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Categories: apps

Email Happenings

My hatred of email is something I’ve been dealing with for a while. Settling into Airmail as my main client and using SpamSieve to mercilessly clean my Inbox is a combination that has kept from worrying about email for the last few months.

Lately, I’ve been dealing with a lot of people outside of my usual sphere and I am finding, to my frustration, that their reliance on email is still total and absolute. I’m being forced to come to terms with using it as a way to keep the window of communication open and also as a way to track and archive important exchanges.

It is with some relief that two significant things happened in the last two days – almost as if the universe has anticipated my need.

  • Gabe Weatherhead has written an expansive and incredible post about a mail client called MailMate. The thought of spending $50 on an email client when I’m already running Airmail and there’s a perfectly serviceable client in Mail.app on my Macbook Air was a sobering one. Luckily, there is a trial version of MailMate so I’m giving it a shot. It has really impressed me during my first glances. I’m really enjoying it so far.
  • The second thing that may help me out is David Sparks’s new iBook Email. Despite the fact that Gabe is interviewed in it1, I’m looking forward to delving into what looks to be an incredibly comprehensive look at writing, reading, managing and archiving the digital nightmare that is email. I am hoping it cures my aversion to email but my hopes aren’t high.

  1. Kidding! 

Knock

I picked up an app called Knock today. It is a simple app that allows you to unlock your Mac by knocking twice in rapid succession on your iPhone. Speaking as someone who has to type his password into his Mac many times a day, I thought it might prove useful (if slightly extravagant).

My wonderful , not-at-all-sarcastic friend Gabe suggested that, instead of spending the $4 on the app, I “knock” on the keyboard with my fingers and type in my password, saving a little money towards retirement in the process. It should be noted, however, that this is coming from a guy who spent $70 on a text editor that makes you change configuration settings by editing a 4000 line text file.

$4 well spent.

24/7 - More Self Quantifiying

I documented a pretty in-depth self-quantification project a little over a year ago where I combined a Fitbit Ultra and the Fitbit Aria scale. Sticking with it wasn’t a big problem because I could see quick results of my tracking pretty quickly. As I mentioned during my excursion into physical self-awareness, just being informed of how much we walk, sleep, eat and drink brings a sense of choice to what was completely automatic before. Habitual patterns that went unnoticed before became glaring after just a few days.

Choosing to walk a few more steps, eat one less cookie or take stock of how much beer we actually drink causes a gradual shift in our conscious choices that create lasting effects on our unconscious thought.

Like all experiments, it came to somewhat of a fading end a few months ago. I still carry my Fitbit and track steps but that’s more out of habit than anything. Tracking diet seemed to lose its usefulness once I knew my patterns and realized the general awareness I had gained still was informing my choices.

The new iPhone 5s presented an interesting set of possibilities with its motion sensing and tracking capabilities. I thought about how I always have my phone with me. Plus it is always charged (unlike the Fitbit which gets forgotten on occasion) and, given its ubiquity, it has a readymade window into my personal statistics given the right app and motivation.

A friend pointed me to a site to take a peek at some iOS interface elements being used by an app called 24/7. It looked like “just another tracking app” but I started delving into the pages that described it and was intrigued enough to plunk down my $0.99USD and see what it could do.

24/7 combines the functionality of several apps that I currently have on my iPhone.

It does the following:

  • Sleep pattern tracker
  • Alarm clock (which can target your light sleep cycle for easier wake-ups)
  • Pulse monitor that uses the camera and flash
  • Motion tracker and pedometer
  • Activity reminder that will pop up a message if I’ve been too sedentary for my own good
  • Snore/apnea recorder
  • Almanac with sunrise/sunset and night length
  • Weight tracking and charting
  • Walk recorder
  • Goal setting for exercise (steps)
  • Nap timer and a white noise/sound generator.
  • Data export as a CSV file (sleep, walks and steps)

Not bad for for the price, huh?

I’ve been using it for a while now and find that the data and reporting in the app seems robust and the functionality seems to work as advertised. I had some minor issues with the alarm clock not working one morning but I think it is because a new app version was released overnight which my iPhone decided to update (as I had asked it to do, so I can’t really complain) causing the app to shut down. There was no harm done since I always set a backup alarm using the system alarm clock when I use a third party app. At this point, I know using an app-based alarm clock can be somewhat finicky on the iPhone and plan accordingly.

For the price, it’s hard to beat 24/7. It has allowed me to reduce the app clutter on my phone and, since my phone is always with me, the motion tracking data is very accurate. I can’t wait to see if the developers integrate any other functions because the app has become a one-stop-shop for my renewed interest in personal tracking metrics. It is almost like having a dashboard view of how you spend your day at a very atomic data level. I imagine there would some interesting insights that could be gleaned and reported to the user if the data could be coalesced in unexpected ways.

App Store Link($.99)

Arrival Fence Contexts for OmniFocus

After listening to the latest episode of Back to Work, it got me thinking about how I use “Arrival Fences” in OmniFocus. I clearly rely on them less than Merlin. That’s likely caused by a few reasons – I don’t live in the city and I rarely run errands that require that type of location savvy.

I do use the location aware features of OmniFocus however, just in a very targeted way.

Throughout the day, whether at home or at work, I’ll think of things I need to do at whichever one of those places I don’t happen to be located at presently. If I need to remember to do something at home while I’m at work and I can’t forget, I always had trouble putting a reminder in a place that I would notice. Maybe I’d write it on a note and put it with my car keys or house keys. Sometimes I’d email it to myself and hoped that I would check email when I got to my destination. You get the picture; it always felt kludgey and rarely worked well.

I didn’t want to set up geofences for my main “Home” and “Work” contexts because I had dozens, maybe hundreds, of tasks nested under those contexts that would have popped up when I arrived.

My workaround focused on making sure the tasks that pop up at a location are actionable at the time I see them. In each one of my common destination contexts (“Home” and “Work” for now), I created an OmniFocus Context called “Arrival Fence” and I mapped it to a small circle range around each spot on the map.

Using these contexts is a simple affair. Whenever I have a task that I must be reminded of when I get to one of those areas, I assign the task to one of those Arrival Fence contexts. That way, a targeted and location-specific notification pops up and it is really hard to miss.

Weather Line: Go Buy This App

Nate Boateng over at Rants and Rambles posted about a couple of great apps today.

Terminology isn’t something I see myself using despite the love the app gets from all corners of the echosphere. Still, it’s nice to know its there.

My love for buying weather apps is well known at this point1 and I swore off of weather apps completely since I found Check the Weather. But another weather app has found its way into my life thanks to Nate. It’s called Weather Line.

Well, if you’re still on the fence, go read Nate’s post, then go read Federico’s post over at Macstories and then go buy it.

There are two things you need to know about it.

  1. It’s gorgeous.
  2. It uses the Dark Sky API.

It’s on my Home screen and I really like the cut of its jib. I hope the developers make millions.


  1. By my wallet. 

Launch Center Pro 2 Released for iOS7

Launch Center Pro 2 launched today. It has been completely redesigned to reflect iOS7’s aesthetic and user interface elements.

I’ve been using Launch Center Pro for quite a while. I lives on my Home row and I have grooved my muscle memory to reach for it. I find that, among my friends who have tried it, whether they like the app or use it is often is very personal; based on things like muscle memory and whether or not you use the apps it supports. Some people never quite find a niche for it but those who do can’t imagine using an iPhone without it. I’m in the latter camp.

On my iPhone, I like to keep some often-used apps buried in folders because it’s just cleaner that way. They are all tucked away neatly on “page 2”, grouped by function. Launch Center Pro lets me get to these apps quickly and easily while leaving them hidden away from view. It’s almost like having a separate Home screen, albeit one that has some more specialized purposes.

I use LCP2 to launch my Apple TV Remote app, TouchPad, Music, Rdio, and 1Password (among others). When I’m watching TV shows on my Mac Mini at night, two quick taps on the bottom right of my iPhone screen has me in total control of the Mini’s interface. If I want to play some music of watch Netflix, there’s no need to hunt around for that slippery, silver remote – the Remote app is just two taps away.

Clearly, LCP2 doesn’t solve everyone’s problems but, for those who find a use for it, there’s no other app that can compare.

Tech Note: OmniFocus 2 for iPhone

Last week, OmniGroup released a new version of OmniFocus 2 for the iPhone1. The newly-redesigned app brings it more in line with the look and feel of iOS7 and that’s both a good and bad thing. This won’t be a review; just a few impressions after a week of fairly heavy use. Others have written more thorough reviews and I direct you to them instead.

omnifocus2

I was happy when I first opened the app and saw the cheery, slightly muted, colors. It seemed to fit the iOS7 aesthetic well and it was pleasant to look at. As I started messing around with the app, however, the difficulties began to reveal themselves.

When I added my custom perspectives to the main screen, they faded away in a very low contrast teal. I’m not one of the folks who feel the need to make fonts bigger or bolder in the majority of my iPhone app use, but damn they were hard to see. Since the designers decided I didn’t need my custom icons on the home screen (I assume they didn’t want my choices cluttering up the clean design), making my custom perspectives harder to see doubled my annoyance.

The real estate on the main screen also competed with my needs. The great thing about OmniFocus was that I could tweak it to fit my needs. It became a customized haven where I could craft and then manage a workflow. I used it that way for years. That said, I’m not averse to change. If something changes for the better, I’m not one to cling to my old weather-beaten way. Point me to the new stuff. The problem is that the new version of OmniFocus wants me to work in a very different way. My attempts to customize are curtailed2 and I find myself having to change how I work to meet the design of the app. This is the opposite of what we’ve grown accustomed to and runs counter to what led me to love the previous version so much in the first place.

My workflow has come to rely on the Forecast, a custom “Today” perspective, my “Work” and “Home” perspectives and a “Next Stuff for Work” perspective. They took center stage in the previous app but now I have to scroll to see them. It’s awkward. In the previous app, the fact that the perspectives were front and center reminded me to check them. Now, tucked away behind the bottom of my iPhone screen, I’ve found they get checked far less often. Perspectives are the most powerful feature in OmniFocus and minimizing their relevance in your flagship app is going to cause powerusers some major headaches.

I find the way the nicely-colored large “buttons” or tap areas are situated very awkward as well. The double-sized Inbox and the four other “buttons” arranged below it made me wonder why the Inbox tap area was bigger and why the others were in a static grid. Again, awkward. I would love to remove “Nearby” and move all of my custom contexts up to a more useful postion but I can’t and that’s frustrating.

Generally after a major update, you expect more of what you had before – more customizability, more choices, more features, more options. It’s what you’re paying the $20 for (again). I’m not going to gripe about the price. I know a major factor is because Apple won’t allow upgrade pricing. Couple this with the fact that I love OmniGroup products and want them to keep making great apps and the sting of paying again fades. But my main problem is that this feels like I lost some critical functionality and what I got in return was some thin fonts and the need to do a lot more scrolling.

I’m not going to fully agree with what others have voiced to me privately – that this is a $20 re-skin. It’s not. It seems like an iterative reimagining of a well-loved, much-used product. The problem is that it is starting over on iteration #1. I wish the iteration started from where the previous version left off.

It may sound like I’m extremely negative about the app but its not all terrible news. The only reason I’m being so critical is because I love OmniFocus so much. I want Omnigroup to succeed, improve, move forward, keep iterating. There are some nice touches for a 1.0 and, for now, I’ll look to these as a bellweather of better things to come.

Bonus Pro Tip: To back out of deeply-nested Projects or Contexts, press and holding the top left corner. It will drop you back on the main screen.3


  1. Affiliate link. 

  2. By virtue of being impossible. 

  3. I was quite happy to find this one (accidentally). 

iMessage for Android

“iMessage for Android” was released on the Google Play Store the other day. It is obviously not an official client and the intrepid people who have downloaded and tested the app attest to its inability to communicate with iMessage clients.

This app would appear to be one of the many black marks on the malware-blighted Android app ecosystem but what caught my eye at the bottom of Verge article about the app was a comment (the first comment, mind you) that sums up so well the expanse between reality and fantasy when it comes to Android fans.1

applesfault

It’s Apple’s fault that these Android users are being put at risk? Yup, clearly. I hold out hope that this user was being sarcastic but a scan of the next few pages of comments (why do I do this to myself?) serve as ample testimony to this being how the Android diehards tend to think about the world.

I will concede one point to them however. When Apple introduced iMessage, they claimed that it would be “open”.2 We can now see that its not open by any definition of the word and that’s a shame in some ways because it further fractures the landscape of instant messaging apps. That said, the last people who should be citing “open” are Google/Android fans. Have they looked into implementing any Google Hangout integration recently?3


  1. This is why we never read the bottom half of the internet, readers. 

  2. @johngordon, an ADN contributor, pointed out that Apple may not have specifically said that iMessage would be open. The screenshot I saw specifically mentioned Facetime. I’ll have to go back and listen to that keynote but if memory serves, I think John’s right about this and its one more thing the commenters are wrong about. And also me. 

  3. They can’t because it’s not “open” either. Can we stop using that word now? 

Bartender 1.2

One of my favorite apps for the Mac is called Bartender. It is a much-needed assistant on smaller-screen Macbooks like my Macbook Air 13”. It’s main function is to take all of the icons from the menubar and collapse them into a small toolbar icon.

While that sounds like a trivial thing, in practice, it does two important things for me.

  • It frees up menubar real estate for important information.
  • It has a feature that will expose a menubar item which is “busy” so you don’t miss critical updates.

Both of these items are completely customizable, allowing you to add or delete items from Bartender, cause them to show for a specific number of seconds before hiding themselves again and many other variations within that theme.

Bartender 1.2 released recently and there are quite a few changes and additions to the offering including drag-and-drop, Mavericks support and the addition of “Show for Updates” for System menu items1.

Bartender is on sale for $10 for a limited time (it is usually priced at $15) so now would be a great time to buy if you’ve been on the fence.


  1. This means that when a System menu bar item updates, the icon will appear during the duration of the update and then slide back into the Bartender icon. Very handy. 

Textastic and Coda - Worth Every Penny

Converting TechnologyNotes to use an entirely new flat-file content management platform meant I was relying on tools that never came into play when running the site on Squarespace. There were a few apps that I had purchased over the last couple of years thinking I’d make use of them eventually and thank goodness I did. Having them on hand made the last couple of weeks much easier.

When you are developing a website, it is critical that you can get to the server, update a page and then save the changes back to the server. In the past week I have used three or four tools to do that.

In truth, I could have managed just about all of it with just Coda – it is an extremely capable tool. Combined with Transmit and Diet Coda, it is a nearly-complete solution for managing the new site across my desktop and iPad.

In my case, however, I end up managing a lot of local python scripts. Coda really likes project-based file management. Since these python scripts are ancillary files in place to manage a workflow outside of my project and it doesn’t handle them quite as elegantly as Textastic, especially on the iPad and iPhone (which doesn’t have Coda as an option anyway).

I had Textastic in my Applications directory for months and used it for my theoretical Python coding. I never did enough coding to really get into the intricacies of the tool but I liked what I saw.

Over the last week, Textastic has become key to making this whole thing happen. I had Textastic on the Mac and iPad but never saw a reason to buy the iPhone version. I missed the mark. The iPhone version has saved my bacon more than a few times this week when critical files needed updating on the server.

Going forward, I think I’ll be focused on creating content in Editorial and Byword (using Hazel and python to move files to the server) and I’ll be tuning that workflow and posting about it here. That said, Coda and Textastic will continue to be my tools of choice for managing the website. Worth. Every. Penny.