Desk: The publishing app
(Originally posted on 2014-12-01)
Desk is a new publishing app on the Mac OS. It is available in the app store and costs $29.99. It lets you write a mix of markdown and WYSIWYG and post to several of the more popular blogging engines.
It is at version 1.0, so we are at the start of the journey of this product.
The stated features/goals of Desk are the following:
- The Experience: “True distraction-free interface,” both “Markdown and WYSIWYG,” “speed and efficiency,” and media integration.
- Technology: “Your platform” (WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Facebook, Typepad, Movable Type, Squarespace, and more to come soon), “everywhere you are,” “post management,” and “community powered.”
- Philosophy: “Never changing,” “a storytellers app,” “decisions not options.”
I am going to write this review keeping in mind the goal of the app and the stated motivations of the developer. And I am going to start at the bottom of the above list of goals.
I agree completely with the developers fascination with stories and the need to tell them. It was interesting for me to read someone else’s take on what I believe. We are the sum total of our stories and we should share, because out of this sharing comes understanding, wisdom and love. I read the developers blog on Storytelling, and found a shared value system. That was the reason behind me buying the program.
Decisions not options
A lot of these minimalistic text editors seem to share the developers take on feature bloat. He states “Every time you give a user an option, you are asking them to make a decision. When a user doesn’t care or understand the option this ultimately leads to frustration.” Makes absolute sense. Only the developers of Microsoft Word would disagree with this notion. Unfortunately, it can be carried a little too far. I like writing with Nitti as my font of choice. The developer doesn’t give you the ability to change the font. It is not a bad font that the program uses. It is actually quite usable, but the choice of a font is not a technically complicated decision. We have been all using computers for a while and we get the mechanics of changing fonts. You want me to live in this program, give me the ability to choose the font I want. This gimmick made sense when iA Writer used it first, that was what? Seven years ago? We are over it. Now can I please use the font I want in my documents?
I understand the need to reduce complexities. I understand that when you take away the preferences, the resultant benefit is the reduction of distractions, but I really like my font, and it’s absence is distracting.
The developer addresses the issue of consistency with the following statement, “Just as we have our favorite notebook and our favorite pencil and/or pen, I hope that Desk becomes that emotionally involved in the user’s writing experience – that they can wake up knowing that the app hasn’t changed and so they can do what they need to do: Just simply write.” I find myself agreeing with the sentiment. We are creatures of habit and it feels good to know that my writing environment is going to stay the way it is. There is a comfort to that. It is a little strange talking about emotional attachment to software, but I understand the sentiment. I am emotionally attached to Ulysses III, I live in it. It is always open on my computer, I am always writing in it. I am getting to know the ins and outs of the program and it is my tool of choice. I remember when the first version of Ulysses III was released, I was absolutely distraught, I ranted up a storm. It didn’t have the features I really wanted, it did things I didn’t want it to do, and it did some things badly. I was equally agitated with the first update, but over time, it got better. The developers iterated, the product improved, bugs got fixed, and now I live in the program. Can Desk achieve that kind of an emotional connection with its users? Only time will tell. But consistency is one factor in the road to that kind of emotional connection and the developer of Desk has the right idea.
Desk does a great job of supporting most of the common blogging platforms, and there are more to come. I would like it to support ghost.org and squarespace more comprehensively but that maybe a problem with the blogging platforms not having a public API available for the developers.
Everywhere you are
Desk supports iCloud and local storage. So, you can access your work from multiple computers. I find iCloud very temperamental, I avoid using it. The local storage in Desk for me, is a Dropbox folder. That gives me the benefit of working on my Desk documents wherever I want to, with whichever Mac OS machine is handy.
Desk lets you manage and edit all your existing posts in the blogging platforms it supports. That makes it easy to revise and update posts from the past. Very useful feature.
Desk runs a forum for its customers. The interaction between the users and the developer is going to address the areas of further development of the product. It is seemingly the preferred way of the developer engaging with the users. Small indie developers who are in the App Store have a problem in that they don’t really know who their users are and this is a great solution to the problem of disconnect between the developer and the product. Ulysses developer, The Soulmen, solve this problem by being hyperactive on Twitter. Long time BBEdit developer Bare Bones Software, solves this identical problem by being very active on Twitter and also by running a Google group.
It is not enough to be engaged with users. You have to listen to their suggestions, be responsive to their feedback and add value to the interaction. Community building is a worthy goal but it takes at the minimal, time, involvement and a worthy product. Good examples to emulate would be the Sublime Text community, the BBEdit community, and the Scrivener community. I like the goal, this is what will give the product stickiness in the long run. We shall see how this works out.
I am a little hesitant about the prospects of building a community around Desk. It is a publishing app. There are a lot of writing apps around. Desk is distinguished in that space by its publishing feature. In that space, the competition is a little narrower: MarsEdit, Blogo, and Byword are the ones which come readily to mind. Is it possible to build a community around a blogging app? That is the question. I don’t have the answer, but I have some observations. Communities build around products which are:
- Customizable or extendable. SublimeText, TextMate, and Ulysses are good examples of this category. Desk by its design is not customizable or extendable.
- Complicated and deep. BBEdit, Adobe Photoshop, Alfred, are good examples of this category. Desk by its design is neither complicated nor deep.
- New to the world. In the sense that the products challenge the prevalent way of doing things. They cause, in equal measure, discomfort and ecstasy on the part of the consumer. Scrivener and Ulysses are good examples of this category. Desk by its unique design shows some traction in this space.
- Designed to let the user express their individual preferences and choices. Almost all the products I have been talking about exhibit some tendencies towards this customization. Desk by its very nature is anathema to this ability to customize and extend.
Thus my hesitancy in predicting the growth of a community around Desk. However, I am willing to be proved wrong. So we shall see.
Now the juicier parts, the experience of using Desk. Remember, this is version 1.0. There is a lot of room for growth and change. This is a take on the product as it stands today.
A true distraction-free interface
The product is very well designed. Like iA Writer, before it, all the chrome disappears when you start typing in the program. It is an interesting effect, and it helps you to concentrate on your words. It is obviously designed with care and love and it shows all throughout the product.
However, the full-screen implementation is all but broken. It might be usable on a portable Mac, but on a 27inch iMac, I don’t want to have the line I am working on spread across the whole screen. That is impossible to write in. A smaller window with line breaks at 60, 80, or 120 characters, would make it usable. Byword, iA Writer, and a host of others do a much better job of this.
If you are going to introduce a writing application, you have to enable typewriter scrolling. I don’t want to be staring at the bottom of the screen all the time while writing. All of the competition in the writing space implement this feature. Ulysses does it best by being flexible and giving the author the ability to choose any spot on the screen for the feature.
I have noted earlier that the absence of font choices doesn’t curb but cause distractions for me.
Markdown and WYSIWYG
I understand the need for implementing WYSIWYG. There are a lot of people who are not conversant with markdown and they are comfortable with the WYSIWYG method of styling content. It makes sense to cater to them. But if you are going to cater to markdown users you have to implement all of markdown, and do it well. Users can have a choice of mixing and matching if they want, but if they want to just write markdown, they should be able to do that too. In that case, your syntax highlight should work. At this point it works sporadically, as evidenced by the figure below:
This leads me to another issue. Desk saves its files as .dpm files. This is a proprietary format which is understood only by Desk. In reality it is a bundle much like a folder and in the package is a text file and a settings file. The presence of the text file, which contains all the text content of the post, provides me with some hope that if the program goes away or if I want to cease using it, my data will still be available to me. I would prefer it if the program would let me export a markdown file. At this point, it exports to Docx, PDF, HTML, and RTF. I write in markdown. I would like to keep a markdown file for my backup. I know I can always copy and paste to a text editor and get across this problem, but it would be nice to have the function built in.
I like the plethora of shortcut commands that Desk provides the user. They are much appreciated. Being the “avoid trackpad at all costs” kind of guy, it is a great environment to work in. I like the “quick publish” feature too. Makes the transition from Desk document to published post really simple.
However the shortcut to full screen mode is ⌃ + ⌘ + F (Look at the iWorks apps). That is the system wide shortcut. Why are you making me learn another one? ⌘ + enter is not standard for full screen mode.
Another very nice feature of the program. It is going to be appreciated by the poster who uses a lot of images. Makes the writing and publishing of blog posts completely frictionless and that can only be a good thing.
I like the application. It is very well-designed. It provides a well-designed home for your blogging.
I am looking for the following improvements from the product:
- Font choices
- Full-screen mode needs work
- Typewriter scrolling
- Full support for Markdown
- The ability to export as Markdown
As a publishing solution, this is a great new product in the marketplace. Has the ability to reduce the friction involved with blogging, and that is a very important feature to have.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie