A History of (My) Organisers
April 19, 2006
Trying to get my head back into KIT. I think I’ve worked out what I’m doing for the 1.2 version, and feel it would be good at least to just bring the app up to scratch – I’ve told people in the past I would do some of these things, and they’re not all that difficult. A 2.0 version could well be a completely different app.
Anyway. Here, I’m reviewing the last 5 years of my experiences in the world of info organisers, perhaps to explain some of my trepidation. It’s a bit long but you just scan this stuff, right?
The world of Mac organisers is a crowded and crazy one. I had fallen into it by accident a few years ago. When the Mac OS X Public Beta was announced in late 2000, I decided to learn Cocoa. Mac OS X didn’t come with the Notepad application that was bundled with the Classic Mac OS, I missed it and realised I could knock one out in a week or two. So that’s what I did over the Christmas break. I released it as a freeware app called NoteBook.
With almost no effort whatsoever, it already had plenty of cool features absent from the Classic Notepad: fonts and styles, find and replace, an integrated spell-checker, inline graphics, multiple undo/redo. No organisation, just a “flat” notebook, true to the metaphor. No big deal now, but at the time it highlighted all this cool, new OS X functionality Jobs had demoed.
There were no other such apps (or apps called NoteBook) around at the time and NoteBook took on a life of its own. I didn’t have much time to spend on it, because I had a proper job.
The other thing I used to like in the old Mac OS was the Scrapbook app. Again, it was crap, but you could drag and drop graphics, movies, text, pretty much anything into it and out again. Everything was kept in a single database file, and I felt that doing the same with real files could be cool.
So, NoteBook 2.0 introduced support for all sorts of files. Some it could edit, some it could only preview, and for all the rest it would show an icon. For non-text files, you could add searchable comments. By now there were hierarchical folders too, replicated in the file system. After an extended beta, I renamed it to Notes, gave my (useful) beta testers free copies and tried to sell it. It didn’t exactly take off. Notes languished and died.
Skip forward to 2004. When setting up Reinvented Software, I felt I could develop this theme further, and do something completely different. I had the opportunity of a clean slate. By this time there were plenty of notepad apps, file organisers and so on. I needed my app to be unique. I’d also learned a few things:
- File organization sucks. You have to be so careful, because so many things can go wrong, files go missing, etc. And it’s people’s files, their data. You don’t want to screw up.
- People like the idea of using files not a database (mostly) but also like to keep their files in all sorts of places on disk, and link to them in apps like Notes.
- When you’re doing all this stuff, a compact single-window interface design like Notes starts to feel cramped. You end up hiding all the functionality. No bad thing, maybe, but…
- Smaller-looking apps in this genre have a lower perceived value. It could be the most feature-rich app going, but don’t expect to charge much more than $20 for it, $15 would probably seem more like it. Stupid but true.
Panther had brought a number of technologies that made producing a much more polished version of my old app happen much more quickly: Cocoa bindings, some basic animations, SearchKit, the search field (I remember it taking me a few days, maybe a week, recreating a decent search field in Jaguar), placeholder text, WebKit, drop shadows, support for Word files, etc – stuff you completely take for granted now. In Jaguar you even had to do the alternating coloured lines in table views yourself. No more!
iApps were an inspiration. Polished, simple, useful, elegant. I thought that KIT could be like an iTunes for the rest of your files and felt I could draw inspiration from iPhoto too. So, you just drag and drop files in and out (either by copying or making aliases), preview them without needing to open all sorts of apps, use SearchKit to index files and find them as you type. At the time, finding files by content was terribly slow in the Finder. It could have smart groups that updated themselves, no hierarchy – instead a one to many relationship between files and groups, so one file could exist in many groups, like iTunes playlists, Address Book groups or iPhoto albums.
Another inspiration was Gmail. KIT worked along the same lines: search don’t sort. It was intended to be the anti-organiser’s organiser. Remember: all this was before Spotlight, Smart Folders in the Finder, etc all of which was announced with Tiger the very day I finished development. This had already got me worried, but Tiger’s release was 8 months away, so I ploughed on regardless.
So, what did I learn after releasing KIT?
- It did well when featured on Apple’s Hot Picks. Hot picks weren’t “sticky” then like they are now, so you had a few weeks. After that, people didn’t know how to look for it. The name is at least partly responsible here.
- I wanted a much better icon too, but ran out of time and talent and had no money to hire anyone.
- Actually it’s difficult to tell anyone what it does in a sentence without ending with “kind of thing”.
- Many people want those hierarchies.
- They also want things like multiple categories, reminders, metadata editing (in Tiger), custom fields, columns, in-window editing, separate window-editing, tabs, annotations, thumbnail views, slideshows, column views, previews for all sorts of obscure file types, a built in web browser, etc. That’s just off the top of my head. People want it all, often requests in a single email can be contradictory and it’s almost as if you can’t please anyone as a result.
- Some people put a lot stuff more in KIT than I was ever expecting and didn’t always use it the way I thought they would. Its performance appears very sucky when the app is indexing 500 files in the background (PDFs used to make SearchKit spit blood) and someone is holding on the down-arrow key, scrolling through 40MB Photoshop files on an iBook G3.
- SearchKit crashes indexing some kinds of files, and since indexing was a background process, this would appear to happen at random moments.
- A personal thing: I yearn for the simplicity of NoteBook again. Small, neat, fast, cool but with a ton of really thoughtful and well-implemented features. People loved NoteBook, they wanted to marry it. Sure, they were desperate, but that’s not the point.
Tiger could make a lot of this better. CoreData would speed up development and maybe performance, metadata is now easy, searching with Spotlight would improve performance, give me more flexible smart groups and deal with the crashes. I could also make use of QTKit (which can be used in Panther), PDFKit, Tiger-only text stuff, etc.
But given all that I’ve been through over the last 5 years, the fact that I feel I’ve never been able to get it right, the crowdedness of the marketplace, the mandatory low price point, the lack of focus and so on – do I really want to go through it again?