Michael Tsai is the man behind C-Command, and well known for the past few years as the author of SpamSieve and DropDMG, in addition to his tireless work on ATPM. Last week he released EagleFiler, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see such a mature 1.0 application drop (swoop?) unannounced from the sky.
I’m not sure what to make of the name, though it does sport an awfully cute icon. I suppose if any anthropomorphized animal is going to take control of my filing system, it might as well be the national bird of the United States. Maybe it’s a good omen, a sign that data carefully stashed in EagleFiler will get along nicely with the IRS come tax time.
There has been renewed interest in organizational and productivity apps lately, and I’m probably smack dab in the middle of the target audience for them. I’m relatively organized, but only through the habitual use of old systems that, truth be told, only barely work. I’m inclined to store data in series of plain text files, hierarchically organized in a “Reference” folder in my home directory. Something like EagleFiler, or Yojimbo, or VoodooPad, or SOHO Notes should be a lifesaver for me. So why haven’t I gotten on board?
The big problem facing all of these apps, as I see it, is they require lifestyle changes. Even if it’s unarguable that the lifestyle change would be for the better, it’s hard to break the inertia of daily habit. I think the same problems apply to my own FlexTime and FastScripts applications. With some investment, customers may see their productivity skyrocket. But aha! There’s the rub – they require an investment.
In the case of these all-purpose data-filing applications, two major investments spring to mind. First, users must invest a change in their personal habits. Second, they must invest trust in the software developers that their data will remain safe and free for migration to another system if that becomes necessary.
It looks like Michael recognized the “trust factor” issue when he decided to use an open format for storing EagleFiler’s managed data. As described in the documentation:
The library is just a special folder in the Finder that EagleFiler manages. You shouldn’t re-arrange the files and folders in the library except through EagleFiler, but other than that you can treat it just like a regular folder.
Whoah, neat! This is a dream feature for timid, uncertain users. And it’s what makes the application more of a true “filer” than some of the other solutions. While other apps do a great job of storing your information, you are not so free to dump the contents out on the floor and go rummaging through them. With EagleFiler, you can empty the filing cabinet before you burn it. Other applications tend to offer similar abilities, but only through explicit “export” commands, where the sanity of the resulting data is in the hands of the application. EagleFiler makes it easy to jump on board, because it’s just as easy to jump back off.
EagleFiler’s interface is based around the familiar three-pane interface, with a source list on the left, a sub-list top-right, and detailed editor bottom-right. In general the interface and workflow of EagleFiler are quite elegant, but a few areas jump out at me as cumbersome. Of the other applications I’ve mentioned, EagleFiler seems most similar to Yojimbo, so that’s what I’ll compare it to. The process of creating new text files or folders, for instance, is slowed down by a modal sheet presentation in EagleFiler:
I’m not a fan of the modal sheet when an inline direct manipulation would be just as effective. Especially frustrating for a keyboard-heavy user is that the sheet can’t be dismissed from the keyboard, unless you’re editing the title. But by the time you’ve edited the title and tabbed into the content area, there’s no way to get back into the title by tabbing, because it’s interpreted as a tab in the text content. Lastly, the keyboard shortcuts for “New” in EagleFiler have mixed up priorities. Plain Cmd-N creates a new library, something I’m liable to do only every once in a great while. To add a new text file, which I could end up doing quite often, I have to press Ctrl-Cmd-N, then go through this sheet business.
In Yojimbo, the “New Note” command is Cmd-N, and it simply adds the note to your list, immediately entering the inline title editing mode. From here you can type a title and tab directly into the inline text editor. Creating a new folder (“Collection”) is Cmd-Shift-N, just like EagleFiler (and the Finder, so a good choice all around). And creating a new library … well, that’s impossible in Yojimbo (without using something like rooSwitch). Score one for EagleFiler on that front.
I think the usability problems are byproducts of EagleFiler’s noble intentions. Its design is as “primarily just a filer,” which gives us the very positive data-storage neutrality that I praised earlier. But it puts it in an awkward position when it comes to streamlining the user experience. EagleFiler doesn’t really want to be an editor, but it has to be in order to satisfy users. That’s why the “New Rich Text File” sheet exists at all. For instance, you can’t edit Rich Text in the main interface of the application, even after you’ve added a new text document. Double-clicking the document opens it in TextEdit, or (I assume) whatever your default RTF editor happens to be. Michael obviously saw the value in being able to quickly enter text, but the role of EagleFiler as just a filer is at odds with that goal.
The same reluctance to be an editor causes problems in the capture mechanism. EagleFiler, like Yojimbo, sports a global keyboard shortcut for capturing data. But it relies heavily on support for specific applications. If you press the capture key in an application for which there is no plugin available, you get an friendly yet frustrating reminder of the missing support:
Note the irony of the “missing support” for EagleFiler itself. A cruel trick on my part, perhaps. Attempting to capture from the capture app itself. But it’s a trick that doesn’t faze Yojimbo. It’s extremely cool that EagleFiler supports an AppleScript-based mechanism for adding intelligent support to specific applications. But that’s a power-user feature that needs to be hidden behind a general-purpose capture mechanism. EagleFiler would do better to offer a generic capture mechanism that works in all cases (for instance by offering to capture the clipboard contents), but perhaps offers a gentle reminder to power-users that the capture mechanism can be customized on a per-application basis.
EagleFiler is new, and has a lot of things right straight out of the gate. But this is a competitive market and some concessions are going to need to be made to the ease-of-use and “do what I mean, not what I say” functionality that Yojimbo offers. I’m looking forward to watching the evolution of each of these applications as they hopefully spur each other to greater functionality and streamlined user interaction.