Top Twenty Tools for 2008

{ Posted on Jan 09 2009 by Bill Zimmerman }

This began as a post specifically about TiddlyWiki, but seeing as many bloggers do retrospective “year in review” posts around this time, I thought I’d chip in my own. I may yet reprise the TiddlyWiki how-to I started around the holidays, simply because it’s become such an essential personal productivity tool.

The term “tool” is used here in its broadest sense. Thus, I’m grouping this list into three categories: software tools, electronic gadgets and low-tech solutions. Understandably, software accounts for the bulk of this list. Most of what appears in this category is free and open source (FOSS), some is software as a service (SaaS) and a handful is proprietary. I’ve opted to glom them all together.

It’s a mixed bag, but every tool below has proven indispensable over the past year.

Software Tools
1. TiddlyWiki — I’ve used this personal wiki off and on since it became available, but only really started to maximize its potential within the last year. This probably happened when I switched to GTDTiddlyWiki Plus, which takes its inspiration from personal productivity guru David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy. It now it ranks up with my IDE on the “useful” scale of my developer’s toolset. Yes, it’s that good. I’m still discovering new ways to use it, including with the “African PDA” (aka Hipster PDA). Look for a full blog post deserving of this killer combo soon.

2. PortableApps Suite — with portable Firefox, OpenOffice, TrueCrypt, PuTTy and others. John T. Haller’s suite adds a portable app launcher along with an organized document structure to the venerable pen drive. USB devices and the sneakernet are essential in Africa, where bandwidth is expensive and often unpredictable.

3. WordPress — the blogging tool I use everyday almost without fail. The recent 2.7 release is a joy to use, despite occasionally bogging down with the glacial Internet speeds common to most of Cameroon. I’m keeping a close eye on Maneno as an alternative blogging platform designed for Sub-Saharan Africa.

4. Twitter — there’s no doubt that 2008 was the year for Twitter. It witnessed its hockey stick moment around October when it jumped the chasm between the early “alpha geek” adopters and the early majority. I’m thoroughly hooked and probably spend more time on it now than my other social networking tools combined. You’re welcome to follow me (I follow back).

5. Adobe Air (proprietary) — and related applications. Air is an impressive framework which brings rich Internet functionality to the desktop. The framework itself is reasonably lightweight as are the Air applications, making it ideal for Africa. The apps I use daily are TweetDeck and twhirl, both excellent Twitter clients. I prefer the latter on my laptop or when I need to manage multiple Twitter accounts (hopefully this will be coming to TweetDeck soon). Honorable Air app mention goes to Balsamiq (proprietary) as a rapid prototyping and mockup tool.

6. Songbird — I liked the idea of a open source music player built using the Mozilla framework, so I tried an early beta release. Unfortunately, it was too buggy to be tolerable then, but they’ve really cleaned it up with the recent 1.0 release. It’s a nice alternative to resource-hungry iTunes, which with each new release seems to be taking the path to invasive bloatware once followed by RealPlayer.

7. Damn Small Linux — I’ve used different flavors of LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL & Apache) for various and sundry purposes over the years. Being in Cameroon has renewed my fondness for it. I enjoy giving it away on inexpensive USB keys to young Cameroonians with an interest in hacking and watching their expression when it boots the first time. Absolutely appropriate tech for Africa.

8. SketchUp — proved itself well as a practical tool during my NGO’s office and cyber café restructuring. Working with our carpenter, I quickly made a scale model of our existing space and knocked down walls to visualize how the proposed floor plan would work. We tested it out with a virtual 3-D walkthrough, used it for cost estimates and printed building plans with accurate dimensions. Amazingly, we succeeded in doing the demolition, PC refurbishing, electrical wiring, networking, paint and carpentry in around 48 hours! SketchUp played a big role in helping us reopen for business in record time.

9. Notepad++ — a powerful, extensible, intuitive, do-anything editor. I’m not the sort of geek who has a slavish dedication to one particular editor over another. I’ve used lots of them over the years (Emacs, vi, ed, Crimson, Coda, etc.) for various tasks, but Notepad++ is the Windows editor I end up returning to again and again. It’s like a comfy pair of loafers.

10. Google Reader — and, when I’m in the mood, its cousin feedly. I should include PostRank with this since it’s an excellent companion for filtering through dozens (hundreds?) of RSS feeds each day.

11. CiviCRM — compared with the rest of this list, I’ve probably spent the least amount of time on this software package. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by it as a new model for nonprofit software development and am already looking forward to implementing it with the NGO I work for in the coming year.

Electronic Gadgets
12. Power Monkey — portable power adaptable to a wide range of devices in a package about the size and weight of an egg. Modular connectors allow charging of iPods and most mobile phones, and the unit can be recharged from 110 or 220v current or with a retractable USB cable. Ideal for travel, and I’ve used it to help others charge their dead electronics. One hundred percent Africa compliant.

13. Polaroid camera — with a vast store of film reserves. Want to make instant friends in Africa? Pack a Polaroid. I learned this from Daniel Martin Moore before he went off and became a bona-fide rock star. Seriously, it’s instant fun in a cheap, durable, analog package.

14. iPod Nano — a no-brainer. Brought back from South Africa to replace my 5th generation iPod that suffered an untimely demise. Just the ticket for long bus rides around Cameroon, international flights, extended power outages, and so on.

15. Dell Latitude X1 / Samsung Q30 — my trusty ultraportable laptop with XP and Ubuntu is going on four years of uninterrupted, trouble-free service, which is a statement for the amount of rough travel I’ve done with it on the continent. I appreciate the small form factor which fits perfectly into my Waterfield neoprene sleeve. With a recent memory upgrade (and a bigger HDD soon, hopefully) I’m in no rush to replace it.

16. The “African PDA” (aka Hipster PDA) — Merlin Mann’s no-tech personal assistant has garnered something of a cult following since it debuted and couldn’t be better suited for Cameroon. I’ve relied on my own variant of the Hipster PDA for years, and have toyed with the idea of upgrading to the DIY Planner. Part of me doesn’t want to sacrifice the simplicity of the “classic” Hipster PDA, which is nothing more than some index cards, an office clip and a pen. Even better when used in conjunction with GTDTiddlyWiki Plus (above), which will print tiddlers on 3×5” cards.

17. Surly ‘Jethro Tule’ — a pocket-sized 15mm box end wrench for the African fixed gear, with the requisite bottle opener on the opposite end. Pure economy of design in a top-quality tool. Hands-down one of the best gifts ever (thanks Jessica).

18. Crank Bros Multi-19 tool — my search for the perfect bicycle multi-tool is over (for now, anyway). This little number goes everywhere my bike and I go. It’s saved me from being stranded on some dodgy Cameroonian highways more than once.

19. Moka Express (aka ‘Moka Pot‘) — this is the inexpensive, iconic stove top coffee/espresso maker made by the Italian company Bialetti. It has no moving parts and hence nothing to break. The Moka Pot has actually appeared in industrial design museums (I was pleased to see it in the MOMA‘s permanent collection the last time I visited) and rightfully so. Once mastered, it makes perfect espresso every time. All I need is a steady supply of dark roast to feed my addiction.

20. Pilot Precise V5 (extra fine) — in blue, black & red. For use with the African PDA. Jealously guarded at all times.

What were your essential tools for 2008? Comments are welcome.

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I'm an engineer, ex-Microsoftie, founding board member of AfriLabs, co-founder of ActivSpaces in Cameroon and VC4Africa. Drawn to innovation, creativity & all things tech. More at


  1. Thanks for referencing feedly in this list. Best wishes for 2009.

  2. Miquel says:

    Very cool. Glad to hear you’re watching what we’re doing at Maneno. We’ve got a lot of plans for the upcoming year that will form the system in to what we’re envisioning.


  3. My list:

    Software tools {
    – Firefox
    – Notepad++
    – Portable apps Suite
    – Putty

    Electronic Gadgets {
    – My CF7250 laptop
    – My Wii // got to relax sometimes

    Low Tech {
    – My T629 purchased from

  4. billz says:

    @Edwin, looking forward to seeing what you’ve got in store for feedly in 2009.

    @Miquel, glad to hear it. One of the things I like best about Maneno is the lightning-fast page loads. Creates the illusion that I’ve got *real* broadband here. 😉

    @Kerawa, nice list. did you use Notepad++ to build

  5. BamendaBabe says:

    One day, at the thrift store, I saw your kind of coffee pot. It mystified me; I thought it was some kind of alien-invented teapot. It is January and I’ve been wondering, how are your papaya and other trees doing? And did Hans return for Xmas?

  6. my list

    – phpdev {php, apache mysql installer)
    – codeigniter
    – open office
    – adobe fireworks, photoshop, flash dreamweaver
    – blogspot
    – twitter
    – facebook
    – gmail
    end software:

    electonic gadgets:
    – dell lattitude c640
    end electronic gadgets:

  7. billz says:

    @BamendaBabe, the Moka Pot is one of the greatest inventions ever, IMHO. Re: Hans, he was a no-show in Cameroon for the holidays, but that was expected. He’s back at work in NYC. As for the fruit trees in the yard, we should be eating fresh papaya & probably mangoes soon. The banana tree is growing fast, too.

    @Churchill, great list! :)

  8. Oddly enough I learned about Maneno today and i looks good.

    I used a little app called Free MP3 player and Audacity quite often in ’08.

  9. billz says:

    @solomonsydelle, agreed re: Audacity. It’s part of my portable apps suite; just missed the list since it’s something of a niche tool in my case.

    If you like small mp3 players you might try out xmplay, a great free Win32 player that’s been around since 1998. It packs a lot of features into a tiny 300kb package and has lots of community support.

  10. BamendaBabe says:

    Just curious but… Where’d u get your moka pot? In Cameroon? And what’s Cameroon’s dark roast? Is your coffee grown/roasted in Cameroon? I’ve been wondering about the coffee industry in Cam.

    My 2008 Stuff (all featured at
    -Touring travel bag (used for school)
    -Passport organizer (used as purse/wallet)
    -Personal organizer (used for toiletries)
    Actually, these items have served me well since 2004 and, uh, they’ve been to Africa and back. So they pass the test of time and distance! :)

  11. @bill
    for Kerawa, I started with phpeclipse.
    Ended up with notepad ++.

  12. billz says:

    @BamendaBabe I’ve had it for years, just packed it and brought it to Cameroon in 2006. There’s a good dark roasted Cameroonian blend I buy here for making drip coffee (forget the brand), only trouble is the grind isn’t fine enough for the Moka Pot. Until I find a grinder, I’m depending on family & friends to keep the supply flowing.

  13. V! says:

    Great list, I will be checking up on those in due time.
    2008 was a year of travel, work and fatherhood for me. Unlike most of you, I evaporated from social networking and condensed offline, so, I do not blog, twit(ter), facebook or myspace anymore. The only social network I keep up with every now and then is

    Here’s my mini list:

    G1 Phone (*New* Everything is now on my fingertips)
    Microsoft Zune (for podcasting)
    Digital and video cameras (I take/took lots of pics and vids)
    Regular Windows Vista desktop and laptop (My son fried my tablet PC, it was my fault)

    New revelations:
    – Joomla (CMS – Open Source)
    – Android OS for mobile phones (By Google)

    If you like free stuff (software) like me, you may want to check this out (it’s a little old though):