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A scree (or manifesto) about Google integration

Hey, Google!  Why haven’t you integrated your basic user tools yet?

Seriously, considering how helpful this would be, and considering Google already has all the necessary pieces and an abundance of resources, why hasn’t it been done?

I’m not going to answer that here - though I can dream that Google will, in a comment to this post.  I am, however, going to explain why I think the question needs to be asked.

In my never-ending and possibly obsessive-compulsive search for the ideal personal task management system, I recently went a little crazy assessing a number of online systems.  This time (yes, there have been other forays into the land of Felix Unger), I was looking for apps that could integrate rich notes (e.g., Evernote), calendaring, task management, and email.

What I discovered is that the app I want is really the app Google won’t seem to make - although I cannot imagine it would be very hard for them to.

First, a little background.

I’m old enough to have used punched cards green ASCII terminals, so I’m not a big fan of the bells and the whistles. I want task management that clean, simple, and minimal.  Also, I don’t like heavy systems like full blown GTD; I’m more of an autofocus man.  Finally, if it’s going to be computer-based, then it’s got to work everywhere, mobile and otherwise. (For me, that’s “limited” to Chrome, Macs, and Android.  No Windoze for me, thanks.)

Currently, the heart of my system is Google Calendar, Google Mail, Drive (for handling Big Important Things), Toodledo for tasks, and Evernote for pretty much everything else (including drafting this blog).  Google Keep is also always close by as Plan B because it’s fast and easy and dependable, but no where near as powerful as Evernote.

(Then there’s Zotero, Pocket, Diigo, and I can’t even remember what else; but they’re more for sharing stuff with my colleagues and students and less about getting shit done.  So let’s put those aside for now.)

We can put Drive and text preparation aside for now, as I’m convinced the functions it serves is significantly different than the others.

Insofar as task management goes, I have relatively few requirements, but it’s surprising how many apps can’t satisfy them: start dates, due dates, contexts & folders (or, alternatively, a robust tagging system - like Evernote's), intelligent and rich repeat options for recurring tasks, rich sorting (or, alternatively, intelligent searching - again, like Evernote’s), and some kind of user-configurable “hotlist.”  While that might sound very close to GTD, it really isn’t because GTD seems to boss me around too much; I want more flexibility than full-blown GTD offers.  If that were all I’d need, I’d be happy to commit for life to Toodledo (more on that below).

(Notice also that this regretably punts the otherwise very usable but equally neglected Google Tasks right out of the running.)

But I’ve recently noticed that the bottlenecks I face are almost invariably in between the tools rather than inside them. That is, I tend to slow down when I’m trying to create tasks because of an email I’ve just received, or coordinating events (on Google Calendar) with tasks (in Toodledo), or deciding whether a task should be a checkbox item in Evernote, or an item in Toodledo….

If that’s where the bottleneck is, then what I’m looking for is an app that manages how those tools interact rather than how they work individually.

So, into Google Search I went.  Here’s a very fast summary of the apps that I've looked at (so far).

Toodledo.  King of the hill, IMHO, except it doesn’t really integrate with much.  On the other hand, it has the best tradeoff between usability and functionality.  You can customize it, too, and make it nearly as simple as Autofocus or as complex as full blown GTD. The interface is intuitive enough that you can quickly get on your feet and be productive. Even better, you can use it (even its free version) as a “service” to sync a variety of other apps.  And it’s full of all kinds of incredibly useful features. (My favourites are to set a conditional due date and “importance.”  A conditional due date means that if it’s not done on time, the task’s due date rolls over to the next day and keeps doing that till you get it done.  This option is great for tasks you’d like to get done by a certain date, but can let run over a bit without all the fuss of seeing it glare OVERDUE at you. Importance is a calculated measure that includes task priority, due date, and whether the task has a star.  It would be nice if users could program their own calculation for importance, but it’s still pretty good as is.)

IQTELL.  This system has huge aspirations and has achieved a lot. It integrates calendaring, Evernote, email of all kinds - even Google Tasks - with its own task management system.  It can look like GTD, but you can customize it - a lot.  It’s a Howitzer: powerful and clumsy.  It has some problems.  For instance, it can parse and use your Evernote tags, but not your Gmail labels (even though they’re basically the same thing); and it can’t display email messages as threads. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many videos I watched and forum posts I made, I just couldn’t figure out how it all fit together.  I’m pretty sure there’s a kitchen sink in there, but I couldn’t find it.  If you’re looking for brute power, you must consider IQTELL; but be prepared for many a long, sleepless night trying to decipher it.

Zendone also connects to calendars, email, and Evernote; in fact, it rather depends on Evernote quite heavily, which is great if you like Evernote (as I do).  It’s also very beautiful.  However, it doesn’t have start dates, and it’s having a bit of an identity crisis these days; that is, its developers say they’re going back to the drawing board - which is admirable, but doesn’t really help me at this point.

SmartTM is very interesting.  It depends heavily on Evernote (you need an Evernote account to get it going). It appears to integrate everything I need into its own task manager, but I couldn’t get in.  I’ve reported the error a few days ago but have yet to hear back. Also, it doesn’t seem to have an OS X app.  It does have a browser app, which would be fine with me, but it’s in beta and I can’t access it either.  I’ve also read that it’s quite clumsy to use.  It’s a new product, so I would expect some growing pains, but again it doesn’t help me.

FacileThings is also a new-comer.  It has a web and mobile apps.  It pretty much forces you to use all 5 steps of GTD. I’ve read that the mobile app sucks, but it doesn’t.  I have it running on my Nexus 5 and it’s fast and clean, albeit it uses a truly weird font.  It also supports integration with email, calendars and Evernote.  From my point of view, it has a few serious issues. First, one has to manually change from one GTD stage to another; I would have had them all visible on the screen (at least on the desktop/browser version) and let users simply mouse into whichever stage best suited their needs at that moment. Second, it has no hotlist (or equivalent); it only has the standard GTD Next Actions thing. Third, it relies strictly on tags to simulate contexts, projects, folders, etc.; this means users have the cognitive burden of remembering their own tagging system.  And before you ask: no, it doesn’t really have a good way of seeing/searching all your tags from any action.
See also http://purplezengoat.com/2013/06/19/facile-things-teaches-you-gtd/ for more about it.

TaskClone takes a really interesting approach: it only provides a service to sync from Evernote to any one of a number of other task management apps and calendars.  The idea here is that you can use whatever apps you’re most comfortable with, and still get your sync on to keep things tidy - assuming you work mostly in Evernote, of course.  It gets clumsy if you want to change an Evernote that TaskClone has already synced, and it doesn’t sync back from itself to Evernote.  That wouldn’t work for me, because I tend to diddle my Evernotes a lot.

Doit.im is an actively maintained and developed system that does provide at least some integration with calendars, email, and Evernote, and runs on pretty much anything.  It assumes a GTD-esque stance, but there is reasonable flexibility built into it.  It does a lot of “magic” behind the scenes, populating various lists (especially the Today list) with tasks from other lists as certain conditions arise. It supports start dates, which is great for me, but I find its UI a little clumsier than I’d like.

NirvanaHQ is another elegant system that runs on multiple platforms.  It has relatively weak integration with Evernote and can only sync calendars via iCal.  The other problem I have with NirvanaHQ is that there has been virtually no activity by the developers in quite some time.  They seem to not respond to posts on their own forums, and the android app is quite stale.  More than the lack of advances in light of OS evolution, I’m troubled by the lack of feedback to users’ comments.

Pocket Informant is currently based on mobile devices only, but claims to be developing a Mac app. It would be a contender for me if/when that happens, because it does everything else I need it to do.  I used it for a time when I used iPhones, but its UI became clumsy.  Apparently, the new version is much better in that regard.  Indeed, it syncs with Toodledo, so I wouldn’t even have to migrate my tasks. It has pretty good Evernote integration: notes are synced in their entirety, and Evernote Reminders become reminders in PI.  I wait with a worm on my tongue (“baited” breath) for the desktop version.  Till then, it’s not going to help me.

Todo7 is another very elegant system.  I used it for years back in my iOS days, but it doesn’t integrate with calendars or Evernote, and its Android app is quite stale, so it’s pretty much off the table.

Then there's systems like Bitrix24. If IQTELL is a Howitzer, then Bitrix24 and its ilk are the nuclear option. Not interested.

So where am I going with all this?  The real take-away here is that there’s a market - a market that’s growing - for integrated apps.  Now, I know Google has tried its hand at all-in integration before (cough Wave cough), but the current field of apps out there seems to be suggesting a definite trend. It's tasks, calendars, email, and notes; people want integrated tasks, calendars, email, and notes.

Now, given its size and breadth, it’s seem ridiculously obvious to me that Google needs to get back into this game. Google knows about integration - witness Drive. Google also knows all about calendars and emails.

Where they’re a bit weak, methinks, is on the tasks and notes front.  Google Tasks just isn’t enough, and it irks me mightily that they’ve yet to address the thousands of requests posted over the years since Tasks was released to add some meat to it.  Tasks are not events; it’s just silly to think that Google Calendar will do for task management. It’s great for event management, but it quite frankly sucks for task management. Tasks needs real but optional due dates and start dates, tags (see below), options for recurring tasks, some kind of prioritization like Toodledo’s “importance,” and a really good search system.  Contexts, folders, projects, etc. can all be simulated perfectly well with tags.

Google Keep is pretty good for notes, but it needs a bit more functionality to make it anything more than a scratchpad.  It doesn’t - indeed shouldn’t - become a competitor for Google Docs; Docs-style functionality would be too much of a computational burden.  But it’s clear that Evernote has listened carefully to its users in this regard: a few, modest formatting options, tagging, and a truly brilliant search facility.

Google knows all about search.  Google also knows about tagging; the label system in Gmail is really a tagging system (and they’re hierarchical, just like Evernote); Google Bookmarks supports labels too. They also have tags in Google+.  As far as I know, even folders in Drive are really just lobotomized labels.

What’s needed is a universal tagging system so that a user can use the same tags regardless of the Google app that they’re using.

The next step is to put key apps in a single window: calendar, tasks, email, and notes. They can start it out as four separate panes - that’d be fine with me.  The magic, though, would happen behind the scene screen.  While each app can be its own thing, the integrated four-pane app has to add a layer of interoperability.  It should be possible to, for instance:

  • create a rich note in Gmail that automagically links back to the email message/conversation;
  • create a task or event directly from an email, and have the email intelligently parsed for information to populate the task or event;
  • turn a task into an event and vice versa;
  • intelligently search all the apps for tags/labels as well as text, dates, contacts, etc. and present them in an integrated view;
  • allow searches to be saved and reused with a single click;
  • embed a task or event within a note, and have it appear in your task list or calendar; and
  • everything must stay synced with everything else, all the time.

And, of course, it would have to work on mobile devices as well as desktops.

In the long run, I’d like to see something more like a “stream” - a single interface combining email, tasks, events, and notes into a single, consistent view.  But that will take a lot of thinking and study of usage patterns.

I’m drooling just thinking of something like this.

Come on, Google, you can do this!

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