Archive for January 2011

Bye bye iCal, welcome org-mode

January 4, 2011

I have been using Macintosh computers since 2003, and overall I have been happy with the personal information management (PIM) tools provided by Apple: AddressBook, Mail, Safari (for bookmark management). The one tool I have never liked is iCal. Its user interface is fine for consulting my agenda, but entering information is too complicated and the todo-list management is particularly clumsy. But more importantly, I regularly found myself wanting to add information for which no entry field was provided. I ended up putting it into the “notes” section, or leave it out. Another unplesant feature of iCal is that all the information is stored in a complex proprietary database, making synchronization between several computers impossible except through cloud-based server solutions such as Apple’s MobileMe (quite expensive) or fruux (much nicer in my opinion, but it still requires trusting your data to a cloud service).

Being unhappy with a tool for an important task implies looking for better options, but I didn’t find anything that I liked. Until one day I discovered, mostly by accident, the org-mode package that has been distributed with Emacs for a while. org-mode is one of those pieces of software that is so powerful that it is difficult to describe to someone who has never used it. Basically, org-mode uses plain text files with a special lightweight markup syntax for things like todo items or time stamps (but there is a lot more), and then provides sophisticated and very configurable functions for working with this data. It can be used for keeping agendas, todo lists, journals, simple databases such as bookmark lists, spreadsheets, and much more. Most importantly, all of these can coexist in a single text file if you want, and the contents of this file can be structured in any way you like. You can even add pieces of executable code and thus use org-mode for literal programming, but that’s a topic for another post.

To be more concrete, my personal information database in org-mode consists of several files at the top level: for organizing my workday, for tasks and appointments related to private life, for notes about research projects, for notes (mostly bookmarks) about software development, etc. Inside my, there is a section on research projects, one on teaching, one on my editorial work for CiSE, one for refereeing, etc. Inside each of these sections, there are agenda entries (seminars, meetings, courses etc.) and todo entries with three priority levels and optional deadlines. Any of them can be accompanied by notes of any kind, including links, references to files on my disk, and even executable shell commands. There is no limit to what you store there.

In October 2010 I started the transition from iCal to org-mode. Initially I entered all data twice, to make sure I could continue to rely on iCal. After a week I was confident enough to enter everything just once, using org-mode. I then transferred all agenda items for 2011 to org-mode and decided to stop using iCal on Januray 1, 2011. That day has arrived, and the iCal icon has disappeared from my dock. Without any regrets.

Conclusion: If you need a powerful PIM system and you don’t fear Emacs, have a look at org-mode.