Ulysses and the subscription model

Ulysses review are evenly divided between five stars and one.
We wanted table support and the ability to create custom CSS files. We got a subscription model.

 

The life cycle of software — as exemplified by Photoshop — is:

  1. A new program with an unfamiliar UI but incredibly useful features attracts a devoted following.
  2. The devoted followers evangelize the product they love to more people. For a while.
  3. The developers stop adding new features that anyone cares about and add a subscription model when people stop buying new licenses.

Here’s what I want(ed) from Ulysses:

  • Tables.
  • Better ways of managing images. E.g. the ability to browse all images within a given “folder” and update, export, replace, rename, or locate them.
  • Simpler ways to create custom styles. E.g. the ability to make a document style-guide compliant for a given purpose (such as APA).

There’s other stuff but it’s much lower priority.

Instead what we get is a subscription model and no new features I care about. Indeed, the announcement on the Ulysses web site explains how the subscription model allows them to offer a free trial while the blog post on the subject tells me that they didn’t take this decision lightly, but nowhere do I see anything that helps me — someone who has paid for the iOS and Mac versions and hasn’t seen any useful features added in years. But I do get a discount for subscribing to a product I already fucking paid for.

No thank you.

Post Script: out of a sense of hopefulness and fairness and not wanting to be horribly wrong, I downloaded the new version.

The discount for existing owners is 25%. I.e. $30/year vs $40.

I found one nice bug fix — if you search for something and then edit a file found by searching, it doesn’t whisk the file away and lose context if you delete the search term while editing.

Also there’s a nice new feature — inline image previews. Long overdue but also not that well-implemented.

Uninstalled.

Followup…

I emailed Ulysses support and whined a bit along the lines above and was told that adding table-of-contents generation, a table editor, and an image editor were high on their “to-do” list, and if I subscribed I could vote for features.

(I noted in my reply to their reply that I don’t want an image editor. I have image editors. I want image management.)

 

So, I’m kind of torn. I like indie software developers. I like Ulysses quite a bit, despite its sluggish progress. $30 isn’t much money (although it is, ugh, a subscription).

I’ll think further on it.

System Update Weirdness

I’m simply recording this for the benefit of others who may have similar weird experiences updating to 10.13.6.

I recently updated macOS via the App Store from 10.13.5 to 10.13.6 and it was unusual in that it got about two-thirds of the way through the install fast (while saying it had 16 minutes to go) and then got stuck.

When I noticed the problem a couple of hours later, I

  • forced power off and restarted. It then quickly went up to about the same point it previously hung, rebooted, got to about 90% of the way done, rebooted again, then got to about the same spot and the screen went black and stayed black.
  • forced power off and restarted (I might have had to do this more than once at this point) and then it got to the faux sign-in screen you now get when Macs aren’t fully booted (e.g. after the battery runs flat during stand-by).
  • I logged in and got to the proper login screen, and was was relieved to find that everything from there proceeded normally — the OS asked me if I wanted to send feedback to Apple, etc., which seems to happen after some OS updates but not others, but also wasn’t the “new user” experience where you’re asked to log into iCloud again.

As a side-note, this is an experimental first post via Ulysses.

A better RAW workflow for $35

Processed and cropped in RAWPower
Processed and cropped in RAWPower

As my frequent reader knows, I have been grappling with my RAW workflow for as long as I have had a RAW workflow. I’m hardly a pro or even much of an enthusiast, and I find dealing with all these files exhausting (it also consumes a stupid amount of disk space, etc.)

A user of Photoshop since it was called Barneyscan, and Illustrator since it was 88, I’ve been ambivalent about Adobe’s products ever since they started renting them; this was actually before they switched to monthly fees — the Creative Suites essentially forced you to upgrade on a constant basis simply to not have your software mysteriously stop launching when Adobe’s authentication servers were down.

Today, despite paying Adobe’s tax (albeit the lesser “Photographer’s” tax of $100/year) I remain unhappy with their products. Lightroom is slow, constantly wants patching, requires me to sign in (often more than once) to Adobe’s stupid services just to launch, and on and on. But, until recently, I had no credible alternative that was fast and produced even vaguely decent results.

But now there are two inexpensive, lightweight products that together may mean I don’t need Adobe’s crap any more (I’ll get back to you!):

A quick press of the P key and I can see that I nailed focus on the grass
A quick press of the P key and I can see that I nailed focus on the grass

FastRawViewer — endorsed by no less than Thom Hogan and Nasim Mansurov — is a terrific program that does exactly what it says on the can. It’s simple and lets you browse and rate photos really, really fast. You can customize its keyboard shortcuts to your pleasure (e.g. I have ratings mapped to the 0-5 keys, and P toggles high pass filtering so you can see exactly what, if anything, is in focus without pixel-peeping. Rather than having its own proprietary catalog system, it leverages your file system and XMP metadata (“sidecar” files that are compatible with Lightroom if that still floats your boat). It costs $20, you can get it here.

RAWPower lets me make RAW adjustments, straighten, and crop faster than I can launch Photoshop
RAWPower lets me make RAW adjustments, straighten, and crop faster than I can launch Photoshop

RAWPower — developed by former Aperture engineers (or a former Aperture engineer; I’m not sure) — gives you most of Aperture’s non-destructive RAW processing in a fast, lightweight app that also provides the same functionality via Apple’s Photos app. I like the Photos app except for the whole slower-than-treacle-in-a-walled-garden thing, so there’s that too. It costs $15 in the App Store. My only issue with RAWPower is that its crop-and-rotate tool is clumsy if you want to both crop AND rotate, which I usually do (and I’ve been told that addressing this issue is a priority).

(If you’re a Windows user, FastRawViewer is still great, but RAWPower is Mac only.)

FastRawViewer lets me view a folder with thousands of RAW files with no waiting (just dragging the folder info Lightroom, Photos, or Aperture would be agony), and RAWPower lets me adjust exposure, shadow recovery, straightening, and so forth faster and just as competently as Lightroom. (Photoshop still wins for any major surgery, obviously — RAWPower has no dodge, burn, layers, healing brush, perspective correction, stitching, etc.)

HyperCard, Visual Basic, Real Basic, and Me

When the Mac first appeared it was a revelation. A computer with a powerful, consistent user-interface (with undo!) that allowed users to figure out most programs without ever reading a manual.

I can remember back in 1984 sitting outside the Hayden-Allen Tank (a cylindrical lecture theater on the ANU campus that tended to house the largest humanities classes and many featured speakers) playing with a Mac on display while Apple reps inside introduced the Mac to a packed house. (My friends and I figured we’d rather spend time with the computer than watch a pitch.)

How did undo work? It wasn’t immediately obvious.

When we quit an application or closed a document, how did the program know we had unsaved changes? We checked, if the document had no changes, or the changes were saved, the computer knew.

We were hardcore math and CS geeks but computers had never, in our experience, done these kinds of things before so it took us a while to reverse-engineer what was going on. It was very, fucking, impressive.

But it was also really hard to do with the tools of the time. Initially, you couldn’t write real Mac software on a Mac. At best, there was MacPascal, which couldn’t use the toolbox and couldn’t build standalone applications, and QuickBasic, which provided no GUI for creating a GUI, and produced really clunky results.

To write Mac programs you needed a Lisa, later a Mac XL (same hardware, different software). It took over a year for the Mac SDK to appear (via pirate copies), and it was an assembler that spanned multiple disks. Eventually we got Consulair-C and Inside Macintosh but, to give you an idea, the equivalent of “hello world” was a couple of pages of C or Pascal most of which was incomprehensible boilerplate. The entire toolbox relied heavily on function pointers, really an assembly-language concept, and in some cases programmers had to manually save register state.

No-one’s to blame for this — Xerox provided much cleaner APIs for its much more mature (but less capable) GUI and far better tooling — the cost was a computer that ran dog slow, no-one could afford, and which actually was functionally far inferior to the Mac.

The first really good tool for creating GUI programs was HyperCard. I can remember being dragged away from a computer lab at ADFA (where a friend was teaching a course on C) which had been stocked with new Mac SEs running HyperCard.

For all its many flaws and limitations, HyperCard was easy to use, fast, stable, and forgiving (it was almost impossible to lose your work or data, and it rarely crashed in an era when everything crashed all the time). Its programming language introduced a yet-to-be-equalled combination of being easy to read, easy to write, and easy to debug (AppleScript, which followed it, was horribly inferior). When HyperCard 2 brought a really good debugger (but sadly no color) and a plugin architecture, things looked pretty good. But then, as Apple was wont to do in those days, Apple’s attention wandered and HyperCard languished. (Paul Allen’s clone of HyperCard, Toolbook for Windows, was superb but it was a Windows product so I didn’t care.)

Eventually I found myself being forced to learn Visual Basic 3, which, despite its many flaws, was also revolutionary in that it took HyperCard’s ease of use and added the ability to create native look and feel (and native APIs if you knew what you were doing, which I did not). With Visual Basic 3 you could essentially do anything any Windows application could do, only slower. (HyperCard was notably faster than VB, despite both being interpreted languages, owing to early work on JIT compilers.)

After using VB for a year or two, I told my good friend (and a great programmer) Andrew Barry that what the Mac really needed was its own VB. The result was Realbasic (now Xojo) of which I was the first user (and for a long time I ran a website, realgurus.com, that provided the best source of support for Realbasic programmers). Realbasic was far more than a VB for the Mac since it was truly and deeply Object-Oriented and also cross-platform. I could turn an idea into a desktop application with native look and feel (on the Mac at least) in an evening.

When MP3 players started proliferating on Windows, I wrote an MP3 player called QuickMP3 in a couple of hours after a dinner conversation about the lousy state of MP3 players on the Mac. By the next morning I had a product with a website on the market (I distributed it as shareware; registration was $5 through Kagi — RIP — which was the lowest price that made sense at the time, I think Kagi took about $1.50 of each sale, and I had to deal with occasional cash and checks in random currencies).

Over the years, I wrote dozens of useful programs using Realbasic, and a few commercially successful ones (e.g. Media Mover 3,  and RiddleMeThis) and an in-house tool that made hundreds of thousands of dollars (over the course of several years) with a few days’ effort.

Today, I find Xojo (which Realbasic rebranded itself to) to have become bloated, unstable, and expensive, and Xojo has never captured native look and feel in the post-Carbon world on the Mac, and anything that looks OK on Windows looks like crap on the Mac and vice versa, which undercuts its benefits as a cross-platform application. Also, my career has made me an expert on Javascript and web development.

So my weapon of choice these days for desktop development became nwjs and Electron. While web-apps don’t have desktop look and feel (even if you go to extremes with frameworks like Sproutcore or Cappuccino), neither do many desktop apps (including most of Microsoft’s built-in apps in Windows 10). Many successful commercial apps either are web apps (e.g. Slack) or might as well be (e.g. Lightroom).

I mention all of this right now because it closes the loop with my work on bindinator — anything that makes web application development faster and better thus helps desktop application development. I think it also clarifies my design goals with bindinator: I feel that in many ways ease of development peaked with Realbasic, and bindinator is an attempt to recreate that ease of development while adding wrinkles such as automatic binding and literate programming that make life easier and better.

Returning to the Adobe fold… sort of

I remain very frustrated with my Photography workflow. No-one seems to get this right and it drives me nuts. (I’m unwilling to pay Apple lots of money for a ridiculous amount of iCloud storage, which might work quite well, but it still wouldn’t have simple features like prioritizing images that I’ve rated or looked at closely over others automagically, or allow me to rate JPEGs and have the rating carried over to the RAW later.)

Anyway, Aperture is sufficiently out-of-date that I’ve actually uninstalled it and Photoshop still has some features (e.g. stitching) that its competition cannot match. So, $120 for a year of Photoshop + Lightroom… let’s see how it goes.

Lightroom

I was expecting Lightroom to be awesome what with all the prominent folks who swear by it. So far I find it unfamiliar (I did actually use LR2, and of course I am a Photoshop ninja) to the point of frustration, un-Mac-like, and ugly, ugly, ugly.

Some of my Lightroom Gripes
Some of my Lightroom Gripes

A large part of the problem is terrible use of screen Real Estate. It’s easy to hide the menubar (once you find where Adobe has hidden its non-standard full screen controls), but it’s hard (impossible) to hide the idiotic mode menu “Identity Plate”. (I found the “Identity Plate Editor” (WTF?) by right-clicking hopefully all over the place, which allowed me to shrink the stupidly large lettering but it just left the empty space behind. How can an application that was created brand new (and initially Mac-only) have managed to look like a dog’s breakfast so quickly?

But there are many little things that just suck.

  • All the menus are horrible — cluttered and full of nutty junk. Looks like design by committee.
  • The dialog box that appears when you “Copy…” the current adjustments is a crime against humanity (it has a weird set of defaults which I overrode by clicking “check none” when I only wanted to copy some very specific settings and now I can’t figure out how to restore the defaults).
  • The green button doesn’t activate full screen mode. There are multiple full screen modes and none of them are what I want.
  • Zooming with the trackpad is weird. And the “Loupe” (nothing like or as nice as Aperture’s) changes its behavior for reasons I cannot discern. (I finally figured out that the zoom in shortcut actually goes to 1:1 by default, which is useful, although it’s such a common feature I’d have assigned a “naked” keystroke to it, such as Z, which instead toggles between display modes.)
  • The main image view seizes up after an indeterminate amount of use and shortly afterwards Lightroom crashes. (This is on maxed out Macbook Pro 15″.)
  • I can’t hide the stupid top bar (with your name in it). I can’t even make it smaller by reducing the font size of the crap in it.
  • Hiding the “toolbar” hides a random thing that doesn’t seem to me to be a toolbar.
  • By default the left side of the main window is wasted space. Oh, and the stupid presets are displayed as a list of words — you need to mouse over them to get a low-fidelity preview.
A crime against humanity.
A crime against humanity.

I found Lightroom’s UI sufficiently annoying that I reinstalled Aperture for comparison. Sadly, Lightroom crushes Aperture in ways that really matter. E.g. its Shadow and Highlight tools simply work better than Aperture’s (I essentially need to go into Curves to do anything slightly difficult in Aperture), and it has recent features (such as Dehaze — I’m pretty sure inspired by a similar feature DxO was very proud of a while back). After processing a few carefully underexposed RAW images* in both programs, Lightroom gets me results that Aperture simply can’t match (it also makes it very tempting to make the kind of over-processed images you see everywhere these days with amped up colors, quasi-HDR effects, and exaggerated micro-contrast).

(* Quite a few years ago someone I respect suggested that it’s a good idea to “underexpose” most outdoor shots by one stop to keep more highlight detail. This is especially important if the sky is visible. These days, everyone seems to be on the “ISO Invariance” bandwagon which is essentially not doing anything to the signal off the sensor (boosting effective ISO) when capturing RAW, in essence, “expose to the left” automatically — the exact opposite of the “expose to the right” bandwagon these clowns were all on two years ago — here’s a discussion of doing both at the same time. Hilarious. On the bright side, ISO Invariance pretty much saves ETTR nuts from constantly blowing their highlights.)

The Photos App is far more competitive with Lightroom than Aperture
The Photos App is far more competitive with Lightroom than Aperture. And its UI is simply out of Lightroom’s league (see those filters on the right? Lightroom simply has a list of names).

Funny thing though is that the new Photos app gives Lightroom a much better run for its money (um, it’s free), has Aperture’s best UI feature (organic customization), and everything runs much faster that Lightroom. The problem with Photos is it is missing key features of Lightroom, e.g. Dehaze, Clarity, and (most curiously) Vibrance. You just can’t get as far with Photos as you can with Lightroom. (If you have Affinity Photo you can use its Dehaze more-or-less transparently from Photos. It’s a modal, but then Lightroom is utterly modal.)

On the UI level, though, Photos simply spanks Lightroom’s Develop mode. Lightroom’s organization tools, clearly with many features requested by users, are completely out of Photos’ league.

I also tried Darktable (the open source Lightroom replacement) for comparison. I think its user interface is in many ways nicer than Lightroom’s — it looks and feels better — although much of its lack of clutter is owed to a corresponding lack of features), but the sad news is that Darktable’s image-processing capabilities don’t even compete with Aperture, let alone Photos. (One thing I really like about Darktable is that it applies “orientation” (automatic horizon leveling), “sharpen”, and “base curve” automagically by default. Right now this isn’t customizable — there’s a placeholder dialog — but if it were it would be an awesome feature.)

The lack of fit and finish in Lightroom is unprofessional and embarrassing
The lack of fit and finish in Lightroom is unprofessional and embarrassing. If it’s not obvious to you, the red line shows the four different baselines used for the UI elements.
Hilarious. Lightroom's "About Box" uses utterly non-standard buttons that behave like tab selectors.
This is hilarious. Lightroom’s “About box” uses utterly non-standard buttons that behave like tab selectors. This is actually regression for Adobe, which used to really take pride in its About boxes.

At bottom, Aperture doesn’t look or feel like an application developed by or for professionals. It’s very capable, but its design is — ironically — horrible.

Photoshop

Photoshop’s capabilities are, by and large, unmatched, but its UI wasn’t good when it first came out and many of its worst features have pretty much made it through unscathed by taste, practicality, or a sense of a job well done. Take a look at this gem:

Adobe Photoshop's horrible Radial Blur dialog
Adobe Photoshop’s horrible Radial Blur dialog

This was an understandably frustrating dialog back in 1991 — in fact the attempt to provide visual cues with the lines was probably as much as you could expect, but it hasn’t changed since — every other application I use provides a GPU-accelerated live preview (in Acorn it’s non-destructive too). What’s even worse is that it looks like the dialog’s layout has been slightly tweaked to allow for too-large-and-non-standard buttons (with badly centered captions that would look worse if there were a glyph with a descender in it). At least it doesn’t waste a buttload of space on a mode menu: instead there’s a small popup lets you pick which (customizable) “workspace” you want to use, and the rest of the bar is actually useful (it shows common settings for the currently selected tool).

In the end, Photoshop at least looks reasonably nice , and its UI foibles are things I’ve grown accustomed to over twenty-five years.

I can’t wait until I get to experience Adobe’s Updater…