Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Calling All Software Engineers

This has been a more-significant-than-average day in the Anglican blogsphere. But the honest-to-God truth is that I haven't got anything to say about it that hasn't already been said, either by me or someone else. Go here for the details if you tend to hang out under a rock.

So, instead of engaging in redundant punditry, I'm going to indulge in a technology rant. 

Some background: Roughly fifteen years ago I graduated from pocket calendars and crude to-do lists scribbled on scratch paper to what was then called the Franklin Planner. My version was contained in a large seven-ring leather binder. It was quite handsome and I was very fond of it. There was a page for every day, with room for appointments, notes, and a task list that was governed by some fairly sophisticated principles for establishing priorities. My life was all but literally in that binder, and the loss of it would have constituted a major trauma.

In mid-2001, I acquired my first laptop computer and a PDA (yes, a Palm Pilot), and made the leap to paperless planning. By this time, Franklin had merged with Stephen Covey's operation (he of Seven Habits fame), and I purchased their software that more or less emulated the functionality of the leather binder that I then discarded. But my laptop came loaded with Microsoft Outlook, which I found very attractive, the only downside being that Outlook's task management tools are not amenable to the Franklin process to which I had become accustomed (addicted?). So I was shortly thereafter delighted to discover that Franklin Covey had developed add-on software that attaches itself to Outlook and delivers familiar Franklin Covey tooks in an Outlook environment. I was sold.

For the most part, this worked very well for me. The only glitch was that the marriage between the two was randomly unstable and they would stop talking to one another. This could always be fixed, but it involved a phone call to FC tech support and those experiences are never fun. 

Then, about a year and half ago, I moved to an office with a network governed by a Microsoft Exchange Server, and my life has never been the same. The pissing contests between Outlook and FC became more frequent and more difficult to solve. Every time there was a crash, I told myself that there must be a betteer way ... an Outlook-free way ... a Microsoft-free way. Once I downloaded a free trial of FC's stand alone planning software. The only thing I didn't like about it was the lack of an integrated email client (I was at that time not on friendly terms with Gmail's user interface), but I downloaded Thunderbird and loved it to death. But the big monkey wrench was that FC's software would not sync with the particular kind of Palm Treo (running Windows Mobile, ironically) smartphone that I have. Once again, reluctantly back to Outlook wit the FC add-on.

So ... when I fired up the present laptop (a seven month-old Dell Studio) on Easter Tuesday after being away from it for about 36 hours, Outlook would not launch. There was a corrupt file with the extension .ost--these have to do with the process of syncing with the MS Exchange Server so I can use Outlook when I'm not connected to the office network. I won't even go into the arcane turbidity of the Inbox Repair Tool and its minion of demons. It took two visits from our (Microsoft-certified) IT consultant (we pay a retainer for a certain number of hours, which we've almost used up for the year) to just locate the damn thing in Windows Explorer. Once found, it was easily expunged. Problem solved. Outlook is back up and, for the moment, on good terms with Franklin Covey.

But in the meantime I have spent an inordinate amount of time once again investigating alternatives. It rather amazes me that there doesn't seem to be one--nothing, at least, that replicates the range of functionality that my present arrangement provides ... when it's all working. So here's what I'd like to see. Somebody else will have to do the heavy lifting, because I don't know a line of code from a clothes line. But I'm willing to pay for a licensed copy of an application that will have the following features:

  • A calendar with a "look and feel" that is comparable to Outlook's, with an ability to color-code events in several different ways. (I like to show Sundays and feast days in their proper liturgical colors, quickly see occasions that take me out of town, and appointments that are purely personal.)
  • Task management tools that are more than just a re-arrangeable To-Do list. Like in Outlook, I need to be able to assign both start dates and due dates. I'm not married to Franklin Covey's precise prioritizing features, but there needs to be someting comparable that allows me to break big tasks down into smaller ones, rank them precisely by relative importance, and then move them around using "drag & drop" to various start dates on a calendar. And while I'm at it, the ability to link a task to a particular document file would be very cool.
  • An integrated email client would be nice, but I have to say that gmail's interface is growing on me. I especially like the way it groups messages into "conversations," and I love its search abilities. So these features would need to be built in to any email client.
  • The ability to import my Outlook database would be critically important. 
  • I am not in principle opposed to a web-based application (Franklin Covey has one, but its interface is too drab and hard to read to excite me), but there would need to be some way to work offline in some limited way during those inevitable times when the internet connection fails or is too slow.
  • I haven't yet thought through the handheld piece of this puzzle. I'm not currently paying for a data plan on my phone, so I rely on the ability to sync between laptop and PDA. But once I figure out which wireless company has a decent signal in my house (Verizon doesn't), I'll probably be ready to spring for a data plan.
So have at it, all you geeks. Let me know when yoo've got something to beta-test.


mousestalker said...

There is a bit of a learning curve, but you might try ubuntu linux. I don't use a palm pilot, but a friend of mine who does assures me that it plays very well indeed with linux.

If you do decide to go the ubuntu (or other linux distro) route, try it in a dual boot setting on your computer first. That way if you like it, you can always wipe windows out and if you don't, then removal of linuxis a snap.

You might also give a Mac a try.

Unknown said...

With some minor limitations, I use a Blackberry and I Mac with great success. I also use Google and Firefox. Not seamless, but very workable.

Martial Artist said...

Fr. Dan,

I would probably volunteer to help, but the learning curve for me (who has always just used Outlook as a coarse reminder tool and carried the rest around in my head) would probably mean you would have to possess endowments that would make TEC's assets look minuscule in comparison.

Kevin Flick said...

Have you heard of Getting Things Done? It's an organizations technique developed by David Allen. Needless to say, there are a number of "GTD" software apps out there that should do everything you're looking for.

David Allen's website:

Daniel Martins said...

Indeed, I have heard of GTD and have downloaded a trial version of software from Affexis that is based on that paradigm. It's a bit of a learning curve, though!

Anonymous said...

you might try time and chaos. It comes highly recommended.