File Over App: Hedging the Future

As you might have guessed, I use Coda. :wink:

I pretty much love the product. It serves in many capacities, including as a large portion of my second brain. It captures just about anything that would have been bound for a sticky note. And even chili recipes. I grow and eat them. Coda serves me well in personal and business activities. It quickly accumulates information—lots of it.

Refer a friend to my Substack

Coda is an extension of my hands and my mind. I wouldn’t know what to do without it. I think there are about a million users who share these sentiments.

As powerful and broadly adopted and respected as it is—someday, it will save its last sentence for me.

If we can assume our own historical timelines to be sound, the end of the Coda line is not that far off. Five years? Ten years? Maybe more? Maybe less? The end of an app usually comes sooner than you imagine. Sometimes, it’s an abrupt and unanticipated ending.

The end will come because something better will disrupt it. Or, new ways of doing stuff will make it impractical. It’s certain—there’s a world where your cherished app — whatever that is — will cease to be the north star of your information.

And when that happens, you will wish you had adopted Steph Ango’s File Over App philosophy.

File Over App is a philosophy: if you want to create digital artifacts that last, they must be files you can control, in formats that are easy to retrieve and read. Use tools that give you this freedom.

File Over App is an appeal to tool makers: accept that all software is ephemeral, and give people ownership over their data.

Image: DALL-E File Over App

File Over App is not a new idea. When we evaluate new tools, we typically assign a small part of the assessment to imagine how easily it might be to escape from it. This is what experienced and seasoned digital workers do. Those less experienced with disruptive app changes dive in and swim. They rarely imagine an empty pool.

File Over App is a mindset intended to bias your decisions about tools like a well-trained Navy pilot inspecting his ejection chute before being launched from zero to 120 mph in 1.6 seconds. Will the jet fly at 1.7 seconds?

File Over App is about future unknowns where a single truth is very probable—the app you use to read this will be obsolete in your lifetime, and likely sooner than you imagine. All apps are teetering on the edge of historical obscurity despite our deep confidence they are ideal and stable in the long run.

What’s the Remedy?

Files that you control. Acreom is an app that stores all your information in Markdown format in your local file system. There’s no magical data store. Your content is plain text. Obsidian is another File Over App candidate.

I’m not suggesting you adopt these tools instead of apps like Notion or Coda (or fill in the blank). There are huge advantages to these apps and their SaaS platforms. But I am suggesting you plan for the inevitable and pack an ejection chute.

IMPORTANT - You don’t need an app (like Acreom) to read/write Markdown to achieve a File Over App strategy. You ONLY need to preserve the content you care deeply about in files, preferably in an agile format. Markdown happens to be a good one to consider and Acreom happens to make it possible to access your replica content.

I like Acreom a lot. I use it for many engineering-related tasks and my own knowledge curation. For me, it’s a cerebral scratchpad that enhances my productivity.

It has features such as seamless GitHub integration, templates, and a fast UI with unlimited “vaults”. It’s like a Swiss Army knife for all things text, but decidedly biased toward engineers. Most importantly, it also serves as a waypoint from the present to an unknown future because it is natively keen on Markdown.

In addition to my development tasks, I use Acreom to warehouse the latest versions of content from the many apps I depend on, including Coda. The approach is simple:

App → Export → Markdown

Any app capable of exporting Markdown practically can embrace the File Over App philosophy. While Coda doesn’t natively support Markdown exports, its API does. More about that later.

Markdown is the great neutralizer of text and rich content, as evidenced by this Coda document in Acreom. Similar outcomes are possible with other tools that render Markdown.

Image: Coda/Acreom Side-by-Side

While Markdown flavors vary, regularly exporting your app-based information repositories to this format will provide the essential escape framework to sustain a File Over App philosophy.

If Coda went away in the next ten minutes, I could continue working in Acreom, albeit with less productivity. But it would be good enough to continue to work while assessing what comes after Coda. FileOver App is not only a good idea for bridging tech transitions but can also deflect the impact of a crisis or a catastrophic failure beyond your control.

Automated Markdown Replica

My File Over App approach utilizes a Google Sheet and accompanying Apps Script to harvest all my Coda content every four hours and push it into a Google Drive organized with each document as a folder and each page in the document as a separate Markdown file.

This approach works well with any information store if Markdown export is supported or an API is available to generate Markdown files. Sometimes, you may be boxed in by limitations, and circuitous export pathways are necessary. These are apps that would trigger a red flag for me.

Google Apps Script can access all Coda content through the API and schedule a Markdown export to save the documents into a cloud-based file system. I use Google Drive to facilitate the app-to-file process because it’s so effortless with server-side JavaScript. But another advantage is that the client-side Drive app can replicate the content directly into the Acreom folder I created for my Coda Replica. Google Drive injects the latest versions of all my Coda Documents directly into the Acreom vault as they are generated.

Image: Acreom Vault - Local File System

My Approach in Detail

The process may seem complicated. It’s not. I prefer to automate things like this, but you can pursue what’s best for your situation.

Once you dive into the script, it becomes evident there are few moving parts. Let’s walk through the main parts and discuss the code. I also provide a link below to access to a Google Sheet template you can use to build out your own solution.

  1. A script trigger launches the requestExports() function that harvests the document and page names for every document in Coda. This generates an export log with links to the exports in progress.
  2. A separate script trigger generates the Markdown files using the updateExports() function. It downloads each page as a separate Markdown file and saves them into Google Drive. This process runs on a separate trigger because Coda needs time to generate the export files.
  3. The file system folder, which is also the Acreom vault, syncs from Google Drive, and the new or updated files appear instantly in Acreom.

You can ease into this approach or craft one like it using other tools and APIs. The code is available to paid subscribers of Impertinent.