inessential by Brent Simmons

The Omni Show #10: Dave Lonning, Documentation Wrangler

In this episode we talk with Dave Lonning, who writes documentation for Omni apps. Dave’s a long-time fan of role-playing games — running them and creating them — and he lived for years in Japan before making his way to Omni.

Among Dave’s hobbies is painting miniatures:

Dave, it should be noted, is a cat person — but, importantly, he’s learned to love the Omni dogs. They’re good dogs, Dove.

Marketing Human

I’ve got some career-change news that might sound weird at first but that I promise will make sense in a minute: I’m quite happily still at Omni, but I’m switching from engineering over to marketing.

I am the new Marketing Human, a new member of the Design department.

If you think of me as an engineer, you’re not wrong — but the secret, hidden in plain sight, is that throughout my career I’ve done a whole bunch of design and things that could be called marketing.

Blogging could be called marketing, after all, and today I wrote my first post for the Omni blog.

(For whatever freakish reason, writing has never been a chore to me — I love it. Sometimes I think I only make apps just to have something to write about.)

But the new job isn’t just blogging — I’m also doing a podcast. I’ll help figure out the marketing points behind the release of OmniFocus 3. I’ll write some ads. I’ll create new websites. I don’t even know what all the different things are yet.

I’ll also help with defining future versions of our apps, which is super-exciting for me. This keeps me close to the process of app-making — at a different level, sure, but at a place where I’m quite happy, since I’ve done this kind of work with Frontier, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Glassboard, Vesper, and now with Evergreen and back to Frontier.

In other words, I’m using the skills I’ve learned as an indie and sort-of-indie over decades — just not the skills I write about here that often.

Make sense? Cool. :)

* * *

For now, until OmniFocus 3 ships, I’m splitting my time: doing this and continuing to work directly on the Mac app. After that I’ll be a full-time Marketing Human.

If you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at marketing at The Omni Group’s domain name.

* * *

One interesting part of this — at least for me — is that, for the first time in decades, I’ll be back to writing code purely for fun. I’ll continue to work on Evergreen and other apps on nights and weekends, for sure. And I’ll keep writing about code on this blog.

But engineering will just be my hobby. I love that.

Greenwood: Unfinished Microblogging System

A year ago I was working on a microblogging system and wrote a bunch of it, but I didn’t actually finish it.

When I realized it’s not what I actually want, I shelved it.

But interest in microblogging has grown since then — thanks to — and so I posted my code on GitHub just in case somebody else wants to fork it and do something with it.

The app is called Greenwood. Partly because I like the freshness it evokes — it’s a great name for a fresh, simple start — and partly because Greenwood is the neighborhood next to mine (I’m in Ballard), and I’ve been giving things Pacific Northwest names lately.

* * *

Blog posts are stored as separate files on disk. There’s a place for attributes at the top of each file, and then the rest is Markdown.

It’s written in Ruby; it’s a Sinatra app. It’s fast. I tested it using eight years of’s files.

My plan was to put it in front of a caching Nginx server, so it would essentially run as fast as a statically-rendered site.

There’s surprisingly not much code. And, well, that’s because it’s unfinished.

And — as it says at the top of the README in the repo — DO NOT DEPLOY THIS APP AS-IS. IT IS NOT SECURE.

Script Debugger 7

Script Debugger has long been the secret weapon of people who write AppleScript scripts — and now it’s at version 7. Better than ever!

Plus really cool new icons!

Evergreen is AppleScript-able. So are Omni’s Mac apps. So is Acorn. And MarsEdit. And so many others.

(Bonus tip: FastScripts is a great utility for running AppleScript scripts. I use it all day every day.)

The Omni Show #9: Ainsley Bourque Olson, OmniPlan PM

The latest episode of The Omni Show features Ainsley Bourque Olson — who’s the product manager for OmniPlan, a project management app. It’s almost meta!

She’s also a knitter — we have a pretty strong group of knitters here — and a cat person.

Me too. In fact, I’m going to go find a place in the sun to curl up. :)

OmniOutliner 3 for iOS

I’d done almost no iOS work since system 7 came out — but, once we were finished with OmniOutliner 5 for Mac (a release I’m super-proud of), it was time to go work on OmniOutliner 3 for iOS, and so they pulled me back in. :)

I was just one person on a much bigger team, of course. I helped indent some things and helped with filters. But there’s a whole bunch more besides — it’s a big release.

And it’s the first OmniOutliner for iOS release with a lower-cost Essentials version ($9.99). And it’s a free trial.

And I’m super-proud of this release, too.

Read all about it on The Omni Blog: OmniOutliner 3 for iOS is here! Get your free trial from the App Store.

The Omni Show #8: Orion, Bug Hunter

In the latest episode of The Omni Show I talk to Orion Protonentis, recovering actor and stage fighter, friend of Shakespeare, and Software Test Pilot.

The Scottish Play is mentioned, but only as “the Scottish play.” So we’re all good there — if you’re in a theater right now you can safely listen to this.

Brenty’s First Pod

RSParser is now a CocoaPod! It’s my first.

I’m super-proud of myself for taking this the last few tiny steps of the way there — Silver Fox did all the rest of the much-appreciated work.

This means that if you’re a CocoaPods user, you can now go forth and parse feeds.

Still to do: support Carthage and Swift Package Manager. And, after this repo, there are at least a half-dozen more to do.

But that’s okay — doing open source is what I signed up for, and learning and using the infrastructure is part of the gig.

PS I really like what happens in the Terminal when you successfully publish a pod. Here’s a screenshot.

On Missing the Point

(Disclaimer: before I get started, I should take extra care to note that I don’t speak for Omni. This is my personal blog, with my personal opinions.)

Every time I make some criticism of the App Store — that, for instance, the 30% cut for Apple is too high, or that free trials would be a good thing — some number of people respond that Apple is a business and they’re allowed to do what they’re doing.

They may also remind me that this is capitalism, and that I can vote with my feet — that is, go create an Android app (or whatever) where the cost is presumably lower.

And they remind me that I should work with the world as it is, rather than the world as I want it to be.

They’re not wrong. Of course Apple is a business and is within their rights to charge whatever they want to charge, and developers could go do something else. And when making business decisions we have to look at facts and best extrapolations, not wishes and ponies.

But that misses the point entirely.

* * *

The point is that we are allowed — even in a capitalist system! — to criticize and to ask for changes. You can ask your spouse to put away the dishes more often; you can ask your kids to do their homework before dinner; you can ask the government for universal health care or corporate tax cuts; and you can ask Apple to lower the App Store cut.

Imagine if Starbucks charged $20 for a latte. You might complain about it and ask them to lower the price. Even if there’s another coffee shop nearby with much less expensive lattes, you still might.

Yes! Even in a capitalist system you can do this! It’s totally a-okay! Even if they’re within their rights (they are) to charge that much. Even if they are a business!

There’s no sacred verse that says businesses acting lawfully can’t be criticized. Nothing says we can’t advocate for change. In fact, I’d say that that’s part of capitalism, too.

* * *

So I got into a lengthy Twitter argument about Apple’s 30% App Store cut.

My thinking is that a lower cut provides more incentive for developers to invest in high-quality, long-lived apps — and that that’s good for the platform and good for users, and good for Apple, and so everybody wins.

It’s at least worth trying (this being capitalism, there are no guarantees of success) — and, since Apple is the wealthiest company in the history of companies, they could afford to try this.

If I’m right, then everybody wins: Apple, users, and developers. And if I’m wrong, Apple is not in any financial jeopardy.

* * *

I don’t think I’m misunderstanding or breaking the rules of capitalism by saying this. Nor am I telling developers to base their business decisions on fantasies.

But somebody will tell me that I am.

Why is Not Another

We could be excused for thinking that is like — a Twitter alternative greeted with enthusiasm but that eventually closed.

It’s not the same thing, though, and I’ll explain why. is not an alternative silo: instead, it’s what you build when you believe that the web itself is the great social network.

That’s the important part: even if doesn’t last (though I believe it will), the idea — that the web itself is where we are and where we talk to each other — will continue.

And: could be just one of thousands of similar services. And those services would all work together, because they’re made of web-stuff.

The Dream of 1999

Pick your year. I like 2003, since that was when I released NetNewsWire 1.0, an early Mac RSS reader. You might prefer 2000 (nice round number) or 2005 (things were a bit more advanced).

But if you think of the years 1995-2005, you remember when the web was our social network: blogs, comments on blogs, feed readers, and services such as Flickr, Technorati, and BlogBridge to glue things together. Those were great years — but then a few tragedies happened: Google Reader came out, and then, almost worse, it went away. Worse still was the rise of Twitter and Facebook, when we decided it would be okay to give up ownership and let just a couple companies own our communication.

Even if those companies had the public interest in mind — and they most definitely do not — they hold far too much power over something too fundamental to give up: our own human voices.

Twitter and Facebook are convenient, sure, but so are fossil fuels, and the cost was similarly unknown for a long time. But now we have some idea just how bad these things are for the world. rewinds us to 2005 (or pick your year) — but, also, it has learned the lesson that people really like a timeline of short posts. People like being able to write and reply easily to other people. Good to know!


When you post to, you’re posting to an actual blog with an RSS feed and everything. The blog might be hosted by, or it might be some other blog somewhere else. (Could be a WordPress blog, for instance.)

Your posts are just a normal, everyday part of the open web. At this writing, mine appear on — but it’s on my to-do list to have those appear on my main blog (this blog) instead. (Probably won’t happen until after I ship the app I’m currently working on.)

And this is how it used to be, and how it never should have stopped being: my blog is me on the web. I own my blog: I own me.

And so everyone who follows me on sees my blog posts, and I see theirs. Simple.

And anyone who wants to could just read my blog in an RSS reader instead. All good, all open.


Replies are a little trickier. ( is not a finished thing — the-web-as-social-network is not a finished thing, and, we hope, never will be. That’s totally fine.)

Replies don’t appear on your blog (though this could become an option, I suppose) — but they are sent as a WebMention when possible, which means even replies are part of the open web. You can read more about replies and @-mentions on the help site.

I expect this area to get more work in the future, especially as it’s part of the key to making part of the great social network but not the great social network (the web itself).

The app in your pocket

If you’re running the app on your iPhone or Mac, it really does look like a slimmed-down Twitter. This is by design. But don’t let that deceive you.

If the web is a river, is water, where Twitter and Facebook are dams.

What about my Uncle Joe?

You might think this is too difficult for normal people, that it’s all too nerdy, and that it won’t make headway against Twitter, so who cares.

My reply: it’s okay if this is a work in progress and isn’t ready for everybody yet. It’s okay if it takes time. We don’t know how it will all work in the end.

We’re discovering the future as we build it.

The Omni Show #7: Ken Case Talks About the 2018 Roadmap

Check out episode #7 (I wish we had called it 007) where Ken Case talks about all the good stuff coming up in 2018.

There will be new releases of OmniOutliner, OmniPlan, and OmniGraffle — plus a whole bunch of great stuff for OmniFocus 3.0 for Mac and iOS, including tags, JavaScript scripting, and OmniFocus for the web.

You can subscribe to the podcast or just listen to this episode — there’s a player on the page. Or you can read the transcript.

* * *

I’ve been wondering if other companies in our world are doing similar podcasts.

There is the Supertop Podcast from our friends who make Castro. And there are much larger companies (such as Microsoft) who create videos and podcasts.

It may be that Omni’s size is somewhat unique in the Mac and iOS world: it’s big enough that we won’t run out of people to interview and topics to talk about, which could be tricky for a 5- or 10-person company. And it’s small enough to still be intimate — my goal is to eventually interview every single person who works here. (Though, of course, people can decline: it’s not required!)

Anyway: there was a time before companies had blogs, and now they have blogs. I wonder if more and more companies will find value in having a podcast too.

(And a Slack group. And a account.)

Evergreen Diary #9: On IndieWeb

When IndieWeb started, some years back, the first thing I noticed was that they appeared to be against the idea of feeds — or, at least, what they called side feeds: RSS and similar.

Their idea was that the data a reader might collect should be encoded in the page itself, using microformats. The argument (I think; I hope I’m not misrepresenting anyone) was that microformats are simpler than mantaining a separate file.

I don’t know which thought occurred to me first:

I took it personally, since I’d spent much of my career working with feeds, and I took this as a suggestion that my career was all wrong and they wouldn’t be interested in someone like me, someone who would be an ally in their committment to the open web.

I objected on practical grounds, too. Feeds have been and remain tremendously successful — see podcasting, for one thing — and the way forward is to build on that success. And, while I understand the elegance of microformats, side feeds have critical advantages that microformat-feeds don’t.

So I decided to ignore IndieWeb.

Here’s the thing, though: that was me being a total jerk.

(I’m telling you about this so you can learn from my mistake.)


In the last couple years I’ve been chatting with Manton Reece, creator, a bit — and Manton agrees with me about feeds.

But Manton also works with IndieWeb, and has mentioned any number of good ideas they have that I should look into.

It took me a while, but I realized that I was acting like a Clinton or Sanders supporter still arguing with the other side about the 2016 primaries — after losing the general election to a monster, after the point where those small differences matter at all.

And then I started to get excited about IndieWeb. I may have a difference of opinion when it comes to feeds, but who the hell cares when there’s so much good stuff to do? (They’re not holding my opinion against me; why should I hold theirs against them?)

And so I decided to support the h-feed format in Evergreen (hopefully in 1.0). That’s just for starters: I also decided to look into everything else and see what makes sense to support.

My default position now is: if a format or API or syncing service makes sense for a feed reader, then I’ll (at least try to) support it.

Evergreen Diary #8: Coding Guidelines

I published the first draft of Evergreen’s Coding Guidelines yesterday.

I posted this because I’d like to have people help me with the app — but I’m not ready yet. Or, rather, a few people who I know are starting to help, and I want to keep it small for now since I’ve never done this before.

If you’re interested in helping, I hope you’ll forgive me as I take it slow and learn how to manage an open source app with many contributors.

* * *

This isn’t the only app I want to do: there are several others. Ideally I’ll get to the point where I’m managing several open source apps — assuming people are interested in helping, which is a big assumption — and it’s all going great. But it will take time to get there.

(All my ideas are Mac and iOS apps that have something to do with the open web. I’ve always been happiest when working at that intersection.)

Anyway… it seemed like a good idea to write up coding guidelines early, so I did.

PS When I was faced with that blank document window, I started by typing the words “No subclasses,” because sheesh I really, really hate subclasses. The rest tumbled out.

Evergreen Diary #7: Syncing and Immediate and Deferrable Actions

There are, as I mentioned previously, two types of syncable actions: immediate and deferrable.

An immediate action is something like adding a feed: it requires that the server is reachable right now, so that the feed actually gets added.

A deferrable action is something like marking articles as read. The sooner the server knows, the better, sure — but it can wait if necessary. It can even wait for weeks or months.

I’ve decided to make it simple and categorize these actions like this: any structural action that affects the list of feeds and folders (or tags) is an immediate action, while any action that affects the status (read, starred) of articles is deferrable.

Or, in UI terms: if it’s something you do in the sidebar, it’s immediate; it it’s something you do in the timeline, it’s deferrable.

Most importantly: you can read articles while you’re offline.

Discarded alternate approach

You could argue that all actions should be deferrable. For instance, Evergreen could remember that you want to add a given feed, and add that add-feed action to the sync queue and wait for the server to become reachable again.

But doing so would add more chance for conflicts. Consider the case where the add-feed action got queued (on your day Mac) and then just sat there. Then, on your night Mac, you add the feed and it succeeds — then you decide you don’t like it after all, then delete it.

The next day, back on your day Mac, the add-feed call finally goes through, and then you have to delete it again. (And then you report an Evergreen syncing bug.)

There are other issues as well: do you add the feed locally? And read it? No, because this gets ambiguous quickly, as Evergreen’s article IDs won’t match the article IDs the server has assigned. Evergreen might not even have found the same feed URL the server found (in the case where you just gave it a website URL).

So we’ll stick with these two categories, immediate and deferrable.

To refine the definitions: a deferrable action is one where the state change can be reflected locally without risking serious conflicts or ambiguity.

Immediate actions

These will result in an immediate API call, and the result will be reflected in the UI. This is straightforward.

Deferrable actions

These actions will be stored in a database.

The simplest way to do this is probably a set of tables: articlesToMarkRead, articlesToMarkUnread, articlesToStar, articlesToUnstar. Each table would have one single column: articleID.

This layout is probably the most efficient way to add/delete articles.

This is not actually an ordered queue, but I think that’s okay. Most of the time all four tables will be empty.

When articles are marked read (for instance), then those articles will be added to articlesToMarkRead and deleted from articlesToMarkUnread. The system will then know that it has pending status changes to the send to the server.

Then, periodically, the app will attempt to contact the server. Most of the time this should happen within a minute or so.

Part of the idea is using this system to coalesce calls: the app shouldn’t call the server every time you select an article (which marks it read). Better to update the database and call the server very-soon-ish, but not necessarily this exact second, to allow for multiple articles to queue up.

The downside to this particular layout, which may make me change it, is that supporting additional status types means adding more tables. But the alternative is to add more columns to a single table, which is better but not necessarily that much better.

Another downside is that there’s no automatic guarantee that an article ID won’t exist in, say, both articlesToMarkRead and articlesToMarkUnread at the same time. But the answer here is simple, careful coding: a single bottleneck function that never adds to one without deleting from the other.

Evergreen Diary #6: Proposed Sync Design

Most of the time, a user will do a thing — mark some articles as read, for instance — and then Evergreen will tell the server (Feedbin, Feedly, etc.) right away. That’s good and easy.

The hard part is this: what happens when the server is not reachable for some reason?

Continuing the example: Evergreen could, in the case of the unreachable server, refuse to mark those articles as read.

It could insist that syncing works only when the server is reachable — which is not that weird, especially given that it can’t pull new data from the server unless it’s reachable.

But it’s weird enough. Consider that selecting an article marks it as read. This policy would make it impossible to even just read what you’ve already downloaded.

Offline Syncing

It’s clear that syncing requires some sort of offline ability.

Rather than set a policy for each possible user action (marking articles read, deleting a feed, etc.), I want to set a single policy and single structure for handling these actions.

(Note: there will be some things that do actually require a reachable server: downloading new articles and adding a feed come to mind. This design refers to actions where it would be okay to defer notifying the server.)

Proposed Policy

When the user performs a syncable and deferrable action, that action and the relevant parameters will be remembered.

Evergreen will attempt to notify the server periodically. Once it succeeds, it will forget that action and its parameters.

(Update 18 Jan: 2018: the original version of this design had a time limit, which has been removed. The concern was that this offline queue would grow unbounded — but it can’t, since if you can’t reach the server you can’t download new articles, which means the queue is limited to your current local data set.)

Proposed Implementation

When the user performs a deferrable action, the app tries immediately to notify the server.

If this first attempt fails, then the action is recorded in a SQLite database with a timestamp and with the parameters it needs to be able to make that call again later. Those parameters will be minimal — article IDs instead of entire Article objects, for instance.

The app will periodically attempt to empty this database: starting with the oldest action, it will notify the server of each. On success, a given action is removed from the database.


Evergreen supports undo as much as possible. For instance, if you mark a number of articles as read, you can undo it.

In this case, Evergreen will notify the server of the mark-read action, and then, upon undo, notify the server of a mark-unread action, thereby undoing the effect of the first action.

In the case where the mark-read action is in the offline action queue, that will be found and deleted, and there will be no queued action to reverse the effect.

Non-Deferrable Actions

Actions that require an immediate response from a reachable server include actions such as adding a feed. In the case where a user attempts one of these and the server can’t be reached, an error sheet will explain the problem. Such actions will not be queued.

There will not, however, be an error sheet for performing a refresh when the server is unreachable. Instead, in that case, a warning icon is placed next to it in the sidebar, a la Mail and similar apps. Clicking the icon will attempt a connection to the server, and an error sheet explaining the problem will appear if the server still can’t be reached.

Other Notes

Evergreen works like Mail and similar apps in that it has a set of accounts for services such as Feedbin, Feedly, and others, along with an On My Mac account that is not synced.

Each account has its own section in the main window’s source list; each account has its own set of folders and feeds.

Accounts will be added to Evergreen in Preferences, in an Accounts pane.

The policies of these accounts will be respected. For example, if the On My Mac account automatically marks articles as read after n days, it’s possible that some service does this after some other number of days, or never does that at all, and Evergreen won’t override those policies for that service.

Another example: the On My Mac account doesn’t support folders-within-folders — but if a feed service does support that, then the app will support it too, for that service.

(Current plan: Evergreen 1.0 will ship with Feedbin support, and Evergreen 2.0 will add support for more services.)

Let me know if any of the above sounds weird or if I missed anything. (There is contact info at the bottom of Evergreen’s main page.)

The Omni Show #6 with Liz Marley

This episode features Liz Marley, OmniGraffle engineer, formerly a tester and PM.

She talks about switching from testing to writing code — and about how she came to do technical talks using Swift playgrounds. Playgrounds with ducks, that is, because every good playground has ducks.