June 4, 2008

Taking note of Basket

Author: Bruce Byfield

Note-taking applications are far from scarce on GNU/Linux desktops. If your needs are simple, you can use KNotes in KDE or Sticky Notes in GNOME. If you want integration with address books and email, you may prefer Evolution's built-in Memos pane. For those who need more than basic notes, the increasingly sophisticated Tomboy may be a solution, assuming they have no objection to running an application built using Mono. However, by far the most versatile note-taking application is KDE's Basket, a tool so flexible and complete that you might prefer to think of it as a personal wiki, a producer of scrapbooks, or even a creator of temporary desktops. The future of Basket as a project is uncertain at the moment, but that doesn't mean that you can't take advantage of its power.

As the name suggests, Basket has taken the concept of the note and expanded it into a temporary container for information of all sorts, including text, links, images, and application launchers. At the most basic level, you can use a basket as a dumping ground for random thoughts, or, with a little organization or ingenuity, you can use baskets for memos, To Do Lists, or even somewhat rough and ready contact lists.

Although Basket's handbook in the KDE help file is largely incomplete, you can learn most of what you need to know from the basket entitled Welcome within the application, or from a self-guided tour of the menus and a quick examination of the interface.

To start using Basket, right-click on the basket tree in the left pane. You can start with a completely new basket, or create a sub-hierarchy of baskets below an existing one. Either way, you need to name the new basket and choose whether it will use a one, two, or three columns or a free-form layout in which you can drag the contents anywhere you want. You may also choose the background color for the basket.

For a more elaborate setup, you can left-click on a basket in the pane to open its Properties dialog. From there, you can give the basket a background image rather than a color, choose a layout with more than three columns, and configure keyboard shortcuts to open or switch to the basket. You can also select Basket -> Password from the menu to password-protect the basket, or Settings -> Configure Basket Note Pads to adjust the applications used to open various types of files to which a basket links. However, all these choices are optional -- to start, all you need is a name for a basket and a column layout.

After these preliminaries, you can start adding objects to the basket. To add a text note, click on some point in the basket and start typing. You can add basic font weights and text alignment if you choose. You can add other objects by selecting the type from the right-click menu in the basket and entering their paths, or by dragging and dropping them from the desktop.

Another option is to import information from other note applications or a text file. The list of applications from which you can export is somewhat KDE-centric -- for instance, you can import from Tomboy, but not from Evolution.

Using a bar that appears at the left of an object when the mouse cursor touches it (why not just use a title bar, I wonder?), you can drag objects in a basket around inside the current basket, drop them into another basket in the left pane, or open them with a viewer or editor.

Beside the bar you will also find a small down arrow that you can click to add a variety of tags. For a To Do List, you can use Done or Not Done as tags, or a progress bar divided into quarters, and you can set priorities on a three-point scale. You can use other tags, such as Work or Personal, to change what displays when you use a filter from Edit -> Filter, or, for even greater control, create your own tags.

When you finish with a basket, the application gives you the option of saving or archiving it, backing it up, or exporting it to a file as HTML.

These operations are simple to learn, but versatile enough to make Basket a popular tool. You can gauge its popularity by the fact that developers have created an online version of Basket called Webasket to simplify the sharing of baskets between computers and collaborators. You can also add a SuperKaramba app that adds any baskets tagged as "Desktop" to a small panel on your desktop. Supposedly, too, you should be able to add Basket as a plugin to Kontact, although that feature is currently broken -- and, in fact, having Basket installed causes Kontact to crash, although some users are reporting successfully workarounds.

Sadly, for all its popularity, Basket's future is in limbo. Sébastien Laoût, the original developer, announced that he no longer has time for the project, and, despite the existence of a Basket Usability Project, a roadmap for future development, and talk of Laoût staying on as a project manager, progress on Basket seems temporarily halted. That means no immediate fixing of the Kontact bug, let alone a KDE 4 version or any new features.

Being free software, Basket is unlikely to disappear. Still, the longer the uncertainty remains, the greater the chance that Basket will temporarily stop functioning. It would be unfortunate if this were to occur, because Basket is an elegant program, outclassing other notes applications to such an extent that it quickly becomes indispensable. Let's hope the project finds new leadership and direction as soon as possible.


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