Author Archive

Integrating Gmail and Toodledo: Bring Your Task Inbox to the Surface

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment

As noted in an earlier blog post, when I used Outlook as my day-to-day email client, I relied heavily on the excellently conceived Netcentrix Outlook GTD plugin. Since migrating to Google Apps and Gmail, I’ve tried several different approaches to allow me to integrate my email inbox and a Getting Things Done (GTD) task management system. My currrent tool of choice for GTD and task/project management is Toodledo (TD). While it doesn’t specifically integrate with Gmail directly, the application has some special ways of accepting tasks sent to it from Gmail (or any other email client, or even Twitter).

The developers have created a clever means of using special syntax placed into the subject line of the email that will categorize an email for you automatically. For example, if I sent an email to my special Toodledo inbox, and created a subject line with “Pickup Dry Cleaning #Next thursday,” Toodledo would create a task for picking up the dry cleaning, along with next Thursday as the due date.

Email Subject Line Syntax≠Good Usability
I keep a cheat sheet on my desktop with the special syntax (I have a Tomboy note for this), but I find it cumbersome to work this way in practice. Usability wise, it’s very easy to screw this up, and try as I might I often screw up the syntax. You have to think about it too much for my tastes.

Also, I often want to get the email into my “waiting” status (so I know to check on the receipients progress), and I hate the idea of the various TD syntax being exposed to the recipient of an email I’ve sent them.

Send Your Email to Toodledo, but Use Toodledo to Process
Using Toodledo, I’ve arrived at a system that works well for me now. It allows me to quickly track emails that need to be converted to tasks, and gives me the power/flexibility of Toodledo’s interface to process them. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I have a Gmail contact for my TD email address (the name field in the contact is TD), so I can just type “TD” in the “To:” field in Gmail.
  2. When I want to get an email into TD I either forward the email, or if I’m replying to someone, I BCC it to the TD address.
  3. In TD my default folder is something I’ve labeled “Inbox.” Any emails I forward from Gmail end up there to be processed GTD style. Then it’s really easy to quickly assign status, folder, context, due dates, etc…
  4. To make the “watched” inbox/gmail thing work for me, I run 4 tiled browsers (Chrome works well for this), each open to a different view on a secondary desktop, with the inbox in the lower right. I’ve set this up on a separate computer/monitor that I control via my main keyboard using an app called Synergy. This way my task dashboard is always in my face (and my task inbox is always visible). BTW, I use a really inexpensive Netop computer for this and an older/smaller LCD screen that I had lying around.
  5. I also utilize the Ultimate To-Do-List on my Android-based phone and keep my Inbox on a secondary home screen. I often end up doing mobile gmail to task conversion by forwarding mails from my Droid to Toodledo.

You can see this in action here (Inbox is in lower right):

TD Screenshot
Click on the image for a larger view

I consider this to be a work in progress. The second machine/synergy thing has really helped me, as has the Toodledo inbox folder as a means of processing.

There are several interesting Gmail/GTD tools out there that have caught my attention. GQueus and ActiveInbox look like they would be great GTD/task tools for Gmail users such as myself; however, to effectively evaluate them, I would have to reengineer my setup, which will require more time than I’m ready to spend right now (not ready to take the deep dive). Great as Toodledo is, the lack of a more direct Gmail/Google Calendar integration does have me keeping my eyes on other apps.


Reading in Bed with a Kindle… I’m Getting Hooked, but I Don’t Love it

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

My mother-in-law received a 2nd generation Kindle as a gift from one of her publisher’s Penguin Books, which she recently passed along to my 12-year old daughter since she wasn’t using it. Given that “Granny” is a regular world traveler, a scholar, an avid reader, and a regularly published author, she is the kind of book person that would greatly benefit from the literal lightening of the load that an eBook offers, but alas, she chose to not work her way through the technological or psychological gap the Kindle ended up in her granddaughter’s lap… and now mine. As a technology guy, and someone who gets in trouble with my own clutter, I’ve always coveted the idea of a Kindle’s electronic tidiness, but the cost/opportunity/eventual obsolescence kept me from putting the hammer down.

Daughter rather liked the Kindle, but immediately ran into the issue of how to feed books into it on her limited budget (her iPod offers similar challenges). Dad on the other hand has a little bit more liberties disposable income wise, so I decided to borrow the device a few weeks ago, and am now nearly through my 2nd full length book (Daughter now wants the Kindle back). And while I don’t love it, I’m not ready to give it back yet. I’m curious as to what other’s experience has been.

The Kindle is Very Imperfect
I find the Kindle very imperfect, but will admit I’m hooked on having a small electronic slate next to bedside that quickly wakes to the page I left off on the night before. And while I love libraries and book stores, it’s amazingly convenient to hear about a book on the radio, or from a friend, and to get it delivered immediately.

I have a gooseneck LED reading lamp at bedside, which is almost required Kindle equipment, especially if one’s partner is trying to sleep when you are reading. The E Ink technology that allows the Kindle to run for weeks on end without a charge is not quite bright enough to read without another light source. From a reading in bed perspective, the oddest thing about the Kindle reading experience is turning pages. The 2nd generation Kindle relies on a dedicated page turning button which audibly clicks when you press it (apparently the newest 3rd generation Kindle has made this a quieter operation). If you haven’t done the Kindle thing, imagine a silent bedroom with your partner sleeping gently beside you… then click. The page turns sound positively cacophonous.

Since a Kindle book is readable on other devices, self conscious about waking my spouse, I tried reading one night on my Nexus One Android phone. Page turning is a simple silent finger swipe move, and of course the device’s AMOLED screen is very bright (no reading light required). Still there was something inherently awkward about hanging out under the covers with my smartphone in hand (and the brightness was definitely part of it). The handset is dense, where the Kindle is more balanced and thinner (more book like). We have a book jacket type cover for the Kindle, but the last couple of nights I’ve take the cover off as it adds unnecessary weight and the back flap is cumbersome while reading.

With the rise of Apple’s iPad, and various emerging competing tablet/slate solutions there is a great deal of debate regarding the relevance of a purpose built reading device like the Kindle. The pundits are suggesting that this holiday season will mark a real shift into eBook land similar to what we saw with digital music and photography. The question of course will be what will you be using to read those eBooks? One potential interesting challenger is Barnes & Noble, whose recent introduction of of the Nook Color (review here) delivers something in between an iPad and a Kindle, but still decidedly a reading device first. As far as form factor/device, I’m still on the fence. The Nook Color will undoubtedly evolve (or die) quickly, so conventional wisdom is to stay away from this first generation device.

Are you reading in bed with your iPad or Kindle? Do you love it? or are you a Luddite and sticking with paper for now?

P.S. I highly recommend my first 2 eBooks: Jane Levy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and Mark Greenside’s I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do).

Categories: Mobility, Software Tags: ,

After 20 Years, Windows No More (mostly)

July 12, 2010 Leave a comment

“In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Windows anymore…”

Last month, after running my ThinkPad X61 as a dual-boot Windows/Linux (Ubuntu) laptop for 14 months, I finally wiped Windows off of my hard drive and opened up 160 GB of space. I had kept the Windows XP boot option there as a safety since the beginning, but after not using it for several months I decided I no longer needed the crutch.

I’m by no means a revolutionary as many others have done this, but as with my move to Google Apps (detailed here), the shift is very telling, especially for the small business community (which I’m a member of). In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Microsoft Windows anymore. That’s a big deal, especially in a time where a recent decision to put Windows 7 Ultimate Edition (64 bit) on one of our laptops cost my business $258.99. Obviously there’s more to this than money, including the ability to run on a wide variety of hardware (including old seemingly out of date computers) and stability (e.g. no blue screens, viruses or spyware).

A Little Detail and Some Back Story
I started the Linux thing purely as an experiment. The whole idea that there was a very large community of people collaborating on excellent free software was always very intriguing to me. I was also attracted to the idea of technology that could easily run on low-end hardware and was free of licensing restrictions. In 2004 or so I took an old desktop PC and installed whatever the “easy to use” flavor of the Linux-day. In spite of my comfort with PCs, I was immediately confused and disoriented. I quickly gave up.

Last year, after doing lots of homework I went at this very step wise and methodically. One of the engineers who worked for me talked up Ubuntu and I felt compelled to try again. I first built a home server for storing my music and our family’s backup files. Nothing special. I bought some very cheap hardware off of, salvaged an old hard drive, and installed the operating system on a cheap compact flash card (same kind as you’d use in a camera).

This first go round was not in the least bit difficult, but it was still strictly hobbiest stuff. Still I was successful enough at the process that I decided to go after my day-to-day computer.

Linux had evolved significantly by my second go round, so by the time I built my home-brew server I was able to install it easily, and the system was immediately familiar and usable to me. Today that home-brew server not only streams my music collection throughout the house, it is also a backup device for my wife (Windows 7) and my daughter (XP), and acts as a print server for our household color printer. Not bad for a very low powered system that cost less than $200.

Not Ready for the Deep Dive
When it came time to my day-to-day computer, I wasn’t ready for the deep dive immediately, so started my transition by installing an Ubuntu variant called Wubi. Wubi lives completely inside of your Windows install, and doesn’t require uninstalling anything or making a commitment—a perfect try before you buy scenario. You keep Windows as is, but have a choice at boot time whether to launch Ubuntu or Windows. It doesn’t allow you run both at the same time like other virtualization schemes (more about that later), but it’s a remarkable piece of practical engineering that allows you to play around like it’s the real thing. Don’t like it? Very easy to uninstall it without a trace.

After about a month I was ready to make a bigger move and installed Ubuntu side by side with Windows XP (I’d abandoned Vista a few months before because of very serious bugs I was running into, and Windows 7 was not yet available). The stock Ubuntu installer does a nice job of separating church and state and soon enough I was able to choose whether I wanted Windows or Ubuntu upon boot. I  created an NTFS  partition (standard Windows file format) that could share my working data between the operating systems (documents, images, music, etc…), and soon I was living in Ubuntu most of the time.

I admit it, I use Crossover and VirtualBox, but I’ve found lots of good non-Windows software I like
Let me admit a few things. As much as I’ve tried to embrace the open source OpenOffice for day-to-day word processing and business chores, I don’t love it and still use Microsoft’s Office 2007 (which understandably doesn’t have a Linux version). I bit the bullet a few months back and purchased Codeweaver’s Crossover, an application layer that allows you to run regular Windows programs in Linux (also on Apple computers). While it is possible to run Microsoft Office in Linux without Crossover using the free Wine, Crossover takes away a lot of the headache of doing this. I do find myself running Microsoft Office less and less and using the OS agnostic Google Docs instead, but Google’s office apps are still incomplete so it’s nice to have standard Word and Excel available when needed.

My business does customer support work that requires us logging into customer sites using a variety of VPN protocols, not all of which play well together on the same computer. Also, many of the applications we support are Windows-based, so having a Windows-capable environment is necessary for me a few times a week. To handle Windows when I need it, I’ve turned to Oracle’s free VirtualBox which runs nicely inside of Ubuntu and gives me Windows on demand.

XP (or whatever Windows is your preference) runs really nicely inside of VirtualBox and can run any Windows application natively. I end up using VirtualBox for GoToMeeting and a handful of odd ball scenarios where I need Windows (like websites that only run on Internet Explorer).

What About those Trusted Applications?
Like most computer users I’ve come to rely on some trusted niche applications that I needed to find equivalents of in Ubuntu/Linux land. More than a year into this process, I can tell you that a die-hard Windows guy like I used to be can get along just fine with a little bit of fishing around. There are some amazing folks out there writing open source applications and you’d be surprised at how evolved some of the offerings are.

Here’s a short list of some of the applications I use on a day-to-day basis:

Category Linux App Replaced Windows app Comments
Web Form Filler LastPass (also works in Windows) Roboform I was so reliant on Roboform that I simply could not jump to Linux without a good form filler, password management utility. LastPass gives Roboform a run for the money and then some, especially since it’s completely browser based and will run across platforms.
Screen Capture Shutter Snagit SnagIt is one of those incredible utilities that you become dependent on quickly. Shutter is not as good as SnagIt but pretty darn good (and getting better).
Document Capture/Scanning gscan2pdf Adobe Acrobat Professional You can clearly live without Acrobat Professional (or Standard) in Windows, but if you do a lot of work with documents, it’s nice to have the real deal. On Ubuntu one can put together a variety of programs that take care of the things that you would do in Acrobat. I use Gscan2PDF to scan receipts and just about anything that I need to digitize. It’s simple, fast, and works like a charm at what it does.
PDF Manipulation PDF Shuffler Adobe Acrobat Professional As with Gscan2PDF, PDF Shuffler is a bit of a one trick pony. I use it to rearrange PDF pages, and also put together separate PDFs into one document.
PDF Manipulation/Editing Foxit PDF Editor + Wine PDF Editor FoxIt makes a great PDF editing program for Windows that allows you manipulate PDFs after the fact. There are some rough Linux equivalents, but nothing close to Foxit. Turns out that their PDF Editor works fine under Wine.
Folder Backup/Sync Grsync SyncBackSE I started replicating “My Documents” under XP years ago with SyncBack. A great little utility (there’s a free version too), I would schedule backing up my data nightly to an external drive (or network drive). Many folks do this via the native Linxu tool rsync. Grsync adds a graphical front-end. Not as fully featured as SyncBack, but does a good job nonetheless.
Ghost/Hard Drive Replicatioin Clonezilla Macrium Reflect and/or Ghost Clonezilla is not a pretty application, but it is very effective and have found that I can get by using many of the defaults. Several folks have written good instructions which can be easily be found via Google searches.
Digital Audio Conversion/Manipulation SoundJuicer + SoundConverter dbPowerAmp Nothing comes close to dbPowerAmp’s Swiss Army knife set of tools for Windows audio. I’ve found that it runs very well under Wine. That said, I mostly use the native Gnome apps Sound Juicer and Sound Converter.
Cleanup/Optimization BleachBit CCleaner They say this is not necessary in Linux, but BleachBit is the equivalent of CCleaner and cleans up artifacts of old programs and “crap” that your browser accumulate.

Should I Jump?
As much as I would like to say so, Ubuntu (or Linux) is not for everyone. It it a really viable option for a lot of people? I think so.

Unless you are extremely motivated to learn yourself, I think a key in making the jump is having someone who you can call on for support. I mostly didn’t have someone, but I was interested in learning and used online resources. For the motivated, there are several great blogs and forums that can help and  the Absolute Beginner area at Ubuntu Forums is incredible place to start. I also have learned a lot from the following blogs: OMG! Ubuntu, WorksWithU, Tombuntu, and UbuntuGeek. You’d be amazed at the generosity of the community, especially towards newbies.

Oddly enough, I think one real stumbling point for consumer adoption is the iPod or iPhone. Since I’m not an iTouch, iPhone, or iPod user, this was not an issue for me, but for many of the folks I know, this would be an issue.

A couple of months back I chronicled my 12-year old daughter’s Windows malware meltdown. For a few days while I worked through getting her computer usable again, daughter used my Netbook, configured with Linux Mint (a variant of Ubuntu). She actually rather liked it and was quite open to giving up on Windows. What held me back, was that she is a regular iPod user, who uses iTunes to purchase and manage her music collection. While there are ways to get iTunes to run in Linux, I wasn’t looking forward to being her personal tech support slave.

Yes, the new version of Ubuntu can easily sync iPods (and other Apple devices), and there are several good music management apps like iTunes (the current version of Banshee integrates nicely with Amazon’s mp3 store); however, if one has older DRM tunes purchased through the iTunes store, reconciling all of this can be an ugly process. In the next 6-12 months I see this situation continuing to improve as Apple is beginning to have some serious competition in the online music purchasing business. Could we have just run out and bought her a Mac? Perhaps, but the stumbling block is cost, and of course openness.

For the small business owner? it really comes down to who will support you… if you have a great support vendor, or internal resources, this is a great direction, especially if your core business applications can be done in the cloud.

Are you someone who’s made the jump? or are you sticking to Windows 7? or are a Mac user who thinks Ubuntu is blatant rip off? Feel free to leave a comment.

Of Gmail, GTD, and List Managers… Can Gmail Reliably be Your Trusted System?

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

In spite of its flaws, when I was using Microsoft Outlook as my email client/personal information manage, Netcentric’s Outlook add-on was my most successful “trusted system” (in David Allen Getting Things Done parlance). A year ago when I began a migration away from Outlook, I started looking for a web-based system that was cross platform and that would have the ability to also interact with a mobile device. I first used Nozbe, then moved to Toodledo.

Since moving to a web-based tool for task/list management, what has consistently been awkward is managing the interconnection between emails, actions and status. Yes there are ways of emailing tasks to Toodledo or Nozbe; however, in my experience it is far from an organic integrated process. While productivity zealots warn about living one’s life in an email client, I find that email is a vital component of keeping on top of my interests. As noted in this blog, I’ve moved to using Google Apps (Gmail) over the last couple of months and keep a dedicated browser open on a separate screen for Google’s Apps (in tabs) and Toodledo (always open in its own tab), and I’ve been finding that I’m using Toodledo less and less. I have no real gripes with Toodledo as it is a very powerful list manager; however, in spite of its integration points, it is a bit of an island.

I recently discovered and implemented GTD coach Kelly Forrister’s Gmail GTD method described here.  This, along with Gmail’s multiple inbox feature (I have inboxes for Next Action, Waiting For, Actions and Someday) approximates something of what I once did in the Outlook add-on. Using Kelly’s system, I’m almost at a point where I’m saying to myself, should I continue to manage these two separate islands, or can I do it all in Gmail?

The weakest part of adapting Gmail for this type of task/status management is that emails are not really task objects, thus once an email is created you can’t really manage the subject properly. Also, since they are not really tasks, the “completion/status” life cycle is not properly documented. And of course, the collaboration/tracking of others is hard to do.

If you’ve ended up at this post, I suspect many of you have struggled with the same. Can Gmail alone be your “trusted” system? Do you need a separate list/task manager?

No Outlook in My Future: Migrating to Google Apps and Leaving my Blackberry Behind

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

After using Outlook/Exchange since 1997 and RIM/BlackBerry devices since 2004, I recently spearheaded a move to migrate TPC Healthcare (the boutique healthcare technology firm that I founded) to Google Apps and to Google’s Android devices. For a long time I considered myself to be a big Microsoft/RIM guy, but over the last couple of years something really shifted for me, not the least of which was spinning off my business into its own entity. Partially this shift was about saving money. At $50-per-year-per-user, Google Apps Premier Edition is a no-brainer for the small business owner who needs enterprise features. Prior to this move I’d been outsourcing seats on Exchange/BlackBerry Enterprise servers for $22.90-per-user-per-month, along with a Smartphone Enterprise $45/month/user data plan. I had become accustomed to these overhead costs, but when presented with the possibility of saving 50 percent while getting a broader set of applications, I knew I had to check it out. But cost was not the only reason I switched to Google. As a small business we have the opportunity to be nimbler than the large competitors we face every day. Having excellent communication tools and well organized data is a competitive advantage for us — as is the ability to have shared-anytime-anywhere access to our assets. And as I evaluated our options, I considered Google Apps to be a practical and unifying move that could be done quickly with limited cost outlay.

Read the rest of my case study @’s EnterpriseMobileToday here:

Touchscreens are Overrated… or I miss your BlackBerry. This is NO fun. :-(

May 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Last night I went to a local carnival with my daughter and her friend, leaving my lovely wife at home to quietly enjoy her beloved NY Mets. She’s not much for crowds or for the intense suburban stew of these types of Lion’s Club events. A couple of times a year, I happily do carnival duty, thankful at least that I no longer have to go on the swinging pirate ship ride anymore. Several times the wife checked in via email with me, and I happily responded with two or three word bursts. Her last reply to me was: I miss your BlackBerry. This is NO fun. 😦

Truth be told, had I had a physical keyboard, I probably would have a more fluid electronic conversation thread with her. So in spite of having Swype (a great keyboard replacement for my Google Nexus One smartphone), the reality is that I am reluctant to to type much on my device and find myself thinking twice about doing anything that requires much text input.

This is true of email, but also of “texting.” While terse communication is more accepted here, sometimes this is the best way to reach some people–for some folks SMS messaging is a much more reliable means of interaction. Sometimes “K” or “C U l8tr” are just enough, but I’m rarely hot to do more than grunt using my touchscreen device. Interestingly enough, I’ve felt kind of liberated by the fact that I discovered that I can “text” these people from inside of Gmail, using the “Text Messaging in Chat” lab module.

Sometimes I Need More than Less
Now some people will say that touchscreen devices encourage an improved “less is more,” communication, but IMHO that’s really folks trying to justify the choice of their slick iPhone, Droid, or now iPad. Yes there are all the cool apps, and you have the computing power of something that used just sit on your lap or your desk, but trust me this is not a good input device, no matter what any of the marketing is saying.

I’ve been a mobile “device” guy now for 15 years, so I’m no neophyte here. I’ve owned my share of devices, including an original Palm Pilot, Casio Cassiopeia, a Vadem Clio, a Palm V (one of their best), an early Windows smartphone (brand or model that I don’t remember as it was not especially memorable), an iPod, and several different Blackberrys. I also used a Motion tablet (based on Windows tablet edition) as my main computer for 2 years.

As I hard as I tried, I eventually dumped the tablet and went back to a keyboard.

Now I’ve never owned an iPhone (or iPad), so the Apple fanboys in the crowd can throw stuff at me for lumping them in with everyone else, but I can’t imagine that input wise for day in day out chores, that it’s much better than my Nexus One.

Touchscreen Devices Are Great, But
Touchscreen devices are great for selecting things, especially if they are well designed and don’t give you too many choices. The interface to my Honda navigation system is a good example, but in spite of how sleek it feels to lose the keyboard, if you need to input stuff (and I’m someone who does), keyboards are just better. Good luck writing this post on an iPad.

Speech recognition can obviously work great too, but again the key is limiting choice like the beloved Vocera devices that my company TPC Healthcare supports. Still regardless of how much better recognition has become, it’s best for “commands” not for free form conversation, or “writing,” especially under mobile conditions. I do use my Honda’s speech rec (“XM Channel 57″ works great), also Google’s on my Nexus One, but it still is not there yet (and trust me I’ve tried).

I’ve not completely given up on the Nexus One, but I may yet. If Google made a fast Android device with a good integrated physical keyboard that ran on AT&T’s network, I would buy it tomorrow (the Milestone is an option, but probably smart to see what the next generation brings). And I’m not counting RIM out either. Once they have a webkit browser, they will become relevant again, especially if they continue to make the phone experience excellent.

And the 10” netbook that I’m  writing this on is cheap, readable, fast, accurate, and very portable. It doesn’t have the panache of the Apple or Google brand on it, and I’m not going to slip this into my pocket, but clearly shows the challenging gaps that still need to be overcome.

Categories: Mobility Tags: ,

Mobilize Your WordPress Website for Free Using WPtouch

April 28, 2010 Leave a comment

A few month’s back, my better half wrote a piece for Small Business Computing, entitled “Why You Need a Mobile Website” which convincingly advocates that all business need to have a mobile device strategy for their web applications. I’d back burnered the advice until today when I discovered a crafty mobile theme for WordPress called WPtouch from the Canadian web shop BraveNewCode. After installing the theme, I built a new mobile home page for TPC Healthcare in about 5 minutes which renders perfectly on Zack’s iPhone, or my Nexus One device.

One of course shouldn’t assume that the beautifully crafted site with lots of graphics and nested content will miraculously adapt it’s design to fit on the small screen. WPtouch, assumes that the mobile user needs the facts fast, and by applying very skinny design to your content, it does the job remarkably well (especially for free). In fact, I chose on the first go round, to adapt our contact page and make it be a new mobile home page. In one quick screen, someone hitting our site from their mobile device can found out what we do and now how to contact us. What a concept…