What's really great about Fantastical

This morning I was listening to the most recent episode of Back To Work, and Merlin’s discussion of Fantastical reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write for months about why it’s so good. Merlin’s description actually came damned close to making this post redundant, but there’s still one important thing he left out.1

Everyone who writes about Fantastical (including me) focuses on how wonderful its natural language processing is. And it is wonderful. Instead of laboring your way through several fields to add an entry, you can type something like “Ritchie conference call at 3pm on Tuesday,” and it’ll fill in all the fields, including a default duration of one hour and a recognition that by “Tuesday” you must mean “next Tuesday.”

Natural language processing of calendar entries isn’t new or unique to Fantastical. Way back in 2007, there was Sandy,2 a server app that accepted emails to organize your calendar. The last couple of versions of OS X’s own Calendar (née iCal) have had a quick entry field that uses NLP. And iPhone users have Siri, which includes both NLP and voice recognition.

What separates Fantastical from these others is that its window shows both the free-form entry field and the individual time/date/etc. fields, and as you type in the free-form field, animations show you how Fantastical is interpreting what you’re typing.

Fantastical entry

This is not just eye candy. The animations are providing instant feedback on how Fantastical is parsing your words and, more important, they’re teaching you Fantastical’s syntax. This is tremendously useful because, despite the wonderful flexibility of NLP, there’s always a syntax and you need to learn it if you’re going to use the product. This lack of instant, incremental feedback is what makes Siri impenetrable to some people; you have to give Siri an entire command and wait to see how she interprets it.3 4

Fantastical’s teaching isn’t punitive. It’s instant positive reinforcement that helps you learn how to use it when you’re just starting out and doesn’t get in your way when you’re an expert.

  1. As I sat down to write this, the annual “Merlin episode” of Mac Power Users appeared in my podcast feed. It may well be that he or David or Katie mentioned in that episode everything I’m going to say here, but I’m going to finish this post anyway and hope I’m not accused of plagiarism. 

  2. How long ago was that? Gina Trapani was still at Lifehacker and wrote the linked article. The Sandy service itself is no more. 

  3. It doesn’t help that Apple’s commercials have oversold Siri’s NLP. Siri has a syntax, too, and it’s frustrating until you learn the magic words. In the six months I’ve been using Siri, I’ve gotten very good at working with reminders and calendar entries, but I’m hopeless with having her read my texts while I’m driving. 

  4. By the way, Apple, when are you going to allow us to choose the calendar to which calendar Siri adds an entry? You know those world-beaters you show in your commercials talking to Siri as they walk swiftly through airports? They all have more than one calendar.