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InfoQ Homepage News Tasktop: Bringing Mylyn's Task-Focused Interface to Everyone

Tasktop: Bringing Mylyn's Task-Focused Interface to Everyone

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Tasktop Technologies, the company which created Eclipse Mylyn and leads its development, released Tasktop version 1.0 today. InfoQ interviewed Tasktop President and CTO Mik Kersten to learn more about this release and how it brings Mylyn's task-focused interface to a much larger audience.

Mik Kersten first described the driving philosophy behind Tasktop Technologies and the Tasktop 1.0 release:

Our philosophy is captured by the three simple and beautiful words embodied in our logo: less is more. This principle pervades all of our design, integration and implementation decisions. The “less is more” approach is a reaction to a trend that we’ve seen with development and knowledge work tools. There has been a constant creep of more information, more features, more tools, and more web UIs to learn. The result is that during a typical workday, we can spend more time looking for information than getting work done. We are constantly clicking between windows, web applications, desktop applications, and repeatedly scrolling and searching to find the information we need. Each tool tries to help by putting all sorts of useful information at our fingertips, but their lack of integration and focus leaves us completely overloaded. At Tasktop Technologies we decided to say, OK, that’s enough, this information-centric approach of building tools was great in the 80s and 90s when we had a few dozen files on our desktop, but it hasn’t scaled. What we need now is a task-centric approach that aligns tools around the way that we work, not around the way that information is stored on the filesystems.

Kersten also went into more detail about the 'less is more' mantra, where it came from, and what it means to Tasktop:

Interestingly, for me the phrase originated from the same place as the desktop user interface metaphor that tools are still intent on using: Xerox PARC. In 1999 Gregor Kiczales hired me to build the IDE support for AspectJ and at I was very excited to build as many features into our tools and web site as I could. He would regularly come by my desk and say “less is more” over and over, in an increasingly stern tone. That hammered into my head the design aesthetic of creating the simplest solution possible, putting it out to your users for feedback and then iterating on the design in order to get the flow through the common use cases right. With Mylyn and Tasktop we have taken the “less is more” idea to a whole new level thanks to the Task-Focused Interface.

The idea of a task-focused interface is a key idea which underlies both Mylyn and Tasktop 1.0, and Kersten explained it in further detail:

The key thing that I felt needed addressing is that we spend way too much time clicking. I was trying to address what was at first a selfish need, because the coding I was doing for the AspectJ releases had put me into a long and losing battle with Repetitive Strain Injury. I was desperate not to stop doing what I loved, so I started experimenting with various input devices, and then ways of reducing how much I clicked. I realized that if the stuff that I needed to refer to was on the screen, I would not need to constantly search and browse for it. To explore this further I started a PhD at UBC with one of the most skilled and most practical tool researchers, Gail Murphy. We created a degree-of-interest model for automatically ranking the most relevant stuff for you. Then I had this profound epiphany about how we could combine this model with a relatively recent discovery of how episodic memory works in humans. To make a long story short, we created the Task-Focused Interface which makes much better use of your memory by making tasks the primary element of interaction and collaboration, and by automating the recall of task contexts. It sounds a bit complicated but in the end the UI is simple—you activate a task and as a result everything you touch as part of the task becomes a part of its context. Since the contexts are stored and can be shared, multitasking becomes a single-click operation. We estimate that there are now hundreds of thousands of programmers who get the focus and flow benefits of the Task-Focused Interface while working with Eclipse and Mylyn.

Kersten also described how Tasktop 1.0 extends upon the task-focused interface which was first implemented in Mylyn:

Our goal with Mylyn was to create an open and extensible framework that would serve as a reference implementation of the Task-Focused Interface for programmers. The project started out as a way of validating my PhD thesis and then turned into an obsession of sharing these productivity benefits with others. But as you’ll notice from the abstract of my thesis the goal was to bring these benefits not just to programmers, but to all knowledge workers. To do this we had to leave the elegant world of the Eclipse workbench and extend Mylyn’s Task-Focused Interface to the desktop and web applications that we commonly use.

At Tasktop we’ve been doing all our own work with the tool for a year now, and had a few hundred people trying the beta. Today I’m extremely pleased to announce that we have started selling the first public release of Tasktop for $40/year to programmers using Eclipse and $60/year to those needing a standalone application. This not only provides support to the Mylyn project which we lead, but also marks a big landmark in our goal of bringing focus to your workday.

When asked to describe the major features in the Tasktop 1.0 release, Kersten said:

I’ll start with the ones that have the most obvious value and end on the one that’s the most profound. First of all, everyone gets to use Mylyn now. Mylyn’s Task List makes it possible to manage all of your tasks in a single place, whether they are personal to you or shared via a task repository.

If you’re not a programmer but want a rich client and offline access to JIRA, or if you’re programming using NetBeans or Visual Studio and want to connect to Rally, you can now do it with the standalone Tasktop RCP application. To make setup easy, we have included one-click install of partner connectors for Atlassian’s JIRA, CollabNet and Rally. If you’re an Outlook user you get a connector for Outlook email, tasks and calendar events. You also get Google Calendar integration with support for task scheduling via the integrated calendars, and goodies such as the Agenda popup that shows you all your upcoming events from Google Calendar even when offline. Tasktop is thoroughly integrated with Microsoft Windows in order to provide instant access to your files along with the benefits of focused file browsing. Since Tasktop has OS specific integration, we’re also able to provide you with to-the-minute tracking of time spent working on tasks both inside and outside of Eclipse. With the Eclipse plugin version, Mac and Linux based programmers get some of these benefits, but for now are missing features such as automatic closing of external applications when switching tasks.

But the feature that I’m most excited about is the fact that, when open, Tasktop can be set as your default browser (currently Windows only). This means that all of your browsing activity becomes focused. When you return to a programming task that involved reading documentation or editing a wiki page, the corresponding browser tabs will be instantly restored. When you click a hyperlink to a JIRA issue in Skype it will instantly open an offline copy with the integrated rich task editor and synchronize with the server in the background. I could go on for ages about the benefits, but you have to try this yourself. I have been working this way for a year now and simply could not imagine going back to a classic tabbed browser with no rich editing and context management facilities.

Kersten also pointed out an online video which shows Tasktop in action and a comprehensive list of the current set of Tasktop integrations. The technologies which underpin Tasktop 1.0 and the recent partnership with SpringSource were also discussed:

Tasktop is all about integration and leverages the Mylyn and Eclipse APIs to provide that integration. To bring focus to your whole workday, there needs to be a Mylyn connector to your task repository (e.g. issue tracker or project management web service) and a Mylyn bridge to support the tools that you use (e.g. Java editor, web browser). We have been pushing hard to enable a rich ecosystem of both proprietary and open source integrations with Mylyn for programmers and the ecosystem of tools is continuing to grow. Tasktop is filling the gaps for our non-programming activities with connectors for Google and Microsoft tools as well as the bridges for web and file browsing. We are strong believers in APIs being open source, so Eclipse and Mylyn provide the entire integration framework that Tasktop relies on.

One example of this push for integration that we’ll showcase at EclipseCon in March is our recent efforts with SpringSource on the SpringSource Tool Suite (STS). While the reference bridges bundled with Mylyn do a great job of supporting Java programmers, we have never had the resources behind the project to support the many additional bridges needed to integrate with the lifecycle of Java EE development. We then noticed that the Spring Framework was becoming the de facto standard for Java EE and partnered with SpringSource to create a Task-Focused enterprise application development environment. As with the Spring framework, power and simplicity are the goal of the STS and I’m really looking forward to our first public release of it at EclipseCon in March. Since the STS builds on Mylyn APIs, developers will be able to use it in conjunction with Tasktop in order to have focus for both their Java EE programming and other work activities.

Finally, Kersten shed some light on the future direction of Tasktop:

As you can probably tell, we’re just getting started. Expect to see the continued trajectory of improvements and integration from Tasktop that you’ve seen with Mylyn, whose first public release was just two years ago. At EclipseCon we’ll also be announcing some additional Tasktop integration that will make it even easier to manage your workday and Eclipse workspaces.

The beginning of something new like this is always a fun time because the initial users get to have a significant impact on how the tool evolves. So check out the trial from, and use the integrated reporting to give us your feedback on how the Task-Focused Interface can best support your work.

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