I rant about task management, review an interesting but flawed IOS app beorg, and ask myself if Emacs and Org-mode is too deep a rabbit warren to fall into.
I rant about task management, review an interesting but flawed IOS app beorg, and ask myself if Emacs and Org-mode is too deep a rabbit warren to fall into.
A few days ago, Matthew Kennard, the developer of iOS app Beorg reached out and asked if I wanted to take it for a spin. He reasoned that given my interest in plain-text productivity I might be interested. I was to a point; he was right about my interest in productivity apps that use plain-text but hitherto I’ve had little cause to use a task manager, though I’ve dabbled with them in the past.
I should note, this is the first review I’ve done of a purely iOS app. While I use and love iOS, the Mac is the centre of my productivity, though I do write on my iPad a lot and my iPhone is always in my pocket.
Task management and me
I need to preface this review with a somewhat opinionated rant about task management. If you just want the review, skip to the next section.
For some people, task management is a religion — or cult — which has grown up around the promises of personal productivity methodologies advocated by GTD, Inbox Zero and many more.
I understand the interest, and the need, really I do. We live in a hyper-competitive time where business never sleeps. We drown in emails, instant messages, projects, business as usual — the endless noise of human beings in hamster wheels. We increasingly take our work home, and we’ve become slaves to our devices…the very objects that promised to revolutionise productivity and communication.
Task management apps promise to help manage the insanity of the modern world. Yet, like the ubiquitous ‘markdown aware text editor’ — they are a dime a dozen. Here’s a review of 9 of them just for iOS — searching the App Store, reveal many more. So, it’s a very competitive landscape.
The thing is, I’ve never been convinced of their value — or indeed task management in general. No matter what system I’ve tried, all felt like adding a layer of administrative overhead I don’t need.
In my professional life, my productivity tools are dictated by my company’s IT department, and that means I’m forced to use Microsoft Outlook. My team’s overarching project management methodology is Agile and the management thereof is run by Jira.
As for my personal and creative life, I’m generally reactive rather than proactive. At home, our principle organisation tool is our shared calendars — not ideal perhaps but a calendar event is, in essence, a time-bound task with a due date already built in.
When I write a book, I have a particular methodology — I deal with outlines, scenes and chapters, not scheduled tasks. Sure, I tag individual scenes with statuses like Todo, Drafting, First Draft but that’s within Scrivener itself, and I see no need to externalise my list into another app. If I have a deadline, it’s self-imposed and seldom enforced. My interaction with beta readers, my editor and designer, are all managed via email.
That leaves my blog, which I feel could benefit from a more professional management approach — but then if I did that, I’m more likely to adopt the practices of other publications and use an Editorial calendar in something as simple as a spreadsheet — or a corkboard on my wall.
Managing tasks at the kind of granular level these apps and methodologies require or advocate is just not useful to me. Best case scenario, ‘task management’ for me is a bulleted list in a markdown file.
Still with me? Good, let’s look at beorg.
Beorg piqued my interest because the developer was polite1 and his stated influence by, and support of, Org-mode caught my attention.
This app is heavily influenced by Org-mode for Emacs, which bears some superficial similarity to Markdown. ~ Matthew Kennard
Superficial is right. Markdown and Org-mode are similar in a way a paper glider is to an Airbus A380. That similarity is they are both written in plain text and use markup to infer meaning. The difference, of course, is markdown pertains to prose while Org-mode is intended to represent a series of tasks, either singularly on in a complex project.
Given beorg’s influence lies in Org-mode, it’s only right I spend a little time introducing it. To my knowledge, there aren’t many iOS editors that support this format beyond superficial syntax highlighting, so I don’t expect many people in the iOS productivity landscape even know what it is.
I’m only passingly familiar with org-mode from my time using Linux. I understand it began life as an extension to Emacs and it’s still the best place for it. Emacs is a powerful and complex text editor well loved — or maligned — by the free software community started by Richard Stallman (Emacs’ original creator) in the 1970s. Its extensibility is enormous — there’s an argument to be made that Emacs is almost an operating system in its own right or at least a complete userland.
Emacs is not a rabbit hole into which I wish to descend. However, org-mode enjoys broad support, and you can find extensions that add support in many popular graphical text editors like Sublime Text and Atom. Nevertheless, support here is superficial, and Org-mode works best inside Emacs.
So, Emacs and Org-mode are awesome, but they’re awesome in the same way as LaTex — another ancient technology I respect but have no need for.
So, can I find a place for this app in my workflow as is or would it push me over the precipice from which it would be tough to climb out?
Let’s find out!
Installation and setup
No surprises, installation is via the App Store. When you first open the app, you get a welcome screen and then you are prompted to run through a brief setup process.
The supported sync methods include iCloud, Dropbox, and WebDAV — which for the tinfoil-hat brigade could be a self-hosted system like NextCloud.
I granted the necessary permissions and chose to use iCloud for storage and syncing. That done, I was good to go.
After you’ve completed the setup, you’ll land on the Agenda. If you’ve granted calendar permissions, the Agenda will be populated with the events from your calendar, neatly presented in a week view organised by days. An agenda is a prominent feature of Org-mode, so I wasn’t surprised to see it here in beorg.
At home, my wife and I use iCloud’s calendars for everything, so there was a lot of noise when I first saw the Agenda. That said because I use calendars all the time, including them in an agenda view is something I really appreciate in beorg. Still, I wanted less clutter so to clean up the noise, I went into the settings and hid all the calendars except my writing calendar. Oh yeah, I decided on the fly I’d try to manage my writing activities in beorg — at least to give myself something to work with.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to customise the Agenda view on the iPhone, but I was happy enough with the defaults that the lack of customisation didn’t irritate me.
One thing that disappointed me was the Agenda view is read-only. There is an add button, but that creates a new task, not a new event. I would have liked the ability to create a calendar event without having to switch to a different app. That’s certainly possible with iOS’s Calendar API, so the omission is obviously the developer’s design choice.
Let’s face it, we’re here to discuss task management, and that means we want some kind of top-notch TODO view.
The TODO view in beorg presents the tasks within your org files. Tasks are written in org syntax, but you won't see this syntax in beorg unless you dig deeper. I want to give you an impression of how org syntax is presented, so consider the following:
* IN-PROGRESS write beorg review SCHEDULED: <2018-09-09> https://chrisrosser.net * TODO test URL scheme SCHEDULED: <2018-09-09> * TODO Get an Org plugin for Sublime Text SCHEDULED: <2018-09-10>
Org-mode at its simplest is a text outline tagged with specific keywords. Each task is declared with an asterisk. In the example above, I have three tasks, two of which are TODO items.
Unsurprisingly, the TODO page displays tasks tagged as TODO, so only two of my tasks are shown — the in-progress task does appear in the agenda, however, so it’s not entirely lost from view.
Adding tasks is one of the app’s better features. Press the persistent + button, and you're presented with the New Item screen. What I liked about it was the use of iOS widgets to build the task instead of grappling with org syntax directly.
You can provide the headline — think of it as the task title. Choose which file you save to. Add a state: only None, TODO or DONE. You can set a priority and time-based parameters too. The date and time the task is created are automatically added to the task’s notes.
Press save, and you’re done.
As you’d expect, you can apply filters to organise how your TODOs are displayed. You can build a filter quickly using only a few criteria. Unfortunately, there’s no way to combine multiple filters or even to use a search term.
The files tab allows you to organise the structure of your tasks. By default, the app creates an inbox.org file. Tasks live within these files, so it’s easier perhaps to think of them as a project rather than a document. For example, I might create one for a review I’m writing. Meanwhile, inbox.org serves as a dumping ground for new tasks, which is fine by me because I use a similar practice within Ulysses.
Files are merely text files written in org-mode syntax. They have an org extension, which isn’t a problem in beorg, but might present you with a minor annoyance when you attempt to access the app on a desktop if you’ve no app on your system is registered to open .org files.
Speaking of desktops, because I chose iCloud, beorg automatically created a folder in my iCloud drive and a sub-folder called org — I stuck with the defaults. If you decided to use Dropbox instead, you'd be dealing with a subfolder in your DropBox drive — likewise, if you prefer WebDav/Nextcloud.
Thanks to the syncing feature, you can create or modify an org file on your desktop using the editor of your choice, and it will appear on your mobile device. I tested it by creating a simple .org file with Vim on my Mac, and sure enough, it copied to my iPhone and iPad a few seconds later.
By tapping on a file, you can edit it. Unfortunately, the edit screen is a real mess on both the iPad and iPhone. Click an item, and you get a pop-up editor filled with confusing icons and very little room for actually editing.
The icons, I learnt when consulting the manual, are for the following actions:
- Hide the editor
- Promote an item (that is make it a higher level heading)
- Demote an item (that is make an item a child of the item above)
- Move an item up
- Move an item down
- Add an item below the current selection
- Add an item above the current selection
Honestly, for editing, I would prefer to use a simple text editor, but instead, the app tries far too hard to abstract everything away with silly icons.
Paradoxically, the iPad version is merely a scaled-up instance of the iPhone UI. You don’t get anything extra on the larger form-factor; the widgets are just a little more spread out. This is a real let down because I found some of the limitations I experienced (mostly around editing tasks) were amplified rather than mitigated by the larger screen.
Also disappointing to me as an external keyboard user on the Mini 4, beorg doesn’t support a single keyboard shortcut beyond the basics built into iOS. In a productivity app, this is unforgivable, and I can only assume the developer’s put all his effort into the iPhone experience with only lip service paid to the iPad.
Given my issues with the editing UI, I’d be more inclined to create tasks and make significant modifications on the desktop with Vim or Sublime text and use the phone as a basic viewer, and to perform the occasional edit.
The one saving grace is a beautiful view of your file rendered into rich text. From there you get access to the iOS share sheet, allowing to share your data via various mechanisms. When I Airdropped it to my Mac, for example, it came across as a formatted PDF.
One thing the developer hinted to me was an upcoming extensions manager. A few days after first downloading the app, and true to his word, the app updated and with it came the extension manager. The first extension offered is the much coveted dark mode.
Extensions are paid features, with the generated revenue being used to help support the development of the app. I don’t personally have a problem with this model, and I wish the developer well. However, the developer’s choice of terminology left me somewhat confused…and a little disappointed.
As far as I can tell, that’s not what’s on offer here are all. Nomenclature aside, extensions in beorg are in-app purchases, putting functionality behind a paywall. Again, I’ve no issues with the developer making a crust — far from it.
In his email, the developer promised me more extensions will come, including several that I found quite interesting. However, I’m not sure if a one-time purchase is required for all extensions, or if each extension will need a separate micro-transaction.
Time will tell.
I was pleased to discover beorg supports x-callback-URL scheme, allowing you to automate aspects of the app with Workflow, Drafts or any iOS app that can use this protocol.
From beorg’s documentation, it supports the following actions:
- Add a new item to a file
- View the agenda
- View a specific file
Unfortunately, and through no fault of the developer, the Workflow app doesn’t include beorg’s actions out of the box so you will have to add them yourself manually. I assume the same is true for Drafts, but I don’t use that particular app so I can’t say for sure.
The nerd in me really wanted to like this app. It takes a very complex system — org-mode — and makes it approachable and accessible on a modern mobile operating system. My niggles with the app though, particular around the user experience and the poor design on my devices, left me wanting.
From the outset, I felt beorg is an app designed first and foremost for larger iPhones. Some parts of the interface are almost unusable on my iPhone 5S. While fans of larger phones might poke fun at me or scoff, I should note beorg is the first and only iOS productivity app I’ve ever used where I felt like my phone just wasn’t big enough — and I’ve written thousands of words in Scrivener and Ulysses on my little phone. Even something as complex as OmniFocus is perfectly fine on an iPhone 5s/SE.
I struggled to find a place for it in my admittedly haphazard workflow. Yet, flawed as my practices are, I didn’t think for a moment that adopting beorg, along with the technical baggage of Org-mode, would benefit me in any way. I accept that may very well be my failing and my general apathy towards task management as a practice.
So, would I recommend beorg?
The only answer I can give is tentative and qualified: ‘it depends’.
For viewing org files, you won’t find a better solution on iOS than beorg.
If you are the rare gem who uses an iPhone/iPad and are already familiar with Emacs and Org-mode, or you’re a GNU/Linux convert to the Mac then I would. Having your org files synced and available on your mobile device can only benefit you. For viewing org files, you won’t find a better solution on iOS than beorg.
However, I can’t recommend beorg for non-technical users.
If command lines, programmer’s text editors and plain text-based systems terrify you, I strongly suggest you look at something like OmniFocus or Todoist.
Even if you are a markdown user and like the idea of plain text productivity, then I’d still hesitate because the underlining system — Emacs and Org-mode — beorg relies upon isn’t very user-friendly.
A much better option for a markdown user who wants a complimentary system to get things done is taskpaper, which is much simpler to learn and is an open format with plenty of support on the Mac, iOS and other platforms without the learning curve of Emacs and Org-mode.
So, there you have it, my review of beorg. On balance it does a good job making something complex less so. However, its flaws on my devices, take the shine off its technical achievement.
There are no comments yet. Click the button below to start the conversation!