Over the course of a business day I spend lots of time using iCal, Apple’s default calendar program. I use it to plan, to keep track of my schedule, create alerts for appointments and import my travel schedule from TripIt.

I also try to use it for reminders and to-dos, although that’s one of its weakest features. Although it has been one of the most requested features, Apple has unfortunately all but abandoned adding new functionality to iCal, and has made few improvements over the last half-decade. The most recent was a visual makeover to more closely resemble its iPad version.

I was recently introduced to a new calendar program by Michael Simmons, co-founder of Flexibits. It’s called Fantastical and is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. It adds a wealth of new features that make it more flexible and provide better integration of your to-do activities into your calendar. Simmons explained that he created it as a result of iCal not having the features he needed to use.

There are three versions, for the Mac, iPad and iPhone.

• The Mac version is on sale at half off for just $10. It appears as an icon on your taskbar at the top of the screen. A click opens a small window that displays a monthly calendar at the top with a scrollable list below it that contains your reminders, to-do items and appointments. What is displayed can be easily customized.

As you scroll down the list, the calendar date being highlighted synchronizes with the events under your cursor. Likewise, as you move your cursor over the dates on the calendar, that day’s items appear in the list. You can click on any event and a box opens detailing the event, allowing you to make changes, much like iCal. The list contains appointments and to-do items that are easily distinguishable.

The Fantastical calendar program is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. Courtesy photo

But the best feature, common to all versions, is how easy it is to add items to your calendar. Simply type in natural-language phrases such as “meet with Bob Tuesday at 9” and it creates an appointment, even using some cute animation. Or type in a to-do and it will set an alert for a specific day.

Fantastical is localized in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and allows users to enter events in any of the languages, regardless of the language setting of the computer.

Fantastical is integrated with iCal so that after entering a new item, it immediately appears on iCal and vice versa. For example, when Tripit imports an event into iCal, it shows up on Fantastical. Apple could take a lesson from this company when it comes to creating a much richer product with a superb user interface.

• Fantastical 2 for the iPad 2, also on sale for $10, is even more impressive. The full-screen view resembles the iCal monthly page, but there are many additional features. Open a meeting appointment that you’ve been invited to and you see all the attendees, and can even email them from the window.

While the monthly view looks much like that on the iCal, when you drag the bottom of the calendar up you see a three-pane window. One graphically shows your busy time for the week, day by day; another displays a smaller monthly view; and a third lists all the events and activities.

Fantastical is designed for all iPads running iOS 7. Additional features include half-screen and full-screen week view, reminders, choice of white text on black or black text on white, background app refreshing, floating time zone support, and birthday reminders and greetings.

• The basic view for the iPhone, at the sale price of $5, is a monthly calendar below which is a list of upcoming events, much like the drop-down window on the Mac. You can shift between the month view and a five-day view with a search field.

The list by date can be set to show all days or just those with appointments. Other settings provide plenty of flexibility for what’s included in the list. You can rotate the phone in portrait mode to see a weekly view.

Entering appointments is much like the other devices, but you can also use the phone’s speaker to dictate a new event. That’s even easier than typing, and it works better than Siri.

The beauty of using each of these apps on your Mac, iPhone and iPad is that everything is synced. If you decide to try one of the apps, I’d recommend the iPad version as a start. But like me, you’ll likely find it such an improvement over iCal that you’ll buy it for all your devices. (https://flexibits.com/fantastical)


Net neutrality means that the Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data that travels over their networks in exactly the same way. It’s the way the Internet has worked since its inception and has transformed our lives in nearly everything we do. It’s also spawned innovation to create products and services we never imagined.

But there’s an effort underway to change the way it’s been working that will benefit a few large ISPs at the expense of the public and other businesses. This change is being led by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Comcast appointed by President Barack Obama.

His proposal is to change the equal-access provision and set up two classes of service, one that provides faster speeds and better access to those websites that pay, and a slower access speed for those that don’t want to pay.

Comcast is one of the strongest advocates for this change and would be one of the companies to benefit the most from it; if Comcast succeeds in buying Time Warner Cable, it would control a third of the high-speed Internet market. Since few of us have more than a single choice of high-speed Internet service providers, the purchase would extend its reach even further.

But Comcast has one problem: It is constantly in the running for being the most hated company in America. This year the company won that title in a contest conducted by the consumer site www.theconsumerist.com, owned by Consumer Reports. A phone call last week that made news all over the Web demonstrated why they are so disliked.

Ryan Block, a friend of mine who co-founded the gadget website Engadget, and his wife, Veronica Belmont, were recently trying to cancel their Comcast cable account, but the customer service agent had no interest in accommodating them. Even though they had already signed up for a new service, the rep refused to allow them to cancel.

Ryan writes, “The representative continued aggressively repeating his questions, despite the answers given, to the point where my wife became so visibly upset she handed me the phone. Overhearing the conversation, I knew this would not be very fun.

“What I did not know is how oppressive this conversation would be. Within just a few minutes the representative had gotten so condescending and unhelpful I felt compelled to record the speakerphone conversation on my other phone.”

“This recording (http://time.com/2985964/comcast-cancel-ryan-block/) picks up roughly 10 minutes into the call, whereby she and I have already given a myriad of reasons and explanations as to why we are canceling (which is why I simply stopped answering the reps repeated question — it was clear the only sufficient answer was “OK, please don’t disconnect our service after all.”)

Even at the end of the call when the agent finally gave up, he refused to provide any cancellation number or confirmation of the call.

Comcast issued a statement saying, “We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.

“We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.”

Consumerist.com reported that it, “Has heard from Comcast call center workers, both past and present, who agree that maybe while this guy went a bit far, it’s only because that’s the culture at the company, and that customer service reps are actually trained to do just what he did. … As multiple tipsters are telling us, CSRs can only have a certain amount of “discos” — or disconnects — on their personal tallies each day, and must meet a certain quota of “saves,” for which they can earn bonuses and/or commission.”

This is the same company that wants to insert itself in one of the country’s most precious assets.

Nearly every company and organization in the technology sector, as well as a large majority of the population, is opposed to these changes proposed by the FCC. How much do people care? When comedian John Oliver explained on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” what was being proposed, it generated 45,000 near instant responses to the FCC.

The FCC has received more than 1 million comments from the public regarding its proposed net neutrality rules. According to the FCC’s Gigi Sohn, 1,030,000 comments had been submitted by noon Friday on the East Coast.

Opposition is also coming from the major technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix that have petitioned the FCC to drop their plans. The Internet Association, the organization representing nearly 40 tech companies, including those above, also filed a formal petition in opposition. They want companies to compete by being able to attract customers based on their products and services, not on speed of access.

The FCC has recently begun accepting direct comments from the public. If you are opposed to this new scheme, it’s important to contact the FCC and Congress to let them know. We don’t want to hand over control of one of our most important resources to a near-monopoly. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 or email comments about the net-neutrality plan to openinternet@fcc.gov.


This story began in January, when I was cleaning my office and rearranging its spaghetti nest of wires. I noticed the cable modem that I pay Time Warner Cable $7 per month for and it dawned on me that I could save that fee by buying my own modem.

So I bought an ARRIS/Motorola SB6121 Surfboard, much like the one Time Warner uses, from Staples for about $60 and returned the rented unit.

The new modem requires registering its MAC number, so I called Time Warner to provide the information. The modem worked for a day and then wouldn’t connect; a second call to Time Warner to re-register solved that problem. I was pleased to be saving the monthly fee, as inconsequential as the savings were, but more than that, finding a way to fight back at the cable industry’s continuously increasing fees.

But a couple of days later, I noticed that the modem would disconnect from the cable network and I’d be unable to reach the Internet. The outage lasted for a minute or two, then the modem would reset itself and work again. The power never went out, just the connection. Over the next few weeks when it became more of an annoyance, occurring from five to 10 times a day, so I finally called Time Warner.

The cable guy checked the signal at the modem and found it to be a little weak. He went outside and replaced a splitter, and thought that was the cause. He also checked the modem and said it was on Time Warner’s approved list. But the problem still continued.

Another visit from another cable guy, who thought the problem was caused by my sending too much data. He wasn’t more specific other than to say I must be sending videos or someone else is accessing my network and doing that, even though I never send videos. But I reset my passwords to increase security.

Still the problem continued and seemed to get worse. Every afternoon it would fail several times an hour.

Another call, another visit. This time the cable guy replaced the wiring from the light pole on the street to the house. No change; drops continued.

I then thought it could be a result of a defective modem, so I exchanged it at Staples, reregistered it, and really hoped it was the cause. But, still the problem continued. I contacted the modem manufacturer and the customer support person looked at all of the hidden diagnostics for the modem on my computer, and assured me it could not be the modem, and must be a problem with the cable signal failing.

Just to be sure that my house voltage wasn’t a problem, I bought a backup power supply (UPS) for $150 that eliminated any voltage fluctuations, should they exist. But the drops continued even with the replacement modem.

You can imagine how annoying this was becoming — several months of intermittent outages with no idea of the cause. I was really getting annoyed at Time Warner. Why couldn’t they fix this and why should it take so long to figure it out? I began looking for other Internet services, but all I could find that served my neighborhood was AT&T’s U-verse service, which had lower connection speeds and just fair reviews.

I called Time Warner once more and reached a supervisor, Bob, who was sympathetic but equally baffled. He came to my home with a three-man crew to test everything that could be tested, going from room to room, wherever there was a TV. They measured every connection, checking the data going out and coming in, working for three hours.

They found that that something was emitting noise from inside my home out to the main cable line and looked for the cause of it. They checked the wiring from the connection at the telephone pole to the house, along the walls, in the attic and in the crawl space beneath the house. They crawled into spaces that were never meant for humans. They found a corroded connection in the crawl space that had likely been sitting in the dirt for years. They replaced it and the noise on the line was eliminated.

Could this have been the cause? We all were hoping. Bob said he’d check in with me every day, and true to his word, he did. The first day there was no dropping of the Internet. I was cautiously optimistic. But then the next day there was one occurrence, and the next day more. A week later it was clear that the problem was still unsolved.

When I spoke with the Bob and his partner Mark, both seemed as frustrated as I was and suggested they replace my modem with one of theirs. Sure, why not? And it was done the next day.

Again he called every day to see if the problem was solved.

A day went by with no dropouts; a second day and a third. It’s now been three weeks and my connection has never gone down. Yes, the problem appears to be finally solved, six months from when it began. And it was the modem I had installed.

The moral of this story? Leave well enough alone and beware of unintended consequences, particularly when you tamper with technology that’s working. That elusive $7 savings was not worth the aggravation it caused or the money that I spent on the back-up power supply. But I do have much more respect for Time Warner and the problems and people they deal with.


Collecting and analyzing our personal data continues to grow exponentially. It’s not just the NSA, but businesses such as Google and Facebook, whose growth depends on learning more and more about us and everything we do.

We used to assume that it was OK to provide some basic information to these companies in exchange for using their apps. How cool was Google Maps that we let follow us in exchange for reporting back traffic and routing information? Or Google Now for checking our calendar and telling when it was time to leave for the airport? And by giving access to our address book, Facebook allowed us to connect with lost friends and create a social network we could check in with every day. We marveled at these services.

At first, we were given ample warnings and ways to opt out from being tracked. The companies always said the information was gathered for their own use and would never be shared. But the value of this data and the need to please shareholders has caused Google and Facebook to make changes in their privacy policies over time to a point where virtually everything we do is now accessible to them.

No longer are we able to opt in to allow us to be tracked. Instead, we must opt out — but only if we can find the near-hidden pages and cope with the confusing language. When anyone criticizes what the companies do, their stock answer is “it’s in the agreement we signed.” Yes, a 9,000-word document of legalese in a font size too small to read that would take hours to digest.

But now, thanks to failed government oversight, overly ambitious startups and investors — many with little ethical grounding — and the lure of rewards from data mining, hundreds of companies are gathering even more personal information. It’s become a currency they can sell to data brokers and use to target us with advertising or something worse.

Facebook has moved from just monitoring Facebook activities to monitoring everything we do on our devices. They can now track what sites we go to, what we buy, who we’re meeting with, and with this information can easily figure out our income and age. They sell this data to advertisers to better target us with relevant material. Companies can use even our income level to decide what price to charge when we make a purchase.

It was revealed last week that Facebook conducted a huge psychological experiment on 700,000 users. Behavioral scientists manipulated the data feeds by filtering out either the positive or negative posts to see how customers reacted when they had either more positive or more negative feeds.

Some dismiss it as just market research that’s conducted on many products and advertising campaigns, but it touches an area that’s very uncomfortable for many. How would you like to be the subject of an experiment without even being asked to participate?

Google, which is already monitoring us through the Google apps we use and mostly love, is aggressively expanding its reach into our personal activities at home. It has purchased two companies, Nest and DropCam, which have products that can monitor our home and us. Nest’s thermostat is connected to our home’s WiFi network to provide information such as whether we are home, as well as the temperature and the weather outside. It takes little imagination to see that it won’t be long before they monitor our conversations, ostensibly to be there to help.

Google will tell you that much of this is being done to make advertising more effective. They are doing you a favor by showing ads of interest. I’m skeptical that online advertising really even works all that well. After all, do we really want to be interrupted with a pop-up page while we’re trying to do something else?

I ignore most ads. A few months ago I didn’t and I regret that. I clicked on a display ad that offered a free sample of men’s jockey shorts only to find that I needed to fill out a long questionnaire, which I chose not to do. From then on for months and months, on nearly every site I went to, there was a pair of underpants displayed on every page. It followed me between two computers, an iPhone and an iPad. It was really, really annoying.

Does an advertiser really expect that I appreciate being interrupted while trying to click on a news story? Does that advertiser expect to get me interested on the 10th or 100th time I see its ad? No, I become more annoyed that I can’t get rid of their stalking. And now more advertising is being moved to mobile, where an interruption is even worse.

So what can you do to provide a little more protection?

• If it’s unclear that an app cannot make money through upgrades or in-app sales, hesitate to install it. It will likely make money through some other way, such as selling personal information.

• Before installing an app, look at what the company is asking for. Does it make sense that a game app needs to have access to your address book and phone number? If its list of requests makes no sense, don’t install it and let the company know that.

• Don’t agree to sign in to any third-party sites using your Facebook or Google credentials. You’ll risk giving them access to more personal data.

• Never provide permission when requested to allow an application to collect and send back information, even when it says it’s to improve the product. It’s another way of saying “we want to track you.”

• Never fill out survey windows that pop up when you go to a new site. I’m amazed at how many times one opens and asks me to rate a website that I’ve seen for only 3 seconds.

• Install Adblock on each browser that you use. It’s a free extension that removes all ads. That’s how I eliminated the underwear ads.

Now, I’m still not planning on giving up Google or Facebook — I get a lot of utility from both — but I will continue to tread with caution and take care in avoiding disseminating my personal information.


I was on a panel last week at Stanford University that was part of an educational program put on by True Ventures, an early-stage venture company. It a program for founders of their companies involved in developing new products. Each of us on the panel was asked to offer three pieces of advice involving the development of new products.

Ryan Block was the moderator and former editor of Engadget, one of the first and most successful tech blogs, and co-founder of gdgt, an electronics reviews and shopping site. He’s now a product executive at AOL, which acquired both companies.

Ryan’s advice was:

• Seek balance.

• Just say no.

• Your product should do less, not more.

He explained that you will always have decisions to make that will seem in conflict. The challenge is to find the right balance between alternatives. One example is making a decision based on financial requirements versus using your instinct to make your product more appealing.

For example, do you add cost to a display to make it easier to read versus saving several dollars to improve margins? The development process is filled with these decisions that often require good instincts, and there’s not always a right answer. His advice is to choose and move on, rather than turn each decision into a complicated evaluation.

There are often times when you, leading the project development, will need to say no about something that others favor. You can’t make a decision to please others, and saying no may be uncomfortable, but it’s an important trait to learn if you are ultimately responsible for the product. Decisions are rarely democratic.

He also noted that great products often do less than more. Piling on feature after feature adds complexity and may actually make the product more difficult to use. One of the hardest things for engineers to do is to leave out the unimportant. The key is figuring out just what is unimportant.

Michael Simmons, the first panelist, is co-founder of Flexibits, a company that’s developed one of the most successful calendar apps for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers called Fantastical.

His advice was:

• Identify problems that truly bother you.

• Focus on key differentiators.

• Create solutions your users can’t live without.

Michael developed Fantastical (https://flexibits.com/fantastical) because deficiencies in Apple’s resident calendar, iCal, bothered him and prevented him from working the way he wanted to. So he began with a list of what he wanted for himself and used that to develop his product.

One of the product’s key differentiators is its use of natural language processing that allows you to type a sentence to create an action. For example type “Lunch with John next Tuesday” would create an appointment on your calendar Tuesday at noon. This differentiator immediately sets his product apart from iCal.

The Mac version has a pull-down calendar that further sets it apart, allowing you to check your schedule or calendar or entering an appointment without opening a new window These are among several features that users say they can’t live without.

Nate Weiner, co-founder and CEO of Pocket, was the second panelist and his advice was:

• Build something you care about.

• Define “why” first.

• Spend your time prototyping, not developing.

He chose a goal that he believed was something people care about: saving Web content for reading later on a multitude of devices. How often do we spot an article while in the middle of doing something else? Our choice is to stop what we are doing and read the article or ignore it. Pocket lets you mark it for reading later.

Evidently people do care. Pocket has more than 12 million registered users and his software is integrated into more than 500 apps. It’s available for the iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac, Kindle Fire, Kobo, Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera and Windows.

Defining “why” is important in an age when so many products are being created just because they can be. A product needs to have a compelling reason to exist, a purpose, a “why,” Nate said.

His third piece of advice was to spend your time prototyping to evaluate the many ways each part of the software might work, rather than latching on to an idea and spending lots of time developing it.

The three pieces of advice I put forward pertain mostly to hardware companies:

• The idea is the easy part.

• Leverage outside resources.

• Don’t believe your own hype.

Undertaking the development of a new hardware product involves a huge amount of diverse skills and activities — conception, design, manufacturing, forecasting, marketing, distribution, etc. — and all have to work well. But the idea or concept, no matter how clever, is usually the easiest part.

Particularly with hardware, because of its diversity of talents needed (mechanical, electrical, software, etc.) and physical requirements (as opposed to software code), you can’t staff and do everything in-house. Leveraging special skills by using other experts and companies becomes an effective way to get things done more quickly and less expensively.

Last, companies can become complacent when they believe all the reviews and praise about their own products. They should enjoy the success that comes from it, but move right on to their next product. If you believe everything you read about how great your product is, you may miss the next product that can replace it. We’ve seen that behavior to some extent with Apple, believing that the size of their iPhone screen was perfect, and now playing catch-up to bring out models with larger displays.