Like many, I’ve come to rely on a suite of programs that are a vital part of my everyday academic workflow. We’re talking about programs (and platforms) that I’d be completely lost if I didn’t have. In the spirit of this sentiment, I’m kicking off a series to explore the applications that I just can’t live without. While this first one is going to be fairly general, future installments will focus on a specific domain. For instance, I’ll do a “5 Web Development Applications I Simply Can’t Live Without” and “5 Lecturecasting Applications I Simply Can’t Live Without”—you get the idea.
A couple of caveats (both general and specific)…first, this initial list is hardly a complete representation of those programs (and platforms) that I use religiously (the same goes for all future lists in this series). Second, I am a dedicated Mac user, and have been for years. As a result, most (though not all) of the applications that appear on this list are Mac only. Ultimately, the point of this discussion is to present some applications that you might not be aware of—applications that might end up making your life easier (like they have for me). This being said, commence with the list!
We at ProfHacker are no strangers to Cultured Code’s Things. Ryan wrote an in-depth exploration of how you can use the popular task management app to manage academic life. I absolutely love Things. It’s powerful, flexible, elegant, and it keeps my academic life (relatively) in order. I use it to manage just about every task in my life (grading, projects, grant writing, research, writing, etc.). The important thing worth mentioning is that I’ve fully committed to using Things as part of my everyday work pipeline. For Things to work (for any task management app to work), you need to commit to using it. It won’t do you any good if you don’t actually input (and organize) your tasks, and work towards completing those tasks.
Things has only gotten even better for me with the iPad version (which syncs wirelessly with the desktop version). Some caveats for the desktop/iPad combo, however. It gonna cost you. Unfortunately, the iPad version of Things is definitely one of the more expensive apps out there—it’ll set you back $19.99. Add that to the $49.95 you have to spend to get the desktop version, and you are talking about a pretty expensive task management app. The other wrinkle in this is that you will need to spend another $9.99 if you want to get the iPhone/iPod Touch version of Things.
While not a program per se (at least not in the same way that other things on this list are programs), WordPress is probably the most important piece of software I use. I use it for all of my class websites, all of my personal websites, and all of my project websites. Just about every website I’ve put up in the last six years or so has been done so using WordPress. Now, I’m hardly alone in my reliance on WordPress. There are many other academics who are dedicated users of the platform.
So, why do I use and love WordPress? Honestly, it comes down to several key things. First off, WordPress is open source (and I’m a great believer in the importance and power of open source development). Second, it has an extremely vibrant developer community. There are countless developers building plugins & themes. Thirdly, it uses relatively accessible web technologies. With a little knowledge of PHP, CSS, and HTML, it’s quite easy to dig your hands into WordPress (to build/customise themes or hack your install to get it to do something different). Finally, it has a very famous “5 minute install.” Yes, that’s right, if everything is set up on your server correctly, it only takes 5 minutes to install. The extra bonus is that WordPress doesn’t really have any heavy server requirements. As long as you’ve got PHP (version 4.3 or greater) and MySQL (version 4.1.2 or greater) you are good to go. It’s really that easy.
I do a lot of video lecturecasting. Actually, I do a lot of lecturecasting. All of my classes have some sort of video lecture component (my online are composed completely of video lectures). My tool of choice for creating these video lecturecasts is Camtasia:Mac. Developed by Techsmith, Camtasia:Mac is the Mac version (as its name suggests) of the popular windows-based Camtasia Studio. Camtasia:Mac allows me to effortlessly record lecturecasts with the camera in my MacBook Pro. Editing is easy (though not anywhere near as robust as what you might find in a more upscale video editor). Camtasia:Mac also features a powerful array of compression and export options, including the ability to dump your video directly to YouTube and Screencast.com. The other important thing (for me) is that TechSmith is a local company. So, using Camtasia:Mac is also about supporting an awesome local business (which in term supports the local economy).
I’ve tried lots of information organizing/management applications over the years, and I seem to keep coming back to Yojimbo. Developed by Bare Bones Software, Yojimbo is great for organizing and accessing the mounds of information that we academics acumulate on a daily basis. I use it for everything from course and project planning to notetaking in meetings. Yojimbo will accept just about everything you need it to: text, bookmarks, PDF files, web archives, serial numbers, passwords, or images. You can organize the information using tags, labels, and collections, and access it with Yojimbo’s searching and browsing features. In addition, Yojimbo’s content will appear in a Spotlight search. The other great thing is that Yojimbo is pretty cheap—clocking in at a reasonable $39 for a single user license (multi-user licenses cost more&mdsh;though not much). There is also an educational version that will only set you back $29.
I do a fair amount of web work (both design and development). Whether it is for grant funded projects or teaching, I’ve always got my hands in some sort of web code (HTML, XHTML, XML, PHP, etc.). Back in the day, Macromedia (now Adobe) Dreamweaver was my HTML editor of choice. It was fully featured and efficient. However, as new versions of Dreamweaver were released, it became bloated. More and more features were added that I simply didn’t need or use, and the program became pretty top heavy. The result was that I started looking for a new HTML editor. What I found was Coda. Developed by Panic, Coda is a “one window” web development environment—which basically means that Coda contains a series of features for design, coding, testing, and reference that would normally be spread out across several applications.
Coda’s editor is elegant and quite powerful (and allows real time collaborating using the Subetha Engine). In addition, it has a a version of Transmit (Panic’s awesome FTP client) built right in. You’ll also find an SVN client and a terminal under the hood. Coda’s price is also pretty decent. A license will only set you back $99. The bottom line is that I would be completely lost without Coda.
What About You?
So, now that I’ve laid out some of the applications that make my life a heck of a lot easier, what about you? What are the programs you can’t live without?