A return to form.

I type a lot. Hundreds, if not thousands of words, every day, across various devices. I’d say it’s a primary interaction model for most of us at this point. It’s changed the way I think about information, because since I can type, I often do, and it means that since I can type pretty quickly, I can capture quickly too.

Along the way, I’ve used lots of different notebooks as well. That was a vestigial practice–held from college, I’d wager–where I was never without one. But in my professional life, I could just never get it to stick the way I could in my personal life. I’d use a Moleskine or some Field Notes for a while, and then inevitably gravitate back to my Mac in most cases.

And I’ve tried to blend these ideas in the past, with various degrees of success. I’ve drastically increased my usage of iOS across personal and professional activities, but I’m still typing. A lot.

Earlier this year, I got the 12.9″ iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. I enjoyed the novelty of finally having a digital handwriting tool that almost exactly matched my writing style on paper. But I still wasn’t using it much for this. I’d pull it out and open Paper to sketch something quickly or explain an idea, or annotate something, but I just didn’t make the mental shift to embracing it as a real input method.

But in October, I attended a conference for work. And I decided to try something different: I would sit in sessions and meetings and just listen and only write down something that stood out to me as interesting or important. What happened as a result of this decision should surprise exactly no one: I listened more attentively and actively, as opposed to simply trying to capture every detail of what was communicated. The things I did capture were of more value because they were most likely the important aspects of the information, and the act of capturing them more deliberately by hand allowed them to gestate in my mind a little more.

This isn’t a new discovery. In fact, I already knew this to be the case, even on a personal level. But blending the idea of the digital notebook along with the act of handwriting triggered something new for me. Since then, I’ve been keeping daily handwritten notes in an app that was recommended to me by a friend. Each day, I start a new notebook, log anything I need to during the day, and at the end I export a PDF to Box for archiving.

The act of more consciously listening and being present in a discussion has been transformative for me. I think that for a long time, I felt obligated to log as much as possible but what’s really more important is engaging in the discussion when it’s actually occurring.

To the extent that this is a digital activity as opposed to paper-based, in doing it this way, I allow myself a quick and easy way to backup my notes and share them if need be. I can drop images in and annotate immediately, or record the entire session and take notes alongside. Distinct advantages over a paper notebook, but the biggest one is that I have one thing to carry and I can do everything with it, as opposed to a computer and a notebook, which I’d then want to scan in some way, adding another activity to the chain of events.

I’m dealing with information differently now, and I’m really pleased with how it’s been going. It’s been about a month, and I really enjoy the act of writing again, which surprises me. It might not be as efficient a method of capture, but part of that capture process is understanding what it is I’m keeping for later—and slowing my mind and allowing that information to breathe as it moves around has been a real change.

Of course this all led me to buy a second iPad too, but that’s a story for another time. 😉

Search wishes on iOS.

In iOS 9, Apple is extending Search’s (née Spotlight) built-in abilities in cool ways. There’s a lot that it can do now, with third-party developers able to plug into it via new API access. But in an effort to make iOS even more of a productivity tool, one thing it still can’t do is replicate the ubiquitous availability that it’s afforded on OS X.

How often do you think of something you want to search for from the Springboard? Now think about how often that might happen while working in another app? Wouldn’t it be great to have a universal search bar in, say, the Today view as a built-in widget like Weather that’s always there to quickly access?

I would love–LOVE–to see a search widget or some similar functionality within the Today view. I can’t tell you how immeasurably useful that would be for me. Having to back out of whatever I’m doing, return to the home screen, and having to swipe once, maybe twice to reach a search field just feels so… old.

Doing what I do every day, I fully realize the interface implications of doing something like this. But it makes so much sense to me, I can’t help but think it’d be worth it.

Using Drafts as an Alfred replacement on iOS.

Lately I’ve enjoyed working from my iOS devices more than ever, due in large part to the great changes in iOS 8. But every day, I still do a great deal of work from the Mac as well for reasons of control and speed. I use Alfred for a ton of functionality, for everything from launching apps and quick searches to basic calculations and defining words. It is a single point of entry for so much of the data I interact with on a daily basis, and I love both the quickness it employs and the flexibility it affords me. I can extend it in completely new and crazy ways with workflows and create chained events to perform actions in the background. If you’ve never tried it, you simply must, and shortly thereafter upgrade to the Powerpack because it completely changes the way you can use your Mac.

Due to the essential nature of how iOS works, something like Alfred simply can’t exist in the same way. The company has released a companion app called Alfred Remote, which is interesting, and allows you to create a palette of quick buttons to launch actions on your Mac. But it’s far from an analogue to the functionality you’d find on the desktop. iOS silos its data for a variety of reasons, and even with the great strides iOS 8 brought to developers, the idea of an always-running, ubiquitous utility ready to assist you from anywhere you find yourself simply doesn’t exist. Even Apple’s own Spotlight implementation, while providing some of that functionality, doesn’t run everywhere–it needs to be invoked from the Springboard.

With these constraints in mind, I began to think of how I could replicate the tools I enjoy with Alfred in an iOS environment. Since getting the iPad Air 2, I’ve attempted to set it up as closely to my MacBook Pro’s app/service configuration as possible, so that I can truly work from either device. I’m also going through a process of discovering how I can slim down the number of individual apps I have installed by replicating functionality in other apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro. It’s a fun way to pass some time, and I always like consolidating things. Sometimes it’s a little puzzle I want to solve, and sometimes the answer is to just use a dedicated app because the experience is better. But the process leads me to examine how and why I do things, and you know how I like gratuitous self-reflection. Ahem.

I had to examine what I do with Alfred on the Mac, and distill it down for iOS. There would obviously be sacrifices and redundancy in some cases, so I’d need to account for that. For instance, there’s no way I can toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with a key command or a keyword on iOS as I can on the Mac, and between Spotlight and Launch Center Pro, my app-launching needs are more than taken care of. (Although, now that I think about it, you’d probably be able to build a simple app launcher into an action group if you really wanted to. Maybe I’ll give it a shot to see how it feels.) That left the core of what I do with Alfred.

Drafts is an incredible app that I’ve been using since it arrived on the App Store, and one that I’ve spoken about before. At a glance, it’s a notepad, ready to accept input as soon as you launch it. But anyone who’s used it can tell you it goes way further than that. You can send that note to a variety of places, perform actions on that text, even script additional functionality to interact with it. There is a vibrant community around the app and the Action Directory is evidence of that. I don’t have the capacity to explain how truly interesting and powerful this app is in the course of this piece, so go see it for yourself.

Thanks to its robust handling of text-based information, Drafts became my surrogate for this experiment on iOS. Through its Notification Center widget, it’s actually accessible from anywhere on my device (can’t say that for Spotlight), so I can always pull down and jump directly to it. It would be the single entry point for text, and I would apply as many different actions as I could to it to emulate my flow with Alfred. I took screenshots of Alfred’s preferences on the Mac as well as the individual workflows I had installed on top of that, and built a list of what I needed to do.

(Note: I’m not going to cover every single action in this post, but apart from the obvious things like controlling Wi-Fi, I’ve pretty much covered this list or I’m working on something that will. Or I’ve decided to ignore something and use a separate app. Whatever.)

First, the basics. The stuff I use that’s built into Alfred.

  • App launching
  • Search (internet/file system)
  • Basic calculations ️
  • Tools/functions
  • Definitions ️
  • Direct file system access
  • Contacts
  • Clipboard history/management
  • System commands

Then, my custom workflow additions.

  • Send to Todoist
  • Send to Due
  • Post to Twitter
  • Append/prepend text files
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth toggle
  • Basic conversions
  • Down for everyone or just me
  • Whois lookup
  • Force empty Mac trash
  • Forecast.io lookup
  • Giphy search
  • IMDb search
  • iTunes Store search
  • Determine current IP
  • New calendar event
  • New text file
  • Open current Safari tab in Chrome
  • Random password generator
  • Custom search (Box files)
  • Custom search (Dropbox files)
  • Pinboard search
  • Quick access to Transmit favorites
  • VPN toggle on/off

Many of these can be handled deftly in Drafts without much, if any tinkering. Some of this can’t be handled at all. Some of it just takes a little finesse. Here’s how it looks.

I created action groups: “Actions”, “Search”, “Notes”, and “Tools” based on the type of functionality I was looking for. With Alfred, it all kind of ends up in one big pool as you are able to winnow down what you’re doing contextually as you type–it’s one of the things that makes the app so cool. In Drafts, you need to browse a little. Different, but not terrible at all. Hey, it’s still iOS.

So, the actions. Anything dealing with plain text/notes–nailed. You can create, append, prepend, modify, and pretty much anything else you want to do as long as it’s text and your destination is somewhere Drafts supports. So all my Dropbox actions are buttoned up. Drafts can write to iCloud Drive as well, so that’s an option too for quick zaps between iOS and the Mac.

Same for quickly adding to apps like Todoist, Due, and Calendar to create new items. As long as a URL scheme exists or someone’s built an action and posted it, you can probably do it. Drafts has advanced clipboard handling, so that’s in there too, as is posting to Twitter.

In as many cases as I could, I applied URLs to these actions to open in a browser. Obviously, this makes sense for things like searches, especially since a lot of local apps don’t support any kind of URL scheme beyond opening. In some cases, I preferred native app integrations to web actions, though. It’s much better to open the Twitter app to do a search with its new deep integration than have to boot over to the mobile web, which frankly, sucks. I created a Pinboard web action for searching my own archives, since the app I like to use (Pinner) doesn’t support a search from outside currently. It’s a great app, but it just doesn’t do this one thing I want it to. I also repurposed some of my focused Duck Duck Go searches here, creating a master list of all the places I might want to hit, as well as a few app favorites (like 1Password).

Where things get pretty interesting is within Drafts’ advanced tagging system. It allows you to logically interpret certain things like dates, times, and even latitude and longitude–which came in really handy with the Forecast.io action. If I want the lookup for where I am right now, I don’t even need to enter text, since the URL adds the location tags independently. If I want to search a different location, I can type in “Austin, Texas” and run the Google weather search, which will take me straight to a page with a small weather module right at the top. I asked Greg about doing simple calculations right in the app, and he told me that’s supported as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. In addition to the action, there’s a script key add-on that does the math without needing to pull the drawer out. Hot.

Other cool things:

  • Giphy search goes right to the excellent custom UI in Launch Center Pro
  • iTunes Store search uses fnd.io which is fast and covers the entire store in a nice UI
  • Down for everyone and whois lookup use clipboard contents, and current IP is just a text-less action that runs, similar to the Forecast action

The things I can’t do at all? Well, as I said, toggling system states (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, VPN) is out, as is direct file access and search on iOS. What I discovered in my experimentation, however, was that while the Dropbox iOS app seemingly has no deep URL hooks, the mobile site supports a direct search as part of a URL string! So I’m able to pass a search term from Drafts to the mobile site, and after a few seconds (in my testing, under 15-20), I get a list of results, which I can then link to, or open in the native app. It’s not the real-time file access/search that Alfred provides, but it’s pretty damned cool for an iOS device, since my entire file system is based in Dropbox. Is it quicker to just open the native app and pull down the UI to search right there? Probably. But for the purposes of this experiment, this was a fun discovery.

As an extra bonus, I discovered that my WordPress site supports search in a similar way, so now I have a super fast path into my posts if I want to find something I wrote in the past to share with someone, which is something I do frequently.

Overall, it’s a big change in how I use my devices. I’m not sure if this will stick, but I wanted to try it, and see if I could map my Mac mental model of entry field-data-action to iOS. There are limits, but there are also cool things iOS can do that the Mac doesn’t. It’s interesting to me that on the Mac, my information flow out of my head to an action is so different than on iOS, based on how the environment differs.

It did get me thinking about what could be possible, though. I think that someone could definitely build something like Alfred for iOS and have it be as close to the Mac experience as possible, by which I mean that it would require some serious pre-configuration on the part of the user, and you’d still be limited by the iOS filesystem constraints, but between URL schemes and extensions, something really compelling could exist. I think you could build a UI on iOS that intelligently provided target actions based on what you type. I’m sure it would be a ridiculous power user tool, but I think it could work. I have no idea about what potential market this kind of app would find, but I’d love to see someone try. If it was done well, I see no reason why it couldn’t be sold at a premium to people like me who want to get every bit of power and functionality out of their devices.

In the meantime, this has been a really fun experiment for me and I figured out some cool things both about Drafts and how I can modify basic existing URLs to become more action-oriented. As our iOS devices gain more abilities, I look forward to seeing this process evolve. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.

Thinner, lighter, gone.

Although I purchased last year’s iPad Air and was perfectly content with it, I found myself in an Apple Store yesterday, purchasing the iPad Air 2. Part of it was that I wanted an excuse to use Apple Pay, and groceries weren’t exciting enough. But the other part was that after I held the updated device, I couldn’t leave without it.

When it was announced last week, the incremental changes in weight and size seemed almost negligible to me as I read about them. We’re talking grams and millimeters. Tiny, insignificant adjustments to the body of the device. How different could it possibly be?

Put the two devices side by side, and it becomes glaringly apparent. Not to mention the ridiculous internals this new model has. Plenty of people have voiced opinions along the lines of “I’d rather have a little more battery than a thinner device, why is Apple so obsessed with this?” and it got me thinking about exactly what that means. Clearly Apple feels that current battery life is reasonable and is willing to make other changes to the physical nature of the device to optimize in other dimensions. But why? Why the relentless march to thinner and lighter?

I think it’s because Apple doesn’t want us to notice that we’re holding chunks of metal and glass. We should think about these devices as extensions of ourselves and the closer the company can come to making them nearly weightless (in relative terms), the better. In the same way that you get dressed in the morning and feel your clothes but quickly adjust and your body stops sending those input signals, your devices should follow similar paths. If Apple can create a device that is so comfortable to use that it’s forgotten as it’s held because it’s so unimaginably thin and light–while still maintaining the performance users come to generally expect without decrement–it’s going to do it.

Eventually battery technology and wireless radios will advance to the point that our concerns about charging will be obviated. In the meantime, Apple will create devices that continue to advance the technical bottom line while somewhat disappearing in terms of our nerve endings’ perceptions. And while two days ago I couldn’t have cared less, holding the Air 2 now, I realize how quietly significant that goal is.

One notebook to rule them all.

At WWDC, I picked up a new MacBook Air. This machine simply changed the way I thought about computing entirely. I have never loved a Mac as much or used a laptop with the same feeling of absolute freedom as I have with this computer. In fact, I love the MBA so much that I thought about getting rid of my iPad entirely instead of trying to find places for it. The combination of the Air and the iPhone was powerful enough to handle almost anything I could throw at it. This fall, as the new iPads were launched, I marveled at how nice they were, but resigned myself to not buying one. After all, I was happy with my new workflow and saw no reason to complicate things by adding more moving parts. Then I used the iPad Air.

The iPad Air has reinvigorated my love of the iPad line. It’s obviously the fastest iPad I’ve ever used, but the size and weight change make the largest perceivable difference in my opinion. It feels only slightly heavier than the mini. The bezel reduction takes it from feeling enormous to feeling quite manageable. Its proportions are so much more favorable now. When I first used one about a month ago, coming directly from the mini, everything felt cartoonishly large. I got over that in about a day. Having a retina screen again is divine, too. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started using it again. I really loved the first generation mini, but there’s just no substitute for those extra pixels. Everyone’s already said it, but it bears repeating: there are no tradeoffs with the two new iPads, it’s simply choose your size and go to town.

The new objective: full integration of the iPad into my day as a work device. I have no games on it, no movies, and only a few leisure (read: Twitter, ADN, read later, etc.) apps, most of which would provide no distraction while I’m trying to get something done. I intend for the iPad to replace my paper notebook (which I do love, but is limited and great at certain things but not many others), but also to become something more robust – a device that allows me to do the things I was previously doing and extends my ability to do more, easily. It will allow me to leave my beloved MBA docked at my desk, attached to my second display. I can AirPlay docs and demos to the Apple TVs we have in the office, I have all my notes, docs, and anything else I can think of loaded up and synced, and my home screen is organized for maximum efficiency. I held off on getting the Logitech keyboard case I loved so much with the iPad 3 only to give the incredible weight reduction of the Air a fair shake. I’ll probably get one because it’s a terrific addition to the device, but for now it’s a Smart Cover and that’s it. I do have a few standalone Bluetooth keyboards, one of which I’m using right now, so maybe I’ll stick with them.

I’ve been doing more interface sketching as I work on projects, and I’ve enjoyed allowing myself to just sketch rough ideas quickly instead of waiting until they’re solidified mentally first and then going directly into a document. These usually live in my paper notebook as well, but I’ll be doing this in Paper on the iPad (yes, ha ha, isn’t that adorable) which is my preferred drawing app. I’ve tried tons of them, and keep coming back to Paper, because it just feels the best. I’m intrigued by the development of that custom stylus for the app as well. I have a Bamboo stylus currently, but I’m hardly a fan. Having something that makes the act feel even more natural and less gimmicky is a huge plus for me.

The other things that I’m looking forward to are the great music apps that come along with iOS. GarageBand and AmpKit are two that I really love to use, and there’s a host of other drum machines and sequencers/synth apps that are surprisingly good. I’m going to dive into Audiobus more this time around too, I think, and see how I can chain things together, ultimately ending in GarageBand for now (so I can move files back to the Mac in some cases). Granted, this is more of a secondary use case than the day to day productivity stuff, but it plays into the concept of the global notebook – a device that I always have, to capture and document (and in some cases expand on) my ideas.

I find that these things go in phases for me, so this may just be a new (old) phase. Either way, this device has incredible potential. I don’t think I’ve ever made a dedicated effort to use the iPad like this – I’ve always stopped short of going all the way. It’s important to note, though that I have no intention of replacing my Mac(s) with iOS; rather it’s a matter of choosing not only the right tool for the job, but the best tool. I’m excited to give it a shot with the Air.