Web-based task manager Remember the Milk is one of our Lifehacker readers' favourites, and for good reason. The web-centered service has expanded since its inception in 2005 to work with tons of platforms, apps, and interfaces, yet it's remained focused on doing what it does best—telling you what needs to happen next, no matter where you are. We wanted to learn more about how Remember the Milk was born, gets upgraded, and where it wants to go in the future, so we traded a few emails with Emily Boyd, one of the webapp's co-founders, who is based in Sydney. Read on to hear Boyd's answers to our burning questions about RTM. Thanks to Jason F. for the photo illustration!
Lifehacker: Can you tell us the origin story of Remember the Milk? Was it a coffee-fuelled, late-night frustration with to-do lists, or was it an idea that grew over time?
Emily Boyd: Remember the Milk (RTM) originated because we were hopelessly disorganised and fed up with constantly forgetting things, including the milk. This was 2004, so we saw Gmail launch, and thought that AJAX apps were the most awesome thing ever (though the term "AJAX" hadn't been invented yet, so maybe we were like, "Man, that app using the XMLHttpRequest object for asynchronous communication is the most awesome thing ever"). So, we decided to build a web app to help us remember stuff.
RTM was originally intended as something for just the two of us [myself and co-conspirator Omar Kilani] , but we decided to put it on the Interwebs in case others found it useful too. We launched in October 2005, and it kind of just grew from there!
Lifehacker: What particular niche were you trying to fill in the realm of to-do lists and task management? Did you learn from the failings or restrictions of other apps?
Emily Boyd: The biggest thing for us was simply being able to access and manage your tasks from anywhere. It's no good having your tasks stuck on a single computer (or piece of paper you forgot to bring with you) if the urge to add a task or review your list strikes you when you're out running errands, at home, at work, on a bus, or wherever. Plus, Notepad can't send reminders.
The idea of an online to-do list wasn't new (I think pretty much everything was done in Web 1.0) but we were inspired by Gmail to create an AJAX app. Nothing ruins productivity zen like page loads.
Lifehacker: RTM hooks into a lot of different webapps and offers up access from all kinds of platforms. What process does your team go through in deciding whether to embrace and write code to support some new thing that comes along, rather than working on core improvements?
Emily Boyd: It's tough! We try our best to juggle both, but it can be especially tricky with a small team. Sometimes user expectations are a factor (right now there's a lot of demand for something that starts with an "i" and ends with a "Phone"), but we try to balance things out and make sure there's something for everyone. :)
Lifehacker: A lot of people are probably wondering what RTM's long-term revenue model is, aside from paid Pro accounts. Can you fill us in?
Emily Boyd: We actually didn't even have a business model until a year ago, when we figured out that working full-time, unpaid on RTM and spending all our money on hosting infrastructure for a growing service wasn't, like, the most sustainable idea ever. Whoops.
We're pretty happy with the Pro account model, as it allows us to keep the service sustainable and mostly free. We're even growing our team a little bit (beyond the original two people and a stuffed monkey), so we're excited about that.
Lifehacker: RTM's iPhone interface won it a design award from Apple, which is no small feat. Can we guess that an actual App Store application is in the works?
Emily Boyd: I'd say that would be a pretty good guess... we're huge iPhone fans. :)
Lifehacker: There have been quite a few cool interfaces, widgets, and other utilities designed by third parties to integrate RTM into Linux/Mac/Windows desktops, or set up interactions with other apps. To what extent do you work with, or at least hear from, the coders of these apps?
Emily Boyd: It's awesome to see the stuff that people come up with using the RTM API. We blog about some of the cool things we hear about and think that RTM users would find especially useful, and feature some on the site too.
We have a Google Group for API discussion, and there are a bunch of nice folks on there who help out others if they get stuck on any of the tricky bits of API coding. We work individually with developers as well, but a lot of the time, people just take the API and run with it.
Lifehacker: With the recent releases of Chrome, the Android phone OS, and the wider adoption of Gears, some are suggesting that the idea of "the Web as Desktop" is becoming a lot more real. You were one of the enthusiastic early adopters of Gears, so we'd ask your take on where you think desktop and web apps are headed?
Emily Boyd: Gears is awesome! We're obviously very passionate about web apps at RTM, so the launch of Gears was kind of like, "Ha! One less reason people can use to cling to desktop apps."
Web apps inherently have some big advantages over their desktop counterparts (being, you know, web-based and accessible from anywhere for one) but it's those reasons like lack of offline access that have held web apps back a little bit in the past.
Greater focus on JS performance (ala Chrome) and very JS-capable browsers on phones (Android and iPhone) also help in getting closer to that "Web as Desktop" reality. I'm not sure we'll see web apps completely replacing desktop ones, as not every type of app gains an advantage being web-based. Then again, I don't think many people would have imagined using apps like spreadsheets online even 5 years ago. So who knows!
Lifehacker: What other technologies, or changes in technology, are you hoping come around that would make RTM more useful, and expand it to a wider audience?
Emily Boyd: I wish I knew what was coming... we could start coding for it already. :)
It'll be cool to see further innovation in mobile devices; I think that anything that gives people more Internet connectivity without being tied to a computer provides pretty exciting opportunities for web services. RTM anywhere!
Lifehacker: Can you run us through your typical work day, and how RTM fits into it? Do you follow a GTD-like methodology, create multiple lists, use extensive tagging ...?
Emily Boyd: The day has to start with coffee; RTM is powered by caffeine. Once coffee is acquired, I hit my feeds in Google Reader (including Lifehacker, of course), check my email, and review my day's tasks in RTM before getting to work on, well, RTM (is that meta?).
I'm a tasks freak, but I don't follow any particular methodology. Actually, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I haven't read the Getting Things Done book yet!
My RTM setup is something of a hybrid: I use lists for higher level organisation (separating work from personal, etc), tag extensively to break down my lists, and use locations to provide context. I also have a bunch of Smart Lists that allow me to filter my tasks in different ways. For instance, I have a Smart List that shows my errands that don't have due dates; I make myself review that one periodically, even though it's full of "tasks that suck". If only RTM could do your tasks for you...
Lifehacker: What are the hardest, and best, parts of your job?
Emily Boyd: Hmm, tricky. The hardest part is probably deciding which features to implement, and trying to make everybody happy. We get a lot of requests for "the one feature that would make RTM perfect" — the only problem is that it's a different feature for each person!
There are over 10,000 posts on the RTM Ideas forum, with lots of awesome feedback, but unfortunately we just can't implement everything. Even if we could add so many features, the end result would most likely be a monstrosity that wouldn't make anybody happy! It can be tough to make feature decisions, knowing that it's impossible to achieve universal user happiness (but it never hurts to try).
The best part of doing my job? Getting to work each day on something I love (awww). No seriously, it's a lot of fun, and I love working on something that people (hopefully!) find useful in their daily lives.