omnifocus versus hiveminder: the prelude

A million (alternately, five) years ago, when I was working at IQE, I got sick of trying to use any of our existing project tracking software to track my todo list. Instead, I started using index cards. I put the big chunks of todo into Project or Press Your Luck (the project-managing add-on to our internal helpdesk software), but all the task-level stuff became index cards instead of helpdesk tickets.

This worked really, really well. I could stick blanks in my pocket to catch random ideas. I could (as pictured) organize my cards on a pinboard in a lot of ways. Sometimes I made dependency trees, which was great when working with someone or making clear progress in a project. Sometimes I put them into a grid using the Eisenhower method. Sometimes I just put them in a rough todo order and made a stack on my desk to plow through them. It was pretty fantastic.

I felt pretty silly, carrying around these neon index cards everywhere, and my co-workers seemed to find them sort of bemusing. I think my boss thought I was nuts for not using, say, Exchange. I felt pretty silly, but not silly enough to stop using them. After all, they were so darn useful!

I took my index carding ways with me to Pobox, and at least briefly infected a coworker with the idea. Through the years, from IQE to Pobox, I kept trying to find a useful software alternative. I used Kwiki, OmniOutliner, a few bug tracking systems, Vim (with various plugins, including Viki and TVO), and probably a bunch of other things I can’t remember. When Getting Things Done became the hot new thing, I immediately tried the software that was made for GTD. Well, not immediately. First, I spent some time rolling my eyes at people who seemed amazed at what had been obvious, to me, for years: simple categorized items are really useful.

Everything I tried was cumbersome and ugly, and left me unable to access my data when not at my computer. When the Omni Group said they were making a GTD app, I was pretty excited. They made a fantastic diagramming app, the first outliner I’d ever liked, a web browser that I actually paid to use, and project planning software that I wished I had a reason to use. Could their todo app miss the mark?

I got into the early semi-public beta, and once I figured out how to use it, I loved it. I loved it so much that pretty soon I threw away my stack of index cards. I got a lot of stuff done, and was pretty well able to ignore OmniFocus while doing it. I have already written about OmniFocus and how great it is.

One of the things I tried, and abandoned, while I was still on index cards was Hiveminder, the GTD-ish todo manager from Best Practical, the people who brought us Request Tracker. I don’t use RT much, apart from, which I dislike, so I wasn’t looking at Hiveminder as the next thing I’d love – I just knew it was coming from people whom I knew and whose opinions I tended to respect. When I first used it, in (I think!) pretty early private beta, it was slow and didn’t do absolute everything I wanted. For one thing, it couldn’t, uh, print index cards. (I volunteered to rope a friend into making that work and never came through. I’m sorry, Jesse!)

Looking back, I think even then Hiveminder might’ve been able to do everything I now do with OmniFocus. It was just slow and I was really, really attached to my index cards.

I’ve kept a corner of my eye on Hiveminder, though, and it keeps getting cooler looking. I can point a mail client at its IMAP server and deal with my todo items as if they were messages. Since it’s IMAP and things have proper UIDs, I can use OfflineIMAP to sync my todo lists to maildirs on my laptop, then move them around and sync them back… or so I believe. I can talk to Hiveminder over instant message and (via Twitter) SMS. I can email new tasks to Hiveminder, and I can empower other people to send new tasks to me.

Beyond all that, it is multiuser and allows groups and group project management, so I can create todo items for anyone working on a project to do.

What’s keeping me from moving to Hiveminder? Well, there are a few things.

First of all, I paid $40 for OmniFocus! That’s some serious money! If I use Hiveminder, I’m sure to want a pro account, which will run me $30, and I don’t want to get into the habit of jumping from one system to another. That’s really the least of my concerns, though.

Another concern is, well, the iPhone. I don’t have one… but I probably will get one when my T-Mob account runs out in July. I’m sick of T-Mobile’s lack of 3G, and I hate my current handset with great intensity. I’m looking forward to evaluating Android, but I think that once the SDK is out and Omni and other awesome Mac ISVs are making great software, iPhone will still be the winner. Speaking of Omni making iPhone software… it seems pretty darn obvious that they will make a OmniFocus for the iPhone, and that it will sync with my laptop. I used to want an iPhone before iPhone existed, because I knew OmniFocus would make an outliner for iPhone, and that could replace my index cards. Will there be a native Hiveminder app for iPhone? Well, I’m doubtful, although I can probably ask the friendly folks at BP.

Sure, sure: I can talk to Hiveminder from my iPhone with IMAP, email, IM, SMS, or HTTP. That’s not enough for me, though! I know it isn’t enough for Jesse Vincent at BP, either. A few conferences ago, he was one of a few people to contribute to a brief group of lightning talks that began “I think, but I cannot prove…” His talk was about the fact that in Web 2.0, we’re putting all our data out in the cloud… and that when the cloud isn’t accessible, we’re hosed. I have a context in OmniFocus precisely for “things to do when there is no network!” I don’t want to deal with having no access to my todo just because I’m in a fallout shelter deep underground or (somewhat more likely) on a bus in the middle of nowhere. I want my iPhone to have a synchronized copy of my data, ready to go.

Maybe the next generation of iPhone (or Android!) software will have a good mechanism for making this happen. WebKit’s client-side database feature could be darn useful for that. The alternative, after all, is that I make a printout of my todos, making sure there’s empty space for new items, and that I fall back to that when I lose my network. Then if I lose my network connection after two hours of using it, my printout is two hours out of date and I have to perform a two-way sync myself… by hand!

So, I am conflicted. I need to produce a list of priorities for my todo software. Then I can use that as a rubric for picking a winner in the battle for my mindshare. I will post it when it’s done.

Written on February 15, 2008
hiveminder   omnifocus   productivity   software