Sisyphus’ Notetaking App

I am always searching for the perfect notes app, and the best way to integrate that into my workflow. I’m not sure I have found the former and I haven’t achieved the latter, but I keep trying. It’s ultimately a Sisyphean task, because there’s always another note taking app just around the corner which will constitute a new way of working with it. Nevertheless, I try.

With our proliferation of devices it’s no longer enough to have a decent desktop-based notetaking process. Access needs to be ubiquitous, and that means cloud sync. While a few years ago that would limit the candidates significantly, nowadays sync is the price of entry. When the iPhone arose and syncing was hard, the best option was Simplenote. This app used its own sync engine to provide lightning fast sync. I had a large number of notes in Simplenote, but it was convoluted getting them on my Mac, which required Dropbox and NVAlt – an app which I love the concept of but it never really grew on me.

Nowadays there are an abundance of options, such as Apple Notes, OneNote, Notability, OmniOutliner, and the list goes on. The problem with this is fragmentation. Taking notes is one thing, finding them again later is quite another. If I don’t have all my notes in one location, they may as well be lost. Plus that location needs to be available wherever I am and whatever device I have to hand. Spotlight search is useful, but I want to know where that note is, and I don’t want to have to trawl through search results to find it.

For the moment I have settled on Bear for notes. It syncs reliably across iOS and macOS, it supports Markdown syntax and can export into a variety of formats. It also looks really pretty.

Despite my use of Bear, I haven’t totally solved the fragmentation problem. I continue to use Goodnotes for handwritten notes taken with my Apple Pencil, DEVONThink Pro for reference material, and Ulysses for long-form writing. So stuff remains scattered.

And so my stone rolls back down the hill…

My Mac Apps of the Year

With a hat tip to Gabe Weatherhead at MacDrifter who put together his list of favourite Mac applications for 2017, I am following suit.

Third party apps are what make a platform great. Despite the macOS ecosystem perhaps not being as vibrant as it once was, it is still served by a wonderful cohort of professional and hard-working developers. Even though I’ve bought their apps, I sometimes feel I owe them more because using their software is what makes using my Mac both fun and productive.

There’s a long tail of apps I use beyond those included in this list. Yet these I have detailed below are those I used extensively in 2017 and that I value and enjoy. These are the apps that I would most miss if they suddenly went away.

1Password for Families

Online security is no joke. It’s easy to dismiss password hygiene as tin-foil hat material, but when you think how much of our lives are conducted online, I don’t want a veneer of security — I want an ironclad guarantee. 1Password guarantees I can have unique complex passwords for every site that I maintain an account. I have no idea what any of these passwords are. But I do know my password to unlock 1Password. After that, it’s nothing but ⌘-\ to long me in anywhere.

1Password for Families | US$4.99 per month

OmniFocus

I’ve waxed lyrical about OmniFocus before. Without this app there is no way I would be able to keep all my balls in the air. As much as parts of its design frustrate me, and the pace of its development is glacial, it works. Every day it delivers value by making my life easier. There are sexier to-do apps out there, but OmniFocus is rock solid.

OmniFocus Pro | US$79.99

Launchbar

My wife doesn’t have Launchbar installed on her MacBook. So when I try to use it, I feel lost. After years of use Launchbar feels an extension of the operating system and is completely engrained in my muscle memory. I switched to Launchbar years ago after Quicksilver became unstable and I’ve stayed ever since. I know others swear by Alfred, but I’m definitely a Launchbar guy.

Launchbar | US$29

Bear

I love this app even though I do have to work hard to find a truly worthwhile use for it. I definitely underuse Bear, but I really like it. For the emotional response, I’m keeping it in my list. But there is still a nagging feeling that between Apple Notes, Ulysses and DevonThink Pro, I really shouldn’t need this app. But it is really nice.

Bear | US$14.99 per year

Ulysses

My key authoring application in which I write blog posts, work reports and other bits and pieces. For report writing as part of my day job Ulysses has this year supplanted Scrivener. For my blogging, Ulysses has withstood challenges from Bear and MarsEdit. It is a wonderful writing app and I enjoy that I have access to it through my Setapp subscription. If I didn’t have Setapp, I would subscribe to Ulysses directly without a moment’s hesitation.

Ulysses | AU$54.99 per year

DEVONthink Pro

The archive. The place I keep all my reference, research and archival material. I don’t use it for all that it can do; for instance I don’t create documents in DEVONthink despite it having the ability to do so. But for archiving, storing and searching, nothing beats it.

DEVONthink Pro | AU$104.13

StockMarketEye

This is a cross-platform Java app, so it’s ugly as sin. It’s also about the only share market application available for Mac. Fortunately it works well and gives me all the information I need to track my portfolio.

StockMarketEye | US$99.95

Reeder

I have never given up on RSS, even through the dark days after the Google Reader shutdown. I love the independent web and follow a range of sites religiously. On the Mac Reeder is the best way to do this.

Reeder | US$9.99

PDF Expert

PDF Expert has replaced Preview for PDF viewing and editing. Preview’s editing toolbars have always been inscrutable to me whereas PDF Expert makes sense. The bugginess that was introduced to the PDF engine in MacOS Sierra was the final nail in the coffin and ensured my switch to PDF Expert.

PDF Expert | US$65.99

BusyCal

While the native Mac calendar app has improved, I still prefer having more power and flexibility to manage my calendars. While Fantastical always gets the glory as the sexy third party calendar option, BusyCal blends in and does the job quietly and effectively. I use this app daily. Its ability to save and restore different calendar sets give me helpful insights into my scheduled life.

BusyCal | US$49.99

Trialling MarsEdit

I am writing this post in MarsEdit. MarsEdit is an app that I have always wanted to use, but never really have found a place for it. Now, with the new version released I thought I’d download it and give it a spin as part of the 14-day trial developer Daniel Jakult offers.

Recently I have been writing blog entries in Ulysses, which is great in that it uses iCloud for syncing and has clients for the Mac and iOS. So writing can be done anywhere. It also has a WordPress publishing engine so I don’t need to mess around to get my words on the web. Finally, Ulysses uses a flavour of Markdown which I am becoming much more proficient in using. Of course, I also already have a licence for Ulysses as part of my Setapp subscription.

MarsEdit is a much more traditional blogging platform. It defaults to rich text, it is Mac only, and it is more ‘feature rich’ than Ulysses. It offers a two-way connection to WordPress, meaning it can download an archive blog posts in addition to simply publishing which is the limit of the Ulysses offering. With my current workflow, if I need to make an edit to a published post I have to go to WordPress on the web and make the change. From that point on, my local copy on Ulysses is out of date; there is no concept of syncing – it just publishes. MarsEdit is fully sync-compliant so I can fix those pesky mistakes and maintain a single source of truth.

I do wish it had an iOS application, though. I imagine its code base is too entrenched in the Mac world to easily transition it to iOS, but it would be great to have a synced solution. This is where Ulysses excels – I can pick up the writing from where I left off from any device.

The other thing is typing in rich text. While ‘normal’ people prefer this (think users of Microsoft Word, which is rich text throughout) for blogging I do tend to prefer using plain text and Markdown. The code is apparent, I know what is happening, and it is easy to read. My experience with rich text transitions to HTML is that things go wonky. Of course, MarsEdit can edit in plain text and apply a Markdown filter, but it doesn’t seem like its natural mode of operation.

As I write this, I have been stumped as to how to add a footnote without resorting to pure HTML. In Ulysses with Markdown, this is an easy thing to do. In MarsEdit, it’s not apparent.

Using MarsEdit for this post has been an interesting adventure, but at this stage and for the type of blogging I do, I don’t think this app is for me.

Internet Services Worth Paying For

On the Internet there is a weird user expectation that everything should be free. Over the past couple of years I’ve been bucking this trend and have determined that spending a bit of money on what is both a hobby and an integral part of my existence in our modern, connected world is something I’m willing to throw a bit of money towards.

I don’t want to be the product; I want to be the customer. Paying money for a service to avoid my usage being a vector to sell advertising is a trade-off I am happy to make.

The other nice thing about paying for services is that it facilitates access to genuinely useful customer support. As a paying customer companies tend to care a little more about ensuring satisfaction. Having problems solved by a system administrator instead of wasting my own time futzing about can make a subscription worthwhile. I value my time, and where money can buy time, I’m in.

I thought I’d take a quick audit and look at the areas online where I am willingly paying money in favour of a free option.

Ciao Google

The biggest change was a move away from many Google services. While Google offers its GSuite as a paid option (and a pretty good one at that), I elected to go a different route.

I’ve always preferred native apps and have never loved the Gmail web interface. As a free service it’s fine but if I’m paying real money I don’t want to be spending it on something I don’t enjoy using.

If I were an Android user, the Google situation might be more compelling. On iOS, however, there always seems to be a little friction between what Google wants and what Apple is prepared to give.

So I bid adieu to Google, and took my business elsewhere.

My Paid Providers

  • Mail & Calendars: Fastmail. I evaluated Office 365, GSuite and Zoho when making the choice. I only wanted really good email and calendars; I didn’t need online storage, office applications, and other bolt-on services. I like that Fastmail is an Australian firm and that it has a focus on standards compliance.
  • Domain registration: Zuver. The little brother of VentraIP. It is a great no-frills option, and they were having a product sale when I signed up.
  • Web hosting: VentraIP. Another Australian company that offers great support service. Their servers are fast and I am provided a web hosting solution that is perfect for my needs.
  • Personal finance: YNAB. Our family is in the best financial position of all time thanks largely to YNAB. No arguments about money in our home! The cost of this service is a pittance compared with the value (both monetary and stress relief) it has delivered.
  • Password security: 1Password for Families. The best security is not even knowing your own passwords. I am totally willing to pay to ensure all my online accounts (plus credit card details, etc.) are unique, random and locked down. It’s peace of mind.
  • Entertainment: Netflix and Spotify. I’m hardly a special snowflake here, right? Broadcast media is dead to me.
  • Photo Storage: iCloud 50Gb. Apple has me over a barrel here. Despite maintaining local backups, the ubiquity of photos being available to all my devices is too good not to take up.

Bits and Bobs

I also pay for a few other subscription apps and online services but I don’t consider them to be part of my “infrastructure” so am not going to list them all here.

The Customer is the One Who Pays

Money makes the world go around. It pays employee wages, funds infrastructure acquisition and incentivises the implementation of new ideas. I’d rather be a direct customer paying my own way, and helping companies do good work than rely on the largesse of search and banner advertising to underwrite my online activity.

While I pay the bills, I call the shots. This is true in all business, and online services shouldn’t be seen any differently.

Subscription Pricing for Apps

The corner of the internet that I inhabit has been up in arms about yet another app, Ulysses, switching to a subscription-based pricing model. From the perspective of the developers trying to build a successful business this probably makes a lot of sense. The business analyst in me applauds them for finding an approach that will smooth revenue flows and help fund future development.

But changes like this can have unintended, or at least unforeseen, consequences. To my mind, the key question is how many users will switch over to this model? The developers may discover the addressable market shrinks considerably as their app will suddenly have a lot less appeal to hobbyists who are not earning revenue through their use of the app. They will probably sell subscriptions to authors and professional bloggers, but will that offset the losses? Did the developers truly understand the size of the market who would be willing to play for on-going use of the software?

User Centricity

I fear that developers are not taking a user-centric view to the subscription conundrum. Subscription revenue no doubt looks great in spreadsheet models with its recurring revenue. However, let’s apply the ‘job to be done’ approach to this issue, from the perspective of the end-user. I suggest that the job to be done is to provide a mechanism that will let me take notes that are ubiquitously available, and write occasional blog posts to be published to WordPress. Boiled down further, the job to be done is text editing and organising.

So my choice is not to subscribe to Ulysses or not. My choices range from open source text editors, to Apple Notes, to a word processor, or an alternative subscription-based product. If I didn’t want to blog, I could get by with a paper notebook and a pen.

It also creates a further issue in that it will reduce the likelihood that I will bounce between a number of apps. Up until now, I had decided to use Ulysses for blogging, Bear for notes, Scrivener for work reports, and DEVONThink for research and storage. I’ve paid for all of these apps.

With subscriptions becoming more prevalent, I will have to reduce my app consumption because I don’t want to be on the hook every month for apps that I may not use. I don’t want to reduce my personal free cash flow by paying a swathe of subscriptions, particularly for apps that are essentially supporting a hobby that generates no income. I will become more selective in my software choice. My overall long-term expenditure on software may decline. If many users have the same opinion, then the overall market activity is going to decline. The outcome becomes worse for all developers.

As I said earlier, unintended consequences.

My Choice

This whole subscription brouhaha has led me to review my note-taking writing structure, and I’ve decided to rely on another subscription app I pay for, Bear. Those developers charge less for a very similar product, and they were up-front about the software being subscription-based from the outset. In my opinion, Bear has a nicer look and better reflects Markdown styles. The only thing I lose is direct-to-blog publishing. However, I can pretty easily copy or export text in Markdown or HTML, both of which can be directly pasted into the WordPress CMS.

By choosing another subscription-based product, I demonstrate that I’m not entirely against recurring costs. But if I can have one recurring cost rather than two, then I’m all for that.

My situation is a real-world example of user-side app rationalisation that I think is likely to occur at scale, with the onset of subscription pricing.