Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 1: Getting Started

December 1, 2013

What IS Evernote Anyway?

Evernote is an idea trapper and information organizer. Ideas and information are entered as Notes, which can be organized into Notebooks and Stacks and Tagged for quick filtering. Using a file cabinet analogy, a Note is a piece of paper, a Notebook is a file folder, and a Stack is a hanging folder. In this series, I’ll refer to these three key components collectively as “elements”. If you’re looking for a pure To-Do list or Calendar, look elsewhere. But Evernote is so much more powerful than either one that it doesn’t matter. And it can easily be integrated with your calendar and to-do solutions because all notes can be referenced by a link.

Evernote is available in two versions:

  1. FREE: The free version is a great no-risk way to get started. You may find that you’re perfectly happy with the free version and never need to upgrade.
  2. Premium: The Premium version ($45/year) adds several features that I consider essential:
    • Offline notebooks: In the free version, your mobile device must be connected to the Internet in order to view and sync notes. The Premium version allows you to save some or all of your content locally on the device so you can view it even when you are out of cell/wifi range.
    • OCR: the Search capability is one of Evernote’s strongest features, but in the free version it is limited to text. Premium adds automatic OCR of all images and PDFs stored in Evernote, which exposes that content in Search results as well.
    • Better collaboration: I use Evernote for both personal and work, and I share several of my work notebooks with colleagues. With Premium, I can give them the ability to add and edit notes instead of just viewing mine.

Why I Started Using It

I’ve gone through an assortment of tools and strategies over the past two decades in an effort to manage my ADD. The challenge has always been to trap ideas and information before they float out of my head (SHINY!!!), and then be able to produce that information when I need it. The latest candidate is Evernote and so far it’s a winner. For me, its most compelling feature is that it runs on every electronic device I have access to and automatically synchronizes between them. That means that I always have a way to trap information and it is instantly available everywhere. Even if I have to resort to paper for my notes (sometimes it’s just easier than typing), I can usually keep track of the paper long enough to get it transferred, or at least get a photo of it (which is all I need, as you’ll see later).

There are as many ways to use Evernote as there are people using it (and I think that everybody should use it). But the same power and flexibility that makes the program so valuable can also make it somewhat daunting to start using. There are many “How To…” resources available for Evernote, but I think the best way to start is by seeing how other people are using it  and then adapt and expand it for your own needs. I’m not an expert by any means, and there many features that I don’t even know about. But I’m enough of an Evernote evangelist that I decided to jot down some of the ways I use it – it will be simpler to just send this blog link (which I’ll store in Evernote) when I recommend it to a friend and they want more information.

Core Features

These are the core features that contribute most heavily to my success with Evernote:

  1. Cross-platform synchronization. As I mentioned above, all notes are instantly available on all connected devices, regardless of platform – Desktop clients (Windows or Mac), Mobile (iOS, Android, Windows phone), any Web browser on any machine or device.
  2. Search. I can quickly search across all notes (I currently have nearly 1500), or limit my search to a particular notebook or stack. And as mentioned above, with Premium, all images and PDFs stored in Evernote are OCR’d and included in the search. Type-ahead suggestion of matching phrases is a relatively new feature that simplifies searches.
  3. Ease of entry: There are many ways to enter notes and trap information (see next section)
  4. Tagging: Tagging provides a mechanism to instantly gather related notes from different notebooks and stacks.
  5. Flexibility: Easy to reorganize if your initial strategies aren’t working for you (which is why you should just dive in)
  6. 3rd Party Integration: Evernote has gotten so popular that all sorts of apps have cropped up to provide integration.

How does stuff get into Evernote?

Almost any way you can think of. Here are the main ways I get stuff into Evernote:

  1. Direct Entry: self-explanatory, type it in. (Not device-dependent.)
  2. Dictation: Second only to text messaging, dictating notes into Evernote is one of my main uses for Siri on my iPhone. (Mobile only, unless you have some sort of dictation software.)
  3. Web Clipping: install the plug-in for the browser of your choice, and with just a few clicks, you can add anything from the Internet into Evernote. Using the browser plug-in, you can clip a URL, an article, a selection, or a full page. And with recent enhancements, you can even select the target Notebook on the fly. (Currently only available natively on Desktop browsers, although I believe there are some apps that overcome this deficiency on mobile platforms.)
  4. Email: There are two ways to get information from e-mails into Evernote. If you use Outlook on your Desktop, there is a plug-in so you can just click a button. With any other email program (including Mobile), you can forward messages to your Evernote e-mail address.
  5. File import: With Evernote, you can set up any number of import folders on your PC – anything you save in these folders gets sucked into a specified notebook folder. I use this for bringing in PDFs – dog show premiums, appliance manuals, etc. (Desktop only, for obvious reasons.)
  6. FileThis: cloud service for gathering statements and receipts from financial, insurance and utility vendors, and sending them directly to Evernote. (More details in Part 2.)

Getting Started – Dive Right In

I recommend starting on your computer (PC or Mac) by downloading the Desktop program. Not all Evernote platforms are created equally and the Desktop app is by far the most powerful and flexible. I do all of my set-up and organization on the PC and use the iOS version for consumption and entering new notes. Open the Desktop app and just start playing around with it. Pretend you have a stack of ideas and information on one side of the room, boxes of file folders and labels in the middle of the room, and an empty file cabinet on the other side of the room. There is no wrong way to start – just start gathering and entering and organizing information. If you don’t like where you put something, drag-and-drop it to somewhere else. If you don’t like the name you gave a folder, rename it. If you find you’ve entered information you don’t need, delete it.

As I was gathering resources for this post, I found this great blog article by Jon Mitchell, which focuses on “How to Think about Evernote” rather than “How to Use Evernote”. Very succinct, and saved me a bunch of time because I don’t have to re-write everything that the author has already presented so well. I highly recommend you read it. Some of the details vary from my usage, but I agree with everything he has said.

Check out these free online training resources

Next up: Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 2: How I Use It


Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 2: How I Use It

December 1, 2013

If you don’t yet know what Evernote is, please start with the previous installment: Holly’s Evernote Guide, Part 1: Overview.

Basics

I’ve been using Evernote for over a year and my usage continues to evolve. But here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:

  • Be diligent. Get the information in. Somehow. Worry about organizing it later. You can always Search for it in the meantime.
  • Naming matters. I use strict naming conventions in most of my Evernote elements for two reasons:
  1. To force sorting. I can completely control how my elements sort by using naming. Since I use Evernote for both Personal and Work information, all of my Personal stacks are prefaced with “Personal” and likewise, Work stacks with “Work”. I also use special characters (primarily “!”) to force certain elements to the top of the list.
  2. To identify which stack/notebook a note “belongs” to when I search for a note another way. For example: all notebooks in my “Events” stack are named “Events-<date> <description”.
  • Keep exploring. The popularity of this program is phenomenal. The developers pay close attention to the user community and each new version includes enhancements that have been requested along the way. The 3rd party app/service/accessory support is very strong and new things are coming out every day. And the knowledgebase and training resources on the Internet are huge. New ideas for getting the most out of Evernote are exploding. I’m as guilty as anyone of getting in a rut by using it the same way tomorrow as I use it today, so I’m adding this as a reminder to myself as much as anything.

Organizing: Tagging vs Stacks/Notebooks

Organization in Evernote is a complex topic that deserves some extra discussion. I have found in my research that some Evernote users minimize their use of stacks and notebooks and rely completely on tagging for organization. They like the dynamic nature of tagging and the fact that multiple tags can be applied to individual Notes. This is a very “database-y” view and you can find many resources if this is how your brain works.

Not me. I’m an old school paper filer, so I rely heavily on notebooks and stacks and use tagging as a supplement tool for very specific filtering. In fact, I used to be frustrated by the 2-level limitation of stacks and notebooks (no notebooks within notebooks). But I realized that goes back to my PC background and how I organize files on a computer. Once I adopted the hanging file/file folder analogy, I realized that the 2-level model actually makes sense. And combined with the power of Search and the alternative view provided by Tagging, it’s all I need.

Here are some examples of tags I use:

  • Shopping: any note that includes something I need to shop for gets a shopping tag. When we’re out doing errands, I can pull up the ‘shopping’ filter and be sure I don’t miss something.
  • Sewing: I have a varied list of stuff I want to make – dog beds, generator covers, a padded sleeve for the solar panel in my trailer. They’re all tagged with ‘sewing’ so that I can check that filter on the rare occasions that I break out the sewing machine.
  • Charity: itemized lists that went to Goodwill or other charities, receipts for “X-a-Thon” entries that my friends do, random donations – these all get tagged with ‘charity’ to simplify the report at tax time.

Evernote-ToDoTo-Do Lists

I’ve already conceded that Evernote is not the best To-Do manager, but I have adapted it to do exactly what I need it to do. My “!Personal To-Dos” stack (note the “!” that sorts it to the top of the stack list) contains various notebooks that serve to both prioritize and categorize. This stack is by far the most fluid in my Evernote scheme.

  • Now, Soon, and Back Burner are prioritization tools. Notes get edited and moved around frequently between these three.
  • The Bay Team notebook started when I was on the Board of Bay Team, but I use it now to keep track of other responsibilities I have for the club, like ordering awards. And I added Dog to combine two related notebooks into one.
  • Blog Ideas? Self-explanatory. I have lots of ideas, and every once in a while they come together in a post like this one.
  • The Stuff to Get Rid Of notebook includes notes for Freecycle, Goodwill, Craig’s List, Ebay, and Bay Team (agility stuff). It gets updated every time I venture into the garage.
  • The Travel Trailer and Echo Lake notebooks get updated with ideas every time I go to the lake or travel in the trailer. I consult them on weekends when I’m looking for something to do.

Evernote-EventsEvent Tracking

My “Personal Events” Stack contains notebooks for all upcoming events that have more information than can easily be stored in a calendar entry. I use a strict naming convention so the notebooks sort in calendar order. Once the event is over, I simply delete the entire notebook. If there is a deadline involved (like sending a trial entry), the new Reminder feature helps by sending a message on whatever device is running Evernote. The actual notes for each event vary with the type of event. Here are some examples:

  • Concerts/Shows: Tickets, web site, receipt, google map to site, nearby restaurant ideas and menus
  • Dog Shows and Seminars: premium/application, confirmation letter, receipt, web page, RV information, timeline estimates, worker schedule, notes to myself if I’m on the microphone
  • Travel: plane ticket receipt, hotel confirmations, ideas for things to do when I get there, and websites

Evernote-HomeImpHome Improvement

I could not have managed my recent kitchen remodel without Evernote, and I’m still using it for ongoing household projects. Each room or project has a notebook in the “Personal Home Improvement” stack. Here are some examples of the notes that go into the individual notebooks:

  • Web clips: I spend a lot of time surfing for ideas for furniture, lighting, carpet, flooring, accessories, you name it. When I find something that might matter, I can stick a web clip into the appropriate notebook with just a few clicks. Same is true for ideas that I find on Houzz.
  • Images: I take a lot of photos when we go shopping for ideas – tile and floor samples, cabinet organization ideas, lighting, again, you name it. The photos all get sent straight to the appropriate notebook for future reference. This is also how I kept track of business cards – snap a photo and put it in Evernote – since it gets OCR’d, I can find the card by searching for text (like “tile”).
  • Ideas and Notes: Wish lists, ideas for specific areas, notes for the contractor, shopping lists.
  • Measurements and Plans: Everything got measured and drawn: existing furniture, room sizes, available space in drawers and cabinets, etc. This made it easy to avoid making mistakes when shopping.

Evernote-DigitalLifeDigital Record Keeping

I got this idea from Jamie Todd Rubin, Evernote’s Paperless Lifestyle Ambassador. Great blog with an RSS feed so you don’t have to miss a single update. I haven’t fully implemented all of his ideas, but I’m off to a good start. Here are the notebooks I’ve been developing:

  • Information Panels: I can’t think of a better way to keep track of serial numbers and model numbers. Take a picture of the information plate on each of your appliances and electronic components, store it in the notebook. If you need it for warranty service or parts ordering or even an insurance claim, they’re all right at your fingertips.
  • Manuals: Many manuals are available for download from the manufacturer web sites. I have started collecting them in a notebook so they’re easier to find. I haven’t quite gotten up the nerve to dump my paper collection, but that time will come.
  • Vehicles (Pink Slips and Insurance Cards): Take a photo, store it in a notebook, have it when you need it.

Miscellaneous Information

  • Recipes: Someone posts a recipe on Facebook that looks interesting? Clip the selection to Evernote. Your favorite food blog? Clip the URL to Evernote. That recipe for your mom’s fondue that is floating around on a piece of paper getting ruined? Enter it (by typing or snapping a photo) before it gets lost forever.
  • Project Research: Similar to my home improvement stack, I start a notebook every time I think about or embark on a new project of any sort. Most recent example? We’ve been looking for a new boat for the lake for years. I trapped all of my research, pricing, information, contacts, etc. in one place. I finally bought the boat of my dreams last summer – no longer need the research information, so poof, it’s gone.
  • Work: I haven’t even begun to go into my work usage – maybe that will be a separate installment. In a nutshell, everything I do or think about doing at work goes into Evernote. Keeps me focused in the face of interruptions, and serves as the basis of great documentation.

Apps and Services Integration

The list of apps, services and accessories that integrate with Evernote is growing daily – you can get an idea by browsing the Evernote Market (formerly called the Trunk). I check back every once in a while to get new ideas, plus I google periodically to see what others are doing.

The most important service I currently have integrated with Evernote is FileThis. Over the years, I have gone paperless for as many of my financial services as possible and store all of my statements in PDF format. Until recently, that was a tedious process of going to each web site to download the monthly statement. FileThis is a service that does all the work for me, automatically, and drops the PDF into Evernote. It supports all of the major national financial and utilities companies, and recently even added support for my local credit union. I don’t actually leave it there – I use it as a trigger to reconcile against Quicken, save the PDF, then delete it. I can also see the value of leaving them there because all of your credit card transactions would be searchable. FileThis has three plans – as with Evernote, you can start with the free version and work your way up if the added connections and frequency add value:

  • Free: 6 connections, weekly update
  • $20/year: 12 connections, weekly update
  • $50/year: 30 connections, daily update

Disclaimer: Yes, I do have to provide the web credentials for each vendor to FileThis. I am confident in their security, but I don’t recommend doing anything online that makes you uncomfortable.

Thank you for reading my Evernote Guide. I haven’t covered every detail of how I use Evernote, but I hope I’ve given you enough ideas to get you going on your own path to Evernote success!


Is it an iPad? Maybe a Xoom? NO, it’s a ViewSonic GTablet!

April 10, 2011

Over the past year or so, I have had considerable pressure to enter the Tablet market. Some is peer-induced, which I covered in my first iPad post, and some is self-induced, borne of the realization that we need a backup eReader to supplement the Kindle.

As I review my original iPad post and the use cases I proposed, I have the following updates:

Media-rich newspapers: Nothing has changed here. I still don’t make time for a national newspaper, and as far as I know, the local rag (Press-Democrat) hasn’t adopted the format.

Media-rich magazines: As it turns out, at least one of the niche magazines that comes to our house, Clean Run, has made a significant effort to delve into the digital world. They now have a digital edition which is available through any web browser, and their digital publisher has already launched an iPad app (can an Android app be far behind?). Hmm, this is getting more interesting.

Watching videos. This is still my most compelling use case, even with the streaming constraints of the cellular networks and the input constraints of the iPad. I have already ripped my dog-training DVDs so I can watch them on my iPod Nano and Blackberry. It goes without saying that the tablets beat the handhelds in screen size, plus they bring a 10-hour battery life which is unapproachable in the laptop world. Now it’s starting to get really interesting.

Kindle backup. Yep, we need something. I concluded in my Kindle update that the Blackberry Kindle Reader is quite adequate in a pinch but not suited for long reading sessions. And I can’t quite justify a second Kindle when weighed against the added value and features of the tablets.

Fortunately, the tablet market has evolved along with my needs and the iPad is no longer the only option. Google’s Android operating system, which has been so successful in the smartphone market, has been extended to tablets and several manufacturers have already responded. And HP, which bought Palm and rebranded it as webOS, has also announced a new tablet offering (although it may be too little too late). This changes everything in terms of tablet decisions. In some ways it’s easier (I’m not forced to drink the Apple iBorg kool-aid), but the added options also add to the complexity of the decision (Android vs. HP WebOS, WiFi-only vs 3G/4G, AT&T/Verizon/Sprint).

Based on the growth of the Android app market and the openness of the operating system (in contrast to the iBorg), I had already concluded that Android would be my platform of choice. I was well on my way down the path of the Motorola Xoom when I encountered two significant stumbling blocks:

  1. The $800 3G version is only available on Verizon, and the only way to buy it at the discounted price of $600 is to commit to a 2-year plan at a minimum of $20/month. Total cost: $1,280 plus tax and accessories. HUH??? I don’t think so.
  2. The WiFi-only version hasn’t been released yet and is expected to be priced at $600, not exactly a dip-your-toes-into-the-tablet-world price.

During my struggle with all of this data, my good friend Jason just happened to notice the Woot of the day at woot.com, a ViewSonic GTablet (Android-based, wi-fi only) for $280. Those of you with Woot experience know that the good stuff sells out quickly. But it was enough money that I wasn’t ready to push the button without doing a little more research. During the course of the day I was able to determine the following key pieces of information about this particular device:

  1. It is listed on Amazon for about $340 so the Woot price was righteous. It is now available on other sites for $310, but still, $280 was a darned good price.
  2. The hardware specs kick some serious butt
  3. The user interface (UI) provided by ViewSonic sucks (it’s called Tap ‘n Tap – seriously?)
  4. Because of the aforementioned openness of the Android operating system, #3 was easily overcome (OK, you have to be a bit of a geek…)
  5. Everything required to deal with #4 is (a) free, (b) well-documented on youtube and various forums, and (c) well-understood by Jason (who has been hacking his Droid phone for months)

By the time I had concluded that this Woot deal was a financially feasible way for me to experiment with both a tablet and the Android OS, I was sure that the opportunity would have been lost. NOT SO! I clicked “I Want One” and here I am, the proud new owner of an Android Wi-Fi Tablet!

I have now rooted it and replaced the ROM. Or for those of you who don’t speak geek, I have taken over the hardware and replaced the stock Tap ‘n Tap interface and in doing so, effectively voided the warranty – a leap of faith not for the faint of heart. But the result is a kick-ass tablet that I’m thrilled to have in my arsenal.

My videos are awesome, the web browsing experience is fantastic, the Google app store is great and the Amazon app store is even better, and it is much better than my Blackberry for reading Kindle books. Even so, I will reiterate that the Kindle (with its eInk technology) will continue to thrive – LCDs (including this one) are terrible in natural light.

There is a dark side to my decision – this thing came with Angry Birds. I had been SO determined to ignore and avoid it, if only to justify my reverse iPhone snobbery. But there it was … I was only going to try it once …  really … CRAP!!!!!!

Hi, my name is Holly and I’m an Angry-Bird-aholic.


Kindle Update – one year later

March 23, 2011

When I bought my Kindle last January, I published my initial impressions in Kindling a New Reading Option. Now that I’ve had it for over a year, I thought I’d take a look back at how the Kindle has met (and in most cases, exceeded) our needs. Here is a review of my original goals:

  1. Did the Kindle handle my primary use case? Yes. My original motivation for buying it was to eliminate hauling a 30-lb box of books up to the cabin during my multi-week summer jaunts. The Kindle provided 10-oz alternative with a 2-week battery life. It also offered car-charging and free 3G downloads of new material when I headed down the mountain to do laundry at Tahoe. Two Thumbs Up.
  2. Can two people share one Kindle? Maybe not everybody, but we certainly can. And that is enhanced by the free Kindle apps that are available on other platforms. If the Kindle is not available for whatever reason (Rich has it, the battery’s dead, I don’t know where it is at the moment), the reading experience on my Blackberry Torch is quite adequate. And because of the Sync to Furthest Page feature, the transition from device to device is seamless. Love It.

But wait, there’s more. As I have embraced the Kindle and explored the Kindle world, I have uncovered some features and resources that are worth sharing.

Free Sample Chapters

Perhaps the most under-appreciated feature of the Kindle store is the Free Sample Chapter link, which is available with a single-click for most of the offerings in the store. What makes this feature so great?

  • If you have read several print books by a favorite author, you might not remember which ones by the Title alone. By reviewing a Sample Chapter, you can quickly recognize if you have already read the book before you make a costly mistake and buy it again.
  • If a friend has recommended a new book or author, or you happen upon something vaguely interesting in the Amazon Recommendations, you can test them out and make your own choice with no financial commitment.
  • If you are browsing the book store, you can use Sample Chapters as a Wish List / bookmark / reminder for future purchases.

Although the Sample Chapter is a great feature, it is not without flaws and does have some room for improvement:

  • If you are reading a Sample Chapter and decide to buy the book, there is no correlation between the two. In other words, it doesn’t keep track of how far I got and sync that up with the actual book when I buy it. It should.
  • The Buy Now option at the end of the Sample Chapter is instantaneous – it doesn’t show the price (which might be more than you wanted to pay) or provide for confirmation. There is a workaround however – use Go to Store instead of Buy Now.
  • If you buy the book, the Sample Chapter is left as a turd on the device. It should be smarter than that and delete the Sample when the book is purchased and downloaded.

Redefining Publishing

One of the most exciting things about the Kindle framework is that it gives new authors a way to get published and recognized. Traditional publishing is expensive and represents a significant investment for the publishing houses – they aren’t willing to take chances on unknown authors. Publishing on Kindle provides a free and very interesting alternative, with the following features for the consumers:

  • Many books under $2 (and even free)
  • Instant ratings and comments provide feedback so we can easily tell if they suck or not
  • Even established authors and publishing houses are offering free and cheap books to hook you (e.g. I got the first two Stieg Larsson books for $5 each, but I’ll probably pay full price for the third…)

Again, there is a downside – many books are being published without benefit of professional editing, which can have disastrous results. But that is why the ratings are so important.

So, how do you find out about these low-price offers? I subscribed to the iReader Review blog and over the course of the past few weeks, have filled my Kindle with free and cheap books. Not all of the emails are interesting, but it’s worth it to have someone else do the work of finding the deals.

What’s Next?

Since Rich and I have both embraced the Kindle, I was exploring the option of buying another eReader (the Kindle3 has some tempting new features). I quickly concluded that the better solution is to supplement it with some sort of Tablet. The Kindle is as close to perfect as an eReader can be, but that is really all it is. It doesn’t make sense to have two when a Tablet would more than suffice as a backup eReader and do so much more.

So, which Tablet to get? That will be the subject of my next entry….


Super Pooper Scooper

May 23, 2010

I’ve been through a wide variety, and I finally found one that works and holds up over time. I don’t coddle my pooper-scoopers – I leave them outside in the rain, the dogs have full access to them for their destructive pleasure, and I still expect them to work perfectly and easily every time I go for my half-acre poop hunts.

Here are some of the ones that have failed:

One-piece-but-still-two-handed-pivoting rake-into-shovel or shovel-into-shovel devices

Rake-like devices

Two-piece rake-into-shovel devices

All of these have fundamental flaws. Two-handed operation means I have to put the bucket down to use the device. The 90-degree rakes and shovels require that you tip the scooper at the same awkward 90-degree angle to release the contents, which means you still have to put the bucket down to get the handle out of the way. Many have wooden handles, which don’t survive being left outside. The rake-style has the most flaws – the tines bend, causing pieces to fall through, they tend to stab, making the release phase more difficult, and if the consistency isn’t perfect, well, use your imagination.

Finally, thanks to my cousins Bruce and Jill, I found the pooper-scooper that actually works. Let me introduce you to the Four Paws Allen’s Spring Action Scooper. I had seen it in stores, but it looked clunky and over-engineered (read doomed to fail). When I saw it work at their house, I decided to give it a try. Turns out it’s a plastic spring-loaded design wonder that meets all of my criteria.

  • One-handed operation
  • Works on all surfaces (there’s a special model with teeth for grass, but I haven’t found that necessary)
  • Effective on all consistencies
  • No bending
  • Ecologically sound (bagless)
  • Simple and complete release into the bucket in my other hand.

It comes in several sizes and models, and is widely available online and at pet stores. There are other brands out there with similar designs, and I have no reason to believe they don’t work just as well. But this is the one I have used and can vouch for.

Happy Poop-Hunting!!!


Essential Tools for Dog Lovers

May 22, 2010

Hi, my name is Holly and I’m a gadget-freak. Oops, wrong meeting. Hi, my name is Holly and I’m a dog-lover. Wait, still not right. Hi, my name is Holly and I’m a dog-loving gadget-freak. Yeah, that’s the one.

I’m not afraid to admit it publicly. I love to explore gadgets, and my dogs have provided me with a whole new world of opportunities. Some work, some don’t. I figured the least I could do to redeem myself  is to blog about it and save you all the trouble. After all, why should we both throw money at the bad experiments?

I already have a couple of terrific items to catch up on. I’ll post the good, the bad, and maybe even the ugly. If you have a fantastic dog gadget that I need to know about, please let me know.


iPad for me? Not quite ready yet.

May 6, 2010

When the iPad was announced, my response was “bulky sorta iPhone/sorta iPod Touch, lotta money, why bother?” But when our company President recently wandered in with his and enthusiastically gave me a demo, I completely changed my tune – I was ready to gulp the entire pitcher of Kool-aid and pull out my credit card….

Fortunately…

I took a moment to do the math:

  • $829 for the 64gb 3G model (why settle for anything less?)
  • $39 for a case (don’t kid yourself, anything with a touchscreen needs a decent case)
  • $69 for a Bluetooth keyboard (I’ve already established that I can’t survive with on-screen keyboard alone…)
  • $99 for an extra year of Apple Care (like the iPhone, it still doesn’t have a user-serviceable battery)

Grand Total: $1,036, plus tax. PLUS $30/month for the 3G data service. Hmmm, this definitely exceeds my gotta-have-it-right-this-second threshold. So in a rather uncharacteristic display of self-restraint, I resisted my initial impulse to buy the shiny toy and sat down to consider …

How Exactly Will I Use It?

I came up with the following use cases, the first two based on the big boss’s demo:

Media-rich newspapers. Wow, this is dramatic – color photos, tap here and there to see what’s behind it, slide over here to get a searchable, tappable index. Snazzy. But wait, I don’t read national newspapers now, and having a fancy colorful device isn’t going to change that (any more than joining a gym is going to make me work out). I have no idea when local papers like the Press Democrat will be producing this content (if ever).

Media-rich magazines. Again with the colors and tapping and sliding (or is it ‘gesturing’?). More pizazz. But wait again, what magazines do we read at our house? Time and The Economist? Nope. Clean Run, American Rifleman, Rider, and <insert equally obscure and niche-y magazine name here>. Clean Run has already stated that their small circulation (and even smaller number of iDevice customers) can’t possibly support the investment in ‘rich’ iDevice-ready content.

Watching videos. Yep, I thought this would be the winner. I do watch videos on mobile devices, mostly when I’m traveling in the trailer with the dogs. Currently, I use my MacBook Pro to watch Netflix movies on DVD, and my iPod Nano or MacBook to watch training DVDs that I’ve Handbrake‘d into iTunes. The iPad will clearly excel at the latter, but really, we’re talking about training videos – quality and size aren’t that important and they work quite nicely on the Nano. And what about movies? Oops, no DVD player on the iPad. Streaming? According to reviews I’ve read, streaming only works on Wi-Fi, not worth a hoot on 3G. I’m not surprised, given that the cell networks are already completely overwhelmed by the streaming that is happening now. And in most of the places I travel, there’s no Wi-Fi. Next?

Kindle backup. Rich and I share a Kindle and we both love it. So far, we haven’t had too much usage contention so it’s working out fine. When there is a conflict, I’ve discovered that the Kindle app works very well on my laptop and is even serviceable on my Blackberry. But the iPad was really compelling on this one, with its big screen and longer battery life. However, it won’t replace a second Kindle (which I’m pretty sure is in our future) for two important reasons: even the 10-hour battery life isn’t nearly enough to survive a week at the lake where there is no power source; and because the screen is backlit, it doesn’t work well outside in the sun. Um, never mind.

As It Turns Out, I’m Not Alone

I’m not the first one to take a closer look at personal use cases and reach this conclusion. Here’s a great article I found when I googled “ipad use cases” – The iPad Literally Breaks Every Use Case I Had For It. If you are reading this blog with any interest at all, please, please, take a moment to read Mr. Wilhelm’s article. He reminded me of something I hadn’t even thought of – this fancy device can only run one app at a time and has no tabbed browser capability. Are you kidding me? No multi-tasking? Even Palm switched from the Treo to the Pre. No tabbed browsers? Even the luddites amongst us finally abandoned IE6 for Firefox and (at least) IE7. (Obviously I don’t use an iPhone or I wouldn’t even find this surprising.)

Conclusion (for now, anyway . . . )

Many geek pundits are heralding the iPad as a game-changer and a laptop/netbook-killer. I’m inclined to agree, long term. But it’s not even close to being there yet, at least for me. Time will tell. Perhaps an app will show up that I simply must have. Perhaps the cell carriers will finally beef up their infrastructure to meet the demand. Perhaps the price will fall below my gotta-have-it-right-this-second threshold. Perhaps they’ll introduce a multi-tasking version of the OS, or at least a tabbed browser. I’ll wait and see. And when my friends approach me for my geek opinion, my answer will be “Validate your actual use cases before you decide and don’t get sucked in by the ‘Shiny!’ factor alone.”


BrainShare 2010

March 27, 2010

What is BrainShare?

BrainShare, Novell‘s annual expo in Salt Lake City, has been lauded as one of the premier technical conferences in the IT industry for more than 20 years. Over the years, it has grown both in numbers and scope, and had morphed to the point where it had become as famous for the over-the-top concerts (including Earth, Wind and Fire, Train, Huey Lewis and the News, and Styx) as for the technical content. In 2009, for the first time in the history of the event, Novell announced that they were canceling BrainShare, citing industry-wide budget tightening and a generally sluggish economy.

In response to that unprecedented decision, Novell formed a BrainShare advisory council, composed of company representatives, key vendors, and selected customers to consider how best to reformat and bring back the conference for 2010.

The transformation was nothing short of miraculous. They listened to the feedback, which overwhelmingly favored the technical excellence, and produced a reborn BrainShare conference that (to quote John Dragoon, SVP and CMO) went back to its roots as a technical conference for technical people. The result was arguably the best BrainShare I’ve attended, and this was my 13th. It was shorter (4 days instead of 5), more focused (less redundancy) and had minimal distractions (e.g. parties). The technical content was superb, with dozens of Advanced Technical Training (ATT) hands-on classes, 200+ product-focused technical sessions, and 20+ hands-on installation/migration labs.

What did I learn

Here are my key takeaways from BS 2010:

  • After 3+ years of stumbling with a premature release, ZENworks Configuration Management (ZCM) is finally ready for prime time with v10.2 (and the upcoming v10.3). Because implementation of ZCM is essentially a rip-and-replace of our very stable ZENworks Desktop Management v7 environment, I had been dragging my feet. Now, both the product and the migration tools have evolved so I’m ready to proceed.
  • Similarly, iFolder v3.8 has finally re-introduced the administrative controls that had been stripped when they moved from v2.1 (NetWare) to v3.x (Linux/Mono). The open-source community rejoiced that move, but the corporate community rebelled. Novell listened, and they have now released a version that is easily managed by policy, and involves an upgrade from the client side, rather than a cumbersome migration process.
  • ZENworks Application Virtualization (ZAV) has some very interesting real-world use cases. For instance, I can see the value of delivering IE6 to workstations running IE7 or IE8 (especially Vista or Windows 7, which won’t even run IE6), specifically for backwards compatibility with old web apps.
  • In the Futures department, I was most excited by Novell’s Cloud Security Service. This product features Single Sign-on and Provisioning (and more importantly, De-Provisioning) for all of our Cloud (SaaS) applications from one console, using our existing LDAP directory. We already have at least five SaaS services in our enterprise (with more to come), each with different credentials and identity management – in some cases, I don’t even know who handles them. This would pull them all together into our current identity management process.
  • I would love to bring up Teaming and begin generating some grass roots interest. And I’ll do just that with the free 20-user Starter Pack license that Novell is offering. But I’m not sure it will go much farther than that because of the pricing. Hey Novell, Teaming costs too much.
  • I don’t ‘get’ Pulse. But I don’t ‘get’ Google Wave either, and I didn’t ‘get’ Facebook until just over a year ago. I imagine that I will eventually begin to understand Google Wave (as it evolves), and when that happens, I’ll be glad that Pulse is around to provide a secure corporate integration with Wave.

No, it wasn’t just a total geek-fest

In addition to the technical excellence, the evening events were still fun, just not as numerous or crazily as over-the-top as previous years.

  • Upon arrival on Sunday night, I headed over to the Gateway Theater for GWAVA‘s annual private movie for the GroupWise community. This year was The Bounty Hunter – a cute chick flick with just enough humor and action to make it fun for the guys too.
  • Monday night was a fundraiser party for Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA). They have had smaller benefit functions at two previous BrainShares, but this one was conference-wide and featured a decent rock-and-roll cover band. Through tattoo parlors (temp, of course), photo booths, shirt sales, and an HP NetBook raffle, they raised over $25,000 for their cause from the participants. In addition, Novell threw in a donation for $10,000 at the end.
  • Tuesday was vendor night. In previous years, this has been a total geek-frenzy best avoided by the sane, with 5000+ attendees fighting tooth-and-nail for the last t-shirt or the most insignificant piece of throwaway SWAG. But this year, it was a much more subdued opportunity to actually talk to the vendors about their products without having to miss any of the technical sessions during the day.
  • Wednesday was IT Tech Talk, or as it was more-often called, The Event Formerly Known As Meet The Experts. At this feature event, attendees get to speak directly to the development teams and other product engineers about individual products, both current and future. As with vendor night, this opportunity is available all week, but this event adds value because it doesn’t conflict with other training.

SWAG Report

Even a scaled-back BrainShare would not be complete without toting home a suitcase full of SWAG (Stuff We All Get). I long ago learned to pack an empty (and strong) duffle in my suitcase, so I can fill it with SWAG and check it on the way home. Fortunately, 2 bags fly free on Southwest, so that is still a legitimate (and necessary) strategy. Here is the final inventory of my SWAG (and pseudo-SWAG) haul:

True SWAG (things I didn’t buy, earn, or win):

  • 3 fleece jackets, 15 T-shirts, 2 ball caps
  • 4 thumb drives (totaling 9 gb) containing various product demos and evals, 3 mini-mice, 2 USB VOIP handsets with integrated sound cards
  • Over a dozen pens, several hand-squeezy things, and various and sundry other things to clutter my desk
  • Over an inch of vendor collateral materials and demo CDs

Pseudo-SWAG (things I earned or won):

  • Nikon Coolpix 10mp camera kit (with 2gb memory card)
  • ZCM v10 Self-Study kit (included with registration)

In addition, I had to find room for the following Non-SWAG items: 8 additional T-shirts (on sale or fund-raisers for BACA), 4 technical books (all half-price), 1 windbreaker and 1 long-sleeve shirt (both half-price).

Conclusion

I went to Salt Lake City this year wondering if this would be the final BrainShare. After all, they had canceled last year, this year was an untested new format, and just to make it even more iffy, Novell had recently received (and rejected) an unsolicited buy-out offer from their majority shareholder, Elliott Associates.

I came home with renewed confidence in both the quality, vision, and future of Novell and their products, and I am now looking forward to BrainShare 2011.

Well done, Novell – kudos to John Dragoon and Mike Morgan and the rest of the BrainShare staff, as well as the development teams who are putting together such great products.


Kindling a new reading option

January 5, 2010

After months and months of deliberation, I recently decided to take the plunge and buy a Kindle. Or as Amazon calls it, a “Kindle Wireless Reading Device (6″ Display, Global Wireless, Latest Generation)”.

The decision to buy an eReader at all was not an easy one. Because unlike many of my friends, I have not completely swallowed the kool-aid. I like licking my fingers and turning the paper pages. I’m an enthusiastic participant in the secondary book market. I have an immature Border Collie who chews expensive plastic things. And there are places where eReaders just don’t work – like the hot tub.

But my last stay at the lake really got me thinking. I was headed up for 3 weeks and I generally average a book a day. Having accepted that large-format paperbacks are here to stay (at least at Costco, and my aging eyes aren’t complaining), and having purchased sufficient variety to keep my interest piqued, and having included an appropriate number of (thick, heavy) technical reference books, I found myself boxing up and shlepping 25+ lbs of books into the car, into the boat, up the mountain, back down the mountain, back into the boat, and back into the car. Suddenly, that 10 oz. option was looking pretty good.

Once I decided to pursue the idea, I was faced with the choice of three incompatible devices: Kindle/Nook/Sony. I was actually hoping to let it all shake down to a de facto standard before I jumped into the market, so as to avoid making the wrong decision – a la VHS/Betamax (I chose wrong) and Blu-Ray/HD-DVD (I’m still happy with good old progressive-scan). But I’m not sure we’re there yet. And as it turns out, competition is good for technology – so I embrace the battle.

The final barrier was lifted when Rich and I were fortuitously seated with a delightful young couple from Texas on a recent scenic train ride through the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Somehow during the course of our visit, it was revealed that they each have an eReader – hers a Kindle and his a Nook. I confess that I hadn’t heard of the Nook before. Much conversation and questioning ensued, followed by feverish Googling upon our return to the land of broadband.

The upshot is this: I first settled on the Nook, and went so far as to order one. But driven by buyer’s remorse and my propensity to over-think and over-research all decisions, I actually reversed my position and went for the Kindle. Fortunately for me, the Nook is back-ordered by 2 months so the switch was easy and not subject to the 10% Barnes and Noble restocking fee (which incidentally, Amazon doesn’t impose for the Kindle).

My reversal was facilitated by the following reviews, which were written by someone who meets my stringent criteria for internet postings: if you are going to review something and post it on the internet, it had better be comprehensive and organized. I quote: “To be on the safe side -> Please assign points to the listed advantages of each eReader according to what features you value and figure out what is better for you.” To “switch11”, whoever you are, you are my hero. Be sure to read the comments – they add tremendous value to an already comprehensive review.

Review of the eReader experience: http://ireaderreview.com/2009/09/04/kindle-2-review/

Kindle vs. Nook, Take 1: http://ireaderreview.com/2009/10/20/kindle-nook-comparison/

Kindle vs. Nook, Take 2: http://ireaderreview.com/2009/11/24/nook-vs-kindle-review/

As I pondered these write-ups, I concluded that the best thing about the Nook is that it got the Kindle developers off their butts – price went down, battery life went up, and PDF support appeared, all not long after the announcement of the Nook features. As I’ve already mentioned, competition (in technology) is good.

So the decision is made. I like that I can bookmark or stop reading on one device and have it carry over to another. I’m thrilled that with the Kindle, I can charge through a USB cable from a 12V power source (the Nook requires AC power). I’ll be able to instantly look up words/names on Wikipedia, and really, what’s the point of built-in WiFi (Nook) without any sort of browser? And as much as I was compelled by the memory micro-SD expansion slot on the Nook, I have to agree with one commenter – I’m not buying it to be an MP3 player, and isn’t 1500 books enough?

Now, on to Facebook, where I learned things about eReaders that I had not considered. For instance:

“Another downside for the Kindle: If you step on a book, you might rip the cover off. If you step on your Kindle you’re out $300 :(” Followed shortly thereafter (by the same poster) with: “Kindle support rocks! They’re sending me a new kindle by tomorrow! :o”

Seriously? You step on your Kindle and they send you a new one? Her response to that: “Well it MIGHT be possible that I forgot to mention foot involvement when I called them….”

Several other commentors echoed the same sentiments about Amazon’s customer service regarding damaged units (which seem most commonly to involve crushing, flinging, and drowning – I hope chewing is also covered), leading me to conclude that the hardware is actually just a loss-leader – the true revenue stems from the ease of buying content. Or as another friend puts it, “I really like my Kindle, particularly when I’m travelling. The only drawback is that it’s too easy to purchase books!” Yes, registration of the Kindle automatically ties to your Amazon account / credit card. At $6-$10 per title with easy search and instant download, I can only say this: Cha-ching. Makes iTunes look like pocket change.

I don’t expect the Kindle to replace our current reading habits, merely to supplement and provide options, primarily for traveling. Reference and non-fiction books with extensive photos and maps will still have their place on the bookshelf. And until they sort out the search features, we’ll still need indexes and Google.

As we continue down this path, I also think that Amazon may have to consider creative pricing opportunities. For instance (and these are just off the top of my head):

  • Buy the Kindle version and get the print version for 25% more (or vice versa).
  • Provide subscription options (modeled after Rhapsody-To-Go) – i.e. 30 day ‘rental’ period for some percentage of the purchase price. DRM is already built-in so this shouldn’t be too difficult.
  • Allow your friends with Kindles to “Buy” (i.e. Transfer) your purchases to their own devices for a discounted rate (which would put Amazon back into the secondary book market).

I should clarify that I haven’t actually touched my new Kindle. It is being shipped to Rich in Colorado, so that he might enjoy the benefits on his Amtrak ride home next weekend. But we have already purchased three books that are queued up for download the second he turns it on and registers it. I’ll let you know how it goes.


SPOT Tracker: Why you should have one

December 15, 2009

Everybody who is involved in a high-risk activity should have a SPOT Satellite Tracker. In this context, how do I define high-risk activity? Any or all of the following criteria:

1) You are in an environment where it’s not exactly clear where you might be if you get into trouble. (Mountain climbers, back-country hikers and snowmobilers, yes; bungee jumpers, no.)

2) You are moving at a relatively high rate of speed and might end up out of sight of passers by.  (Motorcycle rallyists, take note.)

3) Your route might vary as the day(s) goes on. (Again, this is for you, motorcycle rallyists.)

4) You have passengers on-board who didn’t necessarily sign up for the ride and might not be as well-equipped as you to fend for themselves. (This is for my dog friends.)

5) You have loved ones at home who might be interested in your progress, no matter what adventure you are on. (If you don’t fit into this category, I’m sorry for you.)

My friend, Ellen Clary recently posted a blog entry regarding what role electronic devices might or might not have played in the current Mt. Hood rescue effort involving experienced climbers who have gone missing. http://www.frap.org/Blog/2009/12/avalanche-locater-beacons-not-perfect.html

As I read this blog entry, I found myself surprisingly passionate in my response. Here is a transcript of the subsequent Facebook ‘conversation’:

“Ellen – I agree with you about the limited efficacy of MLUs. However, there is a much more effective solution that is designed for exactly this scenario – SPOT (www.findmespot.com). As you may have seen on previous posts of mine, we bought one for Rich’s motorcycle rallies and other adventures. It isn’t cheap ($150 + $200/yr for full service, including tracking and search-and-rescue coverage), but for this type of activity I not only think it’s essential, it should be mandated. If nothing else, it gives the concerned loved ones back home some well-deserved peace of mind.”

Ellen’s response:

“I’ve seen you mention it but hadn’t really understood it very well. That is intriguing as I often will go off by myself and the locators are silly. But I only go to places with lots of people around (having people around is not really a bad thing at all in my book.) I’ll check out the Spot locator but it’s not really affordable yet. You must have the tracker service as the basic lists as 99/year which is vaguely tempting. Though what I do is go with a guide service to place I don’t know. This brings up the also huge debate about those who press the rescue me button for the silliest of reasons.”

Me:

“Yep. The basic service would have sufficed if either (a) they were able to press the 911 button when things went bad, or (b) they had bothered to press the OK button at regular intervals during their trek. But IMHO, the Tracker service is essential if you are involved in a high risk activity during which you are too busy to press the OK button at regular intervals. If these three climbers had had that service, the searchers would have known exactly where they were when they stopped making progress. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that wouldn’t have been worth $200/year to their loved ones right about now.”

“I’m passionate about this issue because several years ago, Rich and I were intimately involved with a search-and-rescue effort for a motorcyclist who went missing during a rally – a road rally, not a desert rally. Rich was one of many searchers and I was the computer ‘base camp’. It took us 10 days and roughly $10,000 of donated money to find his body (he died instantly), which was about 30 feet over an embankment on a state highway. If he had had a SPOT, we would have found him in hours, not days. Many rallymasters are now requiring that participants use the SPOT. ”

“And yes, there are two ongoing debates: (1) the goobers who use it because they ran out of Power Bars, and (2) the paranoids who think that the government will use the data to prove they were speeding/exhausted/liable/etc. ”

“Rich and I weighed the pros/cons and almost instantly chose the obvious. Interestingly, it has reduced his stress as much as mine, because he no longer feels the pressure to check in during rallies or rides because he knows that I can monitor his progress.”

I stand by my original statement: if you meet any of the above criteria, you owe it to yourself and/or your loved ones and/or the taxpayers who support the search-and-rescue organizations to buy a SPOT and sign up for at least the basic service, and preferably the tracking service.

http://www.findmespot.com