Coda, iTunes and Scrivener: The Advent of Workflow Apps

A little exercise in pattern recognition: Yesterday, Panic released Coda for from-scratch web development, and that got me thinking about the real secret of iTunes which led me to fit Scrivener into what I think is a burgeoning meme:

Workflow Apps. “Simple” redefined not as optimized one-trick applications, but as the embrace of an entire basic workflow through simple, integrated micro-tools.

Decouple iTunes from iPods for a moment: The potent, undiscussed thing about iTunes is that it emcompasses the entire set of real-world actions needed to consume music–whether you’re a casual listener or a collector: Store, “bins,” browsing, trading opinions with other music buyers, purchase, even the instant gratification of slotting the music “on the way home.” In essence, you don’t simply buy music from iTunes–it delivers the tools needs to complete a music-purchasing workflow.

Panic’s new Coda app does the same thing with regard to web development. For once, the the marketing copy nails both the idea (and the need it represents): text editor + ftp + css editor + terminal + reference library. Coda encompasses a web development workflow.

Which–finally–brings us around to Scrivener. Despite Keith’s adamancy about about remaining the “writing” subset of a larger publishing arc, Scrivener is, nevertheless, a workflow subset.

And now that I think about it, the emerging class of modular SuperBrowsers (FireFox, et al) is another way for a single app to embrace whole workflows–only this time with plugins.

Oops. What began as a heads-up about Coda has become an exercise in horizon-squinting. I beg your collective pardon. While I admit that as a professional writer, my web development needs are less than industrial strength, the workflow that has been previously strewen across many apps and a couple books on my desk have all been pretty seamlessly centralized in Coda. I suppose a case could be made that it’s Scrivener for Coders.

Well worth runing the demo, say I:

PS: Workflow Apps: Remember, you heard it here first.

This is a strange one. It seems aimed at people who know there way around HTML and the various technologies surrounding it. There is no visual page editor for instance. However the assembled tools are all by themselves, significantly less powerful than independent tools which are dedicated to a specific task. Coda’s editor, while better than TextEdit, is no match for TextMate, which has a considerable amount of web programming and HTML design strength, all by itself. The integrated FTP file browser is nice, but lacks many of the complex synchronisation, auto-upload, watched folder, and other tools which come along with independent clients. Similarly, while the CSS editor is handy if you don’t know CSS, it doesn’t hold a candle to CSSEdit (they released a new version today which substantially increases its usefulness. Complex selector building and element-to-style matching via the live preview, to mention a few). TextMate, CSSEdit, and CyberDuck(free), cost just as much, and pack a lot more punch at the minimal sacrifice of integration loss (and it is pretty minimal since an FTP client like CyberDuck can handle open edit sessions with external applications). This is not even bringing an application like DreamWeaver into the ring, which although it is more expensive (though roughly in the same price category), also offers an integrated editing package where each component is quite a bit more advanced than Coda’s offering.

Actually, I don’t think Coda is all that bad. In fact, it is a well designed environment, workflow as you put it. It just seems to be targeted at an audience that will already have a workflow that works for them. Replacing these applications with one integrated solution would result in a net loss of functionality for every component involved. The site management is really where it is at. What I’d much rather see is an application which binds together five or six applications of your choice, each doing what they excel at, while providing an interface glue between them. Currently full featured client FTP applications are performing this role to a limited degree; it strikes me as odd that the makers of Transmit do not see the potential in producing an expanded version of their client that handles site sessions and application integration. Imagine Coda’s interface session-orchestrating all of your favourite editing applications, with the full power of Transmit behind it all.

To address the workflow concept you bring up. I think there is an important difference between “all in one” applications and applications which either fit in to, or define a workflow excellently. While Scrivener is certainly capable of producing decent print results (and even professional results if you use MMD), it is not nearly suitable for high end or professional typesetting. It does not define an entire segment, but it does quite excellently define the segment that writers are most interested in. Once you get into exporting to word processors and quality print output though, it does have its limits (by design or technical limitation). For most career writers, Scrivener does all that is necessary.

But is it an all-in-one application? In the sense that Coda is, I’d say not. It focuses on one important task of interest to one type of person in the publishing chain, and excels at that in ways that seem to astonish nearly anyone that encounters it. Coda’s individual tools on the other hand, are honestly only somewhat impressive. The only thing that saves Coda (in my opinion of course) is its site management polish.