Thursday, July 31, 2008

Banner day for Notemarking

Today was a pretty big news day for notetaking and bookmarking applications. Unfortunately, my real job is demanding quite a bit of my time. Though each of today’s developments deserve their own post, I’m not going to be able to provide that kind of coverage until the weekend. Still, here’s a quick run down of the day’s big news:

  1. Delicious 2.0 finally launched. The Delicious announcement included this nicely done video that summarizes site’s astounding visual refresh. As Delicious.com’s announcement promised, the redesign delivers more than just a new name and a pretty face. It’s noticeably faster, and search is much improved. I’m disappointed the changes don’t include the more robust tag management features I was anticipating. And Matthew Ingram caused a stir when he wondered, “who bookmarks anymore?” A whole lot of people responded, “I DO!” One reason why is that bloggers and social media types are increasingly using the bookmarking site as a quick, low-friction publishing tool, that works well both for blogs and aggregators like FriendFeed and Tumblr. That being so, I was surprised that one very useful change seemed to get lost amidst all the hype and hoopla.
  2. Evernote continues to improve. Evernote released some significant updates for their Web-based and Windows editions. Chief among them is the addition of rich text editing to the Web-based Evernote. This is something that should have been there at launch, but adding it helps close the gap somewhat with Google Notebook. Still, I can’t dig Web Evernote’s visual thumbnail approach to organizing my notes. Evernote’s multi-platform approach and flawless synchronization are strong features, but Google Notebook still organizes text better than Evernote. And my notes are all about text.
  3. Lifehacker’s Five Best Notetaking Tools. The venerable productivity blog, with input from its readers, tags Evernote, OneNote, and Google Notebook among the best options for taking notes. My vote is here.
  4. SocialMedian launches. Louis Gray is pretty complimentary in his remarks about the company’s public beta launch. I joined this morning, and I’m impressed, too. At first blush, the ability to set up your own “news networks” might seem a like the “roll-your-own Digg” features offered by both Reddit and Mixx. But Social Median is a bit smarter than that. As Gray puts it, “SocialMedian is best described as an amalgamation of pieces from FriendFeed, Digg and Del.icio.us. Like in each service, you can bookmark external items, and share them with friends.” I created my own network for CloudNotes because I’ve been looking for a way to share all the Notemarking stories I’m simply too busy to cover. Yes, I’ve got my Google Notebook and Google Reader pages for Cloudnotes, but I’m thinking SocialMedian might be a more elegant solution.

Damn. This took longer than I thought. I’ll have more this weekend. Thank you for reading. :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lifehacker still thinks Delicious is yummy

Following Mike Arrington’s most recent “Delicious 2.0 is about to launch!” post there were a few comments along the lines of: “WHo the hell cares about Delicious 2, 3 or 4?” and “Wow, people still use delicious?” But there were many more comments like this one that perfectly captures my thinking on the subject:

Knock delicious all you want. It is still my favourite bookmarking tool because it is so lightweight and non-obtrusive. I’m keen to see the next version but I do not truthfully care. I will always choose any tool that provides the most value for me (and right now, delicious is it). I’ve been keeping my eye on other services and products — but I crave the simplicity of delicious.

Today, Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani added another vote of confidence. In a Macworld article, the Lifehacker editor revealed the Webapps her team uses for their Virtual Office:

With a social-bookmarking service like del.icio.us, co-workers can share bookmarks with each other using tags. Finding and sharing good Web links is what we do. So finding a way to share new links—without interrupting the entire team with an e-mail or IM every time we come across a good one—is crucial. Instead, we save it in the social bookmarking service del.icio.us. (Lifehacker’s publishing company, Gawker Media, uses social bookmarking service Wists to do the same thing.)

Whenever one of us finds something that’s relevant on the Web, we add it to del.icio.us with a unique in-house tag. The rest of us subscribe to that tag’s RSS feed, so we can peruse the recommended links at our leisure from our newsreaders. In essence, the bookmark tag acts as a low-overhead company blog. We also use the site’s for: tag—any bookmark that I tag with for:ginatrapani will show up in my Links For You area.

Now, I’m pretty confident that Delicious is the best bookmarker out there. Of course, I don’t know everything (for example, I’d never heard of Wists). But if there were a better bookmarking service out there, I expect the smart folks at Lifehacker would have found it.

Google recreates Bookmarks in Notebook’s image

According to Google Operating System, Google is ditching the old Bookmarks interface for something that looks a lot like Google Notebook. You can still access the old interface at http://www.google.com/bookmarks/. The new hottness is at http://www.google.com/notebook/bookmarks, which makes sense because bookmarks has effectively become a fully-integrated feature within Google Notebook.

image

Of course, this isn’t a surprise. When the Notebook team launched their blog, they announced that bringing Bookmarks into Google Notebook was primary goal. In a statement that practically screams “notemarking,” they declared:

It turns out we're starting this blog at an auspicious moment. As you may already know, Google Notebook is about collecting, organizing, and sharing information from the web -- but in many ways, so are bookmarks. Which is why we've been working to combine Google Notebook and Google Bookmarks.

imageIn fact, Google Bookmarks has been integrated with Notebook since November of last year. But that implementation was a bit kludgy, leaving Bookmarks with one foot still firmly rooted in Google’s Web History product, while creating a purgatory of “Unfiled Bookmarks” within Notebook.

Sadly, the clumsy unfiled bookmarks section remains part of Google Notebook. But the new Bookmarks URL reveals a clean, bifurcated interface that gives you two clear browsing options: Bookmarks and Notebooks. GOS blogger Ionut Alex Chitu thinks it’s a better look:

The old version of Google Bookmarks was integrated with the web history and allowed you to bookmark previously visited pages with one click. Another feature that's missing from the new version is full-text search, since bookmarks have been converted to notes.

On the bright side, the new interface is more responsive, it uses "infinite scrolling" to display the bookmarks and the notes can be formatted using a rich-text editor. Google Toolbar 5 (IE-only) lets you save the selected text from a page, which appears highlighted every time you visit the page.

It’s an improvement, but I’m not all that enthusiastic. Notebook and Bookmarks remain separate applications, when they should be seamlessly joined together. And what about Google’s other notemarking applications? Shared Stuff and Google Reader each have their own bookmarking functions and bookmarklets; neither is compatible with Google Bookmarks. GOS already tackled this fragmentation, and Google’s approach to bookmarking will remain fundamentally “broken” until they fix it.  But I’m hopeful the Notebook team will continue to work toward a more elegant, fully-realized notemarking application.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Delicious 2.0 is apparently close at hand.

According to a Delicious blog post, “new Delicious is almost ready to come out of the oven.” Of course, it’s understandable if you’re skeptical. Michael Arrington summarizes the now legendary delays that have plagued the update since Techcrunch first previewed Delicious 2.0 in September of 2007.

imageI took some time to revisit the screenshots in that link and prepare for a probable Monday or Tuesday release. It’s going to be like Christmas morning for me, people. My favorite screen capture was also the smallest one. See that “bulk edit” button? Delicious has needed a way to bulk-edit tags and bookmarks that for soooo long. Jebus, but my tags need to be cleaned up.

For example, very early in my usage of Delicious I would create tags like “legal+reference” to get around the fact that tags weren’t comma separated. After the Delicious Bookmarks plug-in was released, these kind of combined tags were no longer useful or necessary. The ability to quickly search both tags and bookmark text made it easy to find my stuff without resorting to tricky tags. Now, I just use two separate tags, “legal” and “reference”. 

But the bulk edit can solve another common problem: should I use “law” or “legal”, “article” or “articles”? Sure, you can use the current generation tools that allow you rename and delete tags, but neither feature allows you to see how many times a tag has been used or what bookmarks will be affected. I’ve tried some of the Delicious clients, such as Delicer and Netlicious, and they tend to be buggy and awkward or they replicate the same flaws inherent in Delicious.

I expect the new Delicious tool for editing tags and bookmarks to be a huge improvement over options we’ve got now. But, with recent history in mind, I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

StumbleUpon trips up users with CAPTCHA

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d unsuccessfully experimented with StumbleUpon as a possible Del.icio.us replacement. I’ve enjoyed using StumbleUpon and there are lots of things I like about the service, but their use of CAPTCHAs is a deal killer. Each time I’ve tried to write a “review” (i.e., tag and write a comment about a Web page), I’ve been greeted with this screen:

image  

I know Social Bookmarking sites are under constant siege from unscrupulous Web site owners and spammers, but repeatedly greeting users with a CAPTCHA each time they make use of your core features isn’t the right way to solve the problem.

Not to be all John Madden about it, but for a recommendation engine like StumbleUpon or Del.icio.us or Digg to function properly, it’s got to convince users to submit recommendations. Reducing friction is paramount. CAPTCHAs, of course, introduce friction into your bookmarking process. They might deter spammers, but you’re throwing the babies out with the bathwater.

I should know. I’m one of the babies. I’m not going to use your service if you’re going to tax me with additional clicks or keystrokes each time I try to save a page. To be fair, StumbleUpon’s toolbar offers a simple, one-click “thumbs up” button that allows you to bookmark a page without running into the CAPTCHA. But, remember, I wanted to use StumbleUpon to replace del.icio.us. And I typically import my del.icio.us bookmarks into Facebook, Tumblr, and FriendFeed. I almost always add a comment that explains why I bookmarked the page. I can’t do that with StumbleUpon if it requires me to enter a CAPTCHA everytime I try to use the service.

Oh, as if running into a CAPTCHA isn’t bad enough, half the time you can’t read the damn thing well enough to correctly recognize the letters. It’s supposed to be tough for computers, not humans. I frequently had to give up and stumble to the next page. The difficulty makes sense once you realize that StumbleUpon has chosen a CAPTCHA provider that uses its hapless human guinea pigs as volunteer decoders for printed books that are hard to read.

Yes, you read that correctly. StumbleUpon is deliberately putting its users to work when the success rate is likely to be quite low.

No thanks. 

Incidentally, other bookmarking / link submission services get by without resorting to CAPTCHA in their core bookmarking flow. Here are some non-idiotic thoughts about dealing with spamm-y submissions from developers associated with del.icio.us, Mahalo, Metafilter, and more. At the risk of a self-referential pun, I’d suggest that StumbleUpon take some notes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Del.icio.us contemplating Firefox synchronization

In an earlier post, I compared Del.icio.us Bookmarks to Firefox 3’s fancy new bookmark engine, Places. Since then, I’ve experimented with using Firefox Bookmarks alone and in concert with Yoono, StumbleUpon, and Foxmarks. But nothing can fully replace the experience you get with Del.icio.us. Its combination of speed, elegance, and social integration with sites around the Web (e.g., FriendFeed, Facebook) make it hard to beat. What I really want is some way to synchronize my Del.icio.us bookmarks with Firefox.

Now it seems like the folk at Del.icio.us are thinking along the same lines. Earlier this week, on Yahoo’s official user group for the Del.icio.us Bookmarks add-on, product manager Stephen Hood responded the question, “Why doesn't the Delicious extension for Fx3 integrate with the bookmark system?” His answer confirmed they may be planning to do exactly that:

Yep, we are definitely looking into how this could work. There are a
few challenges, including the fact that Firefox support spaces in tags
but Delicious does not.

For me the bigger concern is illustrated via a bit of history. When
we first launched the Delicious Bookmarks add-on (nearly two years ago
now), the original version did in fact integrate with the Firefox
bookmarks system. But ironically, it integrated SO well that users at
the time were nearly unanimous in their hatred for that approach.
Ooops. :) People felt that we had overreached by building Delicious
too deeply into their local bookmark system. We heard a lot of
feedback that people wanted to keep their Firefox bookmarks separate
from Delicious, since they used them for different purposes and wanted
to organize them in different ways.

As a result of the feeback we did some rethinking and the team did
some great work in quickly turning out a new version that was more
like what we have today -- an add-on that co-exists with the Firefox
bookmarking functionality and conservatively hooks into it where
appropriate.

Given all the new whizbang goodness in FF3, it certainly makes sense
to rethink all of this. But I wonder if people might dislike the
results if we went ahead and integrated more deeply...

I responded to that same thread, suggesting that Del.icio.us could integrate with Firefox by synchronizing with a particular folder (this is similar to the way StumbleUpon saves bookmarks to Firefox). But another approach might offer a more complete sync, like Foxmarks. Whatever the level of integration, synchronization should be optional, not mandatory.

Given that Del.icio.us Bookmarks already accommodates users who prefer a “classic” feel, I’d imagine Del.icio.us would be sensitive to user preferences and privacy as they implement synchronization. This is exciting news for us Del.icio.us fanboys, though.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Clip web pages to OneNote with new Firefox add-on

A long time ago, there was a Firefox extension that approximated OneNote’s “Send to OneNote” button in Internet Explorer. Unfortuntely, the plug-in was only compatible with Firefox 1.5 and OneNote 2003. Digital Inspiration documented a work-around but I could never get it to function. Now, Digital Inspiration points to a similar “experimental” Firefox add-on that works with Firefox 3 and OneNote 2007.

image

The good news is it works as advertised, without resorting to a difficult work-around. The bad news is it’s got a pretty limited feature set. Select text and/or pictures, right click, and choose “Clip to OneNote.” Presto, your clip is saved to OneNote’s unfiled notes section. You can save an entire page by right-clicking on the page, without selecting the text. And that’s it.

There’s no convenient browser button. Nor do the options allow you to save content to a designated OneNote notebook. But it basically duplicates the functionality of the native IE plug-in, so I guess we can’t complain.

Be aware, you will have to journey to the add-ons menu and configure the options so that it knows where you’ve installed OneNote.

image 

On my Vista machine it’s located at C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office12\ONENOTE.EXE

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Swurl and Second Brain: Feeding your past into the present

On the day you join a typical social aggregator, such as FriendFeed, SocialThing, or Tumblr, that’s pretty much the day you’re born. You add Twitter, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Google Reader, etc., and all your new or recent items begin flowing into your “lifestream.” As far as FriendFeed knows, you are a social media duckling tentatively wading into the noise. For the first time, you’re collecting all your webernet squawkings in one place.

But if you’re like me, you’re probably a social media veteran. I’ve been on Flickr since 2004. Del.icio.us since 2005. I joined Twitter just after its SXSW breakout in 2007. In other words, I’ve got lots of history that FriendFeed and Tumblr aren’t capturing.

Two new-ish social aggregators, Swurl and Second|Brain, are tackling this problem in distinctly different fashions. Like Friendfeed and SocialThing, each site allows you to merge your various identities into one single feed or stream. But both services also dig deep into your social media past to create a more complete—and completely searchable—summary of your online activities. It’s this comprehensive approach to aggregation that I think makes these services seem more like a notebook or diary than a present-tense “stream” of activity.

Swurl

image As founder Ryan Sit noted in Ars Technica’s excellent overview, Swurl focuses on collecting your social activities into an attractive blog-like home front. To this end, it gives each item a different look and feel depending on its source. Items from Twitter look like comic bubbles. Songs from Last.fm include album art. YouTube favorites display a full-size video. Most impressively, Flickr sets are quickly browsable on a single page. Comments can be added to any item via a simple, subtle interface. Like SocialThing, Swurl will automatically import items from your friends. The overall look and feel is similar to WordPress’s default Kubrick theme.

If that were where Swurl stopped, it would be souped-up Tumblr competitor. But Swurl brings something unique to the party: a timeline that includes a full history imported from each site you’ve added to the service. You can view these thumbnail archives by year or you can choose the “all” view. In my case, this means you can view activity going back to 2003. And each one of the hundreds or thousands of thumbnails links to a full size post within Swurl (not the source site).

image

Swurl is an uber-blog; an aggregator powerful enough to import the full text and pics from every Blogger, Wordpress, or Typepad blog you’ve ever used, plus your activities from sites like Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon. All items can be searched with surprising speed, with results presented in minimalist AJAX style. Your past can’t be accessed from every site, but if you import your blogs and stuff from Delicious, Flickr, and Twitter, you can recreate a database of your recent online history that’s both beautiful and a little unnerving.

Second|Brain

image A few days ago, I talked about the differences between Friendfeed and Del.icio.us, and I concluded that if Del.icio.us had “become FriendFeed” or added similar features, it would suffer a loss of focus and utility. A few days later I discovered Secondbrain, which is basically Del.icio.us + Friendfeed. Actually, Secondbrain is even more ambitious; it aims to be your “personal content library” by making it “really easy to manage all your bookmarks, social media and files in one place.” Like Swurl, Secondbrain allows you to import all your past activity from established social sites, such as Twitter, Flickr, Del.icio.us, YouTube, and Google Reader.

image But unlike Swurl, Secondbrain doesn’t want to be your blog; it wants to be your database. Despite its social features, Secondbrain is determined to be a useful solo project as well. For example, SecondBrain allows you to import private photos and bookmarks, while keeping them private. Even more impressive is the focus on documents and files. Secondbrain links up with Google Docs, ZohoDocs, Scribd, and Box, to bring you a comprehensive view of your online work activity. You can also upload your own documents, with 1000 megabytes of space to start with. Like other items, documents can be shared or private.

What I like most about SecondBrain is the focus on core functions usually ignored by other aggregation services: reference and recall. SecondBrain unifies your tag cloud by importing your tags from other services. You can then search and filter your items by tag until you’ve found exactly what you’re looking for. Of course, you can also perform a simple text search. And once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can add the items to a collection, which can be shared with the community (complete with comments and 5-star rating system).

image

Unfortunately, Secondbrain suffered a few hiccups in my tests. Full text search was either slow or non-responsive. I got an error message about 50% of the time. Also, Secondbrain had trouble importing my Del.icio.us bookmarks, collecting only 79 of more than 1,700 bookmarks. That’s going to have to be fixed, because without my bookmarks, Secondbrain isn’t going to be very useful.

Swurl: A-
Second|Brain: C+

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Creating a bare-bones link blog with Google Notebook

I love Google Notebook. Its Firefox add-on is the most full featured web clipping tool I’ve seen, and because it’s Google, there’s never a problem finding anything. One or two clicks will save text and pics, and you can find what you’ve saved with lightning quick search. This lack of friction makes it a formidable notemarking tool.

But I think Google Notebook’s social features tend to get overlooked. That’s weird, because it’s dead simple to collaborate with friends & coworkers or publish your notebook via the Web. Socially speaking, its closest competitors are one-trick ponies allowing you to either collaborate (OneNote, Zoho Notebook) or publish (Evernote).

To publish a note book or invite collaborators, just click “Sharing Options” at the top of any notebook page.  With its simple sharing options, Google Notebook makes it easy for you and your friends or coworkers to create a highly annotated “link blog” that includes your comments, tags, and highlighted text. (FYI, mine is featured permanently in the sidebar of this blog). And each published notebook has an RSS feed. Not so revolutionary, you say? Ah, but Google Notebook has a unique, blue-shaded comment area that can be used to explain why a link or snippet was saved. It’s the perfect input for personal aggregators, such as FriendFeed or Tumblr.

image

Unfortunately, Google Notebook’s collaboration and sharing features are pretty spartan aside from the features mentioned above. The service could be improved dramatically just by addressing a few shortcomings.

  1. Identify authors of posts and comments. Seems pretty basic for a collaborative app, but Google doesn’t tell you who created a post or who authored subsequent comments.
  2. Allow public comments on published streams. Again, this seems pretty basic. If it’s viewable by anyone on the web, why not allow anyone to comment?
  3. imageTrack changes. If you change a note or write a new comment, the date stamp will be changed to today’s date. But there’s no way to see what changes were made.
  4. Make tags clickable. Even where Google embraces the use of tags, they’re not real smart about displaying them correctly. Surprisingly, clicking on a tag doesn’t display a list of items with that tag, unless you’re using the awkwardly designed “Labels” menu? But why should you have to scroll to access similarly tagged items. To make matters worse, labels aren’t clickable at all on your published notebook (and there’s no labels menu, either).
  5. Optimize feeds for RSS readers, social aggregation sites. Feeds for published notebooks look terrible. But with a little sprucing up they could become extremely useful. For some reason, notebook feeds don’t include tags. And the comments aren’t currently formatted so they can be parsed by social aggregators (e.g., Friendfeed). And, of course, comments aren’t identified by author.
  6. Give each public note it’s own permalink. What good is collaboration if I can’t share exactly what I’m working on? The lack of a permalink for each entry is probably the most shocking non-feature.

I don’t mean to sound so negative; after all I still like Google Notebook enough to use it in my public blogging workflow. But the overall sophistication of the product makes the exclusion of these basic features inexplicable.

It’s possible that some of the shortcomings I’ve listed are actually a form of rudimentary privacy control. As we saw in the outcry over Google Reader’s expansion of the “shared items” function, users may actually be fond of Google Notebook’s obscured URLs, non-existent permalinks, and lack of authorship identity. It’s a security blanket that provides a kind of “quasi-private” collaborative environment.

Whatever the reasons for hobbling the sharing features, it’s disappointing because Google is some 20% time away from creating a superior shareable notebook that doubles as a full-featured, collaborative link blog. 

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Del.icio.us vs. Friendfeed

Today, Allen Stern has a provocative post in which he wonders whether Del.icio.us, by forever delaying its 2.0 release, might have squandered a chance to become Friendfeed.

Had Delicious (and Yahoo) moved faster on the release could they have become what's hot with FriendFeed today? I get that FriendFeed allows you to share your delicious bookmarks. But what I am talking about here is something much bigger strategically. By "sitting" on the release, the team lost their chance to move the strategy forward.

Delicious has "saving", FriendFeed has "liking". These are basically the same thing except that Delicious saves for the long-term and has tagging while FriendFeed is basically for the short-term. That's where Delicious stops and FriendFeed picks up.

I love FriendFeed. It’s a great way to capture your present. In fact, I think it answers the question “What am I doing now?” better than Twitter does. But Stern glosses over a fundamental difference between the two applications. Del.icio.us is all about organizing information for later reference, while FriendFeed is built for real-time communication and sharing. This isn’t to say the two services don’t have architectural similarities, but their missions are different. Hopefully, this brief table captures what I mean.

image

image

Now

Later

Conversation and Communication

Reference and Recall

Streaming

Tagging

Everything

Some things

Sharing

Recommending

Stern’s post mentions this now vs. later dynamic, but I think he misses the importance of the distinction. Del.icio.us has social features, but when you save something to Del.icio.us you’re saying something very specific to your friends and network: “I will need this in the future. You might also need this in the future.”

Obviously, you can say the same thing via FriendFeed; Del.icio.us was one of the flagship services supported in Frienfeed. But with FriendFeed, you’re also saying a bunch of other things. What you’re doing. Reading. Watching. Listening. There’s a lot of noise.

But with Del.icio.us, you don’t want noise. You want focus. That’s why you tag things. Tagging makes it easier to find what you’ve saved.

Maybe everyone doesn’t use Del.icio.us the way I do, but I have an internal editor. Am I saving it for now? Or for later? What tags should I use? How can I make sure I find this site quickly when I need it? I don’t have that conversation with FriendFeed because FriendFeed captures everything I do automatically. When I save something on Del.icio.us, I’m signaling to you that what I’ve saved is important. It has value in the future.

I’ll close by repeating the comment I left on FriendFeed: I think people undervalue what's so great about del.icio.us. Better than any other Web site, Del.icio.us (along with its Firefox add-on) functions beautifully as a personal, extremely useful map of the Web. I wonder whether the tech-o chamber tends to overvalue social media and undervalue important, foundational functions, such as information collection and quick reference. It's worth asking the question: could FriendFeed do what Del.icio.us does? My answer is no.

Should Del.icio.us enhance their social offerings? Absolutely, but those social features should enhance its position as a superior engine for reference, recall, and recommendations.