Can the to-do list app be a real productivity player?
Spending so much time talking about the ultimate productivity suite and all those GTD apps that sync to the cloud, we often forget the little nice things the iOS platform has to offer. I recently upgraded my Mac machine to OS X 6 Mountain Lion, which includes the celebrated "back to the Mac" inspired apps such as Reminders and Notes. Used to the likes of OmniFocus, Things and The Hit List, having those v1.0 apps with their bland icons sitting on the dock is the closest to a sin for any Mac head. The natural motion is to delete or at least hide them as soon as possible and install the solution you are used to.
Since Apple provides these free of charge in its latest desktop and mobile operating systems, they're worth checking out. Prior to Mountain Lion, the Mail client in OS X would take care of both note and to-do synchronisation. The functionality is still there, the only difference is that two separate apps are taking care of it, helping to declutter the Mail app in the process.
If you have been playing with the iOS Reminders app, especially on the iPad, the desktop version is pretty similar. The faux leather and textured paper look is still there, perhaps in a bid for visual consistency that doesn't make much sense to me. This is part of the very criticised design trend of skeuomorphism. I don't particularly think the textures used here contribute to make the apps more efficient, maybe just a bit more pleasant those leather details look really crisp on Retina displays. The appearance of the app is key here, as I prefer a more subtle thing on my desktop and iPhone if I'm going to use it all day long. I'm still willing to go with it.
Task synchronisation that works
Powered by iCloud, the Reminders app is a fantastic example of keeping your devices in sync without much effort. Apple calls this 'Reminders Everywhere' and it's a great introduction to over-the-air synchronisation for users that aren't very technical. You can create new items on your iPhone and your Mac will automatically update with that information. If you're feeling like doing some spring cleaning in your to-do list, you can create folders (called lists) to categorise all your ideas. All those changes will reflect in the rest of your devices linked to the service.
Once you have setup the online synchronisation, iCloud's servers push the information fairly quickly without delay. Compared with other GTD suites that use WiFi sync, this is a massive advantage. Other apps that sync to the cloud run under a subscription model.
When it comes to to feature list, Reminders is very simplistic. The name of the app itself already hints this isn't going to be a powerhouse of productivity, however, you can stretch those simple reminders quite a bit without much effort. In fact, the layout of the app only invites you to type some words to describe your task or idea, which will become the title of the reminder. In Mountain Lion a subtle i icon appears when you hover over the entry that allows you to add more complex attributes to the task. In iOS you only need to tap on it.
There are four things you can do with your task at this point. You can set an alert hence the name Reminders either on a day and time or depending on your location. Selecting the former will identify when you approach or leave an address. This was demoed by Scott Forstall at a 2011 WWDC Keynote with some everyday examples but I've yet have to use it in a real life situation.
In addition to the alert, you can also set up it priority to the basic low, medium, high, include some notes or add the task to one of your lists on the desktop you simply drag and drop to its destination.
The actual test scenario
If there is a reason why I didn't complain about Reminders during this test week is because entering new items is fast. When I'm on the go and have a brilliant idea I need the app the fade away and leave me alone in front of the keyboard. When I'm on a good idea strike where I need to input several entries quickly, I cannot be messing around with taps and navigation mazes. That's why I like so much The Hit List for iPhone and behind all the fake black leather Apple is also hiding some common sense.
Tapping the plus icon on the top right corner slides up the keyboard to begin typing. If this wasn't enough, tapping on the space under the last entry the next line on the wide-ruled paper has the same effect. When have finished typing and want to see the main view, simply tap Done. Otherwise, and here's the beauty of it, you can carry on adding new task either tapping return on the keyboard, tapping the next empty line or tapping the plus button. Three different options for the most critical action in a To-Do list app. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Ticking off every item lacks some type of visual feedback on the iOS version, as the task will remain on the list ticked. In the desktop version the tasks mark as done fade away in a gracious motion, nowhere to be seen on the iPhone. Alternative apps use this as an extra wow factor to capitalise on that completion satisfaction.
More than an experiment
Knowing that the iPhone, iPad and Mac versions are something novel for Apple, I'm really satisfied with the result. There are some aspects to polish and things that I would like to see there. There isn't any sync button, no way top refresh. This is something they probably want to keep behind the scenes for the casual users in detriment of the sense of control OCD people need. Quitting and launching the app again seems to trigger the refresh instantaneously if you where wondering.
The fact that Apple is shoehorning Reminders in its operating systems shouldn't be a bug drama for the rich environment of productivity tools available. I think it's more of acknowledging the integration with Mail and iCal didn't really work and they are giving it some room and making more evident that there is a tool for checklists built-in. Also, Apple hasn't Sherlocked any developer with Reminders, and the geofencing brings some fresh air to the scene.
For the sub-set of people with a Mountain Lion machine and an iOS device, Reminders is a perfect gateway to more complex and more expensive productivity suites. It comes with some serious limitations if you want to organise your workflow with something like the Getting Things Done method although it can be worked around. We've waited a long time to see this level of over-the-air synchronisation between apps and it's magical. The little setup needed and the ease of use will convince more users to invest in these type of tools over time. And that's something you cannot underestimate with Reminders.