How I Went Paperless–And Why You Should Too

While I have always been an advocate of technology, I never thought of eliminating paper from my school life. Everything was on paper: my notes, my assignments, my schedule, etc. But when I threw out my back last February, I realized that my 22-pound backpack had to go. As I recovered, I rethought my various organizational techniques and slimmed down my load by digitizing my whole life. Ultimately, my new system became a magnificent success–so much so that I have decided to share my experience with you. Read onwards for details about how and why I achieved a life without paper.

The Benefits:

  • Lighten and compress my load–I removed a small car tire’s weight (16 lbs) from my bag!
  • Store my files, notes, doodles, forms, etc. digitally so they can be accessed anywhere and anytime
  • Organize my personal information better and faster than any physical system
  • Collaborate and share my personal items with ease

My System:

Evernote:
Effectively my digital brain, Evernote is where I house all of my notes, files, scanned documents, etc. Its fast and intuitive organization system allows me to file everything away in its proper place. For example, I keep a notebook for every class and store each assignment, homework, class note, or hand-out in separate notes that are easily searchable. In addition, the plethora of platforms supported by the company allows me to access my notes from my phone, my computer, my tablet, and the Web. The magnitude of items I store in my account forces me to pay for their premium plan ($44 dollars per year), but its utility more than makes up for the cost.

iPad:
In almost all cases, the iPad has replaced the need for paper in my everyday life. Its smaller form factor makes it more portable than my 4.46 lb laptop, and the combination of amazing software and ingenius hardware addons have made it indispensable. For one, I use it for taking notes on Evernote with my keyboard addon, and and handwriting notes and assignments with my stylus. Of course, it will not replace my computer for power-intensive tasks, but for taking notes and doing homework it suffices.

Stylus:
Abandoning paper and its functions would have been impossible, but luckily I have assembled a capable system of emulating it. One of the most crucial aspects of this model is definitely my stylus. My two favorites are compared and contrasted below:

  1. Adonit Jot:
    My stylus of choice, the Adonit Jot brings a unique pen tip and form factor to the stylus world. The Jot’s fine point and clear disk are perfect for handwriting and diamgramming–allowing me to write much more accurately than its rubber-tipped cousins. However for the artistically minded, this stylus falls short due to its inability to produce a variety of angles. Unfortunately, writing with the Jot takes getting used to; for example, I have to press a bit harder on the iPad screen for the tip to register, and the tapping noise that the stylus makes can get on my nerves. I also found that over time it lost responsiveness unless I kept my iPad screen spotless.
  2. Wacom Bamboo:
    The Wacom Bamboo wins best-in-show from the classic rubber-tipped styli. The stylus’ small tip makes it quite accurate, but I found the tip-visibility issue leaves something to be desired. The Bamboo’s tip makes it ideal for artists, as pen and brush strokes can be emulated in a much more natural way. For people who do more drawing, I would recommend the Bamboo, but otherwise, go for the Jot.

Digital Paper Software:
While the hardware involved in echoing the paper experience is important, software also deserves a mention. In regards to software on the iPad, there are two applications I would recommend:

  1. Noteshelf:
    Noteshelf offers a sleek interface and loads of features in order to jot down anything. The app allows you to create different notebooks to house your scribbles, and contains the ability to zoom on each page–a feature that makes your writing much more precise. Its export features are also quite robust: Email, Evernote, and Dropbox are only a few of the options offered. The only thing that is lacking from Noteshelf is the ability to import PDFs to anotate–something I sorely miss but am willing to live without. Overall, Noteshelf has become my note-taking app of choice because of its looks, features, and easy exports.
  2. Notability:
    An alternative to Noteshelf, Notability sacrifices beauty for increased utility, such as the ability to import PDFs and automatic sync to Dropbox. While I appreciate the increased feature set, I am not inclined to give up Noteshelf’s ease of use and export directly to Evernote.

Keyboard/Laptop:
In order to avoid carrying around my 4.46 lb laptop around, I decided to purchase a keyboard addon for my iPad–somewhat of an oxymoron mind you. Despite my original misgivings, the keyboard has proven to be extremely utilitarian when lightweight tasks need to be done, or when I am traveling. Read about my top choices below:

  1. Adonit Writer:
    For the past eight months I have been using the Adonit Writer for iPad, and, having tested other iPad keyboard cases by big-name manufacturers, I can say that the Writer tops them all. The case allows for a wide range of viewing angles for your iPad, and the keyboard stays locked in place with a powerful magnet. The case features a full QWERTY keyboard including iPad-exclusive function keys such as Home, Copy, Paste, and more. Additionally, the case covers the whole iPad, front and back, when closed, meaning that the tablet is fully protected from dents, scratches, and gunk. Of course, the keyboard needs to be charged once a month with a micro-USB port. Its only drawbacks come from cheap build quality, a slightly cramped keyboard layout, and the annoying instance where my fingers catch the edges of the key wells.
  2. The Brydge:
    The other major candidate for an iPad keyboard attachment is the Brydge, a Kickstarter project that has begun shipping its amazing keyboard. Unlike many cases on the market, the Brydge tries to emulate the MacBook Air experience with a clamshell case actually made of aerospace-grade aluminum. In addition, its patent-pending clamp/hinge keeps a firm grip on the iPad, allowing the keyboard/tablet combination to stay connected even when shaken vigorously (see Brydge video). Otherwise, it works the same way as the Writer, with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard crammed into an iPad form factor and charging available through micro-USB once per month or so. So far, I actually prefer it over the Writer because of its ease of setup, better and sturdier build quality, and more ergonomic keyboard.
  3. Other Options:
    Other options, such as the Logitech Ultra Thin Keyboard Cover present themselves, but their awkwardness and lack of utilitarian features such as sleep-wake magnets and intelligent on-and-off to conserve battery make them less than ideal. If you already own a Macbook Air, there is less need for an iPad keyboard, but many (including MG Siegler) have decided to replace their computer completely. Regardless, the ability to type is still extremely important even in an age where traditional PCs are on the decline.

Scanner:
Unfortunately, as hard as I may try, I always end up with real paper documents in my possession. Luckily, there are many scanners on the market that easily help me digitize the papers I receive so I can send them to Evernote and throw them in with my digital notes. My favorite happens to be the Doxie:

  • Doxie:
    The Doxie family of scanners by Apparent are by far the cheapest, simplest, and most portable scanners on the market. Designed for small size, these scanners are svelte enough to fit in a backpack (not that I need to), and using them is as simple as turning it on and threading pages through. Once I am done scanning a day’s worth of assignments and handouts, I can plug the scanner into my computer and import my scans using Apparent’s excellent free proprietary software. With features such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), PDF stapling, image adjustments, and export ability to programs and file formats such as Evernote, Photoshop, PDF, and more, The Doxie software is more than adequate to fit my needs. From scan to import, Doxie scanners deliver the best experience anyone can get for a relatively cheap price, and I highly recommend that you choose it as your scanner of choice.

The Big Picture:

Although unconventional, going paperless has been one of my better decisions. All of a sudden I can carry less, worry less, and travel light. Everything I need is in one place, and I only have a few items to keep track of, rather than many notebooks and folders. My information is also more accessible, and I can get at it at home, on the go, and anywhere else there is Internet. While it may seem like a significantly difficult change, the benefits more than outweigh the drawbacks. Really, take the plunge, and you will never regret it.

Free Food and Foosball–Not Your Typical Summer Internship

Last April, I rang Xobni’s doorbell, wondering if my interview with Jeff Bonforte (the CEO) would be persuasive enough to secure a summer job. The essay I had written a few weeks prior at his request had clearly made an impression, but I wasn’t prepared for the job offer I received after only a few minutes in the room. While I had interviews and offers from a few other companies, Xobni felt different. At the time I had no idea how much I would learn about the inner-workings of a startup, but the interesting products, along with the experienced and hospitable people were a draw. And yes, free food and transportation made the choice much more palatable (pardon the tongue in cheek humor).

Fast forward two months, and I was once again knocking on Xobni’s door–this time to start work. I had limited programming experience, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was put to work doing engaging and meaningful projects for my entire 6 week internship.

I began the summer by conducting detailed technical research and experimentation on various platforms, discovering constraints and loopholes for Xobni to manipulate in future features and products. This line of inquiry led me to investigate briefly the complex and sometimes-frustrating world of Objective-C and the iOS SDK, stretching my meager programming skills to their limit. I also did several competitive analysis projects as new rivals appeared on the scene. As I eased into life at Xobni, I also found myself exploring user-experience design–specifically where behind-the-scenes processes intersect ease-of-use and front-facing interfaces.

Throughout the summer, I was able to attend and participate in many product meetings. At the beginning, I merely observed goings-on, but by watching experienced professionals I was able to pick up tricks of the trade, such as comparing design trade-offs or prioritization of features. As the weeks went on, these tips allowed me to participate in discussions and heated debates, especially where my areas of research were concerned, and eventually conduct my own presentations and meetings.

While these experiences were extremely interesting, the best part of my job came when I was invited to get involved in the development of a project still in its infancy. initially, the CEO sat the team down and gave us a deadline of two weeks to finish Version One. Taking his vision to reality in that time frame seemed impossible, but through careful planning, delegation, and hours of hard work we were able to create a minimum viable product that blew away even Jeff Bonforte’s high standards. Over the course of the project, I learned about the basics of project management, the importance of frequent and detailed communication, and the value of “good enough” in a market where time is of the essence. While we did exert extreme effort, part of what energized us was the ability to take occasional breaks and let loose, playing killer foosball or rough-housing with Zoe, the company dog. This intense, yet fun-loving atmosphere and never-ending passion for this line of work fueled the sustained desire to be industrious for extended periods of time.

This summer I had the privilege to immerse myself in life at a well-managed startup. I conducted and applied interesting research, witnessed vigorous product design debates, and worked with knowledgeable colleagues who generously shared valuable wisdom about their area of expertise. Xobni invested significantly to make my summer meaningful, and I can safely say they succeeded. I not only learned about the topics I investigated, but I also acquired many skills necessary to be successful in a startup work environment–or any other work environment for that matter. While I will no longer knock on Xobni’s door every morning, the memories and lessons of my time there will come with me wherever I go. I can’t thank them enough for all I learned, the relationships I forged, and the fun I had.

P.S.: This post wouldn’t be complete without a shameless plug to go sign up for Xobni. They offer an amazing platform for keeping track of relationships across your address book, email and social media. You can learn more at their website (www.xobni.com), or download their apps and extensions from the App Store®, Google Play®, the Chrome Web Store®, or their website.

The Economics of Hybrid Cars

When driving in northern California, it is quite hard not to spot a Prius driving alongside you. If you look a little bit harder, you will notice a hybrid logo on many other vehicles on the road. I guess Silicon Valley is just one more beneficiary of the hybrid fever that has been spreading across the nation. U.S. hybrid sales have skyrocketed 165% per year over the past decade due to increased attention to climate change, escalating gas prices, and an effort to be energy conscious. While more people are buying hybrid cars, it does not seem to as popular in other parts of the country. Maybe citizens of the Valley can afford to live their principles due to their larger-than-average pocketbooks. On the surface, it seems gasoline cars are a better deal than their hybrid counterparts, with hybrids often costing thousands of dollars more. However, deeper investigation reveals that hybrids may be cheaper in the long run than their gas-guzzling cousins.

Let’s look at some examples to see why this might be. Lets say two people, Eco-friendly Elaine and Skeptic Sam are looking to buy a car. Both of them happen to want the Toyota Highlander, which comes in both gas and hybrid models. Elaine decides to buy the hybrid variant, and Sam purchases the regular version with equivalent trim. At first glance, Sam seems to have gotten the better deal. He has paid $35,745 for his car–$2,795 dollars less than Elaine’s $38,540 purchase. In order to proceed, we must assume two things. First, that both Elaine and Sam drive 15,194 miles per year, the average between the ages of 20 and 54, and second, that each year Elaine and Sam own their car the gas price averages around $5. This is difficult to predict, but given the current trends, it is not an unlikely guess. If we divide the miles driven per year (15,194) by the average miles per gallon of the two cars (21MPG for gas and 28MPG for hybrid), we find that Sam’s car requires around 724 gallons per year, while Elaine’s uses 181 gallons less, or 543 gallons per year. If we multiply the difference in gallons used per year (181) by the average gas price ($5), we will figure out that Sam spends $905 more than Elaine per year on gas.

Fast forward five years. Both Sam and Elaine have sold their car, with Sam’s fetching $17,209 and Elaine’s fetching $17,751–$542 more than Sam, reflecting the typical premium a hybrid car commands on re-sale. This means that after Elaine sold her car, she only paid $2,253 more than Sam. Lets calculate how much Elaine has saved in gas purchases over five years. If Elaine used 181 gallons less than Sam per year, and therefore saved $905 per year, then over four years she will have saved $4,522 by having a more energy efficient car. This means she spent $2,269 or 6.3% less than Sam owning a hybrid over five years. If Elaine owned her car longer, then savings would increase. In addition, this phenomenon applies to almost every non-luxury hybrid out there, from coupes to SUVs. This set of data proves there may be significant economic benefits to driving a hybrid car, in addition to lowering emissions. So what are we waiting for?

UPDATE: 

After my original posting, the United States Department of Energy has created a new website–www.fueleconomy.gov–that has a lot of very useful information about hybrids and how much the average consumer can save–albeit quite hard to navigate. It even has an automated savings calculator that does a very similar calculation to the one explained above. Enjoy!

Sources:

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/onh00/bar8.htm

http://www.edmunds.com/

http://kruzeniski.com/2010/hybrids-vs-trucks-comparing-sales-over-the-last-decade/

Byword: Text-Editor for the Masses

For centuries, writing involved the use of paper and ink–pretty simple tools. Then came personal computers, and shortly afterwards, the advent of the text editor. In the four decades since, consumers have become enthralled by Microsoft Word-type bloatware–software bursting with features we may only use once every few months. Happily, over the past two years, a new breed of writing program has emerged. This generation is a minimalist one, meant to stay out of our way and allow easy connection to the text in front of us. These applications offer unobtrusive interfaces, markdown support, companion iOS apps, and automated synchronization with iCloud and/or Dropbox. There are numerous products in this class such as Clean Writer, WriteRoom, Marked, and iA Writer, but my personal favorite is Byword. While all these apps provide largely similar functionality, Byword includes a few features that give it an edge over its competitors, such as font variety, markdown preview, and the most elegant interface. The real allure of Byword is its magical user experience.

Byword opens as a blank canvas–no buttons, no menus, and no rulers–just white. While typing is the same in any program, Byword allows me to focus on the words with its intuitive, text-centric interface. Although Markdown and MultiMarkdown take some time to learn, mastery of the text-based formatting systems for Byword allows me to transcend GUIs and keep my fingers glued to the keyboard, increasing my efficiency dramatically. With its clean interface and keyboard use, Byword is the text-editor equivalent of command line. You really have to experience it in order to understand how unencumbered it feels. By integrating with Autosave and Versions in OSX Lion, Byword also eliminates all of the hassle of saving work and lost drafts. Byword also provides a “Focus” feature, which dims any text outside of either the current paragraph or line you are working on, reducing distraction. There are many other advantages, such as spelling and grammar checks that are disabled by default. In addition to the writing experience, Byword also allows seamless integration with its mobile apps through iCloud or Dropbox. Although my use of this feature is minimal, it does come in handy when I am on the go. For saving work, Byword contains powerful options to export in plain text, rich text, markdown, HTML, Word, LaTeX, and PDF formats.

While Byword will not replace Microsoft Word and its ilk for heavily formatted documents, Byword shines as a text editor that will sharpen your focus, release inhibition, improve productivity, and make writing almost effortless.

Note: this post was written solely in Byword 

It’s Not the iPhone 5!

In the aftermath of the iPhone 4S announcement in October, countless dreams of complete redesigns and new features were dashed against the rock. These rumors are being shoved back into the rumor mill that has started to heat up as we head into iPhone announcement season. Despite the intense fragmentation of the rumor-mongering community, most seem to believe the next iPhone will be christened “iPhone 5.” While I don’t know what the name of the next iPhone will be, I seriously doubt it will be given that name. Much of the evidence can be linked to Apple’s shifting product-naming paradigms.

First, the next iPhone would be the 6th iPhone, not the 5th (Original, 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S). Despite the fact that the iPhone 4S is only a minor upgrade, Apple has still counted each new version of its phone as a new generation. Therefore, the next iPhone would be the 6th generation of hardware, not the 5th.

Second, Apple has sometimes named products after key features, not after the generation they represent. The iPhone 3G (2nd generation) was named after the 3rd generation cellular network, the “S” in the iPhone 3GS (3rd generation) and 4S (5th generation) was simply a marker for an upgrade from the previous version. This has caused untold confusion, as many of my friends have called the iPhone 4 the “iPhone 4G,” despite the device’s notable lack of the next-gen cellular data network. They also thought that there was a 2nd generation iPhone in between the original iPhone and the 3G.

In addition, the naming trend in Apple’s Mac, iPod, and now iPad lines points towards a possible shift in Apple’s naming standards. Instead of awarding each generation with a new name, it has dropped all names from the product line and instead refers to the product with its generic i.e. the new iPad, the iPod, etc. It is likely Apple will be moving towards that model, rather than continuing the traditional version naming system.

I understand that the iPhone 5 represents the hopes and dreams of the next generation of iPhone hardware, but as we know with the iPad 3–oops! I mean’t new iPad–Apple can be fickle with it’s naming policies. I will end this post with a plea: next time you read yet another post or hear another conversation about the “iPhone 5,” make a point of referring to it as “the next iPhone” instead. There is simply no way to know.

Apple’s Inevitable Demise

Apple has done it again. They have set yet another record for sales of the new iPad, and have captured the hearts and minds of many an Apple fanboy. I myself have bought a new iPad, and I must say it is pretty great. However, diving under the surface, we can see that cracks are beginning to show.

The whole thing started in October, when the iPhone 4S was released. While it was a pretty good upgrade, the updates were marginal: faster, a better camera, and the almost-useless virtual assistant Siri. Yes, the updates made the phone better, but were they really that amazing? I own an iPhone 4, and comparisons to the 4S yield negligible results. Despite this, sales were enormous. Now fast forward to March 2012, when Apple announced the new iPad. Once again, marginal improvements: faster, better camera, LTE (which isn’t necessary), and a higher resolution display. Those were the benefits, but there were even some drawbacks–the new iPad was slightly thicker and heavier than its previous generation. While sales have been massive, there is room for doubt concerning Apple’s ability to consistently amaze. Great, there have been two sub-par product releases in a row, but why does all of this spell doom for Apple?

Apple has set itself upon a fragile but extremely profitable platform of consistent innovation, secrecy, flashy releases, and consumer excitement. Apple develops a product, keeping it an utter secret until its unveiling. This generates enormous amounts of excitement from consumers, who speculate endlessly about what the product might have. Once Apple sends invitations for the unveiling, anticipation grows at an exponential rate, with millions of people anxiously waiting for information. The announcement of the new product adds to the energy even more, rocketing levels into the sky. All of the pent up enthusiasm is released at once when the product goes on sale. This system allows Apple to generate huge amounts of profit in bursts. In addition, this drives the expectation even higher for the next product because consumers expect consistent quality. While this system is extremely profitable, steadily increasing expectations will eventually pass ahead of Apple’s innovation ability. This will cause Apple to stall, and badly. If one of Apple’s product releases is below expectations, Excitement before the product goes on sale goes crashing down, which destroys sales. In addition, consumers will be less excited for future products, which will drastically reduce profits for other new products. In addition, competitors can seize the moment and develop better products that capitalize on the weaknesses of Apple’s latest product.

I am not saying that Apple is going to destroy itself tomorrow, but expect larger issues to arise in the next four years. For now Apple has tremendous momentum because of Steve Job’s reality distortion field. He could make even the most unsatisfactory releases seem revolutionary–as seen with products such as the iPhone 3GS. While products are receiving minor upgrades, competitors are increasing their products’ specs and features by leaps and bounds. Yes, the new iPad is far superior to its competitors, but Apple has to develop it at a faster rate than its rivals, something it is not doing right now. Apple does have the early bird advantage, but soon could be overtaken. Don’t get me wrong–I love Apple–but its current growth model will not be sustainable in the long run.

I Hate Facebook.

I hate Facebook.

You may say, “But Brad, Facebook is great for connecting with friends and keeping track of your social life! How can you hate it? You even use it yourself!” I don’t dislike the concept of Facebook, as I think it is extremely important, but I find it cluttered and disorganized in its current state. This may sound strange to you right now, but bear with me.

One of the main issues I have with Facebook is its user interface. The pages on your Facebook account are crowded with menus, options, and feeds that I find overwhelming. Many people don’t even use most of the features available, sticking to core functionality like the wall posting, photo uploading, and chat. You could argue that you can’t hate a product just because it doesn’t have a great interface, but the interface problem reflects a much deeper issue that only manifests itself in the UI.

Most successful consumer technology brands are more focused. Most of their products and services can be described in only one sentence:

Apple: An integrated ecosystem of personal computing hardware and software across multiple platforms designed to create the greatest user experience

GoogleA set of productivity tools and services based in the cloud, unified by a social media platform

Amazon: An online superstore and hardware companion dedicated to simplifying content delivery and consumption

Dropbox: A set of applications that allows users to access their personal data from anywhere

Groupon: A social platform dedicated to helping people find the best deals on everything

This applies to many popular social networks as well:

Twitter: A universal platform for expressing and following thoughts in a concise manner

Google+: A social network centered on organizing your communications and relationships with others through custom “circles”

LinkedIn: A platform dedicated to improving communication between businesses

Foursquare: A social platform centered around users current locations

Pinterest: A platform allowing users to express their interests by pinning content on themed “pinboards”

Then there is Facebook:

Facebook: “The social graph of everything”

What makes these other companies and services above so appealing is they focus on doing a few things well. They also excel at making their products beautiful, clean, and simple. Facebook is becoming more like “tech-glomerates”: Samsung, HP, Acer, Sony, and Microsoft – none of which have the same vision and focus of my earlier examples. While I understand that most of my earlier examples don’t make nearly as much revenue as tech-glomerates, they aren’t throwing tons of new products at consumers in the hopes that they will use/buy a few of them.

Facebook is a lot like the companies I just mentioned. Have you ever used Facebook features like “Lists,” “Ask A Question,” “Find Friends,” “Notes,” and “Gifts”? This is because they are not necessary for the experience Facebook is aiming to create, so as a result, consumers don’t use them. In addition, many seem half-baked, or so buried in the website that I wonder if they have been abandoned. In some ways, Facebook is like Apple after Steve Jobs was kicked out. They tried to enter into too many markets in the hopes of increasing profit. When Jobs returned, he drew a 2 by 2 grid on a whiteboard and said, “This is how it should be. Two average-use computers, desktop and laptop, and two power-user computers, one desktop and one laptop.” As a result, Apple began to strengthen. This story highlights one of the most important lessons Jobs taught us: less can be more. Facebook should take a page from the playbook of Steve Jobs and get rid of extraneous features and functionality, and bump up connectivity between products.

There are many things I admire about Facebook, such as its massive user base, and how for now it has kept my family and friends solely on it,. Despite this, users are fickle. As soon as an alternative with better core functionality and less clutter (*cough cough* Google+), Facebook could go the way of MySpace in the blink of an eye. MySpace proves that market share isn’t enough to stay dominant. Don’t get me wrong; Facebook is an extremely important part of modern life and culture. I only think that Facebook needs to do some serious housecleaning and make itself leaner, more tightly knit, and pleasing to use. You may disagree, but remember, if Facebook becomes a thing of the past, I predicted it first.

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