The Coming Research App Revolution

In the last several months, I have been experimenting a lot with  Roam Research and Obsidian. There is a lot to like about these apps and their crazy-powerful internal links. With both Roam and Obsidian, cross-linking is ridiculously easy. In the case of Roam Research, this isn’t just true for note titles, but instead every word in your database. So you can be writing away about subject A, but then easily cross-link to the 37th paragraph of something else you wrote about subject B.

Not only can you cross-link, but you can also even embed that paragraph 37 in your subject A text in a way that lets your reference or modify it right in the middle of your word pile on subject A.

With both Roam and Obisian, any phrase (or word) in your database can become a separate page by merely putting two brackets around it. That newly minted page will include links to every other page in your database that consists of that phrase. It is powerful stuff, and I am not doing it justice, but the cross-linking and dynamic page/note creation is an entirely different way to research and take notes. I am using it now daily for legal research and Field Guide development. Throwing all of my ideas in one big bowl and letting them mix around pays immense dividends.

This, however, is not going unnoticed by the rest of the development community. The Archive has been using a similar linked text system for years.  Bear recently added a new feature that lets you cross-link not only titles but also note subheadings. It does not go as deep as Roam Research, but it is a start. Moreover, my beloved Drafts, which also supports cross-linking note titles, have an ecosystem of mobile apps, and there’s already an entire Drafts action library that lets you cross and backlink to Drafts notes.

This influx of cross-linking, dynamic referencing, and the linkable chaos that these apps create feel, to me, like something entirely new, and that bell is not going to get unrung. Not only do I expect these apps to push further ahead with these tools, but I also anticipate other apps to develop in the same direction. A year from now, we are going to have some fantastic options.

One of the best parts of being enthusiastic about technology is when I witness something fundamentally change. I can’t help but think that is happening right now in the research and notes space.

I’m Trying Bear

I have a thing about text applications. I love the idea of an app that can hold little buckets of text. I look at these as reference libraries, and I’ve gone through a string of apps for this purpose over the years. For the last couple of years, I’ve mainly been using Apple Notes as a result of its stability and deep integration throughout the operating system.

But there are things about Apple Notes I don’t like. My biggest complaint is the slow rate of innovation. I know that comes with the territory of a stock application, but I was hoping by now that it would have a few more bells and whistles.

Also—I acknowledge this is petty—I have never been comfortable with the textured paper design background of Apple Notes. Every year I think they will remove it, and every year it stays in. They have even made textured paper for dark mode. This seems silly, but it grinds on me.

The natural replacement was Bear, a similar notes app that has been out a few years and has been gaining traction. I have played with Bear on and off since it first launched. I have even subscribed. However, its innovative functions never got quite far enough for me to want to invest in it fully until last week.

With the release of Mac OS Mojave and iOS 12, Bear pulls ahead with innovation. I’ve been toying with the app for the last week, and a few days ago, I moved my 1,000+ Apple Notes into Bear. This is still just an experiment.

Bear’s tagging system works better for me than the Apple Notes’ folder system. Tags work with a large collection of notes, and Bear even lets me nest them. Bear also has deep integration with Siri Shortcuts, the ability to link notes between each other (even at the header level), excellent markdown integration, and a host of other delightful little touches. For instance, if you two-finger tap inside the body of the message, Bear gives you navigation tools. Also, Bear looks gorgeous. There are multiple themes, and the typography is spot on.

Some immediate downsides to leaving Apple Notes are:

1. The loss of shared notes

Because of the ubiquity of Apple Notes and Apple’s increasing abilities with synchronization, shared Apple Notes are pretty useful. Mike Schmitz and I have been using them to run the Free Agents podcast with little trouble. Bear does not have a similar feature and, even if it did, it’s not necessarily installed on the computer of every person I work with. If this move to Bear is successful, I will still need to use Apple Notes for some collaboration. So I’m talking about taking what was once done in one application and now doing it in two. Usually, that’s a bad idea.

2. Missing attachments

I don’t attach a lot of photos and other files to Apple Notes, but the ones I have attached did not come out with the export. If I want to move them over to Bear, I’m going to have to do so manually. (Related: Bear does allow you to attach files and links to notes.)

If you are thinking about similarly jumping ship, there are a few tools and tricks I suggest. The best way I found to get my notes out of Apple Notes with some formatting was with Exporter. It successfully extracted all of my Apple Notes in markdown format. Also, when inserting the notes into Bear, make sure to check the box to add the text file title as the note title.

I’m not at a point yet where I can recommend Bear; I’m still kicking the tires. I am, however, seriously looking at this app and will report back. For me, the tipping point will be in seeking how much more I can automate Bear over Notes.