(The title is a callout to some of my friends from the Delicious Generation. You know who you are.)
For several years now I’ve had an idea for an app burning a hole in my brain. I’ve never gotten around to making it because it would be way more work than I want to put forward, but every now and then I get wistful enough about this idea that I almost consider making it for myself.
The 20-second summary of this idea is this: my personal Wikipedia.
There are a ton of note-taking apps out there. For everyday, ephemeral notes, I use iOS/macOS’s Notes app, which does just enough to be useful, but not enough that I would really use it for serious information organization. For that I use Ulysses, which is the best notes app I’ve found so far.
But nothing I’ve found so far gives me what I want out of my personal encyclopedia app.
My Personal Wiki
Here are the things my personal wiki app would have. I have no qualms about listing them here because 1) I’m probably never going to write this app anyway, 2) maybe you will, in which case I will buy a copy from you and we will both be happy, and 3) even if I do decide to write it, there’s enough work here to do that I doubt some random person is going to just up and write this in a weekend, and even if he/she does, see point 2 and then #shutupandtakemymoney.
- Markdown editor. it’s silly for a note editor to not have this. However, this wouldn’t be just any markdown editor. I think Ulysses has the best markdown editor out there, although the one in Day One is also really good.
- Attachments. Any good notes app needs to support inline and associated attachments. Attachment indexing and text recognition would be similarly amazing (Evernote has spoiled me there).
- Tagged organization. To some degree, human-curated tags are a fine mechanism for organization. However, what I would really love to see is a note-clustering algorithm that’s doing its own unstructured learning on the notes I’ve created and automatically suggesting tags for me. I’ll probably put in tags of my own, but I want the app to be smart enough to organize things for me.
- Flat hierarchy. All notes live in the note library, and “folders” of notes are just ways to bin them together, like “playlists” of notes (and smart playlists/folders too!).
- Automatic note linking. The editor/viewer would need to be smart enough to recognize terms in notes that are the topics of other notes, and then automatically link them together. I would be OK with doing a Wikipedia-like “link” syntax to facilitate this (like
[this](A Specific Note)). The very act of putting something in double brackets like that should also automatically create the note.
- Intelligent prompts. The app should prompt me to write about stuff that is empty or has very little information on it. I have a tendency to focus on the content that I know, but the prompts to do empty things would be forcing me to go off and research stuff.
- Universally accessible. I would want a Mac client first (since that’s where the vast majority of my computering time is spent), but iOS clients would be required as well. Syncing should be done with CloudKit, because it’s the obvious and only logical choice.
- Contextual information. Pulling in related content from websites would be awesome. When I’m reading a note, showing a list of related notes would be neat too. Scrivener does a good job at this.
- Sharing. Collaborative encyclopedias could be really cool. I don’t think I’d need real-time editing capabilities like SubEthaEdit, but being able to share and work on entries with others can be a really rewarding experience.
- Publishing. It would be REALLY cool if I could publish my wiki (or portions of it) to a website. I realize this is a HUGE feature, so maybe what would be nice is exporting the links and structure and whatever to HTML, so I could dump it on some hosting service myself…
I’ve tried a bunch, and they all fall short. Here are the ones that have stuck around the longest (although none of these have nearly the level of intelligence I describe above).
- Evernote. Evernote was my go-to notes app for several years. I love the shared notebooks, the server-side text extraction from attachments, and the cross-platform clients. I even spent quite a bit of time writing code that would do automatic note ingestion from blogs I followed (blogs would show up as their own folder, and one blog entry would be one note). It didn’t have a markdown editor, but for the sharing and other premium features, I looked past it a lot. What I’m not looking past is the recent price hike for my account, which will more than double the cost of my Evernote subscription. Thanks, but no thanks. Me and my 3GB note library are moving on.
- Ulysses. This is my next-best thing to Evernote right now, but there’s no denying it lacks a lot of Evernote’s awesome features. However, it has the best markdown editor I’ve used, and it’s cross-platform apps are similarly excellent. I’m hopeful that it will continue to improve and continue to be excellent.
- VoodooPad. When I describe my app as a “personal wiki”, it would seem like VoodooPad should be the obvious choice, right? Unfortunately, I never got the hang of the app; I felt like the Mac app got in my way too much and required too much manual hand-holding to be useful, and I still don’t understand its document model. I also don’t like that its editor is a rich-text editor, and (at the time) it didn’t have an iOS client (although I see it does now). I really want to like VoodooPad, but every time I tried using it I felt like I was fighting the app to do what I wanted.
- Scrivener. This has a better document model than VoodooPad, but I think it suffers from a lot of the same problems. It also seems like it’s geared more for planning and production writing, rather than just information organization.
Do you know of an app that fits the bill? Or do you want to start working on my dream app? Let me know!