Short and Sweet

March 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 1 Comment
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As I continue to develop the information management strategy that I first laid out in my very first blog post, it’s becoming clear that the two applications at the heart of this strategy (and pretty much always open on my desktop) are Outlook and OneNote.  Of course, as I’ve often pointed out, when I’m on the move, I don’t have the backup of a sophisticated unified messaging infrastructure sitting behind Outlook; rather, I need to do the best I can to synchronise between those two critical applications back at base and my iPhone.  I was reading a blog post recently from the MobileNoter developers, which was looking for opinions on additional features that might be useful in this great little app.  On offer were:

  • Improving control of the iPhone camera from within the MobileNoter app;
  • Adding the ability to import SMS messages into (presumably) Quick Notes.

 I do use the camera on my iPhone, mainly to capture hardcopy documents and the contents of flip charts and white boards.  I use an iPhone app (Document Scanner) to do this, and it gives me all the capabilities I need to correct the perspective, adjust the image properties and so on.  It even provides OCR to to capture the text.  The result can be saved as a jpeg or multi-page pdf.  The jpeg can of course be attached to a Quick Note, while either format can be emailed back to the office PC.  So, do I need more camera facilities within MobileNoter?  Probably not.

The second option is more interesting.  In the early 1990’s, I was working as Head of IT at a UK defence contractor.  One of my priorities was to migrate our (for that time) fairly large population of mobile phone users from analogue car phones onto the new digital GSM service.   One of the first things we discovered on our new phones was the message displayed on the screen to notify the arrival of voicemail.  This was the first use of the Short Message Service (SMS).  SMS began its life in 1992, utilising unused bandwidth in the out-of-band signalling system used to control traffic.  This meant that these messages could be carried at virtually no cost – indeed, when we started, SMS was a free service, but you had to explicitly ask for it to be enabled for your phone – provided the messages were limited to 160 characters (to fit in with the existing control message formats).  At the start (around 1993 for us), our Motorola 5200 flip phones could only receive SMS messages, not transmit them.  However, we found that we could generate messages to these phones, by establishing a telnet connection to Vodafone’s SMS Service Centre in Newbury (over a 2400baud dial-up modem – yes, really!) and typing the message.  We built on that by writing an extension for Microsoft Outlook in Visual Basic, to allow our users to select a colleague by name (we used a simple file of names and phone numbers, not the Global Address Book) and then type and send their message.  The VB program then dialled the SMSC and sent the message.  Not very elegant, but it worked!  For the first time, a secretary in the office could send messages to the manager in their car – our first tentative steps towards mobile messaging.

Of course, SMS developed rapidly – much to the amazement of the GSM operators, who thought it was likely to remain an interesting engineering trick, with little practical application.  Once all digital mobile phones had the ability to both send and receive text messages (Nokia were first to achieve this across their product range, by the end on 1993), SMS was quickly adopted by younger users, not least because of the very low cost.  According to Wikipedia, the average cost of sending an SMS message is US$0.11, while the cost to the network operator is virtually zero.  By 2008, 4.1 trillion messages were sent world-wide.  For business users, the attraction was the ability to send a message to virtually any mobile from anywhere. 

Although SMS was not the only text based messaging service available, it was not really until earlier this decade that a viable alternative became available with the arrival of the BlackBerry in 2002. I didn’t get my hands on a BlackBerry until around 2006, but when I did, it certainly changed my dependence upon text messages.  The simplicity of sending “proper” emails wherever I was made that the obvious choice and I only sent text mesages when I knew that the recipent was out of the office and didn’t have a smart phone.

More recently, since I became self-employed, my usage pattern has changed again, because:

  • I’ve changed to using the iPhone, where the simple intuitive screen layout and threaded messages make it a far more powerful tool and
  • Data roaming charges for the iPhone when I’m travelling are prohibitive, while SMS charges are still modest.

So, a quick scan through the SMS messages currently on my iPhone shows countless pieces of information (URLs, contact details, addresses …) that I’ve manually transcribed into OneNote notebooks.  So, no doubt in my mind –  the facility to import text messages into MobileNoter will be yet another step towards converging those two critical applications.

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Send Back Pictures to OneNote

January 26, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 1 Comment
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I’ve written before on how Microsoft’s OneNote 2007 makes the ideal repository for collecting and organising unstructured information from multiple sources.  To get the most out of this versatile application, you really need to be able to take the content of your note books on the road with you.  If, like me, you switch between a desktop in the office and a laptop for travelling, keeping the note books in sync is easily arranged by using a cloud service, like Live Mesh.  However, for short trips, or for meetings where it might not be appropriate (or practical) to use the laptop, what’s needed is to be able to sync the contents of those note books (complete with formatting) to your iPhone – and that facility is provided very simply and cost effectively, using MobileNoter.

One of the shortcomings of the first release of MobileNoter has been that the note books are not editable on the iPhone.  The MobileNoter developers assure me this is coming in a future release, but for now, you’re limited to creating text-only “Quick Notes”.  These are synchronised back to your PC, where they’re added to a special MobileNoter notebook in OneNote 2007.  From there, they can be simply dragged and dropped into any other note-book, in the same way as content in the “Unfiled Notes” note-book.

When I connected my iPhone today, to sync from the PC, I found that there was an update (v1.2) for the MobileNoter cloud edition app.  I downloaded and installed it and when I checked, there was also an update for the desktop sync client on the PC.  With both components safely updated, I took a look at the MobileNoter developers’ blog, but thus far, there’s no news on the new release.  So, what follows is my first thoughts after experimenting …

I wrote recently, that MobileNoter were planning a new release for the first half of February.  It seems that this is that new release, several weeks ahead of schedule.  The major new feature appears when you create a new Quick Note on the  iPhone.  After entering your text note and tapping “Done”, the Quick Note displays 4 icons at the bottom, each of which can be used either to attach a picture stored on the iPhone camera roll or to take a picture with the camera and attach it to the Quick Note immediately.  Once the Quick Note is synchronised back to the PC, the pictures are displayed in the body of the OneNote page.

I also use the DocScanner app on my iPhone to capture hardcopy documents (particularly whiteboard and flip chart contents, after meetings and workshops).  The beauty of this app is its ability to accurately detect the borders of a document and to deskew the image to allow for camera angle.  The app allows you to email the resulting picture as either a JPEG or PDF document.  Significantly, you also save the document to the camera roll and hence attach it to a Quick Note.

The MobileNoter team introduceed a search function to v1.0 of the iPhone app, but it’s not obvious how to access it.  This has been dramatically improved in this latest release, with a search icon appearing on the bottom of the screen.  The operation of the search function can now be configured through the “Search Settings” button.  This allows you to limit which notebooks are included in the search.

You should bear in mind that these useful new features are only included in the Cloud Edition of MobileNoter.  The developers plan to add them to the Wi-fi Edition in a future release.  It’s possible that this will coincide with the release of a unified (cloud and wi-fi) app for the iPhone.

So, no doubt in due course,  more information will appear on the MobileNoter developers’ blog about this release.  I thought it might be interesting to describe my first reaction – and I have to say, the new features make an invaluable tool even more productive.

Update (27 January):  You’ll now find official details of the new features in v1.2 at the MobileNoter developers’ blog here.

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