Review: Flow

I’m starting up some new projects and trying to get organized. So I’ve spent some time this week looking at Flow, a new web-based task management app from MetaLab. I actually had beta access to it, and was impressed. But at the time, Flow’s iPhone app was under development and it wasn’t a complete solution for me. Now, Flow is ready for prime time and has an iPhone app and even a beta Mac app. Could Flow be the answer to my task management needs?

What I need

I’ve been looking for a solid task management app for a while. Between personal projects and involvement with organizations, I manage a lot of projects and need a system to keep me on task. I primarily work alone, but sometimes collaborate with friends. Whatever solution needed to work effortlessly on my home and work machines and on my iPhone and iPad.

37 Signals’ Backpack is my go-to app for keeping notes, info and checklists. I’m not looking to replace Backpack. And I’ve hacked together a system for using it for projects, but I really need something more robust for task management.

I looked at apps like Things and OmniFocus. Things was interesting, but I was worried about the complexity of syncing between all of my devices. OmniFocus was powerful, but perhaps too complicated for my needs. I’m a fan of 37 Signals’ Basecamp and used it extensively with my board when I was president of AIGA South Carolina. But for a single user, the $24/month package is overkill while the free package isn’t enough. I haven’t really found something that fits my needs.

What can Flow do?

I’ve been using Flow for the last couple days.  There are three elements to Flow: the web interface, the iPhone app and a beta Mac app.

The Flow web interface acts like a very well designed Mac app. It’s quick and easy to add and sort tasks. The system is very intuitive and works exactly like you think it should. 

Adding a new task on the Flow web interface.

Tasks that are not filed in a project appear in the inbox. These may be new tasks you entered quickly or tasks that a contact may have delegated to you. Flow gives you flexibility in displaying your tasks. “Upcoming” shows you the tasks for the week ahead.  There are set views for tasks you have delegated or flagged. And the “My Tasks” view lets you sort your tasks by due date, project, tags and more. You can attach files and notes to tasks.

The iPhone app gives you a very similar experience to the web interface.On the left side of the app, below the various preset views, are tabs for Projects, Tags and Contacts. You can drag projects around to organize them or click on them to see active tasks assigned to the project. I haven’t played with Tags much, but they allow you to view tasks by tag instead of project. For example, this could be helpful if you want to see all the tasks tagged “writing” or “design” regardless of their project assignment.

Flow does let you delegate tasks to others and add people to projects. I tested it with a friend and delegated a task to him and we were able to comment back and forth. Of course, for this to work, the other person needs to have an account, which might limit it’s usefulness. (Metalab plans on introducing a Collaborator View to allow people without accounts to view and complete tasks. This might increase the usefulness of the collaboration feature.) Flow will send you email notifications when there is activity on one of your projects so you can stay in the loop.

The iPhone app is also very strong and is as intuitive as the web app. There are a few minor issues. You can’t add new projects from the iPhone app, only assign tasks to existing projects. The end result is that you have to place them in the Inbox and assignment them to projects next time you log into the web interface. And for some reason, I feel like I have to manually refresh the view more frequently than I should. But in general, a very strong first effort that I’m sure will get better.

The beta Mac app is an nice little addition. If you are expecting a full fledged desktop client though, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s similar to the app that Dropbox offers. It adds a menu bar icon to the top right on your screen and allows you to quickly add tasks. It only works on Snow Leopard, so if you haven’t upgraded, you are out of luck. It’s helpful and does make it easy to add tasks very quickly. Considering how strong the web client is, I personally don’t think there is a need for desktop client Mac app, unless you want to access your task list without an internet connection. If you frequently need to access data offline, Flow isn’t for you. 

The Mac app joins the trend of placing an icon in the upper right side of the tool bar. But it does make it easy to enter a new task from the desktop.

What’s Missing?

Flow is still missing some things that would make it more useful. Obviously, it’s the first iteration so they are still actively adding and tweaking.

The big one is recurring tasks. I have several tasks that I need to do weekly or monthly that I would love to set up on a recurring basis, but Flow doesn’t support that right now. According to the support forum on their web site, recurring tasks is the most common request and is a priority to be added. I’m sure they are working on it and hopefully the feature will arrive soon.

I’d love an iPad app. The web interface isn’t very touch friendly so your best bet for using Flow on the iPad is to run the iPhone app. It works, but a native iPad app has the potential to be awesome.

And finally, I want a print style sheet. Or some kind of mode to give me a printed task list that doesn’t have all the site navigation. By no means is this a deal breaker, but a nice feature to have that (I believe) should be relatively easy to accomplish.

How much is too much?

Flow is basically $10 a person per month. You get discounts when you buy multiple accounts. And you can get a discount for buying a year ($99/year). When they announced the initial pricing, there was a small uproar that $10 a month was outrageous, especially for large teams.

Is Flow too expensive? I think it depends on your situation.

I intend to use it primarily as an individual. I’m looking at $10 a month for one account. For comparison sake, for Backpack, I have a Solo account that is $7 a month. Basecamp can be significantly more expensive depending on which package you use, but they also offer a free, limited account. I really believe that for an individual account, in comparison to other web services, $10 a month with no limitation on the number of projects is fair.

The other comparison though is to a system like Things or OmniFocus. Both of those are significant up front investments, but are then free to use. For a Mac App, iPhone app and iPad app, Things is roughly $80 ($50 Mac + $10 iPhone + $20 iPad) and OmniFocus is about $140 ($80 Mac + $20 iPhone + $40 iPad). And for someone like me that has two Macs, the cost is even a little bit more. But after that initial investment, using the system is free unless you choose to install a paid upgrade. Over several years, Things or OmniFocus should be significantly cheaper than Flow.

Within days of announcing their pricing, they revised the discount structure for teams. Flow’s originally pricing structure made it very expensive for large workgroups. I’m sure it’s an understatement to say they got a lot of feedback on the pricing. Previously, under Flow’s original pricing structure, users with more than 25 accounts got a 25% discount. So for my entire team of 25 at the office, it would have cost us a little over $185 per month. Under the revised pricing, groups of more than 10 get 50% off. So that same team of 25 would pay about $125 per month. Flow also offers a discount of 30% for groups of three or more. That’s not inexpensive, but much more in line with what other products like Basecamp cost. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Personally, I think the logic behind the pricing is that Metalab thinks most Flow users will be freelancers and small groups that collaborate with other individuals who purchase their own subscriptions. This is a very different, decentralized model than the administrator-based model that most web apps use for their products. For some people, this will be a better approach. For others, this pricing approach is cost prohibitive. It simply depends on your needs.

So will I continue to use it?

For people who have already invested in Things or OmniFocus, is there enough here to make you switch? I doubt it. And if you are happy with your Basecamp site, I imagine you’ll stick with it. But Flow is a product that for some people - like me - might just be the perfect task management system. I expect that some of the missing features will be added soon and I hope they’ll keep improving the product. For now, I’m going to try it for a month or so and see if it will work for me. (And of course, I’ll post updates as I continue to use it.)

If you want to try out Flow, sign up for a free two-week trial account at getflow.com.

Photoshop on the iPhone and in the “cloud”

Adobe has released Photoshop.com Mobile (iTunes Link), an iPhone app. While I was checking out the new app, I also took a look at the Photoshop.com web-based, cloud-hosted service.

Photoshop.com Mobile: The iPhone App

Photoshop.com Mobile is a free app for your iPhone. You can use it to make some basic adjustments and apply preset filters. Some of the adjustments are useful (for example, exposure changes, cropping and black and white conversion). 

Photoshop.com iPhone App screenshots

While there are a few decent filters, there are also some terrifyingly bad filters (see “pop” and “rainbow.”) I’ve posted a gallery with some examples of these filters and effects. I would love to see some form of sharpening added and the ability to view a histogram.

Examples of selected filters in use. Top left, original image. Top right, vignette blur + black and white. Bottom left, vibrant + vignette blur. Bottom right, rainbow

When you are done, you can save the image to “Photos” on your iPhone. Or you can choose to upload them to Photoshop.com. More on that in a second…

In general, it works pretty well. And while I did have a few crashes, it is pretty stable and I’m sure it will get more stable as it’s updated. For a free app, it’s solid and worth a download.

Photoshop.com: The Photo-Hosting Service

But you can’t talk about the Photoshop.com iPhone app without talking about Photoshop.com, Adobe’s web-based application for hosting and editing photos. The service is free and includes 2 GB of storage. It can host both images and videos.

You can upload images, edit them and then share galleries and slide shows. The editing is relatively powerful, allowing you to make lots of alterations including modifying the white balance or performing sharpening. Photoshop.com even provides import opinions for Flickr and Facebook galleries.

The application is Flash-based and is relatively attractive. It mirrors the look and feel of an Adobe app, so if you are familiar with the Creative Suite (especially Bridge), you should be comfortable in the interface. Performance is generally very good, but I experienced some slow down with animations. I’m sure your mileage will vary depending on your computer, browser or internet connection.

But there are some oddities. Sometimes, the interface doesn’t behave consistently – requiring a single click for some functions and a double click for others without apparent pattern or cause.

One of the strangest things is that there is no real social networking features. Sure, you can share albums with friends, but there is no way to browse people who have Photoshop.com accounts. And you can’t search for tags or keywords like you can on Flickr. So if you, like me, don’t know anyone with a Photoshop.com account, this feature is useless.

I’m not really sure what the target market is for the service. Some of the features are powerful. But people who would use the powerful features aren’t going to want to edit images with a web-based service. Some features are useless or tacky (like the “Decorate” feature that lets you add thought bubbles, post-it-notes and clip art to your images).

In the end, I’m not sure why I would use this for sharing pictures over Flickr, Facebook or even .Mac’s Web Gallery. It’s not that it’s bad, but it just doesn’t offer me enough features to make the switch… I’m sure they will be continuously adding features, but for now, I don’t see a compelling reason to change services.

What’s next? Photoshop: The Flame Thrower

So I like the iPhone app, and I don’t love the Photoshop.com web-based service. The bigger issue for me, though, is what Adobe is doing to the Photoshop brand. To me, Photoshop is a professional image editing application. But now, you have Photoshop CS4, Photoshop Extended CS4, Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, Photoshop.com and the Photoshop.com iPhone app. Photoshop even has it’s own logo.

This type of brand extension is problematic, because now, anything that Adobe offers that is used with photos – from beginner to professional – has “Photoshop” in the name. Is the ability to put a cheesy speech bubble on a picture using Photoshop.com really a “Photoshop” feature? Does tacky clip art belong in any app bearing the “Photoshop” name?

And while photographers and designers will continue to use Photoshop, the loss of brand equity is, in my opinion, an unwise brand management decision. 

Dominos aces online ordering

When most people want to order a pizza, they pick up the phone and call their local pizza place. The other day, I went to the Dominos web site to see if they had an online coupon. For some reason I decided to try their online ordering. I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed.

The Shopping Cart

The first part of the process is the shopping cart. It’s a pretty standard shopping experience, but seems very well structured. But the most impressive part is that it allows for complete customization. Want different toppings on the right and left? No problem. They even show you a visual preview of your pizza.

You can ask for a specific time for the order to be delivered. Or save an order to use as a template later.

When you order, you can completely customize your pizza. There are even a few options I never would have thought to ask for…

The Pizza Tracker

Once you’ve placed your order, you are taken to a confirmation screen. This “Pizza Tracker” tells you where your pizza is, who’s making it, the name of your driver… You can take a survey and add comments. (Apparently, you can even share your order on Facebook… Which seems kind of odd… I didn’t do it…)

It even works if you call your order in. You just go to the Dominos site, click on Pizza Tracker and enter your phone number.

The only minor downside to the confirmation page is that it’s built in Flash so it’s useless on my iPhone. (I’m reasonably confident that someone will eventually build an iPhone “Pizza Tracker” application.)

The Confirmation Screen detail’s your pizza’s progress. Here, the status states that “Craig began custom-making your order at 6:15 PM.”

An Overall Impression

From looking at their old press releases, it looks like Dominos rolled out this system at the beginning of 2008. It appears they’ve upgraded it significantly since the initial rollout and I’m surprised they haven’t promoted it more. They have had a fair amount of PR difficulties of late and I’m sure they’ve had other issues to address. 

However, I’m impressed that they’ve built such a complete system that allows for extensive customization. Literally anything done on the phone can be done online. And the confirmation page reinforces the messaging of the “You’ve got 30 minutes” marketing campaign. It’s impressive to see web sites and tools so completely tied into the marketing.

Dropbox is a must for designers... and it's free.

I have two main computers… one at work and one at home. And often, I need to transfer files from one machine to the other. Big files… too big to email.

Previous experiments

I started with thumb drives, but I always found a way to lose them. (Or worse, wash and dry them…) I used my MobileMe (formerly .Mac) iDisk for a while. And that worked, but it always seemed slow. I subscribe to 37 Signals Backpack. And I love it. I manage a ton of info on it. And I started to use it for some file transfer, too. And it works, but the file upload - similar to adding attachments to a web-based email system - isn’t great for passing files back and forth. (And to be fair, that wasn’t what the system was designed for, anyway.)

Dropbox

My friend Jim James (@jamesmiller on Twitter) sent me an invite to join Dropbox, an online storage service. There are two levels - a basic plan that includes 2GB of storage for free and a Pro account that includes 50GB of storage for $10 a month. I signed up for the free service and installed Dropbox on my Macs. Software is available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

The web interface for Dropbox makes your files accessible from any machine.

Once installed, it places a “Dropbox” folder on your computer. Anything placed into the Dropbox is transferred to the online service and synched to your other computers. Fast, effortless and reliable. The web interface gives you complete access from any computer - great if you are away from your normal machines and need a file. And the site even has an iPhone optimized version that’s ideal for looking at PDF’s and other documents while on the go.

That’s not all Dropbox can do… You can also share files easily. There’s a feature that lets you post photo galleries. The Mac version has a menu bar icon that offers a number of options. You can even track version history.

In the end, it’s a fabulous option for transferring files between machines. Particularly for designers, photographers and other people who routinely need to transfer large files. And considering the cost - free for the 2GB account - Dropbox is well worth the effort to sign up.