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.


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 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.


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.


Good introduction to exporting from Tinderbox

At the blog Ordinary Human Language, Brian Crane has put together a series of tutorials on how to export from Tinderbox. As he says about his approach:

… what I’ll try to do is show how working backwards from the desired output rather than forward from a note is a useful (and manageable) way to think about export. In my opinion, working this way resolves a lot of the difficulty I initially experienced.

I always found exporting from earlier versions of Tinderbox to be somewhat baffling. Tinderbox 6, however, made it a little easier, though I confess that I do not do a lot of exporting from Tinderbox.


Tinderbox and many other excellent apps are on sale now

A couple of times a year, the developers of “artisanal” software get together for a sale. For a limited time, you can save 25% on Tinderbox and other great applications, such as Scrivener, Scapple, DevonThink, TaskPaper, and many others. Learn more, here.


Mindscope, version 1.5

Several years ago, I wrote about a great iPad app called Mindscope (original article here). The developer calls Mindscope “The Mind Mapping Outliner.” That’s a pretty apt description. The app hadn’t been updated in almost three years, and I was wondering if it were abandoned. But wait, just when things were looking dire, version 1.5 was released earlier this week.

I’m not going to post any screen shots here, because they simply don’t do Mindscope justice. I suggest going to the webpage for Mindscope and watching the demonstration video — several times since things move pretty quickly.

Since the list of new features doesn’t appear on the website for Mindscope, I’m pulling the list from the AppStore:

— iPhone & iPad compatible —

That’s right, Mindscope now runs on your iPhone as well for when you’re on the go! It’s really useful for taking notes on the go. Especially because of…

— iCloud sync —

Your Mindscope entries can now be stored in iCloud. If you do so, it will sync between your iPhone and your iPad! If there are any problems, please let me know! I have spent many hours testing and polishing this – it should Just Work.

Note that if you don’t want to use this, you also have the option to simply work locally (like before).

The entries are synced when you have Internet and are primarily updated when you first open up the app. If you’ve made a change on your other device that you aren’t seeing yet, trying exiting and re-entering.

— Bluetooth keyboard fix —

Bluetooth keyboards now work great again with Mindscope! Creating entries used to not work when a Bluetooth keyboard was connected. This has now been fixed, in fact, I’ve gone even further and added a ton of…

— Keyboard shortcuts —

Many, MANY new keyboard shortcuts makes using Mindscope with a keyboard simply awesome. Hold down the Cmd key on your keyboard to see them all. Everything from navigating to creating to editing to styling can now be done via keyboard. It’s AWESOME, if I do say so myself (and I do).

— New action side menu —

Instead of a popup, an action bar now slides in when highlighting entries – this makes life way easier especially on the iPhone, since this way the action buttons won’t pop up under your finger, and also there is room for all the actions.

— Massive internal refactoring & rewrite in Swift —

This one you won’t see much of on the outside, but I’ve rewritten many parts of the app in Swift to provide a better foundation for The Future.

Anyway, check Mindscope out. It is really fun to use.


New video about NotePlan as a digital bullet journal

I’ve put together a new screencast video, but this time I’m talking about a day planner/organizer called NotePlan. This isn’t the most comprehendible video ever made, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated how NotePlan works and how it might be used as a digital bullet journal.

As I publish this, NotePlan is only available on MacOS, but an iOS edition is slated for release on June 14.

UPDATE: In the video I say that the MacOS version of NotePlan does not append the date to tasks that have been postponed to a specific date, but I got a note from the developer with a correction. Here is what he says:

To show the date where a todo has been postponed to can be switched on in the preferences.

NotePlan as Digital Bullet Journal from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.


iThoughts – an excellent mind-mapper and planner

This is a quick shout out for an application I’ve come to admire a lot. It’s iThoughts from toketaWare, which is essentially a one-man show. The application first came to my attention as an excellent iPad application. Soon it was also available for macOS. And just recently a Windows version was unveiled. Save your maps to Dropbox and you can open them on any of those three platforms.

iThoughts isn’t a competitor for full-featured mind mappers, of which there are many. And there are other good cross-platform choices, including SimpleMind. But I like iThoughts best. It fits right in my sweet spot: powerful enough but it doesn’t overwhelm me with features.

The video below demonstrates one of the thoughtful new features, which I admire:


The developer, Craig Scott, has really built a wonderful cross-platform application and I just wanted to acknowledge that. Check out iThoughts if you’re looking for a lighter-weight, but highly functional mind-mapper.


Tinderbox 7 new feature demonstration video

I’ve put together a quick demonstration of two of the major new features in Tinderbox 7: Composites and Quick Links. I don’t delve too deeply into each feature, but hope to convey the basics for those who are considering upgrading to the latest version of Tinderbox.

Tinderbox 7 New Features from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.