The Dichotomy Between Old And New App Development Approaches

Software is in the midst of a few huge changes, one of the biggest being the “cloud”. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago the cloud was a pretty far out concept. The fact that you had access to your files on any device, synced wirelessly without any effort on your part seemed like a futuristic dream. When the cloud came it changed everything from how we use different apps and services to how developers had to code their apps. The cloud is no longer something most developers can ignore if they have any chance of succeeding but I have noticed differences in the approaches between an apps made by dynasty Mac developers and developers who started in the mobile age. It’s all about the approach and the mentality that goes into building their apps. There is a definite dichotomy between the old style of applications (1 device, no syncing, data stored on that device) and the new style of multi-device support, effortless syncing, and data available anywhere. I am not saying one is better than the other, well I am but it depends on what a users needs are.

I’ll be using my search for the perfect app to use as my “Commonplace Book” as an example. If you are unaware a commonplace book is basically a data dump of random information, basically your second brain for recording everything you might forget. I have been searching for this app for years and still haven’t found the perfect one but I am going to talk about 2 apps with similar purposes, Evernote and Omni-Outliner. Which may sound ridiculous if you are familiar with both applications but I think they are the same basic app with vastly different approaches.

How Can You Even Compare Evernote and Omni Outliner?

I honestly think you can, just look at the top feature on Omni-Outliners webpage.

Store and collect all sorts of information for anything. Using built-in themes or the default to get started, OmniOutliner provides just the right jumping-off point for whatever‘s on the tip of your tongue right this minute.

You can save text, images, videos, audio snippets, and really any file you drag onto it. You can create as many different documents as you want and they are stored in a traditional file system. The documents themselves use collapsable bullet points to organize information, so even though you have a ton of information it can be broken down simply. It is an incredible app and it would have been peerless just a few years ago. (For me at least.)

Evernote is known as an everything bucket: photos, drawings, text snippets, PDF’s, web sites, audio snippets and more can all be saved. Information is saved into Notebooks, and Notebooks can be grouped into Notebook Stacks. You create notes in the various folders and they can be tagged to make finding them easier. Everything is saved as part of a single file and can only be accessed from the app.

Even though they are quite different apps I categorize them as the old school and new school versions of the same idea. Sure they have completely different approaches but at their core they are made to store information.

The Difference In Approaches

Storage

The Evernote notebook approach can’t be called new but it has been popularized, especially with the dominance of iOS and the demise of the mobile file system. Omni-Outliners approach is that of the old school, creating individual documents that can be saved to your file system. I actually prefer Omni-Outliner’s approach from a philosophical stance. I like being able to back up my files, knowing exactly where they are on my computer. However, this mindset has fallen to that of data ubiquity without personal management. People don’t seem to care that much about knowing where there files are compared to the convenience of opening an app and having everything there.

Sync

Both use a proprietary sync and proprietary file type. They are both complex programs and I know anecdotally that Evernote spent a lot of time making sure they could transfer notes between all devices, and platforms, with no change in formatting. Omni-Outliner on the other hand can only sync with one device, the iPad. While the screen size is a definite factor for an app like Omni-Outliner I still think that in this day and age that kind of app needs to at least be Mac, iPad, and iPhone to be competitive with other similar apps. If I am storing all my data in your app, like you want me to, it has to be accessible from whatever device I am using. (Or at least all the Apple ones if you are an iOS or Mac developer.)

External Services

External services, like IFTTT, are becoming a way to empower your app without doing everything yourself. As far as I am aware Omni-Outliner doesn’t connect with any outside app, even ones made by their own company. I can’t send text, articles, images, or anything to my Omni-Outlines from an external source.

Evernote on the other hand has embraced external services like IFTTT or Drafts. I can save article from Feedly or send articles from Pocket. The Evernote Webclipper makes saving any page you read on Safari simple. It is an incredibly powerful clipper that allows you to customize exactly what you want to save. It also gives you a personal email that you can send anything to and it will show up in Evernote.

Power

They are both powerful but in different ways. Both allow you to group text, pictures, and audio together. Omni Outliner allows you to include video. (I have heard Evernote allows video saving but I have yet to see it.)

Omni Outliner allows you to: - Drag, almost, any file type into a document. - It allows custom templates and view options allowing you to customize just about everything. - The mechanic of collapsable bullet lists is probably the best thing I ever seen for this type of application. I absolutely love it. - There is also a voice recorder for voice snippets. - You can customize almost everything to suit your needs.

Evernote offers a different form of power: - You can drag many file types into Evernote to save them. - You can tag notes. - You can store notes/files in nested folders. (You can do this with Omni Outliner but the difference is you can easily browse through your folders in Evernote. Omni Outliner is much more geared towards 1 document at a time. There are pro’s and con’s to both.) - The built in annotation tools, voice recorders, and location awareness, make it easy to create different types of notes. - Possibly my favourite feature is note based to-do’s. I have wanted this for a long time and am glad to have finally found it in Evernote.

Exporting Notes

Both applications store notes in a way that makes moving them to another app very time consuming if you do it manually. However they both offer export options. Omni Outliner offers a plethora of export options, including Rich Text and Word documents. It’s very simple. Evernote offers export but it is much more limited. You can export to their proprietary file type or to HTML. Not ideal.

Monetization

Omni Outliner is $49.99 on the Mac and $30 on the iPad. Evernote is free everywhere but allows you to subscribe for a higher upload limit and some extra features. This is probably the most telling difference between the two. They both offer high quality apps but one charges up front and the other is free unless you want to subscribe. I am glad Omni Group can still charge a premium for their apps but due to Apple’s App Store rules Evernote’s free with an optional subscription is a much more viable business in this day and age (for multi platform apps). Omni Group may draw people in with a Mac trial and leverage that to purchasing on an iPad but the simple truth is that most people just won’t pay an up front premium on mobile devices because they can’t try before they buy.

Old school apps charge for new versions as well to maintain cash flow. This means money comes in big spikes when a new version is released. Evernote charges a subscription, either monthly or yearly, so as long as people are getting benefits from the app they will pay. Omni Outliner users can stick with an older version if it suits them just fine.

Who Is It Made For

With Omni Outliners price and feature set seems designed for the “power user”. While it can be used casually, most people can’t justify the large cost. Evernote on the other hand has the option to be simple for the casual user to complex for those who need more power from it. The notebook paradigm is something everyone can understand and it is very simple to get started.

Which Do I Like Better?

Honestly, I much prefer how Omni Outliner works. It is an almost perfect tool for my needs. However the fact that my data is stuck on my Mac is a deal breaker. Even if I had the iPad version I would feel the same way. In this day and age my data can’t be locked to only some of my devices, so even though I prefer Omni Outliner I can’t use it without significant sacrifices. Would I use Omni Outliner if it had a Mac, and universal iOS app? The answer isn’t simple, even if they had covered all Apple products there are still caveats to using their program. The lack of tags and the fact that they don’t connect with other services being two big ones.

The Struggle Between Features, Simplicity and New Ideas

Apple gives us a perfect example of the clash between old and new software paradigms with the recent version of iWork. Apps like ‘Pages’, and ‘Numbers’ were updated around the release of iOS 7. Apple touted the updates as having feature parity for all platforms. As many feared Apple chopped out a bunch of functionality from the Mac version and many were (understandably) angry. Why would they cut out the functionality? It doesn’t make sense if the only purpose was to have feature parity. In fact that would be very stupid. What I believe to be the answer is more complex. This is the article that enlightened me. iWork ’09 was built for the previous generation, not many people had iPhones and iPads weren’t even released yet. So even if people were syncing their Pages or Numbers documents with a service like Dropbox they would be syncing with another Mac. When the iOS versions of these apps came out they had less features but the bigger issue was that they did’t work well with the OSX versions. Formatting could be destroyed or fonts changed simply by opening a document on iOS. It was a terrible experience. Feature parity was necessary because of the new computing paradigm. A growing number of people need their documents to move with them from device to device seamlessly, and while advanced users complained I think Apple made the right choice. This is just one aspect old school developers have to completely rethink for the new world.

The old style of incredibly powerful apps for the common user is dying. There are just too many people making software that cheaper apps, that easier to learn, are taking the lions share of the market. Omni Group has targeted the power user due to the high cost of their apps and the complex feature sets they create. There will always be a market for these but I think it will shrink more and more as people move to a predominantly mobile lifestyle. A touch screen and your fingers are not conducive to these types of apps. Features will have to be re-thought or chopped out of mobile versions. More importantly apps will have to be re-thought for mobile. Using the Evernote and Omni Outliner example, it is hard to see how Omni Outliner’s bullet point UI could be used, to full effect, on a small iPhone screen. While Evernote’s note UI is a natural fit. Will the dynasty’s adapt to the touch interface? Will they stick to their guns and go for Mac power users? The crux of this post comes down to will these institutions, like Omni Group, adapt to the data ubiquity and the mobile first mindset? People need their data everywhere and it may not be possible to port these apps without a complete overhaul. Is it possible? I don’t know but I think it is interesting to watch them try. (Not in a ‘watch an ant try and escape the magnifying glass’ way, more in a ’How will they adapt? How can they succeed?’ way.) I sincerely hope they succeed but old ways of thinking are hard to break. It’s not as simple as moving their apps to a smaller screen, in some cases they will have to completely rethink the design of their apps. Will features be lost? Almost certainly. Will it be a useful addition or another powerful form of access? Or will they merely be shadows of their Mac versions? Time will tell but if I was them I would be seriously looking into it.

Final Notes

Will the Omni Group fail because they aren’t whole heartedly embracing mobile? No, they will live on with the power users and will probably add more mobile apps in the future. This post was more about the interesting dichotomy between the two and as I mentioned I actually like both apps in different ways. For me the answer is clear, data ubiquity is more important that just about everything else. For others that may be different and that’s fine. It will be interesting to see how Omni Group works in the new computing era. The cloud is king and seamless data syncing between devices is something I don’t think productivity developers can ignore.


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