Friday, 23 November 2007

iGoogle can change your life

I have never been a great fan of customisation. While others were merrily swapping their Windows wallpapers weekly, mine stayed default blue. The only gesture towards personalisation that I made was changing the homepage to Google, as soon as I realised that I visited it 10 times more often than any other. So when Google started to offer add-ons to their classic white screen by showing the small iGoogle option, I wasn't very interested at first: what could it deliver? I eventually had a look, in pursuit of an RSS feed reader (of which more later), and found a wealth of little tools which seemed useful and simple. Now I don't know how I coped before: I certainly wasted a lot more time, effort and nervous energy beforehand.

The process of signing up is straightforward: if you a or account you just need to log in, if not there's a minute's registration. You should be aware of the fact that you are giving Google even more information about your web activities. At present the worst they seem to threaten is showing you more targeted Google Ads, but it's worth thinking about.

You are then shown a list of possible features to add to your Google page, which could transform it into a virtual desktop.

Here's mine. You'll notice that I've left a fair amount of white space down the middle, but the content runs down further.

This is a deliberate trick; if you fill the screen with tools you will commit the fatal error of making the page slow to load. Similarly some tools are best kept rolled up to the taskbar if not needed. Here is my explanation of what I have chosen:

RSS feed

I don't read a lot of blogs, but spent a lot of time viisting them in turn to see whether anything new had been added, what RSS feeds are designed for. Although other feed utilities are available, Google Reader is the simplest I have found. Every time I use Google I can check to see which blogs have new posts. This can become a distraction; I have to be strict and say:
* use 'mark all as read' even if they're not (you can always go back to read them all at a quieter moment)
* exclude blogs which are updated more than a few times a week (otherwise the list will be overloaded): instead these are bookmarked and visited at leisure (if any)
* exclude blogs where comments are important (you don't see the comments in the feed)

Wikipedia search

One of the key benefits of Wikipedia is that it gives you infromation rather than trying to sell you things. I find Google searches for things like infromation about file formats frustrating because the first two npages of results are effectively commercials.


Much the same applies to email: if this were your main email account it would be swamped too quickly to keep track of. Gmail is in any case clunky and prone to freezing and would drive you mad if you used it much. It can be used in clever ways, though: it is a good way of transferring files around as attachments (so that a Powerpoint can be sent to a Gmail address and will be availabel at any conference venue with Internet access); it is also possible to copy all your emails to Gmail to act as a back-up store.


What's that doing here? I thought we were working. Yes, but: if you were going to read the daily cartoon anyway, this is a quicker way of getting there than the rather clumsy website interface.

Personal calendar and planner

Google has its own Calendar system but for some reason I couldn't get it to work. This is a simple alternative, which I use to block out days with meetings on. Logically I should take the plunge and abandon my paper diary, but every few days the calendar can't be reached. Having this on the desktop means that I can access it remotely, a trick not easy to replicate with the diary.

To-do list

This is perhaps the single most powerful yet simplest tool. Create a task by typing it in (carefully: the edit text option doesn't work); then assign it high, medium or low priority. You can change priority at any time. Once a task is complet, click on the X to delete it. I haven't completely abandoned paper lists for very short-term tasks (finished that day), but it is a good way to see at a glance the things that need doing beyond your current task. At one point I found the list getting longer and longer and more and more urgent, until I was spurred into delegating as the only way to deliver; having handed out the jobs to the team it was managebale once more.

I use two lists at the moment, for work and non-work activities; it would be possible to use one per project.

Some negatives

The documentation provided for the tools is minimal and unhelpful; you have to explore how to use them yourself. Many of them are buggy and slightly unreliable; some are slow (the calendar should be kept rolled up for this reason).

But iGoogle is the closest that anyone has yet come to bringing together all the tools you need to operate effectively; once set up, it feels like a rational and effective utility.

No comments: