App of the Week: Special Prices at AppSanta

Every once in a while, independent developers offer their apps at a special price. This holiday season, AppSanta is once again offering a number of favorite apps at discounts up to 80%. Drafts 4 is one of them, as are other apps I'll be covering in the future such as Terminology, Gneo, TextExpander Touch, Clear, Launch Center Pro, Manual, Calendars 5, and perhaps more. Check it out!

I'll post this week's App of the Week by tomorrow.

(Note: this is not a sales pitch, nor do I receive anything for pointing you to AppSanta; I just thought you might find the discounts useful.)

App of the Week: Drafts

Last week, we looked at Dropbox, a way to centralize your content so that you can access it from any device, anywhere, at any time. This week, I'm going to take you to the other end of the spectrum: Drafts, a universal iOS app for quickly capturing text you can then send to virtually any app or content store. The iPhone and iPad versions are optimized for use on each device type, and I use them extensively. The first thing to know about Drafts is that it launches instantaneously and gives you a blank canvas for writing so that you can capture your thoughts without delay:

As you can see, it gives you a simple white canvas, with a few buttons along the top for looking at your stack of Drafts, adding a new Draft, and taking actions. There's also a character and word count, together with an information button when there is something to know about the current draft.

Above the keyboard, there are also some new keyboard functions, including undo and redo, moving the sprite one character at a time, and various Markdown keys for headers, emphasis, and links. That list also scrolls, unveiling a few more options for a tab a special characters:

With this simple interface (and your choice of keyboard), it is easy to launch and quickly capture whatever is on your mind, from notes to journal entries to bits of code or anything else that you want to get out of your brain and into bits on your device.

Once you've got your text into Drafts, however, the magic really begins. Drafts is designed to be a catch-all for content and allows you to send the text virtually anywhere. Touching the icon in the upper right corner opens your Actions, providing you ways of sending the text to other apps, the clipboard, and more:

With this approach, you have one place to capture your text, and then you are able to send it to one or more other locations whenever and however you'd like.

Drafts keeps an infinite virtual stack of your Drafts, as well, and touching the icon in the upper left will show you your list:

You can flag items in the list, archive them, delete them, or simply keep the list running in case you ever want access to the items later.

I find Drafts invaluable, and it is one of the four apps on my iPhone task bar and is also one of the five on my iPad task bar. Take a look, and let me know what you think in the comments or by email or Facebook message.

App of the Week: Dropbox

Yes, I'm aware that Dropbox is less of an app than it is an online storage system, but that's precisely the point I made in my first post: the ability to transparently store your data in a way that is accessible everywhere changes every workflow. Dropbox was the first widely-available system that provided ubiquitous access to your files anywhere, and it does so completely transparently: from your perspective, your files are in a folder and sub-folders on your various devices. They are in the same place on every device. I have Dropbox on my Macs, my client PC, my iPhone and my iPad. My files are always at hand. The set-up is straight forward. Go to Dropbox, set up an account, be sure to use 2-factor authentication, and download the app for your Mac or PC, and install it. When you do, it will create a Dropbox folder in your home directory. Anything you put into it -- including both folders and files -- will sync to the Dropbox in the cloud, and sync to any other devices tied to the same account.

If you carry mobile devices, download Dropbox to them, as well. Now, your files are available anywhere you have any of your devices.

Dropbox Differences on Mobile Devices

By default, Dropbox on a Mac or PC syncs every file and folder on the device to and from the cloud. By default, Dropbox on a mobile device syncs none of the files and folders, but provides access to them through an Internet connection. Dropbox provides ways of changing this behavior, but the functions are different in the two environments, and you will have to decide how you want to interact with files and how much storage you want to set aside for them.

PC and Mac

Dropbox syncs your entire Dropbox to your PC and Mac, setting up a complete replica of the cloud version of Dropbox on your system. Given that most computer systems have sufficient disk space, this makes sense. However, there may be files or folders that are more archival or otherwise do not need to be always on your computer. If so, you can use Dropbox's "Selective Sync" feature (within the Account section of Preferences) to remove some folders and/or files from those that are always on the computer. Note that you can still access those folders using a web browser to Dropbox.com, but they will not be on the computer as local files, and won't be available when they computer isn't on the Internet. All other files will be available when you're offline, and will sync with the Dropbox cloud when you get back online. Dropbox handles conflicts smoothly, and uses icons and messages to communicate about the sync status.

Mobile Devices

On mobile devices, Dropbox works exactly the opposite: no files or folders are stored on the device by default. Instead, all interaction is by using an Internet connection through the Dropbox app. If you want a file to be locally cached (so that you can read it while on a plane, for instance), mark it as a "Favorite" by touching the star. This will cache the file on your device and also put the file into the Favorites section of the app.

Integration

More and more apps on iOS (and Android) interact directly with Dropbox, providing for workflows that store files in Dropbox that are edited or otherwise used by other apps. One common use, for example, is as a drop location for email attachments, both sending and receiving. You can even use a browser to download or upload files at any time from any where, including a friend's computer.

Workflow

I use Dropbox to store all of my files and data that isn't dedicated to one particular app on one device. I even store some of those in it. The fundamental advantage for me is that I have all of my files on multiple systems (my Macbook Pro, my Mac Pro, and even my client PC) so that I can recover the files if anything ever happens to Dropbox. And Dropbox has the files if anything happens to my devices.

So, as a result of this foundational characteristic, Dropbox is the first app/system in this series.

Don't forget to let me know in the comments or my email your thoughts on apps or workflows you'd like to see included.

 

Let's go!

Apps of the Week

Apps of the Week

Today, while flying over my beloved Rocky Mountain on the way to Phoenix to support my son Gabe as he competes in the Western Region Oireachtas Irish dance competition, this theme occured to me. As I have thought about the wide variety of topics on which I have written over the years, it became clear to me that one of the reasons that my posts have been so bursty is that I, as many before me, have wondered what I have to say that would be of the most interest. Over on the RedSeal blog, I post frequently on topics of cybersecurity and related networking challenges. However, especially when I wrote a column for InfoWorld, it was clear that there were topics that resonate and which people find helpful. 

Given the shift in applications over the past few years, it seems there is an interest in the systems and applications I use to do the work I do, both in my home office and as I travel to support clients around the world. So, beginning with the next post in the Technology section of the blog, I'll share with you the apps I use, how I use them, and why I like them. 

Purpose 

I could, of course, do this for any number of reasons, including that I'm being paid to do so. Let me start by saying that I am not. While I have acted as a beta tester for a number of the applications I'll be describing, most are simply those I have found by trial and error to be useful and effective for my work. You'll have to decide if they fit your needs and wants, and I'll do my best to help you with that process. Also, if you have questions about particular workflows, types of apps, others that I have tried but don't use, and so on, please ask.  

Also, perhaps through this process you and I will have an opportunity to influence some of the existing and emerging applications, and that seems like a reasonable purpose, as well. 

Most of all, it is my deepest desire to see you able to do your best art, whether it's writing a book, building software or hardware, teaching, or expressing yourself in any other way. If my insights into the applications you can use to make that work more effective is helpful, I will be delighted. 

Platform

The vast majority of my work is done on an Apple device. I use an iPad and iPhone (which run iOS), a MacBook Pro Retina, and an old 2008 Mac Pro (which run OS X) for my personal work. There are times when clients require me to use a Windows system, so there are some Windows applications that I use to shortcut and otherwise help me do good work in that environment, but for Windows applications (or Android, for that matter), my insights will be quite limited.

Perspective

There are a number of ways to view applications, the data on which they operate, and the systems and devices involved in the process. I have a very specific view that colors virtually everything I do: data is central and applications manipulate it. Applications are windows into and tools to manipulate data that is stored independently, accessible from any device anywhere. The ubiquitous Internet means that your data is available almost everywhere, and applications caching means that you can always have a copy of your data that will sync up when you are back online. As a result, my application choices and preferences are biased towards those that combine these fundamental concepts:

  1. availability across all my devices or cooperative interaction with an app on the other devices. For example, there are times when the same app isn't available on OS X and iOS, but there are apps that interact with the data compatibly, but in ways that take advantage of the particular characteristics of the different environments (touch versus keyboard interactivity, for example).
  2. caching. I am on airplanes and international destinations where use of cellular data is quite costly frequently enough that I must be able to cache data on my devices to continue to use it even when I'm offline. As I type this post, for example, I'm at 34,000' into Desk, I am not connected to the Internet. I'll post it when I get to my hotel, losing nothing in the process.
  3. cooperation. Apps that cooperate with other apps that I use help me more than those which are isolationist.
  4. nothing's perfect. I am always looking for apps to align more closely with the way I think, my preferences, and my workflow. Sometimes, I'll have 3 or 4 apps I'm using for the same thing, experimenting to determine which one fits best.

I think that's about it. Let me know if there are applications, workflows, or other related areas that pose as challenges or create questions for you. I'll do my best to address them either in a post or with a direct response.

Let's go!