Charles Simonyi, David Allen Team Up To Get Things Done on Mobile

10/16/12Follow @wroush

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add-in software for Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail client that helps users translate incoming e-mails into tasks, which then be processed or categorized using Allen’s methodology. Santa Clarita, CA-based ICA.com offers a plugin called eProductivity that helps users implement GTD within IBM’s Lotus Notes collaboration suite. Mobile developers have jumped on board, too. More than 100 iPhone and iPad apps—none of them endorsed by Allen—purport to help GTD disciples, mostly by providing souped-up to-do lists, calendars, and notekeeping capabilities.

With the exception of the Netcentrics add-in, which licenses the Getting Things Done trademark, and the eProductivity system, which was developed at Allen’s behest by a former employee, Allen has always maintained a careful distance from GTD-related systems. Mostly, they’re overkill, he says.

“Once you get really good at this, you just need simple lists,” says Allen, whose company is based in Ojai, CA. “It is nice to be able to drag an e-mail [into a task list], but then you still need to rewrite the subject line so that it’s clear what it is. You are still going to have to manipulate it. It’s not just automatic. The guys out there who are trying to build some level of AI into how you filter your email shouldn’t bother, because you’re still going to need to think about how you’re going to think about what you need to think about.”

In Allen’s opinion, the last set of fundamental advances in personal computing came back in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of spreadsheets, word processors, relational databases, and graphical interfaces. “Those things truly changed the game—they let us think about things differently,” he says. “I keep watching to see if anybody is coming up with anything else that is a game-changer, and I haven’t seen anything.”

That is, until he started talking with Anderson and with Intentional Software’s founder, chairman, and chief technology officer, Charles Simonyi.

“David will tell you that he’s been approached every week for the past 15 years by one software developer or another asking him to support a GTD implementation on their specific product,” says Anderson. “But he’s deferred all these years because he was waiting for the right approach. When he and I began discussing Intentional, he recognized that this was what he had been waiting for, a Meta approach to implementing GTD into software.”

Intentional’s “meta” approach is tricky to describe, but the company’s basic goal is to create software that can be re-written or evolved by users themselves, without the intervention of a professional developers. That depends on the use of “generators” that take high-level commands or intentions and translate them into working code. The company embeds these generators in a so-called “Knowledge Workbench” that supposedly lifts users above the details of software implementation and gives them the ability to think more creatively.

In the big picture, intentional software represents a continuation of the “what you see is what you get” philosophy embodied in Microsoft Word, the first version of which was written by Simonyi himself. (For a more thorough overview of the idea, see “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta,” Technology Review, January 2007.)

Allen and Anderson both think that GTD and Intentional could be a match made in heaven. “GTD is one of the most popular methodologies for capturing life’s inputs, applying knowledge to process and organize, and translating it into effective personal productivity,” says Anderson. “Through its Knowledge Workbench approach to developing software, Intentional is focused on enabling domain experts [to] translate their knowledge into working software…Intentional will apply its ‘Meta’ approach to software by not trying to replace the existing tools and applications that people use to organize their life but rather connect all of those pieces together so those pieces work more seamlessly together.”

There’s no specific timeline for the collaboration, but Allen says he hopes it will result in something just as cool and viral as popular cloud-based applications such as Dropbox or Evernote. While he’d originally hoped, a decade ago, that it would be easy to translate GTD into a software package —“I would love it if [GTD] had been a breakout thing and all I had to do was go collect money from my post office box,” he says—that never happened. “The problem with technology is it’s seducing everyone into … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Neil Hunter

    Interesting. I hope that http://GTDnext.com will work with this new “meta” system they talk about here. It seems to be the newest, most GTD of the all the players out there.