Wed. Jan 05, 2005
I used to like Microsoft’s Outlook. I especially liked having one “page” that would show me my task list, my calendar, the amount of e-mail I had waiting, and a link to my contact list. It made me imagine I was efficient. And you have to imagine it before it can become real.
The problem was that the “page” was within an application. One that was quite a resource hog on my old 350 mhz Pentium 3. Then there was the added issue of security problems, and being targeted by hackers, virus writers, etc. And if your level of e-mail was significant, it could be quite a task to organize and search the mess.
That’s how it started, for me.
Oh, there were stopgap measures. The Pentium 4 with a gig of RAM ran Outlook just fine, and I even paid for Nelson Organizer, another app to run on top of Outlook. It largely eliminated the organization and searching issues (if you’re stuck with Outlook, I highly recommend it). But, man, the overhead involved, just to check e-mail, just to grab the part of that phone number that you can’t quite remember. With power and options galore, you could do anything and everything, but to do the simplest things … the things you need to do every day, every hour … it’s overkill.
But I wasn’t exactly looking to bail. It just happened, a little at a time.
First came Gmail, and it didn’t take me many weeks of playing with it before I decided to make it my full-time “e-mail application.” It made Outlook/Nelson look sluggish, and has worked great for me over the past six months (if you haven’t gotten one of the gazillion invitations out there, let me know).
Then came Instiki, a wonderful wiki app. I originally installed it to use as an “information container,” a way to save snippets or even pages of info, organize it, and link it together for easy navigation (searchable, too). I quickly found that since it uses Textile for formatting, I could easily type out and update a to-do list. Another Outlook function, the Task List, bit the dust.
And as Firefox and the Calendar plugin matured, I found I had a good alternative for scheduling. E-mail, task list, and calendar, all Outlook free. That left my contact list, and thankfully, there are a host of PHP based apps to handle that. I installed MyAddressBook on my web server, and for a week or so, it seemed like I was there.
But I wasn’t. Not quite.
I couldn’t put it all together on one page. Everything worked OK, just separately. The Calendar plugin is very nice, but it requires an entirely new browser window to use it. Both Gmail and MyAddressBook were a mere click away, and my Instiki To Do list had its own tab in my browser. But a To Do list isn’t much good if it isn’t in front of you as a constant reminder. And so, it got tied into another of my little obsessions, my start page. Over the years, I’ve built probably a dozen of them, to be the “home page” of my browser. How could I tie all these little apps together in a start page, something that would always be there whenever I clicked “home”?
Calendar was a real roadblock to that idea, so I again searched through free PHP apps on the web, and found Calendarix, a server based Calendar and appointment app. It operates in a stand alone manner, and also has a “mini-calendar” you can put on any web page via a PHP include.
With a lot of hacking and cussing, I probably could have gotten Instiki to render the calendar and To Do list on the same page, but I wanted more flexibility, and I decided to “go for what I know.” I created a new install of Textpattern (sidenote: time from first file upload to first post … 10 minutes), because it also uses Textile, allowing me to bang out my To Do list the same as in Instiki. Using a front end plug-in, I’m able to view the To Do list, and with one click within it, edit it.
I built a simple template in Textpattern, creating my new home page (it’s passworded, so you’ll have to settle for the screenshot). There’s two columns of links on the left (one a PHP include of my blogroll), with the To Do list and calendar on the right. I had to hack at Calendarix and lay some heavy CSS on it to make it … less ugly … but it will show you appointments on hover, and if you click the month name, you get a full page calendar, ready for additions. GMail and my contact list are still one click away, but they’ve always been. Perhaps most fun of all, I was able to build it without concern for IE, or the Mac, or validation, or anything other than the view in my browser on my monitor at my resolution. You can’t imagine how freeing that is. It’s hack-tacular (especially if you could view the code … oh, the horror!).
But I’m still not there.
Oh, this effort is fine, much better than a week ago, and will have to last me for some time. Because the next step is to formalize this process. One of the big trends in 2005 (and onward) will be the transition from desktop apps to web-based apps. My gradual bailing on Outlook is anecdotal evidence of it. And, for me, the next step will take some time.
Call it a New Year’s Resolution, if you want. But I need to learn Ruby, and RubyOnRails (the language on which Instiki is based). And try to build my own web-based app to more elegantly handle the hack-tacular home page I’ve made thus far.