Ever wondered where web apps came from, why we quit having to install apps from a floppy (or CD, or even an App Store) and instead could just open the app right in your browser?
We did too. And over the past 2 years, we've read books, dug through old websites in the Wayback Machine, uncovered ancient discussion threads, and found five of the earliest web apps. There's an early online maps tool from Xerox, the wiki that anyone could edit years before Wikipedia, an online form and accounting tool that saved a university millions, a security too with a logo designed by Neil Gaiman, and the eCommerce tool that went on to power Yahoo!'s stores and provide the capital for Y Combinator.
For all the effort to kill them, files are here to stay, resilient as cockroaches in a post-apocalyptic world. They're just not staying put—that's all that's changed. Files of old would live their lives happily on your hard drive and floppies and CDs, rarely venturing further than your company's door. Today files rarely touch your computer, living instead in the clouds, appearing on your screen when needed and staying abstracted away in a server farm the rest of the time.
And so, you need new tools to manage them. Finder's designed for files on your Mac—with iCloud Drive spliced in for a bit of modernity. Windows Explorer is the same, with OneDrive baked in but otherwise still focused on local files saved on your computer.
The best way to use cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box, then, is to bring them local. You install their sync apps and let them copy their files to your hard drive—and sync changes back to the cloud. That's far from ideal, though. Today's SSDs come still come with less storage than the standard hard drives a decade ago, the tradeoff we pay for speed. And if you use cloud storage for personal and work files, odds are you'll have more than one Google Drive account—and the sync apps typically only work with one account at a time.
Transmit started life in 1999 as a FTP app for the Mac, a computer that had been written off for dead but was finally showing a bit of life again. Steve Jobs had just come back to Apple, launching the candy-colored iMac a year earlier; the first web apps were still toddlers. And a tiny Portland startup called Panic built a nicer app to transfer files to your server, using the then 20-year-old FTP protocol (and for a bit of '90's computing nostalgia, you can still flip through the original Transmit guide for MacOS Classic).
Plenty of us still do it, using FTP (or, its secure iteration SFTP today) to upload CMS software and shuffle files around on remote machines. Today, it's just not the only option. You could just use an app like WordPress to power your website, with a pre-built install from your hosting company and a polished web-based uploader to upload files. Or you could SSH into your server and download your CMS files via Git. But in the late '90's, FTP was just about the only way to build a website. You wanted files online, you FTP'd them up. And when you wanted to watch a video online or try some new software, you'd download those files via FTP, too.
So Transmit found a home among Apple's dedicated fans, the true believers at newspapers and universities who kept using Macs after they were cool—and before they were cool again. That's where Panic (along with a handful of others, including the Omni group of OmniFocus fame) got their start.
Two decades later, though, it's far from clear most people need an FTP app. Some of us still use them with our servers, but it's far from a huge market. And increasingly, your files might not be on a traditional server—they much more likely might be in a service like Amazon S3 that abstracts the traditional file system away so you can manage your app or site's code and database and files in tools designed just for each purpose.
Which brings us to Transmit 5.
A Quick Transmit Tour
Transmit's mostly the app it's always been, a two-sided Finder for your local and online files. You'll have one file system on the left, perhaps your local files on your Mac, and another file system on the right, perhaps with the remote files on your server. You can drag-and-drop files between the two, check file info and set permissions in the Inspector on the right, and sort files by all the metadata details you could in Finder.
Try to copy a different version of a file, and Transmit will let you know which file is newer and double-check before overwriting as you'd expect. And if you're trying to find a file, Transmit can search your remote server, too.
Perhaps Transmit's best feature its Sync tool. Tap the purple, um, flower (I guess) icon to sync any two folders, complete with rules to follow symbolic links, skip files matching certain patterns, and more. It can even simulate the sync so you'll know what will happen when you click Synchronize as another sanity check.
It's a great way to keep your server-side files up-to-date, but I also find it handy for simple backups. I've got a folder of important documents on my Mac that I also want on a flash drive, and use Transmit to sync them both every so often. Perhaps that's not what it's designed for, but it's a nice little bonus.
Speaking of sync, Transmit has one other great Sync feature: it can sync your servers and accounts between devices using Panic Sync. Create a free account, and Transmit will sync any server and file storage accounts (yup, that's coming next) to any other copy of Transmit—so you don't have to add them time and again to Transmit on your home and work computers. Or, you could run Transmit on iOS—or use Panic's full coding environment, Coda, on your iPad or iPhone to code files, upload them to your server, and check on them via SSH—all using those same accounts Panic's syncing for you.
Transmit, Meet Cloud. Cloud, Transmit.
The headline feature this time—the real reason it's worth upgrading if you already have Transmit—is its cloud storage tools. Transmit isn't just for FTP and your local files anymore. Now, it can manage files in Amazon S3 and Drive, Blackblaze B2, Box, Dreamhost's DreamObjects, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Azure and OneDrive, and Rackspace Cloud. Essentially, you add an account for the service you want, then can browse the files just as if they were on your computer—or in your server. And you can add as many accounts of each service as you want.
The features work the same. You can open any service in one of Transmit's columns, browse your folders, upload or download files, and search through your files without downloading everything to your computer. You can sync folders–between your computer, or between two different cloud storage accounts, with one open in each Transmit column. And you can copy links to files and set sharing permissions, depending on the service.
It's one of the easiest ways to manage cloud files. Instead of installing every service and syncing all the files to your computer, or relying on the web interface, Transmit makes all those files feel almost like they're on your computer. And since you can add multiple accounts of any service, it's a great way to manage files across a handful of Google Drive or Dropbox accounts.
There's only one tiny downside: If you're sending files from one cloud service to another, Transmit has to download the files to your computer from the first service and then upload them to the second service, and can't directly copy files between the services online. Would be nice to have that fully powered by APIs—imagine how fast syncing a Drive folder with Dropbox would be then—but for now, your Mac has to be the intermediary.
Speed and Specs
You might buy Transmit for its nice interface, it sync and cloud storage tools, and its nearly 20 year legacy of quality macOS support. But Panic's own Transmit site spends a lot of time talking about speed, advertising up to 16x faster speeds with Amazon S3 storage.
And, Transmit is fast—of course, depending on your internet connection's upload speed, which has the terrible tendency of being far slower than your ISP's advertised download speeds. Panic promises Transmit 5 is far faster at opening and uploading folders of mixed files—something that held up in my far-from-scientific testing. Uploading a 200MB folder of random, mostly small files via SFTP took just over 12.5 minutes with Transmit on a morning my 20Mbps connection felt a bit more sluggish than usual; it's closest competitor, the donationware app Cyberduck, took 30 minutes to upload the same folder minutes later on the same connection, seemingly taking more time with a slight pause before and after uploading each file.
The advantage didn't hold with uploading a single 20MB zip file—there, Cyberduck was actually around 10% faster across a couple tests. So perhaps Transmit isn't best at raw speed, but does seem better at handling folders and mixed files—the types of things you'll need to upload to your server to, say, install a CMS. And there, it's really fast.
So, both with its focus on cloud storage services and far faster syncing of mixed folders with lots of small files, Transmit 5 is designed for the way we deal with files today. It's a simple way to keep all of your cloud storage services together in one app—complete with multiple accounts of any services you use on your own and at work, say—and still one of the best ways to push files to your server.
Maybe the next time Transmit's due for an upgrade, we'll collectively have figured out something better than the 40+ year old file and FTP paradigm we're in today. But as long as you need to shuffle files around—and especially while you need to keep those files in an increasing number of storage services—Transmit's the Finder you need for the cloud.
Email apps are suddenly cool again. Years after Sparrow's untimely demise and a number of other false starts including the .Mail app design, there's finally a selection of cool new email apps. From Newton's Alexa-powered email workflows to Google Inbox' to-do approach to clearing out your inbox, and from Spark's nearly Sparrow-like simplicity to MailMate's adherence to plain text, there are email tools that fit just about any workflow you want. Even Outlook, the corporate world's email mainstay, is nice again, with an infusion of acquired talent and design.
Gmail and Mail.app might be enough. But if you're looking for something different to manage your inbox, here are the best email apps of 2017.
Email is such a part of our digital lives, it's something we hardly think about. And yet, if you want something beyond a standard @gmail.com account—whether to roll out company email addresses at your startup, or just want a personalized email address—a G Suite account is worth the trouble of thinking a bit more about email.
And it's not that hard to set up. In 55 minutes, Zapier's new book The Ultimate Guide to G Suite will teach you how to add G Suite to your account, import your old data, and get the most out of its core features. If you're using G Suite in your company, it also teaches you how to share everything with your team members, build an intranet with Google Sites, and more.
It's the quickest way to learn how to be a modern email administrator.
Email's simple when it's your personal account. Pretty much any email service will let you send and receive messages without fuss.
For your company, though, there's a lot more to consider. Do you need extra apps alongside email? What retention policies does your company require? Should you run your own Exchange server in a closet, or put everything in the cloud with Office 365 or G Suite? Or perhaps you should just use an email-only service instead.
Just under two years after acquiring Wunderlist, Microsoft has reinvented the to-do list with their simply named new tool: Microsoft To-Do. It's the core Wunderlist features in a simplified design that, indeed, focuses just on your to-dos.
Its best feature is just barely hidden below the surface: Suggested tasks. Instead of showing the tasks due today in your Today list, it starts each day out with a blank list so you can plan your work. The lightbulb icon on that page then offers suggested tasks—ones the app thinks you might want to work on today, along with those that are due or overdue.
Either way, you have to plan out your day manually—and that can be really helpful. I personally write down a list of the most important tasks on paper each day, to job my memory and keep focused despite what my inbox says. Microsoft To-Do has built that idea into an app.
It's not nearly feature-complete compared to Wunderlist, but it's a neat start—one that'll be interesting to watch mature.
Some of your most valuable data lives in your email account. Even though a shiny new email address can be nice, it can also be frustrating if you have to leave your old data behind or switch between accounts.
Ever wanted to make a fill-in-the-blank form, where you would ask part of a question and the prompt your respondent to fill in the rest? It's simple enough in paper forms, but online, it's surprisingly tricky. There's no online form builder that includes a pre-made fill-in-the-blank form.
So, with a bit of hacking, I figured out how to make my own in JotForm:
One would scarcely notice a piece of copier paper, let alone pontificate about the tree that birthed it and the finer qualities of its textures. It's paper, everyday paper, something to use, reuse, then discard.
And so it would seem with writing apps. They're blank pieces of digital paper, somewhere to type words, print on humble copier paper, and promptly forget.
The apps are just a medium—the results are the same.
Until they're not. Paper is not created equally; neither are apps. There's humble copier paper, and its humbler sibling thermal ink receipt paper. There's the paper in your Moleskin, the paper your diploma was printed on, and the cotton paper you'd expect the President to use. There's paper so delightful it inspires pontifications about its finer qualities.
There's paper, and then there's paper.
There's Notepad and Text Edit, and there's iA Writer.
The highest praise you can give to any product is that you choose to use it every day. That you've tried almost every competing product, and always return to it. That it's the tool that you rely on, more than any other, in your career.
That praise goes to iA Writer, the writing app I've used nearly exclusively for half a decade. It's that good.
But it almost lost its way.
It started out in late 2010 as a Markdown writing app for the then-new iPad. With just a touch screen and one button, the iPad felt like the perfect digital canvas, where your code could turn the iPad into anything you wanted. The original Tweetie for iPad—what later became Twitter's own official app—experimented with sliding panes that let you view your Twitter timeline and view webpages at the same time. Apple's own iWork apps tried to make office files fun, and its iBooks page-turn animations and Game Center felt background represented the peak of skeuomorphic design.
iA Writer launched into that market as a simpler tool, a rethinking of what is really needed in a writing app. It harked back to simpler days of typewriters with their monospaced fonts and symbol-based designs. It asked you to focus on your words, something already easy with all iPad apps being full-screen by default. And, of all the app design experiments from that year, it's one that's lived on—both in iA Writer and the simpler writing modes in dozens of other apps.
With a pre-set typeface (the monospaced Nitti), a light colored background, and a blinking blue cursor, there was nothing to tweak, nothing to distract you from your words. Even your previous sentences could be hidden with its Focus Mode that blurred out everything except your current sentence. There was nothing to tweak—all you could do was write.
iA Writer came to the Mac the following year for $19.99, and was the first app I purchased in the Mac App Store. Keeping with the iPad app's design—and the sensibilities of OS X design at the time—it kept the same simple interface with a slightly textured background, and zero settings. More surprisingly, it lost the window bar—when you wrote, everything else disappeared other than your text and iA Writer's clean background.
And it grew up. Over the years, it gained iCloud sync, a dark theme, and a preview mode to see what your Markdown-formatted text would look like. A new version, Writer Pro, even flirted with complexity, with a workflow of writing and editing modes and a syntax tool to highlight your adjectives and other parts of speech. It included some nice ideas—using a sans serif typeface to jot down ideas, a monospaced typeface to write, and a serif typeface to edit did make your brain switch modes based on a visual queue. The problem was, it was complicated, extra things in an app built around simplicity.
It pushed me to flirt with other writing apps—and, for once, I even kept the old version of iA Writer around even though I'm typically the first to upgrade new apps.
So we're back to the basics. iA Writer 3, released in late 2015, was a rare app update that removed features. No more writing modes, no more toolbar on the side: There was just a blank slate with your text again.
Swipe to the left from the right edge, though, and you'd uncover a preview pane—with the new typefaces from Writer Pro repurposed to read through your finished text. Swipe to the right from the left edge, and you'd see an iCloud or Dropbox-synced library with your files, complete with folders that you could drag-and-drop files into. iA Writer wasn't just a piece of paper anymore; it's now a notebook with all of your text.
Need to find something? Tap CMD+Shift+O for a Spotlight-like search bar to search through all your files and find them in seconds.
Heretically, iA Writer both brought the file menu back on iOS and the preferences pane to its Mac version. Now you could tweak your text size, set your sync preferences, and choose a preview template without needing buttons in the app. And you could still highlight adjectives or sentences—only now those options were relegated to a toolbar on the bottom of the window that'd show when you hovered over it (along with word counts and reading time). Slight nods to customization, while still leaving little to distract.
iA Writer 4 built on that clean foundation. It added new hidden features: You could embed files into your documents, to make one master document that combined all of your smaller sections into one longform piece. Drag an image into iA Writer, and you could preview it in your text and export your document as a polished PDF. Dislike Markdown tables? Just make your table in a spreadsheet file, then drag it into iA Writer and it'd display in your document.
It's Markdown grown up. Plain text when it makes sense, other file formats from other apps when they make more sense. You can still use it as a plain text Markdown app—or you can use it as a longform writing app.
Why use iA Writer? Because it's simple. Because it makes Markdown writing simple, with shortcuts to add lists and links. Because Nitti is such a great writing typeface, and this is the cheapest way to use it. Because it fits like a glove. Because with its Mac and iOS editions, you can keep everything you write with you everywhere, without any of the bloat of most notebook apps.
It's just barely customizable, so you'd better really like its typeface and two editor colors. But if you do, you're in luck.
Perhaps it's a side effect of being such a simple app, but there's almost nothing to complain about, few things that have ever glitched or broken.