Getting Things Done on webOS with Basecamp and Backpack 39
Reader David E. Lich has submitted a great article on his GTD system with webOS, Basecamp, and Backpack. If you're looking to be more productive with your Pre or Pixi, read on!
Like many who have written in the PreCentral forums, I have struggled with the lack of full-featured, sync-able task and memo apps on the Palm Pre. I experimented with several solutions, but each left me less than satisfied. Some sync over Wi-Fi to the desktop, but that didn’t work for me because I use multiple desktops and was unable to figure out how to keep that all straight. Others sync via USB cable, but those require user intervention, and that seems so passé in the new world of cloud computing.
I finally settled on a combination of desktop and mobile solutions that do the trick – quite well, in fact. They sync (two-way) over the internet without user intervention. The synergy among the products is superior to the legacy Palm OS task and memo apps that we have all missed. The best part – all these apps and services have free versions that are not time-limited, and they will be adequate for most users. Power users may upgrade to the paid versions if their needs exceed the limitations of the free plans.
The combination of software upon which I have settled is:
- Outline Tracker Free on the Pre, produced by Hominid Software and available in App Catalog;
- Basecamp by 37Signals (download at http://37signals.com/) as the cloud based back-end service for tasks and memos, which is also accessible from the desktop;
- Backpack, also from 37Signals, for reminders, also accessible from the desktop.
Here is how I use them together.
Outline Tracker Free
I was initially put off by the fact that, as suggested by its name, Outline Tracker is inherently an outline program rather than a task manager. However, as I experimented with it and started thinking a little “outside the box”, I learned its outline concept is actually a benefit. While the free version of Basecamp (see below) supports only one “Project”, the outline concept of Outline Tracker is perfect for maintaining multiple separate to-do lists, each on a separate major outline level, with its items below it as “child” entries, all within the single Project of the free version of Basecamp. Items with a due date automatically appear in the webOS calendar.
Below is a screenshot of a sample Outline Tracker “Outline” showing each to-do list as a separate major level. In its latest update, Outline Tracker was enabled for both portrait and landscape views depending on the orientation of the Pre; however I actually find this to be a bit of an annoyance since I prefer to always view Outline Tracker in portrait orientation. I have suggested to Hominid that a preference be added to disable landscape (Update: they have in a software update). But for those who may disagree, below is also a screenshot of the same outline in landscape orientation:
Each of the major levels can be expanded to see the individual items within it by tapping the icon to its left. Below is a screenshot displaying the “Move Daughter Home from Dorm” list expanded to show its individual child items, and a screenshot of the webOS calendar reflecting the items scheduled for April 5:
Outline Tracker stores all its data locally on the Pre and syncs the data periodically over your data connection (internet or Wi-Fi) with Basecamp. I consider this another big plus, since the information is accessible and editable on the Pre even in absence of a data connection, and there is no refresh latency like when accessing data over the web.
According to the Outline Tracker website, Outline Tracker supports David Allen’s Getting Things Done time management methodology, which is described in the book Getting Things Done and in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done. Outline Tracker can also function as a general purpose outliner, exporting to (and importing from) the XOXO format.
Tip – When you first open Outline Tracker, it takes you to the To-Do “scene” which, ironically, is not really the most useful view for the to-dos because it is not in outline format. I immediately tap the project name at the top of the To-Do scene which brings up the Project scene in outline format with each separate to-do list shown as a major category.
Another Tip – You can re-order all your to-do items in Basecamp, but they do not automatically re-order themselves in Outline Tracker when sync’d. Solution – periodically delete all the information in Outline Tracker and then re-sync with Basecamp [From the Project scene, tap the name of the project at the top, tap “Project Settings”, tap the trashcan icon at the bottom, and tap “Delete” to confirm, then from the To-Do scene, tap the Outline Tracker menu, tap “New Project”, tap “Basecamp Project” which will bring up “Create Project” screen. Scroll to bottom and tap “Accounts Scene” and tap “Download Changes Now”. Outline Tracker will immediately re-populate with the items from the cloud in the same order they appear in Basecamp.] I do this on demand whenever I do a significant rearrangement in Basecamp.
The free version of Outline Tracker is full-featured, but is limited to 50 items – which should suffice for most users. Power users may wish to upgrade to the full version which allows unlimited items and costs $23.50. Yes, that is a hefty price in the context of the 99 cent downloads to which we are accustomed. But I have upgraded and consider it well worth the price, since it has become my productivity backbone.
Both Basecamp and Backpack are services of 37Signals. They are basically web-based project collaboration tools, far more powerful than required for the to-do/memo functions. But each has free, limited feature versions that serve this purpose very nicely (be sure to sign up for the free plans of each, not the 30 day free trial of the paid versions). If you sign up for both modules with the same user id, the modules become linked, you are able to click back and forth between them, and each remembers your place so you are returned there when you switch to that module.
Basecamp serves as the cloud back-end for Outline Tracker. It handles both to-do’s and “messages” (I use messages as a substitute “memo” app) with the message group showing up as a separate to-do category in Outline Tracker with sub-items for each message. Below is a screenshot of the Basecamp to-do list which correlates to the Outline Tracker to-do list above.
One of the great features of Basecamp is the ability to drag and drop items between to-do lists and within lists, and also reorder the lists themselves. I have created a to-do list called “PRIORITY” to which I drag items that I want to accomplish today.
Here is a screenshot of the Messages page in Basecamp.
You can send an e-mail to your Basecamp account which shows up as a message in Basecamp, which, in turn, is sync’d back to Outline Tracker on the Pre. Now that’s synergy!
After I had Outline Tracker and Basecamp singing together, I started searching Google for a solution for reminders. I was certainly surprised when I found myself right back at 37Signals – this time at their Backpack module. Backpack has a “Reminders” function that allows the user to establish individual and recurring reminders for specific dates and times. It can then be configured to send out an e-mail, text message or both at the scheduled time. I actually use both. I have an e-mail sent to my Exchange account, and have established a rule in Outlook to automatically move each e-mail with “Backpack” as sender to a separate “reminder” subfolder of my inbox. In addition, I have a text message sent to my Pre which, of course, shows up as a notification. It is truly hard to forget something when it now appears on my desktop in Basecamp, in Outlook in a separate inbox subfolder, and on my Pre as a text message with a notification. I’ll have no one to blame but myself if I somehow manage to ignore all of those reminders.
The free version of Backpack is limited to 10 reminders. Although I initially thought this would be sufficient, I quickly found numerous ways to use it – for example I have a monthly recurring item for each credit card payment I have to make. So, I upgraded to the “solo” version which, among other features, allows unlimited reminders for $7/month (so much for everything being free).
Backpack also has “Pages” which are individual web pages that can be easily created with lists, photos, memos, files, etc. The pages can be private, or can be shared with the world or only with invited guests. Each page has its own e-mail address so you can e-mail items to it that magically appear on the page. I haven’t figured out a useful way to employ this feature yet – maybe someone else has an idea.
By no means is this a comprehensive review of any of the 3 programs discussed above. Each is far more powerful in its own right, especially the 37Signals suite which is designed as full fledged team collaboration tool. I intend to spend some quality time exploring the advanced features of the 37Signals suite.
All in all, I love this combination of apps, and it has made me enjoy my Pre even more. My only regret – why didn’t Palm provide solutions like these out of the box?
Update: Outline Tracker's developer let us know that drag-to-rearrange is coming very soon.