As it always has been, iCal is a program that just lets you record dated events and appointments, and keep a simple to-do list. I doubt that the folks at Apple were tempted to turn it into a project-management application; but they might have been tempted to make iCal a bit more like Entourage, and I am glad they resisted the temptation. And yet, iCal 3.0.3 is a much better program than previous versions. Below the surface, if you need it, the new iCal has a lot more power for the same great price—free. For its target audience of individual users and small workgroups, iCal is the best, least expensive, and simplest program out there.
Looks different, feels about the same
For individual users, the improvements in iCal 3 are modest but useful. iCal 3 sports a clean, Leopard-style look and feel. The search box is in the upper right corner of the window, where our browsers have trained us to look for search boxes. A setting in the iCal Preferences dialog box gives every new event a default notification (say, 15 minutes). You can quickly spot events containing attendees by the little person icon, and iCal also shows whether an invitation has been sent or accepted.
Adding a new appointment is as easy as clicking in the calendar and typing, and you add event details in a pop-up balloon instead of in the old drawer—a change I particularly like. I always thought drawers were a bad user-interface device, because they either appeared off screen or required that the main window be resized. Most of the time, the new details balloon automatically positions itself on screen so that the window does not have to be moved. One thing about the details balloon does seem a bit too finicky, though: once you save an event, double-clicking on it brings up the details balloon in read-only mode. If you want to edit the event after double-clicking on it, you have to click on an Edit button. Perhaps this is a safety feature. But it seems odd to have to go to this trouble just to change, say, a typo in a note, when you can easily—even accidentally—delete an event or to-do item entirely by just pressing the Delete key, without iCal asking for confirmation. And the Edit button seems even odder when you notice that it’s available for dated events but not for to-dos.
Oh, and the iCal icon in the Dock now correctly displays today’s date, even when iCal isn’t open. In the past, iCal’s icon wasn’t dynamic when the program was closed—the icon would instead show iCal’s birth date, July 17. It was cute if you understood the reference, but a lot of people apparently thought it was a bug.
To do or not do
For people who deal more with tasks than appointments, iCal’s weak spot remains the to-do list. iCal lets you create multiple calendars and organize them into groups, which is very useful. As with dated events, you assign to-dos to calendars. I find the term “calendar” a bit awkward for tasks that don’t have a date assigned to them, but the bigger problem is that the only way to group your tasks in iCal is by calendar. In contrast, Mozilla’s Sunbird (
), which in other respects is similar to iCal, lets you assign tasks not only to calendars but also to categories, and it also lets you give each task a location. You can use Sunbird’s Location field to give tasks a context, if you are a devotee of the Getting Things Done approach; iCal has a location field for appointments but not for tasks. Since there’s no way in iCal to organize your tasks below the level of calendar, your to-do list can’t handle much complexity.
It would also be nice if the status field for tasks were a bit subtler. In iCal 3, a task is either done or not done. In life, however, many tasks are partially done and it is helpful to be able to see this at a glance. An “in progress” status would be a nice addition to iCal, and the ability to be even more precise (for example, “80 percent” or “mostly done”) would be even nicer.
Smarter Mail, better iCal
iCal is now supported by new features in Apple’s Mail ( ), a development that seems to reflect Apple’s recognition that many of us now spend a lot of time in our e-mail programs. You can add to-dos in Mail and view them there or in iCal. And the new data-detectors feature in Leopard Mail gives it the ability to identify text in messages that you might want to convert into a task or an event such as an appointment for lunch tomorrow with the person who sent you the e-mail. Data detectors look for specific dates and addresses, so if you get an e-mail invitation that says, for example, “Let’s have lunch tomorrow at 11:30 am at Willy’s Diner on Main Street,” you can hold the mouse over some part of the text and Mail will recognize it as a possible event and give you the option of adding this either as a dated event in iCal or as a new to-do item.
Mail doesn’t detect event data unless you hold the mouse over the source text, and even then, Mail recognizes only some parts of the invitation (“lunch tomorrow at 11:30 am”) but not others (“at Willy’s diner on Main Street”). The latter is not specific enough to be recognized. I hope this feature improves because it could really be useful. Still, it’s impressive as far as it goes.
The basic options for sharing iCal calendars are pretty much the same as they’ve been, which is very good. You can publish your calendars online via .Mac (soon to be renamed MobileMe) or a private server. Published calendars are easy to subscribe to, and you can choose from zillions of public, published ones. I had no trouble adding the Texas Rangers 2008 season schedule and a calendar of Roman Catholic holy days.
But the big news about iCal 3 is that it now supports the CalDAV calendar-sharing protocol. This means that if you use iCal Server or other CalDAV compatible server software such as the open-source Cosmo or Chandler, iCal will manage the calendars of your entire workgroup, and maybe even the whole company. When installed on a CalDAV server, iCal knows what everybody’s doing and where they’re doing it, so you can quickly find out if Susan and Rashid are available for a meeting at 4:15 today, and whether the conference room is free for the meeting. If you are an individual iCal user, this new power costs you nothing and won’t get in your way—indeed, you won’t even notice it. But business users who’ve been tempted to go with more-expensive and more-complicated commercial solutions should definitely take a look at iCal now.
Macworld’s buying advice
What buying advice? It’s free. Use it. For the price, and for most users, there is no better calendar application and calendaring system for the Mac OS. It’s a bit weak in the task-management department, but even business users may now find that iCal can manage everybody’s calendars easily, effectively, and economically.
[William Porter is a database developer and event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.]