OmniFocus for IPhone

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The Omni Group's getting things done (GTD) desktop application for the Mac, OmniFocus, has both proponents and detractors. Many people who buy into David Allen's Getting Things Done workflow philosophy (and who take the time to learn more about how GTD is done) find OmniFocus to be a powerful tool for creating and organizing tasks. Others, confounded by OmniFocus' occasional complexities, wonder if maybe they'd have more time to get things done if they spent less time trying to figure out how OmniFocus can aid their organizational efforts. It's likely OmniFocus for the iPhone‚ although not as deep as the desktop version‚ will be similarly viewed.

And in what ways is the iPhone version shallower? There's no support for repeating tasks or syncing with the iPhone's Calendar application, for example. The interface has been simplified so that all elements are accessible on the iPhone, so there's no Perspective feature (for creating custom views of your data). The iPhone version includes smart groups, which resemble pre-built perspectives that include Due Soon, Overdue, and Flagged, but you can't create your own smart groups.

Nonetheless, the overriding organizational philosophy remains. For those unfamiliar with OmniFocus, it works like this: You create actions (To-Do items) within the Inbox--found on the Home screen--by tapping a Plus button, entering the name of the action (Wash the Car, for example), and, if you choose, assigning it to a Context (a location or state in which you're likely to take on the task) and a Project. If you like, also assign start and due times to it, and either flag it or not. You can also append a note to the action.

Additionally, with the iPhone version you can add a picture to the action by tapping the Take Photo button and using the iPhone's camera to grab an appropriate picture. (Unfortunately you can't append a picture from the iPhone's Photos area.) And you can record a bit of audio and attach it to the action. (Although OmniFocus works on the iPod touch as well, these two specific features are not supported, as the touch lacks a camera and microphone.)

Using contexts and projects you might create something like this: Create Build Sandcastle and Go Surfing actions and file them in a Beach context you've created. Create another Mountains context and file your Go Skiing and Resole Hiking Boots actions there. Then create a broader Relax project where you file all your leisure to-dos. (These would include those activities and tasks associated with the beach and the mountains.) Once you've created these actions and assigned context and project categories to them, you can then view all of them by tapping the Relax project or choose the subset Beach or Mountains actions by tapping their respective contexts.

This comes in particularly handy with a mobile device like the iPhone as you can create contexts for when you're on the move. For example, you can use a context for all the things you want to do when you're downtown, or another for the market, or yet another for when you're traveling to visit your sister.

OmniFocus for the iPhone attempts to leverage the iPhone's advantages by adding a Location feature that gathers together contexts based on their location and then grouping together those contexts. You do this by assigning locations to contexts. So, for example, you might assign a central street name downtown‚ Main Street, for instance‚ as your Errands location. Tap the Locations icon and you're taken to a nearby screen where you see your contexts and associated actions sorted by location. Tap the location next to a particular context, and the Maps application launches and shows you that location. From there you can search within Maps for business types--grocery or hardware stores, for instance. Or you can assign a particular business type‚ say, the market‚ as a location and when you choose the context associated with that business, OmniFocus will locate the businesses of that type to you.

Sound confusing? It can be, as you have to fully embrace the concept of contexts. You can certainly learn it, but it's hardly intuitive. And that's an example of the kind of thing that might turn people away from using OmniFocus on the iPhone. It takes some effort to wrap your head around what the application expects from you. Those without experience with OmniFocus, who are looking for a more straightforward to-do application (and OmniFocus is clearly more than that) that offers some GTD elements, are probably going to be more comfortable with something like Cultured Code's US$10 Things for iPhone.

Of course if you're already a satisfied OmniFocus user, having the iPhone version makes perfect sense. You already know how it works (and presumably appreciate it), and having a mobile version that lets you GTD on the go is a no-brainer, particularly given that you can sync the desktop and mobile versions via MobileMe or a WebDAV server. (A direct connection is currently not supported but would be welcome.)

If you're not an OmniFocus user and lack a MobileMe account or the wherewithal to set up a WebDAV server, the decision isn't quite so easy. OmniFocus for the iPhone's ability to sync with the desktop version of the product is a real boon--the desktop version does important things like let you synchronize your events with iCal and set up repeating actions. The iPhone version won't. But if you want that kind of power, you're looking at spending $80 for the desktop version of OmniFocus and $100 a year to sync the two versions through MobileMe. That's a pretty serious financial commitment if all you want to do is quickly jot down a few tasks and tick them off when you've accomplished them.

Finally, the program is a little buggy. It spontaneously quit several times when I was attempting to enter information or create an action or context. Also, syncing with the so-called "sneakypeek" alpha version of the desktop OmniFocus (the only version that syncs with the iPhone right now) wasn't always successful. The Omni Group is working on updates to the program, but Apple can be slow about posting those updates.

If you're looking for a way to create to-do items on your iPhone, OmniFocus for the iPhone can do it, but it's overkill. If, on the other hand, you seek a powerful (though sometimes challenging) mobile application for creating action items and organizing them within contexts and projects--and one that also acts as an extension of an even more powerful desktop application--OmniFocus for the iPhone can clearly help you get that done.

This story, "OmniFocus for IPhone" was originally published by Macworld.

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