EndNote, Mendeley and old school software design

Ever since yesterday I’ve been evangelising to anyone who will stand still for long enough about this, so you’re going to hear about it here, too. The topic? Referencing.

Anyone who has ever had to do any sort of research knows that referencing is tedious and horrible. And for years, a tool has existed to make this task even more tedious and horrible – EndNote. I know some people think it’s the bees’ knees (hi @gsyoung..!), but most people I know would gladly see it die a slow and painful death given any sort of alternative. I know people who have referenced entire PhD theses manually just to avoid using EndNote.

The issues I have with EndNote is that it’s closed, its UI is badly designed, it doesn’t play well with others and you really have to fudge to do any kind of cloud syncing. The web interface is not brilliant either. It offends my sense of efficiency no end. But it still seems to be the thing everyone uses.

More recently, Zotero has popped up. It’s better (and is FOSS), but it’s tied to Firefox and still doesn’t do everything I wanted it to do.

Yesterday, I found out about Mendeley (never underestimate the power of whinging on Twitter – my EndNote whinge was pulled by Mendeley marketing and garnered an @ reply in 3 seconds flat). Mendeley is cloud-based (tick), can auto-add from any browser (tick), plays nicely with any word processor, not just Word (tick), allows you to organise and annotate PDF articles (tick), has mobile apps (tick), and most powerfully, has LinkedIn-style networking features – meaning you can find, trawl, subscribe to and recommend other researcher’s references. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter. Combined with Diigo for web annotation, I finally now have an efficient and connected referencing workflow.

It’s brought to my mind the idea of the new school of software/apps, and where software is heading. Outside of the specialist domain, the day of the DVD is about done. I thought I’d map some thoughts on the differences:

Old School

  • Closed & proprietary
  • Exists in physical form (CD, DVD, USB etc)
  • Paid
  • Tied to one device; OS-specific
  • Focus on complexity & power over UI
  • Doesn’t integrate with other software or tools, or integrates with a specific few

New School

  • Open or open-source
  • Web-based and/or browser/OS-agnostic
  • If not web-based, syncs over cloud (best-case scenario involves both – eg Dropbox, Mendeley, Evernote etc)
  • Multi-format (web, mobile, desktop)
  • Free, or freemium
  • Focus on UI and niche tools
  • Integrates with multiple tools, inc social media

Companies that are still trying to fit into the former model (Microsoft, I’m looking at you…) need to take a good, hard look at their relevancy in today’s web market. So EndNote – it’s sayonara from me. It’s been grand.

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