tech, simplified.
todo

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.

Here's all the details you need about Microsoft To-Do—including a hidden feature to organize your task lists with emoji.

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.

Or, you could take everything with you. Here's how to migrate all of your Google data from your old account to a new one—email, contact, calendars, files, and more.

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 a simple enough thing 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:

Here's how.

iA Writer: Simple Markdown Writing, Perfected

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.

writing

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.


The original iA Writer for iPad

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.

The more complicated Writer Pro

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.


files

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.

search

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.

preview

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.

Anyhow. I like it. Love it, even.

You might too.

Want to get emails on your own .com, but hate to give up Gmail's features? Need a simple way to get your team to work together with company-branded apps? G Suite—the new name for Google Apps for Work—is one of the best ways to do either one. Whether you just need your own personalized email, or are administrating your company's emails and files and need a tool to pull it all together, here's how to set up a G Suite account—with workarounds for any gotchas you might encounter.

Need to build a quick new one-page website? Don't spin up a WordPress site—all you need is the new Google Sites, and 5 minutes to put the site together. Google Sites has long been a simple way to make sites, most commonly used for education sites and internal intranet sites. The latest version isn't perfect—you can't add your own domain, for starters. But it's incredibly easy to use, packed with hidden features that just might make it the best way to make a quick website.

And, it's free.

Here's how to build your next site in Google Sites—complete with a tutorial of how to recreate Zapier's About page in Google Sites.

Ok, ok: You wouldn't want to share everything in your Gmail and Google Docs accounts even if you could. Even company apps need some privacy.

But for all their great built-in sharing and collaboration features, the best teamwork and sharing options in Google's apps are often hidden. Even if you have a paid G Suite account on your own domain, your team won't have a shared calendar, address book, or file library by default. You'll instead need to set that up on your own.

Here's G Suite's best hidden sharing features, with ways to set team email signatures, email your whole team at once, share Google Contacts, make a company-wide Google Calendar, and share files and Google Docs document templates.

Ever wondered if you'd work better in a cave, without a phone signal, internet access, TV, or anything else to distract you? Perhaps you write the next great novel, or invent the next big thing. Or at least, you might quit reaching for your phone at the first hint of boredom.

It's hard to do your best work in our distracted world, harder still to focus only on what's most important. And so, author Cal Newport in one of 2016's most popular business books argues the virtues of what he calls Deep Work. With academic data and real-life examples, he teaches the value of focused work—not hard work with long hours of overtime, but a dedicated part of your day where you work at your fullest.

On the flip side is another of 2016's most popular books, Messy from author Tim Harford. It sings the praises of messy desks and chaotic workpaces, of the benefits of strikes and misplaced instruments. It reminds us that genius doesn't appear in a vacuum, that it requires a spark to bring it to life. And that spark so often is the messiness of life.

Opposites, yet so similar. Here's what I learned from both books—and how you can apply their lessons to do messier, deeper work this year.

How to Start Your First Online Store

ecommerce_book

A new year, and time for another new book from the Zapier team. This time, we've researched what you need to do to start a business, tested over 50 eCommerce apps to find the best, and detailed step-by-step what you need to do to start your first eCommerce store. We even found ways for you to accept payments from anywhere around the world, even if your customers don't have credit cards.

It's The Ultimate Guide to eCommerce Software, and it'll teach you everything you need to make your first—or 50th—online store a success. Download a free copy today and start turning your dream into the next business success.

It's always difficult to authoritatively state "This is the best app for X" when there are so many different apps available. And while it's somewhat easy to guess which apps are the most popular, based on App Store downloads and general tech news buzz, it's a bit harder to say with certainty which apps are actually being used the most—the ones that bring the most value.

And so, at Zapier, this year we looked at which of our 750 apps grew in usage the most in our automated workflows. There are two lists: One with the fastest growing existing apps, and another with the fastest growing new apps. The former are tools you've likely heard of—ones you definitely shouldn't ignore. The latter are the new apps that are quickly becoming popular, the ones you should be trying out.

Here are the apps you should be using.