Today, I found a piece of software that looks like it’ll provide much of what I’ve wanted from my own dreamed-of-custom-memex solution . It’s called NotePlan. It’s basically Obsidian save for these differences:
- It uses iCloud to sync your documents
- It costs money per month (obsidian sync does, but the app is free to use)
- It connects to your mac’s calendar application, and your reminders; your day’s calendar is always present as a right-sidebar of the application.
- It already auto-collects tasks from your notes, without you needing to set up a query system.
In other words, it mostly just works with the existing ecosystem.
Obsidian sync costs about $8 USD ($11~) a month. NotePlan costs about $13 USD a month. But through SetApp (which is sort of like a netflix-for-apps subscription service) I can get access to it and oodles of other applications for… $12 a month. I checked out the catalogue, and there are several programs I’ll be trying. To be honest, most of these applications are not useful for me. However, I’ve realized I’ve been sleeping on the Mac-app ecosystem a bit — there are much better solutions out there to the things I’ve either tried to build myself, or have attempted to fashion a replacement out of with open source applications. But let’s change things up.
It’s time to use other people’s tools! But first, why?
Someone else already built it
I've finally come to a place where I no longer feel like I need to build the tools that I use. It took me a while to get to this point. For a time, I was often looking for things to build to have as both a portfolio piece and a learning experience. It worked—it helped me get jobs and along the way I was learning. But for the most part, the thing being built took a backseat to learning and having something to show for my time. It was fun, but time and energy are a bit more finite these days.
At this point, rather than try and build the perfect task manager or note-taking app for myself or whatever, I'd rather find an existing solution that gets 90% of the way there in terms of serving the purposes I need. Ideally, then I can move on to actually doing the tasks that I've set out for myself in more important areas of my life. Yes, it sounds silly, but frankly, the older I get, the less I want to spend my time building solutions to help me do other things—and writing this out is really making me question how I got here in the first place (I do appreciate the journey, though).
Thankfully, I don't feel like I need to continue building a software portfolio to get work at this time. Rather than searching for the next thing to build to convey what I'm capable of doing, I can actually focus on other things that have become or always were more meaningful: relationships, hobbies, learning for the sake of learning, building things because I want to build them.
I’m in the ecosystem
Even when I did want to build my own tools, I would be faced with the problem of how I would make them work on different devices . After looking more into the Mac ecosystem, I realized that this problem is taken care of for me. Now, philosophically, I would prefer to be on a Linux computer and to use only open source software, but that's not going to happen; at the time being, work and creative requirements have me locked into the Apple ecosystem.
What surprises me is that despite having used a Mac computer for the last 15 or so years, I still haven't really looked into the tooling and the applications that really leverage having multiple devices on the same OS. For example, I haven't used iCloud Sync until this year. I originally bought an iPad to use Procreate, and at the time I didn’t really look at what else I could do. While making some really fun digital drawings, I slowly started to realize that I was missing on other nice cross device applications and functionality.
So, when my Android phone finally kicks the bucket, I'll probably find a used iPhone, too.
I’d rather run native apps
Next up, I'd rather run native applications. The idea almost seems foreign to me at this point; that people are still making native applications for the mac. I’ve grown accustomed to using applications built in Electron. That there is a whole abundance of applications that are built with Mac-specific technology to properly leverage the operating system, better battery usage, and integrations between other tools is something of re-discovery back from the days when I got my first apple laptop.
It almost surprised me to find a tool like NotePlan. I think what surprised me was that someone would build something so specifically for the Mac ecosystem and eschew cross platform use. But here it is. And I'm hopeful that it is less resource intensive than most electron applications and that the cross platform use on iOS devices will be worth it.
This has been happening elsewhere
Other applications with similar stories popped onto my radar and got me thinking about this stuff.
This ominous, dark and dangerous descent into using proprietary non-free, non-open source tools started earlier a month ago when I discovered an application called Mela. Mela is a digital recipe book that provides everything you need to make it easier to cook in the kitchen, as well as create grocery lists, plan your meals, and so on. I was particularly wowed by this application because I built something similar in the past using Elixir/Phoenix, but only was able to create a fraction of what Mela can do . And while I was proud of my little recipe site and what I had learned from it (and it actually got me some Elixir work) I’d be lying to myself if I said I’d like to keep working on the project once it had hit the MVP stage.
Ulysses is another pleasant application that's tailored towards writing. I wasn't planning on ever actually going and building a thorough writing application, especially because I still have access to a very powerful one I’ll continue to use called Scrivener. But with that said, Ulysses is a nice, pleasant writing application that I can use between both my iPad and my Mac and that alone I think is worth keeping it around for light writings like this blog or for other shorter or less-research-heavy writings. Like NotePlan, Ulysses uses markdown to store your information which makes it a lot easier to move between systems if that ever should be the case.
An Escape hatch
My biggest concern with using these paid tools is that they might disappear on a whim . There's a much higher chance that open source software will remain accessible even after it's been abandoned or no longer maintained. And even if it is no longer maintained, you can take up the reins and make changes to it. yourself. My reconciliation with losing the above in choosing to use these paid tools is that they must use open data formats. NotePlan, for example, stores all your notes as plain text files. Same with Ulysses. Mela allows you to export your
recipes in json.
Free software still matters to me
I understand that because these systems are locked into the Apple app ecosystem, Apple could at any time yank these nice fancy tools out from under their users. I understand that and it lingers at the back of my head as a rather disturbing thought. With that said, at this point I’m very tempted by the convenience. At this time, I also don’t have super strong convictions about people using my data or storing it on Apple's servers, for example. And until something bad happens, I'll probably try out this new route and see how it feels for a few months, to say the least.
I am still very much an advocate of free software and open source tools. In an ideal situation, everything I would be using would be something that I could hack on or at least inspect the source of. But time is a finite resource and I'm starting to see better choices for where I'd like to spend it. I love to tinker, but I want to be tinkering on the right things in the direction I want to be going.
Effectively, I’m ready to let go of some of the driving motivations I’ve picked up along my programming journey — namely, the desire to build my solution to all my problems. I hope this is a step toward a better use of my time and energy.
The answer to this is: use the web. However, that still doesn’t cover all the cases when you might need hardware specific features from a phone etc. ↩︎
I'm still happy that I spent some time learning Elixir and learning how to build that app. But at the end of the day, I’m ready to use out of the box working solutions instead of tinkering. ↩︎
Or… have their prices raised unfairly, or not work on old hardware, or… etc. ↩︎