Little apps can simplify your life

Dropbox, Sparrow, CoBook, and Fantastical are simplified interfaces for everyday tasks

For the past year or so I’ve noticed something about my computer use: I’m slowly replacing the core software and features that get used day in, day out.

It all started with Dropbox.

One of the core features of a computer is that it stores stuff. Spreadsheets, word processing documents, code and so on are all kept somewhere on the computer. On the hard drive.

It’s such a core feature of a computer that the size of the hard drive is one of those things that gets promoted. One of those "size matters" situations.

One of the hassles, though, is that the bigger the hard drive, the more I seem to scatter stuff all over. Sure, it’s mostly in a folder labeled, "Documents." And yes, it’s all backed up about six ways from Sunday.

But there’s that pile of random stuff on the desktop — what I like to think of as the remains of frenzied creative activity. And there’s the pile of items on my RAID array. It isn’t in one place.

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File storage is further complicated by the fact that I regularly operate three "real" computers and about four or five mobile devices. The additional machines increase issues with "where the heck is that file" exponentially.

Dropbox solved all that for me. To be honest, it wasn’t even the cloud storage aspect that hooked me on it. I had been using Apple’s iDisk for a good 10 years, since it came out.

What Dropbox did was it put a simple little icon at the top of my machine that was always there. I can click that icon and now I have all my files. Well, not all my files. The heavy lifting visual stuff for photography, video, and animation work stays on the RAID. But the vast majority of my files. Anything I want to keep.

Dropbox was simple. A thin little slice of code with an unassuming icon taking up unused space in the menubar of my machine. No more hunting around in different locations for a specific file.

The next thing you know, I’m using a little email client, Sparrow, to manage that crucial task.

Personally, I never got into Gmail. Part of that is, as a geek, I’ve never liked having an email address that indicates some sort of proper geekly status. If it isn’t my company, then it better damn well be my brand. Gmail is no more my brand than Hotmail or AOL or any other brand that I don’t want to be sitting so close to my name.

As a result, I’ve always used some sort of dedicated email software, and only resorted to web-based email in last resort situations. Apple’s Mail.app, while serviceable, really isn’t much to write home about.

But honestly, I didn’t think much about how email should be. Once I tried Sparrow, all that changed.

I tried it first on my iPhone. Within a couple minutes I realized I never want to check email on anything else ever again.

I get thousands of email each day. I’m not exaggerating. And that’s thousands that aren’t spam, they’re all real to varying degrees. Triage for email is critical. Complex filtering systems can handle a lot, but not everything. And if I want to increase my personal contact with people, filters don’t help with that either.

Sparrow, with the simple addition of a button for "send and archive" made it possible to use email the way I use Twitter: quick responses. But there was the added benefit of paper trail.

I nearly didn’t install the desktop version of Sparrow simply because I didn’t want to use my "real" computers for email anymore after trying the iOS version. But eventually I gave it a try and it was great.

Similar to Dropbox, Sparrow took away all the clutter and hassle of email and made getting to "Inbox 0" easy and quick. I still run Mail.app in the background to handle all the spam filtering and auto-responders and sorters, almost like a little mail server. But I no longer use Mail.app to actually do anything with email. Sparrow does that now.

Next thing you know, I’m getting a little dissatisfied with the way Address Book and iCal work. I’ve never been that happy with either, but I’ve just sort of muddled through. But given that my experience with email and file storage had been so much improved, these other two areas of life were very suddenly very low hanging fruit indeed.

CoBook obliterated any memory of Address Book within minutes. Like Dropbox it puts a simple little icon in the menu bar. From then on adding, changing, and contacting people was dead simple. Sure CoBook has a fancy sync-with-Twitter-and-Facebook-and-LinkedIn feature. And yes, I like that feature. But it got me primarily by providing an interface to contact information that is quick, seamless and useful.

Fantastical was just like CoBook but for iCal. Little black unassuming icon? Check. Quick and speedy? Check. Sync through to iCal in the background? Check. Never use iCal again.

I’m not using Fantastical so much for looking at the calendar itself (for that I use OmniFocus on my iPhone, because it is tied into my ToDo stuff). I’m using Fantastical to quickly get appointments scheduled and then get on with my day.

All of these little apps are really, at their core, just a simplified interface for a simple everyday task. Sending email, scheduling appointments, pulling up documents, working with contacts — none of these things actually require a ton of features. In fact, the fewer features they have the better they are.

This sort of thinking goes counter to the "One is good, so two must be twice as good!" style of thinking that is common in technology and other areas of life. But once this sort of simplification starts to take hold, it really is transformative.

I sort of wonder if there aren’t aspects beyond technology — perhaps in service or business models — that wouldn’t benefit from a similar approach.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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