The Slow Death of Digital Books

In 2007 Amazon released the Kindle. It was never a beautiful device, but it solved a problem with reading on screens–the discomfort that some people feel after looking at a lit screen for a long time. Still, it is a very flawed device. Browsing a Kindle book is tedious. Page refreshes are jerky, and just like in the old days of TV, everything is black and white.

In 2010, Apple released iBooks. At the time, the realistic page curl animation was pretty hot stuff. Apple wasn’t the first to do it, but iBooks popularized it the effect. It felt like the beginning of a digital book renaissance. It was a small step, but surely the innovation would continue with Apple at the lead of the pack?

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Something happened though. Since the introduction of the Kindle and iBooks there have been only incremental improvements.  A lot of similar software and hardware has come out, but almost no real innovation has made its way from prototype to production.

Maybe the halting pace of innovation is why we are now seeing a resurgence of paper books. Innovation in robotics, virtual reality, and AI are announced almost daily. Yet the technology around something as prevalent and important as books has almost completely stagnated.

A Light in the Dark

There are however, some good examples of people trying to make digital books better.

Check out this concept video from a Korean company called Kaist back in 2012. It’s far better than anything available today but years later, hasn’t made it to market.

Or, this prototype of a phone that turns pages when you bend it:

Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

I’m not really sure why things are this way. The closest parallel to the stagnation in ebook technology I can think of is PC laptops. Despite the enormous market, there are very few PC laptops that approach the quality of Mac laptops. This might finally be changing over the last couple years, but it’s been a very slow change.

I don’t think we can dismiss digital books by saying that people are happy with the state things are in now. Look at all the attention that the Kindle gets every time they release an update. If it’s a sign of consumer interest, it seems to indicate that a company who came in and really shook up the ebook hardware and software market would potentially do very, very well.

The Sad State of Personal Knowledgebases

A Personal Knowledgebase (PK) is any system that you use to store and retrieve general information. The key here is that the system should be capable of storing a large amount information on any number of topics and, ideally, provide some type of way to view relationships between the information.

Historically this has been the realm of pen and paper. More recently, people have used their computers to create folders of documents that they then search when they need to find something they stored. With the dawn of the Internet, the wiki came along to take advantage of hyperlinks. For the most part, that’s where progress stopped.

Today most people don’t use a PK but they do, it’s almost certain to be Evernote or OneNote or something along those lines, basically a flat list of notes that’s easily searchable and taggable or folderable. Power users might use a personal wiki. 

To me, all of these seem comparable to using a roll of toilet paper to write a book. You can do it, but there are better ways. Some of better options exist now, but I think that we’re still far from having a great personal knowledgebase.

In a perfect world a PK would have the following features:

  • Good search.
  • Unlimited size. Since it will be used to store just about everything you want to save for your whole life it needs to handle getting big well.
  • Simple to use. It should have zero learning curve for someone who just wants to dump a bunch of notes in it and a fast learning curve for anyone wanting to use more powerful features.
  • Convenient and fast. It should be available online or offline on your phone or tablet or laptop or wherever else you might want to use it. Adding content to it should be as close to effortless as possible and accessible from within other apps.
  • Structured. It should work fine without any organization but should allow for very flexible relationships between notes and, now that basic AI is becoming more viable, it should suggest relationships intelligently.

Surprisingly, no software with all those features exists yet. There are some interesting options though:

  • TheBrain – I’ve used this one for quite a few years. It’s stagnating somewhat these days but from what I hear, a full rewrite is underway and will be launched sometime in 2016. I’m curious to see what they come up with. Jerry’s brain is the canonical example of TheBrain in use.
  • Kumu is a new and interesting take on the idea of a PK. It’s mostly geared toward network visualization now, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.
  • Inforapid is new to me, but has been around for some time now. It’s Windows only, so I haven’t tried it, and the UI and website seem quite dated but otherwise it seems interesting.
  • Faqt seems to be going for a kanban / SCRUM style card-based layout.
  • PiggyDB is a somewhat complicated PK. It’s not for me, but it has a community of people who love it. It seems to focus on structure over visualization.
  • Curio and Tinderbox are two others that have been around for awhile. They’re more project-based, but are close enough to being PK’s to make the list.

The key point here is that years after “Web 2.0” we’re long overdue for a very good personal knowledgebase. I don’t have a solution, but the problem is worth bringing to light. If you build this or can point me to it, I’d be happy to pay for it!

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Evernote’s Strengths and its Fatal Flaw

I use Evernote heavily. It is an innovative product with a great design aesthetic from a company that seems to have a very good business model. All this has rightly earned Evernote an avid user base and a growing ecosystem. The problem with Evernote though, is that it was made for storing a specific type of information but in reality, it is used in less effective ways for storing much more than that.

First, let’s talk about the information that Evernote is really good at storing. I’d place this in two categories:

  1. Ephemera. Things like grocery lists, blog entry drafts, quick reminders. Anything that you will keep around for awhile, then be fine with it disappearing forever, either literally (being deleted) or practically (being replaced by other, newer information and only found by search.)
  2. Chronological data. Journal entries, receipts or bills come to mind. Anything that is primarily organized by the date it was created.

For these two categories, Evernote is practically perfect. Its native apps are nice and ubiquitous, its web app is amazing. None of the problems with Evernote stem from execution of its core functionality.

So that’s what it does well, what’s the problem? The problem is that for most things, people don’t think in lists and we don’t want to retrieve information that way.

Once something is saved in Evernote, really the only way to find it is by searching. If you’ve tagged your entries, you can browse by tag, but that is a seldom used feature. If you use notebooks, they can aid in finding notes, but after awhile, the lists become difficult to manage and it is hard to find and surface things you’ve stored further back than the recent past. Evernote has one other feature for premium users that surfaces related notes. This is getting much closer to solving the problem I’m talking about, but it relies completely on their AI (which is pretty good!) and is limited to just a few related notes.

What if you could take the is related notes concept and apply it much more predictably, more rigorously, to all your information? It would make notes easier to find, a feature that is hugely important. After all, why bother writing something down if you’re almost certain to never see it again. Still, as important as discoverability is, an even more important problem that a better connected way of storing notes would solve is enabling you to see patterns in the information that you care about. Patterns are at the root of creativity. Patterns are what enable us to take two or more different ideas and combine them in novel ways. This is where art and business are born.

This very type of pattern finding facilitated by good tools for information storage and retrieval is something I’m very interested in and something I’ll be writing about here more.

 

Personal Brain 5 Review

PersonalBrain 5 is out. A new year is out and I haven’t posted anything yet. Now seems like a great time for a new, long, rambling review of PersonalBrain followed up by a bit of philosophizing.

First up: What’s new?

The coolest changes in PersonalBrain (okay maybe not the coolest) are the changes I submitted myself. A few months ago I created some open source icons and sent in some suggestions as to how PersonalBrain could look more natural in OS X. TheBrain (the company that makes PersonalBrain) changed PersonalBrain to use icons very similar to the ones I created. Also gone is the giant, unnecessary “PERSONALBRAIN 5 PRO EDITION” button that previously was at the top right corner. I also created a new background for PersonalBrain, but it wasn’t included. If you’re interested in downloading the background, you can get it here.

The full list of new features in PersonalBrain 5 is located here  thebrain.com [pdf]. I won’t go through the entire list, but I will mention a few highlights. The biggest new feature is the outline view  – which offers another way of visualizing your data. This feature is probably the most useful for newer users. When I first started using PB it took some time to adjust to the mindset of having parents at the top, siblings to the left, “other relationships” (I’m not sure what the official terminology is) off to the right etc. The new outline view makes it very apparent what the relationships are between each node.

PersonalBrain Outline View

PersonalBrain Outline View

Another great new feature is the ability to save “expanded views.” It replaces my previous method of taking a ‘snapshot’ of my Brain which was simply to take a screen capture. The new presentation view is useful as well. I have never given a public presentation usingPersonalBrain , but given the opportunity, I’d love to try this new mode out.  Tagging was introduced in PersonalBrain 5 and while I haven’t used it much, I think it has some good potential. Also new are some nice Mac only features like iCal and Spotlight integration which are definitely welcome.

On the whole, PersonalBrain 5 is a solid release. Most of the changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but there are enough of them to make it a significant improvement.

My Wishlist

I’m happy with PersonalBrain as it is, but since I have a soapbox, here are a few things I’d love to see in the future.

iPhone app. This is surely the hardest, and possibly the least likely item on my wishlist. If, however, there was an iPhone app for PersonalBrain that could sync with the desktop version it would be amazing.

Better keyboard navigation. Currently you can navigate PB almost entirely by keyboard, but doing so involves using lots of “F” keys (F7 creates a parent thought for example). Keyboard shortcuts would be much better if they the common conventions of using the command key on OS X or the control key for Windows. Even better would be to allow user-customizable keyboard shortcuts.

Sync. Lately I’ve had a big need to use PersonalBrain on two different machines. Dropbox has made this fairly simple. I put my whole PersonalBrain file in Dropbox and it syncs automatically to any computer that I’ve installed Dropbox on. There is one potential pitfall though–if I forget to close PB on one computer then open it on another it causes some, non-fatal, errors. I leave screen sharing (VNC) enabled on my home computer so if I leave PersonalBrain open I can login and close it on the home machine, but sometimes if I’ve closed the laptop at home I can’t do that and it’s problematic… but I digress.PersonalBrain makers: an “official” way of syncing PersonalBrain between machines has been long-hinted at, how’s that coming along?

Even more native look improvements. As mentioned before, PB has come a long way on OS X, however there are still some major areas for improvement, most having to do with the bottom half of the screen. PB could take a great leap forward by cleaning up the interface down there, even without adding any new functionality.

Areas for Improvement

Areas for Improvement

Some philosophizing about PersonalBrain

The PersonalBrain website lists 12 “top PersonalBrain Uses.” Unfortunately, I think that they still miss the real benefit of PersonalBrain which is that you can have an infinite amount of information connected in extremely flexible ways all stored in one place. No other piece of software does this. Consider the following diagram. It’s a little complex and cluttered, but it illustrates well the uniqueness of PersonalBrain (click to enlarge):

PersonalBrain Capabilities

PersonalBrain Capabilities

If you’re a curious person, if you want to know something about everything, if you’re a generalist, an aspiring polymath, a reader, a researcher, you can’t beat PersonalBrain for organizing all the stuff you come across. Nothing comes close.

Let me preface the following thoughts by saying that I am strongly biased towards the way I use PersonalBrain. Some of these thoughts are controversial for those who use PB in other ways, which is fine, some controversy is welcome.

I think that the list on thebrain.com gets most of the top uses for PersonalBrain wrong. Most of the items on the list are things that could be done in PersonalBrain but could better done with other software. Before I dive into specifics, let me reiterate, PersonalBrain is quite possibly my favorite piece of software and I use it every day. My criticism is meant to be constructive.

The uses listed on thebrain.com

1. Visual bookmark manager. I think this is better done by something like delicious.com and the del.icio.us extension and/or native browser bookmarks. I have bookmarks in PersonalBrain, quite a few actually, but I prefer to keep the majority of my bookmarks in the browser where they can be tightly integrated and easily accessed as I’m browsing.

2. File and everything in your life manager. In OS X I use the Finder and I use Windows Explorer in Windows. These programs are built with the specific purpose of managing files and they do it well. I have hundreds of file attachments in my PB but I still can’t imagine trying to use it as a general purpose file manager. As far as the “everything in your life manager” part goes, I’m just going to ignore because it’s not specific enough to be meaningful.

3. Capturing expertise and special interests. This is the best item in the list. It ends with this gem: “PersonalBrain becomes your ultimate reference.” Indeed. I think that (or something very similar) should be right on the front page of the site. Make this one number one in the list, make it bold, elaborate on it for a few more sentences and make the font size 3 points bigger.

4. Competitive Intelligence and Product Development. I like this one too. I think it could be a great addition to any PersonalBrain though I wouldn’t create a separate brain just for this.

5. Research and Analysis. Another good one, though why the heavy business focus? Because that’s where the money is? Fair enough, but it minimizes a whole world of other research.

6. Event planning. I think this would be done better in iCal or Outlook or Entourage or even in a mind map or an outline. PersonalBrain just doesn’t seem like a natural tool for this.

7. Brainstorming and mind mapping. I much, much prefer Freemind or MindManager for this. If it’s a finite brainstorming session or a mindmap related to some specific, ephemeral project then I’d prefer to capture it in mindmapping software where I can use it, then be done with it (again, perhaps attaching it to a PB node when I’m done.) I think suggesting PersonalBrain for general mind mapping is confusing because it lumps it in with specialized mind mapping software that all have specific features thatPersonalBrain can’t (and shouldn’t try to) compete with. Another way of stating this is that PersonalBrain is a great mind mapper, but not a great Mind Mapper.

8,9,10,11,12. I’m not going to cover each one specifically because the general problem with each them is the same: you could find specialized software that would better suit your needs. It isn’t that you can’t do any of these things in PersonalBrain, it’s that PB is not the “best tool for the job” and presenting it as such only serves to take away from the real uses of PersonalBrain.

A Personal Note

My PersonalBrain has over 5000 thoughts. 5179 as of this moment to be specific. I have grown to “trust the system.” If you’ve read GTD you’ll understand the significance of that statement. If I was sent to a deserted island and could only take one piece of software, it’d be PersonalBrain. I have enough reading material in the attachments to keep me busy for the next 10 years. There are enough areas to left to explore to last me a lifetime, which is what I plan on doing–spending a little time every day for the rest of my life adding to both of my brains, myPersonalBrain and the one on top of my shoulders.

I have much more I could say about my uses for PersonalBrain, and at some point I’ll create another video showing how I use it, but for now, thanks for reading, feel free to comment and disagree (or agree) as much as you’d like.

Free webdav sync for Omnifocus

It took me forever to find a decent and free (I know… ) webdav hosting service to sync Omnifocus between my mac at home, at work and my iPhone. I really didn’t want to pay for .mac since I’ve had it before and used almost none of it. Finally I found one that seems to be doing the trick and offers much more than enough space for the job (2gb) –myDisk. Took about two and a half minutes to set up. Nice.

Make PersonalBrain Prettier

I started a small project to improve the looks of PersonalBrain. I love the software and use it all the time, but was tired of it not fitting in with the the rest of the Mac software I use. I’ve created a small project that make some minor visual enhancements–right now just a few new icons and a new background. The project is available on GitHub–I’d definitely welcome any contributions and suggestions, my changes are just the beginning of what could potentially be done. Instructions for installing it are on the GitHub project as well.

This is the before:

Before

Before

And after:

PersonalBrain - Prettier

PersonalBrain - Prettier

Ubiquity: The Next Big Thing

This is the most impressive browser extension I have seen yet: Ubiquity.

It’s a mixture of Quicksilver and Yubnub combined with functionality similar to Greasemonkey integrated tightly with Firefox as an extension for doing stuff and creating mashups. I think this could quickly become the main reason to use Firefox over any other browser. Maybe not for every user, but certainly for technical users and effeciency nuts (like me :))

All the Functionality of MobileMe for Free

How to get (almost) all the functionality of MobileMe (previously known as .mac) without paying for MobileMe

Email – Use Gmail with IMAP turned on and you can sync mail between your iPhone and Macs. If you’ve got your own domain you can use Google Apps to use a personalized email address. I use Gmail without ever opening the browser based gmail but it’s nice to know that it’s available. IMAP keeps your computers in sync with each other and with your phone and works great.

Contact and calendar syncingPlaxo will sync your contacts and calendar surprisingly well across your Macs, Gmail and Yahoo. In order to sync with your iPhone you’ll have to plug the phone in and Sync over USB. You lose the push sync for iPhone that MobileMe offers so if that’s the killer feature for you, you might be stuck paying.

Remote File Storage – There’s a service called DropBox that gives you 2gb free and syncs really well between computers. It’s in beta but they’re giving out beta invitations and I imagine it will be generally available soon. There’s Box.net which also gives you 2gb for free and has a web interface. Finally–Windows Live Foldershare it isn’t online storage, but it will sync folders between computers with no limit on the number of files, they’ve just got to be smaller than 2gb each.

OmniFocus to iPhone SyncOmniFocus syncs over WebDav. It’s almost impossible (but not quite) to find free WebDav hosting. I found some offered by Tomben called OFWD. You can set it up in just a few minutes and it works fine. Box.net is an oft-suggested solution but in my experience, it doesn’t work.

BackToMyMac – BackToMyMac is just VNC. One way to get around this is to turn on screen sharing in your Mac’s system preferences under sharing then use the built in Screen Sharing.app (copy it from /System/Library/CoreServices to /Applications). You can set up a friendly name for your computer with DynDNS and then configure your router give your computer a static internal IP address and forward port 5900 to your computer and you’re done. There’s a great article explaining some of this on Macworld. If all that sounds like a pain LogMeIn works really well and it’s free and easy to set up.

GalleryFlickr is free for 200 pictures. You can upload to it for free from iPhoto with Connected Flow’s FlickrExport. FFXporter is also free. It’s not as pretty or easy as what you get with MobileMe, but it works for basic needs. The gallery is another area where MobileMe still beats free solutions.

It’s not perfect, especially if you want a push contacts/calendar sync and a gallery, but you can get most of the way there with free stuff. The reason I started looking is because MobileMe just wasn’t doing it for me. The last straw was when ALL my phone numbers randomly disappeared from contacts on my phone after syncing with MobileMe. I was able to recover them, but I decided MobileMe wasn’t worth it.

If I’m missing anything, or there’s a better way to do something than what I’ve listed, I’d love to know.

PersonalBrain vs. Mindmapping Part II

After writing yesterday about the differences between PersonalBrain and Mindmappers, I started thinking more about what the core difference between them are.

  • Is it a temporal difference? Mindmaps tend to expire whereas information in PersonalBrain tends to be valid over a longer period of time.
  • Is it a difference in the amount of data you can to see at once? Mindmaps allow you to see possibly hundreds of nodes at once where realistically in PersonalBrain you can only deal with maybe 10 or 20 on the screen at a time.
  • Is it a difference in the way you can connect the information? PersonalBrain is more organic and mindmaps are structured.

While these are all valid points, they don’t get at the heart of it which seems to be:

In PersonalBrain each node is first class data, whereas in a Mindmap, nodes have hierarchal importance. This means that in PersonalBrain any element in the “plex” can have infinitely detailed information associated with it. You can extend any node with unlimited sub-nodes that provide additional detail without consciously structuring the data to allow for specialization.

For example, I’ve created a Mindmap of my notes for the book Linked and one of the nodes in the map is “Power Laws”. The more I research power laws and get into the details, the more nodes I’ll need to add. Eventually, one of two things will happen – either the mindmap will become cluttered and unwieldy or I’ll have to start a new mindmap. If I do the latter, I’ll then have to remember it exists and open separately if I go back to my book notes. Neither is desirable.

In PersonalBrain if I have a power laws node I’ll never run out of space under it and everything associated with that node can be associated with any other node in the system.

On the other hand, it’s sometimes beneficial to have the concept of a leaf node and the structure a mindmap offers. In PersonalBrain it’s difficult to emphasize the importance of a node since there really isn’t the concept of the “center node” that a mindmap has.

So, the conclusion remains the same–different tools for different purposes.

PersonalBrain vs. Mindmapping

When I started using PersonalBrain sometimes I was unclear about when to use PersonalBrain or when to use a more traditional mindmapping tool like Freemind or MindJet. Now I think I can break it down pretty simply to this:

PersonalBrain is for research, learning and long-term planning. Mindmapping is for brainstorming.

The two tools overlap and can be used for either purpose, but I find that generalizing helps make the decision of which software to use quick and more intuitive.

An example where I prefer Mindmapping: If I’m starting a project such as building a website I use Freemind to quickly lay out the potential navigation, what content will go where and even the contact information for the involved parties. The information I need is limited in context and fairly isolated. It’s useful in the time that I’m building the website but it’s likely that I won’t need to revisit it in the future. It also helps to be able to see it all at a glance–Mindmaps are great for this.

Examples of where I prefer PersonalBrain: Pretty much everything else :). If I’m reading a book and taking notes, I use Personal Brain. If I’m taking notes on an article or planning out my future I use PersonalBrain. Philosophical or political information goes into PersonalBrain. All of this is information I’m likely to want to go back to and that is likely to connect to other bits of information and help with me be more creative, recognize patterns, and recall what I’ve learned.

That’s how I differentiate between what goes where. If you’ve got another way of doing it, I’m curious to learn about it!