Essays on Technology and Culture

On the Right Box

There’s a hole in my software library. I need a place, an application, to hold my stuff. I don’t mean any specific stuff, I mean my “general” stuff. After all, I have an app for music files, an app for contact information, an app for photographs, and so on. There’s no place, however, for all the digital ephemera such as notes, whether in scrap form or more detailed things, larval and finished blog posts, ideas, song lyrics, story ideas, inspirational bits of web design to borrow/copy/steal [1], receipts, software licenses, financial documents, and any other bits of data that I don’t want to dump into the file system. I also want an application that allows me to take chunks of this data on the go with my iPhone, ideally through some sort of cloud service.

I do not have this application. I have tried many, and many have come close. Some have come far closer than others. What I need is classified under the category of “junk drawer applications”, and there are more than a few for the Mac. Of the many I have tried, I have settled on a single solution—or rather a pair of solutions that are best at handling two major groups of data that I work with. Actually, there’s three applications in this solution, but two of them work so seamlessly as to almost be one. These solutions synchronize data to the cloud and to my iPhone, allowing for quick reference of data wherever I may roam. [2]

Notational Velocity and Simplenote

The key pairing of Notational Velocity on the Mac and Simplenote on the iPhone has been a lifesaver and a half. The vast majority of my data is stored in some sort of text format, varying from plain text to structured text (e.g. HTML and Markdown) to Rich Text. Notational Velocity handles all of these with aplomb, and has a darn spiffy incremental search feature in its UI. Assuming I wanted to search for a serial number for an application, I type in “Serial” into NV’s field, it shows every single note with “Serial” in the contents. It’s beautiful and simple.

Notational Velocity gets really fun when I integrate it with Quicksilver. By default, NV stores all of its content in a single database, but it can be set to store the content in individual HTML, Rich Text, or plain text files, all kept in a single folder. Setting it up as plain text files allows for all sorts of fun with Quicksilver and its Text Manipulation Module functions. Example: among the files I keep are lists of books to read, fiction and non-fiction. I also keep running lists for music to check out, jobs to apply for [3], articles to write, and an Agenda file for just getting little bits down on the run. Should someone suggest I read a new book, I summon Quicksilver with a quick Cmd-Space, type in the name of the book, hit tab, type “App” which selects “Append to…”, tab again, and then type “Fiction” to select the text file with my list of books. Once I hit return, the file is updated. This sounds more complicated than it really is. I can also use Quicksilver or Mac OS X’s Services menu to make new notes from selected text, or whatever, without touching the application. I don’t lose my focus from whatever I’m doing at the time either. Keeping all my notes as text files also allows me to use TextMate, my text editor of choice, rather than NV’s built in editor.

While on the run, I am able to access all of these things with Simplenote. Simplenote and Notational Velocity work together, keeping all my textual data in sync via the Simplenote web service. On the iPhone, Simplenote exists as almost a perfect clone of NV, right down to the minimal UI and incremental searching. While I might not need everything I keep in NV on my iPhone, text is so lightweight that it doesn’t take up a great deal of space. The combination of the two applications keep my synchronized at will. Of course, Simplenote and Notational Velocity only work for the aforementioned text stuff. Anything slightly more intense requires its own solution.


Therefore, the other half of my setup uses Evernote which serves to hold all that which Notational Velocity can’t. Where NV manages text, Evernote manages PDFs, images, audio files, and other bits of this-and-that. It has its own native, first party iPhone app with cloud synchronization. It also has granular control over what gets synchronized, so if I need to have the receipt for my bus ticket, I can find it on my phone, but tax forms and things don’t ever leave my desktop. This sort of control is something Notational Velocity lacks, but considering the sort of data likely to end up in Evernote versus NV, it’s a requirement on this side, and not a wish-list item.

One of the best use cases I have for Evernote is for business cards. When I get a new card, I snap a picture of it with my iPhone in the Evernote app. The picture is then run through some sort of OCR [4] and the text in the image is made searchable. A quick search for a person’s name, or their company will bring up any cards from them, and there’s no need to keep the actual card or enter their contact information anywhere. Far from being a simple Rolodex, the image-to-text capability of Evernote has plenty of other uses that I am still exploring. I plan to start using it as a way to develop a scrapbook of design inspiration, whether by taking photos of real-life items that inspire, or by using the Web Clipping feature to snap bits of websites and hold screenshots.

The biggest downside to Evernote is that it’s a freemium service. The desktop client has small, unobtrusive ads, but there are also limits on what you can load in, and how much you can synchronize per month. Paying removes the limits, and adds PDF searching along with encryption. [5] At five dollars a month, It’s a tempting consideration, perhaps when my income levels stabilize I will go for it. [6] Evernote would also be wonderful if I could encrypt and password protect certain bits of data, like my financial documents.

Room for Improvement

Honestly, while this setup is perhaps the most optimal of the current solutions, I would kill for a single application that I can use for both. As stated before, some have come so amazingly close. The closest has been DevonThink is stupidly powerful, holds anything you throw at it, and is also great at connecting little bits of data. Where it fell down for me was the lack of portability. While the newest version has an iPhone web app to access things, it works with an embedded web server in the application. I’m not going to leave my computer on all the time if I’m on the go. Without a native iPhone app, it’s just useless. Other applications I’ve tried, and that have failed are Yojimbo, MacJournal, Journler , and Mori. Each failed at scalability, portability and sometimes even stability.

If any Mac developer out there is reading this [7], if you could put together an application that combined the flexibility and openness of Notational Velocity, the text recognition and granular syncing of Evernote, and the “throw anything in here”-ness of DevonThink, mix it with web-based syncing and note-level encryption and/or password protection, give it a simple but powerful UI, and add a native iPhone app, I would pay good money for it. I mean, really good money. Considering that over the past four years, I’ve probably dropped about $100 on “junk drawer” applications in one form or another, I’d gladly spend that much again on one really good application that does all of the things I want and does them well. I’d even be willing to spend an additional $10 on an iPhone version. Someone just needs to make it happen. Until then, I suppose, “good enough” will have to be good enough.

  1. This bit should be taken with a half-shaker of salt.  ↩
  2. Of course, this assumes that I have a connection to the Internet, but that’s almost a given anywhere I go these days.  ↩
  3. Or, perhaps, a human being looks at it. I’m not sure.  ↩
  4. Hooray, unemployment!  ↩
  5. As a matter of fact, Simplenote is Freemium as well. Without paying something, there’s ads in the iPhone client, and you’re limited to how many times you can Sync. I don’t come close to the limit.  ↩
  6. Hooray, unemployment.  ↩
  7. Someone from The Omni Group could probably make this happen.  ↩