tangledcables

Simple apps are becoming harder and harder to find. It seems that every company is trying to differentiate its product by adding features and making previously easy-to-use software more complex. (Look no further than Microsoft Word and its “ribbon” interface to see this concept in action.) Instead of trying to do one thing well, many apps are trying to do as many things as possible.

Calendar apps are no exception. Let’s go down the list, which seems to grow with every passing month: Sunrise, an app from a few former Foursquare designers, has focused on making its calendar more social; Tempo, which was developed as part of the famed SRI research lab, has tried to use the calendar as a starting point for its digital assistant; and Cal, the calendar app from Any.do, can summon a private driver with just a few taps. It seems the days of simply marking an event on a daybook are over.

Flexibits is trying to do something different with Fantastical 2, the follow-up to its immensely popular iPhone app. It doesn’t feature very many social features. It isn’t trying to use the calendar as an entryway into the rest of your digital life. It can’t help you call a private driver. It’s simply a good calendar app.

Many of the updates to Fantastical 2, which is available from the App Store for $2.99 as part of a launch promotion, aren’t noticeable on first launch. Flexibits has updated the way Fantastical handles repeated events, added the ability to create reminders, and improved the natural language parser that takes even complex sentences and turns them into calendar events. These features aren’t as in-your-face as the app’s new interface, but they make a big difference during day-to-day usage of the app.

Releasing a paid app that is purposefully simpler than free competitors might seem like an odd decision, especially given consumers’ seeming reticence to pay for software, but Fantastical’s history supports the decision. The app is often one of the most popular productivity apps on the iPhone, according to App Annie, and far outpaces competitors like Sunrise, Tempo, and Cal. Flexibits isn’t trying to attract enough users to keep investors happy; it’s simply trying to sell enough software to continue making simple apps that perform routine tasks better than many others in the business.

Fantastical 2 is a prime example of something productivity software maker 37Signals calls “opinionated software.” As the company says in a blog post describing the concept:

The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.

And remember, if they don’t like your vision there are plenty of other visions out there for people. Don’t go chasing people you’ll never make happy.

Flexibits’ Michael Simmons takes a similar approach. He and the rest of the Flexibits team make software that they would like to use; the hope is that other people will want to use it too, but the team isn’t going to add new features or pander to prospective customers simply because it wants to boost its download numbers. (Fantastical’s popularity shows that such pandering should probably be the last thing Flexibits does.)

Will some people prefer other apps? Absolutely. Will others complain that Flexibits is asking them to pay for an app that took months to develop? Certainly. But that doesn’t change Fantastical 2′s status as one of the best calendar apps available for the iPhone today, and it doesn’t change Flexibits’ commitment to developing good software and getting paid for it.

Fantastical 2 is easy-to-use, well designed, and much smarter than its predecessor. But above all else it’s a simple app — to use, if not to create — that doesn’t try to pretend otherwise.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for PandoDaily]