Big Problem with Markdown Apps

There’s a big problem with Markdown apps. 🙂

Q: What’s the problem?
A: It’s much too easy to switch to the latest, greatest, OS X distraction-free, text editor. This one is prettier. That one makes it easier to write and blog. The monster advantage of plain text is that you’re not locked into a specific application. Unfortunately, that can also be a curse.

Surely, that’s only a problem if you’re an app developer? Well, no, it can also be surprisingly distracting, if you’re easily seduced by new, competing applications.

It’s no secret that Byword app is currently my favourite markdown editor. That said, I recently had a look at Desk app and then Typed. The Typed app got my attention.

Typed app icon

  • Typed is a pretty application – gorgeous, minimalist and completely at home on Yosemite
  • there’s no window clutter, controls (writing view, preview and sharing) only appear when you mouse over the left margin
  • the typography on my 13” MacBook Pro Retina Display makes composing for the web as sublime an experience as writing can be
  • there are plenty of font options and sizes, but I wish Typed and all editors offered font scaling/zoom (bigger/smaller)
  • I prefer the ivory background and it’s oversized, colourful cursor (you also have a choice of white/light and black/dark backgrounds)
  • word count is nicely placed at the top right
  • extensive keyboard shortcuts are easy to remember
  • the autosave implementation is reassuring
  • Zen Mode surprised me, because the music didn’t distract me, as I feared it might
  • HTML preview and HTML export couldn’t be easier
  • I even like the app icon.

Comment: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Let’s just say, there are significant similarities between Typed and Byword.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
– Charles Caleb Colton

While trialling Typed, I experienced a few hangs, after cutting and pasting. I also saw considerable markdown-display funkiness. To be fair, Typed is a v1.0, I know Realmac Software will get it sorted. Based on their team’s history the fixes are likely to happen in the near future.

Typed has potential, but I’m sticking with Byword, at least for now. Byword is currently ahead of Typed in both functionality and stability. In fact, Byword is so good, you really have to wonder why I keep trying out all the new stuff?

Update: I just read and enjoyed David Sparks post about Byword and Typed. David is clearly much less fickle than I am, but he arrived at the same conclusion I did. We both love Byword! In my case, the only question is, “Will the love affair last?”

Plain Text Markdown Housekeeping

The introduction of Ulysses III motivated me to do some serious plain text markdown housekeeping, by which I mean plain text app and markdown app housecleaning. I'll admit, I've been an app slut. I've been flirting with plain text editors and dedicated markdown apps for a couple of years. All of the apps had something good to offer, but not one was a perfect fit, until Ulysses 3.

Aside: My plain text related fickleness reminds me of my, long ago, lifeguard days, before I met my wife. 🙂

My OS X writing environment changed overnight. Ulysses app is meticulously crafted and superb; it's nearly perfect, for my needs, at v1 and has tremendous upside potential. The best review of Ulysses III I've seen, so far, was written by Matthew Guay at mac.appstorm.net. Update (20130503): Here’s another great review, this one was written by John Martellaro at The Mac Observer.

It was a fairly easy decision to remove most of my dedicated markdown apps. I found removing Byword difficult because it has served me very well and I have great respect for the app's developers. Update: I reinstalled Byword. (see below)

Reviewing my use of plain text editors prompted an entirely different thought process. I used BBEdit until TextMate appeared. I used TextMate until its development all but ceased. Recently, I've been having fun with Sublime Text, but:

  1. I don't write code (except markdown, HTML and CSS)
  2. I now prefer Ulysses app for markdown
  3. I always enjoyed creating HTML and editing long text documents with BBEdit
  4. I don't need a cross-platform app
  5. I am biased toward 'Mac-only' developers

I decided to return to BBEdit.

Summarizing, my plain text markdown housekeeping lead me to add:

to keep:

  • Byword (see Update below)
  • Texts app (an amazing app, early in its life cycle)

to remove:

  • FoldingText
  • MultiMarkdown Composer
  • Sublime Text
  • Taco HTML Edit
  • Textastic
  • Text Wrangler (upgrading to BBEdit)

and note that I had already removed:

  • Coda
  • Chocolat
  • iA Writer
  • Markdown Live (Life)
  • Markdown Pro
  • Mou
  • skEdit
  • TextMate
  • VoodooPad
  • WriteRoom

Update (20130411): Byword is back because of a Ulysses III app problem.

Drafts App

Drafts app icon

Drafts app is like a magical pencil for iOS (iPhone and iPad). It doesn’t draw, rather, it captures notes from your muse.

“A Short Pencil Is Better Than A Long Memory.”

An old aphorism states, “A short pencil is better than a long memory.” The secret to creativity is to capture your ideas, as quickly as possible, before they disappear into the ether. Once you’ve captured a great idea, getting a project started becomes much easier.

Q: When do you do your best visualizations?

For many people, their answer looks something like:

  • in the shower
  • when I first wake up
  • while I’m jogging
  • when I’m alone with nature

My iPhone is almost always nearby, so I can quickly capture moments of illumination with the Drafts app.

Drafts app screens

Plain text and markdown: That’s the ticket. 🙂 The Drafts app has become the starting point of my plain text, markdown workflow. My preference is to use it in landscape mode. I’ve set the apps appearance to a light yellow background and I use the FFTisa font. I’ve set my iPhone documents to automatically sync with the iPad version of Drafts. At my leisure, I’ll briefly edit my best concepts on the iPad before saving them to Dropbox. My best ideas then get fleshed out in Byword or FoldingText on my iMac. One of the beauties of plain text and markdown is that it’s straightforward to move documents between plain text apps.

  1. capture ideas with Drafts app for iPhone
  2. iPhone Drafts’ documents sync with the iPad version of Drafts
  3. edit concepts on the iPad
  4. save to Dropbox and
  5. flesh out the best project ideas with FoldingText and the best blog post concepts with Byword.

Draft’s output options are very impressive. I’ve output documents to Agenda, Byword, Day One, HTML, Mail, Markdown, Things and Tweetbot in addition to Dropbox.

Drafts app output

Drafts is a great value. Consider investing a couple of bucks so that you’re ready for your Eureka moment. You’ll be glad you did.

>> Visit Agile Tortoise, the developer, to learn more.

It takes a very clever developer to create a simple, straightforward app where everything works in an obvious way.

Markdown Mac

Sublime Text 2 plus Marked App icons

Markdown Mac: Have you considered using Markdown on your Mac?

Markdown is “a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. Markdown allows you to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML).”

Why Plain Text

Proprietary file formats can be a pain. Have you ever received a document that was tough to open? Microsoft Word and Publisher files spring to my mind. Years ago many Mac owners were forced to use a program from DataViz to convert files that arrived from Windows users. These days some Mac owners still feel compelled to purchase the newest version of Microsoft Office. It really doesn’t have to be that way. In an ideal digital world, your operating system, software of choice, software version and chosen fonts shouldn’t matter, it’s your content that’s important and it should be readable everywhere, now and into the future.

Plain text gets it right, it’s your words that matter; simplicity and portability are important.

It’s Your Words That Matter

Plain text isn’t just for the Web, it’s perfect for email, text messaging, all sorts of information sharing and archiving. An added bonus is that plain text doesn’t have to look boring, it can contain simple instructions for formating when output to HTML, PDF and LaTeX. This is where Markdown and MultiMarkdown come into play.

>> Why Markdown? A two-minute explanation

>> Markdown Primer

Action Steps:

  1. Get a text editor (see list below)
  2. Grab the Marked App

Apple supplies TextEdit with every Mac, but you might want to consider a more powerful app. Mac OS X is fortunate to have a number of excellent text editors, you’re likely aware of BBEdit, TextMate and TextWrangler, but there are also other apps that handle Markdown very well. Examples are:

  • ByWord
  • Chocolat (early days)
  • iA Writer
  • Macchiato
  • MarkdownNote
  • MarkMyWords
  • MultiMarkdown Composer (was MMDEdit)
  • myTexts
  • Smultron
  • Sublime Text

I’m currently using Sublime Text 2 in combination with the Marked App.

Sublime Text is nifty, it’s fast, modern, cross-platform, 64 bit and capable of using many TextMate themes, snippets and bundles.

Note: Fletcher Penney, the creator of MultiMarkdown, is developing MMD Composer, I’m anxious to see how it will perform.

Mac OS X and iOS Apps for a Plain Text Workflow

BBEdit screen capture of plain text

I like plain text.

Although I admire beautifully typset documents, nothing beats plain text for productivity. Plain text is easy to compose, easy to send and easy to receive. Sharing/syncing plain text documents on a Mac and an iPhone/iPad with Dropbox works beautifully.

Mac OS X Apps (I set the font to Monaco 14 in all four apps)

iPhone/iPad (Courier New 14, iOS4 doesn’t have Monaco)

Cloud (for syncing and sharing)

Plain text email

Apple Mail preferences for plain text are set as follows:

Mail > Preferences… > Fonts & Colors
Apple Mail Fonts and Colors Plain Text

Mail > Preferences… > Composing
Apple Mail Composing Plain Text

FYI, my email system closely follows that outlined by Joe Kissell in his TidBITS article ‘Achieving Email Bliss with IMAP, Gmail, and Apple Mail.’

Apple Mail messages are stored in plain text, one message per file (a modified eml format with an ‘.emlx’ extension). Apple Mail archives are stored in the mbox format which is just one big text file.

BTW, I suspect standards organizations and security folks love plain text too.