Tag Archives: web apps

Compute Easily and Cheaply With Cloudy, Free Software Alternatives

My computer was getting a little long in the tooth, so when Windows 7 was released, I decided to buy a new one.  I also decided, following my earlier move to Google Apps, to create my application toolbox with as many cloud applications and free software alternatives as reasonably possible.  Here’s what I did, for those who want to simplify their computer toolbox and put some extra money in their pockets.

The Computer

image I bought an HP Pavilion Elite e9280t.  I’ve had good luck with HP computers, both laptops and desktops, so I decided to stay with what was working.  Plus, it seems to me that you get more bang for your buck from HP than other PC makers.  I went with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional, because it will give the computer a longer lifespan and I’ve only rarely had problems getting my software and hardware to work under the 64-bit versions.  I also bought 9GB of RAM, because I do a fair amount of video editing and music mixing and the extra memory will make the computer faster at that sort of resource intensive activity.

When the computer arrived, the first thing I did was to remove the bloatware.  HP has gotten a lot better about bloatware, but there is still some clean up required.  I would rather bathe in computer viruses than use anything Symantec/Norton related, so I immediately uninstalled Norton Internet Security and Norton Online Backup.  Rather, I’ll use the free Microsoft Security Essentials and my HP MediaSmart server.  I was a beta tester for Microsoft Security Essentials, and I think it works very well.  Plus, it’s free.  I deleted the screen litter for eBay (which I use, but I don’t need a shortcut on my desktop), and the various online services.  Finally, I deleted all those HP games.  It’s absurd that HP makes you manually check every one separately during the uninstall process.  I interpret that to mean that some of these game developers are paying HP to pre-install this junk.  Regardless, they’re gone.

My Data

Next, I copied over the data I need from my old computer, via an HP Personal Media Drive.  Photos, MP3s, videos, in process song mixes, and some, but not all, of decades worth of Word files I have accumulated.  My new documents are created via Google Docs, but I have some old documents I want to save, just in case.  I like the Libraries feature in Windows 7, which basically lets you use multiple folders for your music, photos, etc.

I saved my old Outlook emails, now uploaded to Gmail, as PST files, and copied them to my new computer’s “Old Files” Library, just in case.

Software and Applications

Now for the fun part.  Here’s what I elected to use in lieu of software I used to pay for.

My first download, of course, was Firefox.  A quick install of Xmarks allowed me to import my bookmarks.  I’m trying to go relatively light on add-ons.  So far I have installed the mandatory Adblock Plus, Better Gmail 2, PhotoBucket Uploader, Read it Later and Xmarks.  All of the foregoing are free.

No more Microsoft Office.  I now use Google Apps (the “standard” or free version) for my email, calendar and documents.  The Gmail interface, with (but not without) Better Gmail 2 is an excellent email application.  Google Calendar is far superior to the Outlook calendar.  And of course, I can now access all of my data from almost anywhere.  And, again, for free.

For my task list, I use Remember the Milk.  It works flawlessly within Gmail and Google calendar via a gadget.  I have a premium account, but there is a free version.

Next, I installed my beloved Windows Live Writer, for blog posts.  Yep, free.

In lieu of the bloated Nero, I installed CDBurnerXP.  It works great, and it costs nada.

For photo management, I couldn’t decide between Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery.  So installed both.  Both are free.

Photo editing may be a challenge.  I use Picnik for basic (read easy) photo editing.  I may try Gimp as a Photoshop replacement, but I am a long-time Photoshop user, and I have a license already.  So at the end of the day the one expensive software program that finds its way only my computer may be Photoshop.  We’ll see.  If anyone has a recommendation, please send it along via a Comment.

For video editing, I installed Windows Live Movie Maker.  I’m a long-time Ulead VideoStudio fan.  Corel bought it, though, so it’s only a matter of time until it dies a painful, bloated death.  Since I have a license for the current version (VSX2), I may install it on my new computer.  I doubt, however, that I’ll buy any upgrades.  Hopefully, Windows Live Movie Maker or some other free or open source program will work for the long haul.  If anyone has a recommend
at
ion, please send it along via a Comment.

image Of course, I installed Evernote.  I am a huge Evernote fan, but the developers’ failure to add folders- or to even respond to my repeated inquiries about the possibility- are dampening my devotion.  Either they need to listen to my good advice or I need to move on.  Let me take a moment to digress.  I have written about issues with HP and Microsoft products in blog posts, and been contacted within hours with offers of help or information.  I have written to Evernote at least twice and asked about the plans, or lack thereof, for folders, and have never received a reply.  That is simply bad customer management.  For now, there are no better alternatives, but at some point there may be.   We’ll see, but for now, Evernote remains one of my most used apps.

For FTP, I use FileZilla, which is free and superior to every paid app I have ever tried.

For radio, I use Pandora and Slacker Radio.

Web site development and HTML editing proved to be a problem.  I installed the free and wonderful Notepad++, which is great for text editing.  I read good things about WYSIWYG editor KompoZer, but I hated the way it reformatted the text in my HTML files when I opened them.  I uninstalled it immediately.  I may not need a WYSIWYG editor, but if I do, I don’t know of a free and powerful option.

The Cloud

For backups and large data storage and redundancy, I use my HP MediaSmart server.  While I was immensely frustrated with my old server, the newer models have more memory and a much better GUI.  I love the media collector feature, that automatically grabs media files from the various network computers, backs them up and allows network access to them.  While I have not done it, you can easily configure your server to allow remote access over the internet.  There’s even an iPhone app.

image For general cloud cover, I use Dropbox for most of my needs.  I also have a Box.Net and a DivShare account that I use from time to time.  If today’s Google news is any indication, all of our cloud needs may eventually float over to Google.  I want GDrive and I want it bad.

For online photos, I use Flickr for my family photos, etc., PhotoBucket for other image files I want to save, and Picasa for reference-related graphics (e.g., maps, reference cards, etc.).  For online videos, I use YouTube, Qik and Vimeo.  All are free, though I pay for a Vimeo premium account so I can upload larger, HD videos.

And of course, I share certain things with friends via Facebook and Twitter.  Both free.

The Result

I have a lean, mean new computer with mostly free, web accessible, organized applications.  It feels really good- and the change in my pocket jingles when I surf.

Going All In With Google Apps

googleappslogo

Why I did, and why you should.

Over the last year or so, my resistance to the Borg-like inevitability of Google has proven futile, as I have moved more and more of my online life into Google applications.  First, I started using Google Reader to manage and access my RSS feeds.  I have always used Gmail as a spam filter and a means to access my Newsome.Org email online and via my iPhone.  I have used Google Docs for podcast and church-related stuff.

But a couple of weeks ago, I went all in.

The cost of upgrading Microsoft Office, my pending move to Windows 7 via a new HP Computer that is frustratingly delayed, and the convenience of one-stop, online accessible apps got me thinking about moving me and my entire family to Google Apps.  I took the plunge, and boy am I glad I did.  There are some gaping holes in the Google Apps experience (more on that below), but there are also many elegant, useful features that I wasn’t aware of until I started to enjoy them.

Making the Move

I have used my Newsome.Org email address, on a dedicated server, for many, many years.  I knew changing to a Gmail address was not an option.  I wanted to keep my email address, as well as my massive set of personal folders and all the emails and data therein.  So the only- and best- option was to move my Newsome.Org email services to Google Apps.  Additionally, the move to Google Apps allows you to create a custom calendar site (e.g., calendar.yourdomain.com), a custom Google Docs site (e.g., docs.yourdomain.com), a shared Contacts site (e.g., contacts.yourdomain.com) and more.

Best of all, it’s free.

And, believe it or not, really easy.

Rather than recreate the wheel here, I’ll direct you to Mark O’Neill’s excellent walk-through.  Changing the MX records for my domain was really easy via Network Solutions’ Domains Management page (don’t forget the period at the end of the hostnames ).

And unlike in years past, the changes propagate pretty fast, sometimes within minutes.  After I had my mail page set up, I used a similar process to create CName records for my calendar, contacts, Google Docs, and even a short links (Google Short Links) and discussion board (Google Moderator) service.

Note than none of this affects your web site, as you do not modify the www, @none or *(all others) settings.  Any host (e.g., www) other than the ones you specifically change as set forth above will continue to point to their current locations.

After maybe an hour’s work, I had dedicated, Newsome.Org-branded and web accessible email, calendar, documents and contacts pages for myself and my entire family.

Email

The first thing I did was to create and upload a Newsome.Org Web Apps logo (see above and below) and customize a theme to match the Newsome.Org color scheme.  One annoyance that Google should address is that your custom theme only applies to Gmail.  There should be a way to cause your theme or custom color scheme to apply across all the various apps.  The custom logo appears in all the Google Apps.

As a Firefox user, the next thing I did was install the most excellent Better Gmail add-on.  Among many other indispensible features, this add-on lets you create labels- Gmail’s folder-substitute- in a nested tree structure, like folders and sub-folders.  Since I want to keep my Outlook personal folders, this was a huge help.  It also allows you to hide the Chat box and other screen wasting stuff.  Then I used Google’s Gmail Uploader app to upload my 10 or so years worth of personal folders.  I was worried that 10 years of emails would use most of my allocated 7 GB of storage, but happily it only took 472 MB!  In a few minutes, I had recreated my personal folders, as well as the primary labels (e.g., folders) I use for email and efficiency management.

Note how the Archive Songs folder expands when I click on it.  I also added POP access or forward rules (on those third party email apps, like Yahoo, that don’t allow free POP access) to capture my old AOL, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo email.  I have a filter set up to archive (e.g., move from my Inbox to the designated folder) that third party email as it arrived.

Next, I went to the Settings tab and added Quick Links (a way to create and save email searches, such as Unread or ones with certain attachments), the Google Calendar gadget, the Remember the Milk gadget (via the Add Any Gadget by URL feature under the Labs tab), and the Google Docs gadget.  Now, I can access everything I need.

Note how elegantly the calendar is incorporated into the Gmail sidebar.  I mentioned above that there are a lot of unexpected features.  One great example is that when you get an email with an address in it, a link to a Google Map appears.  Little things like that make the online world go around.

Calendar

I also moved my calendar to Google Calendar.  Via the Settings tab, I added some gadgets (World Clock and Jump to Date).  I gave and got access to Raina’s calendar, and I added US holidays, weather and phases of the moon.

In order to create a centralized calendar, I synch my Office calendar with my Google Calendar via Google Calendar Synch.

Via the Settings tab, you can configure Google calendar to email you an agenda each morning and to notify you via text message and/or email prior to each calendar event.  Again, this sort of small, but immensely helpful, feature is what makes these apps so compelling.

Documents

I uploaded my personal letterhead, a few forms I use a lot and some other key documents to my new, Newsome.Org-branded Google Docs page.

image

Google Docs is probably the weakest link in the application group, if only because word processing is so important in the business world.  Tables and complex formatting in Word documents can be lost on the upload.  And the addition of a tracked changes feature (or a close equivalent) should be job one for Google if it really wants businesses to use Google Apps.  But, warts and all, Google Docs works well enough for me to dump Microsoft Office.  I can’t believe I just typed that- but it’s true.

I don’t think Google Docs is the best choice for archiving old documents, pdfs, etc. (though implementation of the oft-rumored GDrive would be a welcome addition).  For that I use my other favorite (and free) app- Dropbox (sign up here and we both get extra free space).  I happily pay for the premium 50 GB Dropbox plan, which gives me plenty of space for document archives, etc.

Contacts

As I have noted before, Google Contacts is a train wreck, that should be completely rewritten.  In the meantime, however, consolidation trumps design, and I imported all of my contacts to Google Contacts.

image

Online Utopia?

At the end of the process, my entire family has easy, accessible and efficient email, calendar, documents and contacts, all consolidated and branded.  It works really well.

But it could be better.

The individual apps still seem too much like individual applications tossed together, as opposed to an integrated suite of apps.  The ability to customize the look and feel of the apps should apply uniformly throughout.  Some of the apps, in particular Gmail, need to give us much more control over sidebar content, without the need for browser add-ons.  I don’t want the Chat box, but I do want customized links to my Dropbox and other sites I use a lot.

Google Sites is a really crappy, impossible to use, app.  Google Moderator is only marginally better.

Picasa should be integrated into Google Apps, and certainly Google Voice should be.  I’d like to see Google Reader integrated as well.  There should be a way to create personalized, private and integrated Google Groups.  Google Docs needs either GDrive to launch, or the ability to integrate another online storage service into Google Docs for document storage and retrieval.

In sum, Google Apps aren’t perfect.  But with a tweak here and there, they could be.

Could Mixcloud Be the Holy Grail of Music Apps?

Maybe, if it can just stay in business.

Rather than bore you with a long discussion of what Mixcloud is, I think I’ll just show you.  (Update:  the embed feature doesn’t work at WordPress.com and I have switched to 8tracks.  You can listen to the mix here.)

mcranchocast

That’s right.  An easy, legal way to create and share playlists.

The only tools you need to easily create your own playlists are a free Mixcloud account and a way to combine some MP3s into a single file.  There are lots of options for that, but I use and recommend Merge MP3.  It’s free, easy and installs on a flash drive so you can take it with you.

In less than 15 minutes, I registered, installed Merge MP3, picked 10 songs, combined them and uploaded our first Mixcloud RanchoCast.

Pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Tossing the Disqus

Or how I overcame Disqus and Blogger and by sheer force of will installed the Disqus commenting system on my remotely hosted, FTP published, highly customized Blogger blog template.

disqus

Whew.  OK, listen up ’cause I’m gonna tell you a sad story.

I have been watching Disqus for months, and considering trying to install it here at Newsome.Org.  Since I have a remotely hosted, FTP published, highly customized blog template and a Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (not really, but I’m punch drunk), both one of which I publish via Blogger, it was hard.  Now when I say it was hard, what I mean is that is was really, absolutely, just about impossibly, freaking hard.

So here’s how I did it.  All of this assumes you have registered at Disqus and have an account to use.  If this confuses you, move to Step 2 and skip Steps 1 and 3-7.

Step 1: Unsuccessfully Seek Help

First I tried the various options suggested by the Minimalist-inspired Disqus help pages.  I tried to manually upload my template, which I knew wouldn’t work.  I tried to manually add the code via these instructions.  No go.  I googled around looking for something to show me the way.  Nada.

Next I emailed Disqus to see if there was any other documentation I could look at.  I got a prompt response, telling me I should use a different blog template, thereby simultaneously experiencing both an epic instance of the tail trying to wag the dog as well as another reminder that I’m not as cool as my friend Louis.  I know that, of course, but I generally blame it on age.  Whatever the half-life of cool is, I have to be 2-3 half lives older than him.  If Dave Winer had invented the internet back when I was a young man, I’d be Robert Scoble and Louis Gray combined, baby.  Of course if I’d had the internet as a kid, I’d also be degreeless, homeless and living under a bridge somewhere.  In fact, the only technology we had when I was a kid were tractors and the phone.  And both got me in lots of trouble lots of times.  Generally when I should have been walking those four snowy miles to and from school.  And all that.

Anyway, after respectfully passing on Disqus’s suggestion that I demolish my blog and rebuild it just so I could use their application and pulling my bruised ego together, I got to work.

Step 2: Drink Some Bourbon

Locate a bottle of bourbon.  Open it, take a big gulp.  Place it within easy reach of your keyboard.

Step 3: Add the Standard Disqus Header

Add the standard Disqus header right before the </body> tag:

<!– Begin Disqus Header–>
<script type=”text/javascript”>
//<![CDATA[
(function() {
var links = document.getElementsByTagName(‘a’);
var query = ‘?’;
for(var i = 0; i < links.length; i++) {
if(links[i].href.indexOf(‘#disqus_thread’) >= 0) {
query += ‘url’ + i + ‘=’ + encodeURIComponent(links[i].href) + ‘&’;
}
}
document.write(‘<script charset=”utf-8″ type=”text/javascript” src=”http://disqus.com/forums/myusername/get_num_replies.js&#8217; + query + ‘”></’ +

‘script>’);
})();
//]]>
</script>
<!– End Disqus Header->

Step 4: Create the New Comment Link

Here’s where I had to start figuring stuff out on my own.  I changed the code at the end of the blogPost <div> to:

<$BlogItemBody$>
<div class=”byline”>
Posted by <$BlogItemAuthorNickname$> @ <$BlogItemDateTime$> |
<a href=”<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>”>Permalink</a> |
<a href=”<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>”>Leave Comment</a>

I did it that way so it would show both a Permalink and an obvious “Leave a Comment” link.  Yes, they go to the same place, but I want to make it easy for people to find the place to write a comment.

Step 5: Display the Comment Count

In my “Discuss” links, I changed the code to:

Discuss:
<a class=”comment-link” href=”<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>#disqus_thread”>View Comments</a> |
<BlogItemCommentsEnabled><a class=”comment-link” href=”<$BlogItemPermalinkURL$>#comments”><$BlogItemCommentCount$> Pre-Disqus Comments</a></BlogItemCommentsEnabled> |
<a href=”
http://search.blogger.com/blogsearch?q=link:<$BlogItemPermalinkUrl$>” target=”_blank”>Inbound Links</a>
<br />

The <BlogItemCommentsEnabled>/Pre-Disqus Comments part was required to preserve my existing comments (see Step 6 below).

The only other change was to add the required #disqus_thread after the Permalink URL.

NOTE: This is before the <ItemPage> tag.  I want new commenters to use Disqus.

Step 6: Preserve Your Existing Comments

That got me up and running, with one gigantic problem.  I have lots and lots of existing comments, and inexplicably there doesn’t seem to be a ready-made way to import Blogger comments into Disqus.  Obviously, Disqus should spend some of that mad coin to write one.  I saw some roundabout ways that might work, but they were on the wrong side of the possible benefit – time required – likely result calculation.

So I needed to preserve my existing comments in place.

After some trial and horror, I ended up with this:

<ItemPage>
<BlogItemCommentsEnabled>
<a name=”comments”></a>
<h4><$BlogItemCommentCount$> Comment(s):</h4>

<BlogItemComments>
<a name=”<$BlogCommentNumber$>”></a>

<p class=”comment-body”>
<$BlogCommentBody$>
</p>

<p class=”comment-data”>
By <$BlogCommentAuthor$>, at
<a href=”#<$BlogCommentNumber$>”>
<$BlogCommentDateTime$></a>
<$BlogCommentDeleteIcon$>
<br />
**************************
</p>
</BlogItemCommen
ts
>

</BlogItemCommentsEnabled>
</p>

<div id=”disqus_thread”></div><script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://disqus.com/forums/newsome/embed.js&#8221;></script><noscript><a href=http://myusername.disqus.com/?url=ref>View the discussion thread.</a></noscript>
</div></div>
</ItemPage>

All of that brain damage does three things.  It displays my previous comments (recall the “Pre-Disqus Comments” code I added in Step 5).  It’s not ideal to have two Comments linkcounts, but you need to let people know those previous comments are still in place.  It removes (i.e., doesn’t contain) the code that creates the Blogger “Leave a Comment” link (because I want new commenters to use Disqus).  And it displays the Disqus comment box and comments underneath the previous comments.

NOTE:  All of this is within the <ItemPage> tags, because we only want the comments and the Disqus comment box to appear on the item pages, which are sometimes referred to as post pages.  Or, in the case of uninspired writing, ghost towns.

Step 7: Update Your Blog Via Blogger

After updating my blog, which takes forever (come on Blogger, please get a handle on the disintegrating Blogger/FTP experience), I have Disqus comments, while preserving my previous comments.

If needed, repeat Step 2.

So there you have it.  I hope this is helpful to someone.

Now, why not leave a comment and reward an old, un-cool man’s effort!

How to Make Everything Better: Evernote Edition

There are a lot of cool services and applications on the internet- no doubt about it.  I use a lot of them, and they make my life easier, more organized and more fun.  But they can be better.  And I’m going to tell you how.  This is part 2 of the series.  We’ve already made Google better.

imageI am an everyday user of Evernote, a web service and software application that lets users collect, organize and access notes and information.  I gladly pay $45 a year for the Premium version and have written about Evernote extensively.  My affection for it is well known.  But not unlimited.

There is one feature Evernote absolutely must add, and several that it should add.

Let’s start at the top.

Folders.  Why in the name of Elvis, Jesus and Coca Cola won’t the Evernote developers add the ability to group your notebooks in folders!?  This is a mind boggling omission.  And don’t talk to me about tags.  Tags are poor man’s folder, but why do we have to settle for that?  It does not have to be an either/or equation- we should have both.  The fact that I can’t organize my rapidly expanding number of notebooks into folders is a nagging irritation that simply should not exist.

If you have a few notebooks, you probably don’t miss folders.  If you have been conditioned to dutifully tag everything you add so you can pull the right sock from the laundry pile, good for you.  But if you are a power user, you need folders.  Or at least the ability to have them.

I have teens and teens of notebooks.  For work, home, family, tech, this blog, songwriting, and everything in between.  I want 5-6 top level folders, with subfolders underneath.  If you, like me and 99% of the rest of the computer using world, are coming from the land of Microsoft where folders are abundant, the lack of folders is a real drag.  A big, stinking, unnecessary and annoying drag.

Thus, the Evernote developers should stop all other projects and devote all of their time to implementing folders.  In fact, here’s a deal:  I’ll buy 5 Evernote Premium 1-year subscriptions and give them away to Newsome.Org readers if Evernote adds folders by Thanksgiving.  How’s that for putting my money where my feature request is?  Want to win a free Evernote subscription? Email Evernote (via this page) and demand folders.  Tell ‘em Kent Newsome sent you.  Tell them we won’t rest until this wrong is righted.  Give us folders or give us OneNote.  And all that.

After we win that battle, there are a few more improvements to put on the to do list.  Oh, like a full featured “to do” list function, with email reminders.  While a “to do” list is a little different from a standard notebook, it would be intuitive and convenient to manage your to do list within Evernote.  Currently, you can manually create a to-do list, but it would be much better to have ready made “to do” list functions built in.  With that, we’ll need a calendar.  It doesn’t have to be a Google Calendar equivalent; it would be fine if it just showed your upcoming “to do” deadlines.  Or perhaps a Google Calendar widget that would show your Google Calendar in a side bar, with the ability to automatically add “to do” deadlines to your Google Calendar.

You can currently drag notes from one notebook to another.  What you can’t do is change the order of notes within a notebook.  We need to ability to drag notes both between and within notebooks.

The Evernote desktop software is elegant and, except for the aforementioned lack of folders, almost perfect.

image_3

The web version, while completely functional, is not as elegant.  It would be better if the web version looked, felt and operated identically to the desktop version.  This is not a huge issue, since I have Evernote’s desktop application on all my computers, but it would be nice.

image_4

The Evernote Web Clipper makes it easy to grab all or part of your screen and send it to Evernote.  I want the clipper to be more robust, with the ability to edit and annotate the clip before sending it.  One mandatory improvement: all web clips should go to your default notebook (“Inbox” in my case) rather than the most recently accessed folder.  Emailed content works that way already, so it should be easy to have clips work the same way.

From within notes, I’d like the ability to right-click on photos, PDFs and similar files and send them to destinations (i.e., PhotoBucket) with a single click.  Perhaps Evernote could facilitate third party created plug-ins to do this sort of thing.

The Evernote iPhone app is well designed and allows easy access to your data.  Like the desktop and web applications, however, it needs folders.  Screen space is limited on a phone, and it would be helpful to group your notebooks in folders to allow faster navigation and retrieval.

photo (11)

Now let’s dream for a moment.

If the Evernote developers wanted to send Evernote into another plane of awesome, how about the ability to embed all kinds of media in a note?  Zoho Notebook, a fine application in its own right, has allowed this for a long time.  Imagine the ability to embed, access and play YouTube videos, audio files and the like- from within a notebook.  Below is a test notebook I created months ago in Zoho.

image_5

I’m not holding my breath for this to happen, but to paraphrase David Wooderson, it’d be a lot cooler if it did.

What I very much want (in case you can’t tell) are folders.  Folders, folder, folders.  So Evernote- get to work.

Create a Free Graffiti Wall in 5 Seconds

Do you feel cramped by Facebook‘s enclosed and neatly ordered wall?  Is Twitter‘s wall of self-promotion getting you down?

If so, you’re in luck.  Thanks to YourWorldOfText.com, a Google App Engine based site, you can now create your own wall, right out here in the big, scary internet.  Updates are visible in real time.

All you have to do is add a page name after http://www.yourworldoftext.com.  Here’s one I made.

worldoftext
click for larger view

I have no idea what this is good for, and I can imagine things getting chaotic fast.  But it’s still kinda cool.

(via Google Blogoscoped)

How to Make Everything Better: Google Edition

There are a lot of cool services and applications on the internet- no doubt about it.  I use a lot of them, and they make my life easier, more organized and more fun.  But they can be better.  And I’m going to tell you how.  Starting right now.

I’m going to improve the various services and applications I use, one or two at a time.  Starting at the top, with Google.

googleI have capitulated to Google and have moved a lot of my information and data to the various Google apps.  Most of them work very well, though it was a mistake to abandon Google Notes, since a full featured application suite needs a note taking app.  So Google improvement number one is to bring back Google Notebook with a commitment, or better yet buy Evernote.

Google Calendar is very elegant, and the sync app works well.  I have generally moved my personal calendar to Google Calendar.  I wish there was a better, more flexible way to sync multiple calendars, so I could sync my Outlook calendar at home and at work with Google Calendar.  Much of the business population that Google covets has this issue, and Google could make great inroads with that population by making it easier to sync multiple calendars, without the soul crushing multiple (upon multiple, in some cases) event problem that many of us have experienced.

While Google Calendar is elegant and works, Google Contacts is an absolute train wreck.  It looks like something that was tossed in as an afterthought.  But people need a central contacts application just as much as they need a calendar.  Google needs to put 10 or 20 of its best people in a room for a week (or however long it takes) and tell them to completely rewrite Google Contacts, including a way to sync contacts along with calendars.

Some will point to Google’s exchange-based sync option, which works reasonably well.  The fatal flaw in that approach is that the much-desired business population uses Exchange to access their work email and, as we all lament, you can only configure one Exchange sync.  So Google needs to create a way to do the same thing via desktop applications.  And while they’re at it, add the ability to sync email via the exchange-based sync.  Currently, only contacts and calendar are supported.

The easiest and perhaps most needed improvement is to make the various Google apps more integrated.  Google has made strides in this area, but too many of the apps still look and act like separate programs.  They should look, feel and act integrated.  One giant, easy step would be to give the user more control over the links at the top of the various Google app pages.  Why can’t I add Contacts, Google Voice, Google Maps, Tasks and even custom links to other sites (like Flickr) to this list?

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Google needs to give the user more control to create a personal control center, from which the user can easily access the things the user needs- not just the stuff Google thinks we might need.

I’m slowly learning to like, if not yet love, Gmail, and I’m not going to preach again about Gmail folders, though folders should be implemented, at least as an option.  Another mandatory thing Gmail needs is a one click way to backup all of your Gmail on your hard drive or to the cloud location of your choice.  With the backed up data to be searchable, perhaps via Google desktop search.  Also, while the ability to use a third party mail server to avoid the annoying “on behalf of” confusion is wonderful, Google should not limit the ports you can use to do that.  For various reasons, some people have to use another port to access their mail server.  Google should accommodate this.

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The port choices above are limited to 587, 465 and 25

I use Google Reader more than any other Google app.  It works great, with one small annoyance that, like dripping water, can drive you mad over time.  Google badly needs to figure out a way to speed up the process of marking a group of items as read.  There is a small but aggravating delay between clicking the “Mark all as read” button and the moment the applicable items disappear.  I don’t care how much of my computer resources it takes, I want that action to be instantaneous.  I’m talking speed of light fast.  That one little thing would vastly improve the quality of my online life.

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Google Documents is very close to becoming a legitimate alternative to Microsoft Office.  I have migrated my wife and kids to Google Documents, and I’d like to migrate there too.  But for me- or any other corporate user- to have the option to use Google Documents full time, Google must implement a way to show document edits in a track changes compatible manner.  If someone sends me a document, I simply must have the ability to edit the document and send it back with my changes apparent.  Google Documents has a way to view versions and edits (Tools>Revision history), but the compare feature is not elegant and there’s no way to send a document with revisions marked that can then be accepted or rejected by the recipient.  Sure, it would be nice- for Google- if everyone collaborated online via Google Documents, but that is never going to happen.  If Google really wants business users, it is going to have to come up with a workable, emailable, track changes equivalent.

That’s enough to keep Google busy for a while.

Coming up next: Evernote