Typora renders beautiful documents

Typora produces the most elegant documents of any of the plain text editors I’ve looked at. It uses markdown, but the markdown disappears when its work is done and leaves just the formatting. So there is no switching between edit and view modes. Watch my quick video demonstration:

Typora markdown demonstration from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.

There were many other features I could have demonstrated in the screencast, but I mostly want to show the nearly seamless transition from formatting to rendering without changing modes. I should say that the formatting returns to view when you put your cursor over the words being formatted, so you can edit them.

Things to like about Typora

  • Beautiful rendering of markdown documents
  • Outline view, accessible two ways (see screencast)
  • Numerous export format options
  • Stylish theme options (see screencast)
  • Typewriter mode (the screencast was done in typewriter mode)
  • Document statistics (see screencast)
  • Documents are saved as markdown files in the folders you designate
  • Versions for Windows and iOS

Things to like less about Typora

  • No tagging. This isn’t surprising since Typora is about creating lovely documents, and is not a notes or information manager.

The verdict

Typora may be the best choice for building elegant documents. It isn’t just the outcome which is so fine, but also the experience of writing and formatting that writing that is a pleasure. It isn’t a great choice as a note manager.

Right now Typora is free because it is still in Beta — though it feels like a more ready for prime time app than some of the other markdown editors I’ve looked at. I don’t know what the fee will be when it is out of Beta.

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Quiver is solid, but missing a few arrows

Quiver has a nice, clean look and feel that appeals to me.

Quiver Review

The makers of Quiver call it a programmer’s notebook. Here is what they have to say about it:

Quiver is a notebook built for programmers. It lets you easily mix text, code, Markdown and LaTeX within one note, edit code with an awesome code editor, live preview Markdown and LaTeX, and find any note instantly via the full-text search.

For this review, I am going to ignore many of the attributes that programmers might find useful. I don’t care about code snippets, LaTex or Diagrams. I just want to judge Quiver on how it does taking and managing notes. And how good a markdown editor it is.

Things I like about Quiver

  • Markdown is one of the types of cells that can be added to a note. It handles markdown well.
  • The organization scheme is “notebooks.” You can nest one notebook in another.
  • You can switch between the notebooks panel and the tags panel to filter your notes by tag.
  • Quiver looks clean and familiar. I feel comfortable using it.
  • You can view the live preview of your note alongside your editing window.
  • You can add live check boxes within your notes.
  • Quiver has several export formats: HTML, Markdown, PDF, PNG, Plain Text

Preview your markdown as you type.

Things I like less about Quiver

  • While it has an iOS version, that version is read only. So you can reference your notes, but can’t write new ones or edit existing ones on an iPhone or iPad.
  • There appears only one style of rendered markdown, and it is not exactly beautiful. You can adjust the CSS file to change how it looks, but that’s not something I want to have to bother with.
  • While Quiver does tags, you can’t add them with a hashtag in the body of the text as you can with other markdown editors. You click in the tags bar at the top of the editor. Not a big deal, but not the quickest route to tagging.
  • Full text search is a nice feature, but Quiver only identifies the notes with the text, and doesn’t pinpoint the reference within the note, so you can be groping to find the word or string of text in longer notes.
  • Quiver notes are kept in JSON format. That might be a plus for some people, but for me I’d prefer plain text files.
  • No RTF or Doc export option

Unique features

  • I’m not interested in this feature, but others might be. Quiver can create shared notebooks that reside on a cloud drive and which other Quiver users can access and work on simultaneously.
  • As I mentioned, markdown is just one of the cell types that can make up a note. Others include text, code blocks, Latex and diagrams.

The verdict

There’s a lot to like about Quiver, but there is also a lot that seems half-baked for the kind of work I would want to use it for. This isn’t surprising, as Quiver is not really developed for how I would use it. If I were “stuck” using Quiver, however, I think I could make it work and be happy about it.

Versatil Markdown

When you select a folder in Versatil Markdown’s library panel, the app shows you rendered “cards” of each of the documents in that folder.

Versatil Markdown

[This is the first review in The Markdown Shakedown series of posts.]

I am beginning my reviews of markdwon editors with Versatil Markdown only as a random choice. But I do like this writing app a lot, although it is missing too many features to make it my go to note-taker. One specific feature that attracted me is the dedicated spark file for logging and stashing ideas. After checking VM further, it seemed to me the app is very thoughtfully designed.

Editing mode reveals the markdown syntax symbols I’ve used to write this review.

 

The same document handsomely rendered.

Features that appeal to me

  • Displays both internal and external folders and files in the navigator, so I can keep a Dropbox folder in which I can create text files on my Windows PC at work.
  • By default, files are displayed in rendered mode. Shifting to edit mode is easy. Among the methods, hover the cursor over the paragraph you want to begin editing and click while holding down command and be put into edit mode right in that paragraph.
  • The dedicated spark file. If you want to add something to it while you’re working in another file, just use control-s to save the current document and be shifted into the spark file with the date and time already inserted.
  • Rendered documents look great.
  • Markdown is pretty standard, although there are some extensions for executing special formatting, such as rendering columns in your document.
  • Select a folder and the documents contained within are rendered as preview cards.
  • Displays on demand the structure of your document based on the headings in a navigable list.

I’m not particularly technically inclined, but those who are will probably find VM chock full of useful and smart features.

Missing features

  • No iOS app. But this is not a big deal, because it is easy to find a markdown enabled editor for iOS which can read and edit files to share with VM.
  • Quick capture feature, to gather info from other sources.
  • No apparent tagging functionality. I’m not too concerned with this, but it would be nice for certain types of information.
  • There is no search function.
  • No typewriter mode.
  • Limited export options: HTML, Web Archive (don’t know what that is) and PDF.

Access an “outline” of your document’s headings.

The verdict

I am writing this review on Versatil Markdown. It is my favorite “Wordprocessing-style” markdown editor. What do I mean by that? Well, you wouldn’t expect Word to handle all the tasks that a note-manager like Evernote offers. That’s the deal with VM. It’s a very nice environment to write one document at a time, or longer documents (other than the missing typewriter mode). But it isn’t a long-term solution for managing lots and lots of notes, or a book with lots of sections or chapters. In other words, it isn’t a replacement for Ulysses at this point.

Markdown Editors and Note-Takers

Part one of the The Markdown Shakedown

I have been looking for a soft landing spot since I bailed out of the expensive Ulysses subscription scheme last summer. It hasn’t been easy. There are a lot of great markdown editors available, but none with the collection of functions found in Ulysses (yes, I don’t like the company, but I do admire their product). So anything I choose will be a compromise. I am writing this article as a way to come to understand my own requirements for a good markdown editor. That makes this list highly subjective. Your requirements will probably differ from mine.

Essential Attributes

Markdown

A few years ago, I would never have guessed that I’d require a markdown editor, but I’ve come to enjoy using a few symbols to style my writing. I don’t need a full-blown markdown editor, because I don’t need to create complex documents (if I do, I’ll use Scrivener or Mellel).

Excellent editor

I will need to be comfortable using the editor to write my notes and missives. Comfort is admittedly a very subjective quality. Mostly this means I don’t need to grope around the keyboard to execute styling or edit my text. Having a typewriter mode is also nice. I prefer not to be staring at the bottom of my computer screen when writing longer notes. Shifting between editing/writing and rendered modes should be quick.

Functional organization of notes

I like to organize my writing in folders or the quivalent. Allowing for nested folders is a plus. Tagging is not essential, but it is a helpful additional categorization for some projects and for note-taking.

iOS and Windows integration

“Integration” is a stronger word than I really mean. I want to be able to write notes on my Windows computer at work or via my iPad or iPhone and be able to find and edit them on my MacBook. Having native cross-platform sister applications is probably the best option here, but it also works if I can write in a plain text editor on the PC or iOS devevice and save to a common Dropbox folder.

Effective search capability

Finding notes again is crucial. The best solution will have a way to search across all documents, and present the results in a clear, easy to access way.

Versatile export options

Markdown is great for writing, but not so great for reading. So the editor must allow me to export my work to common document formats: .rft, .html, PDF and .docx. Other options would be nice, as well.

Attractive rendering

Related to the ability to export, rendering the markdown into an attractive style is really important to me. I want my text to look good. This means nice headings and bullets that fall into place and other elegant flourishes.

Easy switching from editing to viewing

As important as good rendering is, it isn’t any good if it isn’t easy to switch to editing mode or vice versa.

Continuing Development

If I’m going to choose a new, long-term solution for my writing and note-taking app, I want to be sure that it has a future. And that means I need to trust the developer will continue to support and improve it.

Desired Attributes

Tagging

I don’t like tagging as the primary organizational scheme, but it is nice to be able to tag certain notes to make them easier to find. Having tags, then, also requires a tag listing for quick access to related notes.

Folding, “Outlining”

Some markdown editors feature the ability to fold up text below headings. This is a nice way to focus on your structure or one section at a time. Alternatively, some of these apps show you an outline of your document based on the headings.

Date insertion

It seems like a simple thing, but I am amazed at how many apps leave out the ability to insert the date and/or the time into a document with a single click and simple stroke of keys. This is a very helpful function for taking notes that evolve.

Checklists

Being able to add a checklist to any document is a nice feature, but only if they are live checkmarks that can be ticked off with a click of the mouse.

A list of markdown editors

I’ve looked at a lot of these editors. Here is an almost complete list, because I’ve probably forgotten a few:

There is something to like about each of these apps, but none of them is the complete solution.

I plan to follow up with reviews of as many of these editors as I can manage.

The Archive, a new “slip box” for your notes

The Archive is a new note-taking app for MacOS. Its basic functionality will be familiar to you if you’ve ever used Notational Velocity or its more popular fork nvAlt. There’s an editor window on the right, a note list on the left and the “omnibar” on top. Type a string into the omnibar dialog box to search for notes, or to create a new one.

Slipbox methodology

The wrinkle with The Archive is that it is built on principles of the Zettelkasten method of note taking and management. Zettelkasten is German for “slipbox.” It was developed by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist, who used index cards for his notes and needed a method of cross-referencing and connecting those notes. He would assign each individual card a unique number, which placed the card in a unique place in his file, and which could then be referenced in on other cards. Modern note-takers have adapted this method into digital systems, thus avoiding the drudgery of filing and refiling.

The Archive will automatically set a unique number to each note you create in the format of yearmonthdayhourminute that the note was first made. Call that the note ID. You can append a note title to provide a clue as to the content of the note. Together those will make up the file name of the note — each note is saved as a separate plain text file in the designated folder.

Thus The Archive facilitates the first important part of a Zettelkasten system — the unique ID. The app also facilitates to some extent the second part of the system, relating and linking notes. It does so with a quasi wiki-like approach. Putting the unique ID (or any search string) of the note you want to link to in double brackets makes that string clickable… and when you do, The Archive swings its omnibar into action searching your notes for that string and presenting the results in the note list. While not exactly a link, this method may actually be better. A link will take you to one and only one note, whereas this method will display all notes that meet your criteria. It will also show you other notes that link to the same material (since the search term will appear in those notes).

Markdown

If you are a fan of markdown, you’ll like The Archive’s editor, which makes use of the plain-text formatting scheme. While not in place as I write this, the developers plan full multimarkdown support in a forthcoming release. Applying the markdown results in a hybrid preview of the formatting — that is, text will be bolded or italicized, but the markdown characters will continue to be visible. There is no preview mode that shows the markdown rendered. There also is no support for exporting or printing your notes. However, you can set up an external editor in which to open and view your note. I’ve set up ByWord, from which I can easily print and export my notes.

I find it interesting that this early release of The Archive incorporates a typewriter mode with the editor, which centers your cursor on the screen, so you do not have to be typing at the bottom of the window constantly. This is a nice feature, but one that more often ends up being added later (for instance, Bear doesn’t yet have this feature). That the developers made it part of the initial release indicates to me their vision that The Archive is for writing notes, not just clipping information from elsewhere.

One feature The Archive desperately needs is backward and forward navigation buttons, so you can return quickly to the notes you’ve been viewing and working on.

Saved searches

I said earlier that The Archive has three elements: the editor, note list and omnibar. There is actually a fourth, the saved searches bar which resides just to left of the note list.

The Archive allows you to create saved searches for your notes, and access them through icons in the “saved searches” bar.

Final thoughts

The Arhive is not available on the App store. You have to purchase your license from the developers. It costs $20 through May 15. After that the price will go up. As it stands today, The Archive is a functional note-taking application focused on the writing of notes. I think $20 is a reasonable price for what you get, especially since the developers have further plans for developing version 1 (see the roadmap on their website).

Update: Christian Tietze, one of the co-authors of The Archive, recommends 1Writer as a companion app on iOS devices.

Agenda – date-centric notes

Agenda is a new, date-focused note taking app that gives a nice timeline view of your notes (this screen shot shows the sample data that comes with the app.)

I am intrigued by the new note-taking app, Agenda. I’ve been using it sporadically for the past month or so, but have been making a more concerted effort to try it out over the past couple of days. So far I’m mildly impressed. It has many thoughtful features and unique methods for accomplishing common note-taking tasks.

Date-centric Note Management?

The developer claims Agenda is a “date-focused note taking app for planning and documenting your projects.” This is true, but it seems to me to be the least original aspect of the program. Any journal app does the same thing, and MacJournal provides even more powerful meta-data and organization. Agenda is, however, a bit more nimble in how it handles dates. In fact, unless you specifically apply a date to a note, Agenda leaves the note date-neutral (I’m sure it keeps meta data about when the note was created and/or modified). You can assign a date to the note, but what that date is is up to you. It could be the date a meeting is set to take place. A task due date or a date to start working on a project. It can be a date in the future, or a date that happened already. Whatever is meaningful to the context of the note. You can also link a note to an event in your calendar — and when you open the event (the Mac calendar is the only one I’ve tried) you can click the link back to the Agenda note. I’m not sure yet if this will be useful to me.

Categories, Projects & Tags

Agenda has a pretty typical method for organizing notes in categories and “projects.” Projects can be anything that has associated notes. For example, I have a project for planning our upcoming vacation. I also have another one for Personnel Notes. Projects become folders for containing related notes. You cannot nest one project under another.

Agenda allows you to apply tags to individual paragraphs. You can also “tag” paragraphs with people.

Agenda supports linking, so you can apply some wiki concepts to your notes if need be.

On the Agenda

You can designate any note to be “On the Agenda.” You would do this with any note that needs more immediate attention. Then you can see all the items that need your attention regardless of which projects they may live in. There is also a view that shows you all the notes that have the current date.

Related Notes

On the right hand side of the window, you can open a “Related Notes” panel. Here you can see which calendar events you may have associated with the selected note, recently edited notes and notes “related” to the current note. Notes are related when they share dates, tags and people.

Editing Notes

A note taking application should be a good place to write your notes. You should be able to quickly capture ideas and comments, and then you should be able to easily edit those quick notes into ones that will mean something useful to you and your colleagues. The editor in Agenda gets a B minus in this regard at this point. It has some nice methods to format text. As the developers put it:

Agenda is a styled-text editor. Styled text combines the best of plain text and rich text. It is as easy to edit as plain text, but allows meaning to be added, leading to visually stunning documents without breaking a sweat.

Styling text is achieved through a click on the small bullet that appears at the start of each paragraph when you hover the cursor over a paragraph (see the screen shot below). From this popup menu you can assign paragraph styles and list styles (including creating checklists). You can also assign tags, people, indentation. To assign styling to individual words, you use the gear menu in the lower right corner of the note. You can access these text controls via the context menu when you right click inside the editor. If you want to apply a format to more than one paragraph at a time, you need to use the popup context menu.

The popup style menu appears when you hover the cursor over the paragraph you want to style and click the hollow bullet that appears.

So far, so good.

Where Agenda’s editor loses points is in these aspects:

  • You can’t change the font or the font size of the notes. This is a bit problematical, because the set font size is rather small. You better have good eyes or good glasses.
  • There is no typewriter setting, which keeps the line you’re working on vertically centered on the screen, so when writing longer notes, you are forced to point your eyes at the bottom of the screen.
  • You can’t open a note in a separate window in order to reference it while writing another note.

Free or Premium?

The developers say that Agenda is free to use forever. Premium featuares require purchase, but in a bit of a unique way. I’ll let them explain:

Agenda is free, with no time limits. You can use it forever, at no cost.

Agenda does offer extra premium features that require an In App Purchase. If you decide to purchase the upgrade, you permanently unlock all current features across all of your Macs. 

Even better, any features we add in the 12 months following your purchase are included, and permanently unlocked as well. All yours to keep.

The current premium features, which cost $25, are the following:

  • Saved searches
  • Copy and export in markdown format
  • Creating calendar events from within Agenda

The Bottom Line

I like the potential of Agenda. It is an elegant note-taking application. It is not a full-time solution for all my notes, and I don’t know if it ever will be. It isn’t a place to capture random thoughts or information. It isn’t really a diary app either, despite its date-focus. It lives somewhere between Evernote and DayOne. Does that make it superfluous? For some people, most definitely. But if you find yourself taking lots of notes for related subject areas, you may well find Agenda quite useful. The developers are still working out the kinks, and — as their payment scheme makes clear — they are incentivised to add new features yearly in order to get users to upgrade and keep their revenue flowing. So Agenda will evolve, and will become more powerful. I’ve been an early adopter because I want to support their efforts and see where they go.

One final note: As I write this, there is not a companion iOS app, but the developers say they are working on one and expect to release it the first half of this year.

Update: Agenda now features a way to enlarge the size of the text on the screen.

Our beautiful boy Angus

Our lovely cat Angus. Taken this morning.

One of the first things Amy and I did as a couple was adopt two kittens from a shelter called Animal Kind in Hudson, New York. Amy had just lost her cat, Norton, and though I tried to convince her to wait until she’d moved in with me in our small cabin in Vermont, she just needed to fill that void in her life. Amy wanted two cats because Norton had been killed by a car and she was determined that her next cats would be strictly indoor cats. Two cats could keep each other company when we weren’t home.

IMG_1669

Angus and Henry soon after we adopted them.

I was ambivalent about the cats. I had never had a cat as a pet and I feared they’d just be a nuisance. Amy named them Henry and Angus. They were not actually brothers, but they were close in age, maybe four to six weeks old. The two kittens lived with Amy at first, and so developed a close bond to her. Henry was somewhat social from the start, but Angus was shy. One night he disappeared and we didn’t know where he had gone. Eventually Amy found that he’d crawled into the back of the refrigerator. It would take  time for Angus to become comfortable around me, and he has never trusted strangers. We took to calling him Anguish.

About five months after adopting Henry and Angus, Amy moved north and brought our kittens with her. I saw the months ahead as me pretending to enjoy our pets when I was really just tolerating them for Amy’s sake. But one day I arrived home before Amy, as was the case then as she had a long commute. I walked in the door and Angus was waiting for me. He began to squirm on his back like he was actually excited to see me. I scratched his fuzzy belly and fell in love with him that day.

It’s been almost 10 years since the cats moved in. I don’t believe there has been a day when I haven’t been delighted with the two of them, but especially with Angus. He is continually surprising me and charming me and manipulating me. Our bathroom door has to be pushed hard for it to actually latch, so it usually isn’t. Angus learned that he could push the door open with his paw. You might think it is annoying to have a cat destroy your privacy, but it never has been. We called Angus’ ability to enter the bathroom through a closed door his super power, and we never latch the door, because that would be his kryptonite.

IMG_2458

We live next door to my parents. Our ritual is to go over at 7:00 p.m. to watch Jeopardy with them and to bring my father coffee. On our walk back across our front yard, we would often see Angus on his cat tower in the picture window craning his neck to watch us come home.

Angus does not like to be picked up, but he likes to crawl into Amy’s lap on the sofa. When Amy isn’t home, he’ll often leap onto the armrest to my left and snuggle up on my shoulder. Mashing his soft, furry head into my face is part of this ritual, because he likes to have his forehead kissed. When the three of us are together on the sofa and I get up, Angus almost always slides into my spot. He’ll look at me when I come back from whatever got me up as if to dare me to move him. But then he slides over as soon as I start to sit down. He also likes jumping onto my spot on the bed when I am brushing my teeth before turning in. I kiss his head, and pet him, and then he’ll make way for me.

I will often find myself busily doing something in the kitchen only to feel eyes on me. I’ll turn around and find Angus looking at me from around the corner of the counter. That’s his way: coyly watching us from around the bend.

When Henry developed diabetes, Angus was our rock. We called him our champion because he didn’t get sick. Angus has the most beautiful fur. Stroking him is like stroking a rabbit. His fur has streaks of orange. Surprisingly, he smells nice, like the out of doors, even though we don’t let him outside. Amy came to call him Booboo, because he is much smaller than Henry, and because he is our baby.

I call him my best buddy. And why not? He makes me feel happy. He helps ease my daily tensions. I feel good when I’m with him. Amy and I talk about how much we look forward to seeing both our cats when we’re driving home after work. They have no agenda except requesting treats, which Angus can be quite vocal about (sometimes we call him Nagus).

About three weeks ago, we woke on a Sunday morning to find Angus sheepishly limping around, favoring his right rear leg. The next day, when it hadn’t improved, Amy brought him to the vet, who took an x-ray and determined Angus’ femur was fractured. First the vet put a splint on it and then two days later a cast. The little guy looks so awkward navigating the house with his blocky leg. There is no traction at the bottom of the cast, so when he is on the wooden floors or the linoleum, the leg just slides out from under him. He does better on the carpet, yet it is still somewhat unwieldy for him.

IMG_0947

Angus with his awkward cast.

But he gets around, jumping and dragging himself up onto the sofa and even the taller bed. We were looking forward, however, to the day he could get the cast off and go back to his old self.

Last Wednesday, two weeks after the cast was put on, Amy brought him in for a second x-ray to see how the leg was healing. Well it wasn’t, and the doctor worried that Angus might have bone cancer. Two days later a radiologist confirmed the diagnosis and the vet told us our beautiful little boy doesn’t have long to live.

I am heart-broken. Since getting the news I have cried a lot. At work I wear my reading glasses in the office so my colleagues won’t notice my tears.

For a decade, Angus has been our constant companion. His presence enlivens our home and our lives in ways that stop making sense when I try to describe them. There are so many tangible ways he will be missed. I imagine never having him intrude on me in the bathroom again; never waiting for us to return from next door, never stealing my seat again. Worst of all, I know I’m going to feel watched, turn expecting to see his large eyes staring at me, and he won’t be there.

But there are also intangibles that will leave an even bigger hole when he is gone. Our house will be less of a home without him, like some sinister force has ripped an exterior wall away and exposed us to the rush of cold air.

As I write this Angus seems pretty much himself, other than the bulky cast. He hobbles around, and I want to cry when I think that our brave little boy is coping with his broken leg unaware that he has a cancer time-bomb ticking inside him.

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll get the idea that we have lots of names for our dear pet. And I haven’t even written about some of the more outlandish ones. His infectious personality inspires all these names. But I continue to call him Angus frequently. It’s a dignified, solid name that he deserves.

Angus has a strong personality, proud and stubborn. His world was small — the interior of our home — but it was his oyster. Early on, Amy and I agreed that it was funny that the smallest member of our household was also the one who seemed to be in control. I hate the thought that this little force of nature will soon be extinguished and other than in Amy’s and my hearts he will have left no trace of his existence. That is why I am writing this celebration of his life, and why I am grateful that you have taken the time to read it. Thank you.

We’ve decided not to take any invasive measures. We want Angus’s final days to be filled with as much love and comfort as we are able to give him, not the trauma that would come with futilely attempting a cure. He deserves the best we can do for him at the end, because he has given us immeasurable joy over the past ten years. I hope he senses how much we love him.

And we are cherishing every moment we can spend with him.

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How much information can a Tinderbox Map display?

A Tinderbox Map

Not sure I’m going to actually answer that question with this brief post, but I want to share the above screen capture of a Map I put together in response to a thread over at the outlinersoftware.com forum. The originator of the thread asked if Scapple was the best app for “thinking on paper.” You’ll have to read his initial post to get the gist of his question.

Scapple is pretty good at “thinking on paper.” Whether it is the best is really up to the user. Everyone works differently. I might prefer Tinderbox.

But the discussion inspired me to think about the ways you could display information in a Tinderbox Map without requiring the use of key attributes or referring to the note pane. So I put together the above example. It is not intended to be exhaustive, but I think I’ve covered most of the territory. (I did this on my 13″ MacBook Pro, so the screen real estate was not generous.)

The 3rd Edition of The Tinderbox Way is now available

Mark Bernstein, the force behind Tinderbox, has announced the publication of the third edition of The Tinderbox Way — which could also be called the Tao of Tinderbox. It isn’t a manual, but more of a philosophy behind the ideas that Bernstein has used to develop the application. Here’s what he says in his announcement email:

The Tinderbox Way explores an approach to artisanal software and the design of a powerful tool for making, visualizing, and thinking about notes. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal look at why software works as it does, and a meditation on the craft of software design.

The Third Edition is greatly expanded and includes a new set of Design Notes edescribing many alternative design ideas. It’s about 30% longer than the first edition, and has been comprehensively revised for Tinderbox 7.3 .

I think Bernstein undersells the book here. There is a lot more than just what was in his head as he conceived of and built Tinderbox. He writes a lot about the art of note-taking, and describes how Tinderbox can help you in your own note-taking. I found the first edition very interesting reading. You don’t get many books ruminating on the practice of taking, managing and harvesting notes.

I bought the second edition too, but only read parts of it. The new edition is over 500 pages, where the second edition was 382. Just comparing chapter 2, “Building Tinderbox,” the third edition is greatly expanded and, I found, more interesting, providing more of the background philosophy about Bernstein’s choices. That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.

The price is $34.95 and you get PDF and ePub formats.

To subscribe or not to subscribe

That’s the question I want to discuss today. Recently, two of my favorite apps — DayOne and Ulysses — have announced that they are switching from the traditional purchased license to subscription models. That is, instead of buying the software, installing it on your computer and using it as long as you want or are able, you now have to pay an annual fee to keep on using it.

Maybe younger users won’t have a problem with this approach, but as someone accustomed to buying my software — I’ve been doing so for 35 years — I am very wary of the subscription model. Here are some of my concerns:

Ever accumulating annual fees

At first, when it is just a couple of apps that use the subscription model, it may not hurt so bad. But imagine if all of the apps you use on a daily basis move to this model. You could be paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year for the software you use. No thanks!

Loss of control

If you own the software, it will keep working fine even if the company that makes it goes out of business, sells out or decides to double the price. But with a subscription model, you may lose functionality, or the software may stop working altogether if the developer isn’t there any longer to keep the subscription going. Or if the developer decides to increase the price past your comfort zone, you’re stuck paying or giving up the app you’ve put so much of your effort into learning to use, and in which so much of your work may be stored.

Reduced incentive to improve the apps

With the purchase model, an app developer gets further payments from current users by improving the app and charging an upgrade fee. But with a subscription fee, the incentive to improve the app disappears. It’s true that market pressures may cause the developer to want to keep his or her app up with or ahead of the competition, but I don’t believe that will result in as frequent or significant improvements.

Fairness

Imagine you bought a car and then the auto maker tells you that, in order for them to continue to service your vehicle, you now have to lease it as well. While that may not be the perfect analogy, it is close to what happens to current users of an application who now are faced with the choice of deciding to keep using the old version or paying the subscription fee to keep it up to date. (I want to be clear, in each of the two cases, DayOne and Ulysses will continue working even if I don’t subscribe. But sooner or later, there will come a time when I have to subscribe or stop using the apps.)

But wait a minute. I do subscribe to apps. Am I not being inconsistent? Maybe. But maybe not. For example, I subscribe to TheBrain. But TheBrain has a tiered pricing structure. You can pay a one time fee to purchase the software and use it as long as you want. If you buy version 8 today, you get a free upgrade to the forthcoming version 9. Or you can subscribe to TheBrain Pro Combo. This gives you additional functionality: You can install TheBrain on any of your computers (Mac or Windows); you can sync your brains among all those computers; and you can access your brains on the web. So you are getting something in return for your subscription. And you are not forced to subscribe. You can use TheBrain without a subscription — there is even a free version that is very functional, especially if you just intend to use the app on one computer.

With DayOne and Ulysses, you really get nothing for your subscription that you weren’t getting before, except the vague promise of improvements. With both these apps, I wonder if the developers feel that they are near mature and can’t see adding enough improvements to coax users into paying for upgrades. I don’t know.

I also pay for subscriptions to cloud-based services like Dynalist. Well, what is there to buy? It’s a website. It doesn’t live on my computer. (I’d prefer it if Dynalist were an executable that I could run from my computer without internet connection, but that’s just not what it is.) I also subscribe to Evernote (Premium, I believe it is called). Again, I get something for my subscription — access to my notes offline, among other things. And there is a free version. If I decide to stop my subscription, I can still access my notes online.

In the old days, software cost a hundred dollars or even a lot more. Today, the AppStore has driven the initial cost of software down. I suspect this is part of the problem. Additionally, the AppStore doesn’t allow upgrade pricing — completely idiotic! So developers are forced to offer a short-term, low cost fee to purchase the new version to everyone.

I am not suggesting that developers are morally obligated not to switch to subscriptions. They are in business and are looking at how to maximize the investment in their time and effort. I actually wish Ulysses and DayOne well. Both apps are excellent, and I hope they succeed. But as more and more developers switch to subscriptions, I suspect the pool of users willing to do so will start drying up. I know they won’t have me as a customer any longer.

For a different perspective, see this blog post from author David Hewson, one of Ulysses biggest fans.