My last Windows based computer

A few months back, I upgraded to a new convertible Tablet PC – the Lenovo X61T – replacing my workhorse tablet, the Toshiba M200. I had the M200 for three years, the longest that I’ve used any laptop. As the M200 approached the end of its useful life, I seriously considered migrating to a new Intel-based MacBook. The key factor that kept me from making the switch was the lack of inking capabilities on Macs. I wasn’t an early adopter of tablets, but by the time the M200 arrived, the technology was stable enough to be useful on a regular basis. The practicality and usefulness of a tablet led me to buy the Lenovo. Buying the Lenovo wasn’t a mistake, but choosing Windows Vista certainly was.

Before I slam Vista outright, I want to recognize how well Microsoft integrated the tablet interface into Vista. Inking is at the core of the operating system, best I can tell, as reflected in the omnipresent Tablet PC Input Panel. Inking definitely feels more natural in Vista than it did on XP. Unfortunately, the instability of Vista, along with odd behavioral issues have made Vista increasingly difficult to deal with. Quite a bit has already been written about Vista’s quirks, so I won’t devote much space to those issues here. However, I can categorize my disappointments with Vista in two key areas, productivity and stability.

First, productivity. Maybe it’s me, but I think most people assume full version upgrades of software should drive greater productivity by either adding a substantial set of new features or simplifying processes through better automation or functionality. Vista fails on all these fronts; in fact it feels more and more like a dot release of XP. To be sure there are a few features that have made me productive, but this has been offset by a loss of productivity on other features. All in all, I don’t see the vast improvement that was promised.

Second, stability. Stability has never been a calling card of Microsoft operating systems. With the release of Vista, Microsoft promised it’s most stable operating system ever. Here too, I don’t see the improvements. Instead Vista has introduced some of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen in an operating system. For example, when docking or undocking my Lenovo, both the laptop screen and the attached external monitor go through a random screen flicker/rotation sequence that varies everytime I dock/undock. Rumor has it that the service pack that Microsoft is due to release will resolve this…I’m not betting on it. In the last few days I’ve started to get random lockups while working on the Lenovo. That is an absolute non-starter for a workhorse PC that I rely on to do all of my work.

I’m seriously considering ‘downgrading’ the Lenovo back to XP. That isn’t an optimal solution, but XP has gone through two service pack releases, with another apparently on the way. Those patches did make XP more stable, and I’d rather wait for a similar set of patches to be released for Vista before returning to it. Vista’s Aero Glass look is slick, but that alone won’t keep me on a system that I can’t rely on.

I don’t plan to replace the Lenovo anytime soon, but I doubt that I’ll keep this machine for three years like the M200. I am nearly certain that my next machine will be one of those Intel powered Apple Macs. Yes, I know that Apple’s laptops have issues of their own, but the operating system has proven to be more reliable than Windows. There is the added attraction of running both OSs on the MacBooks, another nice feature. Now if Apple could bring some of that touch technology from the iPhone to their laptops, we’d have the optimal solution.

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.

Omnidrive connects Excel files to Zoho Sheet

Back in January I wrote about the rich Word file integration between online storage company Omnidrive’s service and Zoho’s word processor. Well, to follow up on that, Omnidrive has now successfully integrated Zoho’s spreadsheet application to Omnidrive giving you a feature rich read/write/edit capability for Excel files on the cloud. As I mentioned before, this is really powerful stuff. Excel files that are stored online with Omnidrive can be accessed and edited on Zoho, and then saved back to Omnidrive – all without downloading the file onto a client desktop. How many times have you wanted to quickly check a figure on a spreadsheet, but were afraid to download it onto someone else’s desktop? I know I’ve had this issue from time to time. This is one scenario where this integration eliminates the ‘fear factor’ of leaving behind data on public computers. As these integration points onto online productivity tools continue to grow, the most adaptive online storage services have the best chance of creating a unique foothold in the market – and maybe even outmaneuver the Googleplex.

MindMeister takes mind mapping online

Just a couple of days ago I wrote about a new online brainstorming tool called bubbl.us. That application seemed a little too simple and off the standard mind mapping approach to be of much use to many. A commenter left a note about an online mind mapping application that was closer to traditional tools, known as MindMeister. I signed up for access to the private beta, and was approved within a few minutes. The online tool is still in that private beta stage, but I can tell you that it looks spot on when compared to traditional mind mapping tools.

Mind maps generated inside MindMeister are easy to setup and manage. Maneuvering inside MindMeister is similar to FreeMind and MindManager, although keyboard shortcuts aren’t as intuitive (or similar) to either offline application. Dragging nodes around is identical to offline applications. In fact, it’s easy to forget that MindMeister is an online application. There is version control, allowing you to revert back in a fairly granular fashion.

Like nearly all online applications today, one of the core features of MindMeister is to enable collaboration on maps. A map can be shared in a true collaborative environment or as view only. Another powerful feature of MindMeister is the ability to import FreeMind or MindManager files. This feature alone makes MindMeister incredibly useful. In the private beta, text formating, icons, and fancy layouts of maps are lost during the import process, but all text nodes are retained. Exporting, at the moment, is not as evolved as the application only lets you export as a graphic file or as a bulleted text file in RTF format.

MindMeister is in early stage beta, so I’m sure there will be many improvements along the way. The developers are looking to offer a standard and premium version of the tool at some point, as the ‘my account’ page indicates. Most of the premium features of MindMesiter are available in this beta phase. Overall I’ve been very impressed with the way it handles and feels, and can’t wait to see this application evolve into a full blown mind mapping tool.

Highrise, 37Signals finally ready to reveal it’s contact management application

More than a year ago, I wrote about 37Signals’ plans to unveil a ‘CRM type’ application to go along with their wildly successful Basecamp and Backpack online applications. What was then referred to as ‘Sunrise’ has now morphed into ‘Highrise’ just as details are beginning to emerge. The original announcement hinted at a CRM style solution, while today’s announcement lays out a more modest vision. Instead of trying to address the sales force automation (pipelines, opportunity management, etc.) aspect of CRM tools, Highrise will help you track the relationships in your business (and personal) life. 37Signals expects to slowly reveal the features of the new tool in the coming days leading up to launch. If you’d like to get in on that launch, be sure to register here.

Like their other online applications, it looks like 37Signals is painting with a broad brush stroke. Already there are some people complaining about this feature or that feature that hasn’t made the cut. Yes, Highrise does not live up to the expectations that were created by pre-announcing Sunrise, but I don’t think anyone will doubt the usefulness of the application when it does launch. From what I’ve read, so far, it doesn’t look like a legitimate replacement for my SugarCRM deployment. But, then again, I can’t wait to see what these guys have come up with.

Googlified posts about Google’s possible PowerPoint killer

One of the prominent Google watcher weblogs out there posted this morning about a possible Google online presentation program called Google Presently. Details are sketchy at the moment, but it’s not surprising that Google has a presentation application in the works given that most people have come to expect a true ‘office suite’ to include word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation capabilities. My hope is that Google begins the daunting process of tightly integrating all of their applications sooner rather than later. With the guys at Zoho setting a torrid pace on the integration front, Google has some catching up to do.

Zoho Notebook takes Microsoft OneNote’s appeal online

As you know, I’ve been steadily moving my work habits toward an Office 2.0, work anywhere, approach. One of the more difficult habits to wean myself off of has been using the free-form note-taking capabilities of Microsoft’s OneNote. Zoho’s Notebook, announced today, may make this transition a no-brainer. Jump over to the link to take a look at a great sneak peek video on the site. From the site, here are some highlighted points:

  • Intuitive user interface with white boarding and custom layout capability
  • Quick “add” buttons for adding text, graphics, photos, audio, video, RSS feeds and documents
  • Combine and add Notebook pages from other applications such as Zoho Writer and Zoho Sheet
  • ”Content level” sharing and versioning providing fine grain control of what is shared with others
  • Firefox and IE plug-ins for instant web clipping
  • Real-time, simultaneous editing and sharing of content
  • Skype integration for instant chat and IP telephony

Zoho expects the Notebook to be available to the public by March.

UPDATE:

Marc Orchant and Ismael Ghalimi have had private beta access to Zoho Notebook for a few days.  Both concur with my first thoughts that Zoho is quickly becoming a game changer in the Office 2.0 space.

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!.

Mindmapping with FreeMind

I love the concept of mindmapping. I’ve used Mindjet’s MindManager for several years now, and have found it useful for a wide array of situations. MindManager has become a core part of my collaborative presentation technique when I work with prospects, colleagues, and customers. I’ve also used MindManager extensively on my TabletPC in Ink mode where it serves as a superb note taking platform. Mindjet’s tight integration to Microsoft’s inking Framework is second to none. That integration extends deep into the entire Microsoft Office Suite making MindManager a compelling solution in the business world, albeit a very expensive one.

When I first starting looking at mindmapping as a way to visualize concepts, I had stumbled upon a free alternative on SourceForge called FreeMind. It was nice at the time, however it lacked the ease of use and grace of Mindjet’s solution. FreeMind is developed in Java, essentially making it platform agnostic. That early version of FreeMind reflected this generic pedigree, lacking many of the features that I’ve come to expect in a real office application. I followed FreeMind’s development for a while, but eventually lost interest, choosing the easier to use MindManager. Recently, however, I ventured back to FreeMind and was pleasantly surprised on how much it had evolved from that early stage product.

Clean and effective

The new FreeMind, currently at beta 0.9.0 beta 8, is a wonderfully built application that has evolved substantially, and should be considered a real, viable alternative for mindmapping. I’ve started to use FreeMind for personal mindmaps, while sticking to MindManager for work related purposes. What I’ve found is that the core concept of mindmapping feels, and works, nearly identically in both applications. MindManager’s integrations into Microsoft Office certainly make it more powerful, but I’m using those integrations less and less, as I move toward an Office 2.0 approach to working. There is one other, huge, positive that FreeMind offers which MindManager simply cannot deliver., that is portability.

Mindmapping on a stick

FreeMind is light enough to fit onto a USB Flash Drive, so I can literally take FreeMind and my mindmaps with me anywhere I go. While this isn’t truly an Office 2.0 solution, it is certainly more portable than a single license instance of MindManager. Portability is becoming increasingly important for me, as I begin to rely less and less on a single computer to be productive.

My use of FreeMind will continue to increase, I believe this year, as I begin to diverge from platform dependency, but more importantly, return to a simplified approach to generating mindmaps. I’m finding the lack of bells and whistles to be a strength of FreeMind, since I can focus on the visual outcome of a map and not how to intertwine it into all sorts of external files. If you are looking for a solid mindmapping tool, you should really consider FreeMind.

Omnidrive and Zoho hookup to give us a glimpse of the future

Omnidrive, one of the more compelling online file storage services, has just announced the first of several integrations with the Zoho application suite. Taking advantage of a robust API (Application Programming Interface), Omnidrive users will be able to edit Word compatible documents via the Zoho word processor without downloading to a local computer. This is a significant accomplishment on the march to total offline to Office 2.0 interoperability. Here’s why:

Omnidrive’s storage capability is fairly robust, allowing you to generate documents on a local computer and synchronize them to Omnidrive through a client side synchronization component. So, when you have access to your regular work – or home – computer, you can generate Word compatible documents with your favorite word processor. Upon saving these documents in the designated Omnidrive folder, they are synchronized up to the Omnidrive server. That part seems simple enough, right? It’s the next step where the wizardry of the Omnidrive/Zoho solution really begins to shine.

Let’s say that you want to access the document you created, and saved to Omnidrive, while you’re another computer. Now, through the magic of the API integration, you can access your document on Omnidrive and edit it inside Zoho Writer all online. There is no need to download the document to any computer to view or edit. All the work is done inside a web browser, on the cloud. When you’re done editing, just save the document inside Zoho, and the document is updated in Omnidrive. When you return to your primary computer, the edits you’ve made are waiting for you locally, via the sync capability. This is really powerful stuff.

I gave this a whirl over the weekend, and was pleased to see how seamless the process is. My ultimate Office 2.0 goal for 2007 is to generate, edit, and manage all of my documents via an Office 2.0 solution, but where connectivity is an issue (mostly an in flight issue for me) I will still rely on local Office tools. When saved to the Omnidrive folder, these documents will then be synched to Omnidrive the next time I connect, thereby enabling anywhere access and editability.

Another, really important capability makes this incredibly useful. I’ve got piles of Office documents that I have no plan on converting to Office 2.0 formats, but still want to be able to access them from time to time. By placing these on my Omnidrive, I can now access them within a browser anywhere I can get a net connection. In the past, I’ve stored these documents online, but then had to go through the added burden of downloading them to the local drive to view them. Not anymore, now this can be done effortlessly online.

My weekend testing did uncover some rough edges, including browser errors, but this integration is still in beta. Clearly this shows a practical way to bridge offline Office solutions with Office 2.0 solutions. Omnidrive and Zoho have promised similar spreadsheet (Excel) and presentation (PowerPoint) integration in a few days. Zoho has begun to prove Omnidrive’s differentiating storage strategy of real productivity via a web browser a real success. I can’t wait to see this stuff evolve in the coming months.