Revisiting PersonalBrain

I’m constantly on the lookout for better, more productive ways to manage information at a personal level (Personal imageKnowledge Management – PKM). One of the more unique PKM tools out there is this product called PersonalBrain, made by TheBrain Technologies. PersonalBrain operates very much like a three dimensional mind mapping tool. I’ve tried PersonalBrain in the past, but never really got the hang of it. TheBrain has just released a new version, which addresses much of the quirkiness of past iterations. Michael Sampson has posted a nice summary of the new features

Jeremy Wagstaff, most notably of the Wall Street Journal, has been writing a lot about PersonalBrain on his weblog. He recently posted an excellent example of how he uses PersonalBrain. I’m still not quite sure how I’d use it, but an upcoming webcast by the folks at TheBrain may help a bit. If you’re interested in checking out this unique knowledge tool, you’ll need to quickly sign up for the July 31st Webex session at TheBrain’s website.

37Signals’ Backpack gets an update

There are few web 2.0 companies that get as much positive buzz as 37Signals does. For the uninitiated, 37Signals is the company behind some of the more practical web applications and productivity tools available today. One of their most popular applications, Backpack, was recently updated. Essentially, backpack is a light wiki-type application that allows you to create task lists, manage notes, and store files all within a simple/elegant web interface. When first launched a couple of years ago, Backpack received enormous amount of buzz, and helped catapult 37Signals into the web 2.0 mainstream. In recent times, however, Backpack had fallen behind in updates, and quite a few users openly wondered if 37Signals had abandoned the project. While the company might have put Backpack on the back burner, it has re-assumed center stage with some nice tweaks and enhancements to the interface. A complete list of updates can be seen here.

Search, finally


I’ve used Backpack, on and off, since it’s inception. The application is deceptively simple, but can also be very frustrating. One of the major frustrations that drove me away from daily Backpack use was the lack of a search capability. Well, as you can see on the right, that has been corrected. Can you imagine having a central repository of notes, ideas, or tasks that didn’t have any ability to search? Just by adding a search capability, 37Signals has substantially enhanced the usability of Backpack. Search is not perfect, as it only presents back the page on which a searched term resides.

Move stuff around

Another major complaint about Backpack was the inability to move sections (lists, notes, attachments, etc.) from page to page. 37Signals had already incorporated a slick drag-drop capability to move stuff around within a page, but not to other pages. This has now been fixed. Sections can be dragged onto other pages, and sections can be moved about anywhere on a given page. This is really, really nice. One big miss here is that individual list items can’t be moved from page to page. I’d certainly like to see that sometime soon.

There are a bunch of other tweaks worth checking out. Overall, this is a worthy upgrade to Backpack, not a huge improvement, but they’ve addressed many shortcomings in this iteration.

By the way, Satchel users will be happy to hear that the upgrade only caused minor hiccups in the ability to synchronize Backpack with the PalmOS based Satchel.

Jott keeps getting better

I’ve written about Jott several times in the last five months, and it keeps getting better. The Jott crew, over the last few weeks, has improved the handling of Jotts, with the service now handling some great voice to text message broadcasting features. From their new release notes:

Just Jott. Jott creates email and text messages completely hands free. No more driving with your knees as you type (please!). With V2, you simply Jott — to yourself, other people, or groups. This means there is a change in our voice menu: we simply ask “Who do you want to Jott?”… For a jott to yourself, just say “Myself”.

  • Instant Jotts. If your message to someone has to get there immediately, use Instant Jott. Simply press 1 after recording a message to someone, and we will deliver the jott as audio right away, with no transcription.
  • As for Groups… Do you hate having to make phone calls to multiple people saying the same thing? Has the soccer game shifted to another location? Jott “Soccer Team”. Flight delayed? Jott “The office”. A little late filling the tank? Jott “carpool”. With V2, simply say the name of a group you’ve created, say your Jott, and you’re done.

I’ve got Jott hooked into my GTD workflow, and have begun to rely on it as much as the small notepad that I carry around. If you haven’t tried the service yet, you must (sorry, USA only at this time).

UPDATE: Check out this podcast from Robert Scoble with the Jott team.

The Merlin Show: A must see

Merlin Mann, a truly unique and engaging character (electronic hobo to some) launched a new video-cast last month that’s simply called The Merlin Show.  It’s already become a must stop for me.  Merlin’s most famous for running the wildly popular 43folders website – the name is based on David Allen‘s Getting Things Done productivity methodology.  With The Merlin Show, he extends the conversation beyond simple tools, gadgetry and hipsterness (although his obsession with the Mac is still prevalent) to deeper conversations with some of the more interesting people you’ll find in the bay area.  Although there have only been a handful shows so far, the show’s feed is high on my priority list to watch when I’m in between my daily next actions.  Even if you’re not productivity obsessed like some of us, I’d recommend stopping by the site to catch an episode or two Merlin’s new adventure.

SpeedFiler: An elegant filing solution for Outlook is updated

Although I’m personally looking to fully migrate a platform agnostic- productivity anywhere approach this year, work related interaction is still driven by Microsoft’s workhorse Outlook/Exchange platform. The volume of email that I receive in that mode has dropped significantly, and I still process it as quickly and efficiently as possible. SpeedFiler has played a central role in maximizing my efficiency when working within Outlook. Like I’ve mentioned before, it is not a major Add-on to Outlook, but it has a major impact in my daily Outlook use. Leading up to the general availability of Outlook 2007, which has a new ‘ribbon’ user interface, SpeedFiler has been updated. Version 1.1 integrates nicely with Outlook 2007, makes some bug fixes, but keeps to it’s charter of being lean and efficient. If you’re still reliant on Microsoft Outlook as an email platform, check out this powerful addition. If you decide to purchase the product before January 27th, you can use coupon code BLD743 for a $5 discount on the purchase price of $24.95 – Thanks Itzy!.

Satchel: A new way to interact with 37Signals’ Backpack emerges for PalmOS users

I have to admit that I’ve been a spotty user of 37Signals’ Backpack service ever since they unleashed it into the wild. Although I love the ability to setup pages to track all kinds of odds and ends, several annoyances have gotten in the way of me becoming a devoted Backpack user. There are the obvious omissions – no search, not inherently easy to move tasks from list to list, etc. The most overlooked annoyance, however, is that Backpack isn’t really portable. You’d think that a service called Backpack would be, you know, portable?

37Signals addresses this shortcoming by granting outside developers access to a rich API (application programming interface) set, effectively empowering outsiders to craft their own tweaks to the Backpack core. From a portability perspective, most of the API-based development has been relegated to Apple Mac users. There is also a nice Yahoo! Widget available that gives you desktop access to Backpack, although it doesn’t provide true portability. Less has been done, however, for true portability via PDA or smartphone. 37Signals themselves built a spartan mobile interface which allows for the most basic Backpack portability possible (as seen to the left). I’ve never been a fan of this interface. It fails on three fronts. First, while it’s simple – it may be too simple. It just doesn’t feel as intuitive as it should be. I know that designing an interface for mobile devices is extremely difficult, given the wide variety of browsers, screen sizes, etc, but Backpack’s mobile interface doesn’t cut it for me…not to mention that mobile browsers tend to be slow, even if you’re on a wireless broadband network. Second, the mobile interface requires a password to login every time it’s accessed (at least that is the case on a Treo)…not good for rapid entry and access. Finally, this mobile interface doesn’t provide true portability; in other words, you still cannot take your Backpack offline.

All of these factors have kept me from adopting Backpack as a comprehensive task, notes master. I’m also very committed to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, so contextual access to my task lists is absolutely critical. To be a true GTD centric application, offline task lists are key to making contextual access possible.

Enter Satchel

After many stops and starts with Backpack since it’s release (like many GTD’ers I tend to look for different ways to be productive all the time), I finally came across a near perfect implementation of Backpack portability in Satchel. Satchel is a Backpack API dependent application that runs on PalmOS (Access) PDAs and Smartphones that gives you portable access to Backpack’s lists, notes, and reminders functionality while on the go. With Satchel, I am able to synchronize my Backpack task lists and notes onto my Palm Treo 700p, and send back changes in a flash. This is not just wireless access to my data, but a full fledged offline, syncable client on my Palm device. I’m not a heavy user of the Reminders function on Backpack, but Satchel also lets you setup Backpack Reminders – which then are added to both Backpack and the Palm Calendar. Task lists, notes and reminders are by far the most critical features within Backpack and Satchel lets you manage all of them in a simple and elegant manner, without being tied down to a computer. The program is still in beta mode, so there are some rough edges to it, but the beta is active for another two months (up through Mid-March 2007). It is certainly worth a look for anyone who has wireless access on their Palm device and relies on Backpack as a central repository. Standalone makes some of the best applications for the Palm that are available today. I’ve used their Super Names contact manager for years, and also use their Quick News RSS feed reader. Both of those products have evolved quite nicely, so I’m confident that Satchel will continue to get better and better.

Now if we could just figure out a way to get 37Signals to freshen up Backpack with some badly needed upgrades….

Jott responds to my query on how their service works

John Pollard, CEO of Jott wrote back to me yesterday regarding the processes that Jott employs behind the scenes.  He was kind enough to grant me permission to post his reply here:

Hi Nitin,
Thanks for spending some time with Jott over the holidays, and for your interest in general.

You are correct that we use a mix of human and machine technologies.   Not only would it be amazing for a machine to have such high accuracy with names, technical jargon, etc., it would be impossible to do it burdened by car noise, random accents, zero grammatical context and the typical low bandwidth cellular phone connection.   We are dead focused on making Jott immediately useful, in situations that are realistic.

The machine part gets very interesting over time, and we’re excited by the innovation that’s going to happen there.   But right now we wanted to deliver on voice-powered, hands-free, messaging and to do lists.  Lots of good stuff coming down the road too…

Best wishes and Happy New Year.


So, as we sort of suspected, there is some human interaction involved.  I guess the most important thing to note here is that the service is extremely easy, and the backend magic is nearly invisible to the user.  I certainly plan to follow these guys along in their development of this clean and elegant service.

Jott amazed everyone at the holiday family gathering

I wrote about Jott a few days back, and was slightly off the mark about it’s usefulness. As it turns out, Jott is not really meant for transcribing voicemail to text (that really would be a killer service), rather Jott is meant for you – the user – to be able to call Jott and leave a message that is then transcribed and delivered to your inbox.

The service is very easy to setup, and has an elegant interface. The real power of Jott, however, is its ability to transcribe voice messages to text. Over the holidays, while we had family visiting from Boston and New York, I mentioned Jott to the geeks amongst us. One of them, Yogendra Jain, is no ordinary geek. He’s been working in the DSP, intelligent voice arena for over two decades. So, naturally, I wanted Yo to critique the Jott service. He set up an account and off we went. He recorded messages that referenced his kids (both with fairly complex Indian names), some technical jargon, and a general grocery list. Jott nailed it all, to Yo’s amazement. What astounded us was the ability of Jott to decipher the Indian names, as well as the technical jargon. For fun, we then asked my brother the Neurologist to ramble on about a patient diagnosis. His message included complex medical terms, as well as medical acronyms, and Jott was spot on with that message too.

While the transcription was not instantaneous, as you could tell that messages were in queue, they were nearly 100% accurate. It made me wonder if there was some human intervention involved in the transcription process – you know, some processing center deep inside India that is validating what the computer spits out. I’ve emailed the developers of Jott to see if they are willing to share some of the inner workings of their service. Hopefully, I’ll get a reasonable response – and I’ll report back on what the tell me.

In the meantime, I’m adding Jott to my GTD workflow as another way to get notes into my inbox.

Yikes! The anchor application for cloud living betrays its users!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been contemplating the possibility of targeting 2007 as the year that I migrate totally to computing on the ‘cloud’.  By this I mean eliminating the use of specific computers (laptops, tablets, PCs) and depending on ubiquitous internet (cloud) connectivity to handle all my storage and processing needs.  Even as recent as the last New Year’s holiday, this seemed to be just out of reach.  Now, primarily due to the EV-DO access on my Palm 700p, the ability to ‘hit the cloud’ from just about anywhere – with reasonable speeds – seems possible.  The anchor application for this approach is a rock solid, lean and efficient email application.  Gmail has been the obvious choice.  With a growing number of incremental enhancements, massive storage capability, and a decent, recently released phone (Palm compatible) client, I was ready to take the leap.  Then…..this happened.  Yikes!

While Google claims only a small number of users were affected (it seems that the issue had more to do with a bug in Firefox than a Gmail related issue), the blogosphere has been abuzz with the news.  The thought of losing so much aggregated knowledge in the blink of an eye is really a frightening, and sobering reminder that living on the cloud’s edge can be a dangerous place to be.

I guess I’m still going to move ahead with the plan to migrate to the cloud (I’ll post details of my approach soon), but I will still rely on having a solid offline backup – which is further backed up by Carbonite.

To address the immediate issue of vanishing gmail, I recommend using a pop3 application, like Thunderbird, to suck down all emails from gmail for safe offline storage.