Tuesday, August 11, 2009

If I Were a Software Engineer

Twenty years ago I was still getting settled into my new digs as curate and school chaplain at St Luke's, Baton Rouge. I had a computer at home, the one that had gotten me through seminary. (It was an original IMB PC, with dual 5.25" floppy drives. WordPerfect was the only software I ever ran.) If I needed to use a computer while on church premises, I had to make nice with the office staff and use one of theirs when they were away for something. My personal organizational tools consisted of a Rolodex, a pocket liturgical calendar, a small desk calendar (I "synced" the two manually), and a pad of sheets labeled "Dumb things I gotta do," or some such. The internet was still at least five years away from being on the common persons's horizon.

Some four years later, by then in my second cure, a small parish across town from St Luke's, I stepped up to the Franklin Planner, a marvelously integrated personal management system contained in one very solemn-looking ("Monarch" size) black leather seven-ring binder. Carrying that thing around (and feeling like I would need to open a vein should I ever lose it), I impressed even myself.

That held me for about the next eight years, but I eventually went paperless, all of a sudden, in 2001, with the purchase of my first laptop, which, when asked nicely, talked to my Palm Pilot PDA. And I have never looked back. As much as I loved my Franklin Planner, moving beyond it was a good decision for me.

So that's how I became addicted to Microsoft Outlook. It came automatically loaded on my Dell Inspiron laptop (running Windows 2000). For a while I used Franklin's (by that time Franklin Covey) proprietary software, but soon acquired F-C's Plan Plus for Outlook, an add-on that brings a more robust functionality to the process of task planning. (It does other things as well, but that's pretty much what I wanted it for.) This arrangement served me quite well for a number of years, and despite occasional techno-glitches with a succession of devices that succeeded the Palm Pilot, I was relatively techno-happy.

Then, two years ago, I moved to my present venue, where they had (and indeed still have) a fancy arrangement known as a Microsoft Exchange Server. Danger, Will Robinson: Unless you're part of a large organization that has an in-house IT staff, don't ever get a Microsoft Exchange Server. It's like the Borg: It will assimilate you. Resistance is futile. Outlook suddenly stopped playing nice with PlanPlus, even though I purchased and installed a series of upgrades, thinking, "Maybe they've finally worked out the bugs." Data would evaporate from my hard drive, only to turn up later somewhere on the server--or not, sometimes. Syncing became a nightmare of caprice, never working the same way twice. I almost bought a Mac--that's how bad it got!

Now, I am pleased to say, I am a recovering Outlook addict, with nearly two months of Outlook sobriety behind me. It's getting easier every day. Naturally, you are intensely curious as to how I actually have a life without Microsoft Outlook (and, for that matter, Microsoft Exchange). Well, here's how:

I've gone to Google Calendar for my calendar needs. In fact, the whole office has. Nobody uses Outlook. It's easy, it's free, and it does the job. Plus, I can access it on any computer in the world with an internet connection.

I made friends with Gmail's user interface. I've had a Gmail account for quite some time, but always found their interface a little off-putting, preferring to download my messages into client software ... like Outlook. (I had a brief flirtation with Thunderbird, but the Borg sucked me back in.) But a little tenacity has paid off, and Gmail's highly functional (and always improving) interface has won me over. I now prefer it to any client software that I've seen.

I exported my Outlook contacts into Gmail's contacts. Very easily done, and all my contact information is a click away from my inbox.

For task management, I signed up for a Nozbe account. It costs me $14/month, but I could chop that by 75% with a two-year commitment, and I expect I will do so very soon. Nozbe is based on the Getting Things Done method of task management. I should probably actually read the book, but a series of very helpful training videos takes the pressure off needing to do so. Nozbe has an iGoogle version that I have conveniently embedded on my iGoogle home page (which I use on the desktop computer at home).

I signed up for an account (free) with Evernote, and downloaded their desktop software. Evernote replaces the Notes function in Outlook, but is a great deal more robust in its features. I have only yet begun to explore its capabilities, and expect to be using it much more than I even am at present.

I bought an iPhone. Best technological decision I have ever made. It has been a quantum leap in the experience of personal management. I used to dread the thought of receiving email on my phone, since I have a difficult time managing one inbox, let alone two. But the syncing is seamless and in real time. When I "manage" my inbox in one place, it's taken care of in the other. The same goes, of course, for contacts and calendar. Nozbe and Evernote both have iPhone apps, so I'm able to capture ideas and tasks right when they come to me, literally anyplace except the shower (which is still a problem, since a lot of ideas come to me in the shower!).

So what do I miss about Outlook? Three things, really:
1) Outlook is pretty. The Office 2007 version, running on Vista, is really quite visually attractive. Google, for all its imaginative functionality, still hasn't come up with anything quite so aestheticallyt appealing.
2) Outlook's calendar features are almost infinitely flexible and adaptable. I miss being able to schedule a repeating task or event in virtually any way I can imagine, and being able to color-code different categories of events. I hope both Google and Nozbe begin to catch up in these areas.
3) Outlook is integrated. I admit, that appeals to me perhaps more in concept than in actual execution, but it's something I miss.

So ... if I were a software engineer, I would be going after the Holy Grail of personal management: An integrated one-stop application that is stunningly beautiful, feature-rich and customizable, with seamless syncing between its resident app, its web-based mirror, and its iPhone app--the best of all possible worlds. OK, all you wonks, get to work!


Doug Stein said...

Here's a pretty cost-effective arrangement:

1) Laptop runs Windows 7 and Office 2007.

2) I subscribe to a hosted Exchange 2007 server (unlimited mailbox size - $12.95/month).

3) I have a Windows Mobile phone with Verizon (Samsung i760) which syncs to the Exchange server wirelessly.

When I enter a contact or calendar entry on either my phone or laptop it shows up on the other within a minute or less. When someone sends me an email, my computer and phone go "ding" within seconds of each other.

I also have Outlook Web Access, but don't often use it since if I'm not near a laptop I still have my phone.

Besides Outlook I also can use OneNote 2007 for client and meeting notes. If I tag anything in OneNote to be done by some date it creates an Outlook task (which then shows up on my phone within a minute or less).

It's true that Microsoft can seem like the Borg, but integration can be a lot less work than jury-rigging a bunch of apps together. I'm too busy earning a living to futz with technology (and I am a physicist, software developer, and strategy consultant). I'd rather solve problems than create them!

zif said...

I am a software engineer. Palm-os and thunderbird works fine. Cheap and free ( if you halve a palm.. I still use a treo 650. will move to a pre when I can get one on my provider)
I could write an integrated solution for you. But by the time you get the bugs out of a software project, it's obsolete. great way to lose your shirt.

Unknown said...

...so you're saying you wish you'd bought a Mac? :-/

Dale Matson said...

I have an IPAQ pocket pc that became unusable because it would no longer sync with my desktop computer. The Active Sync has a bug in the program or something and after sending the unit back twice, with it returned with "no problems". I even tried to sync it with my laptop to no avail. So....I gave up and the pocket pc that served me so well for years languishes in a drawer.

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