Set It and Forget It

Update 2016: I'm flabbergasted at how long-winded my writing was just 8 years ago...

Lately, I've been using a few web service-based tools to automate my life. This has been done out of pure necessity due to the sheer volume of everything going on in my life at the moment. Between my day job as a technical analyst, being a grad student, getting enough work under my belt to establish myself as a professional web developer, and meanwhile working on developing a side project, quite frankly, I have little spare time. In order to maximize what time I do have, I need to keep everything else in lock-step order.

While these are tools that I use to organize my personal and professional lives, it makes me wonder why more tools similar to these are not available for medical professionals. I suspect the problem is the usual culprit: the traditional enterprise software business model. I live for the day when we see the demise of the model of selling software to corporate IT departments and charging absorbent implementation and maintenance fees. Such sales require manipulation of all levels of an organization from almost all departments within that organization. Why not sell the software straight to the user?

Of course, providing Software-as-a-Service directly to clinical end-users would have implementation barriers. After all, hospitals aren't used to letting doctors and nurses choose what software they want to use. They claim that supporting multiple applications is a nightmare. It's not, I used to work in a hospital IT dept. and believe me, it's not providing multiple applications that causes the problem, but that's another post entirely. The fact is that hospitals already do let users choose which technologies to use, and I'm not just talking about them having an active role in the traditional procurement process. I dare anyone to find a hospital in this country where a doctor does not bring her own PDA, smartphone and/or laptop to work with her. And that's just doctors. Not to mention nurses use their iPhones as calculators for drug dosages and a myriad of other tasks. The principal of User-Centered Design is that the user should be able to select the right tool for the job. What technology to use is just another decision of what tool to use. This is just one illustration of why UCD and Software-as-a-Service are so compatible. The SaaS model poses such a threat to traditional business practices of both customers and vendors, yet at this same time is so beneficial. There is no doubt that this will challenge who the very customers and vendors even are in years to come.

On that note, I'd like to introduce you to the technologies that I use in my own work and life. To accomplish my goal of having more time to spend doing the things that really matter to me, I've collected the following set of tools. Each conveniently has a mobile application, be it an iPhone or mobile web app, as well as a desktop component, again either a desktop or web app. Most of them are interconnected in one way or another via their freely available APIs and for the most part interact in one way or another.

Evernote - www.evernote.com Cost: Free or $39/year for the Pro upgrade Best. Innovation. Period. There's little for me to say here other than that if you don't have Evernote, you should. Their CEO's "elevator pitch" pretty much sums it up: Evernote is your external brain. Psychologically speaking, you can only remember so many chunks of data at one time. That data is connected through neural networks that constitute your memory. What Evernote does is provide a database for you to stick anything into. It's impeccably well designed, tying together useful technologies such as search with opical character recognition with now-common "web 2.0" features such as tags, meta-data and timelines. Simply put, I couldn't imagine a life without Evernote after having spent a year using it.

Remember the Milk - www.rememberthemilk.com Cost: Free or $25/year for the Pro upgrade RTM is a great to-do list web app that too has an iPhone applicaiton (the iPhone app is only available with the Pro upgrade). It supports natural language input, so I can type (or speak into Jott) "Call Mom and ask about dinner plan tomorrow at 5:30pm." It lets you create multiple lists to keep associated tasks organized and can send out reminders by text message or e-mail. RTM also has gadgets for both the iGoogle homepage and Gmail, so it's never that far away from me.

Jott - www.jott.com Cost: $39/year for the basic service, $99/year for the Pro upgrade Jott is better than having a secretary. I simply dial the Jott number on my phone (866-JOTT-123) and tell it what I want to do. It then posts the message wherever I tell it, be it my to do list, calendar, etc. Jott can even post what I dictate into it to my LiveJournal or Twitter. (Posting to LJ is a little less practical because my "Jotts" are limted to 15 seconds with the basic service. Fortunately, the 15 second limit isn't a problem with Twitter.)

Dropbox - www.getdropbox.com Cost: Free Dropbox is where I store files that I need regular access to. While the Pro version of Evernote can store files too, I find that in some cases the folder-based filesystem metaphor will never go away. Because of its 2gb limit, I cannot keep every file I've ever touched in it, for better or worse, but I can access documents for school and other projects at will. I can even transfer files from my PC at the office to my MacBoko Pro at home thanks to its desktop sync'ing utility. All my files are also available by logging into www.getdropbox.com should I find myself working on some other computer. And they even have an iPhone-compatible web site so I can view compatible file formats wherever I am. I replaced MobileMe's iDisk feature with this service simply because Dropbox is faster, works better with Windows and generally less glitchy.

MobileMe (For contacts only) - www.apple.com/moblieme, www.me.com Cost: $99/year ($69 because I bought it with my iPhone) MobileMe has a lot of features that I don't use. However, I could not live without its contacts sync'ing feature. I've found that Mobile Me is great for syncing my contacts between my iPhone, laptop and the MobileMe web site. I enjoy the convenience of having the contacts on my phone separate from my e-mail contacts; God knows I would never want every e-mail address I've ever sent a message to stored as a contact on my iPhone. I also like the piece of mind that the contacts in my phone have redundant copies stored on both the web site and locally on my computer. This has unequivolcally saved my ass at least one time, when I completely jacked my phone's contacts only to have them sync'd instantly back to the MobileMe service. Fortunately I was able to recover them from the copy stored on my laptop that had not yet been sync'd.

Calendar... The "still up in the air" debate over which to use: Google vs. MobileMe? Let me say this straight up: I love Google Calendar because it's a great product. Far and away, it is the best calendar software I've ever used. It does what it does very well. It even integrates with Jott, so I can call up Jott, say "calendar," then say "Nate and Larissa in town Thursday thru Sunday" and it's added to my calendar in seconds. That said, there is still no way to sync my Google Calendar it to my iPhone's calendar, so I'm stuck with using MobileMe's calendar. This is disappointing because MobileMe does not have an API to be integrateed with Jott, nor does it have an iGoogle homepage gadget, and not to mention that it's web app user interface is rather buggy. Yes, there are ways to sync Google Calendar to MobileMe, but they all involve leaving Outlook or iCal open on a computer all the time or the use of a jailbroken iPhone. There is also NeuvaSync, but that's problematic for me because the iPhone only allows you to have one MS Exchange account active at a time. Because it syncs my calendar between my MacBook Pro, iPhone and makes it available anywhere by logging into www.me.com, I have to go with MobileMe's calendar for the moment.