the candler blog

Elegy for Vesper


Vesper wasn’t an app for everyone. A lot of people thought it was under-featured and overpriced from the get-go. Maybe it was too simple. Another word is elegant. Now it’s shutting down.

Vesper was a notes app for iPhone (and later iPad) by John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus. It didn’t have the stuff a lot of other text editing apps had. No extra row of keys. No Markdown syntax highlighting or auto-completions. No fancy export workflows or publishing tools or anything like that. Not even Dropbox sync; no sync at all at launch.

But Vesper was innovative in two key ways: tags and photos. No note taking app before or since has treated photos as well. And I can find no replacement for the way it handled tags.

One of my biggest uses for Vesper over the years was to pull interesting quotes out of print books. I would open Vesper up and snap a photo of the page. Sometimes I added text to the note with the title and page number. Sometimes I dictated the specific quote. Later on I would use apps like TextGrabber or PDFPen Scan+ to OCR the main quote I wanted, but I still liked having the photo of the page. It added some context for the quote that caught my eye. I’d add some tags, like “books” or “quotes” or both. And then I’d get back to reading.

The brilliance of Vesper’s photo handling was that it didn’t treat photos as inline elements. They were almost like metadata, an aspect of your note. The photo itself could be the whole note.

When Apple added photos to Notes last year, many said it was the death knell for Vesper. But Notes treats photos differently. They are inline, part of the note. They are not the note itself. For me that’s not as attractive. It adds complexity where I’d rather have none.

Vesper didn’t invent tags, but their implementation is the best I’ve ever used. It’s so simple and effective. At the bottom of a note, you can add tags. Start typing and previously used tags appear, ready to be tapped and added. To the left of the editor and timeline is your tag browser. All your tags, organized alphabetically. I had tags for Recipes and Beer, Quotes and Cinema and a few others. I tried to keep them sparing, but wasn’t afraid to add a new one as necessary. It was an easy way to recall notes I’d taken on any topic.

I tried, in vain, to adapt the tagging system to Apple Notes, which uses folders. Tags and folders seem similar, but of course they’re not. Outside of Vesper I’ve never used a tagging system that stuck. I find they only work when you have a clear limit, like, say, one set of tags for a single type of file. Like a bunch of notes. That’s why I’ve never made much use of tags in Finder. Vesper made it easy to limit tags, thus making them that much more useful for me.

For a long time Vesper was the only notes app on my home screen. All sorts of thoughts and ramblings and dreams went in there. There’s one note I’ll never forget.

Two years ago, I met a girl on the Internet. We chatted for weeks but we couldn’t meet in public because she had broken her leg in three places as well as her hand. She was holed up at home, could I wait until she could at least walk with crutches to meet? Probably, I said.

When we discovered we had a mutual friend, someone I had worked with in New York who turned out to be someone very close to her since grade school, she warmed to the idea that I could visit. The friend vouched that I wasn’t an axe murderer, so I was invited over for dinner. She wanted sandwiches, so I jotted down her order to make sure I didn’t mess it up. I wrote it in Vesper.

We’re getting married in March.

Software can be very emotional. That’s why there’s so much of it. I still remember clacking away on my parents’ PC’s Limited as a kid, playacting Doogie Howser in the blue expanse of WordPerfect. Those words have all been lost, but the memory of the application remains.

I connected on an emotional level with Vesper. Maybe it was the color scheme or the typography. I don’t know. It provided an environment I wanted write in. And I knew that anything I put in it would stay there, ready for quick recall.

If there were no Vesper would I have gotten the sandwich order right and met the woman I would marry? Of course. But there was a Vesper.