OmniFocus: Better watch out for Things from Outer Space

Posted on by Mike Evans


Author: Michael Evans (introduction)

Regular readers will know that I'm a great advocate of the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology and that my chosen application is OmniFocus, first on the Mac and now on the iPhone. OF is a complex but highly efficient task and project manager and enjoys slick synchronisation between all your Macs and iPhones/iPod touches. It works and is rock solid. But it isn't the prettiest, nor the most Mac-like of applications. I've frequently downloaded and tested the main competitor, Things, but have up to now rejected it on the grounds of lack of cloud synchronisation and limitations in folder hierarchy. 

I was intrigued yesterday to see a great post by OF enthusiast Robert Kitson on Omni's Forum, so I asked him if he would mind sharing his thoughts with us. So here is Robbie's take on the impact of the iPad and the future for OmniFocus and Things. Bear in mind the audience--Omni Focus and OF Forum members:

Author Robert Kitson

"The iPad launch really seems to have shaken up the marketplace. Good software developers are hard to come by and hiring more manpower is expensive. Resource allocation is key. Tradeoffs have to be made, but the right ones!

"If you dissect the competitive environment and analyse the situation, you can see where Omnigroup should place its focus. The main key is: listen to your customers. After all, retaining existing customers is, in Marketing circles, the highest priority to be sustainable in the future. And acquiring new ones is costly.

"Omni's flagship product seems to be Omnifocus (correct me if I'm wrong, but it is positioned so on the beautifully newly designed website). With the launch of the iPhone App many people (including myself) bought the Mac and iPhone app for efficient organisation and mobility. The amount of apps sold because of mass iPhone AND iPod touch sales were presumably an amazing cash cow for Omnigroup. 

Support_things_mac"Along comes Things... The German based company recognized the high demand and saw room for improvement and went out there to compete. The greatest shortcoming of Omnifocus they saw was the steep learning curve and the fairly unspectacular design, as well as a slowly evolved infrastructure based on Outliners and Kinked (?!) – a bit like Microsoft’s OS evolution, if you ask me – still being backward compatible to DOS. Most Mac users are design conscious and appreciate simplicity, so making an optically appealing, simple to-do-list software with tagging would be enough for Things to get an initial foothold in the market. Underlined by a Macworld design award their strategic entry into the marketplace was a full success. The two products now go head to head for dominance in the marketplace.

"These two value propositions opposing each other gave consumers a choice, however a poor one. Things looks good, is easy to learn and has great flexibility with tagging. However, for anyone with more than a handful of tasks, you would soon reach your limits. Omnifocus would be the only real alternative, due to simple limitations in the Things for Mac software such as the inability to make ‘child & parent’ tasks. Also the lack of wireless sync on iPhone Things and no multiple tag selection as well as Omnifocus for iPhone’s innovative location aware services and of course the brilliant Perspectives. Last but not least, OF managed to acquire a more sophisticated image by partnering with David Allen Company, which I fully endorse.

"Nevertheless, the Omni forums started to get filled with endless discussions about frustrating shortcomings including priorities, putting items on hold, multiple contexts – mainly features that were given with Things’ new tagging infrastructure. And the management of these forum complaints required time. Time that could have been spent elsewhere actually getting useful things done.

"Omni’s light on the horizon were the subtle hints by both Omni employees as well as loyal forum visitors like whpalmer and the likes (you ought to pay them for their loyal duties by the way if you don’t already) that Omnifocus 2.0 would cover all these missing and desired features. Early 2010 were the vague promises – and I understand that the future is uncertain, but still no sign of it…

"Then came the iPad… Yes, I am a believer in tablet devices changing the face of mobile computing. And yes, Omni needs to be a part of it. But the question is, when and how?

"Things, in many ways has it easy. They are focused. They only have one family of products to take care of. And with the iPad they are starting to up their game. Their app and ad is amazing and beyond that they are continuously upgrading their Mac and iPhone app. Mobile synchronization is on the horizon! In the meantime Omnigroup had to rally their efforts to keep all their customers of all their product groups satisfied. You have the professional graphers whose ‘livelihoods’ depend on your software… Yes. But what does Omnigroup’s livelihood depend on?

"To the average user Omnifocus on the iPad does not add that much value. It is mobile just like an iPhone/iTouch and the critical masses will not need another mobile device. Most people will enter this new computing environment when Apple adds the features that still deter the critical masses (i.e. camera, multitasking, maybe flash). Omni doesn’t need the first mover advantage in this field with their GTD app. So in the short term, a doubled pixel Omnifocus iPhone app is more than enough for the iPad.

"To fend off Things’ threat, Omni has to fight back – soon. I believe that if the Omnifocus 2.0 for Mac with a rewritten underlying infrastructure (like Apple always does it with their OSes) and the accompanying features aren’t made highest priority soon, Things will be able to catch up with their missing feature sets and there will be little place for Omnifocus out there. Yes, you’ll still have your ‘loyals’, but your cashcow will have turned into a dog. And beware, Things just hired Bartek, the Polish software developer, who ran iGTD2 in his own SPARE time!

"Pricing seems to be a great issue for customers in the forums now. On both Things' and Omnigroups forums people are calling for group product discounts for all 3 Apps. But until Apple extends its payment infrastructure (and this can take a while), this will be difficult to implement for both. This is not going to sway a consumer in either direction, and once Apple updates its payment policies there is no competitive edge to be gained here. Don't worry about it!

"Let me be clear: In this battle I’m with Omni. I am a loyal follower. But my first place is as a consumer. If Things continue with their aggressive advancement strategy and Omnifocus for Mac lets me hanging for too long, they may convince me to switch down the line, unless Omni can up their game sufficiently. After all, as a consumer it costs me to switch – not only in monetary terms, but also a lot of time will be needed to understand the subtle workings of Things. Like me and presumably many opportunistic customers out there, you still have my attention. Turn us into loyal customers by adding these features. We are after all the largest part of your customer base. Please just don’t make the same mistake as Microsoft did and exceed the number of markets you can feasibly compete in. 

"This is the tipping point…"

If you want to read more on this subject you can follow Robbie on Twitter at @RobertKitson

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