The joy of ubiquitous data

In the process of going about my life, doing my thing—and starting a new job—something has been slowly sinking in on me. I didn’t notice it all at first. But stepping back and looking at my day to day workflow, I’ve noticed something.

My data is ubiquitous.

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, everything I need is already there. On my desktop at work, on my phone when I’m on the go, on my desktop at home, sitting and relaxing in my house, it’s all the same. My data is everywhere, so I can be anywhere. It’s a subtle thing, but kind of amazing in what it means for how I live my life.

Let’s start with the basics. I keep my “organizer” data in Google. Gmail for email, of course, but also Google Calendar, Google Tasks, Google Contacts. Basically the stuff that used to live in my Palm Pilot, back in the 90s, lives in Google now. Obviously, this is all available via any web browser, but that’s far from all.

At the office I access my personal stuff in Chrome, but my office data, which is in Google Apps, syncs to Outlook. I tend to use Chrome at home, too, but there I have Gmail and Google Calendar/Tasks broken out into their own self-contained web apps, pinned to my Windows 7 taskbar.

On my phone, I’ve become fond of a $6 app called CalenGoo. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to the late, great Palm OS app DateBk4 on iOS. Seriously, if you want options, you have options. You can configure this to look and act just about any way you want. But it somehow manages to be this without sacrificing the simple usability of Google (desktop-grade) web apps. You can drag and drop appointments, drag to promote/demote tasks, just about anything you’re used to on the web. This is the first dayplanner app I’ve seen for iOS that feels as fast as my desktop, doesn’t slow me down. And when you’re trying to keep track of a hectic life, that’s important.

My documents are .docx and .xlsx files. I use Office 2007 (haven’t really seen the need to upgrade to 2010) at home and at the office, and Documents To Go on my iPhone. But the key to this part of the system is Dropbox. I have both my PCs and my iPhone tied into my Dropbox, so if I save a file on my desktop at the office, I can open it—within seconds—on my phone and keep working. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even think about this anymore. It’s assumed. And that’s really the magic of what I’m talking about here. Google and Dropbox are so reliable that I just depend on them being there and having all my data ready for me to use it, whenever and wherever.

Dropbox isn’t just for my documents, either. I prefer to read ebooks in Stanza on my phone, as this gives me as much control as I’d need over my typography. Now that Fictionwise seems to be left by their new owners Barnes & Noble to slowly circle the drain, I buy all my books from Amazon’s Kindle store. You’d think that Stanza, being made by Lexcycle, which is in turn owned by Amazon, would support the Kindle format, but it doesn’t. So how to get my books into it?

I use a Python app called Unswindle (no, I’m not going to link to it; the Google knows all) to open my Kindle books in the Windows Kindle app and then save them as unprotected .mobi files (the Kindle .azw format is just encrypted .mobi). I import these into Calibre, a free ebook library system, and convert the .mobi files to .epub. Calibre has its library stored inside my Dropbox folder. So once the .epub file is there, I can use the Dropbox app on my iPhone to open the file and pass it off to Stanza, which opens it as though I’d downloaded it directly. I know this sounds complicated, but it’s less than a five minute process.

And even better, I don’t even need to be at my desktop at home, where Calibre is installed, to do it. I have the free version of LogMeIn installed on my home desktop, meaning I can remote into my home system anytime from my desktop at work, or even from the LogMeIn app on my iPhone. Yes, I’ve gone through the entire above process on my iPhone away from home. I bought the book in the Amazon app on my phone, remoted into the home system to crack it and import it into my library, then sent it from Dropbox to Stanza on my phone. Even on my iPhone, this process takes under five minutes.

In addition to ebooks, I remain an audiobook junkie. I have a 5 books for $30 per month subscription with that they don’t offer anymore, and I use it. Thankfully, now I can download those directly to my phone over WiFi and listen to them anytime, anywhere. I also have the same books downloaded to my PC, where I can listen to them in iTunes if I want to use bigger speakers at home.

I was using iTunes for podcasts, but have found that I prefer Podcaster on my iPhone. I have it set to download new podcasts automatically several times a day, so I always have something to listen to. The biggest advantage to using Podcaster is that I’m not dependent on syncing my iPhone to my desktop at home to get new content.

For music, I have a three-headed solution. I have my favorite music synced from my home desktop via iTunes and can listen to that even if I don’t have any internet connectivity at all (which is rare and getting rarer). For the stuff I want to listen to out of my own collection but didn’t sync to my phone, I have ZumoCast, a free service that allows me to stream media from my home PC. And for the rest, I have Pandora, which is what I generally listen to on my phone on the go and on my desktop at work.

Movies and TV work the same way. I don’t actually watch TV on a TV anymore. I subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, which gives me most of the content I watch, and I can watch it anywhere. In fact, between my iPhone and my Plantronics Backbeat 903 stereo Bluetooth headphones, I can (and do) watch TV in a restaurant over lunch without disturbing the other patrons in any way. And while it would take me years to exhaust all the stuff on Hulu and Netflix that I’d like to watch, I also have ZumoCast for the TV and movies I’ve ripped to my PC at home if I’m in the mood for old favorites.

And there’s one last piece to the “my data, everywhere” puzzle, the one place for stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Evernote. This is my “auxiliary brain”, the place to put anything and everything that occurs to me. Some things end up migrating from Evernote to Documents To Go or to Google Tasks. Interesting tweets or links end up in a “Reading Material” folder I’ve come to use instead of Instapaper. And of course this is where all of the research and support materials for my articles and fiction ends up.

As I pointed out before, none of these components are excessively noteworthy in and of themselves. But the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. The end result is that I no longer have to be any particular place to do any particular thing. I can even remote into my workplace network over VPN and use remote desktop to control and even reboot servers from my iPhone. My life has become almost completely untethered from location, and the ramifications of that are mind-blowing. Give it a shot, and you might feel the same.