Consolidating my online presence

I’ve mentioned over the last few days that I am in the process of consolidating my on-line presence. Let me describe the why and how of this for folks who might be interested.

Why consolidate?

There is so much stuff out there that I’ve used in fits and starts and only a handful of things that I use consistently. I have a LiveJournal account, a Facebook account, a MySpace account, a GoodReads account, a Google account, a Yahoo account, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn account and those are just the ones that come to mind. Then there are the photo sites. Kodak, Flickr, Picassa, Photobucket. And don’t forget services like Delicious. There are other blogs to which I have accounts, like WordPress and Blogger and Blogspot. There are premium services like MobileMe, domain hosting at Panix.

And then there is email itself. There’s my paid Panix account, Yahoo!Mail, Gmail, work email, DotMac (MobileMe) email, my domain emails (jamierubin.net) to say nothing of places like the UCR Alumni Association which provides free email forwarding for my alumnus email account. It’s too much to handle and too confusing and too scattered and too decentralized to work well in any meaningful way for me. It’s too much too even remember what’s out there. These two paragraphs probably represent the most comprehensive list of my on-line presence and even so, I’m sure that I’m forgetting some things. It’s time to consolidate things down to a workable core set of tools and services. It’s time to make the most efficient use of what’s out there to manage my on-line presence. This is why I decided to consolidate things.

Requirements for consolidation

In order to consolidate things, I came up with a set of requirements for what I was looking for in terms of tools and services.

  1. If there were multiple tools and services, they have to work well together.
  2. If multiple accounts are required, the tools and services should not overlap in functionality (e.g. two email services, two photo services, etc.)
  3. Tools and services should have a wide user base to allow for the greatest possible collaboration.
  4. Where it makes sense tools and services should be free.

Below I describe some of the though process behind my consolidation choices and despite some amount of latitude, the choices were generally guided by these requirements.

Email consolidation

I have used a Panix email account since 2003. Panix is one of the oldest ISPs on the Internet and provides relatively cheap UNIX shell access and email. At the time, I thought it was cool to have the UNIX shell access and I liked the hands-off approach to email. It was relatively simple and straightforward, and gave me what I wanted. It was also pretty cheap. It costs $100/year for the UNIX shell access and email.

Recently, however, I’ve found that there are limitations with this that have been bogging me down. Disk space is one thing. I have 100 MB at Panix but could always use more. I keep older emailed archived on my desktop machine at home, but I occasionally find that it would be useful to access that remotely–and I can’t get at it until I get home. Finally, while I keep a very simple folder structure, searching for mail has increasingly become a problem for me. I wanted to see if I could find something that would do more. So, in addition to the general requirements I outlined above, I put together some additional requirements for email:

  1. It has to be compatible with Mail.app (Apple Mail), which in my mind is one of the best mail clients ever developed.
  2. It has to be compatible with my iPhone.
  3. It has to support IMAP mail.
  4. It has to have a good web mail interface.
  5. It has to have adequate storage to keep email on the server.
  6. It has to have good search capabilities.
  7. It has to be relatively easy to migrate to.

After exploring some alternatives to Panix (Yahoo!Mail, and MobileMe were candidates), I decided on Gmail. Here’s why:

  1. It meets all of the general requirements:
    1. It works well with other Google tools and apps as well as other services.
    2. It allows immediate consolidation of several other tools and services (see below)
    3. It has a very wide user base
    4. It’s free!
  2. It It meets all of my email requirements:
    1. It’s fully compatible with Mail.app
    2. It works perfectly on my iPhone
    3. It supports IMAP
    4. It has a very good web mail interface
    5. It provides an initial 7 GB of email storage at no charge
    6. It has outstanding search capabilities–after all, this is Google we’re talking about
    7. It was easy to migrate to

In addition, I love the "label" feature (which is akin to tagging), and the "archiving" feature, which depends heavily on labeling and Google’s powerful search tools.

Calendar consolidation

Prior to consolidation, I used iCal to manage my calendar. iCal would sync with MobileMe so that my calendar was up-to-date on all of my computers and my iPhone. Once I chose Google for email, however, it began to make sense to rethink calendaring. For one thing, Google has a calendaring tool. I took a look at it and at once I liked it. First, it’s integrated with all of the other Google tools. However, on closer examination, I discovered some more benefits:

  1. It would allow me to share calendars (and calendar permissions) with other Gmail users. Since Kelly is a Gmail user, this provided a very easy way to allow us to share calendars and even work off the same calendar.
  2. It allows me to provide public access to varying degrees of calendaring information, from fully public, to just free/busy time.
  3. It syncs with my iPhone in more or less real-time. If I make a change in one place, that change immediately appears on my calendar no matter where I look at it.
  4. It is incredibly easy to use.
  5. It emails me my daily agenda each morning.

So I migrated my calendar to Google calendar. I also made sure Kelly was set up on Google calendar and that we had access to each other’s calendars. It worked perfectly. What’s more, I no longer need Mobile Me to sync my iCal with my iPhone, and if I can get rid of Mobile Me, that saves money. (Oh yeah, did I mention that Google calendar is free?)

Contact consolidation

I use the Apple Address Book to manage my contact information. This works seamlessly with iCal and Apple Mail. So when I was investigating Google tools, I needed to make sure it had adequate contact functionality and integration. It does. It was easy to export my contacts and upload them to Gmail. I then cleaned them up on the Gmail side (photos didn’t come over, but I made use of Picassa–more on that shortly–to pull in contact pictures). When I synced my calendar with my iPhone, I found that my Gmail contacts are synced along with the calendar, so I’m good.

An added benefit of the contacts is that I can give people in my contact list various levels of access to my Google tools and services, which is very convenient.

Photograph consolidation

I’ve always been envious of folks like strausmouse, who from the very beginning has always posted his photographs to a single place. I was not like that and I’ve got photos scattered with services halfway across the Internet. When I chose Gmail, I started looking at all of the other Google tools and that included Picasa, Google’s photo management tool. I sort of backed into this one, decided to use it at my consolidated photo repository before fully looking it over, mainly because it was integrated with other Google tools. But once I had a chance to look at it, I found that it met my requirements and then some.

There is a "tagging" feature in Picasa that takes Facebook’s "tag a person" feature one step further: You have Picasa analyze a photo album and it pulls all of the faces out of photos and asked you to take them (using your Contacts). However, in pulling out the faces, it also does some face-recognition scanning and when you "tag" a face, it will tag all instances of that person in other photos in the album, so long as it could match the faces. Then, as you progress, it "suggests" tags, for faces it can’t quite recognize. And all of this ties back into Google’s search software so you can search your photos for contacts and see the results.

Incidentally, by default, these are all set to private so that the tagged information (or even photos) are exposed to anyone other than the account owner. All Google apps and tools appear to be very sensitive to security.

This means I can give up Flickr, Kodak, Photobucket and the myriad of other sites I’ve used for photos in the past.

Google Docs

I’ve already started to make use of Google Docs, a set of fully functional, web-based productivity tools including a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. They are compatible with Microsoft Office and Open Office. They work pretty well and allow you to share documents so that you can work collaboratively on them. The documents are stored on-line so you can access them anywhere. I don’t use these for hardcore work. But I keep things like my Exercise Log and other informal documents out there and I find it to be very convenient.

How has all of this helped?

Aside from the cool benefits I’ve already described, there is a significant cost-savings with all of this (and in the current economy, saving money is important). In the next month or so, I will be getting rid of Panix ($250/year when you factor in shell access, email, domain hosting and database server) and Mobile Me ($99/year). Right there is a savings of $350 and I don’t actually lose anything.

  • I’m in the process of looking for another host for my domain. Google is one possibility.
  • I used Mobile me primarily for syncing email, contacts and calendars, as well as backups. Now I have Google doing the syncing for free and I am starting to use TimeMachine on my computers at home to back up data.
  • Mobile Me provides some enhancements to video chats, but as far as my testing goes, Google Chats works perfectly well for video chats

Futhermore, Google has iGoogle which consolidates things down into a single customizable view. I can read any RSS feeds there. I can establish a dashboard for things like mail and calendars. So my entry point to much of my functionality is through Google.

So what am I keeping?

LiveJournal is staying. I have a permanent account that has been paid for and I like it. More and more LiveJournal has integrations into other systems (I’ve already integrated it with Facebook) and I like the community of people who use it.

Facebook is making the cut. Again, there is a high degree of integration with other tools (including Twitter, Goodreads, LiveJournal and Google). It serves its own niche purpose of keeping in touch with friends and family in a less formalized way than a blog provides.

Goodreads is a keeper. In fact, Goodreads is going to replace the list of book I’ve read since 1996 as the public-facing version of the list. (I’ll still keep my statistical list privately for my own purposes, but will likely use Google Docs to store it.)

Twitter has made the cut–for now. I haven’t really figured out what to use Twitter for, considering that I’ve got Facebook and LiveJournal. But I’m not quite ready to give it up. I want to see how it evolves.

Oh, and goodbye Microsoft…

It’s probably worth mentioning here that about 2 weeks ago, I official gave up Microsoft products for personal use. For the last two weeks, I have been using Open Office and I really like it. For those who don’t know, Open Office is an open source productivity suite, like MIcrosoft Office, that includes Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Database, Drawing tools that rival Microsoft Office in functionality (and that are also fully compatible with Microsoft Office and Google Docs).

I don’t use Open Office for writing–except for the printing of final drafts. I use Scrivener for writing and Scrivener compiles drafts to both .doc and .rtf formats, both of which can be read by Open Office. I do use Open Office for formal correspondence, other types of writing (lists,etc.) and of course, for spreadsheets. It’s fully Macintosh compatible (and it works on Windows, UNIX and Linux) and it’s documents are all stored in an open source format that makes compatibility and collaboration that much easier.

It so happens that it was the last Microsoft product that I was using on my personal systems (I still use Microsoft products at work, of course). So it seems fitting that as part of this consolidation, I mention my consolidation away from Microsoft.

Conclusion

I think this has been great so far and it has really helped to simplify things, while enhancing the capabilities of tools like email, calendaring, and on-line collaboration in general. Nevertheless, I’m sure there will be issues. I address a few below for those considering following in my footsteps:

  • While Google tools and services are free now, they might cost money later. Google’s bread and butter comes from advertisements and those subsidize the tools at the moment (there are premium versions that you can pay for, particularly with Google Docs). I suspect, however, that the annual costs would not come close to exceeding the $350/year that I’m saving as part of this consolidation.
  • Security is always a concern, but Google’s reputation for security has been pretty good thus far. Many of the connections to the tools and services are through secure (SSL) connections. But this is something that I will have to investigate further.
  • It’s all on-line. What happens if Google goes down for a time. Well, the truth is that’s a problem with any on-line service. Google provides some additional tools for working with Google Docs off-line. Copies of email messages and my calendar and contacts are stored on my computer so I’d still have access to those. But it is a kind of "all of your eggs in one basket" scenario and that’s something to consider.

If anyone has questions about what I have done as part of this consolidation, please post a comment and I’ll try and answer them.