Ecosystem Agnostic

Ecosystem Agnostic

I mentioned on Monday that Google has started to skeeve me out. Really, all the major digital ecosystems have started to skeeve me out. I don’t want to be beholden to any one company for everything. Putting all your eggs in one basket is no wiser now than in the analog age.

When I was handed an iPhone recently for my new day job, I decided to take the opportunity to see what other options are out there. To build my own ecosystem out of smaller, independent companies I can replace as necessary, and make it cross-platform wherever possible. To make my eggs work in any basket.

Getting Things Done

Exchange 365: When I started writing this article, I was using Google Calendar and Gmail for my “productivity” apps. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see how many tendrils from the Big G I could disconnect. And the obvious answer for Calendar, Contacts and Email was hosted Exchange.

I’d had a hosted Exchange account years ago for my Windows Mobile devices. Technically, Google is also hosted Exchange, since they use Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol. But I wanted my own data store, my independence. So I looked around a bit and found that the cheapest hosted Microsoft Exchange service I could find was actually from Microsoft directly.

Exchange 365 is $4/month per user. Since I’m only doing this for myself, that’s $4/month. I get a full Exchange implementation hosted on my own subdomain (if I end up keeping it I’ll probably move it to my domain) with mobile syncing and Outlook Web Access. Exchange syncs flawlessly with all my mobile devices, so this is working out nicely for me.

Evernote: Here’s another place I really divert from the Google Way. I used to keep my tasks in Google Tasks and my notes in Google Docs (and before that, Google Notebook, before it was shuttered). But Evernote does what I need so much better.

For notes, Evernote is an obvious choice. That’s what it’s for, after all. But what makes it a better choice than the Google offerings is how easy it is to dump stuff into Evernote from everywhere else. I can mail stuff into it, save from my browser, from my reading queue, pretty much everything else I do supports Evernote as a destination.

Which makes Evernote heads and shoulders above Google Tasks, too. I have a notebook in Evernote called “Action.” It’s my default notebook, so new notes appear there by default. For each note, I go through the normal GTD steps and use them as reminders of what I have to do. If they’re independent actions, I keep them in the Action folder until they’re done, then move the note to whatever folder is appropriate for reference. For projects, I make checkmarked lists in the notes and file them only when everything is checked off. This works better for me than any traditional to do list I’ve ever used, Google Tasks included. I’m working on an article describing this system in more detail for those of your who are interested in using Evernote for GTD.


Twitter: I get a lot of links to interesting reading material from the people I follow on Twitter. While I’ve tried getting everything this way by following the Twitter accounts of the blogs I generally follow, I’ve found that the ephemeral nature of Twitter means I miss too many links that way. So this is for stuff that I’ll find interesting, but that I probably wouldn’t have seen on my own. I use the stock Twitter client on all platforms, and just email the tweets linking to something interesting into my Evernote account.

(I used to use Google+ for this sort of thing, but it’s just too hard to get stuff out of G+, especially on iOS, and into Evernote where I want it. Further evidence of the “lock in” mentality that’s driving me away from Google in the first place.)

Google Reader: I keep all my regular, must-read blogs in Google Reader. Google’s just the best tool for the job for this, and I’m not going to ignore them out of spite. On iOS, I use RSS Flash g, an average GReader client that has one killer feature for me. I have it set up so that anything I star in GReader is automatically sent to Evernote, put in my Action notebook, and tagged with @reading. It literally could not be simpler to get the stuff I want to read later where I need it to be.

On the desktop, I generally open those articles in new tabs in Firefox and give them a closer look while I have the larger screen. If they really look interesting, I use the Firefox extension Clearly (by Evernote) to simplify the formatting and send the page and source URL to Evernote.

Evernote: Once everything’s in Evernote, the hardest part is finding time to read it all. I have a context set up as @reading and a saved search called “Reading List” defined as every note tagged @reading in the Action notebook. When I’m done reading an article, I just move it from the Action folder to one of my reference folders, along with adding any tags I feel are relevant. I try to keep my Evernote tags to a minimum, but I do have tags for each of my writing projects, so if an article is particularly applicable to some aspect of the Unification Chronicles, I’ll slap that tag on it to group it with the rest of my UC reference material.

Kindle, Calibre and Dropbox: For longer form reading, I’m sticking with Amazon’s Kindle platform for now. I’ve tried Nook and iBooks, and Kindle just does a better job of giving me what I want to read (books I bought from Amazon as well as those I bought elsewhere) everywhere I want to read it (iPhone, iPad to be procured later, Android phone, Windows PC, physical e-ink Kindle).

That said, I also download every book I buy on the Kindle store, strip it of DRM and file it in Calibre. I use the portable version of Calibre, and store both the app and my library in my Dropbox. Most books are stored in epub, mobi and zipped HTML formats for safe-keeping, and I can email any of the books I didn’t buy from Amazon directly to my Kindle library whenever I want to read them.


Evernote: It makes sense to keep my drafts together with my reference material, so I do all my actual writing in Evernote as well. While Evernote supports editing rich text notes even in the mobile apps (finally), as it turns out I don’t use it. I keep my drafts in plain text and use Markdown for rich text markup. This keeps things simple and I don’t have to worry about losing the formatting should something hiccup. The Evernote Windows client even supports word count, something I wish they’d add to the iOS client. When I’m done with a draft, I either paste the Markdown-formatted text directly into my blog (which understands Markdown thanks to a WordPress plugin), or convert it to HTML for conversion to ebook formats.

The Elephant In The Room

Between writing, reference and task management, I spend most of my day in Evernote. This may seem like putting all my eggs in a different, yet still consolidated, basket, but it’s worth pointing out that I could dump Evernote and switch to Simplenote or just a collection of plain text files in Dropbox at a moment’s notice if needed. Evernote is the most convenient for me, but certainly not the only option.

Social Networking

Twitter: As referenced above, Twitter’s pretty much the only social network I have time for anymore, and even that is mostly skimming for interesting links. For what I do with them, the stock iOS and Android clients are fine. I was really enjoying Flipboard on my iPhone, but there doesn’t seem to be a good way to get links out of it and directly into Evernote, so it fell by the wayside.

Google Voice: This will probably be the hardest Google dependency to shake, assuming I ever do. My phone number is a Google Voice number, and that’s how people call and text me. Efforts to find a similar universal texting solution, like Apple’s iMessage, have met with a collective “meh” from my friends, so I’m stuck with how they know to contact me. At least using Google Voice means I’m not locked in to any particular carrier or local phone number.


FirefoxThis one’s easy. I need a modern standards compliant, cross platform web browser that doesn’t phone home and share everything I do online with Microsoft, Google or Apple. That leaves Firefox. (Shush, Opera users.) There’s a lot to like in Firefox over even Chrome, much less IE 9. In particular, I can set the fonts to what I want them to be and override the web site fonts. It’s a small thing, but I like consistency.

And of course Firefox now supports Sync, so I can have the same settings on both my work and personal laptops, and Firefox for Android on my Galaxy Nexus. It’d be nice if there was an iOS version of Firefox, but I guess we know who to blame for that one. As a stopgap I use Firefox Home for iOS, which at least gives me my bookmarks and tabs open on other devices.

Lastly, I like how Firefox is the most Fitts Law compliant browser on the market. Little things count.


CoinKeeper: I wish I could say I used to keep track of my finances, but alas, they don’t get along with my bank’s security policies. For now, I’m using CoinKeeper for iOS, which does sync to their own cloud service so it’s interoperable between devices (this is less useful now than it will be when they release their iPad and Android clients, but it’s good for backup now). I’ll have a full review of CoinKeeper soon, but for now let’s say it’s the first mobile finance app I’ve really liked since QuickBudget on Palm OS, and for largely the same reasons.


iTunes: I know it’s old school, but I still have an iTunes library of almost 5,000 songs (DRM-free MP3 files), and sync a good 10% of that locally to my phone. I don’t always have good data coverage, and even when I do, I don’t always want to use part of my precious monthly data cap on streaming music.

Rdio: Not all of the music I like is music I own, however. My Rdio collection is much, much larger than my iTunes library, and I use this liberally to listen to stuff I either don’t have in iTunes, or want to listen to right now but don’t have synced to my phone.

Pandora: I also pay for a Pandora account and have a few dozen stations set up for various things I might be in the mood to listen to. Most of my Pandora usage, however, isn’t music at all, but stand up comedy, which I listen to via my iPhone (on wifi) on my nightstand as I fall asleep.

Stitcher: Probably at least half (or more) of the time I’m listening to audio on my phone, I’m listening to podcasts on Stitcher. What puts this podcatcher above the rest is that it’s multiplatform (iOS, Android, web browser) and syncs your queue and where you left off on each podcast across devices. Start listening to Tech News Today on my iPhone, finish listening through my laptop speakers in Firefox when I get home.

Audible: And of course for listening to actual audiobooks, there’s nothing better than Audible. I can listen on my iPhone, in iTunes, on Android, on my Kindle. And even though I’m no longer a monthly subscriber, I managed to collect over 500 audiobooks when I was, and I still haven’t listened to all of them.

Video and Photos

Dropbox: Until I decided Google had too much of my stuff, I kept all my photos in Picasa. As an Android and Google Plus user, this was almost default and automatic, since Google Plus would upload any photo I took with my phone to Picasa anyway. I’m in the process now of downloading all my photos from Picasa, filtering out the duplicates or the stuff I just don’t need anymore, and moving these into my Dropbox account. In Dropbox they’re still sharable, in a more independent location, synced automatically to all my PCs (local copies are important) and Dropbox will even add to my storage allowance to compensate for the extra space taken up by all the photos. I believe the same thing (within limits) applies to video, so I might upload some of my must-have videos there too.

Netflix: I’m a big fan of Netflix. They’ve had their issues recently, and lost a lot of content that I miss (come on, Warner, give back Babylon 5!). But for less than $10/month, I still have access to way more entertainment content than I can possibly watch. I’m working my way through all the Star Trek at the moment (halfway into DS9 season 4, then on to Voyager after DS9), and I still have all the various Stargate series to go through, all 300+ episodes. And people keep telling me how good Arrested Development is; I should probably watch it before the new episodes, commissioned by Netflix, air.

Amazon Prime: I bought my Amazon Prime membership mostly for the free shipping, kept it for the Kindle Lending Library (and more free shipping). But a useful side benefit of Prime is that I also have a large library of free video I can stream as a backup if I’m having problems with Netflix. Prime also has reasonably priced rentals of newer TV and movies.