updated 07:36 pm EST, Sat December 28, 2013
Apps to keep you beholden to no tech master
(This is the fifth in a series that showcases apps the staff at MacNN and Electronista use and recommend. The first installment, discussing media streaming and playback apps, is here. The second covered photo-editing apps, the third looked at music apps, and the fourth focused on board game conversions.)
One of the biggest perks of being a technology writer is getting to play with a bunch of the latest toys from lots of companies, sometimes before they come out. At any given moment, my house holds maybe four tablets, three to five smartphones, and two or three notebooks and desktops, including my own personally-owned tech, of course. In order to work across these multiple devices, I've had to develop a healthy agnosticism when it comes to platforms. This article on My Five Apps, then, will be an attempt to convert you to that view: The One True Tech Faith of No True Tech Faiths.
The Platform Agnostic Path isn't a lonely one -- you'll largely find yourself using many of the same apps as others -- but it is one without brand fervor and instead works toward finding things that will help us, well, work. The key to that is locating what exactly it is that you want to do and then finding those third-party apps that make that possible. What I tend to want to do is to write and to remember and to occasionally entertain myself. To that end:
Evernote has gone from a relatively simple cloud-based note-taking app to an app powerhouse with a presence on every major platform. The Green Elephant is just about indispensable, as it has a presence on OS X, Windows 8, iOS, Fire OS, Android, Windows RT, BlackBerry, and just about every other platform you or I will wind up working on. On top of that, it's got an ever-capable web-portal, so you always still have access through the browser.
I use Evernote largely to save assorted brain-droppings: poem snippets, article ideas, script drafts, and so forth. The Evernote Web Clipper allows for quick storage of anything that tickles your fancy or floats your boat in your endless web crawling. It's the sort of thing that really helps one keep track of potential inspirations, so long as one is willing to do the legwork of tagging and minimally organizing things.
Here you may be thinking, "But, Kevin, isn't the inclusion of Pocket directly after Evernote somewhat redundant?" To which I respond, "Quiet, you. Who's the one proselytizing the Platform Agnostic Path here?"
Pocket makes it onto my list because it helps compartmentalize assorted web clippings. Text things go into Evernote, visual things get tucked into the Pocket. Sure, it would be easy to simply tag things within Evernote and sort the visuals into a visual folder, but having a (mostly) separate app that's devoted almost entirely to cool pictures, drawing inspirations, and so forth is pleasant.
Also, Pocket just serves as a terrific repository, whereas Evernote has content creation features as well. Thus: Pocket for fuel storage, Evernote for actual fuel usage. Plus, Pocket integrates remarkably well with Evernote. Anything saved in a Pocket can be easily passed on to an Evernote account, and vice versa.
With regard to cross-platform operation, Pocket falls a little short of Evernote's standard, as it doesn't have native Modern apps for Windows 8, Windows RT, or Windows Phone 8. The developer communities on those platforms, though, have dutifully developed clients that can access Pocket and keep you in touch with all of your saved content. When on Windows Phone 8, I go with Pouch, and I stick with Latermark on Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Pocket is also not yet native on BlackBerry or Kindle, but it is available for Kobo, iOS, Android and through a web browser, and integrates with some 500 other apps -- meaning no matter what device you're using, there's an app there that will let you save items to Pocket for later reading. You can get the native versions here.
You could try to talk about working across platforms without mentioning Dropbox, but that would just be silly. Sure, Apple has iCloud -- lovely, assuming you buy into the iOS "walled garden" -- while Microsoft has SkyDrive, and Google has Google Drive, which actually works quite well, and there are at least a dozen more like those. But Dropbox tops them all, as far as we're concerned. It has a solid presence -- in the form of a native app -- on just about every platform, something pretty much none of its major competitors can say. In the event you're somehow using an unsupported platform, there is still the service's reliable web client, and if you don't have access to a browser and the web ... well, how are you reading this article in the first place?
Whereas Evernote holds my brain-dumps and thought fragments, and Pocket holds potentially inspirational web flotsam and jetsam, Dropbox winds up holding many of the things that don't fit into either category. Scripts that have actually been developed, photo albums I want to keep track of, MP3s I want to access from any device, even the dozens of chess books I will totally get around to reading someday: all of those and more get crammed into Dropbox.
When moving between computers, it's an incredibly useful continuity tool, and it will work just as well for accessing files on the go if you're trying not to be tied down by any one smartphone, desktop, or tablet platform. Dropbox's free 2GB of storage is a little paltry compared to other services, but the slick user interface makes paying for additional space a lot less painful.
Also -- and you may be sensing a pattern developing here -- Dropbox integrates well with Evernote, and vice versa. So one can share between those apps, and given Evernote's interoperation with Pocket, a cursory knowledge of the transitive property tells us that sharing either way from Dropbox to Evernote to Pocket should be a breeze.
Say what you want about the tenets of Amazon's loss-leading strategy with regard to its Kindle and Kindle Fire hardware; at least it's an internally consistent ethos. Just as Amazon has no qualms with its tablets and e-readers being the razors to the Kindle Store content's blade, it's also totally willing to put top-notch Kindle apps onto as many platforms as possible; anything so long as you buy books from Amazon.
As a result, you can read synced Kindle content across just about anything this side of two cans and a string. That means that when I get around to reading those aforementioned chess books, I can do it across the MacBook Air, iPad mini, Moto X, Lumia 2520, or even the old Kindle e-reader that's lying around somewhere, depending on where I am and what mood strikes me.
We already highlighted this app in Bradley's Essential Music Apps piece, but I'm including it in the Platform Agnostic Path. This is less about the Google music app proper -- available on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android -- than it is about Play Music as a service.
Like the Xbox Music app, and like Apple's iTunes Match, Google Music allows you to store your own personal tunes, as well as to buy music from the built-in store. Unlike those others, though, full web access to your music library is available for free. That is "free" as in beer. With the ability to store up to 20,000 songs and access them from any connected device, Google Music is truly head and shoulders above its competition, and the perfect music solution for the Platform Agnostic. One simply determines a folder on a computer for Google Music to sync to and the Music Manager app takes care of the rest, uploading or matching a user's library in the cloud. You can even download individual songs, or your entire music library to a computer, as well as keep tunes stored locally on mobile devices.
If Google hasn't built an app for a particular platform -- as is the case with both Windows Phone and Windows RT -- the service is still accessible either through a web browser or through any number of client apps.
Of course, this piece is just the first few steps on the Platform Agnostic Path. There's a slew of apps I couldn't touch on, due to the five app ceiling - Wordament, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and so forth. These, though, should get you started on freeing yourself from any of the straitjackets we politely call "ecosystems." With this lineup, you're set for basic productivity, using the Internet as a second brain, reading, and keeping your music accessible wherever you go.
The fun thing about using these apps -- and converting the rest of your device use to Platform Agnosticism -- is that you're beholden to no tech master. Tired of Apple's iOS strictures? Switch over to Android. Fed up with Android's lackluster design? Pop on over to Windows 8. Want to stick it to Microsoft? See either of the previous two.
Tech wanderlust can be cheaper or more expensive, depending on your habits, but it's almost inevitably quite liberating. Here's to hoping these suggestions help you in your travels between platforms.