I am a great fan of Dropbox, the file sharing service. I keep nearly all the files that I use within Dropbox, and I share them with others in many ways. I have a Dropbox Pro 100 account, with an additional 32G from referrals, and I have the setup where I can delete files on my hard drive, but they are still accessible in the cloud.
Recently, I have been experimenting with lightweight work media tools with Dropbox integration, hoping to get the combination of Dropbox as a shared (and private) repository and the capability of coordinating work with various partners, where any files being shared would be managed in Dropbox directly.
In this concise report, I am looking at Chatbox, PandaDesk, and Refinder.
Chatbox is perhaps the lightest weight work media tool possible. It is purpose-built to add an activity stream of chat-style updates to shared Dropbox folders. It was a weekend hack, and only runs on Mac OS X.
You download the app (Mac OS X only), and once it is running you have a new icon in the Mac toolbar:
This gives access to Dropbox shared folders (which might be worthwhile all by itself), as well as those which have been chatted up recently.
Once a Dropbox shared folder is selected, a Chatbox opens for that folder:
And there is control-click access to Chatbox through the finder, too. If you select your Dropbox folder and control click you’ll see ‘Chatbox’ as an option, and that leads to the top-most Chatbox, for the entire Dropbox folder, with all subordinate chat aggregated:
You can see that the nested folders’ chats are directly accessible by clicking on the chat icon, on the right, and the folders themselves can be opened by clicking on the folders’ names, to the left.
Bottom Line on Chatbox
Free, easy to install and use, but limited to Mac OS X. The folks behind the app, Oursky Liimited, haven’t updated the app in a year, but they have moved ahead with the basic idea and created PandaDesk.
After their experience with the useful but minimal Chatbox, Oursky’s team developed PandaDesk, which is a browser-based solution with more functionality.
Dropbox integration is nearly automatic: once the pairing of the Dropbox and PandaDesk is completed, each PandaDesk project automatically creates a Dropbox subfolder within a top-level Dropbox folder. In my case the toplevel folder is ‘stoweboyd.com on PandaDesk’ and the subfolders are based on the project names.
This is a project called Work Media Reports. On the left is the activity stream, where I’ve done just about all that can be done in PandaDesk. At the bottom, you see what happens when I add a file to the associated Dropbox folder on my hard drive: it appears in the project, and can be commented on. I next created a task and assigned it to myself. At the top I created an update and attached a file from my desktop: note that the file was automatically added to the associated Dropbox folder, as well.
To the right there are a few project capabilities, like an announcement for the project (I didn’t add one), a list of team members (I am a solo on this one), an address for posting emails directly to the project, a control to change notifications, and a control to archive or delete the project.
Bottom Line On PandaDesk
PandaDesk supports messages (updates), tasks, and files: the minimal viable work media feature set, and has a truly seamless integration with Dropbox.
I am a bit concerned that Oursky still hasn’t implemented a search feature, which suggests that their momentum on the project may be slowing. However, it is a free, intuitive, and lightweight work media tool, well-suited to small teams or anyone who wants a work media layer residing on top of Dropbox.
I think if you left it up to Leo Sauermann, the innovator behind Refinder, he wouldn’t even classify the tool as being a work media solution. He is more interested in helping users manage and share complex collections of information, and as a result his Refinder app doesn’t have projects as its main contextual division, but collections.
To the left is a list of the most recent collections (or projects, the way I think of them), an my activity stream in the middle. At the top center is a field to create a ‘thing’ — such as adding a task — and placing it in one or more collections. These information objects — including tasks, updates, bookmarks, files, questions, locations, contacts, organizations, and topics — can also be created within the context of a collection.
Some aspects of the tool show how young it is. For example, you can create contacts (or ‘persons’) but you can’t associate email addresses or phone numbers with them. Topics are treated as if they are bits of information like tasks or updates, but they really are stand-ins for tags, so I have been told that topics are going to be totally reworked in a later version.
A Refinder collection has various controls in the top (as shown in the bottom in the image above), such as an email address for sending email to the project, and the ability to connect various apps to the collection. As you can see, I have connected Dropbox to this one. Other apps include Google Docs, RSS feeds, and Twitter streams, which I have not experiemented with, yet.
Each collection has its own activity stream, and controls to filter and sort the items in the collection and different displays. In this collection I have added a few files — either directly, by email, or via the Dropbox integration — and added notes and tasks.
The Dropbox integration works on a collection basis: you attach a specific Dropbox folder with a specific collection, and a background task periodically runs, adding any files to the collection. However, files added to the collection directly — by uploading from your desktop or by email attachment — are added to the private store of the collection, and NOT added to the Dropbox folder. My sense is that most people will want all files to be placed in the Dropbox folder if one is set up to be linked to a collection.
Because Refinder is more a semantic information management tool, a great deal of its functionality is oriented toward filtering and selecting multiple information items, and adding them to collections, or associating them to other ‘things’. Locations, for example, are managed as independent things, which can subsequently be associated with persons, or organizations. But this is harder for my head to get around than simply having location information in each person or organization item, without all the semantic networking.
Conside the example below, where I have selected two notes in my Ungrounded Research collection:
In the current implementation, I can related these items to any sort of object, like a file or a task. One obvious use case is to tag these things, and Refinder’s Topics can be used in that way, but they don’t feel like tags. For example, they aren’t displayed like tags at the foot of the items: you have to click on the refinder icon at the bottom, and then you are shown a list of all related things. I would rather have plain vanilla tags — which I would use all the time — rather than a totally general way to relate anything to anything.
Bottom Line On Refinder
Refinder is perhaps miscast as a work media tool in this analysis, but it would make a perfectly credible entrant in the market for light weight work media tools, given a few tweaks.
The Dropbox integration works as advertised, although I think that making it more uniform — so that all files added to a collection by whatever means would wind up in the associated Dropbox folder — but those wanting that model can simply add the files to the Dropbox folder, and all’s well. I haven’t explored the other integrations, but they are the one that many people would want, and shows a way that the tool could be extended to support other integrations, as well.
Some of the ‘things’ are at an immature level, or not well thought out for the work media context. Topics in particular need to be either simplifed into tags, or maybe tags could be added independently.
In the few weeks since I have been experimenting with Refinder, the team has implemented several new capabilities — such as the email posting feature — which suggests that the product has momentum, and is likely to become more mature very quickly, as new users start to recommend desired product features, as well.
Dropbox has developed a large ecosystem of developers building a broad range of solutions. In my personal use, I share folders with apps on my iPad (like Notability), my iPhone (like Nebulous), and tools like those reveiwed above on my Mac. The ability to get at the bits and pieces across all these devices and tools is extremely helpful to me, but basically means I have to operate at the file level with Dropbox.
I would like to see lightweight tools like these that integrate with the other critical information tangles in my work life, like Google Calendar. Just as I have a Dropbox folder associated with every project in my work media tool, why can’t I have a corresponding calendar for events? Or a Google calendar task list for tasks? Or capture bookmarks with a specific tag from my Pocket account (formerly Read It Later)?
My life is a collation of information in dozens of tools, instead of a single tool to capture and control all the information in my world. So tangled things, loosely coupled is the way to go (with apologies to David Weinberger).