Integrations: A Surprisingly Unique Text Editor and Secure Email

Canary Secure Ios Macos Email Client

A little down time can pique all manner of curiosities, especially at this time of year. As folks start reeling in the list of promises they’ll probably never keep, workflow changes are usually in the picture. I'm no different, and much as I'd like to pretend I am. I sometimes like to look in on projects I have either passed by, or promised to come back to. The following are a couple of apps that fit that profile. Canary Mail is an alternative secure email client for iOS, and macOS, while Typora is a cross platform, markdown text editor. The thematic connection between the two is the interesting integrations they both have, Canary with PGP, and Typora with Pandoc.

Alter Secure Mail Client that Isn’t Ugly As Hell

Secure Alternative Email Client
The rapidly improving Canary Mail is worth a look if you need a security focused email client

Everybody hates their email client. It’s a difficult problem to solve, but it remains a necessary evil, so we have no choice. Some time last year some time I was invited to participate in the Beta for Canary Mail . At the time I opened it up, thought it looked promising but remained under-developed, then I mostly forgot about it.

I thought of again when I found myself in a discussion about the terrible options for secure email, so I took another look. I was immediately surprised at the pace of development, there is a lot to like. Such rapid development is not always desirable, in the context of email clients you only have to look at the plague of problems faced by Airmail to see that sometimes slowly but surely is a better approach. 1 As for security features, you will find any number of hideous looking, obscure email clients featuring strong encryption, but it is usually shoehorned in as an afterthought in otherwise well designed apps. In fact, believe it or not, security is one of the more compelling reasons to stick with Apple Mail — if you know what you are doing to make it work that is.

This is where Canary stacks up well. If you’re looking for a secure alternative email client, Canary is balanced and feature rich, with PGP encryption built in using the MIT and key base servers. Obviously including encryption is not all that interesting in itself, but making it user friendly is. The best part is how responsive the developers are, early adopters have been actively engaged in the support forum, and rewarded with the fast adoption of features. I can’t remember ever seeing a project work so well, the result is an app that keeps getting better. It still has some raw edges, but if you want to look at something that is bucking the trend of data grabbing applications, it is worth a look. At the very least, it is an app to keep an eye on. Canary is available on both macOS, and iOS. It is now also part of the excellent Setapp collection

Integrating Pandoc with a Text Editor

Pandoc Markdown Text Editor
Typora's features include Pandoc integration with the GUI, and a Markdown outliner

There is no shortage of well designed, minimal text editors for the Mac — or for the iPad for that matter. If you’re a developer with your heart set on building such an app, you really need something different. For example, as an expression of typography focused, opinionated design, iA Writer is stunning. Ulysses, on the other hand, has somehow found the sweet spot between text editor and word processor to carve out an unlikely niche.

While there is a decided trend towards the plain text and distraction free aesthetic, making a mark in the text editor space is only going to get harder. And yet, there is still room for innovation where more specialised writing is concerned. Particularly for academic writing, there is only so far you can go before minimalism starts requiring too many workarounds for the supplementary parts of your writing. If you’re on board with plain text, this is often where Pandoc comes in. Chances are, if there is something you can’t do with a text editor, Pandoc can do it.

This is why I have been intrigued by Typora, a text editor that uses Pandoc for export and conversion. The abilities of Pandoc go way beyond what Typora is currently doing with it, although it has some other interesting features, and not everyone needs the full compliment of super powers. Notably, the editor previews the output in what Typora calls a real live preview. The result is more of a what you see is what you get workflow, much closer to a rich text editor. The app feels like what you might get if you combined Lightpaper’s  live preview with the syntax minimising aspects of Ulysses. It also has a touch of Folding Text about it, as it tracks headings in a Markdown outliner that tucks behind the main editor.

Typora is full of nice little touches. I can see it appealing to writers who want a clean interface, and enjoy the frictionless experience of writing with Markdown, but don’t want to look at the syntax at all. Ulysses will take you a fair way down that road, but Typora goes that little bit further. It might also appeal if you’re stuck working between Windows and Mac, or even Linux. Typora is one of only a few markdown text editors that is genuinely cross platform.  I know a lot of academic writers in that situation.

The Mac version is currently free while it’s in Beta. 2  You can download it directly

  1. Like everyone, I really like what Airmail wants to be, but remain frustrated by how buggy it is
  2. It has been in Beta for some time, but the app is definitely still in active development.

iA Writer 5 for iOS Released

Ios Ulysses Alternative

If you are looking for a plain text writing app for academic writing — or for any writing for that matter. You could do a lot worse than to try out iA Writer. One of the first Markdown based Text Editors I ever used, it remains one of the writing apps I am most likely to recommend on any platform. With the recent change to a subscription model for Ulysses, a lot of writers are looking for an Alternative on iOS. 1 With this latest update, iA Writer is an ever more obvious candidate for that job.

Featuring Files and the Keyboard

In my post about academic writing on the iPad, I mentioned iA Writer is a pleasure to work with on iOS. That was always true, where the actual writing is concerned. Prior to this release, if you were used to working in an app like Ulysses, you might have found the organisational aspects of iA Writer less sophisticated. This update has addressed that in a big way. Both via the extension of utility to the keyboard, and through integration with the Files app in iOS 11. Retaining its singular focus on the writing experience, iA Writer now includes excellent search capabilities, and customisable commands. All from the keyboard.

iOS Ulysses Alternative
iA Writer makes it trivial to do everything from the keyboard

When it comes to words on a page, the writing experience of iA Writer has made it one of best text editors available . Information Architects appear to be obsessive about detail. Their manifesto of form follows content is evident in the deliberate choices of iA Writer’s user experience. The design ethos has adapted responsive typography to a distraction free writing environment. Minimalism done wrong can enforce its simplicity on the process of the user. In iA Writer, it presents a deceptively simple interface that hides a powerful, yet flexible workflow. Ultimately the app gets out of your way. The developers understand that a decent writing tool needs to adapt to a potentially messy workflow:

in practice writing resists a strictly linear process. A single note doesn’t transform smoothly into a draft, and from draft to editing is more of a Tango than a March. The common process is blurry, dynamic, and in many ways circular.

Still Writing in Word?

I come across a lot of writers who haven’t gotten past their Microsoft Word dependency. Often it is because they don’t realise what an alternative writing App like iA Writer is capable of. Turning in your papers as Word documents is not a problem. With iA Writer, or Ulysses you focus on the writing first, then export the finished product in the format required. Nothing has changed with this update for the end product, but exporting is another feature made accessible through the keyboard. On iOS, you might require some workarounds for referencing, but if you are looking to ditch the word processor. There is less standing in your way than you may realise.

Web Collaboration

The direction that Information Architects are taking is encouraging. They have opened the app up to a massive new user base with an Android version. That move has proved fruitful in encouraging the development of a web collaboration tool. That is a move that I will keep a keen eye on. Collaboration is another area that keeps writers attached to Microsoft Word, or more often Google Docs these days. The options for co-authored writing in plain text are few and far between, and I’m yet to find one with a remotely satisfying user experience. If the developers can bring anything like the polish of this latest update to iA Writer to web based collaboration, it could work out very well. The intention is for the web service to provide ongoing revenue, which I suspect will go down with users better than the subscription only option being adopted elsewhere. Time will tell.

For anyone still grappling with the subscription issue, the feature set of iA Writer makes it a compelling alternative to Ulysses. I have a subscription to Ulysses as part of Setapp, so I haven’t had to contemplate that dilemma too closely. If you have, you may want a comparable Markdown text editor for macOS, iOS, or both. To get a general feel for the app, you can start with a free trial of the Mac App. One of the features that has me using Ulysses more these days, is the ability to post directly to WordPress. You can do the same thing with iA Writer.

Free Update

iA Writer 5 is a free upgrade for owners of the app, and for new users the iOS version is still sold at a ridiculously low price. The macOS version of the update is yet to be released, more on that when it arrives.

iA Writer is available on the App Store

  1. I’m not commenting on that debate here. A lot of writers are not only happy to pay the subscription, but like the idea they are supporting the most crucial app in their workflow.