Terribly successful

Imagine a web application as it should appear in 2010.

Now lower your expectations in absolutely every way.

Design? Absolutely terrible. We’re talking default and mixed fonts, no thought given to typography, spacing. Bad 1995 animated GIFs scattered around. ¬†Terrible Photoshop, or more likely MS Paint skills – that kind of gratuitous dropshadowbeveladdsomesunglareandanotherlayer thing you do when you’re first fiddling with image editing programs: no subtlety, no restraint, no style.

Lower your expectations a bit more. The UI is awful – any sense of navigational place has been whittled away not just by the design but by the FULL ON nature of the interface, the ads, the lack of anything consistent.

Actually, the web interface is less important than it could or should be: really, all the action happens instead in your email inbox. By default, you get 550 or so emails from this site every week. That’s 80, every single day.

What else? Oh, no tagging, no taxonomy, no (meaningful) search, no API, no feeds. No proper database of past posts, actually…

Sounds terrible, right? Sounds like hell on a stick? Sounds like the kind of site you’d laugh at, one you’d definitely not get involved with? In fact, maybe I’m making it up as a kind of case study of how not to do the web, right?

Hm.

This is Bath Freegle. And the thing that utterly confounds anyone who looks at it (apart from the fact it flies in the face of everything we believe in as web people) is this: it is utterly, totally and unbelievably successful. Not just “not bad” successful, but in-your-face “literally, you’ll have people picking your stuff up within minutes of posting it” successful.

There’s a number of reasons why this works, of course (ranging from “people understand email” to “hey, free stuff!”). A passionate audience of more than 11,000 members helps. Free stuff certainly helps. Fulfilling genuine human needs helps (I need to get rid of shit, and can’t be bothered to sell it on eBay: you fancy said shit. Let’s deal).

Nonetheless, this makes us web types twitch for two main reasons: 1) it flies in the face of most of the things we believe in, and 2) it could / should be so, so much better.

So can we learn anything from this (apart from the fact that humans will do nearly anything for free stuff)? Maybe it’s something about going where the people are. Maybe it’s about simplicity. Maybe it’s about priorities, and how we should spend more time working with users to understand what makes them tick. Maybe it’s about all of the above.

Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow…

IT tools I *really* use

I keep having moments of needing to consolidate and simplify. Maybe it’s a puritanical precursor to some kind of horrific mid-life crisis which will see me going nuts and buying cars, motorbikes and a Macintosh Air*.

More likely, it’s the realisation that I personally use IT tools in several different modes, and that understanding these modes is increasingly important to the way I evaluate new systems, paradigms and technologies.

Firstly, I’m a serial tryer-outer. The word serial shouldn’t actually be underestimated here. I am reasonably sure (I have absolutely no way of telling) the number of alpha/beta sites I’ve joined is in its hundreds. I suspect maybe 3-400. Apart from the obvious psychological weirdness of this (please still be my friend), it also means I am constantly installing, un-installing and otherwise evaluating whether tool A or website B actually does anything of any use.

Quite apart from the fact that Windows hates this kind of behaviour and my Gmail account is now full of endless newsletters from Yet Another Damn Web Service, this is actually a very valuable exercise. It very quickly highlights the things I really can’t do without as opposed to the things that are really exciting but not actually of much use. Usually I manage to avoid things that really aren’t any of the above and frankly shouldn’t ever have happened in the first place but every so often these feature too.

The distinction between invaluable and merely exciting is an important one. In fact, it’s so important I reckon it lies somewhere near the heart of the whole problem with IT. That’s another topic altogether, though.

For this post, I’ve chosen the top five applications I use every day – the ones that make a real difference to the way I work. And make no mistake, each and every one of these tools has emerged (following the try-it-out approach above) as the current leader in a harsh and crude evolutionary race. All of them have fought against others in the same space, and won (for now…) – they simply do what I want better than anything else I’ve tried.

1. Syncing = Google Browser Sync and SugarSync (£various)
I can’t even begin to explain the positive impact both of these tools have had on my working life. Google Browser Sync (FF only) keeps your history, passwords, open tabs, bookmarks synced across any browsers that you install the extension for. I’ve tried a bunch of other tools but GBS is low-impact, easy to use and does what it says on the tin. SugarSync does the same thing for files and folders and it is utter genius. You install a client on each machine (PC or Mac), choose which folders to sync. Done. Never again will you arrive at conference and find your keydrive can’t be read. Never again will you get to work and think “arse, I left that document on my home PC”. In fact, you’ll never use a keydrive again. Oh, and did I mention it also provides mobile access…?

2. Email = Gmail
Head, shoulders and several entire bodies above the rest. I’m not going to go on about it here – you’ve all heard of it, you’ve probably tried it and with any luck you’re also using it too. For spam protection, labelling, search, 6Gb+ storage, functionality, mobile access….no other contenders.

3. Images = Picasa
PC only (although I might have read somewhere that it’s coming soon for Mac?) – just simply the best image management system bar none. Chuck in easy re-sizing for emailing files, XML output, online galleries, tagging, yada yada

4. Doc sharing = Google Docs
It’s another Gmail and just continues to get better. The latest stuff (forms for spreadsheets – genius!) and the Google Visualization API reading data straight from your documents just keeps pushing the boundary so much harder and further than the other contenders in this space.

5. Tasks = Tudomo ($30)
I get a fair amount of stick in the office for this one. Yes, I know all about Outlook tasks. Yes, I’ve got Outlook 2007. Yes, I know it all integrates with email, contacts, calendar, yada yada. But the fact of the matter is, if you haven’t tried Tudumo, you’re just simply not going to get it. That’s fine. If you want to continue with slow, clunky, inflexible, shortcut-less control of some corporate, creativity-free nastiness, then carry straight on. If instead you’re looking for a tag-centred task-list which doubles as scratchpad, ideas register, GTD dashboard and reminder system, give Tudumo a whirl. The first time you try it, you think – “well hey, nothing special” or (if you’re me) “desktop app? Soo last year darling..”. But then you realise it’s something pretty special. If you’ve tried online task tools, you’ll be surprised how much better a lag-free desktop tool is for quickly sketching down ideas or tasks. It could really do with a web version which echoed your tasks online, but that’s on the roadmap, so for now I’ll forgive.

Any on your list? Things I’ve missed that could knock my choices off my top 5…?

(* I of course do need a Mac Air. I just need to sell my children first.)