My Must Haves

Since my last post focused on the potential rise of light weight portable computing systems — Netbooks, iPhone, and cloud services — I thought I’d try to follow it up with a list of my must have tools that have enabled me to live more that way. This is just a simple list from my point of view and I doubt it is the same as what somebody else might find necessary to do their jobs. I’d love to hear from you what you think are the next generation of tools that someone living on a light weight portable device might require.

With all of this it is important to note that I also have two other machines I use regularly. I have an iMac on my desk at home connected to a series of hard drives that store pictures, documents, media, and most of my important stuff. It gets backed up a handful of times a day with a combination of TimeMachine and Apple Backup … I even move a hard drive off site for pictures every so often. At work I have a machine on my desk that I use while there … the only real reason I use it is because it is connected to a 30″ display that lets me get so much more done in short bursts. I don’t think I could do without that as my MacBook Air will not drive the display or I would give up that machine altogether.

My job has transitioned mostly into the world of administrative tasks — lots of meetings, budgets, proposals, notes, and the like. I no longer spend much time writing any sort of code, editing large images, or editing audio and video. I’m not saying I don’t do those things from time to time, but my daily grind is built around the production and consumption of information in a mobile environment … I read a lot, I write a lot, and I spend all sorts of time fighting with my calendar. So with that, here are my new top five “must haves” for living in the new mobile computing Universe (ignoring email and calendar software completely):

  • Evernote has become one of my most valued tools. I haven’t ponied up for a paid account, so I am using it for free … I’m not sure I will pay, but the new features of the premiere account have my wondering. I love that I can take, find, and share notes from any platform in an application that is client based but syncs beautifully via the web. The image search is amazing and I just bought a new iPhone case from Griffin with a macro lens adaptor so I can take pictures of business cards and store them there as well. Having things where I need them — no matter what machine/device I am on is critical. I couldn’t imagine going back to a world where I don’t have Evernote.
  • My blog is still a very important part of how I keep things together. I’m not talking about the WordPress platform at all … as a matter of fact I use my WordPress blog for personal reasons, while my PSU blog is powered by MovableType. Both serve similar functions, but I have worked out (in my mind at least) a rationale for when I use what. Without the blog space, things get crazy fast. I need a place to write and reflect … it is just part of how I work through things.
  • At work I use a couple of wiki services to keep lots of information up to date. At ETS we have a MediaWiki installation in place for project updates and content creation. At PSU we have a pilot implementation of Confluence that is becoming the defacto place for our larger organizational work. I don’t think I’d be able to really function without some sort of wiki service. Just too critical to easily create and share content in an environment like that.
  • This may seem like a cop-out, but I am going to lump five online services into one must have … Flickr, YouTube, La La, Facebook, and BaseCamp are all part of my day to day workflow in huge ways. My Flickr Pro account is a critical piece to my online archiving approach … I use Aperture at home and tag my favorite pictures with five stars on import. Usually a couple times a month I move those pictures, at full resolution, to Flickr for a social off-site back up solution. I’ve been using YouTube as a backend storage location for all my video (I no longer keep it on my laptop after import/editing) … I love that people are there and that I can generate online conversations without any real overhead. La La is a killer online tool that has allowed me to stop carting around gigs of music on multiple computers. They have a nifty uploader that searches your music library and unlocks those songs for online listening. FaceBook has completely replaced email with distant friends. I now keep in contact with a specific network of folks via the FB platform … I can chat, share pictures, links, updates, and all sorts of stuff without opening any other apps or services. I can see how down the line I could move more of my life to FB. BaseCamp has become the go to place for project management tasks at ETS and I love that I can get to it anytime anyplace. I could never go back to MS Project … even without the gantt charts, BC rules for me.
  • Clearly I still need to edit and create documents, so I do use the Google Doc tools to do word processing, spreadsheet work, and more and more, presentations. I do have iWork on my machine and I do my high end finishing work there, but on a day to day basis I spend most of my office-like productivity time in Google Docs. I do use the collaborative features, but I mainly use it to open and create new Word-compatible documents.

I am guessing there are other tools I use, but this list pretty much sums up what works for me. One that I am still working with and am starting to really like is Dropbox. It creates a local, synchornized folder on each of your machines that lets you move files back and forth. I also have a Mobile Me account that should do the same, but I find the iDisk piece of that to be really too slow. Before I’d pay for Dropbox, I’ll give Mobile Me another shot. At any rate, that is my list … I am curious what tools people find are must haves for managing a mobile existence. Any thoughts?

6 thoughts on “My Must Haves

  1. Ah.. remember the days of pencils and paper?

    Do you think all these technological tools (not yours specifically, but in general) help or hinder the work place in a way that they have become more of a distraction than a tool?

    • I think they help … but it takes time to find the solutions that work for you. I still use paper for some of the notes I take, but it has become less and less with the rise of good note taking tools and smaller form factor machines. One thing I notice is how acceptable it is to have a laptop open in a meeting these days. That used to be sort of a distraction to those around the table — I think that has changed. One thing that is still frustrating is all the “side” work that goes on when technology is around … it is easy to get lost in email, stock quotes, or RSS feeds instead of staying focused. But again I think the ability to focus is something one can develop with practice. What do you think?

  2. As for a syncing solution…

    Dropbox looks like a great lil’ application to keep multiple machines synchronized. From watching the Dropbox video, it looks as if there is one Dropbox folder that syncs (instead of you choosing which folder to sync). I may be wrong, and will have to download dropbox to find out if I can leave files in whatever location I choose and see if they will sync properly, or if I am constrained to only use the Dropbox folder. If I am constrained, then that wouldn’t be my most preferred solution because I would have to duplicate files to the Dropbox folder.

    Since I’ve been mobile (as of November), I was in need of a file sync solution. I use my desktop for primary development while in my home office. And Jin Sung An enlightened me to a free file sync app called Unison.

    Unison is awesome and works well for my set up. It allows me to synchronize any folder (or file) across machines over my local network.

    Unison isn’t an automated solution for syncing, so I had to use Crontab to set up “sync jobs”.

    And I had to use a shared key for passwordless login between machines so I didn’t have to log into the remote machine to sync. The passwordless login does what it needs to do to give me access via ssh.

    Once set up, it was and is effortless. I have my crontab jobs sync at 5 minute intervals. This way, I know that all I have to do is turn on both computers on my home network for at least 5 minutes (while I brush my teeth) and all of my work files and ichats and 1Password files and keychains and Stickies etc. are synced up automatically. It makes working on the same files on multiple machines a seamless experience.

    Here is an example of the code you need after you set up your passwordless login and crontab –

    */5 * * * * /sw/bin/unison -batch -servercmd /sw/bin/unison /Users/dean/Library/StickiesDatabase ssh://dean@Mac-Pro-2.local//Users/deanblackstock/Library/StickiesDatabase

    This code will, in effect, sync my Stickies between my Mac Pro and my Macbook Pro at 5 minute intervals.

    Thanx Jin for showing me Unison. Hope others can dig on its worth. =)

    Cheers Cole!

  3. What about ownership of files in the cloud. The organization I was with once used Google Docs. After reading the fine print moved away due to concerns over file ownership. While not all were files that would mean anything to anyone else, they were still proprietary.

    Is the concern over ownership and issue for anyone?

  4. One tool that I find valuable is Yojimbo. It syncs across machines and has great organization. I use it for all my notes and I know that my stuff is not going to get lost.

    The ownership question is something I have been thinking about, especially with the rise of online financial tools like So far I have been hesitant to put too much on someone else’s server (except for PSU) as I just get nervous about access by others. Maybe that is paranoid or naive, but it is how I am working right now.

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