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Ulysses' Companions' Odyssey (provisional app review)

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Posted by 22111
Apr 19, 2022 at 04:12 PM


Since I spoke of David Hewson, I remember his landmark Dec, 2012 musing http://davidhewson.com/2012/12/04/building-an-office-for-writing-software/#more-10102 which has become another 404 today, I cite,

“Most of that time I’ve used a Mac, with a couple of excursions into Windows in the late Nineties, when the Mac was too flaky to be relied upon, and a couple of years ago with the release of Office 2010 for Windows, with a much-improved version of Word. - I then backtracked and returned to the Mac for one reason only: the release of Scrivener 2, a fantastic piece of software that remains the benchmark for creative story development on a computer. I’m now returning to Windows for good because it’s clear that, for my kind of writing at least, the Mac is a distinctly inferior platform.” - And since it’s so beautiful, I repeat,

“I’m now returning to Windows for good because it’s clear that, for my kind of writing at least, the Mac is a distinctly inferior platform.”

Well, that was Dec, 2012 indeed…

In the meanwhile, Hewson used all sorts of devices, but, admittedly, to very good result, but, as I said here, some days ago, a real creator likes to work (or rather automatically finds themselves) in relative chaos, Hewson certainly does.

His current main writing tool seems to be Ulysses indeed, and in 2017, he coined the immortal phrase, https://davidhewson.com/2017/08/11/the-new-ulysses-subscription-plan-is-a-wonderful-idea/ , minus the hyphens of course, and he cited the Ulysses over there, with, “Our users expect a continuously evolving high quality product — and subscription is the only way we can truly deliver on that expectation.” (As for different expectations, by different voyagers, see below.)

Since, he doesn’t seem to be not THAT sure about that anymore, since asked, https://davidhewson.com/2021/03/05/dabble-the-future-of-novel-writing/ ;

as said, he coined that as a question, the mark just not replicated in the url, and he also says (there) that according to him, the future is author access to any (current) writing of theirs from everywhere: “smart web storage”, and, “Ulysses does that without a second thought and, unlike Scrivener, doesn’t mind if your story is open on another machine elsewhere.” - I admit that sounds swell!

Now, I don’t know Ulysses, the app, but from the best screenshot I got, https://www.macrumors.com/2015/03/12/ulysses-expands-to-the-ipad/ (and multiple minor ones), so correct me if I’m wrong.

It’s obviously not a 2-pane, but a 3-pane outliner, which is very, very good indeed, its intermediate not only listing the sub-items of some item in the general tree, but even the respective text starts, so if you start every item with some resume and/or ToDo notes, you’ll be able to see them without browsing: perfect! (I hope though that this is by toggle only, since sometimes, you would want to view (e.g. for selection i.e. “go-to” purposes) the whole sub-list without scrolling, not just the first 9, 10 items.)

Then, and even better, I find that presumably, the app doesn’t just have you preview the direct items of the selected parent item, but its whole subtree in case (with, in the screenshot example, “Flatland”, and its direct child item “One”, both seemingly not having any content on their own, the screenshot thus indicating that below “One”‘s child items, with some scrolling, then also “Two”‘s and “Three”‘s child items will appear. - I absolutely understand now why writers might love this app, knowing how helpful such “shortcuts into the vicinity” are, while the general tree remains uncluttered AND available for more general browsing.

Also, Ulysses comes with “dark mode”, and whilst that option should be standard nowadays, very unfortunately, it is not: another big plus point then.


Now for a less wonderful idea though: I haven’t seen the Dashboard, but many such tools have got some, so I know what it’s presumably about, and it should only be good as an additional element, it is not as your general idea stack, but not at all.

On the other hand, “Ulysses” seems to be one of those apps which, very erroneously, think that the (strict, or simili-) tree pane doesn’t need tree entry formats, assignable by the user, factory-attributed formatting shades (as in all the screenshots I’ve seen: white vs. grey) are no substitute, nor are user-assignable tree entry icons (all in grey here, furthermore).

I hope you can filter (overall and/or within the selected subtree’s items) for specific icons at least (be that, ideally, within the tree itself - which then would also have to display all relevant sub-items which in the current screenshot are hidden there - or in a search results table), and that such filters can be (combined, of course, and) stored (for quick “show all items with icon x, y or z”)? If not even that was possible, well… but if it is, it becomes “usable”, at least.

Now a little excursion into UltraRecall (Windows), to prove my points (which are, let’s recapitulate:
- the tool needs user-sided tree-formatting
- filtering by such formatting must be available
- then only, you might have a dashboard as additional organization element, but not as replacement of the above requirements):

In UR, you have 7 additional such formats (beyond the basic format) available (regular, bold, italics, color, background color and the like), but these 7 formats, very unfortunately, cannot be combined, i.e. if you have some color format, but want it, beyond regular, also in bold and in italics, you will have already made 3 format assignments, out of just 7 available in all, and that’s terribly bad: I have to work with just 7 “formats”, no way out of this limitation (you can’t format tree entries BUT by assigning “formats”, not by an additional ^b or ^i e.g., neither can you concurrently assign two formats to the same tree entry, e.g. one for formatting, the other one for coloring), and the developer doesn’t enlarge the number of possible formats.

Also, I cannot filter by these formats within the tree, BUT I have plenty of the above-mentioned presets, for displaying, as “search results”, just items formatted one way or in one way or another, etc., and the results are displayed instantly and as I wish, e.g. sorted in tree order or alphabetically.

Then you must understand that “smart”, i.e. appropriate tree formatting-coloring of “special” items of different kinds will not disturb your work, i.e. will not interfere with your visual browsing your regular and your important (bold) items, while “at the same time”, more precisely in other work situations, emphasizing special items, as soon as you look out for that particular format. Thus:

Yes, you will need all additional ideas, remarks, reservations, whatever meta- or additional scribbles where they apply, or then within the vicinity of where they could possibly apply to, and should only remain in some - several - look-up lists those elements you don’t see some “applied use” yet.

And yes, you should reformat them (so that they will appear in other “search results” lists than before; and, needless to say, any such format changes should be available by a key combination, not by wading thru menu hierarchies), whenever they aren’t “floating” more, but will have been applied to some other element; special items - the titles of which should be as meaningful as possible, so that you will not need to look into their respective contents but for more details in case - of general interest for your work in general or your particular project should be transcluded in case, and put into some top, “Basics” container item.

I see that “Ulysses” has got a, presumably, standard “Trash” item, and yes, UR, too, doesn’t really delete “deleted” items but puts them into its “Recycle Bin”, until further notice (i.e. the user’s decision, individual for each item in case, to really do away with it); just don’t mistake those bins for the appropriate location for discarded things: you might want to use them later on, be it in your current, or in some other context, and be it in part, or just for some remote ideas.

It goes without saying that you’ll need just some other special format for these you-never-knows - hopefully not out of just 7 in total - and btw, when I said above that UR doesn’t allow for filtering by, i.e. for, special formats but by “search” (and in the search pane), it allows for filtering OUT special formats in the tree itself (one-by-one, of course, no “all-or-nothing”), and thus you can, at any time, also have a look at the (intermediate) “result” of your work, in case even all special formats being hidden, and with a little scripting, you’ll get similar results upon export.

I suppose Ulysses have got a forum, and their numerous subscribers in this forum here might be interested to make some pleas over there.

Btw, I would be interested to know if they use a database as backend, and in case, which one, SQLite, once more (my search “ulysses app database” didn’t inform me)? Hewson again, on their (sic!) homepage, “Ulysses is the only app I know that combines a very minimalist writing interface with the backend power to manage and shuffle around the many different parts and scenes that go into a book.” - very well, but we should ask for a little bit more than that, and as this forum’s contributor Paul J. Miller has found out, some of the contenders already go into crawl mode even on this side of 10,000 items, so some more reliable info would be welcome.

Since, whilst UR currently might be far superior to Ulysses App for the reasons I give above (and under reserve I’m not mistaken), even I may switch to Mac software (which implies Mac hardware too) and go subscription… for really superior software that is: software that preserved its current, real charms, while culling its present deal breakers though.


Posted by 22111
Apr 19, 2022 at 05:44 PM


I had overlooked a partial screenshot on their home page which shows that the item icons can get colored, not only grey. I hope these colors are attributable by the user, not fixed; anyway, I have seen - and tried - colored icons in other applications, and I am positive that different icon colors, without being totally useless, are very, very far away from the very high usefulness of colored and formatted title entries, there really is “no comparison”, as they say. The reason for this enormous difference in practice - which you wouldn’t suspect, without really trialing both - being that when visually “gathering” specific entries, with title colors, i.e. browsing the entries of that colors, and only those, i.e. while ignoring all other entries, you will, at the same time, read those titles (partly, but sufficiently in order to decide it the item is the “right” one, or if you have to look further), whilst, with just colored icons, you will have to constantly move your vision to the left, for the color, then to the right to, now consciously, partly read the item title (this takes time, and unnecessarily asks for your attention, i.e. “breaks your flow”), then again to the left in order to identify the next item of that kind, and so on and on and on, so believe me, colored titles vs. colored icons, that’s a completely different ball game.

Then, it seems that this app does not even allow to bolden titles, to make important, “core” titles “stand out” from the “crowd”, but we all know - there is scientific research available on that matter - that one of the beauties of (strict or pseudo-) hierarchies is the fact that you will have some, more or less preconscious, spatial representation of the location of what you’re aiming at, looking for, at least for your important items, but then zooming in, from “vicinity search” down to correct identification (for clicking, selecting), is helped enormously by bolding your target, and every time, your “search time” will be cut to a fraction.

Ditto for your mental representation of “what is important here”: if you were able to “highlight” it, by bolding it, or then, to “highlight” even more important items by making them bold-blue, you will, upon further “visits” of those vicinities, have an immediate feeling of familiarity, instead of needing to try to “familiarize anew” with those matters, every time.

With colored icons at least, this conscious effort on each and every “visit” - which would have been totally dispensable, had the developer cared about the “laws” of user-screen interaction, amply known for at least two decennials now - will be significantly shortened indeed, but - see above for colored items vs. just colored icons in front of them - it will be a conscious effort, instead of the developer allowing you to do just a preconscious, brief glance over the items present on screen (about 40, 50, according to your font size and screen resolution), and “getting it”, with no effort; of course, for such a “shortcut to the relevant” to function, you might not bolden too many items.

As it is, many Apple software developers try to make their applications sleek, elegant, minimalist, undervaluing rational user interface requirements, and if the app in question does not allow to format titles (I might miss this functionality though, having no access to a trial), this should be for such a reason, since both the colored icons and the factory title “coloring”, white vs. grey, prove that the components currently used allow for user-assignable coloring (and probably formatting, too).

Btw, I suppose that, in contrast to some other such Mac and iPad apps, at least the Mac app in question allows for storage and working within the device, i.e. with no web connection needed, except for repeated license verifications; if that is a misconception of mine, and this is just another web app, I’d never ever touch this app indeed.


Posted by MadaboutDana
Apr 19, 2022 at 05:56 PM


My dear chap, you’ve just written rather a lot of judgemental stuff based entirely on your assumptions of how Ulysses works.

If I may say so, that’s quite simply poor practice. Unless you’ve actually used Ulysses (and, for example, customised one of its themes for yourself), there’s no way you are entitled to make judgements on broad swathes of Apple developer psychology, cultural mores, expectations, preferences, etc.

I respect UltraRecall, but I haven’t used it since switching to Mac back in 2016 – and despite the fact I used to use it a lot, I wouldn’t dream of writing a philosophical piece based on what I used to know about UltraRecall plus, maybe, a couple of visits to the Kinook website.

Do you actually own/use a Mac (by which I mean, a relatively modern Mac) at all? If you don’t, I think it’s time to stop writing about Apple’s philosophy. If you do, well, okay, fair enough.


Posted by Stephen Zeoli
Apr 19, 2022 at 07:42 PM


I second the motion.

MadaboutDana wrote:
My dear chap, you’ve just written rather a lot of judgemental stuff
>based entirely on your assumptions of how Ulysses works.
> >If I may say so, that’s quite simply poor practice. Unless you’ve
>actually used Ulysses (and, for example, customised one of its themes
>for yourself), there’s no way you are entitled to make judgements on
>broad swathes of Apple developer psychology, cultural mores,
>expectations, preferences, etc.
> >I respect UltraRecall, but I haven’t used it since switching to Mac back
>in 2016 – and despite the fact I used to use it a lot, I
>wouldn’t dream of writing a philosophical piece based on what I used to
>know about UltraRecall plus, maybe, a couple of visits to the Kinook
> >Do you actually own/use a Mac (by which I mean, a relatively modern Mac)
>at all? If you don’t, I think it’s time to stop writing about Apple’s
>philosophy. If you do, well, okay, fair enough.


Posted by 22111
Apr 19, 2022 at 08:04 PM


I should clarify that above, I meant that (as said, some, not too many) bold entries, in a list of regularly formatted entries, will be useful as navigation markers, not only for themselves but also for many regularly formatted entries in their vicinity, above or below, after some work and/or browsing in that vicinity; this considerably and so much fastens your “jumping” from one item to another that in list parts where there are no really important items, you should even bolden some items which are just a little bit more important than their sibling items, just in order to create such navigation markers; its’ similar to finding again houses in long streets, without or with sideroads: In the former situation, you will have to look again much longer, scrutinizing for the numbers, in the latter, you will roughly remember the location, and start your search from there. In practice, in the former situation, you will have to read perhaps 25, 30 or more titles, in the latter, not even 10.

Btw, when I say I can’t trial some software, but infer some assumptions - declared as such - from screenshots, explaining why my requirements are highly import for everyone, on any OS, for any software displaying lists and/or trees, and then get told I should not speak about specific software I can’t trial, I infer from such wholesale “contributions” that my assumptions are probably right, since just saying that, sure, the app in question allows for formatting and/or coloring tree entries, would have been so much easier, and so much more convincing.

And, by the way, there’s another phenomenon, very similar to the one described above re icons, to the left, not replacing titel coloring / formatting to the right: there where you’re ready to column-read (can’t speak for Windows OS here, might be different for Apple apps):

More and more menus are built so that if you click on the main menu to open the menu, there’s just blank space below the menu entry, the text of the submenu entries starting considerably shifted to the right. Then, it’s really difficult - read: your “flow” is broken, you have to “stop” and take conscious decisions where you should not have to “think” at all - to not move the mouse diagonally to the right, into the text, but just lower it to click into the blank space. It’s such “little things” that are harmful to your “workflow”, unnecessarily… and the deliberate non-provision of item formatting when the component used by the developer would have made that possible though, isn’t a “little thing” but a quite big fault: a deal breaker for anyone who rejects being actively hampered by their software in their work.

In appliances design, (Braun devices, Apple devices, or those British hoovers…), “less is more”; in applications design, it’s not (and in car controls neither: cf. BMW and their emulates).

Oh, and hadn’t that been their going-subscription argument, financing optimization? And remember that my considerate suggestions would not oblige anyone to do otherwise than erenow, nobody would force you to press that ^b to bolden some tree entry, that other users - who wouldn’t sign Apple’s mantra “any lack’s a feature” - would consider standard though, and for good reason.

If I’m not well informed yet, link to some screenshot or other proof now? Please?


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