New Tools

tools on wood tableOnce in a great while, I switch to a new set of tools. This past December was one of those times. It’s an exciting and painful process because the rest of my life stops while I learn new technologies and new ways of running my daily affairs. This time around was more disruptive than most because I’d delayed the change for so long, and because I made on it several fronts at once: hardware and software, personal and professional.

In a nutshell, over the past month I completed the process of dropping my Microsoft Windows roots and moving out into the open source/cloud computing world. Though the tools I’ve adopted and describe below won’t raise any eyebrows — most of them have been de facto standards in their domains for several years or more — perhaps I can add some new perspectives, or shortcut your own learning curve, by relating my research and experience….

It started with the cell phone. Mine was more than three years old. It was a serviceable design, but no smart phone — a point I took some pride in. I had owned a series of cell phones over the years that had the hardware to deliver much more value, and completely failed to deliver because the phone-company-centric software simply stank. What was necessary was a first-class, fully-powered mobile operating system.

Coming from the engineering world, I was never an Apple user, so the iPhone wasn’t an option for me. And, despite being a long-time Windows user, I’d been frustrated by Microsoft’s efforts in the mobile space. Then I started to learn about Android — Google’s open source operating system for phones and tablets. Android finally delivers. There are apps and widgets that seamlessly install and uninstall, and use a common interface. There is easy multitasking, even when talking on the phone, and a slick notification system. Camera, audio, and video are all well integrated and available with a swipe. Pages are easily customized with simple gestures. In short, Android gives you a real computer in your pocket. It was time for me to take the plunge.

Ever frugal, I chose a Motorola DROID RAZR M, which Verizon has been offering for an outrageously-low $50 after rebates. Other than perhaps photo quality and battery life, this phone is the equivalent of anything on the market. It uses  the smaller 4″ screen size, in an edge-to-edge configuration, that  looks stunning to my uncritical eyes. And, after a month without a screen protector, the Corning Gorilla Glass looks as good as new. The unit is easy to use one-handed and fits nicely into even a shirt pocket. It’s  actually less intrusive to carry than my old non-smart phone. Touch screen typing took a while to get used to, and isn’t quite as efficient as my old physical keypad, but that’s adequately compensated for by the overall power of the system. Most importantly, it runs Android blazingly fast. I often find myself thinking that my phone is more responsive than my 3-year old laptop!

Having seen the power of Android on my phone, I took the plunge and upgraded my 2-year old Kindle to a Google Nexus 7 tablet, which was selling for $200 at a nearby WalMart. (The Kindle Fire is a close competitor, but the Nexus 7 does nearly everything the Fire can do, and more, given a more open implementation of Android.) The Nexus 7 amazed me out of the box. It worked just like my DROID, absent the phone, and with a bigger screen. It’s an excellent reading device, supplanting my old Kindle for reading books, while also providing responsive web browsing and access to my calendar, contacts, email, and notes. For fun I can even read the news, listen to music and watch video on it, all with few if any compromises.

Since Google’s Android had won out for my mobile devices, I plunged in and investigated Google’s companion web-based apps. First up was the Gmail Contact Manager, where I liked what I saw enough to convert over from Microsoft Outlook. I’ve been using Gmail for a while, but hadn’t leveraged the contact manager. My contacts remained mired in Outlook. When I finally evaluated Google’s contact offering, I saw a slick, mature, flexible but simple database for managing this key data. Morever, once contacts are in Gmail, they are easily accessible from my computer, phone, or tablet. I spent a half-day moving my data into Gmail and have been happy ever since.

A close companion to Gmail is Google’s Calendar application. This was a tougher choice for me. I’m one of that minority that uses my calendar as a complete to-do list. That means darn near every task, every day, goes on my calendar in one form or another. So, calendar software has to be lean and mean to support all that interaction. Second, it has to be facile at marking items and events as Done. (My aging Windows-based calendar offered that as a built-in function.) Google Calendar passes the first test adequately, but has no event completion mechanism out of the box. Fortunately I was able to press its color-coding mechanism into service as a passable alternative and I was off and running. I spent another half day moving all my calendar events over, and have been loving having my calendar easily available from any of my devices ever since.

After converting so much of my life over to Google’s tool suite, it was time to investigate Google Reader as well. Though My Yahoo has served well enough as my home page for more than 10 years, now in my new blogging role it has been overrun by the quantity of news feeds I must track to stay up on the personal finance world. (I’ve also grown weary of the low-brow ads Yahoo has been pitching to make ends meet.) Mind you a bare-bones RSS reader like Google Reader is not a mainstream tool — most people will be more interested in a full-blown electronic magazine like Google Currents, or Pulse. But, for us blogging types, an RSS reader is essential. So, as a laser-focused tool for digesting daily news feeds in quantity, Reader is a welcome addition to my tool bag.

The last tool switch on the personal front was in my note taking and personal information management software. And this was more an addition than an outright switch. I’m a longtime fan of Microsoft OneNote (one Microsoft application that can genuinely be termed ‘elegant’). I’ve used OneNote for years to manage my to-do lists, journal, writing projects, reference materials, even recipes. It’s a simple, powerful, and reliable workhorse. But, alas, Microsoft’s dysfunction when integrating with the rest of the web world is readily apparent with OneNote. It’s taken multiple tries to achieve a reliable cloud strategy — where OneNote notebooks can be distributed across the web. And the Android client for OneNote remains a pale shadow of the full application, with no indications that Microsoft is committed to fixing or improving it in the future.

Enter Evernote, OneNote’s main competitor, powerful software that was designed from the start to work across the web, with mature support for a variety of client devices. OneNote and Evernote are essentially equivalent in their capabilities for managing and integrating vast amounts of disparate textual, graphical, and even audio information. They differ primarily in their core metaphor: Evernote is essentially a database of notes that you query using different attributes and tags, whereas OneNote is essentially a tree-structured container of notebooks, sections, and pages. The other key difference, as noted, is that Evernote is far more facile at working across the web. The rich Android client is a joy to use. So, will I be ditching OneNote? I don’t plan on it. OneNote still seems the better tool for structuring a large writing project. But I anticipate moving more and more of my daily list and information management to Evernote, where my data will reside safely on the cloud and can be accessed from any of my devices.

So that’s it for major changes in my personal tools. You’d think that would be enough. But circumstances dictated that I would be making significant changes on the public front as well. So, last month, I changed my blogging platform from Squarespace to WordPress. Squarespace is a fine hardware/software package with an easy user interface, beautiful designs, and excellent support. However, ultimately, I grew uncomfortable with having all my writing locked into a somewhat closed, proprietary system. WordPress is the leading blogging platform on the leading blogs. Its 3rd-party support is unmatched. And if I ever need assistance, there is a long queue of hosts, consultants, plugins, themes, and services to solve every imaginable problem.

One of the first decisions for a commercial WordPress-based site is which theme to use. The theme is the ‘skin’ which controls the look and feel of a WordPress site, and dictates what functions it offers. A world-class theme will look modern and beautiful, play well with search engines, clamp down on security holes, be studiously maintained by the developer, and be easy to customize. StudioPress is billing their Genesis Framework as the “industry standard” and, based on my research, and reports from other bloggers, I see no reason to doubt that. The individual child themes available under Genesis are generally not as flexible as some of the competition. But, taken together, they are a beautiful and diverse lot with a variety of support and customization options. So, over the past month, I’ve migrated my blog to the industry-standard platform, clearing the path for growth into the foreseeable future….

Wow. That was a lot of new technology to learn and migrate to in the space of about a month. I’m hoping it will be the better part of a decade, or two, before I even have to think about changing this much again!