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Essential Apps: Launch Center, Sparrow and Byword for iOS

I’ve been giving three new applications a whirl the last week or so. Launch Center, Byword for iOS and Sparrow for iOS.

Launch Center

First up is Launch Center. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this app. It has some good integration with other apps that inhabit my iPhone (Omnifocus, etc) and has helped clear up my Home screen a bit, making way for more apps that I use regularly.

One of the most useful things about it is the fact that I can get to apps that may be buried in a folder somewhere and access the one specific function I use regularly and need in the fewest amount of taps possible.

For instance, Instagram can now be buried in a folder on my Home page. Foursquare and TomTom can live in their “Traveling” folder on Page 2. I can access my OmniFocus database or create a new OmniFocus item from the same spot (admittedly, this adds a tap to the sweet bookmark I talked about in my Home screen blog post, but we’ll see how this goes…).

I like the niche this app serves and I can see using it for a while. It is well-designed and seems well-supported by its developer, App Cubby.

Byword

I’ve supported Byword for a long time now. I feel it is the best Markdown editing application out there. I write all of my posts in it and some of my short- to medium-form writing (long form is still Scrivener). When I saw that they released an iOS version yesterday, I posted it about it here, then downloaded it and started messing around.

The reviews seemed good, the price was reasonable and I was pretty excited.

On first impression, the app seemed solid, although my spotty connection made Dropbox less-than-functional. I decided I’d sit on it for a while and keep using Nebulous, as I had for the past few months. The local caching in Nebulous, along with the way it handles sync and the formatting freedom it provides are still top notch.

When they announced iCloud support for Byword for Mac, I was nonplussed. My text file-based workflow is highly dependent on Dropbox. I name files a specific way to take advantage of Dropbox’s ubiquity and centralization to manage things. Having the ability to search all of my writing using nvALT has been an extremely useful addition as well. I ignored Byword’s iCloud support because it meant re-thinking how I did all of my writing.

After some thought, and watching David Sparks’ video on how he was using Byword for Mac and the newly-released Byword for iOS, the wheels in my head started turning…

I fired up Byword for Mac and turned on iCloud support, opened up a new post entry and hit “Save”. It brought up the file naming screen, as usual, but I noticed the menu entry “Move to iCloud”. Selecting this essentially enables all of Apple’s iCloud features like the ability to revert a document through Time Machine, Save a Version, etc. It’s pretty seamless. But that’s not the magical part.

Opening up Byword for iOS on my iPhone, I turned off Dropbox sync and enabled iCloud. There was my file, in the exact same format, cursor blinking after the last word I had just typed on my Mac. Whoa. Not bad.

While it doesn’t have the same formatting freedom and flexibility of Nebulous, the iCloud support might be a killer feature. I will still end up using Nebulous for Dropbox notes, but I suspect I’ll be moving to Byword for iOS for short-form writing, especially given the extremely functional, elegant iPad editor. At the very least, I will use it to push posts along when I’m away from my MacBook Air.

Going forward, iCloud will be a placeholder area for my working documents. Once I complete a piece, I will just select “Remove from iCloud” and stick the file in its usual spot on Dropbox. That keeps iCloud clear of clutter and keeps my nvALT file-indexing ticking along as it has the last year or so.

Sparrow

Given my reticence about using all of Google’s services recently, I’ve had a hard time finding an adequate Gmail replacement. I have hotmail, Yahoo!, old school POP mail accounts on ancient UNIX servers and shortmail, but none of them hit the mark for me for many reasons when trying to avoid Gmail – it is just too good.

Until today, I’ve felt email needed to be ubiquitous. The promise of the cloud was that I would have synchronized email on all of my devices all the time. But if I really give it some thought, there aren’t really many emails that come in, among my many emails, that are truly important – nothing that needs to be reacted to right away.

So when I heard that a new version of Sparrow was released for iOS, my initial excitement was that we’d get a new commercial to match their earlier, surreal effort and we’d get a revolutionary iOS interface for reading and interacting with email. Well I was happy on both counts.

The review of Sparrow on theVerge and Frederico Viticci’s excellent article about Sparrow’s history and his views on the functionality of the iOS version both do a better job than I could running down features of the app. All I want to do today is give you my impressions of a few things related to the app.

Interface

Gorgeous. Well-designed. I love that they’ve removed the toolbar on the bottom. It is one of those changes that you never think about because the toolbar always contains such critical functions, yet they were able to move them other places which made sense and maximized your screen real estate for what matters most – the content itself.

Integration

It doesn’t support push email yet and that’s a big problem if you need to know things right away. However, I’ve decided to take a more laid back approach to email. If someone needs to reach me right away, email is never the best way and pretty much every normal human realizes that. If it isn’t that critical, then it can wait until I’m ready to know about it. I sure don’t miss having that nagging red badge on my Home screen…

Sparrow supports iCloud email. That being the case, I am able to pull out all non-work email accounts from the Mail app (which I rely on for Exchange support for work) and keep it somewhere much more pleasant.

Somewhat discouraging is the Facebook support to bring in pictures of your contacts. Even though it gives me another chance to say “Fuck Facebook”, it makes me sad whenever I see an application that helps sink Facebook’s teeth into another part of our online lives. We need less support of Facebook, in general, but at least this integration is optional (unlike Spotify’s mandatory Facebook hooks, which prompted me to drop Spotify altogether).

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So there you have it. I’d suggest picking up any of these apps. Each one excels in some way and, if you’re interested in interface design, there is a lot to learn from each one. The benefit for us is that good design makes us more efficient and makes using our devices more fun.