One of the perks of this job is seeing some amazing apps come into the App Store put together by incredible developers. At first, Vesper seemed to be in that category. An app built by a team of industry insiders? It’s got to be awesome, right?
Well, it is quite pretty, and it’s also meticulously well thought out and executed. But it doesn’t have all the features that the competition has, which leaves it prone to scrutiny, no matter how much clout the developers have on hand. Is Vesper able to live up to its lofty praise? Let’s find out.
The Elephant in the Room
Vesper was developed by John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus, three of the bigger names in the Apple industry. Gruber is such a legend in the field that his word is bond to many Apple fans (myself included); Simmons is known for NetNewsWire and MarsEdit; then there’s Wiskus who knows interfaces inside and out. This is a veritable dream team of developers, so the results should be pretty incredible.
As a result of their clout — or possibly in spite of that — the reviews for Vesper have all been fairly positive. Many address the fatal flaws found in the app, but brush it off as a 1.0 release and claim that they may come in a future release. Just read Marco Arment’s review and you’ll see how a skilled writer can tiptoe around the obvious and still come off as endorsing the product.
Compounding this issue, many of the positive reviews that came out on launch day were from the beta testers of the product, which are all clearly listed in the credits for the app. Q Branch — the company name for the trio — is well connected in the industry, and the list of testers reflects that. It almost seems like no one dares offend the gods with a slightly negative review, hoping instead to become a highly profitable link on Daring Fireball.
This isn’t one of those reviews. Understand that Vesper is a very good app and does what it aims to do exceedingly well. But what’s missing is quite glaring — so much so that it drops the usefulness of the app down to almost nil.
The Core of Vesper
Vesper is a note taking app. As it states in the credits, “Collect Your Thoughts,” and that implies a world of possibilities. Every note you create has two distinct advantages over the stock Notes app: Tags and photos.
Each note can have a picture attached to it, or the note can just be the picture by itself (although then it will display Untitled Photo next to the image). This alone is a huge step forward, because there are many times that I’ve wanted to take a picture of something I wanted to buy in a store, but no way to annotate anything along with the image. It’s a simple feature, but it makes sense.
Tags are the other main selling point for Vesper. Tags are pretty straightforward: label your note with a word or phrase for easy searching later via the sidebar. The app has only been out for a short time now, but if you use it regularly you should collect a large amount of tags, and that should make finding your stuff much easier.
What Vesper does, it does very well.
It’s the little details that stand out in Vesper. For example, there’s an animation that goes on anytime you transition between two states. If you open a new note, the overall notes list fades to the background and a blank note appears. Hit the All Notes button to go back, and the overall list fades up into the foreground. Frankly, it’s a bit like iOS 7 appears to work.
In addition, if you want to move notes up and down in sequence, just drag and drop them to your chosen destination. You can swipe away posts just like you can in Mailbox, and there’s even a built-in browser that looks fantastic.
Then let’s talk about the overall look of the app, which is just cool. The font choice is spot-on, the colors are muted but not overly so, and it all just fits and looks cohesive. These things pull you in and make you want to use the app more. Unfortunately, there are a few things that don’t.
It’s Missing a Lot
Let’s talk about the shortcomings, most notably, sync. There is no way to sync or export your notes from Vesper. You can email or message individual notes out of the system, but otherwise, that’s it — not even file sharing via iTunes is supported.
Think about that for a minute. Vesper is $4.99, making it pretty pricey for an app that takes notes, particularly when there are many alternatives in the App Store that have some kind of syncing option, usually for free or very little money. Simplenote comes to mind, which is not only free, but syncs with its own excellent sync system, Simperium. And what it also means is that your notes are locked to your iPhone forever. Barring a day spent exporting notes via email or Messages, your Vesper notes will always be only on your iPhone.
Why would anyone release an app with this kind of use case without a syncing option? Arment chalks it up to balls, but I say it’s stupid. These are three high-profile men with incredible clout and knowledge of the industry. They all must know that sync is important, and even if the feature is coming in the future, there’s no sign that it’s on the horizon (unless they mentioned it in an interview that I haven’t read yet). Saying that they wanted to perfect what they have and then consider sync or alternate platforms is a cop out. And arguably their biggest competition in the notes genre — Simplenote — is free. It doesn’t matter how pretty Vesper is when your content is locked to your device forever.
In speaking to this with my wife — someone who is only tangentially connected to the iPhone world, and only because of me — the first thing she said was, “What if you get a new phone or break your old one?” Good question. Although backing up to iCloud is convenient, I’ve had issues with it myself, as have others. To my wife, syncing her notes with another device isn’t that important, and it may not be to you, either. But losing them altogether, well that’s another issue. My notes are important to me, and that’s why I’m not willing to trust them to a system that has such obvious disregard for my content that they won’t give me a way to back it up or transfer it to a new device other than iCloud.
The second issue isn’t critical, but many reviewers have called it out because of its obvious omission: Markdown. Since John Gruber invented Markdown, you’d think that it would be an option in Vesper, but it isn’t. Some are calling this the dumbest idea since the Palm Pre, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Markdown is a plain-text format, and so you can still write notes in Markdown if you want to, they just don’t get translated later. And since there’s nowhere for this text to go anyways, that’s not a huge misstep in my book.
Vesper is a pretty, well-designed app that allows you to take a note, add a photo and tag it with something meaningful. To that end, it works flawlessly, as should be expected from the Q Branch dream team. If you work along the premise that an app should do one thing well, then Vesper hits that out of the park and into the parking lot. But its shortcomings are great, and shouldn’t be ignored.
The other day, I woke up in the middle of the night after having an amazing dream. It was so vivid that I thought I might be able to turn the concept into a future book, so I wanted to take a note so I could have a record of those thoughts later. In my tired state, I pulled out my iPhone and looked at two apps sitting next to each other on my home screen that could do the job equally well: Vesper and Simplenote. I opened one up, hammered out 250 words of concepts and ideas, then put the phone down and went back to sleep. The next morning, I turned on my Mac and there was my note sitting happily in nvALT, synced there by Simperium and Simplenote. Now I could flesh out my idea further and turn it into something great.
The thing about Vesper is that it’s great to use and sure is pretty. But if my notes are trapped on my iPhone, it’s pretty much useless to me.