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Resident Techie: Tasker - feel good, build something

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  • | 3:15 p.m. October 22, 2013
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Most modern software falls into two camps: it's either dirt simple or like teaching quantum physics to a banana slug. The strange part is that complexity in working with an application doesn't necessarily equate to complexity in what an application actually does. For example, most modern operating systems are amazingly complex, but because they have an intuitively layout, they're relatively easy to handle. Macs and PCs today are worlds easier to deal with than just 10 years ago, and they can do so much more.

Still there are occasionally apps that offer a tantalizing power hidden behind a challenging user interface. One such app is Tasker ($2.99 in the Google Play Store) by Crafty Apps EU for Android.

Tasker is an automation application that lets you configure changes to your phone or tablet based on a context or trigger (such as whenever you hit an application, time, day, a scheduled timer, location, state of the device and more). The app starts by having you choose a trigger and then kicks you over to an action screen, where you tell it what do when you enter that state.

For example, if you want to have your phone automatically change desktop images based on your location, or speak the name of the person who is calling you, Tasker can do it. It can even send an email when you tilt your phone, or backup when it notices it's late at night and plugged into a power adapter.

In my case, my phone ringer had interrupted one important meeting too many. At less than $3, it was an easy sell.

The app design feels sparse and utilitarian, with a seemingly simple workflow: choose something to start it, do something, determine an end and then do something else. But as anyone who has coded before can attest, basic design rules don't mean it's simple.

My first task was a flop, and so was my second. Just like real software development, I quickly discovered the true key, the herculean effort, to getting Tasker to work came in the second effort. Finding out how you screwed it up in the first place. This can be a brain-cramping experience with your internal Hercule Poirot pondering whether the cell tower isn't close enough to a given location or the difference between a ringer and an alarm. Tough stuff, yep, but when it works it's amazing.

I was able to create an application that mutes all sounds whenever I walk into the office, but raises them all when I leave. I also created a second application that opens my favorite podcast application whenever I plugged in earphones. Simple, but effective.

Ultimately, Tasker gives Joe and Jane Blow the highly simplified tools they need to make their own applications, and that's why it's important. I've learned a computer language more than a decade ago and the thought process was almost exactly the same. That's where I think there's value. Sure, it's nice to have your phone automatically turn off its data at night or send a text message to a loved one when you leave on a trip, but having built those same tools yourself and being able to build as many more as you want is extremely valuable.

Did I also mention it's less than three bucks?

At the moment, Tasker is exclusive to Android. There really isn't an all-encompassing app on iOS that can do everything that Tasker does in an automated way, at least without jailbreaking your device. Sorry, iPhone users, maybe it will come there sometime in the future. But one similar app to consider is the mobile application launcher appropriately named Launch Center Pro ($4.99 in the iTunes store).

Hit the app and you can create actions for common tasks in other apps on your mobile device. Instead of having Safari dump you into your standard home page, create a special one-click way to open Safari and have it surf over to your favorite restaurant's website. With a single button, the app can take you to your Messages or Mail apps and compose the start of a new message to a particular contact. The new version of the app also lets you create your own action icon.

Sean Roth is a self-professed geek. When he's not following real estate and businesses for the Business Observer, he's musing about the latest doohickey.


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