I’m always up for experimenting with different mobility technologies, enough so that it always tends to throw a wrench in my produtivity while I work out the kinks and generate some lessons learned. That said, I’d like to share a little about how I’ve been experimenting with Google based solutions, what has worked and what hasn’t worked.
I’ve been a big fan of the RSS reader Onfolio for several years and actually still like the program. However, with the built-in RSS support for Internet Explorer 7, I kind of moved away from Onfolio over the past 6 months. By the way, is it just me, or does Microsoft need to look at combining their RSS applications in to one integrated, bang-up solution? Having two different RSS solutions in the browser is very confusing.
Back on topic: In the past month, though, I’ve been experimenting with Google Reader and have actually found that it provides a wonderful tablet experience. I never thought I’d like an online reader vs an off-line reader like IE or Onfolio, but when I started looking at my RSS reading habits, I found that I hardly ever read RSS offline. Having anywhere access to my feeds was very valuable productivity wise. So I gave it a shot and I’m glad I did.
What do I like about Google Reader? First off, it handles portrait mode in all its varying resolutions beautifully. This is a big thing for Tablet PC and Ultra-Mobile PC users. Everything fits and there is no horizontal scrolling. Second, the reader provides a nice snapshot view of a post with a simple hover of the pen. Third, I can quickly look at only new posts that have come in and with one click mark them all as I read. As nice as all that is, though, I like the ability to Star a post that I’d like to follow-up on later and then review all the Star’d posts in one view. I like everything about Google Reader and intend to keep using it.
Google GMail, Calendar, Contacts, Notebook, and Tasks.
I wanted to simulate life as mobile professional where Outlook or Exchange were not options. So I decided to forward all of my mail to Gmail for a week and see how I liked working in Gmail vs Outlook, since I do not have an Exchange server or an Exchange hosted account. To experiment with Google Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks, I imported all of my calendar items, contacts, and tasks to the respected Google / third party solutions that I’ll talk about below. My dashboard for a week was a Google personalized homepage that included Gmail, Calendar, Reader, and Remember the Milk for tasks. Having this personalized homepage with all my incoming and outgoing data was really nice, but as I quickly found out, it wasn’t Outlook.
Like many folks, I have a Google Gmail account that I use for various things, but I’ve never used it for full-time email needs. Having web-based access to my email from any computer that I’m working on at the moment was a huge plus. However, I quickly missed the tight integration of calendar, tasks, contacts, and email, and syncing all of that to a PDA / Smart Phone. If an email came in that I wanted to generate a calendar event for, I’d have to switch to my Google Calendar tab and create the event there by copying / pasting the text over or remembering what was on the email. In Outlook, I can simply drag the email to my calendar icon and automatically generate the appointment or task.
Another thing I missed in regards to email was the integration with tasks. With Outlook 2007, I can flag an email as follow-up and it automatically appears with my Tasks in my To-Do bar and in my Calendar view for one cohesive view. Gmail does provide the ability to Star emails for follow-up, but since Google doesn’t provide a Task solution, tasks and follow-up email remain seperated.
A third aspect I struggled with was contacts. GMail does a good job of importing contacts and calendar data from Outlook, and automatically creating contacts for all the incoming mail, but keeping that data in sync with a PDA was troublesome and in the case of contacts, non-existant. Google, in my opinion, messed up by making contacts a sub-feature of Gmail. Contacts needs to stand on its own, but integrate with GMail and their other applications. There are various sync solutions out there for syncing calendar data, but none I found for syncing contacts from Gmail to a PDA.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on inking an email. Outlook 2007 provides a very seamless way to handwrite a personalized email using a Tablet PC. With Gmail, and Outlook for Web Access for that matter, that functionality is gone. There are workaounds that people have come up with, but they involve saving your email as a .jpg, uploading to a third-party hosting solution and then referencing that file in your email via some html code – not an end-to-end solution if you ask me. Needless to say, if you like the ability to send ink based emails using your Tablet PC, moving to a webbased only email soution is not for you.
Google doesn’t support tasks, but there are webbased services that do. My tasks were handled by a webservice called Remember The Milk that integrates quite nicely with the Google personalized home page and Google calendar. Best of all, it is free. Again, nothing there that I found to get those tasks on my PDA, though.
One last thing on the Outlook integration aspect. In Outlook 2007, there is a feature called Categories. Calendar events, contacts, tasks, and emails can all be flagged as categories, so it provides a simple clean look at everything having to do with a certain category. Gmail provides the ability to Label an email, however, those labels don’t carry over to their Calendar application, so getting an organized view of data from a category perspective doesn’t exist within Google.
Google has a nice little application called Notebook. It allows the user to create various notebooks and create notes within those notebooks. It also has the feature of sending a webpage or selected webpage text to a selected Notebook. However, that is where the integration stops. I much prefer the tight integration of Outlook 2007 and OneNote 2007. Being able to send an email, webpage, calendar item, or linking a OneNote note to a contact or appointment is extremely valuable productivity wise. I can’t tell you how often during the day I’ll use the OneNote 2007 Send To functionality. Where Google has OneNote and Outlook beat in this regards to web access to those notes.
After working with the above solutions for a week, I went back to Outlook and immediately fell right back in to the swing of things. The biggest thing lacking in using a Google based solution was a lack of integration between the various Google and third party applications that exist to help tie things together, and an application that could keep all that data in sync with a PDA. Various solutions exist that address one area or another, but nothing tying it al ltogether for a seamless experience. It does feel like that Google has built their applications in silo’s without integration being a key component.
So where does this leave me? I’m sticking with Google Reader as my RSS application. However, I’m either going to get my Exchange Server up and running again, or pay the money for an Exchange Hosted account. I much prefer working in Outlook verses Google’s hodge podge of solutions, but I did see the value in having webbased access to all of my email, calendar, and contact information. As a mobile professional, the end to end experience that Microsoft’s Outlook or Exchange based solutions and keeping that data in sync with a PDA is well worth the investment in my opinion. Until Google begins to more tightly integrate their products and comes up with a solution of keeping all of data seamlessly in sync with a PDA, I’ll stick with Outlook and a hosted Exchange account.