Cryptic Clue: It Could Make One Hip! (6)

Last week I went and bought myself an iPhone. It’s been a really exhausting couple of months and it’s going to be another month or so before it’s over, and I wanted to give myself a treat. I’ve been saying since the iPhone came out that if it didn’t do the one thing I really want a PDA for, then it wasn’t worth the money to me, and if it did, it was; so far the iPhone doesn’t do it, but Apple is releasing the software developer’s kit next month (rumor has it that some developers already have advance copies), so I’m sure that it will be coming fairly soon and I bought it anyway.

The most important software I have on my laptop is my note-taking and -organizing software. I am a constant note-taker and it would be a huge boon to me to be able to quickly access and even add to my collection of notes without having to take out my laptop and open it up — if I’m in a used book store and I want to get out the list of books I’d like to find, say, or if I’m in the midst of whatever project I’ve been compiling notes for and need to look something up ASAP. Now, if I’m out for a walk and I suddenly want to jot a few ideas down, I carry around a little notebook with me and then later when I’m at my laptop or my desktop I’ll enter my notes into my software; it’s an extra step that it would be convenient to eliminate, but it works and it isn’t all that much of a hassle. But not having access to all my notes unless I’m at my home computer or I’m carrying my laptop is more of a nuisance and it’d be great to find a way to fix that that really works.

I’ve tried all sorts of note-organizing software. My favorite used to be iOrganize, but I encountered some problems with the license number and could never get any response to my repeated emails, so that turned out not to be usable. Then I switched to Sticky Brain, which I liked a lot, and when it was updated and turned into SOHO Notes I gave it a try and continued liking it at first, but then it got sluggish as the database increased, and worse, one day it suddenly stopped recognizing my password to unlock my encrypted notes and so I lost all my organized notes on personal information and had to recompile them, so I don’t feel right trying that again. (Not just me — there are quite a few similar tales of woe with SOHO Notes out there on the Internet.)

I’ve tried MacNoteTaker, which lets you put all your notes in one folder on your computer, which it then syncs with your Palm. You can nest folders all you want and the hierarchy is preserved on your Palm. That’s a pretty handy setup and I was using it for quite a while. I would use TextWrangler to manage the text files on my computers. I like the simplicity of it and I could see myself going back to MacNoteTaker contentedly. But I’ve grown frustrated with the limitations of syncing between the Mac and the Palm in other ways.

One program that I do really love is NoteBook by Circus Ponies Software — it actually looks like a spiral-bound notebook on your screen, and it’s fun to use and has a lot of nice features. I used it for about a year and I still use it for particular things. But over time I became unsatisfied with not being able to open more than one note at once — it’s possible to switch very quickly back and forth among several notes, but still I often wanted to be able to see two or three notes on the screen at the same time. So I looked around some more and found Yojimbo, which is what I use now — I’m typing this entry into it right now, in fact, to be cut and pasted into my blog later. I can open any number of notes at once in separate windows in Yojimbo if I want to, which is very useful sometimes. There are several easy ways to cut and paste something quickly from a website or email message into my notes. I can, for example, just select and drag a URL onto the list of folders and it’ll download and save a copy of the webpage. All very cool and very convenient.

Yojimbo has a few drawbacks, the biggest one for me being that you can’t nest folders of notes within other folders. I’ve got a workaround for it, but it’s still a bit of a nuisance. I like to have all my notes for a project together in a folder, and I don’t like to throw away my notes when the project is complete, because they’re very handy if I start up a similar project later. I would prefer to be able to move all these folders into another folder called “Completed projects”, but I can’t because I can’t nest folders. What I do instead is rename the folder so that it starts with an omega and a date, like “Ω 2006-05 May Day gathering”, and the omega causes it to fall to the end of the list of folders. So I have a very long list of folders overall, but the important, active ones are all up at the top of the list. The completed project folders are gathered at the bottom of the list, sorted by the month and year I finished them, which for me has turned out to be the most useful way to look for them again.

(Omega, which is option-Z on the Mac, is my general symbol for “something I don’t want to get rid of but don’t want to look at, either, so I’m shoving it down at the bottom of the alphabetized list”. I started using it in iTunes as a way to label playlists that I created only to make other more complicated playlists possible, but which I’m never going to play so I don’t want to have to scroll past them over and over again. It proved to be a very useful gimmick and I’ve used it in other contexts like this one.)

I keep hoping that Yojimbo will add nested folders to its functionality in some future update. In the meanwhile, I make do with this workaround. And I do like the program a lot otherwise. One of the coolest features is that my notes sync between my laptop and my desktop at home by way of my .Mac account, so I can add to my notes in either place and the note will soon show up in the other place without my ever having to remember to do anything about it. Sweet.

I also use a terrific little program called Jreepad for my work notes. It’s a Java-based version of Treepad. Jreepad is limited in a lot of ways but the plus for me is that it was created so that a database of notes could open on both Mac and Windows computers. There’s a Windows version of the program and there’s a Mac version, but the notes themselves live in a separate file that you can move around and open in either program. My work notes live on my work computer most of the time, where I can cut and paste into them from email messages and work documents. But if I’m going into a department meeting I can email the file to my .Mac address, take my laptop into the meeting, and be able to refer to my notes and add to them during the meeting. Then after the meeting is over, instead of having to transcribe a lot of handwritten notes onto my computer (which is what I used to do after every meeting), now I can just email the modified file back to my work address and it’s back on my work computer. I also email a copy to my laptop at the end of each workday. The files are small because the notes can only be in plain text, so I just keep the old mail messages for a while and that serves as an easy daily backup.

What I’m hoping for is that as soon as the software developer’s kit for the iPhone is released, Yojimbo will start working on a way to sync notes with the iPhone. That would fulfill what I’ve wanted most from a PDA for a long time now, and my figuring that it has just got to be happening soon now is a big part of why I jumped the gun a bit and bought me an iPhone when it doesn’t currently have that functionality. I have a Palm PDA, and I have The Missing Sync, which does try to sync Yojimbo folders with the Notes function on the Palm. But my experience has been that the sync function is frequently buggy and kind of a nuisance. I’ve just about given up on using my Palm, in fact, because The Missing Sync, though tons better and easier to use than the Palm software for syncing with the Mac, didn’t really clear up all the issues I’d been having with repeated entries showing up in my address book and my calendar, notes not getting synced correctly, and so on. The iPhone is more limited (at least so far) in what it’ll sync — address book, email, and browser bookmarks, mostly, plus things like photos and music that are not very important to me — but it syncs those things effortlessly, and it seems a sure thing that greater functionality will come soon.

There is a program called Webjimbo that lets you keep your Yojimbo notes on a computer that is always connected to the Internet, and then access them or add to them over the ‘Net from other computers, which can include the iPhone. I tried to set it up but Dave and I weren’t all that comfortable with the modifications I would have had to make to the firewall on our home network. There are also free services that let you keep notes online, where any of my computers could access them as long as I’m hooked up to the Internet, but even with a USB modem on my laptop and my iPhone, I’m not always hooked up to the Internet — I spend a lot of time working on my laptop while commuting on BART, for example, and I don’t want to have my access to my notes interrupted every time the train goes underground. So I’m holding out for something that will really put a copy of my notes on my iPhone.

All in all I’m very pleased with the iPhone, which is the best-thought-out cell phone I’ve had by far. I have my wish list like everyone: Faster connection speed seems like a necessity since so many of its functions are web-based (though I do have to remember that it wasn’t so long ago something like this would have seemed very zippy). Personally I’d like the ability to flag and unflag email messages. The impossibility of copying and pasting anything from one application to another is not only frustrating but inexplicable, since cutting and copying and pasting was the foundation of the Mac interface from the beginning. How much more fundamentally unMaclike can you get than not to be able to cut and paste? But rumor is that Apple is working to add that functionality, and the developer’s kit is almost out, and Yojimbo is actively supporting and updating its software all the time. So I’m hopeful that a few months from now I will have the ability to make a note on my iPhone and have it automatically sync to my laptop and vice versa.

Later: After writing all that out, it suddenly occurs to me that a better way of dealing with old project notes may be to export them as text files and clear them out of Yojimbo, as it’s easy enough to import them again when I want to.

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