Personal Information Management

Posted in reviews -

Originally posted to LiveJournal on July 4, 2008

Since getting my new MacBook, I’ve been trying to pull off the pure Mac play - sticking with the stock applications, choosing integration over individual features, trying to work with what I’m given. It’s mostly worked out pretty well, but it’s taken a bit of tweaking. At this point, I’m working on a combined Mac/Google solution.

The ingredients are: MacBook at home, Ubuntu Linux at work, iPod, cellphone, old Palm Vx. Of the last three, I figured I should be able to at least ditch the Palm. It’s a workhorse, but it’s old and doesn’t play well with the Mac. I could go for the iPhone 3G in a few days. That would kill off all three, plus my digital camera. Tempting at $199, but the $100 $60 a month service plan is nuts for the amount I’d use it. It would take some sort of radical lifestyle or professional change to justify that. I’m not above throwing money at problems, but that’s just profligate.

Getting all my info off the Palm was pretty straightforward. Jpilot let me save all the calendar and to-do info as .ics files. After a small but annoying bit of tweaking to DOS-format and rename them, they uploaded smoothly into iCal. Similarly for the contacts and Address Book. That was one of the big wins - having all of my addresses, phone numbers, email and IM in the same place. Once that was all done, it all synched seamlessly to my iPod. Nice. The only snag (Apple developers, listen up!) is that the To Do list displays on the iPod in alphabetical order, not by priority. Come on guys; what are you thinking? Notes were also a bit awkward. You have to mount the iPod as a drive and save them as files in a “Notes” folder. No application integration there. Still, it might make sense to start storing To Do lists as Notes. If I work with them regularly, I may get used to them. So that’s awkward, but not a killer.

The killer turned out to be that I can only sync the iPod to one machine. The whole philosophy of the Palm is that you can go from home to work and keep your core info in sync. Even on Linux, there was a decent client that I could run either at home or at work. The iPod will really only talk to my home machine. That’s kinda control-freakish. It means that when I’m away from my MacBook, I would need to write down appointments on paper or something, and enter them in when I got back. That’s annoying enough that it got me playing with Google Calendars.

Google Calendars are pretty slick. You can have multiple calendars, set up different access constraints for them, and view them in a single display. My girlfriend and I each have personal calendars that we share with each other, and then I have an “events” calendar that’s open to the public. There’s probably also a middle ground for friends: Stuff that isn’t really private, but I don’t care to have strangers knowing, like who I’m having dinner with tomorrow.

iCal lets you set up read-only calendar “subscriptions”. So I re-exported my calendars, uploaded them to Google, deleted them from iCal, and slurped them back down as subscriptions. From there, they synched to my iPod just like before. I was also able to set up a subscription to our calendaring software at work (Zimbra). That’s gravy. Normally, I only have to worry about meetings and such when I’m in the office and have access to the calendar directly. But it is nice to have them on the iPod with audible alarms and all.

While I was at it, I discovered that Google Calendars has a handy text messaging (SMS) interface. You register your phone with them, and then you just send messages to “GVENT” (48368). Sending “day” gets a response with today’s events. “happy hour at 5pm tomorrow” creates a new event. You can set up events (individually or by default) to send you a text message alert. So if I’m going out without my iPod, I can have my cell phone remind me when it’s time to move on to the next round of fun. I don’t actually see myself using that a lot, but it’s nice to have as backup.

I watched Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” Google Tech Talk video the other weekend, and I’ve gotten all fired up on that. I’d been letting stuff just pile up in my Gmail inbox because I don’t actually get much mail there. Gmail doesn’t use the normal folder setup, but it has Labels, which let you do much the same thing, and a bit more besides. So I got everything tagged and archived in short order. Set up a few basic filters to handle list mail that I only need to check every day or two. They’re not super sophisticated, but they do the trick. An empty inbox is a nice feeling.

I also started playing with Google Docs. I haven’t done spreadsheets or presentations yet, but the documents are nice. They strike a good balance between features and simplicity. I’m a little paranoid about storing all this stuff on a free “beta” service, so it was nice to find that you can easily export them as HTML (and relatively clean HTML at that).

So I think that may be the winning combination. I could also look at the iPod Touch option, which would give me a way to enter data on the go. Right now, the only problem situation on the horizon is DragonCon, where I have to track a whole lot of events, and I’m not planning on lugging my MacBook along. It could be handy if they would publish an ics file with the complete schedule before we got down there. Maybe a separate one for each programming track or room. Hmm…

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