tech, simplified.

An Ode to Simpler Stuff

There’s something that loves a multipurpose gadget. The fabled Swiss Army Knife, the microwave oven, the rice cookers that can also make soup and steam break, the spork, the universal chargers and screw drivers and anything else that claims to be universal anything, the crazy tools shown on late night TV. The computer, even, or the iPhone with its promise that “there’s an app for that.” There’s something deep within us that automatically feels we’re getting a better deal when the thing we buy can be used for more than one thing. The more, the merrier.

And yet, seriously, how many of the multi-purpose gadgets do you really use daily (putting aside for the moment your computer and smartphone, since they’re a somewhat different category of everything devices). The best Swiss Army Knife’s screwdriver will never be as good as any standalone screwdriver, and its knives would never stand up to a top-quality real knife. The microwave is only half-way good at anything it does, and you likely only use your rice cooker to cook rice anyhow. And the poor spork is terrible at everything, no matter how much you want to love it.

No matter how much engineering and design and love and care you put into a multipurpose device—and it will take a lot more effort to make anything that does a ton of stuff—it’s always at this weird interception between everything it’s trying to do. It may be ok at a lot of things, but it’s not great at any.

Yet there’s also something that loves the simpler tools. The knife, forged with skills passed down through generations. The clock, ticking steadily for decades. The wood-fired oven, the hammer, the paintbrush, the pencil and paper. We ascribe mastery to those who use them, genius to those who invented them. Those tools may just do one job, but they’ll do them great. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Their simpleness has made them great.

That’s the genius—and surprise—behind the tech gadgets that do just one thing, like the Kindle Paperwhite, a DSLR, an original iPod, or even the Fitbit. They do just one thing, and they do that thing great.

That’s why the iPod Classic was great—that clickwheel and the whole UI were designed just around your music. In the same way, the Kindle (and this is referring to the eInk reader Kindles, not the newer Kindle tablets) manages to have a much better reading experience—and also is far easier to select text in—than any reading app on another gadget, simply because it’s designed just for reading text. When it lets you select text to highlight it, it can do that great since it’s just designed for books. There’s less features, but the features it has can be the best possible for that one scenario. Plus, since its only focused on one thing, its battery life is astounding.

Same goes for a DSLR. I’m so accustomed to random tech interfaces (say, the ones on a microwave or a car’s stereo) being terrible that I just assumed my Canon DSLR’s touchscreen interface would be atrocious. No big deal: I bought it for optics, and the screen just needs to show pictures. But then, surprise of surprises, it’s actually nice. There’s quick access to the photo settings you need, silky smooth swiping between pictures, and little else. And that’s all there needs to be.

Focus breeds something far closer to perfection, almost without trying. Perhaps you can improve on the Kindle or DSLR or iPod interface, but absolutely not by adding features. If anything, you’d only make them better by simplifying them even further, removing all extraneous parts until they’re as razor focused as a time-honed sword.

It’s not just traditional tools that can be single-purpose and focused. Software, too, can be a honed tool that’s perfect for just one thing. There’s Instapaper, with its simple idea to save article to read later and nothing else. There’s iA Writer, the most minimal writing app possible with nary a setting in sight—the closest to a digital typewriter yet. There’s web browsers like Safari, that with each release get closer and closer to having no UI and only the web pages you’re looking at. There’s even something more valuable in extremely focused apps—you can find all types of unique use cases for a read later app or a plain text writing app or anything else that’s focused, just because it’s great at one thing.

Tie a lot of small tools that are great at one thing together, and you’ve got a set of tools that’ll do the stuff you need far better than one piece of software that’s supposed to do everything.

And here’s where I wonder at the current state of the supposedly “smart” watch market. There’s the watches that are essentially trying to cram everything from a phone into a smaller screen on your wrist, while still requiring you to also carry a phone. They’re marketed as things that can do everything: show directions on the go, take pictures, show notifications, and more.

But they don’t do anything great. They by design won’t replace your phone, and are instead essentially just an external display. They make for great demos—or at least they should—but in practical life there’s zero pressing need to use one.

The Fitbit is interesting, since it’s just designed to be a sensor that sends data to your phone about your exercise and movements. It’s simple, single-purpose, and has an obvious use case. Maybe it’s not as exciting since it can’t do so much, but at least it’s easy to explain why one would want to use it.

I don’t know what Apple’s going to do with the wearables market, or if they’ll release an iWatch. All I know is that if I’m going to buy yet another gadget, I’d rather it have a specific thing it does great, and little else. The iPhone’s the hub, the multipurpose device. It’s great at that. Let that remain. Then give us something else that’ll make the iPhone better, not just duplicate features it already has.

Simplify. That’ll sell.

Instead of spending time on something that might be sold or shut down tomorrow I much rather put on some safety goggles and build my own thing.

A brilliant call for a return to DIY from the guy behind Kirby, this time in building your own tech. Just the thing most of us should do more of.

Don’t find an app for it. Make your own app from it, even if you’re doing so just by mashing up open tools you can already get. You’d be surprised what you can build with just a CMS as your base.

When your business is selling hardware and software to customers—that is, when the people who use your devices and software are your customers—you can actually care about your users’ privacy, and make that a selling point. With almost every other tech company giving away everything for free and making it back in ads, their users aren’t their customers—their advertisers are—there’s no way they can advocate for privacy as a feature.

This article from Macworld sums up Apple’s privacy focus today. It’s another great reason to love Apple stuff.

The New Flow is Really Nice

The more professional the tool, the uglier it must be—or so it seems if you look at most business software. The new, simple apps get the stylish new designs—typically simple todo list, reading, and photo filter apps—while tools like Office keep the same traditional style forever. Even newer business web apps typically stick to a more utilitarian style, focusing on features more than UI.

When it comes to team task management apps, though, there’s one that’s always been a showcase of design, even as it’s filled with pro features: Flow. Several years back, I worked with their team doing copywriting and support, and even then it was beautiful for a task app. The design then leaned more heavily towards shiny, almost plastic graphics—a notch above, say, Things for Mac’s style. But over the years, it’s gotten lighter and flatter design while still maintaining its great usability, and today it could be a showcase of what OS X Yosemite designs should look like.

flow

Plus, it’s got more features now than ever. There’s an Android app (the most requested feature when I did support for Flow) along with an iOS app and even a Mac app now (though the latter is just a web view, but still is nice). You can add sub-tasks to your tasks, format notes with Markdown, and more. It’s a seriously powerful team todo list app, one we used at AppStorm, and I happen to find it exciting to see how its continued to improve over the past few years.

If you’re looking for a nicer team task app, you can’t get much nicer than Flow. It’s gotten so much nicer over the past 3 years, it’ll be exciting to see what the next years bring.

Download Files Directly to Dropbox with Ballloon

It’s way too easy to fill up your computer’s storage, especially if you have an SSD. My MacBook Air does good to have more than 15Gb of free space at any given time. Thus, I’m careful with what I store locally, offload most of my pictures and movies to external drives, and selectively sync Dropbox folders to let me store files online, but not have them take up space on my Mac (that’s Dropbox’ best secret, by the way: open your Dropbox app preferences, select Account, then click the Change Settings… button beside Selective Sync. Unselect the folders you don’t want on your Mac, and voila: they’ll stay in the cloud a click away, but won’t take up local storage).

Selective sync is a small patch to one of the broader things that cloud storage doesn’t do right—devices come with terribly small amounts of local storage today, but then say they also have cloud storage. And yet, that does you precious little good if said cloud storage takes up as much local space as it does in the cloud. We need something better—but for now, at least there’s that option.

Except the only problem is, adding files to those selectively synced folders is a pain. You’ve got to upload them through your browser, or add them to another folder then go online and move them.

Now, there’s a simple Chrome add-on that lets you download files directly to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder of your choice: Ballloon. Find a file online you want to download—that image for a project, or an eBook you just bought and need to sync with Dropbox to get it on your phone, or whatever—right-click on it, and select the Ballloon option, and it’ll download it directly to your online storage.

ballloon

That’s handy for the use-case I mentioned previously, but could be a serious usability improvement on a Chromebook, which lacks traditional file management anyhow, and could be the perfect extra for your work computer so you can “download” files and have them automatically show up in your personal Dropbox on your computer back home. And it’s fast—no more waiting for downloads to finish, as Ballloon takes care of it in the background and saves your files online.

So hey. If you’ve ever wanted to download files directly to the cloud—that is, save them to your online storage without downloading them to your computer—Ballloon is the Chrome add-on for you. Enjoy.