What's the problem with all these GTD apps?

Recently there’s been a bunch of new OS X applications that are targeted at the Getting Things Done/project management crowd. These apps, which include EasyTask Manager, In Box, Operation, and Actiontastic, all have various pros and cons and I encourage you to check them out if you’re looking for productivity tools.

But I want to call out these apps and their developers for a highly annoying approach to data management that they all share. Each of these applications adopts what I call the “Address Book” model for storing user data.

This approach can be summed up at follows:

Contrast the Address Book model with the traditional file-based model that most applications (e.g. TextEdit, Word, Preview, Photoshop) use. Word opens any file you care to throw at it. Address Book opens only one file.

The benefit of this approach is one less decision for the user. Instead of having to worry about where to save a file containing, say, all your address data, Address Book decides for you. You start up the app and just start working.

The down side of this approach is that the application makes some pretty big assumptions: that a user only needs one dataset, and won’t ever need to work with the data on another computer. Those are really dubious assumptions.

For example, I have a desktop G5 and a laptop cooktop MacBook and use both regularly. To keep files in sync, I use the excellent and free Unison utility (no, not that Unison) and regularly sync a folder within ~/Documents/.

For most applications, this presents no problem. I save files within this magic folder, and they are automatically synced for me. But with the Address Book model, I can’t do this, because the location of the file is hard-coded somewhere else.

If I’m feeling frisky, I can dig around and figure out where the application expects the data file to be, and then soft link that path to a folder in my magic folder. But that’s a hassle, and I’m sure many OS X user aren’t comfortable enough working with the command line to do that. (And frankly, I don’t bother to do it myself. Instead, I use the excellent, and free, SBook5, which uses a traditional file-based model.)

Even with this workaround, another problem remains. You can’t tell the application to open a different file. What if you want to look at a tutorial for the application that includes a sample data set? What if a friend or co-worker wants to share data with you? With traditional file-based applications, this is easy: just send me the file and I can open it. With these apps, you have to go into that ~/Library/Application Support/ folder, manually move (be careful!) your data somewhere else, then copy your co-worker’s data into the right place, and then open the app. When you’re done, remember to put everything back where is was.

I’m not willing to lock my data down to a single computer. And that makes it ridiculously easy for me to review all these GTD utilities when they are announced. Download, run, and look for an “Open…” item in the File menu. Not there? Move to Trash.

So what’s so wrong with the file-based model? Why are these apps pushing the Address Book model? Is the File menu officially passť?

My best guess is that the application developers feel that, like the Address Book, their productivity application is so valuable that it needs to treated as a core system service. Baking the data into the user’s library reinforces this view. Why would a user ever need more than one dataset of to do items, the reasoning goes.

It’s also possible that all of these developers are planning to use Apple’s Sync services to allow cross-computer syncing of data in an Apple-approved way. But there’s no evidence that they’re heading in this direction. Maybe Leopard has some cool feature I’m not aware of that all these apps will leverage. But even if that’s the case, odds are it’ll only work for .Mac subscribers. Who wants to pay $99/year just to transfer data from one computer to another?

Look, I’m sympathetic to the idea of simplifying life for (most) users and assuming a default location for user data files. But you can assume a default location and still open files from other locations. (Eudora, hardly a paragon of modern UI design, does this well. Open the Eudora application, and Eudora looks for a mail folder in a standard location. But double-click a Eudora settings file somewhere else, and Eudora will happily open and use the folder that contains the setting file.)

Hopefully these applications’ developers will reconsider this data model. And if not… let’s just hope OmniFocus gets it right.

posted January 30, 2007 by eric

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