Sunday, November 09, 2008

Appigo and Toodledo – nasty emergent design flaw makes a mess of my iPhone Notes and Tasks

This is about the worst design flaw / bug /emergent interaction I’ve encountered in the past few years.

Here's the story from my rejected post to the Appigo Todo Google Group [1]

When I added Notebook to Todo, and after I'd imported hundreds of notes Toodledo, I ended up with a set of categories (aka folders) for my iPhone Appigo Notes and Tasks that were the sum of the Palm categories I had used for Notes and the Palm categories I had used for Tasks.

Since my Palm Notes and Tasks had different categories, there were empty folders that showed in Notes (but not empty in Tasks) and vice-versa. They cluttered up my folder list.

So I deleted the empty folders on both sides.

Can you guess what happens next?

It took a surprisingly long time after the deletion, perhaps due to Toodledo synchronization issues, but I now have hundreds of Tasks and Notes that no longer belong to any category…

… At least when synchronizing with Toodledo, Tasks and Notes share a common set of categories/folders. If you remove a folder from Notes that is empty, you remove the matching folder from Tasks. All contained Tasks go into the inbox (at least they aren't deleted).

This is the single worst bug or design flaw or bizarre emergent synchronization behavior I've run into in several years. I don't know how I'll sort this out.There’s no way to undo this behavior, and there’s no good UI on either the iPhone or Toodledo for manipulating sets of Tasks or Notes.

Man, do I hate synchronization.

What a bloody mess.

Update 11/9/08: To clarify why the problem is so bad. If the data lived in Outlook, this would be a nuisance problem. It would take some time, but I could select swathes of items and assign them to new categories. Neither Appigo nor Toodledo support multi-select operations.

I did some further testing. I created a folder in Toodledo tasks, and verified it did not, at first, appear in Toodledo Notes. I did the same with Toodledo notes. However after Appigo Notes synchronization, the Toodledo TASKS folder appeared in Appigo Notes. After a cycle of Appigo Tasks and Notes synchronization the new Toodledo Notes and Tasks folders appeared in both Appigo Tasks and Notes and then synchronized back to Toodledo Notes and Tasks.

Which brings me back to two critical points I keep relearning:

  1. Synchronization is Hell.
  2. Reliable service requires a single vendor to control the client and the server. Differences in folder models between Toodledo and Appigo are at the root of this exquisitely nasty bug.
  3. There is a vast and perhaps unbridgeable gap between the capabilities of a robust desktop client like Outlook and what the Cloud can offer.

Update 11/12/08: Although Appigo did not publish my email they did respond to another complaint. They say it's not their design, it's a result of how Toodledo manages categories.

I suspect Toodledo stores notes in the same tables they use for tasks, hence the shared categories.

So this is an example of an emergent bug arising from synchronization between different application models.

Everything I need to know about Health Care messaging and synchronization I learned from my PDAs.

Update 11/13/2008: I looked into alternatives to Appigo such as and OmniFocus. The first is pre-release and has no import/export capabilities and the second, though released, has no useful import/export capabilities.

Neither meets my minimal data freedom requirements.

Since the category-loss bug arises from the combined use of Appigo's and synchronizing against Toodledo's single Task/Note store, one workaround is to keep and Toodledo Tasks but look for another solution for Notes, such as Evernote.

Alternatively, since Evernote now has a published API, Appigo could use Evernote as their note store instead of Toodledo. Their Notebook app is far more stable and useful than the Evernote iPhone client.

I'd suggest this to Appigo, but the last post I submitted to the Appigo support Group was not published. [1]

I don't have better options for the moment, so I'll stick with Appigo iPhone and for the next few months. may be ready for my use by February 2009, assuming they have a robust set of import/export capabilities on the client.

Of course Google could create a Task companion for Google Calendar at any time. If they do that then the deck will be reshuffled and we'll have more options. I don't expect any solutions from Apple; I think they're in much worse organizational shape than we realize.

[1] Appigo declined to publish my post to their Google Group based support forum. If my most recent note on this thread doesn't appear, I'll have to conclude that Appigo is aggressively censoring their customer posts -- at least on this very sensitive topic.

Update 11/13/08: My posts are not appearing in Appigo's Google Group.

Update 2/24/2010: Appigo did eventually introduce warnings into their apps, so that you're less likely to fall into this trap.


Anonymous said...

I also have Appigo's Todo and Notebook apps and have been very happy that they allow me to use a single Toodledo account. I'm very pleased with how it's working for me (please read on...).

There are a couple settings in each app that let me hide lists not relevant to the other one. For example, in Todo, there's a "Visible Lists" setting. I just go uncheck all the Lists (really Toodledo folders) that I use for Notebook and it's solves this issue. In Notebook, look for a "Visible Notebooks" setting.

I'd have to disagree with your opinion on this being a design flaw as it appears to me that the fine folks at Appigo did their homework and addressed this issue directly with these settings.

John Gordon said...

Thanks for the note!

I think it's a design flaw because the outcomes of the folder delete behavior are non-obvious. The user is not aware that the two sets of folders are synchronized. It's a bad design to have a non-obvious data deletion side-effect even if the intent of the design is good.

What makes it even worse is that the propagation of folder changes between Todo and Notebook is not obvious. In some testing I did it could take several launches of each app before the folder changes fully propagated.

I'm not sure there's a safe design to synchronize the Todo and Notebook folders. I think a safe design would only only apply if the two apps shared one database (so no propagation issues), if Toodledo behaved the same way (but it doesn't), and if there was a dire warning if one tried to delete an "empty" folder that was matched to a non-empty folder in the other app.

Anonymous said...

This exact problem happened to me. I saw all the folders in notepad, deleted them, thinking they were empty, and BAM - all my tasks were suddenly orphans.

Luckily I use Outlook, so the fix was only a small (hour-long) PITA. I moved everything back to categories in Outlook, erased everything in ToodleDo, set sync settings to upload to TD, but not vice-versa, and synced.


Anonymous said...

This is, as you assert, a fundamental design flaw. Or, to be more generous, the failure is a lack of communciation with the end user.

They should definitely explain the joint category handling on their web page and in help notes--and have a warning message pop up when you are about to delete a category-- it should say "Warning, categories are shared with todo and so you are about to UNCLASSIFY them. We recommend that you turn off the display of certain categories rather than delete."

In fact, it probably shouldn't even let you delete a non-empty category from the other application!!

Anonymous said...

One quick follow up. Thank you for you blog post on this-- I am sure that I would have fallen right into this trap!

Shame on Appigo if they are deleting your posts on this. Please try again and see what happens. I would think they would want people to know, especially as they can offer an easy solution!

John Gordon said...

One post did not appear, but a reply to another post did.

Appigo does know about this problem, it's pretty easy to see.

It's not easy to fix because the sharing of categories is a property of Toodledo, it's not under Appigo's control.

Toodledo doesn't have an iPhone app for Notes, so it doesn't affect their customers.

It's an interesting bug from a development perspective, it reveals the kinds of problems that occur with "mash-up" applications.

To get real reliability Appigo would have to own the data store as well as the iPhone app.

Andrew said...

I cannot seem to find an answer anywhere: Does Appigo Notebook's search function take you to the search term, or merely point you to the appropriate note? I like the way Palm's search of memos would always take me right to the search term in my hundreds of memos. Thank you in advance.

Andrew said...

I hope you can help me. You seem to know quite a bit about Appigo's Notebooks app. I cannot find an answer to my question, though I've literally spent hours trying.

Does Notebooks' search function take you directly to the term you searched for? Or does it merely point out the memo that holds that search term (like the Spotlight search does)?

Thank you very much!

John Gordon said...

Andrew, Appigo's notebook searches all text in the memo (unlike toodledo search which handles title and note separately). Results show the note title and the first line or two. They don't show the search term in context.