How Microsoft could have conquered computing

Last week I wrote about why Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s biggest disaster since Windows Me. In the time since, Microsoft has pushed further ahead, now alienating small indie developers. They announced that they were discontinuing Visual Studio Express, the free development environment for Windows apps as we currently know them. Going forward, the only free tools Microsoft will provide will be to develop Metro apps. If you want to support users running old, antiquated software like say, Windows 7, you’re going to have to pony up the dough. Bye, hobbyist developers! Don’t let the door hit you in the ass!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Microsoft is going to sell a ton of copies of Windows 8. Consumers who don’t know any better are going to be stuck with it. Enterprise accounts will buy millions and millions of copies of Windows 8, and then promptly (and legally) downgrade to Windows 7. My point last week is that because of Microsoft’s muddled, fractured thinking, very few people are going to want Windows 8.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Join me now for a peek into an alternate universe where Microsoft approached things a little differently.

The first thing they did was take their existing positive branding from the Xbox and use that to give their phones a consumer kick. In a lot of ways, Windows Phones really are Xbox phones in our universe, integrated with Xbox Live. It wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch to box them up in the same familiar black, white and green boxes and call them Xphones. The Metro UI on both platforms remains the same, we’re just talking about change in packaging in this Fringe-style alternate universe.

The result? Enterprise adoption of the Xphone is about the same, but it’s much more popular with consumers, especially if Microsoft starts doing bundling promotions like free hot Xbox games with the purchase of a new Xphone on contract.

Now Microsoft can leverage that user base of Xphones to get them to also buy the Xtab, a Metro-based 7″ consumer tablet priced at $199, competing with the Kindle Fire and undercutting the iPad. The Xtab is also ARM-based, running the ARM variant of Windows 8 we call Windows RT. Microsoft has included a compatibility layer that allows Xphone apps to run unmodified on the Xtab similarly to how iPhone apps run on the iPad, but it’s trivial for developers to update their apps to run “natively” on the Xtab and make use of all the additional benefits of the tablet form factor.

Apps that have been updated to run natively on the Xtab also work on the Intel-based Windows 8 tablets. These range in size from an Xtab-like 7″ to 8.9″ to a 16:9 aspect 10″, and can run both Metro apps and legacy Windows apps. This environment is the most similar to the Windows 8 experience we have in our universe. Whether the apps are universal binaries containing both ARM and Intel code or whether the App Marketplace automatically delivers the binary for the appropriate architecture is irrelevant. It just works. These Intel-based Windows tablets can’t run Xphone apps, but no one expects them to.

Windows 8 on laptops and desktops looks dramatically different than it does in our universe. In the alternate universe, Windows 8 looks like a flattened out, cleaner version of Windows 7, complete with Start orb. All the 3D effects and shading are gone. Aero glass is just a transparent overlays (see new Windows 8 desktop taskbar), but still recognizable. The desktop is still there, and still the default “home” screen for the OS.

Most PCs still don’t have touch screens, but laptops start coming with much larger trackpads to support multitouch gestures that make working with Windows feel similar regardless of where you’re using it.

Corporate users don’t flock to Windows 8 deliberately, especially if they just did a conversion to Windows 7. But neither do they downgrade to 7 on new machines. The desktop UI is similar enough on Windows 8 for it start filtering into large companies through attrition as older PCs are replaced.

Metro apps run on Windows 8 as well, but on the desktop UI they run like desktop apps, with their own minimal window chrome (title bar, close and minimize buttons) and show up in the task bar alongside legacy Windows apps. Over time developers voluntarily start to focus on coding for Metro first, because it’s the one environment that covers the most form factors. Microsoft may even provide a “compatability kit” that backports windowed Metro apps to Windows 7 machines for corporate customers.

And just like that, in this alternate universe Microsoft kept their hold on the corporate market while making serious in roads with consumers. They conditioned a whole new generation of Xbox playing teens and tweens into using Microsoft products for their phones and tablets as well. And they successfully got Metro accepted as the default 21st century development environment.

And all it took was not having our version of Steve Ballmer.


Why Windows 8 will be Microsoft’s biggest disaster since Windows Me

I feel sorry for Microsoft. They have some wicked smart people, and they seem to grok what the next big thing is going to be (they were seven years ahead of Apple in tablet computing), but they just can’t excute their way out of a wet paper bag. I have some suspicions of why this might be, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Right now Microsoft is busy snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory with Windows Phone. Developers are dropping the platform left and right, and Microsoft’s forced upgrade to Mango if you want to keep using the marketplace has left a lot of users (users who don’t have a PC to connect it to for the non-OTA update, for example) out in the cold.

But that’s just small potatoes. Microsoft’s big misstep is coming later this year. They call it Windows 8.

Microsoft, and CEO Steve Ballmer in particular, are very proud of Windows 8. I can understand why, but it’s not going to work out the way they think it will, and almost entirely to the decisions they’re making right now. Let me give you some examples of where Microsoft’s plans are incompatible with reality.

Microsoft finally caught on that people don’t want a full desktop user interface on a mobile device like a tablet or a phone. That was what they were doing wrong with tablets throughout most of the 2000s. But the big edge they think they have over Apple’s iPad is that people will be able to run the same apps, with the same look and feel, on their desktop and their tablet (and their phone, if rumors about Windows Phone 8 are to be believed). Only, that’s really not what they’re delivering. Microsoft’s computing infrastructure post-Win8 will be just as fragmented as Apple’s (with OS/X on some devices and iOS on others), but the difference is that while Apple is up front about that, Microsoft is trying to hide it, and it’s going to piss customers off.

Microsoft has done a horrible job branding the various incarnations of Windows 8. For example, this fall consumers are going to see two kinds of Windows tablets that look almost exactly the same. Both will be thin and sleek. Both will say Windows on them. Both will have the shiny new Metro user interface. But only one will really be Windows 8. That is, only one will be able to run legacy Windows applications as well as new Metro apps. But apart from a minor difference in the name of the OS (Windows 8 vs Windows RT), consumers won’t know the difference when they buy the tablets. Both tablets run “Windows” and I expect a lot of angry, confused consumers when they find out that their new Windows RT tablet won’t run their old copy of Quicken, the whole reason they bought the damn thing instead of an iPad in the first place.

Okay, so maybe tablet computing (arguably the future of personal computing for the masses) is going to be a mess because Microsoft insists on calling everything “Windows”. (And you can lay this confusing policy directly at the feet of Steve Ballmer, who makes the final call on all product naming decisions and who is still totally sold on the “Windows Everywhere” philosophy. Windows Phone might have done better if it had been called the XPhone and shared design branding with the Xbox, but Ballmer wouldn’t allow it.) What about laptops and desktops? You know, all the machines out there currently running Windows 7?

For these users, Windows 8 is going to feel like a slap in the face. The familiar desktop user interface is a second class citizen in Windows 8, because Microsoft insists on desktop users using Metro whether it makes sense or not.

I spent a few weeks with the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 (what we used to call a “beta” back in the day) and will probably take the upcoming Release Preview (what we used to call a “release candidate” or RC) next month when it’s available to the general public. And while I tried to embrace Metro, I kept going back to the desktop to get real work done. Only they’ve done away with the Start orb on the desktop taskbar, so I’d have to keep bouncing back to Metro to launch a program, only to go immediately back to the desktop UI. It was jarring and annoying. I managed to “fix” the problem by installing Start8, a wonderful little utility from the folks at Stardock, makers of Object Desktop and other nifty system enhancers I’ve used since my OS/2 days. Start8 gives you back your Start orb in Windows 8, negating the need to keep bouncing between environments if you do most of your work with desktop-grade apps. But I’d bet good money this utility won’t work in the Release Preview, or perhaps the actual released OS this fall.

Microsoft also recently announced that they’ve killed Aero, the “glass” effect on window chrome in Vista and Windows 7. Window title bars and other chrome in Windows 8 will be solid white, and completely flat with right angles, no shading, gradients, transparency or drop shadows. In a lot of ways, we’ve come full circle back to the user interface of Windows 3.0, for those of you old enough to remember it. This is done, they say, to better match the aesthetics of Metro and possibly even save battery life (though I doubt modern GPUs really notice the extra effort needed to render Aero’s effects).

What these changes mean, though, is that enterprise users are going to run screaming away from Windows 8. And keep in mind, enterprise is supposed to be Microsoft’s bread and butter. Not the consumer market, and certainly not tablet users. Enterprise desktops and laptops are supposed to be Microsoft’s unchallenged domain. And with Windows 8, they’re doing everything they can to alienate this group of change-adverse users in order to court a market that may not even exist (see arguments that there isn’t really a tablet market, but instead an iPad market). I’ve done a few enterprise migrations recently, and the vast, thundering majority of users I’ve worked with have had trouble adjusting to the differences between Windows XP and Windows 7. Windows 8, especially on desktops and laptops, is going to be so alien than I expect most IT departments to ignore it entirely and standardize on Windows 7 across the board.

So let’s recap. Because Microsoft won’t let Windows be Windows (so named because it was a windowing GUI, something Metro is not) and because of their insistence on calling things that are not Windows (Windows RT, Windows Phone, I’m shocked Ballmer hasn’t demanded to rename the Xbox “Windows Gaming”) Windows, Microsoft has hopelessly sabotaged:

  • Windows Phone, a platform that had a shot at being a viable third option after iOS and Android is sinking like a stone, and cramming essentially the full Windows RT kernel into a phone for Windows Phone 8 isn’t going to make it any better.
  • Windows RT, the ARM-based tablet OS that looks and acts just like its cousin on Intel-based Windows 8 tablets, only it doesn’t run the same software, guaranteeing a confused marketplace and further exodus to the simplicity of Apple’s “our way or the highway” iPad ecosystem.
  • Windows 8, built to appeal to a market that may not exist while simultaneously alienating virtually all of Microsoft’s current Windows customers.

I really do believe tablet computing will be the default way we interact with the internet in the years to come. But this perfect storm of failure (Hey, Ballmer, how about figuring out a way to sink Xbox and go for the Grand Slam?) will just ensure that Microsoft won’t be a part of it.

Google, I wish I knew how to quit you

A few weeks back, I made a big deal out of ditching Google as much as possible because a number of things they’ve done recently have made me uneasy about where the company’s priorities lie. The idea was to replace all the Google services I used with alternates from other ecosystems, open source and under my direct control if possible.

The results, while not an abject failure, fell well short of what I intended.

My plan was to ditch Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Contacts and Google Tasks for Microsoft’s Exchange 365. This didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped. Part of it really wasn’t Microsoft’s fault (even though it was, really). My day job also uses Exchange 365–where I got the idea–and while Outlook 2010 can normally handle two different Exchange accounts (the first version of Outlook to do so), it can’t do so with Microsoft’s cloud-hosted Exchange. Or, more to the point, every time I tried to load my personal 365 account, Microsoft “helped” by automatically trying to log in for me behind the scenes, with the domain credentials I’d used to log on to my day job laptop. There is no way to make Microsoft less helpful and just use the gorram login credentials I gave it. So the biggest advantage I sought by switching to a Microsoft solution–having my work and personal email and PIM data in the same installation of Outlook–was a non-starter.

And frankly, the rest of the advantages of switching to Exchange weren’t that compelling. Gmail has better spam detection, by far. Gmail has more flexible, sophisticated rules for email filtering. Since I had to use a web app to access my account either way, Google Calendar and Gmail are more polished, more stable web apps (I kept getting errors trying to bring up Outlook Web settings and I couldn’t dismiss the modal dialog to try again, grr). So even though I still don’t trust Google as much as I used to, the benefits I get from them, for now, outweighs their potential skeeviness.

I considered moving my calendar and email data to Apple’s iCloud, but their web interface isn’t ready for prime time. More specifically, it isn’t ready to run on non-Safari browsers. Color me surprised.

I did manage to replace Google Drive/Docs with Evernote and Google Tasks with Remember the Milk, but how I got those two to work together (and why I had to bring in RTM to bolster my Evernote-based GTD system) is a topic for another post.

I ended up going back to Chrome as my browser on my Windows boxen because frankly, Firefox is becoming a second-class web citizen. All of the hot extensions are for Chrome first, Firefox if the devs get time. Web apps are written for the webkit engine in Chrome and Safari, with Firefox’s Gecko engine as an afterthought.

It’s not just the desktop, either. On my Galaxy Nexus, I tried to set it up like a Kindle Fire, using only Amazon’s app store on a build of CyanogenMod 9 without Google apps. This also proved to be unacceptably confining. Or put more simply, it sucked.

I have a lot of apps on the Amazon app store, too. Hundreds, and not all from their free app a day promotion. But there are too many missing titles, and the ones that do exist are far out of date.

Let me give you just two examples. I’ve recently become fond of CoinKeeper on iOS for my budget management. They recently released an Android app. But only on the Play Store. It doesn’t exist on Amazon. So without Google apps, I can’t run this app. (I’d be in the same boat if I owned a Kindle Fire.)

So let’s look at a more established, high profile app: Evernote. They just released version 4 of their Android app, a major rewrite designed for Android 4. Current version on Amazon? 3.61. So again, if I want up to date apps, I need Google’s Play Store for that, too.

My saving grace might be iOS. One of the big changes in upcoming iOS 6 is the further de-Googlification of iOS by ripping out Google Maps and replacing it with Apple’s own map/navigation engine. It’s easy to switch your default search engine to Bing on iOS, and Siri further abstracts Google out of search by directing relevant queries to Wolfram Alpha instead. If I did switch over to iCloud and ditched Google Voice for iMessage, I could, in theory, have a Google-free experience on my iPhone and iPad-to-be-named-later. And all I’d have to do is go all in with Apple.

Which one was the evil empire again?

Consistency (or, Why My Writing Output Isn’t What My Internal Guiltmonkey Says It Should Be)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my writing career, and by career, I mean the one novel and one novella I’ve managed to publish with some degree of professionalism. I’m a fast writer. Why is this all there is? It’s not for lack of material. I’ve got roughly a dozen novels and half as many novellas in various planning stages.

For a long time, I could blame the Black Dog of clinical depression. I’ve had a lot of stops and starts over the years, and countless missed opportunities in both fiction and nonfiction. And in most cases, a combination of abnormally low serotonin in my brain along with cynical, self-defeating thought patterns kept me from making any significant progress. As I’ve said before, clinical depression isn’t being sad. It’s an overwhelming fatigue and sense of helplessness/hopelessness that makes actually doing anything insurmountable.

But I beat depression and put it behind me for good last year. With meds and cognitive therapy to change my thought patterns, I’m cured. I simply don’t let myself sink back into that mire. And yet, my writing output (in fiction, anyway; I’m doing pretty well with this twice-a-week blogging thing) could still only charitably be called “occasional irregularity.”

I want to tell these stories. They still excite and entertain me. So what will it take to produce consistently rather than fits and starts?

I’m tempted to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the sequel to Revelation, Crusade. For several reasons:

  1. To see how much demand for the further adventures of Daniel Cho there really is.
  2. To give me a financial incentive to write Crusade rather than something else.
  3. To guilt the hell out of me when I slack off and don’t work on Crusade.

I think the reason I haven’t done it yet is that I’m afraid of the answer to question one. Revelation still only has nine reviews on Amazon. I managed to give away 776 copies in my one-day free promotion earlier this month, but I wonder how many of those downloaders will actually read it. I’ve got dozens of books in my Kindle library I snagged because they were free (or even cheap) that I haven’t even opened, much less read all the way through.

And even that is just a dodge. Because consistency has to come from me, from inside. The nice thing about ebooks is that there are no hard word count boundaries like there are in print, where a book has to fit on the shelf with all the other books. So it really doesn’t matter if an ebook is 50,000 words or 500,000 words, rather than the “standard” 80,000-100,000 for a novel. Because of that, I don’t really pay much attention to word count anymore when I’m writing. Instead, I focus on butt-in-chair time. Completion percentage on a project is directly related to how much time I’ve actually spent writing. Not thinking, not planning, not noodling over cover ideas, but writing. And that’s something I’ve done precious little of recently, at least in fiction.

I know what I have to do. I have to find a way to build a butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard habit. I have to put in the hours, even if it would be easier to browse through my reading queue. Consistency is a matter of will. I either want it, or I don’t.

The Biggest Change In iOS 6 Will Be Resolution Independence

Okay, I may as well hop on the rumor mill myself. We’re less than a month away from Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference, where they will almost certainly announce iOS version 6. Given how much of an improvement iOS 5 was in terms of features (it now includes pretty much everything I switched to Android to get in 2010), folks have had to get creative in coming up with what iOS 6 is going to bring to the table.

But most of the speculation I see out there revolves around software features. Widgets on the home screen, or a completely new home screen altogether, a la Windows Phone. More refined notifications. Lots of new stuff. But I think the biggest difference between iOS 6 and what came before will be something you don’t notice at all if you don’t switch hardware. I think an iPhone 4S running iOS 6 will look a lot like an iPhone 4S running iOS 5. But 6 will allow for something impossible under iOS 5.

A 7 inch, 16:9 aspect ratio iPad mini with a 1600×900 Retina Display.

Both current iPad resolutions are 4:3 aspect ratio, the same as IMAX movies and your old tube TV. The iPhone is 3:2, Retina display or not. Neither are especially good at playing widescreen video, which is becoming a much more common use for these devices. The Kindle Fire, on the other hand, is much closer to 16:9 and Amazon is selling and renting a lot of video for the platform. Apple needs to close this gap.

They also need to grow their phones. The iPhone has always had a 3.5 inch screen. This was fine in 2007, when the iPhone was introduced. Most smartphone screens were about that size, or even smaller. The gargantuan (for its time) screen of the Palm Tungsten X was only 3.8 inches.

Since then, Android pushed the “standard” screen size to 4 inches, then 4.3. My Galaxy Nexus has a 4.65 inch screen. HTC’s new flagship One X is 4.7 inches. Samsung’s new Galaxy S III is 4.8 inches. Apple’s 3.5 inch screen on the iPhone is starting to feel cramped and limiting, regardless of the aspect ratio.

If Apple changes iOS to dynamically stretch and rearrange itself to fit whatever screen real estate is available, the way Android already does, they can start experimenting with other sizes and shapes for their screens, without having to merely double what they had before (the iPhone’s Retina display is exactly double on each axis what the 3GS had, 960×640 compared to 480×320, same for the new iPad compared to the iPad 2). They can make a 4 inch iPhone 5 that’s no wider than the 4S, just taller. They can make a 10 inch, 16:9 iPad (also a widespread rumor). And they can finally make a Retina display 7 inch tablet to directly compete with the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, an iPad mini running at 1600×900 to the Kindle Fire’s 1024×600.

This will mean Apple will have to ask developers who just updated their apps to support the iPad’s Retina display to update their graphics resources again, but hopefully for the last time, as it will all scale intelligently going forward. I think it’s not only likely, but about the smartest move Apple can make if they want to keep their dominant position in the mobile market.

And if, a month from now, I turn out to be wrong, please disregard this article.

Text Editing – Dropbox or Evernote?

Never trust anybody over 30 (million).

That’s been my gut feeling recently. Big companies scare the bejeezus out of me, because I don’t think I can trust them to do what’s best for their customers if it ever conflicts with what’s best for their bottom line. In particular, publicly traded companies are required by law to return as much value to their stockholders as possible. And more and more of them do that by squeezing the consumer.

So when I heard Evernote has a valuation of $1,000,000,000 en route to an IPO, I started squinting at them. Yes, they look trustworthy now. In fact, CEO Phil Libin has said on several occasions that he wants Evernote to be a hundred year company, and the only way they can do that is if their users trust them for life. But can they stick to their principles when the shareholders are screaming for more profit?

As it happened, this news hit right about the time I was getting annoyed with Evernote personally. It’s awesome on my Windows laptop. It’s arguably even better on Android. But their iOS client needs a lot of work, and that’s where I’m spending most of my time these days. On any note with more than 1,500-2,000 words or so, the iPhone version of Evernote slows to an unworkable crawl. This is with Markdown-formatted ASCII text, too, not rich formatting. Maybe this was a sign from the universe that I should be moving my writing to a safer, more controllable location. Like my own hard drive, synced to my other devices via Dropbox.

There are lots of Markdown-friendly plain text editors for iOS. Perhaps too many. Like any good former software developer, the first thing I needed to do was nail down my requirements. I needed to have a universal app that worked on both the iPhone and the iPad (I don’t have an iPad yet, but as soon as I can afford one, I’m getting it). Syncing to Dropbox needed to be automatic, not manual via a button. I don’t really care about export as HTML as my blog supports Markdown directly and I’ll be doing my own post processing for fiction, but HTML preview would be really nice. And given the small screen of the iPhone, I’d really like a full screen option; no UI chrome, just my words and the keyboard. Lastly, I need to be able to search for a specific phrase or some other way to navigate round in a large document.

That narrowed down the list to a handful.

Byword almost made the cut, but I couldn’t find a full screen option. Elements also gets honorable mention, but it has no search. And while the others technically met my needs, I discovered after days of testing that each one also had some kind of dealbreaking annoyance I couldn’t live with. Nebulous has a really clunky UI. Writing Kit is cluttered from trying to do too much. Notesy takes too long to refresh/sync every file in a folder as soon as you open the folder, whether or not you had any intention of opening that file. Et cetera.

And frankly, why is Dropbox charging almost five times as much per gigabyte of storage as Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive? Are they really five times better? Am I made of money? Will these damn kids ever get off my lawn?

So I took another look at Evernote, and hit upon a little known Evernote feature that might solve my problem. Note links.

If you right click on a note in Evernote, on of the options on the popup context menu will be “Copy Note Link”. You can then paste that into any note you like. I think you can paste it anywhere that supports hyperlinks, as long as you tell your computer to open Evernote to handle links starting with Evernote://

So here’s how I use note links to make writing fiction in Evernote manageable on my iPhone.

I have a “main” note for the full length work. For Crusade, book 2 of the Unification Chronicles, I’m doing something weird and writing the major plot threads independently of each other, planning to weave them together later. So I’m starting with Daniel’s story, and the main note is called UC2 Daniel.

Now I start cutting and pasting from the outline into separate notes. The first one is called Totally fake first thing in my outline and contains whatever notes or prose I’ve already written for that scene. Then I copy the note link in Evernote, and paste it into UC2 Daniel. Then I skip a line to make it finger-friendly on the iPhone, and do the same thing for the second scene, and so on.

When I’m done, I have a copy of my outline where every line item is linked to a note containing that scene. Want to edit that scene, I just click (or tap) on the link, and I’m taken to that note. When I’m done with that, I hit the back button in Evernote’s toolbar on the desktop, or the back arrow in the upper left of the iOS client, and I’m immediately back to my outline.

I can jump around the whole novel quickly this way, never losing track of where I am. I can reorder the chapters just by cutting and pasting the links within the main note (no renumbering!). And since each note remains around 1,000-1,500 words (I write short, punchy chapters to keep readers turning pages), the notes are never so big that they get clunky to edit.

Since the main note is a note and not just a table of contents, I can also add things to it to help me through the long process of drafting a novel. I put a checkbox in front of each link so I’ll know at a glance which ones are done and which ones I still need to write (like many novelists, I don’t necessarily write a book from beginning to end, but jump around). I can further organize the checklist into three acts, lining up the act breaks where they need to be. I can annotate the outline with notes to tighten this section up, or that something else is moving too fast. I can be as simple or comprehensive as I want, since this note itself won’t be in the final manuscript. (This would also be the ideal place to write the synopsis, since the outline is right here.)

And here’s the really cool part. This integrates cleanly into my Evernote GTD system I detailed on Monday. The links are independent of whatever tag or even notebook the note is in. So I can tag the notes with my GTD context tags (@anywhere, @computer) and move the current one and only the current one from my Writing notebook to my Action notebook so it shows up in my task lists. The links still work!

Of course, as I was writing this, Evernote updated their iOS client with major UI improvements on the iPhone. It’s now much easier to edit, file and tag notes on the iPhone. So maybe if I’d just waited, none of this would have been necessary. I’m glad it was, though, because linked notes are perfect for long-form document organization.

GTD, Evernote and a very stripped down Secret Weapon

A few weeks back, productivity sites on the interwebs were atwitter (ahem) about a new method of combining David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology with Evernote called “The Secret Weapon”. I tried it for a while, and it’s an improvement over my previous attempts to do GTD with Evernote. However, I found it was also overkill for what I tend to do. So here’s my condensed version.

In addition to whatever folder structure you have already in Evernote, you need two new notebooks: Action and Hold. Action is set as my default folder, so new notes appear there unless otherwise specified. TSW recommends a whole big hierarchy of tags. I use just a few, for mostly for context.

My GTD system in Evernote is deceptively simple. Everything takes place in my default folder, and only have tags for contexts. At the note level, there is no difference between a one-off task and a project. This is not a violation of the GTD method, just a different way of implementing it. Here’s how the workflow works. Or flows. Or whatever it is that workflows do.


This is where Evernote really shines. Everything in my life eventually finds its way into Evernote. Interesting links from Google Reader or Twitter get emailed to my Evernote account (I need to start just retweeting cool stuff from Twitter with a @myen tacked on the to the end, which does the same thing, but also shares with my tweeps). I take pictures on my iPhone, and then dump them into the iPhone Evernote client (including using the iPhone camera to scan anything I get on paper that I want to “file”). Files, emails and memos pertinent to my job get clipped into the Windows Evernote client on my laptop. And of course ideas, tasks, random things I hear… anything interesting at all, it goes in the soup. Evernote is the best “universal capture” inbox I’ve ever seen, and why I keep coming back to it for my GTD process instead of services like Toodledo or Nozbe.

(This is, btw, probably the biggest thing I miss about Android after moving to iOS as my daily driver. Android’s system-wide share-to feature makes getting new stuff into Evernote much, much easier. On iOS, I have to settle for emailing a link rather than the whole clip if the app I’m using doesn’t happen to support Evernote directly. Come on, Apple! You copied Android’s notification system; copy this too!)


I have a saved search in Evernote called Inbox. This search is defined as -tag:* in my Action notebook. This shows me every untagged note that still needs to be dealt with. I go down the list, starting at the top, and ask, “What is this? Is it actionable?”

If it’s not, it gets moved from the Action folder to whatever folder makes sense for reference and I move on. To keep things simple, I only have three reference folders: Professional, Personal, and Writing. A lot of time, I don’t bother to tag the note at all. I used to have dozens, maybe even hundreds of tags, but I finally realized that such granularity was slowing me down. Evernote’s search is so good that I don’t have to define keywords. If the word I’m likely to search for isn’t in the note itself, it’s probably not as relevant as I think it is.

If it is actionable, I do a little more thought on the matter. Is it a project? What’s the next action? If it’s a larger project I might do a little “back of the envelope” planning at the top of the note, pushing down what I’d already clipped, sketching out milestones. Then I determine the next action, and make that the title of the note. I assign one or more @contexts as tags, and then move on to the next item on the list.

This applies to my reading list, too. Articles I’ve clipped but haven’t read yet stay in the Action folder with a @reading tag, and I have a saved search called Reading List that displays them. When I’m done reading them, I just move them to the appropriate reference folder.

My Hold notebook is for stuff that isn’t complete, but can’t be done right now. Maybe I’m waiting for someone else to complete something, maybe it’s a blue sky someday/maybe idea. These get moved out of Action to Hold and reviewed regularly to see if they need to get moved back to Action and worked on.


I have a lot of saved searches to help the review process. I’ve already discussed my Inbox saved search. The next one up is Planning, defined as all notes in the Action folder not tagged with @reading. This shows me all my open loops and active projects. I go over these every morning, trying to determine what’s really important for me to do that day. Those notes get tagged with @big rocks, a trick I’m borrowing from Stephen Covey’s First Things First.

I have a saved search called Focus defined as notes in the Action notebook tagged with @big rocks. This gives me a tight, focused list on the most important things I have to do. I come back to this list many times throughout the day to make sure these tasks get the attention they need.

For the rest of the day, I have saved searches that show notes in the Action notebook by context. These are:

  • @anywhere stuff that can be done on my phone, which is always with me
  • @computer stuff that requires my laptop
  • @home stuff that has to be done in or around my apartment, like household chores
  • @office day job stuff that needs to be done in my office


Once I have the list up for the current context, I go down the list and do whatever feels “right”. I bounce around, almost never going down the list in order. I also keep an eye out for things that repeatedly get passed over, and try to figure out if they’re really doable, if I’m skipping them because they have the wrong next action or if it’s something I really have any intention of doing at all. It’s okay to look at some projects and decide, “I’m just not going to do that. I accept the consequences of it not being done.” These get moved out of the Action notebook or deleted entirely.

When I actually do something, I edit the note to change the title to the next action after what I just did, and if necessary change the context tag. I repeat as necessary so the project steams along until I run out of actions. Then it gets moved out of the Action notebook and fades into the searchable deep.

That’s it. Once a week I sit down and do a brain dump, just typing whatever pops into my head separated by CTRL-N to put each in a new note. Then I process them as listed above.

This is the simplest way of implementing GTD in Evernote I can think of, but no simpler. It hits all the major points, but also is streamlined enough that I’ll actually do it. Everything else I’ve tried has had too many steps involved to maintain the system, meaning I’ll inevitably get tired and wander off. This system looks like it’s easy enough to stick with, but if you have any suggestions on how to improve it, be sure to let me know in the comments.