Dropping Text

There are now three editors with Dropbox support on the iTunes store (and two more coming, one of which is already public and looks pretty good), which means that I can finally manage this site entirely from any iOS device - although not yet in the easiest way.

My current workflow has been fairly stable for a while - all long-form drafts for posts here start off in Evernote in some way (usually on my ageing iPod as a rough bullet list over breakfast), and are revised across whatever device(s) I happen to be using until the time comes to post the result as a Textile document to the site - which happens via Dropbox.

Up until recently, the final review would happen on a “regular” computer, but that’s changed as more ways to access Dropbox came about. Although I actually pay for Evernote at this point because of its excellent feature set and multi-platform1 support, I don’t use a lot of the advanced features (except for offline access and OCR), so using both Evernote (which, incidentally, does not support editing anything other than plain text notes in iOS) and Dropbox feels somewhat redundant.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I started keeping track of simple note and text editing apps with Dropbox support - the Dropbox team seems to have little interest in adding editing and more flexible offline support to their iOS apps, and independent developers have started addressing those gaps.

The three apps currently on the App Store are, as of this writing, Droptext, Nebulous Notes and Elements, and I’ve been taking a look at them as time allows.

  • Droptext was the first one I came across and used, but the current version suffers from the rather annoying shortcoming of not allowing you to create new folders (something I hope to see fixed upon the next update, supposedly due soon). So up until now it’s only been useful enough for updating old content on the site and adding some notes to pre-existing locations. But it lets me browse my entire folder tree and copy/paste stuff from one file to another with ease, and was therefore a lot more useful than the standard Dropbox app.
  • Nebulous Notes, my current favorite, goes a little farther and lets you edit and delete files just fine, although it can’t remember the last edited file and I still need to resort to the standard Dropbox app to upload images (which is OK considering that I don’t do that very often - the linkblog images are automatically captured by Yaki, so they don’t count). Sadly, it doesn’t do any sort of offline caching (yet), so I need to be online to publish. That is something I actually avoid for it’s all too easy to click a link, check e-mail, etc. and get sidetracked, so it’s still not ideal as I’ve grown accustomed to do a bunch of changes on my laptop and then let Dropbox sync things - another thing that I can’t do on iOS at the moment.
  • Elements, which I haven’t tried yet, focuses on managing a single folder of text files with panache and a number of editing-oriented features (such as word count and “TextExpander”:te support). I would have a go at it if it had broader horizons, but despite an e-mail exchange with the developer I don’t think it would be a good fit at this point, for it will stick to manage files in a single folder for the foreseeable future.
  • PlainText is still under active development, so I won’t discuss it here other than point out it exists and will become the underpinnings of its author’s little family of popular apps. It’s definitely one to watch, and one I’ll be trying when it comes out.

All of the above, however, cry out for having some sort of preview mode. Besides offline editing and syncing, the thing I find myself needing the most is a clear view of what the drafts will end up looking like, and as a result I spend quite a bit of time copying drafts and pasting them into a little clunky webapp I wrote that uses this amazing Javascript-Based Textile renderer. I managed to get that to work offline fairly easily thanks to adding an HTML5 manifest file, but it got me thinking - how hard would it be to get any of these apps to render not just Textile or Markdown, but just about anything else (including code in several programming languages) by allowing folk to upload their highlighter/renderer scripts to Dropbox and have the apps run them inside a (local) web view?

I floated that notion to some developers with mixed reactions - some thought I was talking about rich text editing, something you can’t do with the current iOS UIKit and that requires significant effort to implement from scratch (best to wait until Apple spins off their iWork editing engine and folds it into a later version of iOS…), some thought it was too techie a notion and another is at least considering it (although it won’t happen just yet).

It’s still early days, though, and there’s always the chance that any of these apps (as well as Dropbox or Evernote) will evolve into a better writing environment. But one thing’s for sure - four competing apps addressing the same space make it plain there’s a need to be filled.

Me, I’m betting on the fifth app. It will take a while to surface, though, so I’m polishing up that webapp a bit more and making do with it and Nebulous

  1. If you discount their lack of “Linux”:os/Linux support, which occasionally bugs me quite a bit. ↩︎