Gruber, Vesper, Technology and Excellence

I first heard John Gruber's name four years ago, at a time of great anxiety in my life. I had just quit my job as a public radio producer in hopes of doing my own creative work, but it was a leap of fear more than faith. My job had been a soul-deadneing mix of writing promotional copy and fact checking, with a hyperperfectionist boss, and I had spent weeks waking up at 3:00 AM every night, unable to get back to sleep, dreading each new day to come.

So I quit, even though I had no new job lined up, even though I had two kids to support, even though my wife's pre-tenure job as a middle-school teacher was hardly secure. I didn't know whether to feel brave or crazy. Mostly, I felt as though I'd saved myself from drowning, broken through the surface of the water and taken my first deep breath of air, only to realize I was nowhere near land.

It was around this time that I stumbled upon the now infamous talk that Gruber did with Merlin Mann: Obsession Times Voice. The ostensible subject of the talk was "blogging," a medium I'd toyed with at various times over the years, but the real subject was authenticity. John and Merlin talked about how being true to your voice and your obsession, in whatever field you chose, might not make you rich, but it would certainly make you proud of the work you did. I took that idea to heart; it partly inspired me to begin writing the novel that occupied the next four years of my life.

I also began reading John Gruber's posts about technology, among other things, at Daring Fireball. I never would have thought I'd be interested in a "tech blog," but I found Gruber's remarkably assured and confident voice, the painstaking way he savored details and dismantled jackasses, to be addictive and strangely comforting.

Flash forward four years, and I have finished the novel I started, I'm approaching tenure at the college where I teach, and I have read virtually every word John Gruber's published. I find this slightly embarassing. I feel I should have spent more of the past four years reading about things of greater import, like politics, science or literature. Why technology?

In "Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh," the poet Gary Snyder gives as one of his reasons, "Because my mind flies into it through my fingers." Ever since I began devoting more time to my own creative work, I've taken more and more pleasure in the tools I use to fling my mind into my computer, to the point where the tools seem almost like works of art themselves. I think I'm drawn to Gruber's writing, and all the best writing about technology, because I get the sense that he feels the same way. A post last summer at the Atlantic's website, celebrating the 10 year anniversery of Daring Fireball, pointed out that technology in general, and Apple in particular, is really just John Gruber's MacGuffin. The true subject of his blog is "excellence."

And so, when I learned that Gruber had helped design (or rather "directed" along with developer Brent Simmons and designer David Wiskus) an iPhone app called Vesper, I couldn't wait to see how his attention to excellence would translate when directed at his own product rather than someone else's.

At first glance, Vesper is the simplest of notetaking apps, so simple that it hardly feels necessary. It's just notes with the ability to add tags and images. It has very few features, limited export options, no sync with any other app or service, and zero user settings. In Gruber's oft-quoted assessment of Apple's design process, he said,

They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. They polish those features to a shiny intensity.

Vesper is that minimum core product, and the shiny intensity resides in its details. First, it's remarkably fast, faster to launch than any other comparable app on my iPhone. The transitions between individual notes and the list of notes are beautiful fades (here's a gif from the macstories review,) and if you want to see the tagging structure underneath, you just slide the list of notes aside with your thumb. The app avoids any metaphorical gestures, like swiping to reveal a delete button, employing only direct manipulations of the thing itself. As Gruber has said in an interview it's details like these that make the app feel nice.

I'd go farther and say it's details like these that reduce anxiety in the user, that create a quiet, comforting space to live in for a moment. You know what's going to happen. You feel in control.

The one aspect of Vesper that's been widely criticized is its lack of sync, which some assume will change with further iterations. And maybe it will. But I'd argue that even this is a feature, not a flaw. I love the app Notesy because I can throw an infinite number of notes in there and all those notes are synced to my other devices, becoming magically searchable and findable whenever I need them. I don't even have to think about them, and the result is that I often forget they're even there. I use Vesper to capture my most important ideas precisely because I want to think about them. Instead of throwing these ideas in the same place I put everything else, I want to put them someplace special. Vesper has become that place.

Which brings me back to John Gruber and excellence. I now think it's a bit disinguenuous to say that his blog isn't really about technology. At its best, his blog is about technology precisely because technology allows for a certain kind of striving toward excellence. No other field (thanks to Moore's Law) is accelerating at quite the same pace towards new possibilities of excellence. Software in particular, unbound by the limits of the physical world, is providing tools that allow us to make things that are more perfect, more precise, more useful, more beautiful. In many ways, technology itself is the both the means and the ends of striving towards excellence.

Vesper is a product of that striving, as well as a great way to store and catalogue ideas for writing about it.

Also, I don't care what anyone says, the icon is totally fucking awesome.