Rethink, Reconsider, ReevaluateComments

I was thinking more about subscription apps, usage and how I spend most of my creative time on my phone.

I was mostly forcing myself to use Ulysses on the MacBook as I hadn't yet done so post subscription - almost to justify the monthly expense as much as get the benefit from the cross-platform installation.

And I started thinking "what are the alternatives?"

Subscription vs paid upfront? Paid vs free? And, is a premium app even required?

I started looking at some other apps to ensure I was aware of the options but it actually goes way beyond the app quandary.

Drafts is, without question, my most used app but it's not designed to do everything. I don’t think I could rely solely on it without changing my workflow (workflow with a small w.)

Change! That’s a scary thing

But it shouldn’t be. Perhaps I should be looking at alternatives like I did with email apps. Okay, so with those I ended up exactly where I started but that validation likely showed I was on the right path.

At least for me.

Will it be the same with text apps and blogging?

There’s no point me looking at another premium app. I couldn’t afford or justify Ulysses for the Mac without subscription so something of a similar cost, like Scrivener, is not an option.

I need to be honest with myself and ask what do I really need?

Is relying on Workflow to publish viable? It seems, at least in the short term, it is for simpler posts but not posts with multiple images unless I change the way I do things.

There's that word again!

Do then, I need something that can publish directly to WordPress? Does it need to be cross-platform? For the former almost certainly. For the latter, ideally yes if it is to be my only app so maybe something like iA Writer or ByWord.

But I've not had that before now and managed okay. Yes, Ulysses is installed on both phone and MacBook but I’ve not historically been using it that way. Everything has been done on the phone. It always has.

I think I like the idea of having Ulysses available on the MacBook more than I actually need it considering how little I use a laptop. Although I do use the MacBook considerably more than my previous Windows laptop.

Looking at it from another angle, maybe it's the push I need towards 'slow writing' - to spend longer on posts again, to write more long form pieces and redefine what kind of blogger I am.

While I have removed most temptation from my phone (no games, no big social networks) it doesn't stop me wanting to get thoughts out as quickly as possible resulting in a lot of them being shorter pieces that wouldn't be out of place on Facebook.

Shudder!

I may have posted for 172 consecutive days but how much of that is actual writing? What have I had to say during most of that time?

I call myself a writer but what does that really mean? And do I subconsciously equate having a premium writing app with being one?

This post has taken an unexpected turn and maybe this is my real issue: can I justify a premium app subscription if I no longer see myself as a writer?

A blogger, yes. I post stuff to a blog with occasional insight but an actual writer?

I think this is why the simple question "what kind of blogger are you" has had such an impact. It turns out I was already wondering this so, when a non-English speaker phrased their question incorrectly, it set a process in motion and opened the floodgates to a range of emotions that had been previously contained.

Maybe even denied.

I feel like my blogging should mean something again, that I should earn the title 'writer' instead of just assuming it because I just happen to write words on a virtual page.

Anyone can do that. Not anyone can do it well!

Rethink, Reconsider, Reevaluate

An app quandaryComments

I feel as though a number of things are coming to a head.

There has been some great discussion over the past few days around subscription pricing for apps as opposed to services, which we're all used to.

Discussion and emotion.

I can see the argument from both sides as to whether upgrade pricing or subscription is better (it's not always going to be the same) but, for me, a single monthly payment to get the same app on all devices made a lot of sense, especially with my current usage patterns.

The big question being "is it worth it?"

That's the value proposition we can only answer on an individual basis.

There's no argument that subscription pricing is not sustainable if it becomes the dominant business model. There are only so many monthly payments people will stomach and the app economy will become infinitely more competitive should we charge headlong in that direction.

Consumers will be far more selective in their choices and, potentially, purchase considerably fewer apps as a result.

From the other extreme, developers equally cannot sustain a model where, to attract a larger user base, pricing is a race to the bottom and there is no ongoing income once the market has been saturated.

Individual apps, however, are only part of my personal quandary.

I love Ulysses (I'm writing this post using it) but it is not perfect, for me.

As we saw yesterday, it doesn't support features I'd like to use from Markdown Extra or the addition of values to custom fields. Both "shortcomings" cause me to take extra steps when publishing certain types of post.

I enclose shortcomings in quotes because I am an edge case and these problems are specific to me. Would I like it if this functionality were added? Of course! I'd be very happy, but it is not cost effective to meet individual wants ahead of the needs of the wider user base.

Drafts allows me to type Markdown Extra syntax, even if it doesn't understand it, but needs me to take extra steps in other directions. It also requires something else to actually do the posting - in my case this is Workflow.

And we all know the concerns surrounding that since being acquired by Apple.

Just to complicate matters even further, Greg (from Agile Tortoise) has said that the next version of Drafts will also move to a subscription model, albeit cheaper than Ulysses and with different tiers.

So I end up in a position where there is no perfect solution to my needs and I either pay for two incomplete workflows (no pun intended) or cut my loses, choosing one and working around the issues.

This is just my example but I'm sure there are others in similar situations with other apps who will be forced into choices simply because they cannot justify a glut of monthly subscriptions.

Developers will find it harder to fill the gaps in order to gain or retain customers and I feel that upfront cost versus subscription pricing will become as much a factor in purchase choice (and, by logical extension, marketing) as app functionality.

An app quandary

Making the switchComments

The Soulmen announced yesterday that they were switching to a subscription only model for one of my favourite apps: Ulysses.

From what I've seen the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

Subscriptions are de rigueur for services but I have been largely dubious about them for software.

Max Seelemen wrote a very thorough and thought-provoking piece on Medium giving a good background into the decision for them to make the switch. He puts forward a very compelling argument.

He writes that the notion of a one-time purchase is a hangover from the days when you bought software in a box; he's right!

The way software is developed, distributed and updated has changed dramatically and the business models attached to it need to adapt to those changes.

Having previously bought the app for iOS (and struggling with that decision) I never felt that I could justify the significantly higher cost to re-purchase it on the Mac, based on my usage.

A low monthly cost (covering all my Apple devices in one subscription) removes that initial barrier and makes the app far more affordable.

So, last night, I made the switch, downloaded the new version from the App Store (on both the iPhone and MacBook) and immediately set up my subscription.

Making the switch

Mail appsComments

Ever since Mailbox was shuttered by Dropbox I've been trying to find the "perfect" email client.

I spent some time alternating between Airmail and Polymail on my phone, via the likes of Spark and Newton, but settled on Email by Easilydo (now Edison Mail) as it was close to the standard iOS mail app but with proper support for the vagaries of Gmail.

Now that I have the MacBook I am looking at a more cross-platform solution so have reinstalled Polymail across my iOS devices and Mac.

I was using the native OSX mail app, and it is perfectly functional, but there's just something about it that doesn't quite sit right with me.

Then again, Polymail is an illustration of the inconsistency across Mac apps that I wrote about before. It has a distinct iOS look and feel to it which clashes with other apps, especially native ones.

Perhaps I'm just being too fussy.

This quest for the perfect mail client, however, has lead me to question a few things I currently do and expect:

  • Do I really need push notifications for my mail?
  • Should I finally move away from Gmail? (The email from my domains currently all forwards there.)
  • Can I get by with just the native apps?
  • Do I use any features (beyond push) that warrant a third party app?

So, I'm running an experiment: I have removed all mail forwarding and configured each of my addresses separately in both the native mail app and Polymail on both phone and Mac.

I never used to like checking multiple accounts, forwarding everything to Gmail was always a bit of a hangover from years ago but unified inboxes are a standard feature these days so it's no longer an issue - just a psychological hurdle.

I'm going to run the two configurations in parallel for a few days and see how they compare, and also which one I tend to reach for.

It will also help me better understand the flow of mail to each account and make decisions about what I want going to each one.

Mail apps

Trials, Testing and Premium AppsComments

One major failing of the AppStore is the lack of a proper mechanism to trial software.

Yes, you can purchase an app and, if you don't like it, try to claim a refund under whatever pretext the system will allow, but this is no substitute for a genuine try before you buy option.

(Please, don't mention free, ad supported versions as an option. These are just an abomination!)

For many apps it's not that much of an issue - we are willing to risk 99p or maybe £1.99 in the hope of getting something half decent. When it comes to premium apps, however, it's entirely a different story.

Most people balk at the notion of spending more than just a couple of pounds on a mobile app unless they are absolutely confident it fills a specific need; even then justifying £5, £10 or more will often be a struggle.

In a mobile world filled with myriad throwaway apps premium offerings stand out as anomalies, no matter how good they might actually be.

It was in this context that I found myself intrigued by Ulysses, the premium writing app for Mac and iPad that recently also found itself on the iPhone.

As I wrote previously, when writing in Markdown, one text app is largely the same as the next so there needs to be a real differentiation or benefit to the workflow to warrant switching - let alone stumping up a price such as £18.99 (yes, that's how much Ulysses costs in the U.K.)

I may have said that "I need very little" but, being realistic, a little only goes so far. I may have managed with what I already had but to foster a truly streamlined, seamless workflow you need that little bit extra.

Testing

It may well have been cheeky to use the recent Ulysses beta as a way to trial the app rather than diving straight in and committing to a purchase. Indeed, the team at The Soulmen could have easily rejected my application and chosen to stick only with those who had already bought the app.

But they didn't, and by not doing so have gained themselves a new paying customer.

I would urge more developers, especially those of premium applications, to open up their beta tests in this way.

I signed up because I was looking for something, well two things:
- specific functionality
- an exceptional user experience

I knew the app was getting the first from the beta announcement and I certainly hoped I would be receiving the second - spoiler, it didn't disappoint.

Because of this I came to the product with a vested interest, I wanted to love it and this made me a better tester, more likely to submit bugs (even silly little things that some might overlook) and provide meaningful feedback.

Now I have put my money where my mouth is and can't imagine my phone without Ulysses installed.

But none of this would have been possible without being able to give the app a thorough workout prior to purchase, even if by non-standard means.

Trials, Testing and Premium Apps

Drafts and Ulysses: a (very) quick comparisonComments

I do everything on my phone including blogging, both the actual writing and posting.

I've been writing on my phones for years, always having the phone with me means that I can tap down thoughts as soon as they strike. But actually transferring that to the blog used to mean sending the text to myself and doing the backend tasks on a PC.

Improvements with both hardware and software mean that we can now be fully mobile bloggers without recourse to desktop operating systems and applications.

Since Automattic introduced native Markdown support for WordPress via the Jetpack plugin it has been easier than ever to write and publish. I recently took some time to rethink how I write, deciding to stop experimenting and focus on one app: Drafts 4.

I first used Drafts a few years ago before switching to Android for a couple of years (mainly due to the desire for a larger screen) so it was natural to come back to it after returning to the iPhone. It gives me almost everything I need.

Almost.

My post on workflows was conflicted, torn between making the most of what I have versus alternatives. I wanted to examine exactly how I write and what I need.

In truth I need very little.

It might, therefore, seem somewhat contradictory to begin looking at another app, another workflow, but the opportunity to beta test Ulysses on my iPhone (with the inclusion of direct WordPress publishing) was too good to pass up. I had not, previously, been able to justify the cost of the app sight unseen so beta testing is a great way to "try before you buy" whilst providing useful feedback to the developers.

Why another app?

Writing in Markdown is so simple, it's just plain text after all; you don't even need a special app as long as you're familiar with the simple markup. So why the need to try multiple applications that do a very similar thing?

As I wrote, there is always the hope that a different app will contain a feature set which streamlines the process and makes life simpler. Most Markdown editors take a similar approach so what could a different app offer to sufficiently differentiate itself?

In this case, the prime draw is native WordPress support but I have also been impressed by the glowing reviews. Along with other apps (such as Byword) Ulysses already supports posting to Medium, since I decided to relaunch my blog and cross post this is no longer a key factor - an extra "nice to have."

Rather than write full reviews of both apps (this has been done more than adequately elsewhere ) I wanted to outline some of the areas that affect me as an end user, as a writer and compare the approaches taken by each.

Perhaps this is more for my own benefit, to search for the best workflow and decide where I am willing to compromise or not.

So let's get into it

Being text editors that excel when using Markdown, Drafts and Ulysses might seem to be very similar - there is a good amount of overlap between them - but they take different approaches to similar problems.

File management

Both apps adopt standard email nomenclature: Inbox, Trash and (in the case of Drafts) Archive, but how each handles this is different:

  • Drafts lets you create filters to view a set of files, e.g. different sections of a project. All files will be in the Inbox or Archive
  • Ulysses works on a more traditional folder structure you might see in an email application and items are moved explicitly to folders

Both approaches are perfectly adequate, although Drafts filters require you to add specific text to files if you want to be able to group them together in this way. Think of them as Search Folders in Outlook.

Section/paragraph organisation

When writing we are often working with brief ideas, parts of a whole that we expand and move around to achieve a best fit and flow. This is implemented in a fashion in both applications albeit in separate ways:

  • Drafts has an overview mode that lets you drag paragraphs around within a single file
  • Ulysses, instead, has you split the file into sections and arrange these instead within its folder structure

A combination of the two would be preferable. Ulysses' approach is obviously targeted towards larger blocks of text such as chapters. Dividing these larger sections would become unwieldy over time so the ability to easily reorganise paragraphs within them would be a welcome addition.

Drafts, on the other hand, would benefit from the manual sorting of files in a filter view providing users with true control over different parts of a project.

Commands and customisation

Both apps utilise an extended keyboard, an additional row of keys above the normal keyboard providing access to formatting, special keys, and other functionality beyond the simple act of typing. The approach each takes, however, is remarkably different:

  • Ulysses has a singular purpose: to enable you to write and the writing stays within the app. Although it can be used for anything, it is designed with longer works in mind. Because of this Ulysses feels much more structured (I deliberately don't want to use the word rigid as that might have negative connotations). All of the additional keys and formatting options are always available housed within the three function buttons on the extended keyboard. You can choose which markup variant you prefer, which in turn limits the available commands, but that is it.
  • Drafts, on the other hand, is designed as a textual starting point. You begin in Drafts but the aim is to move the text out to other apps depending on what you're writing. Notes, tweets, emails, reminders, anything; Drafts is built on flexibility and customisation. While it can be used as a self contained writing stage (and this is largely how I have been using it) this is not really where it shines.

Drafts v Ulysses extended keyboards

I deliberately wanted to outline these points before comparing the developer-written descriptions of the two products on the App Store:

  • Drafts, where text starts on iOS. Quickly capture text and send it almost anywhere!
  • Ulysses for iPhone and iPad is your one-stop writing environment on iOS.

The descriptions lay out their respective positions very succinctly. The interesting thing, however, it that because Drafts is so flexible it can be used as a one-stop writing environment with a little sacrifice whilst still being able to share shorter pieces of text with any other app that supports its methods.

Ulysses has a core purpose and, as such, is unable to replicate what Drafts can achieve due to this intentional lack of customisation, but that won't cause any sleepless nights for it's developers I'm sure.

Which is better?

When two applications approach a similar goal in such disparate ways it is incredibly hard to form an opinion on which is better, especially when they are not being used entirely to their strengths.

Simple, clean writing environments are now de rigueur, a distraction free experience essential. There is no help here for the indecisive.

Personal preferences normally count for so much. On this occasion, however, both apps are a pleasure to work with. Maybe it does come down to specific features like native posting support.

Oh, and before you ask, this post was written in Ulysses.

Drafts and Ulysses: a (very) quick comparison