An Interview with Shawn Blanc

Shawn Blanc runs one of my favorite weblogs, one of those you open for a quick 5 minutes read and you end up spending the whole afternoon on. With a good cup of coffee and some Mac nerdery state of mind.

Since we started working on MacStories 3.0 in April (true story), I knew that I wanted an interview with Shawn ready to publish by launch day. What happened is an interesting internet experiment: MacStories 3.0 took 6 months to complete, and our email interview turned into a conversation. A pretty long one. We started when the iPad wasn’t available, we wondered what Loren Brichter might be working on and we ended up talking about Flipboard. I think this conversation between me and Shawn is a great example of how fast things change on the internet in a matter of a few months. And, most of all, it’s a great example of how Apple rolls.

Long, unedited, real. Check it out below. And go grab some coffee.

Four out of five of you are nerds. On your computer exists your hobbies, your current and/or future career, and the rest of your daily life. You don’t own a snowboard, but you do have a blog, a Twitter, an RSS reader, and a pirated copy of Photoshop.

You, my friend, need an Anything Bucket.

This is not the same as your tried and true System for saving and finding things. The System is for everything. Your Anything Bucket, however, is for everything else. And you need both.

This is a quote from your ever popular article “Yojimbo, and The Case for Anything Buckets“. I remember I subscribed to your blog thanks to that article, as it turned on a light in me, thus making me switch to an “anything bucket” as well. Whether we’re talking about notes, bookmarks, images or just anything else that I don’t want my System to be cluttered by, I think Yojimbo it’s easily the best solution to keep everything under control and organized.

Fast forward 6 months: how are things changed since then? Do you still find yourself using an anything bucket?

Things haven’t changed at all. I use Yojimbo everyday for storing notes, meeting minutes, URL bookmarks, important emails, and more. It’s a great place to just toss stuff. And I’ve scripted it with all my most-used apps to make it even easier to toss stuff. Currently I have 1,126 total items. Which is about 200 more than I had six months ago, which equates to roughly one new item every day since I published that review.

I certainly still use my file system more than I use Yojimbo. But for me, using Yojimbo as an “Anything Bucket” isn’t so I can replace the Finder. Yojimbo is my one-stop shop for snippets and random things which I don’t know where else to put. It’s an app that saves me from creating a new “Misc” folder every time I have something I don’t know what to do with but know I want to keep.

Pretty much like I use Yojimbo, though I had to re-consider it for mails – I still prefer Mail’s archiving features over Yojimbo.

Well, perhaps I’m super nerdy but I use an archive folder in Mail and I still send certain messages into Yojimbo. So every email that gets put into Yojimbo is also archived in Mail, but not every archived email is sent to Yojimbo.

I see, I’ve been using some Applescripts in the past, with Fastscripts. As for Mail.app, what’s your take on this “Let’s create a good alternative to Mail” movement? You know, all that buzz about Letters.app John [Gruber] and many others are contributing to. Have you been asked to take part as well?

What Brent, John, and the others are working on is a great project. No I’m not involved at all, but I am all for some great developers and designers building a better alternative to Apple’s email application. Although I don’t know that I am in need of — or even wishing for — an alternative to Apple’s Mail.

I use Mail almost exclusively as a communication application and nothing else. I don’t use it to track to-do items, store important files, or read RSS feeds. I use it to read, write, and archive email. And for that I think Mail is pretty great. It is quick, easy to use, the search is quick enough (and I’m always able to find past emails when I’m searching for them), and I’ve already got it scripted to work with other apps (like Yojimbo and Cultured Code’s Things when I need to send stuff out of my inbox and into another app.

Speaking of the Finder, it would be interesting to think about what Apple may come up with in the future iterations of OS X. Many users are asking for a feature-rich Finder, with native support for tags, “quick entry panels” and other stuff borrowed from apps like Tags, Path Finder and yes – Yojimbo itself. But with the iPad coming out in a few weeks, and Apple focusing on file system-free OSes (iPhone, iPad. Not really “free”, but at least hidden to the end user) I frankly don’t know what the Finder might look like in the future.

I can’t imagine a more feature-rich Finder in an upcoming version of OS X. Like you mention, it would be the opposite direction Apple is going with the iPhone and iPad OS. Though I doubt we’ll see a complete takeover of iPhone OS onto the desktop scene (at least not so much that the OS X as we know it today disappears completely), I do think we will see more and more of that direction of UI and UX sneaking its way into Apple’s desktop operating system.

Let’s talk about you now. Take a look at yourself from the “outside”, who is Shawn Blanc? How did your interest for Mac OS X exactly get started?

The big turning point for me getting into Macs was when a good friend bought himself one of the first models of the 12-inch PowerBook G4. I had always bought into the false stereotype that Macs were good for video and graphics and sound editing but that for any other “real” work they were inferior to a Windows machine.

Though the fantastic industrial design of the PowerBook was enough to get my attention, it was the GUI of OS X that really sold me. This was sometime in 2003 I think, and so the PowerBook was most likely running Jaguar or Panther. I especially remember the accents of the Aqua UI (like the way the Safari Address Field would fill up with blue as it loaded) and the animations (like minimizing a window into the Dock). When compared to the 14-inch plastic Dell Inspiron I owned, all the little OS X touches seemed simply fantastic and dreamy. I knew my next computer would be a Mac. But since I was a poor student so it took me a little over a year to save up enough money to buy a PowerBook of my own.

Shawn Blanc’s 2009 office. Photo set on Flickr.

I see. It seems like they GUI of Mac OS X played an important role in convincing you to switch from Windows to the Mac. As of today, what do you think of the evolution Mac OS X’ interface “Aqua” has gone through? Still in love as 6 years ago?

OS X has maturing a ton since I began using Macs. Over the years I’ve obviously gotten more used to the GUI and so it is not as entrancing as it used to be simply by nature of familiarity. But by no means is my Mac any less of a joy and pleasure to use than when I first bought it. If anything, it is more of a joy to use now that I am familiar and comfortable with the operating system and the apps I use every day.

So what do you think Apple will try to implement next? There’s a lot of talking about 10.7 getting ready to show up next year, and many rumors regarding possible implementations of a 3D interface. Can you see Apple exploring such an unknown field?

Though I have no doubt that the direction they take 10.7 will be a good one, going 3D sounds, to me at least, like the opposite direction they’re currently going. With iPhone OS they are working very hard to keep the user interface simple and straightforward. This is what I see influencing OS X more than anything else. Instead of Apple’s desktop software getting more and more ‘advanced’ it is likely to get more simple, with heavy influenced from the iPhone OS.

This is something I’ve always appreciated about Macs. The nerdiest of nerdy adore their iPods and MacBooks and yet Apple’s target customer is the decidedly non-nerdry user. Apple simplifies and refines the crap out of their products so they’ll just work for even the least technical of persons, and all the while they still appeal to the tinkerer, geek, and power user alike.

To sum up, and answer your question, I don’t really know what Apple will implement next. But I have no doubt it will a refinement of what we already see on OS X combined with elements from the iPhone OS.

You’re mentioning iPhone OS (now called iOS) and I can’t help but ask you about the newest iOS-powered device, the iPad. I know that you bought one, and I read your thoughts about it on your blog. Three months of usage, what’s changed since the first days with it?

I bought the iPad with very little expectations of how I would use it. I knew it wouldn’t replace my laptop and it hasn’t. So, in a sense, nothing has changed. After three months of using it, the iPad is still a delight, and I have finally become comfortable using it in public.

It has been interesting to see how my friends and co-workers use their iPads, too. In the office three of us bring our iPads to work, and usually the just sit on our desks next to our monitors. I very rarely use my iPad when at my desk (at work or my desk at home). But I almost am always using it when I am not at my desk. In a meeting at the board room or drinking coffee in my living room.

The iPad is filling certain data-capture moments as well as ways for consuming content which my laptop and iPhone never quite covered. I rarely read anything on my computer anymore. I voraciously send things to Instapaper all day long and read them on my iPad. It is the perfect “anti-distraction device” for me, and now I do much more reading than I used to.

In fact, I wish I could transfer every physical book I own onto my iPad (for free of course). I don’t know if I’ll ever buy a physical book again. Though it is great to sit down with a worn-out paperback and page through it, I am not really that kind of reader. I would much prefer to have all my fiction and non-fiction books available in one device and only cary that reader around with me.

I can’t help but ask this: do you think iOS 4 for iPad will make things better when it comes to productivity? I feel like multitasking is the last thing missing from this device. And a Retina Display, of course.

I completely agree. The iOS 4 update for iPad will help with productivity and overall usefulness. Fast app switching and a unified email inbox are what I’m missing the most now that I’ve become used to the new iOS on my iPhone.

Now that we’re on it: what has your experience been with the iPhone 4 so far? I’m interested in whether this new model has changed something for you. It definitely has for me.

The iPhone 4 is fantastic. The screen, the battery, the hardware design, etcetera — it is altogether a great device.

The way the iPhone 4 has changed things for me has mostly been in my expectations for software and hardware. Obviously I’m cringing for Retina Displays on all my screens now and for iOS 4 to come to the iPad. But what the 4 has changed for me is actually not so much about the tangible pieces as it is the intangible.

In a way, the iPhone 4 reminds me of my first Mac: a 12-inch PowerBook G4. I was already quite familiar with Macs when I got the PowerBook, but the design of the hardware and software, as well as their integration, was so splendid it was like discovering technology for the first time. The iPhone 4 has been a reminiscent experience — although the 4 is familiar and I use it for all the same tasks and in all the same situations I’ve used my previous iPhones, it is, in a way, completely different.

I know you wanted to avoid it, but the I can’t help mention the antenna issue because it has actually become somewhat comical. Now that it’s all over mainstream news, it is the talking point everyone brings up to me when the see I’ve got an iPhone 4. Just a few days ago my father-in-law called me just to ask if I was having reception issues.

And it’s actually an awkward question to answer because the answer is: “Yes. But, no.” Yes, I the signal drops when I hold it; Yes, I’ve had more dropped calls than I used to; No, it’s not as big of a deal as everyone is making it out to be; No, my phone doesn’t suck.

What has the 4 changed for you?

iPhone 4 by Mark Jardine on Flickr

I don’t remember writing and reading this much on an iPhone – not as much as I do on the iPhone 4. The Retina Display is a huge deal for me: iBooks makes more sense now, Simplenote and the more responsive keyboard make writing posts easier and faster, Safari was already a great mobile browser, now it’s almost perfect. So, the Retina Display makes consuming / producing content on the iPhone a much more powerful, engaging and “beautiful” experience.

Which leads me to this: people seem to think that iOS devices (iPad an iPhone, in our case) are meant for consuming content: books, documents, music, movies, pictures. I have my own theory on producing content, but I’d like to hear from you first.

To say the iPad and iPhone are not meant for creating content is to assume that making something involves only one step and can be done with just one tool.

Well suppose you couldn’t use the iPad to draw or write and you couldn’t use the iPhone to take pictures or edit short movies. Even still, if you could only ever read, watch, or listen to things with the iPad and iPhone they would still be valuable tools for creating content. The best writers are also avid readers. The best photographers are always framing shots even when they’re not holding a camera. The best teachers would actually say they are students. My point being that those who create also consume, and if the iPad and iPhone are helping more people to read more and etcetera, then that is a step towards better content production in and of itself.

But you can produce content on the iPad and iPhone. I mean, who has the right to define what content creation is anyway? True content creation is not defined by the tool or the method. Because it comes from within and without us. We build and make things based on our experiences, our skills, and our relationship with God and with friends and family. It’s up to us to decide what tools and means best help us to capture and materialize what we want to make.

And I agree. If you’ve managed to find a way to be productive no matter where you are, or what device you’re using, don’t let anybody tell you you can’t create content. It just doesn’t make sense.

That said, I’m curious: is there an app you wish you had on the iPhone / iPad – but nobody ever developed? Or, have you ever thought of developing an app for your own work needs?

Yes, there is an app I wish I had for my iPhone, iPad, and Mac that does not yet exist yet (so far as I know). Though it’s not so much an app as much as it is a service. It would be something similar to what Instapaper is for when you find something you want to read later, but this service would be for when you find something you want to do later.

I am regularly finding articles I want to read later when browsing through my Twitter stream, RSS feeds, or while surfing online. And just as often — if not more often, in fact — I also come across things that interest me but require action. Such as a new album I want to preview and potentially buy, or a piece of software I want to check out.

If I am on my Mac I can usually just follow through right then. But if I’m on my iPhone or iPad it’s not always that easy. And unfortunately there is no easy way to throw these low-level action items into a universal bucket. So as a workaround I set up an email address with a server-side folder that ropes in all incoming messages to that address. And so if I’m on my iPhone and read on Twitter about an album I want to preview on iTunes, I email myself that tweet and then follow up later when I have time.

Sending myself emails as to-do items is not only cumbersome, but it creates another inbox for me. My ideal scenario would be a service that allowed apps like Reeder, Twitter for iPhone, and others to implement a “Do Later” button. Then whatever link, article, or Web page I’m staring at could automatically be added to a cloud-based inbox. Furthermore, I want Things to sync with that inbox into a project or area of focus.

And though I have definitely thought about going into software development to build apps — such as the aforementioned — I don’t have anywhere near the coding and development chops to pull something like that off. As much as I appreciate the indie software development community, I don’t see myself joining their ranks. I would much rather write, design, and consult.

Speaking of to-do lists, I know you’re a very passionate Things user, both on your iPhone and Mac. But, I also read on your Twitter stream that you’re interested in trying out OmniFocus, especially now that the iPad version has been released. Are you still considering making the switch? Personally, I did.

My only reason for my consideration of OmniFocus would be for its over-the-air syncing features. But my comments on Twitter were primarily to get other people’s stories and to see who was thinking about switching or who had, and if so, why. Everyone I know that uses OmniFocus really loves it. As I wrote on my weblog, I think I’ll be sticking with Things and waiting out the over-the-air syncing solution.

Why did you switch?

I was a Things user, both on my Mac and iPhone. In fact, I got started to the GTD method with Things. Then, I got at a point where I couldn’t just keep on manually syncing databases – it was boring, buggy and slow. I read a lot of interesting case studies about OmniFocus, so I backed up my to-do list and decided to give it a try.

I am an OmniFocus user since then. Looking back, all things considered, I think the main selling points are (of course) the super-reliable OTA sync (especially with OmniGroup’s beta sync service) and the better implementation of Contexts, instead of Things’ tags. Perspectives and the smart clipping tool also helped me achieving a great workflow.

The iPad app came out last week and I’m already in love with it. I’m using it everyday, every moment, and in a matter of a few days it has already made the iPad a better device for me.

Manually syncing Things across my devices has been anything but buggy and slow for me. Though over-the-air syncing would be ideal, I think the reliability of Things to do multi-device compare and sync over a wi-fi network is superlative. And I have a feeling that when over-the-air syncing does come to Things it may well be inimitable. So the question I’m wrestling with is if I should wait it out, or switch to OmniFocus knowing I am likely to switch back.

OmniFocus for iPad, our review

I’ve got one more question about the iPad, though. What do you think of Flipboard? It came out two weeks ago and quickly became one of the most talked applications available in the iPad App Store. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

Flipboard is an astute app. I like how it works and it’s fun to use. But I haven’t adopted it to my iPad’s homescreen. In fact, I’ve only opened it up a few times since downloading.

I’ve noticed a new trend, though: visual newsreaders. Magazine-like apps for the iPad. Pulse, Times, The Early Edition, Slide Reader. Are we sure “going visual” or at least approaching a richer representation of news is the way to go for content consumption on the iPad? For as much as I like these apps, I have my doubts.

I love these apps that are bringing a richer visual representation of news and information and media — it’s something that wasn’t very possible before the iPad. Though these highly-visual and interactive news-reading apps may never fully dominate the market, there is still a very large pool of potential users. Just because these apps won’t be as appealing to the average power user — since their UX is a bit slower to navigate, you can’t skim and hammer through a ton of info in a short amount of time — they may be perfect for those who only checks a handful of feeds and news sources.

Personally, I’m using Reeder for “power consumption” of feeds (those days when you never check on Google Reader and you get 200 unread items in the evening) and Times / Flipboard for anything else. Reeder is, in my opinion, the best Google Reader app for iPad, though I know of some new ones coming out soon. River of News, and another one that exclusively checks on your Reader starred items, for instance.

Anyway, Reeder + Times + Flipboard is a pretty good setup. I can’t say the same for Twitter: I initially began tweeting from the iPad with Twitterrific, then switched to Osfoora, then back to Twitterrific (when they introduced the light theme) then back to Osfoora again. I keep on switching between these two. Problem is, what’s going to happen when Twitter for iPad comes out?

I really have no idea of what Loren may be working on.

Twitter for iPhone is one of my favorite apps on the iPhone period. It’s clean, sporty, and works great. We can only hope the iPad version will be of the same caliber.

But Twitter clients aside, you hit on something else that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. You’re using three different iPad apps to read all the same content. That is amazing. That is something which would never be possible (or at least easy) without cloud-based syncing. By virtue of online syncing we are now able to access our news feeds, our Twitter streams, our notes, our projects, and so many other pieces of data. We can get to that information by using just any device we want, and there is a multitude of applications available to suit our flavor.

And but so the pieces of data that are still want for an online syncing strategy become increasingly more cumbersome to maintain.

The missing piece for me is my to-do list. I’m still holding my breath for Cultured Code to release over-the-air syncing for Things. And I’m currently dreaming of a cloud-based service that would allow me to throw all the things I bump into when on my iPhone or iPad into a to-do list which could then instantly sync with Things.

I read your interview with Neven Mrgan a few days ago. Great read. I can’t help but asking you the same question you asked Neven, though:

What are your favorite pieces of software?

That is actually a difficult question to answer. I have lots of software that I use, but how do you properly define favorite? Is it my favorite because it’s the best I’ve found for a particular task, is it my favorite by the sheer virtue of how often I use it, or is it my favorite because I love to use it? To use a non-computer analogy, listing my favorite software would be like listing my favorite vitamin, yard tool, movie, and friend all in one list — a list of “favorites”. But in reality, I don’t like to take vitamins or do yard work.

On my computer exists such a broad array of tasks and contexts. Some are for work, some for creativity, and some for maintaining life. Each one with its own set of tools (though some overlap). And since it is the creative context that I adore the most — and the software that empowers me to do my best creative work — that is the list I want to share here.

Those apps consist of the usual suspects: MarsEdit, Simplenote / Notational Velocity, Yojimbo, and InDesign. I have written some excellent and in-depth reviews about the first three. These are the three which I use all day, every day, for writing, posting to my website, cultivating (and sometimes sharing) my ideas, and more.

I use InDesign for laying out reports, articles, and more that need to be printed. One of the things I love about my job is being able to take complex and/or broken systems and turn them into simple, streamlined workflows. I like taking ambiguous hopes and turning them into clearly defined goals. One of the ways I do this is by reports, charts, data flow charts, and more. Then editing it down into the simplest way possible to communicate that information. It’s like a giant puzzle I get to solve, and the end result is a beautiful piece of information that is type-set and designed in an equally beautiful manner.

There are also a few apps which help me get the most out of my time on my computer. FastScripts for example, is a fantastic little utility that lets you execute AppleScripts from anywhere on your computer. I use it regularly for all sorts of things. Another favorite utility is Dropbox. I keep all of my “open work” documents and folders in Dropbox. That way everything I’m working on is backed up in real time, has versions, and is accessible from my iPhone and iPad if need be.

And, to round out the list, other apps you’ll find in my dock include: Tweetie, Things, and NetNewsWire.

Now that you mention Tweetie, a couple of questions above you said you didn’t know what Loren was working on. Twitter for iPad came out 10 days ago, and people seem to either love it or hate it.

Innovative or overly designed? What’s the trade-off when a developer decides to break conventions and tries to re-invent a genre? I’ve already posted my thoughts here. I’m in love with this app, for as much as it reminds me of Tweetie for Mac.

I can’t help but ask you what’s your verdict on Twitter for iPad.

Twitter for iPad is clever and beautiful. The interface design is pixel perfect, and clearly a lot of thought went into it. But alas, the app makes me anxious. It’s this uncontrollable stack of information and windows that I can’t really control. Like trying to work in my Grandpa’s old tool shed — a lot of awesome stuff, no idea how to clean it up and keep it organized.

Twitter for iPad, my thoughts on it

I see. I’ve seen many people complain about the complexity of the app, and I’m pretty sure Loren is working on making it more accessible and easy to navigate. Indeed, he said “many fixes already in the pipe”.

Enough with the apps, though, let’s talk hardware. Two weeks ago Apple announced a (almost) complete revamp of their iPod line, with new Nanos, Shuffles and iPod Touches. The new iPod Touch sports a Retina Display, a sleek new design, Facetime capabilities. Alas, it’s got less RAM than the iPhone 4 and it doesn’t come with an IPS display.

What’s your take on the new Touch?

I think the new iPod touch is just what was expected. As in the previous years it is once again thinner but with better battery life, and is more or less “an iPhone without the phone”. Considering that the target market for an iPod touch is as much as 10 – 20 years younger than that for the iPhone (just look at the FaceTime examples: iPhone shows parents and young married couples; iPod touch shows high-schoolers), the less-capable camera, less memory, and lack of an IPS display all seem like fair trade-offs to get the lowest price and thinnest form-factor possible. A whole lot of teens will be buying one of these (or getting one as a gift from their folks).

Completely agree with that.

There this one last question I wanted to ask since we started our conversation: where do you see Apple in five years? And, where would you like to see Apple in five years? I know, it’s a though one.

A whole lot can happen in five years. I mean, just look back at the landscape of 2005: OS X was at version 10.3 (until October); there were no Intel Macs yet; the iTunes music store was just 2 years old; the big deal with the classic iPods were that they now had color screens; the Nano and Shuffle were both brand new products.

The progressions over the past five years have been some of Apple’s best. OS X is a fantastic operating system, the iPhone and iPad are redefining the way we use computers, and people in general are now much more concerned about high-quality products and great user experiences. And so in five years from now I hope Apple continues innovating and refining how way we interact with computers, phones, and who-knows-what-else sorts of devices.

Thank you, Shawn.