Your editor does not normally need any computerized assistance when it
comes to knowing what needs to be done next; it's usually just a matter of
dealing with whatever is on fire at the moment. Still, there are times
when it would be nice to have a task management tool with a longer view, where a
different set of priorities can be expressed. Recently it became time to
work on one of those longstanding todo items and examine
as a possibility for that role.
A task manager which works with the phone obviously makes sense; one cannot
always be at the keyboard when trying to figure out what to do next.
Anybody who has an Android-based phone has a long list of task management
choose from; simply working through the list is the sort of todo item that
can make one decide to just drink beer and mess around on the net instead.
So why pick Astrid out of the pile of applications? It comes down to two
reasons: it comes well recommended, and it's free software - Astrid is
licensed under GPLv2 and can be downloaded from github.
Astrid provides the kinds of features that one might expect from this type
of application. One can enter tasks and assign an importance and a
deadline to each. This is the 21st century, so, naturally, tasks can be
tagged as well. A timer mechanism allows the user to track how much time
goes into the accomplishment of each task - a useful feature, perhaps, if
that time will subsequently be billed for. And, naturally, one can mark
tasks as being done.
There are various options for how obnoxiously Astrid
should nag as deadlines approach and just how hard it should be to
make the notifications go away. A true procrastinator with a masochistic
streak can configure the application to a phone-smashing level of
annoyance. For the rest of us, simple notifications and, possibly, a
desktop widget will do.
In general, Astrid works as advertised. Entering new tasks is easy, and
the notifications work as expected. There is a whole set of options for
filtering the display of tasks which must be useful to some people;
work-oriented tasks can be separated from shopping lists, for example. The
desktop widget works but, like a number of other Android applications, it
makes poor use of the space which is given to it. About half of the
allotted space contains task information - truncated to the point of near
uselessness. Some thought put into the organization of that widget might
make it worth dedicating scarce desktop space to. As it is, your editor
couldn't justify deleting something else to make space for it.
One of the sticking points with phone-based task managers is the simple
inconvenience of entering tasks through an on-screen keyboard. The
motivation to turn an "oh, yeah, I have to do X" moment into a documented
task fades when it requires using a small screen and a tiny keyboard. The
obvious answer to this problem is synchronization with some sort of online
service, preferably one which enables access over the web from real
computers as well. To this end, Astrid will synchronize with the Google
mail task list or with an online service called Producteev. Gmail provides simple
online storage and synchronization, while Producteev has (for a fee) all
kinds of options for shared task lists, report generation, and more. The
fact that use of SSL is a paid option on Producteev is not particularly
encouraging, but so it goes.
The online documentation talks about synchronization with Remember the milk, but version
188.8.131.52 does not appear to actually support that service.
Your editor only tried out the Google-based synchronization. It works as
expected; tasks move nicely between Google and the application. Of
course, using this feature requires providing one's Google password to
Astrid and providing one's task lists to Google, but, after all, it's not
like Google knows anything else about us anyway.
This kind of synchronization is useful, and, honestly, worrying about storing
some todo items on Google's server seems pretty silly if one is willing to
take the privacy-reducing step of walking around with an Android phone in
one's pocket. Still, it would be nice to be able to synchronize
applications like this to a more private backing store - preferably one
which does not require a great deal of pain to set up. We need a
mechanism by which one can install a simple backup appliance onto a server
anywhere on the net; otherwise we'll always be dependent on services
provided by companies whose interests will not always align with our own.
(Along these lines, it's worth noting that Astrid, in its default
configuration, phones home to a service called Flurry with "anonymized" information about
how the application is used. This reporting can be turned off in the
While Astrid is free software, it supports add-ons which are not. The Astrid store offers a couple of
paid add-ons. One of which offers timers, "bigger better widgets,"
voice-based features, and "No Ads!" A fair amount of time playing with
Astrid has not turned up an advertisement yet, but, one assumes, that could
happen at some future time. There is also a "Locale add-on" which allows
tasks to be keyed on the phone's location.
Some of these features, seemingly, could be added by anybody willing to dig
into the Astrid source. Certainly, any sort of advertising antifeature
could easily be subtracted that way. One can only assume that patches to
that end would not be accepted upstream. Some quick searching failed to
turn up anybody who has rebuilt Astrid with a different feature set; it is
nice to know that a fork is a possibility, though, should Astrid's masters
take an overly user-hostile direction.
There could be changes in store for Astrid; recently its developers announced that
they had "brought in some external funding" and will be
focusing more on Astrid in particular. There will be a new synchronization
service at Astrid.com, an iPhone version,
and more. Whether this money - and the revenue expectations that certainly
come with it - will push Astrid in a less friendly direction remains to be
seen. Hopefully the open-source nature of the code will help to keep the
developers focused on keeping users happy.
For now, there seems to be little to worry about; the only visibly
commercial aspect of current Astrid builds is the "add-ons" button in the
main menu. Astrid's developers have been successful in creating a task
management application which is appealing to a wide range of people. With
luck, it will just get better now that more developer time will be made
to post comments)