A short critique of Vesper – the note taking app

Vesper is yet another note taking app, released by Q-branch, an all star development team. After having read so many reviews complimenting the user interface and clever attention to detail, I was convinced this would be a stellar app that would quickly become an indispensible part of my workflow. So when the app went on sale at SGD $3.98 in December last year, I thought I’d give it a shot.

I’ve been using it on and off1 for almost 12 months now and these are my thoughts.

For a polished and sophisticated app it really doesn’t do much. I mean it does what it says just fine; sync is reliable and fast, the tagging system is easy and works great. The app is as most people describe ‘a delight to use’.

But it kind of stops there.

For starters, there are some minor gripes like how Vesper does not include share extensions. I know this is a small issue, but for an app that takes the user experience so seriously I’m disappointed that a quick and easy way of sharing text to Vesper at the press of a button was not included.2 Also (and I can’t be the only one who’s wondering this) it doesn’t feature support for Markdown. This I find odd since John Gruber, the original author of the Markdown syntax, is part of the development team at Q-Branch.

Next, while I do appreciate the Vesper sync, there are times that I wished that it could import from Dropbox instead3. Yes, Dropbox isn’t as elegant (I’ve yet to see an app that uses Dropbox sync in as elegant a way as the Vesper system of organisation by tags) but it’s a handy way to create a document and then easily work on it on multiple platforms. Currently I’m typing this review with Writebox, a webapp, which can access my Dropbox files, allowing me to pick up whatever I was typing whenever I’m at a computer. I’m then able to use apps like Byword, on my phone, to continue once I’m on the move.

Also, the app development is slooooow. When the app was first released it’s functions were extremely limited as it only allowed you to make notes, organise them via tags and attach photos to your notes. It’s been out for more than two years now, and the developers have added sync (a hotly demanded feature), made the app native for iPad and also added landscape mode. Wow. It doesn’t help that the development team is small and has lost it’s key developer recently. But this leads me to my other issue with the app, it’s overall price.

In Macworld’s review of the app, John Gruber had this to say about the lack of features:

Vesper doesn’t do much, but that’s the point. “We built it for ourselves,” Gruber said. “I think anyone who is like us—anyone who appreciates attention to detail, doing a few things really well instead of many things mediocrely—will love Vesper.”

You gotta love the arrogance in Gruber’s words, but he’s right, good design does mean saying no to many things to do some things well. But in some ways I think Q-Branch has taken that adage too far by just not doing enough at all. It’s one thing to compare yourself to a company like Apple, that specialises in the production of insanely well design hardware products, but quite another to apply that philosophy to the world of software. Here in the app-world your product is just literally a ‘Ctrl-C’ away from being copied. And when your competition consists of other good note-taking apps, some of which are more an ecosystem than a single app, then the ability to differentiate your product diminishes quickly. Factor in the slow development and higher cost and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to confine themselves to the limited scope of Vesper at all.

When Vesper came out it benefited greatly from the pedigree of the developers behind it. John Gruber4, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus are, after all, superstars in the Mac online community. That no doubt has helped propel what would have been an otherwise forgettable app into a relatively well known one as article after article has been published to promote the release and each subsequent update to the app. I find this to be unfair as most run-of-the-mill indie developers never benefit from such strong promotion5, leading to inflated purchases of the app, my own included.

I, for one, am happy to support app-developers by paying for apps (I’m in the minority here in Singapore) but this has made me all the more critical of apps that I do choose to spend money on. Vesper is a nice app and the attention to detail is palpable. But with so many other apps quickly upping their game, Apple’s native note app included, I can’t help but feel that the only advantage to using Vesper is on purely ideological grounds.

There will be those who will continue to buy the app, and thus support its mediocre development. And there will continue to be a chorus of praise for every update that comes along to finally bridge the feature gap between Vesper and all other apps. The developers clearly don’t need to make a living from its sales and can thus take as long as they want to keep on tweaking it to their hearts content. Maybe that’s the good thing about the USD $9.99 selling price, it’s a good way of insulating the rest of us from ever joining this cool club of people, by eliminating those curious enough to give it a shot but who clearly aren’t ‘one of them’. If only I’d recognised that as a warning from the start.

  1. Mostly ‘off’ actually. 
  2. URL Schemes aren’t included either meaning you can’t even use apps like Drafts or Workflow to automate the process either. 
  3. However, the ability to export a note to Dropbox is included. 
  4. I actually read Gruber’s site every day and am a fan of his writing. 
  5. Exceptions include those apps by well-known indie developers who have been included in this exclusive club. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s