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A Long Journey To Find A Better Way To Write Notes

It’s almost ridiculous how much effort and time I have put into trying to find a better way to keep track of the snippets of writing that form the foundation of my life.

The great majority of what I write is public, and for that I use Tumblr, principally. That part is simple.

But I am constantly at work on other projects that are intended to be published in other ways, and until recently the fragments of writing that I produce — or the snippets of text that I collect — were all over the place. Some as text documents on my hard drive, others in Google docs, others as posts in work media tools. A total mess.

A few weeks ago, as I was starting to work on The Business Of Social Business, an ebook to be published by GigaOM’s new publishing arm, I started to collect quotes and observations of a small group of smart people. These come from online forms, as well as notes I was copying during interviews. Since I wasn’t planning on writing the book as a single monolithic document, I realized I needed a few things if I were to research and write the book in a sane fashion:

  1. A tool (or tool) to manage fragments, thoughts, and quotes.
  2. A tool that lets me easily edit fragments,
  3. add some lightweight styling to the text,
  4. possibly publish to the web, or export in various formats, and
  5. simply organize the bits and pieces.
  6. Preferentially, I thought it would be good if this solution would integrate with Dropbox, so I could potentially work on multiple devices, so that was more iffy.
  7. I had envisioned using an ‘index card’ like interface, but not based on previous experience.
  8. And, although I was motivated principally by the book, I thought it would be best if the tool would support more than one project at a time, as well.

I didn’t think this would be too tall an order. But it became a personal hell, because it seemed like none of the tools I heard or read about would match my personal way of doing things, or, the way I would like to do things if I only had the tools to do so.

I will start with the bottom line first: I finally — only last week — stumbled upon TextDrop, which is a browser-based web application that is integrated with Dropbox in a direct way. I think this was the first review I saw:

Matther Guay, TextDrop: An Online Text Editor for Your Dropbox Files

A native app for plain text writing will usually let you edit any plain text file on your computer, and save new or edited files in any folder as you’d expect. You can then copy the file onto a flash drive, edit it in another app, post it on your website, or anything else you want. That’s the beauty of plain text: it works anywhere, and you’ll never have to worry about losing what you wrote as long as you have the files.

Most writing apps online, however, store your text in their own database, making it hard to save what you’ve written as a plain text file and almost impossible to sync to your computer and edit in other apps without resorting to copy and paste. TextDrop is a new web app that turns this totally around, letting you edit and create plain text files in your Dropbox account, right in your browser. All your files are safe and synced with Dropbox, and you’ve got all the benefits of a minimalist writing app in your browser. It’s like a writer’s dream come true.

And, with the exception of the index card  UX metaphor, I am happily using TextDrop, although ‘dream come true’ might be pushing it a bit.

So, now having gotten to the end, let me start at the beginning.

I started by looking for tools that supported text fragments and the index card metaphor.

Index Card for iPad looked like a likely candidate, but the iPad is too limited in support for typing, and there is no web or mac version. I fooled with it, but decided that I would need to do my research and writing elsewhere, even if I were to use it downstream for composing fragments into sections of the book.

Scrivener is widely regarded as a great tool for book writing, but I found it overly complicated and finicky. Also, Scrivener has a private database, so there is no easy way to sync the elements of a book and use other tools to edit or create them. There is a so-called integration with Simplenote, but its a kludge.

I tried out Ulysses, which seemed simpler than Scrivener, but shared some of the same problems:

I considered using Simplenote, which is a very simple web-based text editor, one that can integrate with Dropbox and which has clients on many devices (iPad shown below), but it has a few issues, the biggest being this:

  • Simplenote’s integration with Dropbox is based on the creation of a single Dropbox folder, called ‘Simplenote’, and all the notes are managed there as text files. I really wanted a tool that would be able to edit text files across my entire Dropbox directory, not just in one folder.
  • Simplenote does have tags for notes, and clients on all the devices I use, but more than that I wanted to be able to mark up text a bit, and Simplenote doesn’t support that.

I read about Notational Velocity, and I really liked everything about it. It seemed to meet all my needs except one glaring defect. While you can opt to work on text file in a Dropbox folder, you can only have a single database/folder. Other than that, great features:

  • UX is very smart: the same text area is used to create new notes and search against existing ones. If the text entered doesn’t match an existing file, pressing return leads to it being created.
  • Supports Markdown, a simple text-based approach to styling text, and also can be exported as HTML-based styled text.

A variant of Notational Velocity, called NValt, adds extra features, but inherits all the same limitations, principally the issue with a single datablase/folder.

So, I was stuck: I liked the user experience of Notational Velocity, but wanted to be able to roam from one Dropbox folder, where I might be storing the fragments for the book, to a second one, where I could be amassing text fragments for a report, or a presentation.

And then I learned about TextDrop, which was a/ inspired by Notational Velocity, but b/ allows users to edit anywhere in their Dropbox account.

So, now I am set, and productively working on several projects at once.

Cutting That Cord - John Gruber →

John Gruber predicts Apple’s direction with iOS cord cutting: when we will not have to use a PC to manage our iOS devices.

After Apple’s iPad 2 introduction event last month, I ran into Josh Topolsky, and, of course, we talked about what we thought of it. Topolsky made an interesting observation: that the iPad 2 epitomized how Apple seems to be a generation ahead of its competitors on the device side — both hardware and software — but a generation behind on the cloud side.

I’ve been thinking about the iPad in this context ever since, and I think it’s a perfect synopsis of the state of iOS. There will be no tablet this year from any competitor that matches the iPad 2 in terms of elegance, battery life, or build quality. No competing OS will match iOS in terms of on-the-device user experience.

But most iPad competitors have little-to-no reliance on a connection to a desktop PC, the way an iPad does.

[…]

The announcement many people seem to be waiting for is for Apple to tell iOS users they no longer need iTunes on the Mac or Windows. The announcement I’d like to see is for iOS users to no longer need to pay for MobileMe to wirelessly sync calendars, contacts — and any other small bits of data from apps from the App Store.

iBooks does this. If you pause while reading a book on your iPad, then resume reading on your iPhone, it picks up on the same page in the book. Kindle and a bunch of other e-reading services do this too. The point isn’t that iBooks is unique or ahead of the curve in this regard. It’s that you don’t need MobileMe for iBooks. It’s all handled by the iTunes Store itself. You buy books on your device, you read them on your device, and your history, bookmarks and other metadata all get synced to your iTunes account in the cloud. And it works great. But a lot more apps should work like this. Should wireless Safari bookmark syncing cost $99 a year? Shouldn’t it be easy for iOS game developers to sync progress for the same game across multiple devices using the same iTunes account? App Store developers shouldn’t have to rely on another third party — Dropbox — for this sort of functionality.

And those third-party iOS developers that are depending upon Dropbox — there’s a veritable cottage industry of Dropbox text editors alone — have a far better syncing experience than Apple’s own creative apps. The iPad versions of the iWork suite and GarageBand are exquisite apps — easily some of the best-designed user experiences for creative software ever made. But the process of getting, say, a slide deck created in Keynote on your iPad open in Keynote on your iMac is downright antediluvian. Google Docs has none of the UI panache, but the syncing is invisible. You just open Google Docs, and there are your files. Doesn’t matter which machine you used to edit or create them, or which machine you’re using now, they’re all just there. That’s part of the overall experience.

That’s where Apple is behind.

Sliderocket: The Last Stage Of Jettisoning Desktop Office Apps

Over the past few years I have moved pretty steadily to a web O/S model of operations. I jumped on Gmail early, Google maps, and last, Google calendar and tasks. Blog editing has always been a browser-based experience for me. One by one, everything seemed to levitate to the cloud.

I used Basecamp and Backpack episodically and reluctantly for years, and 90% of that sort of collaboration is now being accomplished by other web-based tools, largely based on what my partners have selected. [PS I am involved in research this summer called Microstreams in Business, which will look at the rise of apps like Yammer, Socialtext Signals, Socialcast, Threadbox, Jive, Newsgator, and IBM Connections.]

Even Microsoft Word gets no play on my desktop (although I haven’t deleted it), as I don’t need to generate documents of that sort often, and if I did, I would use Google Docs or one of its competitors. Same with Excel.

But Powerpoint has become the last desktop app that I have stuck with. Perhaps it’s because it’s unlike other Microsoft office products that grew bloated and unwieldy. Maybe its because I know it so well. Maybe its because I never found Keynote to be that interesting a replacement: just a different desktop tool, and one that I didn’t know very well. Maybe it’s because I have dozens of .ppt files, and I scavenge from one to make another. Or maybe no one had built a web app that was sufficiently advanced to serve my (relatively modest) needs.

Enter Sliderocket

I first tried Sliderocket when it became available, a few years ago now. I ran into some issues that were showstoppers for me: bad conversion from powerpoint, and no way to make text boxes both filled and semi-transparent, which is a hallmark of my preso style. So I gave it a pass, and went back to Powerpoint.

A few months ago I heard about the addition of a plugin model to Sliderocket, including a Twitter capability, so I decided to take another look. I believe that Sliderocket can definitely fill the bill for me now, and offers some capabilities — linked to it being a web app — that make it siginificantly more attractive that Powerpoint (or Keynote). Although it still has some glitches that are painful, and need to be addressed.

First, let me describe the lifecycle of my presentations.

I do a lot of presenting. In 2009, I spoke over 18 times in the US and Europe. So it is fair to say a spend a reasonably amount of time working on slide decks, and standing up in public presenting. Others do a lot more remote presenting than I do, although I have plans for various briefings and webinars, and that was one of the motivations leading me to take another look at web-based solutions.

My slide style is generally an image with a text box layered above, where the text box is semi transparent, like this:

[The hard to see text at the lower right is the URL of this creative commons licensed image, from Flickr.]

Occasionally I create a table, or some simple diagrams, but not to any great extent. Mostly it’s like a comic strip, except the image is evocative of what I am talking about, instead of representing a scene from a narrative.

I often make notes in Powerpoint, and I like to be able to see them. This can lead to problems logisitically, where Powerpoint is running on a machine backstage, and there isn’t a separate monitor for me to look at the notes while presenting. So for a number of reasons, I have moved ot a model where I print the notes out, or write them elsewhere.

When presenting, I do not go for dissolves and swooping letters, or any other the nausea-inducing pyrotechnics that Powerpoint can cause. I also don’t generally time my slides, which occasionally means I go longer than planned, but I would rather overshoot than be herded by a time estimate. I just go from slide to slide until I am finished.

I’ve wanted to be able to embed Twitter and other participative bits in my presos, and have experimented with ways to do that. Years ago, Gregarious Narain and I dreamed up an app called Front Channel, intended to provide a smart way to integrate Twitter into live presentations, and Greg prototyped it for a talk we did called ‘Short Attention Span Theater’ at Web 2.0. We used it for bringing in the tweets from the whole group:

Last year, I took a long look at Sliderocket, which is a web-based replacement for Powerpoint. There were a number of issues that stopped me from adopting the tool — like not completely or correctly importing my Powerpoint decks — so after a short look, I decided to stick with Powerpoint.

A few weeks ago, I took another look, and Sliderocket seems to be ready for use.

First of all, the import issue I had in the past seems to have been fixed — at least with the features of Powerpoint that I use.

Sliderocket is very attractive tool, and with a high speed connection runs as quickly — for all intents and purposes — as a desktop presentation tool.

I won’t go into a feature-by-feature examination of the tool comparing it to Powerpoint; I will simply note a few features that don’t work as I would like, and a handful of capabilities that make it very interesting on the actual presentation side.

Let’s start with the negatives.

Notes — Notes pages aren’t really supported like they are in Powerpoint. While you can create notes and edit them, there is no way to see notes when presenting, and no way to print them, even when the presentations are exported.

Flash - The app is completely based on Flash, so I can’t see a good path forward on iPad and other Apple mobile devices. although all I have so far is an iPhone. I have been informed by the folks at Sliderocket that they are planning some sort of export and apps for these devices that will not rely on Flash, at least for showing presentations. But these are all in the future right now.

The positives are pretty compelling:

Presentations — Sliderocket supports direct presentations in the browser — in those circumstances when the Internet at a conference is reliable — as well as the ability to download the presentation in an offline-playable format (if you have the Business level of the service or higher).

Here’s the browser-based presentation. although why it says ‘preview’ I don’t know.

The fullscreen capability works as you’d expect, and the controls work as normal.

There is the ability to export an executable presentation — not editable — which plays on the desktop in a more-or-less exact analong of the online version, although it seems that some plugins don’t work in this downloaded context.

Slide Library — I do share slides across different presentations, but I haven’t worked enough with Sliderocket to have gained any great insight into the way that their slide library works. In principle it could be great.

Published Presentations/Webinars — I have not yet tried using Sliderocket for publishing presentations, or for webinars, but the fact that I can do so, without using other external services is very attractive. I am planning a (much delayed) webinar series this summer, and I plan to give Sliderocket a try.

Media Types and Plug-ins — Sliderocket supports a bunch of rich data types — video, tables, charts, shapes — and also has a plug-in architecture. One of the plug-ins that interests me is a poll capability from Poll Anywhere. Users can phone in their responses using text messaging. This does not appear to work in the exported desktop presentations, however.

There is also a Twitter plug-in that supports the display of a search result — like ‘stoweboyd’ — in the slide presentation. This seems to work in both the desktop and online presentation. While this doesn’t have the controls that @gregarious and I envisioned in the Front Channel app — like support for multiple panelists and the attendees — it could be workable as a general case.

Conclusions

I have had only the briefest experience with Sliderocket, so far. I used the exported presentation approach for the talk I gave recently in in Berlin, at Next10, and it went off without a hitch. In the coming weeks I plan to try the webinar capability, as well as other plugins. I will have more to say then, but I am interested in getting my presentations off my hard drive and up into the cloud in a form that can actually replace what I have been doing for the past ten years with Powerpoint. More to follow.

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