Amir Masoud Abdol

@amirmasoudabdol

State of Outliner Apps for iOS and macOS

Graphics are designed by Ervin Bolat, Sriramteja SRT, and Mikicon with minor modification by the author.

It has been a while that I am using Workflowy Journal as my main productivity method, and therefore Workflowy as my primary productivity app/service. I never thought that I continue using it for such a long time. It is maybe because I designed it for my needs, and it turned out to be flexible enough to adjust over time. I am also surprised by the number of reads and recommends on Medium. It seems it is working for others with other needs too. That is indeed very nice!

Over time, the outlining proved to be an effective method for collecting, organizing and pursuing my thought. Although I am pretty happy with the outlining, I am not very satisfied with the Workflowy as a service. The near-zero development speed and several delays in releasing some very old Requested Features has started to become frustrating. It is not like that Workflowy at its current state is not being useful anymore; however, you start to see how the availability of particular features can improve your “workflow”, but unfortunately they’ll never be developed in the case of Workflowy. Only recently, the team is starting to hire an engineer to “maybe” start the development again.

To name a few shortcomings of Workflowy, I can start by highlighting the lack of a native app on iOS and/or macOS. Although Workflowy has an iOS app available on App Store, the UX is just not right. That is because the app is essentially a wrapper around the website, so non-default text editing experience and overall sluggish web wrapper UI do not help with the UX. After a while, I found myself not using the iOS app anymore, only very infrequently for reading or reviewing. On the missing list of features, Workflowy does not handle dates at all, it offers no integration options, no API, and I wish it were supporting Markdown after all these years, at least in notes, but no. They have recently released their macOS/Linux/Window apps in the form of web-wrapper again, Electron-based apps which I am not a fan of.

So, I almost gave up on Workflowy. I still use it very frequently, because I have lots of data stored in there, but I started looking for alternatives. There are a few alternatives are available, each with their advantages and disadvantages, from very sophisticated OmniOutliner to the text-based TaskPaper and the web-based Dynalist. Here, I will try to go through a list of apps that I have tested or found interesting which can also support painless Workflowy/Bullet Journal integration. In the end, I will mention two apps that technically are not “outliners”, but they can be used to implement Workflowy/Bullet Journal efficiently.

OmniOutliner for macOS and OmniOutliner for iOS

OmniOutliner is old. Therefore it is robust! It provides a extensive list of features. In fact, the Pro version is so full of features that they have recently decided to release a simplified version for more casual users, OmniOutliner Essential. 🤷🏻‍♂️

The Essential version is a simple outliner with very limited functionality. It offers a handful of themes, filtering (search) and distraction-free mode. I find it very limiting, also because it does not support Focusing on an item. The Pro version, on the other hand, is packed with features like Saved Filters, Typewriter Mode, Focusing, Customizable Style, and Multi-column Document. Neither the Essential or Pro support tagging (#tags or @tags); however, the advanced filtering of the Pro can replace the lack of Tags, only if you are willing to make a filter for each tag, or quickly search your tag every time which is not optimal. I assume that the powerful theming engine in Pro version can be used to highlight words based on come criteria, e.g. starting with #; however, that needs extra customization as well. This makes OmniOutlier a less appealing app for rapid outlining and reviewing as well. Overall, I guess the focus in OmniOutliner is on the styling. You can make a very professional looking list or table. However, repetitive engagement with the app is not as smooth as Workflowy.

The OmniOutliner for iOS is a “simpler” app, and it feels less complicated than the macOS Pro version. However, at 29.99$, I rather be happy with the macOS version first which itself cost 9.99$ for the Essential version) and 59.99$ for the Pro version). It also worth mentioning that the Omni Group offers their cloud service, you cannot sync via iCloud or Dropbox.

OutlineEdit for macOS

OutlineEdit is one of those less-known but great apps that does one thing, and one thing well. In comparison to OmniOutliner, OutlineEdit is designed to be an outliner and not more than that. Therefore, there are not many styling features available, no font option, and no themes. However, there are many outlining specific features are included e.g. Item’s Note, Categories and Color Tagging, Checkbox, Folding, Statistics, etc.

OutlineEdit uniquely offers two features for collecting notes “on-the-fly” or from web pages. The Fast Access is a menubar popover that can be summoned by Cmd+Option+O and shows the already saved outline drafts, and allowing you to create a new outline from the menubar. And Marker for Safari is a Safari extension that makes it possible to mark texts in a web page and later save them into an Outline.

I think OutlineEdit is a reliable and intuitive outliner for its price, FREE); however, the lack of inline tag is noticeable. In fact, there are categories that can assigned to every item which means an item cannot have more than one category.

TaskPaper for macOS and Taskmator for iOS

TaskPaper is a special app, it is not per se an outliner but in a sense, it almost does way more than an outliner! TaskPaper is basically a parser for taskpaper file format which is a plain text file with very few rules that are designed to represent a list of tasks, a.k.a a Task Paper! In a taskpaper file, you have three types of item/line, projects, tasks, and notes. Projects are distinguished by a colon(:) after their name Project A: and tasks are the lines starting with a dash(-), and finally a line that starts without a dash or does not end with a colon is a note.

Besides projects, tasks, and notes, TaskPaper has the most powerful inline tags support among outliner apps. Every word starting with @ is an in-line tag; however, tags are way more than colored or clickable words. Tags in TaskPaper can have different attributes; for instance, one can specify the start time of a task by @start(2017-06-17) or add location context to a task by @at(Home). With tags having attributes, the TaskPaper app offers advanced filtering and saved search features for getting the most of the tags. The filtering features can search and run a query on tags attributes; for instance, one can filter items that are @dueing next week or @completed last week @at(home). This can be extremely powerful.

TaskPaper is under active development for years and has a big community of users that are writing scripts, providing solutions and bringing new ideas for further developments. I use TaskPaper for smaller projects only. One reason for that being the rather different and cumbersome folding and unfolding experience than the Workflowy. This is probably because TaskPaper always tries to structure the plain text file into an outline (hierarchal) format. This somehow compromises the smooth outlining experience because, to some extent, you need to deal with space and tabs yourself. Another reason for not using TaskPaper for large projects is the Archiving mechanism which is being achieved by moving the completed (@done) item to the end of the file; however, I still prefer the Workflowy method, Show/Hide Completed Items.

In the iOS side, TaskPaper does not have an official app, but the Taskmator for iOS (not affiliated with TaskPaper) fully supports taskpaper files. It resembles many features of the macOS version like tagging, filtering, etc. I am personally not the fan of its design. I prefer a flatter and more modern design but if you are fine with that, it is probably the best “taskpaper” app for iOS. The other option is Editorial for iOS which is Markdown editor that can edit taskpaper files too.

Before I move to the next app, I should mention the FoldingText for macOS, from the same developer. FoldingText is very similar to TaskPaper, it supports almost all features of taskpaper file and also adds the Markdown support. Therefore, it feels more like a writing environment, and it can be considered as an outliner because it can handle layers and folding. The app designed in an effort to bring the note-taking to taskpaper file format. I actually like the FoldingText more than the TaskPaper because of the Markdown support.

Outlinely for macOS and Outlinely for iOS

Outlinely is an another less-known app. However, it is maybe the most well-equipped app for implementing the Bullet Journal. Both macOS and iOS apps are beautifully designed, and they are well integrated with the system. Moreover, both bring a large set of features from a different category of apps e.g. Markdown Editors, Note-taking, and to-do list apps. Just to name a few: Tags, Todo Lists, Checkboxes, Library Management, Focus Mode, Typewriter Scrolling, Text Highlighting, Markdown Highlighting, Custom Theme Gallery, Note Linking, etc.

Outlinely covers many of the shortcomings of Workflowy as well as borrowing some advanced features from TaskPaper. The fact that Outlinely is an outliner and it uses some OPML-related format as a file structure, makes the UX very similar to Workflowy. Outlinely also addressed one of the shortcomings of the TaskPaper by implementing a built-in library manager. All your outline files are in one place, and the app is managing them for you. Therefore, you can search and filter among all of them without the hassle of finding and opening the project file every time. On top of that, Outlinely syncs all your library between your iOS and macOS devices via iCloud.

Overall, the Outlinely has the complete package. The developers have done the research and managed to keep things as simple as possible and still provides many advanced and requested features. Outlinely for macOS is a one-time purchase of $39.99 and the Outlinely for iOS is free with basic features while adding the Pro features and iCloud syncing to the app cost $14.99 per year. So, setting up everything will cost you about $55 and after that, it falls into a yearly subscription of $14.99. It is a rather expensive investment, but for comparison, the Workflowy Pro will cost $4.99/month. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Other Apps

Outside the territory of outliners, I would like to mention two note-taking apps that only by adding the inline tagging feature allows for efficient implementation of Workflowy Journal method. And since they are basically note-taking apps, they might be more useful for users with more text heavy workflows.

Bear for macOS and Bear for iOS

I guess everyone should know about Bear by now. They won the Apple Design Award at WWDC 2017. The app is well-designed and clean, of course! It is a great note-taking app with Markdown support some powerful features. Most noticeably, the inline tags, note links, and document library. They follow the same business model as Outlinely, with a free download, limited features, and local storage. Adding the iCloud syncing and activating all features will cost $1.49/month or $14.99/year. I think $14.99/year is a very reasonable price for a well-designed note-taking app especially when apps like Evernote already costs $59.99/year!

NotePlan for macOS and NotePlan for iOS

NotePlan is a relatively new app but with an interesting idea. The designer wanted to bring the Note-taking, Calendar and Reminder functionality in one place, even the name suggests it. The app opens into a Calendar view in which you can see your schedule. Clicking on any date will open a Markdown editor that you can write your note in. Beyond the simple Markdown syntax, you can create to-do items by making a list or using the - [ ] syntax. Additionally, you can add a date to each item which makes the item visible in the Calendar view. The app syncs with Calendar and Reminder app in iOS and macOS, therefore, it can use their notification functionality as well. Unlike Bear, NotePlan saves everything into plaintext files. All your notes can be accessed, read, and be edited via Finder or other text editors, pretty neat!

The NotePlan for macOS is priced at $19.99 and NotePlan for iOS costs $14.99. There is no subscription model here, but the iCloud syncing is still provided. Again, pretty neat!

Dynalist

I just want to mention the Dynalist here as well, although it might not be in agreement with the title of the post. If you have not heard of Dynalist, Dynalist is the Workflowy if it was being developed consistently in all these years. I think that was the original idea of the developers as well, at least in the beginning. At this point, they have implemented many features that Workflowy users wanted to have. However, as their community is growing, they are starting to go beyond the dusty Workflowy requested features list and starting to implement some new ideas and more importantly listening to their users. Unfortunately, they do not have a native app either!

To summarize, I think Outlinely is the most powerful and well-designed outliner in the list. However, I’m not a fan of their pricing scheme. I believe it would be better if they follow the NotePlan path, two native apps with fix price and then iCloud as the free cloud storage. Or even the Bear pricing method, two free apps and then reasonable Pro subscription.

I also love the idea of NotePlan, but I have a mix feeling about the implementation. Although I like the plaintext file format and Calendar and Reminder integration, I think over time, notes management would not be very pleasant. Maybe a Note Library will solve this issue, something similar to Outliner or Bear.

Interestingly, none of the native outliner apps support Images or Documents. Dynalist supports images, but I am still not sold out with the idea of web apps. It would be great if Outliner supports images in a way that iA Writer or Ulysses do, by placing the image placeholder instead of the image and then rendering the image in the Preview mode.

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