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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Wed. Jan 05, 2005

Webbin' Up

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.


Peanut Gallery

1  ramanan wrote:

Funny, I want to learn Ruby and RubyOnRails to do a similar thing: make a simple calender/to-do list type application. I like iCal from Apple, but I find it runs really slow and isn’t all that hot.

2  D wrote:

I too had similar longings… for an app like basecamp that could be installed on one’s own server. Right now I use a mac-palm-outlook combo, but I’d love to ditch outlook since I’ve grown really sick of its interface, and yeah iCal is sluggish as all get out. Most web-based apps I’ve seen so far are really ugly and unweildy – as they seem to be modelled on outlook. And basecamp just isn’t worth the money to me, and philosophically I’d rather own than rent, as it were.

You wizards from text* should team up and whip up somethin hot in the organizer department, hey?

Comment by D · 01/06/2005 01:53 AM
3  Justin French wrote:

This is great. Basically, you could pull-in any data or information that is available as XML or some other feed. It wouldn’t HAVE to be Txp based, because you could pull in the Txp stuff via RSS. Surely GMail will have an inbox feed at some point??

4  Reid wrote:

Ramanan: “Funny, I want to learn Ruby and RubyOnRails to do a similar thing

Well, normally I’d suggest we join forces, but I think that would kinda defeat the point for both of us, eh?

D: “You wizards from text* should team up and whip up somethin hot in the organizer department, hey?

Me no wizard. See above. But, yeah, eventually, it would be nice for someone to offer up OutlookOnRails, or somethin’. But, gee, wouldn’t people pretty much have to be hosted at TextDrive to take advantage of Rail-y Goodness? Gosh, that would be a shame…

Justin: “Surely GMail will have an inbox feed at some point??

According to their help file, there are Atom feeds now … but they say “any aggregator that supports Atom 0.3, SSL/HTTPS, and HTTP authentication works”

That does not include Bloglines (at least, I couldn’t get it to work). So, any Rails-built app would need to support Atom 0.3, SSL/HTTPS, and HTTP authentication. If I could figure a way to pull that feed into my current hack-tacular setup, it would make it nearly cool.

5  Paul wrote:

I created a new install of Textpattern (sidenote: time from first file upload to first post … 10 minutes),

To me, that’s the greatest technical acheivement you list. I can’t the dang thing to bring up anything else other than the post creation page/admin stuff.

...Dental Site creation?

6  emcee fleshy wrote:

Killing Outlook is a noble goal. However, except for e-mail, a single program, Excel, can be trained to do practically anything that Outlook does.

Therefore, I submit that(with the caveat that I always feel behind the curve talking to you guys) killing Windows Explorer is even better. Copernic desktop search does just that. Renders Windows Explorer plain old obsolete.

No More Folders!

7  Sarah wrote:

I’ve been building myself something similar using rails. At the moment it’s spectacularly unsophisticated with only my address-book, to-dos, notes, and a thing for cataloguing/managing all the books in my life.

But the thing that has surprised me most is that I actually use it. Whether that’s because I made it and so feel compelled to, or because I made it and therefore it works exactly as I want it to, or whether it’s just that having everything in an always-open browser tab means it’s easily accessible, I’m not sure.

It does seem, given the ubiquity of the browser, that web apps are becoming more compelling.

8  Alexander wrote:

Have you tried or had a look on horde. Since you already wanted to look on web enabled solutions horde might be worth a try. It got everything from email, to tasks, calendar, address book, project tasks …

From my company I’m forced to use outlook, but if I would be single or on my one business I could think of using horde for my business.

9  Reid wrote:

Paul: “I can’t the dang thing to bring up anything else other than the post creation page/admin stuff.

There’s two common setup issues with Textpattern. Go to the admin->preferences page page, and make sure “Subdirectory (if any)” has either a ”/” in it (for a root install), or ”/yourfoldername/” if it’s in a subdirectory. Also, on many servers, it won’t work in “clean” URL mode, so on the same preference page, try “messy”. And if all else fails, you’ve got my e-mail…

Dental Site creation?

Site launch. The question mark relates to “will I get the content in time?”

And, Mr. Fleshy, I just downloaded Copernic yesterday, though I haven’t had time to install it. I was most disappointed that Google’s Desktop Search app would only index Drive C, as I keep all my files on their own drive. I’m hoping Copernic doesn’t have that limitation.

Alexander, Horde is actually one of the web-mail options I have at TextDrive, and I’ve poked around in it. I knew it was there, and that was kind of my back up plan … “before I go to a totally canned solution, let’s see what I can break on my own.” I’m funny that way.

Sarah, glad to hear you’ve had some success already at what I was hoping to try. It looks like TextDrive may be an incubator for future Rails coders.

10  emcee fleshy wrote:

Copernic indexes all mapped drives, even on a network. Perhaps more. It also will find every file type that I’ve tried to find with it. Google Desktop wouldn’t find Wordperfect docs, rendering it useless to me.

Also, I looked into Copernic (ironically, using Google) to check for security problems. There are none.

My only problem is that I’m not really clear on what boolean functions it allows and what symbols it uses.

There appears to be a more extensive related application for large networks called Coveo, but it’s expensive: $15,000 for a 100,000 file index. No need to buy it, though. At this pace, the same functionality will be free in six months.

I have literally not opened a single Windows folder since I installed Copernic yesterday morning.

11  orangeguru wrote:

Hmmm. So you outsourced all processing to your webserver and peek into your data via your browser?

What do you do when your DSL (or whatever you use) is down?

IMHO Outlook 2000 (in my case) still does all I want – and there are no plugins for my cell phone and organizer for any other pim / mail client.

12  Alexander wrote:

If you look on Copernic try a look on x-friend.

No extra app, use your browser. For windows, unix, mac … It looks like google but it is not and can index all your drives with different documents and even your emails on a imap server and rss feeds.

that is what I use as a desktop search.

Keep posting about your final workplace/get-organized/desktop solution. I’m keen on knowing what kind of solution you found…

13  Stephen wrote:

You inspired me to create a custom start page myself, the email was a big kicker for me though, so I picked up a gmail account last night to try and get the atom feed brought in. It was suprisingly easier than I thought.

I grabbed a copy of MagpieRSS and a php script from thier mailing list. With a few changes to the php I was able to get the feed into my site. It still needs a little bit of work but it’s serving its purpose for the moment.

When I get everything up, functioning and looking somewhat decent, I’ll try to get a better explanation together of the whole process if anyone’s interested.

14  Robert wrote:

Have you tried Tinderbox from Eastgate Systems. It is a very powerful, graphically based tool that, among other things, is a great way to organize your life. The somewhat steep learning curve is worth it.

Comment by Robert · 01/08/2005 09:04 PM
15  rturner wrote:

Thanks for the link. I put Calendarix on one of my home computers for LAN access. Maybe now I’ll do that thing they call “gittin’ organized”. I had given up on Outlook years ago, thought about putting it on one of my newer computers, but then said, “nahh”.

I still haven’t found a replacement for the old unix calendar program my webhost ran on their machine (until they upgraded). I kept my stuff in a .calendar file and a day before it was due I’d get an email. My “stuff” was primarily biz tax filing deadlines, several a quarter, with stiff penalties when you forgit. And I forgit a lot.

16  Reid wrote:

Emcee: “I have literally not opened a single Windows folder since I installed Copernic yesterday morning.

Well, I’m still using Explorer (there are many files that I actually know where to find them, and WindowsKey + E is quick and easy enough to dig there), but I’ve installed Copernic, and have been pretty pleased with it. It will search Firefox’s history, and also my D drive where all my files are kept. Including a bunch of text files representing web pages saved via Slogger , a cool Firefox extension. If I find a page with info I might someday want, I click one button, and it is saved by Slogger as a text file (which Copernic will now search), and added to a log list. You can also set it to do that for every page you visit , providing a searchable text database of all the pages you’ve visited.

Orangeguru: “What do you do when your DSL (or whatever you use) is down?

A fair question. First of all, if I had a demi-flakey connection, I doubt I would have even considered this. But every full moon, I wave a dead chicken over my 5 year old DSL modem, to ensure its continued rock solid performance. I honestly can’t remember the last time my DSL was down and I had to resort to that ugly sound making device they call a “dial up modem.” But it’s been at least six months, maybe nine.

The other end of the “up time” equation is the web host where these apps are stored. Again, I’ve had providers where I wouldn’t have considered this, but TextDrive has proven time and again to be more reliable than all my previous providers combined.

Richard, it appears that Calendarix (sounds like a rather … strict and dominating Calendar, eh?) can “Email notification for events posted,” but I don’t see a “reminder” feature. Could be hackable?

Robert: “Have you tried Tinderbox from Eastgate Systems?

Well, it’s Mac only. And it’s $165. So, no on both counts.

But I do I appreciate the recommendations for different apps, and ideas for bringing in Gmail. For now, I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve got. It might make some sense to try and get a Gmail Atom feed to show up on my start page, but the reality is the Gmail Notifier extension for Firefox is plenty of notice. And since my ultimate goal is to use this as a project to learn Ruby and RubyOnRails, I don’t think I’ll be devoting much more time to this hack-tacular version.

17  rturner wrote:

“Richard, it appears that Calendarix (sounds like a rather … strict and dominating Calendar, eh?) can “Email notification for events posted,” but I don’t see a “reminder” feature. Could be hackable?”

Hmmmm….that’s what I need, something very strict….I found that email notification could be turned on in cal_config.inc.php, except that it mentions being notified “for every event”, which could could get nasty. At this point, I made sure my happy Tax events had the email address there and normal crap doesn’t. Just added a normal crap event and no email. So far so good.

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