. In the case of an e-mail service, this involves sending an automatically generated e-mail to the user. The service takes the message typed in by the user and plugs it into the body of the e-mail before sending it to a pre-designated e-mail address.

­An SMS reminder service is similar but has a few restrictions. An SMS message is better known as a text message -- it's the kind of text-based message many cell phones can send and receive. These messages have a strict 160 character size limit, so reminders have to be short. Anything over 160 characters won't show up in the reminder message.

Just as with e-mail reminder services, an SMS reminder service activates on a time-based trigger. Instead of sending an e-mail, the service sends the user's message via SMS to the cell phone number specified by the user in the registration process. The message travels through mobile switching centers (MSCs) over a cell phone network's control channel in a packet of data. The message goes to a centralized short message center (SMSC), which then relays the message to the recipient's cell phone.

For online service reminders with instant message (IM) support, users have yet another option. Several services support multiple IM clients like AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. These ­online reminder services also follow an algorithm to send reminders to users. The service uses the IM client the same way anyone else does -- it just has a particularly large contact list. Once the time trigger activates, the service copies the reminder message created by the user into the IM client's send field and sends it to the appropriate person.

If you don't feel like typing in your reminder messages, you've got another choice. Find out more in the next section.

Phone Reminder Service

Jott users can call the service and leave voice notes, which the service transcribes into the user's account.
Jott users can call the service and leave voice notes, which the service transcribes into the user's account.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

Services like Jott allow users to create notes and reminders by phoning it in, literally. Instead of logging into an account and typing in reminders, users can call a phone number and record short messages.

First, like most other reminder services, the user has to create an account. The user submits information including his or her e-mail address and cell phone number. For advanced options, the user may have to include additional information or download plug-ins or applications.

After the registration process, the user can start recording messages. Since we've mentioned Jott, we'll use it as an example of what happens from this point forward when creating a basic reminder. But keep in mind that not all reminder services work in exactly the same way -- Jott's just an example of one approach. Here's how it works:

  1. The registered user dials in to Jott's phone number: 866-568-8123.
  2. A pre-recorded voice will ask "Who do you want to Jott?" The user would respond with "Reminder."
  3. Jott then asks the user when it should send him or her the reminder. First the user responds with a day (which can be in a date format such as June 12, or it can be something as simple as "tomorrow"). Then Jott prompts the user for the time of day he or she wishes to receive the reminder.
  4. Jott repeats the day and time information back to the user and asks if the information is correct. Assuming everything is okay, the user responds with "yes."
  5. Jott asks the user for the message. After the user speaks his or her message, Jott lets the user know if it recorded the reminder successfully. The basic Jott account allows users to record messages up to 15 seconds in length [source: Jott].
  6. The user hangs up and Jott runs the recording through voice recognition software to convert it to text.
  7. If the voice recognition software has trouble deciphering certain words, Jott flags the message and sends it to a human for transcription.
  8. At the appropriate time, Jott sends the message to the user either through e-mail, a text message or both.

Jott can do more than send reminders. Wit­h the right kind of user account, you can phone in e-mail­s, calendar events and group messages without touching a keyboard. It's not the only reminder service that relies on voice recognition software, though it may be the best known of the bunch.

How do these services make money? Find out in the next section.

The Business of Online Reminders

The MemotoMe service lets users set up e-mail messages that the service will send out at a specified time.
The MemotoMe service lets users set up e-mail messages that the service will send out at a specified time.
Copyright 2008 HowStuffWorks

Unlike some Web-based companies, many online reminder services actually have a business plan. While some still operate mainly by securing venture capital from investors who hope the service eventually will turn into a lucrative business, many online reminder services have found other ways to cover costs and even turn a profit.

One way services make money is to offer multiple levels of membership. Many reminder services offer free accounts to users, but those accounts don't have access to the full range of services the company provides. To access everything, users have to subscribe to a paid account. Usually, the company bills these accounts monthly. Account costs vary from one service to another, and some services offer several levels of paid accounts.

Another way online reminder services make money is through advertising. With these services, you receive an advertisement along with your reminder. Ads might be a little distracting, but some people would rather put up with them than have to pay for something they're used to getting for free.

There are several reminder services that cater to companies or industries rather than individuals. An example would be a doctor's office that uses a reminder service to send messages to patients about upcoming appointments. These companies charge clients in return for providing reminder services.

Other reminder services are part of larger applications. Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook both have some reminder service functionality. In these cases, the services aren't the real moneymakers. Applications like Google Calendar make money through advertising, while Microsoft Outlook earns revenue through software sales and licensing fees.

Can online reminder services make enough money to survive? That depends on several factors, including how the company generates revenue and what its costs are. For some services, there may only be a few employees and not a lot of overhead. But others -- like Jott -- might employ several people and require more money to keep going. For many companies, the real question is whether or not users will be willing to pay for reminder services. Many of these services start out free, particularly when in a test phase called beta. Some companies may find it a challenge to convince users to pay for something they used to get free of charge.

Perhaps the best way to learn about these services is to start using them. There are dozens to choose from and most of them are free. Give one a try, but remember: even the best service won't help you out if you don't do some of the work yourself.

To learn more about online reminder services and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.­

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic. July/August 2008. (Aug. 19, 2008) http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google
  • Fielding, Roy Thomas. "Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software-Architectures." University of California, Irvine. 2000. (Aug. 19, 2008) http://www.ics.uci.edu/~fielding/pubs/dissertation/top.htm
  • HassleMe. (Aug. 19, 2008) http://www.hassleme.co.uk/
  • Jott. (Aug. 19, 2008) http://jott.com/Default.aspx
  • Lenski, Tammy. "Online Reminder Services Give a Free Nudge." MediatorTech. May 2, 2006. (Aug. 19, 2008) http://mediatortech.com/online-reminder-services/
  • Memo to Me. (Aug. 18, 2008) http://www.memotome.com/
  • OnlineRemind. (Aug. 18, 2008) http://www.onlineremind.com/