Airtable - A Database Application for the Rest of Us

I mentioned in my last blog entry that, in the last few months, I have been too busy at work to take time to write any articles for this website.  However, that doesn't mean that I've been "offline" from my digital world during this time.  In fact, during this recent period of intensity at work, I discovered a fascinating new tool that is now available to anyone looking to fill what I believe is a void in the currently available productivity suites we all use daily at work and at home.

Most every office worker has a working familiarity with the typical trio of office productivity tools that consist of a word processor, spreadsheet program and presentation tool.  In the Windows world, that would be Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (known as the Microsoft Office suite).  In the browser world, it's often Google Docs, and in the Apple world, it's Pages, Numbers and Keynote.  However, in my view, none of these office suites handles very well the small-scale data management needs that arise every day in our work and personal lives.  Sure, a spreadsheet provides the ability to build lists in the typical grid format, but it was never designed from the ground up to deal well with textual data, images and documents, and then filter, sort and view it easily. 

Some may say that we already have database products available to address these needs (Microsoft Access on the PC side or Filemaker on the Mac side).  However, my experience is that the learning curve (and often the price) for such solutions can present a formidable obstacle for most users.  To be accessible and useful "for the rest of us", database applications need to be relatively easy to use and have a "low barrier to entry", meaning that these data management tools must not require a significant initial time commitment (or programming skills) to produce results that make your work or home life more productive and/or enjoyable.

Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of time and effort exploring and using database software designed for the Mac environment, everything from FileMaker, to Panorama, to 4th Dimension, to Bento (the now deceased progeny of FileMaker which was rolled out in 2007 in an attempt to address the database needs of the average user).  During this period, I also used a host of custom database applications designed for managing everything from home inventories to genealogy.  However, it's been quite a while since I've found any data management application that has promised to offer a "better mousetrap". 

So a few weeks ago, I happened to be viewing the latest episode of the monthly video-based magazine ScreencastsOnline, one of my favorite resources for new ideas and software in the Apple ecosphere, and low and behold, Don McAllister (the founder and primary author of ScreencastsOnline) rolls out a two-part series on Airtable, a relatively new (to me) database application that Don described as one of the more exciting things he's seen in quite a while.  I wholeheartedly agree.  For more about ScreencastsOnline, see my Resources page.

Airtable is a web-based, mobily-accessible, collaborative relational database application that was launched last year by a San Francisco startup known as Formagrid.  Interestingly, one of Airtable's angel investors is the actor, Ashton Kutcher, who, it turns out, seems to have a nose for promising private equity investments, having scored big several times on previous start-up investments. If my instincts are right about Airtable, he may have hit upon another winner.

So, what makes Airtable "the database for the rest of us"?  First of all, it is the first database I've encountered that is ever-present and always available, due to its free mobile apps (for iPhone and iPad) and its fully functional implementation via any web browser.  The data contained in an Airtable database, whether entered via the web or a mobile app, is stored in the cloud on Formagrid's servers.  Airtable is a clear demonstration that the functionality of web browser software has come a long way since Mosaic first launched in 1993. My 18-year old son at the time tipped me off to Mosaic and that "new thing" called the World Wide Web that same year.

Second, Airtable is designed to be collaborative, meaning that each database (or "base", as Airtable calls them) can have multiple users, each able to access the database independently (and concurrently), and each assigned different levels of privileges - either as creators, or as "edit only" or "read only" users.  This makes it very easy to distribute the effort involved in creating, inputting, maintaining and extracting meaningful information from shared databases, allowing teams to assign tasks to those individuals who are best suited to perform those functions.

Third, and perhaps most significant, is that Airtable is relational.  The database features offered by spreadsheets typically reflect a "flat-file" design, rows and columns, where each row is a record and each column is a field.  However, establishing relationships between data in one flat-file database and another is not easily done in  spreadsheet without the use of somewhat elaborate formulas to lookup data from one worksheet to another.  Airtable provides its relational capabilities from easily created "tables" that allow one to "relate" data in one table to data in related table through the use of linked fields.  These linked fields in one table can display data contained in another table, demonstrating the real power of relational databases, as this avoids significant unnecessary duplication of data entry.  

Fourth, Airtable is both easy to use and powerful at the same time.  While Airtable has been designed to be as intuitive as possible with a rather easy learning curve, it has database creation tools that you wouldn't expect to find in an application this approachable by the average user.  For example, you can do text calculations to create a "full name" field that displays the first and last name of a person that has been created from the concatenation of the contents of a "first name" field and a "last name" field, allowing the records in the table to be sorted by first name or last name, which would not be possible if the first and last name were is the same field. 

An important example of the sophistication and power of the field types available in Airtable is the Lookup field, which allows you to pull data from another table into your current table, based on data contained in a Linked field within the current table.  While all this may sound rather abstract in the theoretical, trust me - it will give you some great ways to view and analyze your data that just isn't possible in a spreadsheet.  Finally, the choices available for viewing, analyzing and printing your data are rich as well, with the ability to create custom views with options for filtering and sorting data while hiding unneeded fields.  

The main drawback I find right now with Airtable is that the mobile implementations for iPhone and iPad do not yet incorporate some of the helpful display features and field type options available in the web browser version.  And because the browser version is not yet enabled for a touch interface, the browser version is currently only accessible on a desktop browser.   

As you can tell, Airtable has me "all a twitter" (and no, I'm not talking about THAT app!)  In a few short weeks, I have found no fewer than 10 different data management tasks at work and at home that have lent themselves to being managed very effectively by Airtable.  Here are a few example of how I have put Airtable to use thus far:  

At work:

  • We have used it to develop a Workplace Strategy of all the office spaces and occupants in our buildings in preparation for the possibility of moving certain office operations and optimizing the space utilization and adjacencies of departments that work closely with one another.
  • Airtable allowed us a way to collaborate and share information from several managers on the interviews of applicants for an open position.

At home:

  • For Huguette's small business as a fine artist, I was able to create a comprehensive inventory of her artwork, as well as an easily accessed mileage log so she can track her business mileage during the year to simplify the process at tax time.
  • I have also set up Airtable bases to manage several home improvement projects and to track our pets' medical history.   

If you've made it this far in this rather lengthy blog post, you owe it to yourself to give Airtable a close look.   For an in-depth look at Airtable's features and capabilities, check out Don McAllister's two-part video tutorial on Airtable atwww.screencastsonline.com. 

I hope you will enjoy exploring this new "Swiss army knife" known as Airtable as much as I have so far.  I see great potential in Airtable, as I believe that the developers at Formagrid have only begun to scratch the surface of what might be possible in this brave new world of personal data management tools.

 

It's Been a While...

Well, my best-laid plans of posting blog entries to "A Digital Life Examined" on a regular basis clearly went up in smoke, as my full-time work schedule has taken my undivided attention for a while now.  As a result, my last blog entry was posted almost three months ago.  It's not as though I haven't had anything to write about, but when you lose momentum on an "avocational" project like this, it can be hard to get restarted, when there is always something else bidding for your time.

In any case, I'm going to try getting back on the horse and hope to post at least once every few weeks.  Looking back, it's clear that I got a bit carried away in thinking I could keep up the initial rate of posts written shortly after the site was first launched.  We'll see whether being less ambitious about frequency will allow me at least to avoid a long dry spell like this last one.

I hope you will check in once in a while in the coming months and find some new things of interest here, as I renew my effort to build a regular readership.  Thanks, and stay tuned for some fresh takes on topics of interest to you.  

Wunderlist - Part II

In December, I wrote a blog entry about my several-year journey through various list-keeping apps that eventually has landed on Wunderlist as my current "go-to" tool for tracking open items at work and at home.  I promised at the time of that post that I would follow up with a description of the features that especially appeal to me.  Here's a quick list, in no particular order:

1.   It's always at my fingertips.  Whether I'm viewing my iPhone, iPad or working at my desktop computer at home or work, Wunderlist is ever-present and always up-to-date, as its syncing process is immediate.  So you can add an entry on one device and then just to your next device.

2.  It looks pretty much the same, regardless of platform.   You don't have to invest a lot of time learning different interfaces on the various platforms.  While there are a few things that are a bit different between the various implementations of Wunderlist, if you learn how to use it on one platform, you'll have a pretty easy time with it on any other device.

3.   It allows for very quick entry of new to-do's.  You simply click on "Add a todo...", start typing and when you're done, hit the enter key.  Adding a due date is optional but easily done.

4.  It has an ever-present sidebar that promotes easy categorization of your to-do's.   There are three default "smart lists": Starred, Today, and Week which automatically contain just what they say - any items you "star" are in the first smart list, anything due today or past due are in the second, and the third one contains what's due within the week, separated by day.

5.  It has a simple method of creating lists and folders to group together related lists.  Folders can be used to separate your lists into groups, such as separating you work lists from your personal lists or to collect special projects.  For example, I have a "Work" folder, a "Home folder, and a special folder for my lists of to-do's relating to my management of this website.

6.  It is easy to move a to-do from one list to another.  We don't always want to choose a list category when we are jotting down a new to-do on the fly.  So there is a default "inbox" where any uncategorized to-do resides until you move it to the desired list.  Also, if you later decide that a to-do belongs better in a different list, it is easily moved.  In fact, moving a to-do on either the iPhone or iPad is actually kind of fun - you just drag it to the top of the screen and it presents all of your lists into which you can easily move the item. 

7.  It has some hidden features in a slide-out panel that gives you additional choices to capture details on each to-do.  For any to-do, you can also set a due-date reminder, add a checklist of detailed sub-tasks, add notes or even attach a file, such as a photo or a document.   

So that's my more detailed take on why Wunderlist is the to-do list keeper for me, at least until something even better comes along, which, in today's world of even more creative developers, is a distinct possibility.  If you haven't tried Wunderlist yet, you own it to yourself to see whether it might be a good fit for you too.

 

Thanks, MacOSKen and Squarespace

A quick thank you to Ken Ray of MacOSKen for featuring my new website in this January 21, 2016 podcast as part of that day's "word from our sponsor", Squarespace, a frequent sponsor of the MacOSKen podcast.  I used Squarespace to create this site and it's proven to be a joy to worth with, both for the creation of the site and the regular posting of new blog entries.  You can hear Ken Ray's podcast on iTunes here.  To hear the specific mention of my website, listen to the January 21, 2016 podcast starting at about 7:00 minutes in.  Of course you should listen to the entire podcast, or for that matter, subscribe to MacOSKen and become a fan like I did.

By the way, join me in wishing Ken a Happy 10th Anniversary for his MacOSKen Podcast today, January 26th!  In fact, Apple thinks so much of his podcast that they decided to hold the quarterly earnings call on his 10th anniversary.  That's quite an accomplishment.

And finally, thank you to Squarespace for making such a great set of tools to help "fashion one's passion".  It's website construction and management for the rest of us!    

Winging it in Buffalo

Over the holidays, we made our annual pilgrimage to Buffalo New York to visit Huguette's sister Camille and her spouse, Babs. While this is always a time to share in the fun, food and conversation of the holiday season, it is also an annual opportunity to assess the state of their home technology platform and make any needed upgrades.

This year was no exception, although even I was surprised by the number of projects we ended up taking on during the 9-day visit. What started out as a fairly simple plan to update their Apple TV box to the latest version turned into a significantly more expansive (and expensive) upgrade of most all things digital in their household - some hardware related and some software. (For more on what the new Apple TV 4 has to offer, see my "TV and Home Theater" blog on the subject.)

As I set about replacing Cam's and Babs' older Apple TV with the newest model (which they had picked up at RadioShack for $30 off as part of a pre-Christmas sale), I discovered that their existing 50" wall-mounted flat screen TV, which came with the house they bought last year, was 8 or 9 years old and only capable of 720p resolution - and, alas, no longer up to the task of handling the higher resolution images typical of today's video content.

So we talked about TV's a bit and they decided to pay a visit BestBuy to look at the current line of UHD 4K models on display ("UHD 4K" meaning Ultra High Definition with 4,096 horizontal lines of resolution), which is the emerging format vying to become the next standard to ultimately replace the popular 1080p HDTV standard.  Shortly, I'll do a "TV and Home Theater" blog entry describing their TV choice.

As we talked further about what viewing delights awaited them with the pairing the new (Sony) TV and Apple TV 4, we ventured into the arena of viewing her home videos and photos via a network connection between her Apple TV and her desktop Mac.  This inevitably led to a decision to replace her 8-year old iMac in order to provide the needed space and processing power to consolidate her many home videos and 30,000+ photos currently scattered among multiple Macs and mobile devices.  Of course, the journey didn't end there either, as we discovered other TV, computer and mobile surprises awaiting for me at every turn.  Tune in soon to my other blogs for posts containing the play-by-play for each of these "holiday" projects.

MacFamilyTree and MobileFamilyTree on Sale Through December 27

Synium Software is a software developer based in Germany that publishes two separate but related genealogy products: MacFamilyTree for the Mac desktop and MobileFamilyTree for the iOS platform (iPhone and iPad). Both of their family tree products (along with all of their other software titles) are currently on sale for 50% off through December 27 through their website, syniumsoftware.com

I have been using MacFamilyTree since it was first released.  From its humble beginnings in 1998 when the iMac was still in its infancy, MacFamilyTree has blossomed into a full-featured tool that provides an endless array of ways to manage and view your family tree content.  When the iOS version came out, those of us who had been using MacFamilyTree were given the terrifically useful gift of family tree mobility, since much genealogical data gathering is, by necessity, done on the fly.

This summer, I attended a family reunion in Ohio and I was able to capture in a very short time an enormous amount of information from relatives I haven't seen in years, all while enjoying the reunion cookout and conversation.  MobileFamilyTree allowed me to enter this info directly into the family tree database and make interrelated connections that might have been lost if I had tried to scratch this out on pieces of paper.

While you can use either version independently (meaning you don't necessarily have to buy both versions to have a fully functioning family tree manager), if you own both a Mac and an iPad or iPhone, I would highly recommend you invest in both, to make sure you have both full syncing via the cloud, as well as the ability to publish directly from the desktop a website viewable from any browser.

If you haven't yet jumped into the "genealogy pool", making a family tree can be a real gift to the next generation.  Your kids and grandkids will thank you and you'll have a great time doing it.  Think of it as an ever-unfolding detective story.

The Wonder of Wunderlist

This entry appears here in the General Blog because it concerns a productivity app that is cross-platform and is integrated via cloud-syncing between all your devices, including Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, PC, Windows Phone and Android devices, as well as any web browser. It does one thing - task management - very well, in my opinion, without overloading the app with too many features. Whatever you happen to call the process of keeping track of the things you need to do in your life, whether it's to-do lists, open items tracking, reminders or time management, I find that Wunderlist has hit the sweet spot with me by being both simple enough to use and full-featured enough to be fully useful for my daily work and personal needs.

Wunderlist is a free app available for all the platforms mentioned above and was originally developed in Germany but now is under the House of Microsoft (since June 2015). Reportedly, it is in the hands of over 13 million users as of this date. Personally, I have been keeping open items lists on something other than paper since I first starting using computers. I started out using a spreadsheet for such a list and, for years, this served me reasonably well, which was good because it was the only truly usable row-based text tool available for a long time. When free-form database programs came along, I gave those a try, but they tended to be too cumbersome to be efficient for quickly adding or completing items.

When handheld devices came out, I began to use a Palm Pilot (and its progeny) and found a program called Bonsai that seemed to do the trick, but it used a cumbersome wired method to sync with Palm software on my desktop and, as you know, Palm devices have since gone the way of the dodo bird. With the advent of the iPhone in 2007, developers began to take personal list management more seriously and many apps for the iPhone and iPad entered the fray to try to grab users' attention to do list tracking.

I was anxious to find something that was going to be always available to me, regardless of what platform I happened to be using at the time.  Since I use an iPhone, iPad, PC at work and Mac at home, I needed a program that worked on all these simultaneously and always stayed in sync. I started using Toodledo, as it was a web-based application that each of my devices could access through the web.

After about a year of using Toodledo, I started to experiment (given the explosion of apps of the iOS app store) with some other iOS task management apps that also had syncing capability to desktop devices via the web. I finally settled on OmniFocus - an expensive, but full-featured, task management app that uses the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) methodology developed by David Allen and described in his best-selling books.  If a highly-structured approach to task management is appealing to you, you might find David Allen's GTD website of interest and Omnifocus to be the GTD tool to use in the digital realm.

I used OmniFocus for quite a while, but at some point I realized that its power and complexity was also an impediment to my own efficient use of the list management app on a daily basis.  About 6 months ago, I discovered Wunderlist, right around the time that Microsoft acquired it. The more I use Wunderlist (which is all day, every day), the more I like it. In a subsequent post, I will elaborate on why it works so well for me. I believe that list-keeping is a very personal thing and, as I've mentioned elsewhere on this site, what works for me may not be a good fit for you. However, stay tuned for a follow-up post on Wunderlist that explains why I find it so appealing.

We have lift-off...

After 10 days or so of site design and initial content preparation, I am now ready to share my new website "A Digital Life Examined" with my family, friends, colleagues and perhaps a broader community who may discover this site over time.  It has been a labor of love thus far and I look forward to adding new content regularly as time permits.  Feel free to pass on the word about its arrival.

This website achieves a long-realized dream of finding a way to share my personal technology discoveries with others by means beyond the one-on-one tech conversations I have had with many of you and the occasional "Brown Bag" lunch sessions on mobile tech I have held at work.  It's not that I don't want to continue the direct contact - I love it and find it essential, but this website should be a way to cover more ground and with more people than previously thought possible, especially those of you not in the Boston area.

The pace of technology change is accelerating at an exponential rate but my goal here is to convey the best of the ideas I come across in a casual, conversational way that hopefully will remove some of the frustration from your own encounters with personal technology.  The content to be posted in the Topics categories (listed below) will be reserved primarily for my own observations of using these technologies in my daily life, as I want to keep this from being just another tech news website.

I must say that, 10 years ago, I could not have even considered launching such a site without being faced with the very daunting task of designing a website (with what then were rather complex web design tools) and then, once designed, having to publish content to the site through the rather cumbersome process of uploading updated pages to a web-server, re-establishing links, etc. etc.  Now, a reasonably-priced subscription to Squarespace.com gives me all the tools that I need to create and populate the site with content "until the cows come home", as they say in my home state of Ohio.  I can do site design changes in real-time from any desktop or iPad and I can compose and publish blog posts on-the-go from my iPhone or iPad. 

So, a quick word about the site structure.  Beyond the Home page and my Mission description page, most of the content will appear primarily under the blogs with the (hopefully) self-explanatory Topics titles of:

Mac

iPhone + Pad

Apple Watch

Music + Audio

Digital Books

TV + Home Theater

Home Automation  

I will occasionally post more general comments in the General Blog from which you are currently reading this post.  Also, you can search and find anything on the entire site by going to my Contact + Search page and entering your desired search criteria.  And the best news is that Squarespace.com automatically adjusts the site design and navigation to accommodate whatever device you use to browse the site.

I am excited to begin to receive feedback about the site so far, as I send out an announcement today to a list of my many friends, family and colleagues who on occasion call on me for tech support or advice on Mac and iOS matters.  It will be a pleasure to serve them better in his small way.  

Construction Complete. Now, on to the Content...

Since the last post, my thinking has evolved as to the best tools in Squarespace's bag of tricks for displaying the content I wish to convey to my readers.  I originally planned to use the "standard page" layout for the topic sections, but it quickly became clear that the "blog" page structure would be best suited to adding content.  So each of my topic pages is now its own blog which will contain dated entries on subjects that come to mind as time allows.

There were several considerations that influenced this decision:

1.  I realized that to try and construct static pages displaying my content in a linear fashion like chapters in a book would stifle the free flow of getting my ideas out as quickly as possible.

2.  The strong search and tagging features built into Squarespace should make it possible for readers to find topics of interest, even if they have been entered in a somewhat random way from a structural standpoint.

3.  I can create, edit and publish blog post entries directly from my iPhone or iPad, which will free me from being at a computer in order to update content.  Squarespace has undoubtedly thought this through and planned for this need (or desire).

I also decided to make the website as visually appealing as possible by investing in a few selected stock photos from Shutterstock.com.  All other photos will generally be of my own creation.  I hope you find the design and appearance visually appealing.  Of course, the content needs to be interesting and clearly conveyed, or else it's all just a beautiful dive into an empty pool.

I am in the process of posting at least one blog entry for each of my topic areas, at which point I will formally announce my website to my friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintenances and anyone else out there who might enjoy "examining my digital life".

More on Organization of the Site

I have been thinking about the best way to organize the information to be shared on this website. My initial plan is to treat the blog as a place for a running dialogue, with occasional updates and tips, and have the Topics pages serve more like chapters in a book. All of the content of the site will be easily searchable by using the Contact + Search page. Now, all I have to do is actually carve out some time to build out the Topics pages. I'm looking forward to the holiday break to get some quality time to move this forward.

To be and not to be...

It is "very early days" in the development of this site and much planning for its organization has yet to be done, but let me spell out some guiding principles I plan to follow:

What it is intended to be...

- an inside view of my own personal adaptation of technology to enhance my work life and leisure time.

- an organized compendium of digital discoveries that will allow the reader to focus on his or her area of particular interest -iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Apple Music, or home theater, for example. These sections have yet to be developed.

- a site with a declared bias for the Apple ecosystem, so you won't see much about Android, Samsung, etc., although I do venture out into Roku, Sony audio/video, and streaming services such as Vudu, Acorn TV, etc.

- a place where enthusiastic users of such technology (novices and power users alike) can go for demystified explanations of the ways in which I have employed digital devices, apps and services to serve my needs. I need to emphasize that this site will have a very personal focus - what works for me may not make sense for you, and that's fine.

What it is NOT intended to be...

- a daily tech news source. There are plenty of excellent resources for this type of info which I will link to in the Resources section of this site as I develop the site more fully.

- a technology rant soapbox for grinding one ax or another. Time here will be focused on communicating what works, without diatribe about what Apple or others "have not done right". There's plenty of that to be found elsewhere.

In summary, this site will likely evolve partly as a continuing stream of consciousness and partly as a body of (hopefully) well-organized thoughts. We'll see how it goes and I'll look forward to your constructive feedback.

Here we go...

Welcome!  I just launched my new website entitled "A Digital Life Examined" this evening using Squarespace.  Several years ago, I created my wife's art website huguettemay.com using Squarespace and had always hoped that, some day, I would return to launch my own site as a way of sharing with others my fascination with technology.  For me, it's a vehicle for "reducing friction" in our daily lives - to identify and eliminate those little "sticking points" that slow down our productivity in our digital work lives or those "maddening techo-glitches" that get in the way of fully enjoying our digital leisure lives.  Like it or not, we are living in an increasingly digital world, so let's embrace the change together and give this thing a whirl...