Mountain Lion’s Killer App

In a few days time Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion will be released. With over 200 new features, it represents the latest evolution of OS X. Among the new features are enhancements to Safari and other stock applications, tighter integration with iCloud, and iOS-inspired features such as Notification Center.

With so many new features its hard to really know where to begin, so let me tell you about what I think is the killer feature of Mountain Lion after using the developer previews for the past few months - the Reminders application.

It may seem trivial but for many users, especially those who live in the Apple ecosystem and own an iPhone or iPad, Reminders will be a game changer thanks in no small part to its iCloud integration.

So why is it a killer app? For me it scratches a long standing itch, the need for organization.

The organization and task management space is crowded, with hundreds of apps each claiming to be the silver bullet and people are willing to pay a lot of money for the right application. The trouble is, very few apps have really gotten it right.

The heavyweights in this market are Things and OmniFocus. Both started as Mac applications and then spread to the iPhone and the iPad. Both are fairly complex applications, making it easy to capture and manage tasks and implement a system such as Getting Things Done. There is a lot of innovation in these applications - for instance long before geofencing became available as an iOS API feature, OmniFocus offered location-based reminders in its iPhone app.

For me, both Things and OmniFocus were lacking in the same area - synchronization between different computers and different devices. Things was especially convoluted, to sync from desktop to iPhone the two devices needed to be on the same wireless network with the application running on both. Somewhat inconvenient and very much a chore. Then came the death march in which the developers would promise that a better solution is coming, followed up by blog posts every quarter trying to explain how complicated a problem it was!

OmniFocus was similarly slow off the mark here, though offering some functionality using WebDAV or (the now defunct) MobileMe. Today they have a cloud-based syncing service, though I’m told it is somewhat slow.

Tired of waiting for the big players, I looked at some of the offerings from smaller developers.

ActiveInbox, developed by a friend of mine, was one of the tools which caught my eye. It is browser extension which transforms GMail into a robust productivity tool, borrowing many concepts from GTD and other systems. Its great and has a solid following, in fact for managing an email inbox its perfect. Unfortunately I didn’t want a system which was so tightly integrated into my email, and I didn’t really want a web application, so this wasn’t for me.

TaskPaper was nice for a while, and I still find it great for things like meeting notes. What I missed here was any kind of alerts or reminders - at the end of the day you had a todo list in a plain text document, great for jotting down tasks but it relies on you to keep track of deadlines.

From a user experience perspective Clear for the iPhone gave me goosebumps. It is such a beautifully designed app with great interaction design and attention to detail. Also excellent sound design, which is unexpected in a productivity app! As much as I wanted to love it, like several other iOS task management apps, it was a data dead-end. There was no desktop client, no way of getting tasks off your device.

There are many other apps out there, but as you can imagine at this point I had grown weary. This was about the time that iOS 5 was released and Apple announced a new feature - Reminders.

Reminders on iOS was in many ways unremarkable - the core experience was very similar to a lot of other task managers out there with the addition of some of Apple’s skeuomorphic UI charm. One interesting and unique feature was geofencing, not exactly new, but very useful as it allowed you to set reminders for tasks based on location.

“Remind me to pull a report on website traffic when I get to the office”

“Remind me to buy milk on the way home”

Such a simple concept but it adds a whole new dimension to task management.

The one weird thing was that Reminders didn’t really integrate with the Mac even though all the data was synced using iCloud. Your tasks ended up in iCal, within a totally different and less useful UI. If you created a reminder on a Mac then features such as geofencing were unavailable.

Mountain Lion changes all this - now I have a Reminders app which is a copy of what is on my iPhone and iPad. iCloud syncing is seamless and new tasks appear across all devices instantaneously. Finally everything is on the same page. Unlike the experience with the likes of OmniFocus, synchronization is transparent and instant.

That is killer.

I thought I’d end this post with a brief summary of how I use Reminders on a day-to-day basis. Whilst it appears simplistic I believe the key is to have a number of different lists. I tend to have separate lists for different context’s (Home, Work, Grocery Store), specific projects and people, as well as a general Inbox.

I’ll capture my tasks in the Inbox immediately, then I’ll then sort them into the individual lists. Usually I’ll do this on my Mac since I can just drag and drop. If a task has a deadline then I’ll add it, and if I need to be at a specific location then I will often add a geofence.

All changes are immediately synced to my iPhone and other devices so I can quickly reference my task lists from anywhere. In addition, since I can also add tasks from any device then it often negates the need to carry around a notebook - tapping something on the iPhone keyboard is almost as fast and often more convenient.

Simple, and powerful!


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