Kirvin on Writing

The journey of a reluctant writer

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Google Planner

The PDA is dead.

No, really, hear me out. I use my Treo every day, for eReader, podcasts, RSS, email and of course as a phone. But I don't use it as a planner anymore. Instead, I've moved everything to Google.

Instead the calendar in my Treo, I use Google Calendar. If you haven't tried this yet, it's an amazing bit of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML, the same language in which Gmail is written) coding. The interface is slick and simple, belying a surprising amount of power and flexibility. I exported all of my appointments out of Outlook and then imported them into Google Calendar. Not only do I have a nice browser-based interface when I'm sitting at one of my desks, but it integrates cleverly with my phone, as well.

If you live in the US, you can register your phone number with your Google Calendar and then interact with your calendar via SMS. If you want to see your schedule for today, text "day" to GVENT (48368) and it will send you back a text message with your agenda. For tomorrow's agenda, text "nday" to GVENT. Want to know what's up next on your schedule? Text "next" to GVENT. You get the idea. But you can also create new appointments via SMS.

Google Calendar supports a feature called Quick Add, which allows you to create appointments via natural language. For example, I can click the Quick Add box in Google Calendar and type "Lunch with Bill Tuesday 2pm" and it will create an appointment for me the following Tuesday at 2:00 pm called "Lunch with Bill". This also works via SMS. If I had texted "Maximum Geek Tuesday 7pm" to GVENT, it would create the appointment for me and then text me back a confirmation.

I use SMS primarily to create appointments because I use alarms to remind me. I have Google Calendar set to send me a SMS message ten minutes prior to each appointment by default, although I can change this for individual appointments at the web interface. The only downside to this compared to alarms in the Palm Calendar is that they don't snooze or repeat. Small price to pay for never having to sync anything ever.

One last thing about Google Calendar. While this kind of SMS interaction will work with just about any phone, I particularly like it on the Treo for two reasons. One, adding appointments is much more palatable with a QWERTY keyboard. But more importantly, the Treo threads conversations in SMS. This means that all of my appointment commands and reminders and confirmations with GVENT are grouped into a single IM-chat-like conversation. It really looks and feels like I'm talking to my own digital administrative assistant (PDAA?).

Okay, so that covers calendaring, and obviously I have all my contacts in Gmail. But what about tasks and memos?

I rarely use tasks anymore, frankly, so I'm not so concerned about them. If I have something that I absolutely must do on a specific day, I create an untimed event in Google Calendar for it. If it's more free-form but still something I must not forget, I'll send myself an email about it and then star it in Gmail so it stays on my radar.

Sending myself email is a big part of my system, especially when it comes to notes and reference material. Gmail is nearly perfect for this sort of knowledge archiving.

In addition to archiving all of my incoming and outgoing email and all of my IM chats on Google Talk, I frequently Gmail things to myself for future reference. For example, if I find an interesting article online that relates to a story I have in mind, I'll send it to myself and label it appropriately before archiving it. I like that unlike categories on the Palm, emails in Gmail can have multiple labels. I can assign these any way I like, and quickly see everything on a single topic in one place. I have labels for projects (Unification Chronicles, Yellowstone, Kirvin On Writing), labels for groups or activities (WOYP, NaNoWriMo) and labels for things I'm not going to do anything at all about just now but want to refer back to at a later date (Reserve, which is where I keep story ideas and background for stuff I'm not writing currently).

I also use search a great deal. After all, this is Google. For example, I used to have a memo on my Palm with all of my software registration codes in it so if I installed something I could have the registration code right at hand. Now I have that in an email I sent to myself and if I search Gmail for the name of the software, the code pops right up.

Again, this is made practical for use on the go by Google's mobile systems. On my Treo, I have a SharkLink set up to and have that mapped to the email button on my Treo. Google's mobile version of Gmail shows up when I press the hard button and the search box is right there for me to start typing. The interface is quick and clean, and displays wonderfully in Blazer on my Treo. And more to the point, I'm not only searching the stuff I had in Memos on my Treo, I'm searching four years and 493MB worth of email as well.

I've also ditched Daynotez and the journaling in Agendus in favor of using Gmail for my journals. I write up an email with Journal as the subject and send it to myself. I have a filter set up in Gmail that then takes any email from me called Journal and does the following: it archives it so it doesn't sit in my inbox and it applies the label "Journal" to it. My journal entries stay out of my way, but they're both searchable and browsable all in one place.

Last, I've started using Gmail for document versioning and storage. For example, when I started on this article I knew I couldn't finish it in one sitting, so I saved it as Google Planner.docx on my desktop. Then I sent myself an email with Google Planner as the subject and the .docx file attached. I starred this in Gmail and archived it, then deleted the original from my desktop. Later in the day when I had time to work on it again I went into my starred items in Gmail, saved the .docx file to my desktop and worked on it some more. Then I saved it, replied to the original message with a brief summary of what I added in the body of the message, attached the updated file and sent it, then deleted the desktop copy again. I can repeat this process at home or at work as many times as necessary until I finish the article, and I don't have to worry about where my most recent copy is. It's always in Gmail, always accessible. As are all my previous drafts and a record of what I changed and when, in case I want to refer back to something.

Gmail's constantly increasing storage and ubiquitous search makes it an ideal system for storing information. I don't worry about not being able to find anything, I spend essentially no time on my "filing system" and while it's not an issue for me currently (I have cable at home, a T1 at work and a smartphone, so I'm never "offline"), Google Desktop does provide a mirror of your Gmail store for offline use.

Next, now that I've explained how I use Google for everything, we'll look at how I "trick out" the most important application on my PC.


  • At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Alan Grassia said…

    You know, just because of who I am, and my addiction to mobile tech, I have to disagree with your first sentence. But you do have a point, being able to access your data from any device, at anytime, from anywhere is very powerful as only as the safeguards are in place to protect individual's right to privacy.

    Hmmm, I must either be a "Dad", or I'm going Democrat. I guess I'm just being a Dad.

  • At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Greg Chamberlin said…


    Along the same line of doing everything in a web based environment, have you looked at, recently acquited by Google. Throw in the Google spreadsheet (once it gets a little more ready for primetime) and Google Notebook, and its starting to look like a web based office suite.


  • At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Alan Grassia said…

    Not only is Google assembling a web-based office productivity suite, but they are challenging the very nature of how we use software.

    Today, you have to buy a license to use a software package. Tomorrow, you won't actually "buy" anything. You'll end up "renting" or "borrowing" software when you need it.

    Once this software as a service shift begins to pick up steam again, we'll see application service provides (ASPs) start to come back into vogue.

    The big change is that you will pay either a monthly rate or a fee based on some metered usage of an applicaiton. Wanna write a letter? Login to Microsoft's Office Portal and use work - after you enter your credit card number. Google has been really good about the use of their applications, but most of their software is still in "beta". Before we start singing the praises of Google, let's wait and see what kind of charge we'll be looking at and how it will compair to the cost of software from Microsoft.

  • At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Awesome post, Jeff. You should be a tech writer at the New York Times or even La Monde. Do you speak French?

  • At 12:30 PM, Blogger Jeff said…

    Non, je pas Français de speack. Merci.

    (translation provided by

    Even though I know Google is dropping the dime on me to the feds, the convenience of this system far outweighs the chance that the NSA really wants to read my journal. And besides, since the "Patriot" Act allows for "sneak and peek" searchs, it's not like I could stop them anyway.

    Writely is interesting, but it's certainly no Word 2007. Just as Google Spreadsheet is no Excel. I'll stick to Microsoft for now for my tools, although once Writely and GSpreadsheet support Open XML formats they'll be great for ad hoc work on the road. (I'm not a laptop person.)

    While Microsoft is looking into pay-per-use software, I doubt Google will go down that road. They're ultimately about ad revenue and I bet that GCal, GSS and Writely will be supported by targeted text ads like like Gmail eventually.

  • At 5:12 PM, Anonymous Alan Grassia said…

    I do have to say that the ads in gmail are very reasonable and really don't get in the way. To that extent, Google really does stand behind their 'do no harm' logo.

  • At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Nick said…

    "Non, je pas Français de speack"

    I would not be so pround of using google tools as blindly as you do. The translation you wrote above is wrong. ("Non, je ne parlais pas Français" would be the correct one).

    You most likely mispelled the word "speak" and for this you got the wrong translation. That happens. But don't put all your trust on Google. They are smart, but not enough "yet" to correct your mistakes. That is what make us different from computers (and coincidentally that is what J. Hawkins is trying to understand...).


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