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?

Our Year in the Cloud?

I have been thinking about the trend towards really small and really cheap laptops — Netbooks, as they are referred to — and their use of web-based applications for productivity. I had our IT group order a Netbook (from Dell) before the Holiday break so we can start to better understand the overall affordances of underpowered, cheap, portable machines that manage to do the things most students really need to do relatively easily.

Students tell us that they spend a majority of their computing time checking email, updating Facebook profiles, and logging into ANGEL for course related stuff. We also know that most (upwards of 90%) of our students come to campus with laptops only to leave them behind in their dorms or apartments. They claim they are too big and heavy to carry, the batteries sort of suck, that our classroom desks don’t support them appropriately, and that we don’t put power where they need it. This could all be set to change this year with the introductions of not just hardware that fits their lifestyles, but cloud-based services that are ready to compete with desktop applications.

If you walk into a Target store (or go online) you’ll see sub $500.00 Netbooks mixed in with the iPods and digital cameras. This is a shift from the notion that computers are something special, not just another piece of consumer electronics. I told several people before the Holiday that I thought we’d see a decent percentage of our students return from the break with newly purchased Netbooks just waiting to see how they run in our (and their) enterprise. As long as they can install the PSU Cisco VPN they’ll be able to connect to the wireless network in most places, so I am guessing they will want to find ways to take advantage of the new machine sitting in front of them.

Asus EEE

Asus EEE Next to Tissue Package

They already indicate they spend a lot of time on Facebook (23% of the students who use FB at PSU report spending more than 5 hours a week on it), so I am guessing they are really familiar and comfortable with the idea of storing things in the cloud … even if they don’t fully understand what is going on. This is an indication that if a service emerges that makes their lives more meaningful they will adopt it quickly. This is constitutes an opportunity for us to market some of our emerging services to a new set of eyes and ears (I am thinking of Blogs at PSU and Adobe Connect in particular).

I am betting the use of Google Docs is rising, but is still relatively small compared to Microsoft Office — with an ultra-portable that will change. Right now I am guessing most students still write in traditional analog notebooks — with an ultra-portable that may change. The adoption of collaborative tools by faculty has been slowly increasing, but with more students able to actively participate online while in a classroom we’ll see a sharp increase there as well. Will the Netbook prove to be the tipping point towards greater utilization of the online services many of us spend quite a bit of time taking advantage of? I am betting on yes.

Aside from Netbooks, the notion of the really powerful hand held device is set to explode as well. The iPhone and now the iPod Touch have emerged as real computing platforms. There are limitations for doing much of the work a student needs to do in a classroom — namely typing — but that is merely a hack or a dock away from being taken care of. I almost wonder if the Netbook is a little late to the party … will iPhones and iPod Touches get the market share first? Perhaps, but no matter how you slice it up the landscape on our campuses is starting to change in a radical way and it is a real opportunity for us to promote technology for teaching and learning in new ways.

air_smallI spent at least half of this past year living mostly on a MacBook Air and I have been very happy with my transition to a mostly cloud based portable experience. I don’t have Office, Adobe PhotoShop, or many other large apps running on it — and I don’t miss them one bit. I have adopted Google Docs, learned how to use Apple’s built in Preview App and iPhoto to do image editing, taken lots of notes in Evernote, listened to my music online at La La, and have used this space and my PSU blog as an outboard brain with much success. I’ve found relying on local storage as being a limiting factor — and I am betting that more and more students will move in this direction this year. We are finally seeing the alignment of hardware, interest, and online services come into focus … I think this could be the year we all start to really get it. Anyone have any thoughts?