My Favorite Productivity Apps – Part One

When I look back at my own output over the last four years – four books, 190 articles, nearly 1,000 blog entries, 300 podcasts, more than 50 webcasts and a busy speaking/training schedule – I marvel at the role that cheap and free technology has played in making me more productive.

A lot of our productivity used to be robbed by little things: finding stuff, organizing it and getting it into a useful form. Thanks to new tools, much of that is now automated.

I constantly experiment with new software, and over the years I’ve come to rely upon a handful of stalwarts that I use every day. Over the next couple of issues, I’ll run down the list and tell you why I value these tools. I also hope you’ll share your favorites as comments so we can all become more productive. All of these run on Windows (I had a Mac for a couple of years but just couldn’t make the mental shift) and most are free. None cost more than $50.

The Desktop Basics

Dragon NaturallySpeaking – I’ve praised this speech recognition program so frequently that it deserves a place in the Gillin Hall of Fame by now. Simply stated, I write at least twice as much with Dragon as without it. I also believe Dragon has made me a better writer by enabling my work to have a more conversational tone. The retail price is $200, but you can find perfectly good older versions for as little as $30 online. Even at the higher price, it’s a good value.

Google Office – Despite Gmail’s erratic performance, the flexibility of web-based mail can’t be beat. I can access and search my entire mail archive from any computer or from my Android phone. Google continually innovates on this platform. One of my favorite new features is the ability to create a Google document directly from an e-mail. The keyboard shortcuts save a load of time. I just wish they’d create one that’s analogous to Word’s <Ctrl-K>.

For collaboration, Google Docs is a godsend. My last two books have been written with co-authors, and Docs enabled us to share and edit each other’s work without the nightmare of version control. Feature-wise, the apps don’t hold a candle to Microsoft Office, but the collaborative convenience is often worth the trade-off. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are supposed to integrate better with Office, but I haven’t put them through their paces yet.

Tungle –  This scheduling application, which debuted at South by Southwest early this year, makes it easy for people to suggest meeting times and book appointments without an endless game of e-mail volleyball. You can click a link in my signature line and book a meeting at your convenience. Integrates well with popular calendars.

Notepad++ – I wrote about this little open source beauty back in August. Notepad++ is a text editor for programmers, and it is blisteringly fast at crunching through large volumes of text. Our WYSIWYG world plays havoc with Web content management systems, which choke on each other’s formatting commands. I can dump HTML code into Notepad ++ and clean it up with a few quick search-and-replace operations. When I was slammed by a WordPress virus earlier this year, I used Notepad++ to purge hundreds of files of rogue code in a few seconds.

AVG Free – I’ve tried a lot of antimalware utilities, but I keep coming back to this unobtrusive yet effective security suite. I haven’t had a problem with computer security in three years (other than on my websites, which are a completely different story), and that’s what counts.

7-Zip – When PKWare began charging for WinZip a few years ago, I switched to this open source file compression utility. It supports most of the popular formats as well as its own hi density algorithm. The 256-bit encryption is a plus when you want to keep your work from prying eyes.

Roboform login screenRoboform – I paid the $30 for this password manager several years ago, so I haven’t experimented with the crop of new entrants. These tools store your passwords, personal contact information and bank/credit card data in one place, making it easy to log into websites and to fill out online registration forms. Here’s a link to some alternatives, including open source tools.

PDF-XChange Lite – I’m forgetful, so I like to highlight and annotate documents when they’re in front of me.  Adobe’s $200 Acrobat X is overkill for my needs. PDF-XChange Lite makes it easy to mark up PDFs so I can remember later why I kept them.

FileZilla – When you run a lot of websites (I tend five actively) you need to be This is an open source FTP program that is fast and easy to use. I transfer a lot of large audio and video files, and FileZilla handles the task smoothly in the background.

Next issue, I’ll look at some essential multimedia tools as well as Web-based utilities. Let me also put in a plug for my podcast partner David Strom, who is a much savvier technologist than I, and whose reviews and recommendations are a goldmine of wisdom.

Freedom from Blogger

Over the weekend, I completed my long-awaited move from Blogger to WordPress. There’s plenty of fine-tuning left to do – and I need to get rid of the hideous graphic in the header – but the transition went pretty smoothly.

I’ve been trying to get off of Blogger for about a year, but migration difficulties – in particular, the loss of link consistency – has frustrated me. With its release of version 2.6.2, WordPress has made migration almost one-button simple. Permalinks are still going back to the previous site template, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff for now to be free of the Blogger system.

I signed up for Blogger more than three years ago when I didn’t know any better. Since then, I’ve learned that blogging software can lock in a user almost as completely as any proprietary software. Because each publisher architects its service somewhat differently, migration has been a headache for years. WordPress is now resolving that problem to the point that moving to its platform no longer requires Herculean effort. I host four blogs on WordPress, with my main blog being the only exception.

Why had I grown frustrated with Blogger?

  • The selection of page templates is severely limited. I never found one I really liked. In contrast, there are thousands of free WordPress templates available. I’ve found many that I like.
  • I decided to host my blog on my own domain and use Blogger as an authoring system. This requires Blogger to FTP the files to my server, a process that had become frustratingly long and failure-prone as my site grew. Blogger offers an alternative to host your domain on its own servers for a fee, but since I was already paying a hosting service, this didn’t seem an attractive option.
  • Blogger has limited support for third-party widgets and plug-ins. WordPress has a vast library of them. This alone is enough reason to switch.
  • The Blogger content management system has far less flexibility than WordPress’, where you can customize almost anything.
  • I’ve found the results of Blogger’s “preview” function to have little to do with the resulting Web page. In contract, WordPress previews in the context of your chosen template.
  • WordPress has a function to automatically import Word documents. You still have to take out some code, but the process is pretty clean.

There are other reasons, but those are the big ones. For a basic one-button blog that’s drop-dead simple, Blogger is still a great option. But as you yearn to do more with your site, Blogger’s limitations become frustrating. Perhaps I will encounter some terrible problems in the next few days that force me to roll back, but for now, I’m enjoying the flexibility and open-source choice that WordPress provides.

Here’s a pretty good tutorial on how to make the switch.

Tap customer conversations for blog content

Lee Odden suggests that customer interaction can be great blog material.

It’s a good idea. Lots of businesses have customer service groups and many of them capture customer conversations in their databases. Why not take the best questions and answers, clean them up and expose them on a blog? So what if it’s the same as an FAQ? This approach is faster and it’ll probably do better on search results.

Add this to your list of successful approaches to blogging that don’t require a lot of time or money.

MP3's perilous future

Wired News reports on a federal jury’s big legal judgment against Microsoft over licenses to MP3 technology and questions whether MP3 has a future if the patent claims by Alcatel-Lucent are upheld.

This rather important story has received only scant coverage in the media that I can see. If MP3 is abandoned by the software industry, it’ll inconvenience a lot of people, but probably leave us better off in the long term.

MP3 is not a terribly high-quality format and it doesn’t support some features, such as bookmarks, that would make podcasting more useful. It has triumphed in the market for the same reason that VHS video did: it was in the right place at the right time. The best standard doesn’t always win, and that’s certainly the case here.

If Alcatel-Lucent tries to wring every royalty it can out of this situation, it will score a short-term win but kill MP3 in the long term. The company will be better off accepting 10 cents on the dollar from a few big players and then putting MP3 under a creative commons-type license. It would get some good PR from such a move and could then position itself as a leader in developing digital audio formats.

Learning Mambo by trial and error

I relaunched my website as well as a new site for my forthcoming book the other day, having moved both to an open-source content management system called Mambo. A year ago, I wrote about my own (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to install Mambo on a local server. This time I did it the smart way, using the Metropolis service provided by GoDaddy to its hosting account customers. Metropolis offers several free software packages for your server and is a nice resource that I’ll bet few GoDaddy customers even know about.

Mambo installed in just a few minutes and a few clicks. I then spent the next two weeks trying to figure it out. There are a few tutorials on the Web but none that I found prepared me to understand the logical structure used by Mambo. That was trial and error and it took a long time.

I’m a big fan of content management systems. My website was previously built on Microsoft FrontPage. While that gave me plenty of flexibility to play with look and feel, the pages were basically locked in stone once they were created. You couldn’t easily share content between sections of a site, move things around, expose and hide sections or move your site to a new template. Also, your page designs were stored on a local machine, meaning you couldn’t easily access them from another computer.

With a CMS, everything is in a database on the server and the content is stored separately from the page templates. Changing the site design is a snap, and content items can be displayed in a variety of ways on different sections of the site. For example, it’s simple to have an article display on the home page and also an inside page. In FrontPage, you’d need to have two copies of the article to do that, which creates all kinds of problems.

Mambo’s hierarchy uses a concept of sections, categories and content items. This structure made little sense to me when I first encountered it and I’m not sure it even makes sense now. Every content item must belong to a category and a section. You can display all items in a category or a section, which is very powerful. But I’m not sure why you need both containers.

There are basically two types of display: blog and table. A blog shows items in reverse-chron order (you can change that) with a snippet of introductory text and a “read more” link. A table displays an index of content items in rows. It’s nice being able to switch back and forth and try different styles. Mambo gives you lots of options for hiding or displaying titles, icons, navigation devices, ratings systems and other goodies. The problem is just keeping track of it all. Unless you set your global defaults carefully, your pages can all end up looking slightly different from each other.

The content editor that came with my package is MostlyCE Admin, a very nice WYSIWYG editor. The performance frustrated me until I realized you could turn off a bunch of resource-hogging features and improve speed dramatically.

There are a couple of hundred free Mambo templates. Once you set up your site, it’s fun to download a few and applying them to your site. The process is fast and easy and it’s one of the best ways to see the value of a CMS approach.

My sites are still works-in-progress and I’m sure there’s plenty about Mambo I have yet to discover. If I had it to do over again, I’d take the time to buy a book. I also wish I knew more about the PhP scripting language and how cascading style sheets work. I’ve been frustrated, for example, by the size of the headline type on my site but have been unable to figure out how to change it. There’s also a nav bar at the top that appears to be hard-coded into the design but which I can’t seem to modify or delete. I’ll figure this out eventually, but for now it’s just frustrating.

Now I have to figure out what to tinker with during the NEXT holiday season!