2009’s top tech

Here’s a quick roundup of some things I’ve really started to get some use out of in 2009. Not necessarily services that were new to the last 12 months, but ones which became a vital part of my toolkit.

You’ll notice Google Wave isn’t on the list – for me, it’s still a great bit of tech in search of a problem to solve. The idea posited here, that it’s real value will be in the enterprise, is interesting.

Key things that come out of this list for me are:

  • For me to really love a service or application, it has to run nicely – preferably using a dedicated app – on the iPhone. It also needs to have a web interface, so I can access it using different computers.
  • I also prefer tools which interface nicely with the other things I use – silos for my information and content don’t really interest me.

1. Basecamp

Despite the fact that there are a lot of things about Huddle that I like more than Basecamp, I’ve found myself using the latter more and more in 2009. I think it is partially the email integration I like so much – the fact that people can take part in online discussions without having to leave their email client.

In 2010, though, I suspect that Huddle will break through into the government space, and that I’ll start using it a lot more. One reason for that will be the integration with Microsoft Office, which could be a real game changer.

Both Basecamp (unofficially) and Huddle now have iPhone apps, making them accessible in a usable format on the move.

2. Evernote

I have mentioned Evernote in a few posts before – it’s a very useful and clever little service. You create notebooks which contain note pages within them. All are synced in the cloud, so whether you access them via the desktop app, the iPhone app or the website, you can read and edit them wherever you are.

Great for storing quick notes, links to look up later, or even photos and audio notes. I use it a lot to jot down and develop ideas for blog posts.

3. Posterous and Tumblr

I’m going to cover these two in a dedicated post on ‘easy blogging’ soon. Both make it stupidly quick and easy to record content online. Both work brilliantly on mobile devices with apps (Tumblr) or excellent email integration (Posterous). Both seamlessly interact with other online services, like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.

4. Mailchimp

If there is one technology that government really ought to be making better use o, then it’s email. Fine, lots of people moan about having too much of it, but given the option between getting an email or having to check a webpage, they’ll go for the addition to their inbox every time.

Email works on mobiles, is accessible and pretty much everyone knows what to do with it. Services like MailChimp – and there are others, like Campaign Monitor – make it easy to collect lists of email addresses and send messages out, tracking what people click on and how many people open the addresses.

I have a bigger post on email in the pipeline.

5. Yammer

Since joining the Learning Pool team, the problem of keeping communications working in a distributed workforce have become really apparent to me. But since we started using Yammer in a serious way across the company, those problems seem to have disappeared.

Yammer, for those that don’t know, is a Twitter-like service that is private for organisations. Authentication is based on your email address, so everyone on the same email domain can access that organisation’s Yammer stream.

It works really well, and the service is used for a true mixture of ‘what I’m doing today’ type updates, office banter, general messages and discussion. Kent County Council are also using Yammer to great effect – anyone else?

6. Skype

I’ve been using Skype for years, but never more than now. Part of that is for the same reason as for the use of Yammer – chatting to the Learning Pool guys, who are all heavy Skype users – but I’m now using it a lot to talk to family as well.

I’d put quite a bit of this down to hardware – all the computers in our house now have webcams built into them, which makes using services like Skype much easier and more effective.

7. Adium

Adium is a great little multi-protocol instant messaging client – which means that within the one application, I can chat to people using Google Talk, MSN, AIM, Yahoo! and Facebook.

Instant messaging is now something I use much more than before, and Adium makes that easy. IM is often seen as being a bit old hat these days, what with it being a fairly closed and usually one to one medium. But sometimes you need the immediacy, and, yes, the one to one-ness. These days more time seems to be spent communicating, which affects every medium.

8. Dropbox

I came to Dropbox late, but it is an awesome tool and probably the best cloud-based file storage solution. It adds a drive to your desktop computer, or your laptop, to which you can save files, which can then be retrieved on other machines via the web interface, or the iPhone app, or indeed the drive application if you have that installed elsewhere too.

Dropbox makes it a doddle for me to be able to access the files I am working on whether I am using my laptop or my desktop.

9. Delicious

I’ve been using it for years, but I’m starting to find more and more value in Delicious. Part of the reason is the huge number of links I now have in there, which I can access and search easily using the Firefox plugin, also the way it interfaces with other services, like the occasional blog post that pops up automatically here, to cross posting links to Twitter.

I’m also finding myself subscribing more and more to individual users’ accounts in Delicious, to see what they are bookmarking. It may seem rather old hat these days, but if you are interested in using the web as a learning tool, then social bookmarking is a vital part of the toolkit.

10. Wikipedia

There probably hasn’t been an hour that went by, when I was awake, during 2009 in which I didn’t refer to Wikipedia at some point. I’d never used it as a single source, or for any serious research (other than to follow up the links it references, perhaps) but to get the lowdown on a topic fast, it’s an astonishingly good resource.

I often mock it for its focus on tech and pop culture when I mention it in talks, but that is probably where I get most of my use out of it. Oracle want to buy Sun? What do Oracle actually do, anyway? Wikipedia make it dead easy to find out.

What I use

Sometimes it’s nice to hear what tech people use on a day to day basis. It’s useful to pick up hints and tips, and to pick up on cool tools you might not have heard of before.

Here’s my day-to-day kit:

1. Hardware

I have a 15 inch MacBookPro for travelling with, a 24 inch iMac for when I am in the office, and a Samsung NC10 for when I need two machines at the same time (for instance when I am out social reporting).

The iMac has a second screen, the main use of which I will come onto later.

I have a Kodak all in one printer, a Nikon D40 DSLR, a couple of Flip Ultras, a couple of GorillaPods, a MicroTrack II which I never use and an iPhone.

2. Software

In terms of desktop software, those that I use the most are:

  • Firefox – with all the plugins available for it, still the best browser by miles. Maybe when Chrome is out on the Mac I might reconsider, but until then…
  • Tweetdeck – I used to be a Twhirl man, but Tweetdeck has won me over recently, despite the large amount of screen real estate it takes up.
  • Yammer – Yammer is Twitter within an organisation – it’s limited to people on the same email domain. The Learning Pool team use it to keep one another up to date and as the official banter and abuse channel. The desktop app makes it easy to keep on top of it all.
  • Parallels – this makes running virtual machines on the Mac a doddle. Means I can run Windows XP virtually, which is handy for testing in Internet Explorer and other things which have to be done in Windows. On my iMac, it’s Windows that runs in full screen on my second monitor. Sweet.
  • Transmit – an FTP client that rocks.
  • Coda – a great code editor with built in FTP goodness.
  • MarsEdit – a blog post editor. For some reason it just makes writing posts quicker.
  • Photoshop Elements – for image and photo editing. This cut down version seems to do everything I need. Still not cheap, so I only have this on the iMac.
  • Pixelmator – a cheaper image editor than Photoshop, which I have on the MBP.
  • iCal – default Mac calendar app. Does the job for me.
  • Skitch – A simply awesome screenshot programme. So simple and a joy to use.
  • Skype – keeps the telephone costs down. There are more open VOIP systems out there, but the people I need to talk to are all on Skype, so…
  • Microsoft Office – sadly it’s still a must have.
  • MAMP – turns a mac into a web server with a couple of mouse clicks. Great for developing sites locally.
  • Omnigraffle – brilliant diagramming application. Like Visio, but good.
  • iTunes – manages all my music and backs up my iPhone. I use it because I have to, but it’s ok.
  • Internet Explorer versions 6-8 – under Parallels in XP, I use this application to run multiple versions of IE for website testing.

3. Sites and Services

My web based activity is mainly spent using:

  • Gmail – the best email interface, like, ever. I have loads of different email addresses feeding into the one account and managing them all is a dream. I use the Apps version, tethered to my domain.
  • Google Docs – great for quickly typing up ideas and sharing them with people – though I still prefer a desktop word processor for big documents.
  • Twitter – still visit the website now and again, mainly to find and follow new people.
  • Google Reader – at the last count, I follow about 700 feeds. Reader makes it possible, without going mad.
  • WordPress – the online publishing platform of the gods.
  • Ning – even with some of the accessibility issues, it’s still the easiest way to build a community online.
  • Delicious – the biggest social bookmarking community and that makes it the best, in my view.
  • MobileMe – an Apple service that keeps my calendar and contacts synched across all my computers, the web, and my iphone, without me having to do anything. Nice one!
  • Flickr – the only photo sharing site worth using? Possibly. It;s the one I have been using for 4 years or so now, so I am not going to change any time soon!
  • YouTube, Blip.tv and Vimeo – unlike with photos or bookmarks, choosing a video host isn’t quite a no brainer, depending on the length of your clips, the levels of privacy you need or the quality you require.
  • Facebook – despite Twitter’s ascendancy, I still use Facebook most days. It’s mainly my non-geek friends that are there, and it’s important to remember that not everyone is on the bleeding edge…
  • LinkedIn – my network here is growing day by day – but I’m still not sure what value I get out of it. Worth keeping up with though, just in case.
  • Google Groups – a dead simple way of getting an email list together. It isn’t hip, but it does work.
  • Huddle – online project management. Great for keeping groups of people up to date with activity.
  • Basecamp – sometimes Huddle is just too good, and a less feature rich service is needed. Hence Basecamp, which can annoy as much as it delights, but it’s email integration is excellent.

So that’s what I use on regular basis. It would be good to know what other people are up to, to see if I can steal some ideas!

Pukka: an answer to my prayers

I’m making quite a lot of use of the social bookmarking service Delicious at the moment. Luckily, it is mostly using my own account, but on one or two projects I am using specific accounts.

This can be a pain in the neck. I’ve installed the Delicious extension for Firefox which makes bookmarking a dream – but that only works with my usual account. Logging in and out all the time is a faff and not really an option.

What I have been doing recently is using different browsers for different accounts. It’s cumbersome and sometimes tricky to remember which browser works with which account!

However, I’ve now found the answer to my multiple delicious account problem prayers. It’s called Pukka.

pukkaPukka is a piece of software from some guys called Code Sorcery which makes it a breeze to manage all your accounts in one go.

Effectively, it is a client for Delicious. You load it up with the credentials for all your accounts, which you can then choose from a drop down menu when creating a bookmark.

There is also a bookmarklet which lets you call up the application straight from the browser and which fills in quite a few of the details of the page you are viewing for you.

It isn’t perfect – I can’t find an option to be able to post a bookmark to multiple accounts, for instance – but for roughly a tenner you can’t really go wrong.

Sadly for Windows and Linux users, it is Mac only.

Open source gov

Last week, the Cabinet Office published a new action plan for government and open source, to level the playing field when it comes to procuring software.

So we consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that Open Source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT; to ensure that we specify our requirements and publish our data in terms of Open Standards; and that we seek the same degree of flexibility in our commercial relationships with proprietary software suppliers as are inherent in the open source world.

Excellent stuff. There is a Netvibes dashboard set up to help monitor what is being said online, some of which is a little cynical and critical. I tend to prefer to be relentlessly positive.

Anyway, the situation with open source is a little similar to that of social web stuff, in that knowledge about it, and its possibilities, are somewhat limited. We need open source digital mentors!

Alternatively, we just need a wiki.

OpenSourceGov

OpenSourceGov is a simple MediaWiki site which aims to collect together all the information a civil servant might ever want to know about open source and the options it makes available. Hopefully it will soon be able to answer questions like:

  • Which licence should a government open source project be published under>
  • What is the best open source content management system to use for which purpose?
  • Where are the suppliers of open source solutions?

As well as many others.

Please do visit the wiki, and make use of the (currently limited) information on there. Even better, register for an account and add or edit some stuff you know about and share it with everyone else!

Web based or desktop?

Just recently, I have stopped using the WordPress inbuilt editor, which runs in the web browser, and have started using MarsEdit – a piece of desktop software I have previously been rather unkind about – to write my blog posts. Since getting a PC, just recently I have continued in this offline blogging vein by using Windows Live Writer.

This started me thinking about the ways I use online services – through web based or desktop applications. As always, the first thing I did was to ask my Twitter buddies:

  • Me: What makes you decide whether to use a web app rather than a desktop one? eg webmail vs client, or google reader vs feedemon or netnewswire?
  • Simon Wakeman: functionality functionality functionality…it depends, I use a mix of each, although my multi-PC multi-site work life lends itself to a cloud-based apps (newsgtr excepted)
  • Nick Booth: experimentation or if someone shows me something I like – then I’ll use it.
  • Matt Kelland: web apps are a last resort for me – only if I need collab access to the data AND I know I will always be online when I need it
  • Kevin Campbell-Wright: I’m with Simon Wakeman
  • Steven Tuck: using desktop for things where I want alerts eg twhirl, feeddeemon and web based for portability google docs, email.
  • Andrew Beekan: Accessibility. When it comes to readers and mail I like to be able to access wherever I am. Docs, I use a mix of Office & Zoho.
  • Michael Grimes: Because I can access them easily from anywhere (with an internet connection).

The answer, it appear, is ‘it depends’.

Let’s have a look at some examples of what I use and where.

Email

I use webmail all the time – Gmail in this case using Apps for your domain. However, I have also set up Apple’s Mail client to download my email through IMAP for backup purposes, which I do roughly once a week. The main advantage of using the client application on my desktop is that it works when I’m not online… but that is rarely the case and my iPhone can be used for emails that just can’t wait. So, I’m happy with webmail. Unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise?

News reading

I started out reading RSS feeds late 2004, using Bloglines (Google Reader didn’t even exist in those days…). Then, as a Windows man, I discovered the wonder that is FeedDemon, a desktop application that really is the Rolls Royce of aggregators. When Google Reader came out (for the second time, the first version was rubbish) I toyed with it for a while before returning to FeedDemon.

When I switched to a Mac, I immediately downloaded NetNewsWire, the equivalent to FeedDemon. Sadly, I found that it just wasn’t the same experience, both in terms of ease of use and features. So, I switched to Google Reader, and that was that.

(It’s worth pointing out that both FeedDemon and NetNewsWire are part of the Newsgator family of RSS products, including the online RSS reader. All three sync together, so you could use NNW on a Mac, FD on a PC and NG at a third machine, and all would be up to date with what you have read and what you haven’t. Pretty neat.)

I really got into some of the features of Reader, like sharing items, with and without comments, which get automatically re-reported in FriendFeed. I also have got used to using Google Gears to download an offline copy of my feeds to read on the train. So, am also a web-based man when it comes to RSS. I have, though, just reloaded my latest subscription list into NetNewsWire to give it another go – along with the iPhone app and the fact that I now have a PC with FeedDemon on it – which could convince me to switch back…possibly.

Blog writing

A quicky this as I seem to write about it so much – I prefer writing blog posts offline. It’s irrational in these days of always-on broadband, but I feel rushed using the built in WordPress editor. There’s more on this topic here. On a Mac, the only sensible choice of offline editor is MarsEdit, whose lack of rich text editing is, frankly, a strength. The only time I use the built in editor these days is when I am using a different machine to my MacBook, or if I need to use a lot of bullet points (which are a bit annoying to do in MarsEdit).

Twitter

I use a client for TwitterTwhirl. Others may rant on about the benefits of others, like Tweetdeck (which is big and ugly and horrible in my view) but I have found Twhirl seems to do stuff just the way I’d expect and like it to. Which is more than can be said for the Twitter web interface, on the homepage. The brightest thing Twitter ever did was to outsource its UI, if the website is anything to go by…

Word processing

See blog posting. I just like typing into a desktop app more than a box on a web page. Even when the document I am writing needs to be shared, I’d still rather type it locally first, then upload to Google Docs or whatever. What are your thoughts on the online/offline decision? I’m clearly pretty confused about which I prefer and when!

Which do you prefer – doing everything in the browser, on the desktop or a bit of both?

Vista, innit

I have just got my new Vista PC up and running. When I announced that I was going to buy such a thing in my Facebook status, it caused something of a reaction:

facebook-vista

Since getting it set up, I have had enormous fun finding and installing all the little bits of software that I want to make things work as close as I can get to how I like them. This included:

Using Chrome has been interesting – it is the first time I have had a proper play with it. It certainly seems quicker than Firefox, which has never been lightening quick. However, after this brief honeymoon period I’ll probably go back to FF if only because of those extensions which make life so much easier.

I’m pleased to see that Windows Live Writer now comes preinstalled with Vista – guess this is part of Service Pack 1? Anyway, WLW is the best bit of desktop blogging software there is. MarsEdit had become my tool of choice on Mac, but it doesn’t have the features or power of WLW. Another software improvement on what is available for Mac is FeedDemon, which is just an awesome RSS aggregator.

Of course, this being Vista, it hasn’t all been fun and games. I ran into several problems when trying to install stuff, with errors popping up about DLLs and that sort of nonsense. A quick Google sorted them out, but of course it isn’t necessary on a Mac…

My reasons for buying a PC is a slightly stupid one: I just felt slightly exposed not having one! With most of the work I do being with government, which is of course hugely dominated by Windows, I always had the fear that not being on the same platform might trip me up at some point. It hasn’t really so far, but I can’t help but think that having a native copy of Internet Explorer to test stuff on has to be a good thing.

The other advantage of buying a PC is that it was pretty cheap: £350 for a desktop box with 6gb RAM and a 500gb hard disk, and a 2.2 ghz processor (whatever that means). Even running Vista Home Premium, it seems to work pretty swiftly.

This PC isn’t going to be my machine of choice – that remains my Mac – but it’s nice to have around, not least just to be able to try new, different stuff.

5 Blogger tools for Mac

Whilst technically all you need is a blog and a browser to start blogging, there are some other bits of software you can use that make your life a little easier.

Here’s a list of options for Mac users:

1. Skitch

Easily my number one choice, this is a phenomenally useful tool, which I don’t think is available on any other platform.

Skitch is simply a tool that lets you take snapshots of what is on your screen. Sounds pretty unremarkable, but Skitch does some cool stuff:

  • It lets you copy just a small portion of the screen by selecting with a cross-hair
  • It lets you do some simple editing within the application, so you don’t have to load up a ‘proper’ graphics package
  • You can save your image by just dragging it onto the desktop
  • You can post it straight to your Flickr account, a skitch hosted page or your own web host via FTP with a click of a button

For getting image snapshots quickly onto the web, it’s brilliant. And free.

2. Transmit

Transmit is a solid, well performing Mac FTP client. Why use one? Well, if you have a self-hosted WordPress blog, say, you need to upload plugins, themes and that kind of thing to your web host. And when it comes to upgrade time, having a solid FTP client is good for the blood pressure!

Transmit costs a few pennies, but is jolly reliable and so worth the investment.

3. NetNewsWire

NetNewsWire is a desktop based RSS aggregator. I used this for a long while before being won over by the advantages of Google Reader. Others still swear by this though, especially now it has its own iPhone app.

4. MarsEdit

I rather bemoaned the state of the Mac desktop blogging client in a recent post, but since then I have been giving MarsEdit another go. The main issue for me is the lack of a rich text editor, which is good for speed but not awfully user friendly.

Again, it costs a couple of quid but is worth giving a go, especially if you use NetNewsWire with which it integrates rather well.

5. TextWrangler

Sometimes you just need to edit text, and don’t want to mess about. TextWrangler comes from the same people that make the legendary Mac text editor BBedit, which is rather pricey but feature rich. TextWrangler is BBedit’s freebie little brother, and let’s you load up text, html, php or css files and edit them to your heart’s content.

What are your favourite blogging tools? Would anyone like to see a Windows version of this list?

Software Freedom Day

Next Saturday (September 20th) is Software Freedom Day:

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Our goal in this celebration is to educate the worldwide public about of the benefits of using high quality FOSS in education, in government, at home, and in business — in short, everywhere!

There are various get togethers happening around the world to celebrate – here are all the UK ones. If you’d like to know more about free software, this video from Stephen Fry is a pretty nice start:

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Other things you might like to do include tracking down your local Linux User Group – who can help and advise you on any issues you are having – and actually installing some open source software on your computer. Here’s some quick suggestions:

How else could you support or celebrate software freedom day?