Tuesday, December 28, 2010

There are no great task managers for the iPhone - but there's hope for 2011

I'm surprised by the conclusion of my recent survey [3] of iPhone/OS X/Web task management solutions. There are still no great task managers for the iPhone.

Neither Things, nor Appigo's ToDo.app (which I have used incessantly since 2008), nor OmniFocus, nor Remember the Milk.app nor Toodledo.app are a great solution. They all fall short. None of them are the equal of the venerable, simple minded, task manager that came with the PalmOS in 1994 and was improved with integration into DateBk in the late 1990s.

You may wonder why I condemn all of our current options. I'll start by listing the base requirements.

  1. Simple enough for a non-geek to use with at least basic task attributes (due date, priority, task name, description, category [1]) and views (filters, sorts).
  2. Data freedom: import/export capabilities for all tasks.
  3. Synchronization to a desktop or web version that matches the "data model" of the iPhone version and has the same usability standards. [2]
  4. Affordable (total solution costs < $50)
  5. Calendar integration, even if that's only an "agenda" type view of tasks and dates.
  6. Search across all "fields" (attributes).
  7. Utter, absolute reliability.
  8. Instant on, no delays in task entry.
  9. Archiving of completed tasks.
  10. Local iPhone app with synchronizatio -- not dependent on a data connection to work.

Sounds easy, doesn't it?  Palm did most of this fifteen years ago, and Pimlico's DateBk delivered the complete package (and more) over ten years ago. Must be easy [4]...

Evidently not. Nobody does it for the iPhone today. Let me name the failures ...

  1. OmniFocus is too expensive ($100 for iPhone/desktop pair) and is too complex. At a lower price point though I'd seriously consider them despite the complex. I'm an Omni Group fan.
  2. Things has reliability issues, is too expensive and doesn't support data freedom. Their iTunes ratings continue to decline.
  3. Appigo's ToDo.app doesn't have a robust and reliable web or desktop solution and lacks data freedom. The best option is to sync with Toodledo's web app, but that app has a different data model than ToDo.app. This is what I use every day however.
  4. Toodledo's own iPhone/web solution is limited by their complex (and, sadly, ugly) web app. The web app search is field specific and so almost useless.
  5. Remember the Milk has a bad reputation as a business partner, their iTunes ratings are poor (?reliability), they are relatively costly at $25/year, and there's no data freedom. (Corrected from original - see comments.)

It's a sad situation. The best option is still the combination of Appigo's ToDo.app and Toodledo's web service; I pay for both. I do, however, grit my teeth every time I use Toodledo's web client, especially if I need to search for something.

I'm hopeful we'll see a fix in 2011. There are at least three ways the logjam could break.

Apple's OS X app store could reenergize the flagging OS X desktop, and new desktop products might appear at better price points. If Apple were to provide OS X App Store developers with a standard way to synchronize to iOS devices I'd expect a great solution. Alternatively,  Apple could forget it hates its customers, and finally put a bullet through iCal (sadly, will require 10.7). Lastly, and least likely, Jobs might decide he doesn't totally hate task managers after all.

Google might finally provide an API for Google Tasks, allowing iOS client development. Or they might provide HTML 5 (Gears-like) offline Google Tasks web app with synchronization support for Safari. [6]

Lastly, the Omni Group could create a "lite" version of OmniFocus for the App Store and sell both an iPhone and desktop OmniFocus Lite for under $50.  Or some other current vendor will fill out an existing solution.

If we assume an average probability of each of these outcomes of 50%, there's an almost 90% probability [5] we'll get finally get a great iPhone task management solution next year.

I'll raise a beer when it happens.

See also (mostly not about tasks, but all about PIM functions and the amazingly hard Palm to iPhone migration)

- fn -

[1] The big "breakthrough" change to the Palm ToDo (task) list was the radical addition of up to 16 categories. For quite some time Palm tasks lacked "categories" (single tag). The original Palm design team were even more radical minimalists than Apple's modern iPhone OS team.
[2] This is huge. If data models don't match perfectly non-geeks, and even geeks, will eventually be frustrated -- even if they don't understand why they are frustrated.
[3] Looking for a good solution for Emily, and deciding none existed.
[4] I'm being sarcastic of course. One of the hardest things in software development is deciding what to omit. It's the old line about sculpture - great art consists of removing the inessential.
[5] 1 - (1/2*1/2*/2) = 7/8
[6] More likely now that the Google/Apple war is over.


Mikey said...

I would not agree with your summary of Remember the MIlk. If your criteria on cost is less than $50, then how can $25 be too expensive.

They are a bad business partner? Who cares. I am not in business with them and as long as they perform for me I could not care less what they do - it is their business.

Data freedom? You can pull all the data out thru an iCal calendar.

John Gordon said...

RTM is not $25, it is $25 yearly. That's a significant difference. Still, I erred in calling them costly. They're only at the higher end of my price range and they're comparable to Toodledo.

Good point about pulling data out via iCal. I've never done that. How good is iCal's data export for tasks?

Their iTunes rating is only 2.5 stars. That's pretty low, and it costs them on the reliability front.

A company that treats their business partners badly is also, in my experience, likely to treat their customers badly.

Denis said...

I think it's great article. I'm developing an iPhone to-do list app and your post gives me something to aspire to. My app (GeeTasksLite) syncs with Google tasks, but it currently lacks search, tags, and import/export. And I will be sure to fix it in the coming year.

Clark said...

Appigo ToDo does have a pretty great web interface now. I'd tried both RTM and Toodledo in the past but wasn't happy with either. I'm finally near my task Nirvana. My big remaining problem is that I do a lot of scripting of contacts and tasks and right now I don't have a way to script ToDo except via iCal which obviously ignores contexts and the like.

Anonymous said...

Is there a Palm emulator for the iphone, android, BB, win7, or whatever? A Palm emulator that gives us the Plam back and syncs with Plam PC software such as Palm 3.0?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for finally taking on an issue so important me, and I assume others. The Palm of the late 90s was the perfect PIM for me, for several reasons, allot of which you list in this article. I would like to add that for me having the PIM a Palm software on my desktop and not in outlook was much better. It is shockingly hard to get infromation on the quality sync with all current smart phones. it would appear that only nokia symbian still has a desktop software that mirrors the PIM on the phone, the way Palm did. by the way i think Palm 3.0 was all a PIM ever needed to be. the very simplicity forcing perfectionsts like myself to get things on the list and then done, rather than endless fiddling with how to make the best task/life goal whatever list setup.

Anway i just wanted to thank you for finally even talking about the issue of PIM on the smartphone and the quality of choices compared to the PALM.

By the way: is there a PALM emulator among all those APPS? doesn't mater for which smartphone. An app that once started make the smartphone look and behave like a Palm IIx and syncs with Palm Desktop software 3.0?? i would buy whatever smartphone gave me that!