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Ulysses III: Slick new text editor from The Soulmen

Ulysses III: Slick new text editor from The Soulmen

Great new text editor from The Soulmen: Ulysses III

As anyone who reads this site regularly knows, I love writing in Markdown. It’s a writing syntax that is best described as a tool that allows me to focus on the writing, not the formatting.

For Markdown, there are a number of text editors and other tools to support. On OSX, I rely on nvALT for capturing ideas on the go, and starting an initial draft of something. I love Byword for the actual writing process, supported by Brett Terpstra’s Marked app to have live previews of the rendered code. I also like the excellent MultiMarkdown Composer, thought I do prefer the simple, clean layout of Byword.

On iOS I use Drafts and Notesy in a similar way to nvALT on OSX, and Byword as my main editor.

A new OSX app in this class called Ulysses III was released this week, and since its on sale and has had good reviews, I decided to grab a copy from the Mac App Store (A$20.99).

Right from the start it’s clear that this is an app built from the ground up for Markdown. Although it is the third generation of a very successful family of Mac based text editors, the developers warn existing users to treat this as a completely new app.

They are quite confident in their product, stating the following in one of the introductory “sheets” loaded into the app:

If you’re new to this, then please enjoy what we believe is the greatest text editor the world has ever seen. A blank slate powered by a toolset of endless possibilities, limited only by your imagination as a writer.

Like Byword (and similar apps such as iA Writer), Ulysses III presents a powerful distraction free writing environment. A blank sheet that is sorted in groups of sheets kept in a library. You can show/hide columns showing the Group or the Library+Group using hotkeys or menu commands.

Writing is straightforward, and the user interface is best characterised as described by MacSparky:

Ulysses III is gorgeous. The way it renders text and iterates on the three pane view is truly remarkable.

Essentially, the app gets out of your way and allows you to focus on the writing.

iCloud support is built in and even somewhat emphasised. I am sure that Dropbox support would be straightforward, but it wasn’t presented to me as an easy option in the setup phase.

Although I’ve long loved the promise of iCloud, it hasn’t really taken hold for me. I tend to agree with David Sparks that iCloud is at its best with plain text type apps, but since I tend to work across several different apps (Byword, Multimarkdown Composer, nvAlt, Notesy, etc), I need Dropbox to allow files to move easily between apps.

Of course, the creators of Ulysses III, the Soulmen, also have an iOS app called Daedelus Touch. This app, for both iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad, integrates with Ulysses III.

This article is the first thing I’ve written in Ulysses III, and the following are my initial impressions:

Pro’s

  • Beautiful, distraction free, writing environment
  • Variety of HUDs to bring up stats, export options, links to favourites, navigation (within the sheet) and even syntax assistance
  • Simple exports (“sixport”) to txt, RTF and PDF formats
  • Ability to copy HTML, Markdown or plain text to the clipboard
  • iCloud integration (with iOS Daedelus Touch app)
  • Quick rendering of Markdown syntax, showing you most of the syntax but de-emphasised
  • Choice of style sheets to work with
  • Dark or light background options
  • The name: Ulysses Paroz was my ancestor who first brought the Paroz family to Australia!

Con’s

  • When adding links, the Markdown way of adding inline or reference links is hidden away. This makes it one step more for me to see my link, and also makes it hard for me to re-use a link
  • When doing lists (like this one), I have to type a new “-” followed by a space for each line[1]
  • No obvious Dropbox support, particularly with Daedelus Touch[2]
  • Not sure how I can get Drafts on iOS to work into the system[3]
  • Expensive

Initial thoughts

I’ll personally keep playing with Ulysses III / Daedelus Touch for some stuff to see how it goes. It grabs me as a great repository and editor, with a lot of great features. It has much promise, and if I didn’t already have Byword, nvALT, Marked and Drafts it might be a great one stop app.

But it won’t be my core app at the moment, because it’s Markdown behaviour (e.g. for links) is a little quirky, and because it would require me to change my workflow.


  1. Hitting Alt+Enter automatically brings up the next bullet point. See comment from Nicholas below  ↩

  2. Dropbox integration for Ulysses III and Daedelus Touch is quite do-able. See detailed explanation in the comment from daedalicious below  ↩

  3. As daedalicious mentioned in the comments, if Dropbox works as described, Drafts support should be straightforward.  ↩

Drafts for iPhone and iPad

Drafts for iPhone and iPad

Drafts for iPhoneIts not often that an iOS app makes its way to take up precious position on my device’s dock. Actually, its not often an app goes onto my main screen, let alone the dock, so when this does occur its really saying something about the potential of that app.
David Sparks of the Mac Power Users podcast has mentioned once or twice about an iPhone app called Drafts, which is a quick way to collect thoughts and info as they arise. David, along with his co-host Katie Floyd, have become people who I pay attention to when it comes to productivity on Mac and iOS devices, and when David recently blogged about the release of a new version of Drafts for the iPhone along with a new version for the iPad, it was time to give the app a try.

Of course, the fact that Brett Terpstra and the Time Management Ninja blog also posted about the release of Drafts 2 / Drafts for the iPad only reinforced the need for me to check it out.

This “quick collect” system fits nicely with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) as it allows an iPhone user to quickly collect ideas and thoughts as they arise, so that they can be processed and organised later for action.

On opening Drafts, the first thing seen is a blank note. You can quickly type your thought and leave the app, no other action required. By default, if you reopen the open more than 60 seconds later, it will automotically start a new note, but of course you can review older captured thoughts. If you’re running Drafts on both iPhone and iPad, there is a seamless syncing capability of the notes.

Once you’ve got your drafts, its quite simple to later do something with them. You can Tweet, post to Facebook, send emails or messages, send to apps like Byword or DayOne, or other web services like Evernote and Dropbox.

As a writer, I like that Drafts supports John Gruber’s Markdown. This allows me to easily integrate Drafts to my writing workflow, which is built around Byword as my editing device. From Byword, its easy for me to then export to my Squarespace or WordPress blogs, or to apps like Pages, Scrivener or iBooks Author. My only criticism of Drafts is that the Markdown preview process seems a little flakey at this time. I am sure that will be fixed shortly.

I like the seamless, low-threshhold method of quickly capturing thoughts and ideas. The app has a lot of power, and easily integrate into many workflows. As with any capture device (such an in-trays and inboxes), the trick is to ensure that it’s contents are regularly processed and organised for action. Get Drafts for iPhone and iPad

Writing on the iPad

Writing on the iPad

During this month, iPads of March, one of the tasks that I have found brilliantly straightforward has been writing on the iPad.

20120319-135640.jpgI do quite a bit of writing: for this blog, and other personal and business websites, document and reports. I am also in the process of writing a book (or 2). Back on the Mac, I typically use the following writing tools:
– Pages (from the Apple iWork suite);
Scrivener;
– Google Docs;
Mars Edit;
iA Writer;
– TextEdit
Squarespace‘s custom CMS; and,
WordPress‘ custom CMS.

Moving to the iPad has been a fun journey. For reports and other documents, these tend to be done end to end in Pages. I am moving away from Google Docs, which is poorly supported on iOS anyway. I am frustrated by the lack of a Mac version of Pages that supports iCloud, but since I can print and distribute documents easily from the iPad, this isn’t as big a hurdle as I thought it might be.

One notable direction for me in recent times has been the adoption of John Gruber’s Markdown approach. This is an approach for writers to be able to focus on writing, and then be able format in an easy manner, then publish to the web or use apps that translate the formating into their own requirements. For web, thats HTML, while for other apps it varies.

Markdown allows a non-distracting environment to focus on writing, then worry about publishing later. Traditional tools like MS Word, and even Pages and Scrivener, kind of lead the writer to procrastinate with formatting, rather than focus on content. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers, there’ll be time enough for formatting, when the writing’s done!

There are a bunch of apps allowing writers to write on iOS in markdown, and then easily copy to their desktop later. For a while I’ve been using iA Writer on both Mac and iOS, and have been loving the simplicity. Its sports a great, non-distracting UI that really lets you focus on the task of writing. It supports iCloud to sync between iPad and Mac versions, and recently it has sported a brand new iPhone version. Seamless writing, everywhere.

So for my book writing, I would work on individual sections in iA Writer, then when done, copy over to Scrivener, which handles Markdown nicely.

For web publishing, this was a little harder, as I wanted to be able to publish from the iPad, but getting code translated from Markdown to HTML wasn’t straightforward, and I am not aware of a blog editor for iPad that accepts Markdown. I don’t think it’ll be long before someone comes out with something to suit.

Last Thursday, the good people at Metaclassy launched a new version of their Byword app for Mac, and also launched Byword for iOS (iPad and iPhone). This nice little app shares a lot of the best features of iA Writer (iCloud, simple UI, etc), and adds a couple of great features, including the ability to print from the iOS app (AirPrint or similar required), and importantly, the ability to export HTML from the file, or simply have the HTML output copied to the clipboard. This can easily be pasted into the Squarespace or WordPress iOS apps (which only supports HTML) for publishing. I can also copy and paste the markdown text from the Mac version of the app straight into Scrivener.

I am using Byword deeply now as my main writing tool on the iPad. To post this blog, I will simply copy and paste the HTML into the WordPress app, add this screen shot image, add category/tag info and publish. For book style writing, I work on the files in Byword, and then copy and paste completed sections into Scrivener back on the Mac.

I am loving Byword – it gives me just the right mix of simplicity and power. Its just about perfect in my work so far.

Its an exciting time in using the iPad as a primary tool. Not only is there a new version on the market, but there are a host of new apps that make mobile productivity even better. For writing, the iPad has truly come of age as a production tool, and is far than a simple consumption device!