Category Archives: Independent Knowledge Professionals

MacBook Air 11 + iPad 2 – Best of Both Worlds

My new MacBook Air 11 and iPad 2

I am writing an in-depth series of blog posts about iPad apps for knowledge professionals right now and I am nearing the half-way point. Along the way, I’ve decided to buy a MacBook Air 11 to compliment my iPad 2. I specifically got the MacBook Air 11 as my primary Mac and as a mobile device I could carry with my iPad 2 which I won’t leave home without. Why both? That’s my topic today.

Torn between Two Lovers

The iPad 2 has become indispensable to me. It is truly enjoyable to use, is the least onerous computer I’ve ever encountered. There are apps on there that are better than any Mac app, take Thinkbook, for one of many examples. I also tote an iPhone 4, but that’s a given. One might think the iPhone 4 + MacBook Air would be enough, but the iPad screen real estate makes for lots of apps that don’t exist on iPhone 4.

I have been a MacBook Air owner since December 2008 with the 128gb SSD 2nd gen model. As soon as I experienced the ease and freedom of using the 3 pound Air and the instant gratification of the solid state drive, I was hooked. Within a week or two, I swore not to ever buy a full-sized laptop again. My previous main Mac was a 15″ MacBook Pro but I was willing at that point to sacrifice CPU speed and screen real estate for human-friendliness even then. I already had a 24″ iMac when I bought the Air and kept my 15″ MBP as a backup. Except for using the iMac as a place to hook up extra external drives, these machines have gotten less than 5% of my time ever since.

I work out of my home as a self-employed computer/technology consultant and FileMaker software developer with my own software product. I don’t need to visit clients very often. I can work wherever I have a computer. In my case, FileMaker Pro development must occur on a Mac or PC (Mac!). The iPad and iPhone versions of FileMaker, allow access to FileMaker data but not development work. My colleagues and clients work with me remotely most times so I like to get out to my local cafe every day. I combine that with an exercise walk downtown and back through Tiburon’s St. Hilary’s Preserve Open Space.

New MacBook Air 11. Even though I already had upgraded to the MacBook Air 13 2010, everything clicked into place when the new Air 11 came out in July when Lion was released. The 2010 Air 11 was a little underpowered I thought but the new Air is extremely fast, so no complaints there. Carrying both the Air 13 and iPad 2 was a bit heavy for my daily walk downtown so I usually took the iPad 2 and left my Air 13  and a lot of my professional work options at home. Until now. The new Air 11 is a potent Mac whose only limitation is its 11″ screen. Lion seems built for that small screen with its new fullscreen mode. In Lion, fullscreen apps have extra features and work great swiping left or right to change to different spaces — each full screen instance gets its own virtual space.

iPad is in Transition and Still Benefits from a Mac. Yes, the iPad 2 is a Post PC device, but writing my series on using it as a knowledge professional put its current weaknesses front and center. I decided lack of a Finder and the necessity to use Open In… to move documents and images around is a pain right now. Yes, I do it with the aid of Dropbox, but I don’t like doing it. It is laborious and any other creative task tends to run into the limitations of the siloing of iPad apps when compared to the seamless experience on a Mac when doing the same thing. This must change, and meanwhile I want to enjoy the iPad to the full in its current state with its incredible new apps more compelling and varied by the day.

Tiny Incase bag can hold Air 11 + iPad 2 + Kindle 3

Carrying Both iPad 2 and Air 11. The day I bought the Air 11 (August 20), I also bought the $59 Incase Nylon Sleeve bag (I see the 13″ version on sale for $29 at goincase.com. It’s really well-made, small, very light, and has some nice extra pockets for cables, wallets etc.. This bag will also accommodate my iPad with a little help from a minimalist sleeve around it so it can slip in right beside the naked Air 11. I got a $19 suede jacket leather sleeve from Waterfield bags (sfbags.com). The Incase bag is super-padded so the plan worked! I can actually carry my MacBook Air 11, iPad 2 and Kindle 3 in this bag – putting the Kindle 3 naked in the full-length outside pocket. Pretty amazing when you want everything with you on the road in a compact, good-looking bag. The removable shoulder strap is to die for. The fold-away handles are great when you don’t need the shoulder strap.

How’s that 11″ Screen Working for Me? Sometimes it feels a bit small, of course, but mostly you just use it and it seems just fine. The mobility and comfort compensate and make up for the small decrease in screen space. If you already have an iPad and regard it as an essential part of your kit bag, you too may find the Air 11 it’s best companion.

The Shrinking Laptop. As a computer professional, I won’t be abandoning the Mac any time soon. But, devices like the iPhone taught me that I could get an amazing amount of work done on an iPhone (I bought it on day one: June 29, 2007). Then the iPad, with it’s larger canvas showed how helpful a little more room is. But these devices reduce one’s tolerance for bulky devices that are heavy. In an always connected world, you want your devices more mobile. In a digital world, you are using devices more and paper less. You need devices that are more like paper. The Air 11 is the most paper like PC available and it is a very powerful Mac!

Maybe the iPad will do it all Soon. The imminent release of iCloud may make the Air less important because it will allow better file access but a lot of the ease there will depend on apps being modified to support iCloud’s new features. This process will take some time to play out. I’ll still need the Mac to develop on FileMaker – at least for a bit longer (who knows what future versions FileMaker Go and FileMaker will bring). And my favorite all-purpose writing tool, Scrivener, doesn’t seem ready to release an iPad version just yet. I didn’t want to wait, and this new Air 11 will be long in the tooth before all the pieces of Apple’s strategy mature. Meanwhile, I’m having a fantastic time with my portable office.

Knowledge vs. Productivity Apps

I fall into the ardent minority who is pursuing using the iPad as a vehicle for productivity and knowledge. Rightly, the iPad has been described as a tool for consumption first and foremost. It’s fantastic for consumption activities like reading of all kinds, viewing video and playing games. It’s great for your leisure time, no doubt.

I’m a computer enthusiast and professional so I see the iPad as a new kind of computer. We’ve known for a very long time that a lot more is possible with a computer beyond typing on a keyboard and staring into a screen for hours sitting still. We’ve known that handwriting recognition, voice recognition and control are possible and being worked on. We’ve seen Minority Report with all the handwaving and now the Kinect. And Apple has had two blockbuster products that allow you to throw things around on a tiny or book-sized screen with your fingers. So, to me, what’s happening with the iPhone and iPad and their competitors is exciting and great to see.

The computer is the possibility machine. And something I do with it is work. I work for myself so work and play do kind of blend together. I work for clients but I also do things like this blog that are a bit more aspirational. Maybe there’s some work related to my most passionate interests out there that will find me blogging about this stuff.

I love computers so the first thing the iPad represents to me is a really tiny computer that packs a punch and is incredibly portable. It happens to run iOS and iOS is still discovering what it’s going to be when it grows up. So, I am not willing to think of it as a mere entertainment device even if it is extraordinary and surprising in that area already. I see it as a device that should be able to do anything any other computer has done one way or another. We’ve already seen keyboards that are created by shining a light on the table your are sitting at and typing on it. We’ve seen glasses that can display a huge screen relative to its distance from the eye. Why would I not be able to work with one of these things — with or without a keyboard?

Enough preamble, now let’s look at work from a knowledge professional’s perspective. I think of independent knowledge professionals as the new experts, consultants, advisers and publishers. The new part of it is that experts now kind of blend in with normal people who are passionate amateurs. I’m not an expert at the subject of independent knowledge professionals if a degree in IKP is required. But I am an IKP and have been for 25 years. And I’m the curious type. I do have a couple Masters degrees – one in Sociology and one in Business. Academia and other official institutions grant credibility but now we are realizing that amateurs and people who make this stuff up can be interesting and do valuable thinking too.

There’s this big knowledge component. It doesn’t hurt to be productive either. I like the knowledge piece more than the productivity piece so that’s mostly what I will talk about on this blog. I won’t talk much about traditional business disciplines like accounting, finance and marketing (maybe some marketing since it is intertwined with the web and internet which continues to change our world in dramatic ways). I’m interested in knowledge apps. They help you understand your world and figure out where you fit. They help you think, write, learn and articulate.

For a minute I’ll talk about productivity and productivity apps to make this distinction. Productivity has to do with efficiency. At its higher levels it has to do with effectiveness. Knowledge helps figure out these two kinds of virtues and how to get more of them, but it is more about the discovery and insight than the practice. Productivity is the getting things done. The work flow. Utility Apps may have productivity and knowledge aspects. The To Do apps exemplify productivity apps in the extreme. Pert charts and project management. List-makers. These can be awesome, but I like the less practical apps that lean towards knowledge, insight, analysis, creativity, expressiveness. Maybe a bit less about quantity and more about quality.

Apple aspires to blend Science with Art. The computer is the bicycle for the mind, Steve Jobs used to say. I think like that. I want to be delighted and enlightened.

Knowledge apps that excite me: Thinkbook, Index Card, Zite, Notesy, Bento, Day One, Scrivener and Circus Ponies Notebook. Those of you who are list-makers and masters of efficiency will probably be aficionados of productivity apps. This is where you shine. If that productivity app promises to help me be more efficient and get my work flow going with less time and effort, I’ll be there too. I just have my true loves and then my acquired tastes.

Gathering your Thoughts and Information on the iPad – Best Apps

OK, you’ve brainstormed to get a sense of the possibilities for your project and you’re ready to get going. The next logical step in the process is to gather everything you’ve already done and all the clippings you have saved in anticipation of this day. It would be great if the iPad could help you gather what you need into a single work area so you could then draw upon those materials in your project and add things as you find them as you go along.

The iPad is currently limited in its gathering functionality. I think and hope these limitations are temporary while Apple comes up with their new Finder replacement and iCloud services. Meanwhile, the show must go on. I’ll go through those limitations first and then talk about what I think are the best ways to go about gathering on the iPad, the best apps to use while doing so. The Mac doesn’t share any of the limitations found on the iPad, so unless you have no choice, you’ll want to include it in your gathering work flow. I’ll make some recommendations here as well.

My Mac dictionary has this to say about gathering in general: “bring together and take in from scattered places or sources“.

Gathering: How the iPad Stacks Up

  1. Search – a way to locate relevant items quickly. If a lot of your info items tend to be tagged, you’ll want to take advantage of tag searches. Spotlight search is severely limited on the iPad. There’s no way to search the entire device.
  2. Ability to combine information items, notes, images, media with a variety of different file formats, created in a variety of apps. If you have your Mac handy, you can hook your iPad up, run iTunes, select the Apps tab, scroll down, select the app you want to make a file available to and drag it into the iTunes app window. My favorite app for combining is Circus Ponies Notebook ($30) but you need to use iTunes and a Mac to load the files you want in. This is far from ideal. Even though many of the documents you want may be on dropbox or already on your iPad in other apps, you will be stymied in moving them over to CP Notebook. No dropbox support as yet. No emailing the document from another app to yourself and then using “Open in…” to get it into Notebook. Not yet. Another way to go with Notebook is to start the Notebook on your Mac if you have CP Notebook for Mac ($50), and load it up with goodies from your Mac. Then transfer the file over to your iPad via iTunes. That works. You can insert images directly from your photos on the iPad at least.
  3. Some sort of space on which to position or collect these items. You’ll need a digital location to assemble what you’ve got in one place. In the old days, you might work on the living room floor or on a table, putting everything you need in that place. But most of our assets are digital these days so working analog will slow you down. You could arrange them in the order you find them, but you might be able to group them a bit as you go along even though that grouping is far from final. The ideal space exists in Circus Ponies Notebook except for the need to use a tethered Mac and iTunes to make combining work beyond copy and paste or inserting images from your iPad photo library.
  4. A way to preserve this collection and order over time. Since you don’t have all your stuff spread out on the floor, desk or conference table, you have digital room to keep what you’ve gathered. Circus Ponies Notebook does great on the preservation of order in a notebook with the caveats just mentioned.
  5. A way to organize this collection as we see opportunities to do so or a simple way to export what we’ve got to a second tool that works really well for organizing. Based on an outline at its core, Circus Ponies Notebook wins here. There are other options like Notability, I just prefer the greater robustness of Notebook.
  6. Mobility if we can get it. It would be great to be able to gather while on the road and then take that collection of gathered items along with us when we go out. You can take your Notebook with you on your iPad, if you’ve loaded it up prior. You just can’t gather at full tilt while out. You can manipulate what you’ve got but that’s really organizing now isn’t it? And that’s a separate post.

Other Gathering Gambits

Dropbox. This dire need in the gathering stage has been addressed in a piecemeal way by the dropbox app. Dropbox is a place in the cloud that can sync to your iPad, Mac and iPhone. There’s a free Dropbox app that lets you go in and grab things. Some files like plain text can work well here and some apps are good at accessing and saving to dropbox.

Plain Text. Dropbox has been used best with plain text files. There are scads of plain text notes apps that support dropbox. Some of them give you the ability to access all of dropbox not just a single folder. If you like working in text and only text, you are in business. You can gather your text notes in a big project folder with subfolders perhaps. Simplenote allows tagging but not folders. Nebulous Notes lets you gather your notes together in multiple folders in dropbox. Unless you’ve embraced this plain text for everything method, you’ll be far from happy. If you are a Mac user, you expect more. Much more. However, if your writing projects are destined for the web, plain text rules and you can learn Markdown to make it pretty. Apps like Nebulous Notes (powerful) or Elements (elegant) will preview for you so you can see what you’ll get when web-published. I see Nebulous Notes now has a way to export your text to PDF which may work well sometimes when you want to go through a copy of what you’ve written and annotate it to note where changes should be made.

Evernote. If you keep all your notes and web clips in Evernote and tag religiously, you could create an Evernote notebook for a project. Simply give all relevant notes the same project identifier as a tag. The beauty of Evernote is that you can search all your notes from iPad and iPhone as well as the web or your Mac (or PC). Gathering could be a reasonable option for this. The few drawbacks I see are that (1) Evernote is kind of slow for quick note-taking, (2) is plain text only on iPhone and iPad, (3) there’s no outlining capability and (4) Ordering is pretty rudimentary – limited to putting things in a notebook and tagging. The slowness issue can be addressed with a new third party universal iPad/iPhone app called Quick Ever ($1). Evernote is one of the better options. You will need to be monogamous about putting all your notes, web clips, PDFs etc. into Evernote for this plan to work, though (some like me find that difficult). A Premium Evernote account ($5/mo or $45/yr) will allow you to add more file types to Evernote including office docs.

Outliners. A robust outliner that can hold the digital items you gather would help right now. The reason I like an outliner is that it gets us ready to organize by putting our items into a tool that allows you to drag things up and down, insert and hierarchically order without difficulty and with speed. There’s little to no friction in the process, so why not gather in the tool that will also facilitate organizing when you are done.

We’ve talked about my favorite gathering outliner, Circus Ponies Notebook, above and noted its shortcomings. Rightly, I think, Circus Ponies has focused so far on moving its great functionality over from the Mac and postponed trying to make up for the file management shortcomings that currently exist on the iPad. Surely Apple would deliver the goods and save Circus Ponies the work of doing file management from scratch like Good Reader has done. I think an outliner is a whole lot better place to gather your thoughts and ideas than a set of plain text files is. An outliner lets you move things around. Even if you can’t do much inserting of different document types on the iPad, just being able to re-order things gives you a jumpstart on the next step in the process – the organizing step.

Two More Top Outliner Apps to Look At

The truth is that, the ideal tool is not yet available for the iPad. There are the best in class tools but the real limiting factor for gathering on an iPad is the lack of a file management system. Because each app has its own sandbox and has very limited ways of moving data to and from other apps, you’ll have to compromise and piece together a strategy.

OmniOutliner. OmniOutliner for iPad ($20) rocks if you can limit yourself to styled text. It’s sexy and you can add extra columns to your outlines which is kind of cool. You can add outline items easily and move them around as you please. But try to get information into the outline and you find it very limited. You can paste a graphic file in from the clipboard. But once it is in, you can’t change its size. There is no Insert… command which will let you select an image from your photo library. What would be even better is a way to select from any image on your iPad no matter which app created it. There is no dropbox support so forget about the images that might be there. However, there is an awesome OmniOutliner for Mac ($40-60) that would allow some upfront gathering there and then transfer of the outline to iPad for on-the-go gathering and organizing later on.

Thinkbook. Step down a notch from OmniOutliner and give up styled text. But in its place, get a cooler outliner, to do items (which CP Notebook has), a very slick way to re-order items fast with Bitolithic’s slider. And, keep all your notebooks together and quickly accessible via the home page. Outlining like no other but limited to text for now. Thinkbook is very new. If you can live in text you can get outlining and text together with importing of text and exporting of text with dropbox support. They already have images on their to do list. This is a thinking tool that I like a lot in its early days. Bitolithic makes Comic Zeal, so they know all about images and layout. Keep an eye on this app!


When all Else Fails, Use Scrivener

There’s a Mac in your life somewhere, I’ll bet. If you are writing at any length and aren’t married to Microsoft Word, consider using Scrivener ($45) for the heavy lifting in the Gathering step. The Literature and Latte folks know about gathering – see the banner they use on their site above. Here’s what I’m thinking. Get all those goodies you have on your Mac and from your web surfing and stick them into Scrivener. It has a Research section and a Draft section. Put previous excerpts from writing into the Draft part and your images, URLs and other documents into the Research side.

The cool thing about Scrivener is that it can represent all the little pieces of the puzzle in both the Drafts and Research sides as index cards on cork boards. It can do almost anything. Has tons of keyboard shortcuts. You can print out the index cards and play with them on the floor if you want. It has a really good outliner as part of its fundamental character. It has lots of import and export options. There’s a Windows version in Beta.

You can have Scrivener be home base. Now use the iPad as your home away from home. Print a PDF from your Scrivenings from time to time and annotate that in GoodReader or your favorite PDF annotator. Some like iAnnotate, PDF Expert, Readdle, Noterize or Note-taker HD. PDFs from your Mac can be dropped into Dropbox. Dropbox on iPad can use “Open In…” to route the PDF to your favorite PDF app. You are better off with GoodReader but that debate is for another day. Annotation fits the iPad like a glove right now.

Also, on your iPad, you can sync pieces of your Scrivener that you are working via dropbox to your iPad if you use a number of good apps like Simplenote, Index Card or plain text apps like Nebulous Notes, Elements or Plaintext. There are cool videos on the Literature and Latte site to show you how to sync in both directions to your iPad app and roundtrip back to Scrivener. It can be done!

There are lots of ways to gather your thoughts and other info items on your iPad. Your Mac might be of help for the time-being at least. Have fun. We’ll go into organizing next time out!

Information Capture on the iPhone – Best Apps

Personal technology today offers amazing advantages and unlimited possibilities to the savvy knowledge professional.

I’ve found it useful to look at Apple’s latest offerings and the apps that go with them through the prism of essential knowledge functions.

This week, I’m starting to look at these knowledge functions and the apps and devices that aid us in using them.

Knowledge Functions. I’m still exploring and articulating these functions. My short list includes Reading and Writing. I’ve also got Brainstorming and GatheringCapturing and Annotating. Don’t forget Organizing, Collecting and Staying Current.

I’ll take a first pass at Capturing today and talk about some of best iPhone apps that address this function.

Capture is a term used in productivity circles and is used prominently in the popular book: Getting Things Done by David Allen. I won’t limit myself to his definition, but in GTD, capture is about capturing the thoughts, tasks and information that you encounter or think up so that they can be remembered, retained and used later. The idea in GTD is to capture to a reliable system so you can stop trying to remember whatever it is and have a clear, zen-like state of mind. Capturing is that and more.

The iPhone. The iPhone is the quintessential capture device of our times. Five salient features make it so:

  • small enough to easily fit in a pants pocket so can be with you 24/7.
  • always connected to the internet.
  • a camera and microphone built-in.
  • a good on-screen keyboard and you can draw or handwrite on it too.
  • large storage capacity.

Much or all of these capabilities are available on similar devices but I’ll stick to the device I recommend and know best for now.

The iPad. Before I go into the capturing function more thoroughly, I’ll briefly examine the iPad as a capture device. It has similar capacities to the iPhone although it functions as a big iPod touch if you are using the wi-fi only model. It’s increased screen size – something like 6x larger than the iPhone screen, makes it more comfortable for typing, drawing and handwriting (the larger screen also provides room to expose app functions to the user).

The iPad’s size is also its worst feature, in that it is bulkier and heavier by far than an iPhone. At 1.33 pounds, of course, the iPad can be carried with you most of the time if you so choose. It’s like a day-planner in bulk and weight. But, like a day-planner, it is hard to use one-handed unless you have a special case designed for that purpose and it doesn’t fit in a jeans pocket — that’s for sure! Last, it has poor cameras compared to the iPhone.

The Mac. As a capture device, the Mac (and of course other PCs) has a built-in keyboard, trackpad or mouse and thus is great for text entry when you are sitting and can be where your Mac is located or take it with you if you have a laptop. If your location is proximate and you want to type, you are in luck and can capture your thoughts, copy and paste from large numbers of possible sources and have at it.

The Office. Our traditional way of knowledge-working over the last decades has mostly been sitting at a desk. That’s been changing as the laptop started making it possible to locate yourself – sitting – on the couch, easy chair, kitchen table, deck and airplane seat. I’m sitting in my comfy easy chair right now writing on my 3 lb MacBook Air.

The Apps. We have these amazing devices, but it is the apps that allow us to cash in on their knowledge function possibilities. I’ll go into these just as soon as I finish up on the capturing function.

Capturing. Briefly, you can capture information by photographing or scanning it if it is visible, by recording it in audio or video format, or by some form of writing it down. Capture implies that you now have that thing and can use it later.

As I was mentioning before, the iPhone takes the prize in this regard as the ultimate capture device. And the iPad comes in second (a smaller iPad would have probably beaten out the current 10″ version and perhaps a bit more mature 7″ Android Honeycomb device will eclipse the current iPad 2 in the future).

So let’s first look at iPhone capture apps. My favorites of the moment are: Camera+, Dragon Dictation, Simplenote, Catch, Nebulous Notes and Jotnot Scanner Pro. In brief here’s why:

Camera+ ($2). The built-in camera app may suffice. But, Camera+ is the best camera app available. Clarify is an amazing way to improve your photos. Camera+ can crop, rotate, border and stylize your snaps. Capture is a lot about speed of execution, you’ll frequently need to grab and go. From a knowledge perspective, capturing information may be the text on a sign like hours of operation, descriptions, instructions or directions. This is portable scanning on the fly – more on that with Jotnot in a moment. You can zoom in later if you don’t have the time right now.

Dragon Dictation (free). The best way to capture short bits of speech and have it converted for you to text and send it somewhere. Gotcha – it’s only 60 seconds worth of speech at a time. You’ll need a recording app if you want more. Dictamus may win here for longer recordings meant to eventually be converted to text by Mac apps like Dragon Dictate. The key here is that sometimes it is easier to record audio than write something down. Like when you are driving (road noise can be a problem) or walking. The free Voice Memos app does the job when voice recognition is not needed. One last thing, Dragon Dictate is a universal app and its big sister for the iPad is more powerful.

Simplenote (free – iTunes link not available today due to a technical problem). My go to note capture tool. It is a lightweight app so opens quickly and you can get a short note down by typing on screen in seconds. It supports tags now or later. Text only. Syncs to dropbox. Available via web. This simplicity and speed are what make it the write app for capturing against competitors like Evernote which is a bigger app that supports photos and takes much longer to open on average. A close contender (universal) app in this category is Catch (free) which supports adding a photo to your note. You are slowed down less than with Evernote (free and also universal) and you have the opportunity to combine text with photos – a useful combo when you have the time to do both – time that is often limited when capturing on the go.

The third star in this category is Nebulous Notes ($2) which is great when you have a little more time and all you have is an iPhone to write on (although bluetooth keyboards work well if one is with you). Nebulous Notes beats out all the other text-only writing apps here with its breadth of features, customizable extra keyboard row – and it is a universal app so works on iPad too! Instapaper ($5 universal app) and Evernote should also be in your toolkit for web clipping (another form of capture!) and for Collecting – discussed in a future post.

Jotnot Scanner Pro ($1). This little gem has some great competition on the app store. But has been around longest and is excellent. It works fast, is customizable for different uses like receipts and white boards, smart crops and gives you lots of options for exporting your work to multi-page PDFs, jpeg, PNG.

As we build our list of knowledge functions, we can better gauge whether any particular app should be in your toolkit. Choosing apps wisely is critical to assure that you don’t squander your time learning apps of marginal utility. You want to make your precious learning time as a knowledge professional worth every minute. My goal will be to help you see the possibilities of productivity apps and choose only the best in class. I’ll also be reviewing my favorite apps in depth from time to time – especially those apps that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.