Retiring DEVONthink

    I used DEVONthink for many years to store, organize, and search all of my personal information. Nothing else came close to its wide variety of pro-level data management features when I started with it. However, times change. While DEVONthink continually improves, so do its alternatives. For my needs today it’s a complicated, expensive tool that’s no longer worth the extra effort and expense over other products.

    I recently realized I hadn’t launched DEVONthink in months. When I tried to, I remembered that I was out of licenses for it. DEVONthink is licensed by the number of computers you want to use it on. By a quirk of fate, I own or personally operate 4 Macs:

    • An older Mac Mini I bought several years ago and now mainly use as our home server. For example, our document scanner is tethered to it.
    • A work-issued MacBook Pro that mainly sits next to my desk.
    • The Mac Studio I’m typing this on. A previous job issued it to me as a work computer and let me keep it when I left. My current job manages it for me so that I can use a very fast plugged-in computer with several large monitors when I’m working from my home office.
    • A MacBook Air I bought for myself last year when I needed a newer computer of my own before the Studio was given to me.

    I’m the only person who uses these computers. Because of DEVONthink’s weird licensing scheme, my $199 Pro license makes me pick and choose which 2 I want to be allowed to use. I could pay another $198 to use my other 2, oooorrrr I could switch to another system. That was the kick in the pants I needed to investigate the options.

    I ended up following the Unix philosophy of selecting well-crafted single-purpose tools for each of DEVONthink’s features. If I decide to replace one of them, I can swap something else in while I keep using all the others.

    Storage and sync

    I configured DEVONthink to sync my documents with iCloud, including to DEVONthink’s separate $50 iPhone and iPad app. Therefore iCloud Drive was the easy choice for storing all my information and syncing it across my devices. This cost nothing extra since I was already paying for it.


    I use the Johnny Decimal system to assign each of my documents to the right folder. The closest thing to that collection of folders in DEVONthink is that same collection of folders in iCloud Drive.

    Now I use Hazel instead of DEVONthink’s “classify” feature for automatically sending files to the right place. Cost: $42, or $20 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 4 years, so the upgrade price is about $5 per year.)


    DEVONthink has a fantastic search tool. So does HoudahSpot. I set up a global keyboard shortcut to open its search window no matter which app I’m currently using. HoudahSpot also searches locations like network drives and USB devices without indexing them in advance. Cost: $34, or $19 for an upgrade. (New major versions come out about every 3 years, so the upgrade price is about $6 per year.)


    DEVONthink has limited support for taking Markdown notes. I tried using it as my catch-all notes app but kept coming back to iA Writer. It’s much better for writing, linking between notes, publishing to various online services, and as of recently automating my workflows with Shortcuts. I don’t count Writer’s one-time $50 purchase price in my total because, like iCloud, I was paying for it anyway.

    Aside: If your workflows are centered around Markdown, get Marked 2 while you’re at it. Thank me later.

    Linking everything

    DEVONthink has mechanisms to link related objects together. Hookmark (which I’ve written about before) can make links between just about anything. I used it instead of DEVONthink’s features. Cost: $70 for the 1st year then $35 per year.


    I appreciate DEVONthink’s powerful features. However, other tools caught up with or surpassed it to the point that I had been using it as one part of a broader system:

    • DEVONthink to organize, store, and search my documents
    • …into folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • iCloud to sync them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    Now I’m using:

    • Hazel to organize my documents
    • …into iCloud Drive folders laid out as recommended by Johnny Decimal
    • HoudahSpot to search for them
    • iA Writer to take notes and edit Markdown
    • Hookmark to link between documents, web pages, tasks in OmniFocus, network files, and so on

    DEVONthink is better than any of those individual parts, but each of those individual parts is better at the one thing they do than DEVONthink is. Hazel is a better organizer. HoudahSpot is a better searcher. iA Writer and Hookmark are better for writing and linking. And while the end goal of this wasn’t directly to save money, as I’m not allergic to spending money on things that make my life better, DEVONthink’s sticker shock is what nudged me into action. It’s a happy result to end up with a more powerful, flexible system that’s cheaper to maintain.

    DEVONthink’s been good to me. It helped me collect and organize all the information I use in my personal and professional lives. Still, its alternatives got better and learned to play well with each other. Now it’s an overly expensive tool that’s less good at addressing my needs than the cheaper, better tools that replaced it.

    About the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking

    I’ve written before about Hook, a nifty way of linking things you’re working on together so you can seamlessly bounce between them. I’ve thoroughly integrated it into my workflow now and adore how quickly I can jump from one document to another — in a different app, even — without ever looking away from my work. It helps me reach and maintain a state of flow.

    Hook depends on an app’s ability to support deep linking to its contents. Many apps are helpful, like OmniFocus. It supports both a right-click “Copy as Link” action to all sorts of items, and allowing other apps to ask it for a link to its currently selected item. Consequently, Hook’s OmniFocus support is top-tier, and I can make links between a to-do item and the website that documents how to do it. Other apps are less helpful, like Apple’s own Reminders app which supports neither users nor other apps asking for a direct link to an item. It somewhat supports drag-and-drop linking to other apps, but that’s not nearly so convenient and powerful as OmniFocus’s methods.

    Apps should be more like OmniFocus than Reminders. To that end, Hook’s author Luc P. Beaudoin collaborated with an all-star list of Apple software developers to write the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking, which says in part:

    We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.

    We invite software developers to do their part, by

    1. ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
    2. providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).

    I could not agree with this, or endorse it, more heartily. Anyone can write an app that locks away content behind its own twisty maze of navigation links. The best and most powerful applications open themselves to users. Today I can link from an OmniFocus action to a DEVONthink document, and from there to an Obsidian note, whether on my Mac or my phone or iPad. Tomorrow, I want to go directly into any of my apps. If you’re an Apple developer, please take the time to read and consider this manifesto.

    Review: Hook by CogSci

    I’ve been playing with Hook, an app I’ve started hearing about. It’s an interesting bird, and its own docs didn’t explain why I should want to use it. That’s too bad, because after downloading it and playing around for a few days, I understand why people are excited about Hook.

    Let me try my own explanation:

    Hook knows how to talk to a lot of other apps (about 150 as of now) and ask or direct them to do a few things:

    • Get the ID of the active item in the app, like the omnifocus:///task/... link of the selected item in OmniFocus.
    • Open the item in the app with a given ID.
    • Get the name of the active item in the app, like the title of the front tab in Safari.
    • Create a new item in the app.

    Those first 2 options are interesting because many of its supported apps don’t offer their own URL scheme. You can refer to a web page by its address or an OmniFocus object by its URL as seen above, but Apple’s own Notes app doesn’t offer a way to make a link to a specific note. Hook solves this by offering its own URL scheme. For instance, if I try to open the URL hook://notes/dt/1498065293 on my Mac, it opens the Hook app, which sees that it’s supposed to open the Notes app, and uses AppleScript or JavaScript wizardry to go straight to the desired note. Or consider emails, each with their own unique Message-ID. Hook accepts URLs like hook://email/[Message-ID] and opens them in your favorite mail app, even if you’ve moved the mail to a different folder or switch mail apps since you copied the link.

    That’s slick, and if Hook only allowed me to deep link straight into Mail and Notes and Finder and iTerm (!!!) and VS Code (now you’re showing off), it would be invaluable.

    The “a-ha!” moment was understanding that Hook itself stores links between objects, even if they’re not editable. For example, suppose you’re viewing a PDF and it reminds you of a web page. You can ask Hook to copy the PDF’s location in Finder. When you open the web page in Safari, you can use Hook’s “Hook to Copied Link” action to make a two-way link (the eponymous “hook”) between the PDF and the web page. That is, if you come back to that web page a week later and wonder what PDF it reminds you of, you can press the Hook shortcut and it will pop up a list of all documents “hooked” to that web page. Use the arrow keys to scroll down to the PDF and press enter, then voila!, it opens the PDF for you.

    This is the magic in Hook: you can make linkages between resources that aren’t under your own control. You don’t download a webpage and then edit its metadata to link to the PDF. Hook says “oh, when you’re looking at this page, I’ll remember that it made you interested in this PDF”. And even if that PDF can’t be edited to add a link to the webpage, Hook manages that association for you.

    In this sense, Hook is like a personal wiki, except that you don’t have to edit a page to associate bits of data and that doesn’t have to be in the same app. You open the first item and press a few keys, then open the second item and press a few more, and now your system knows that you think these 2 items are related and can remind you of that later. That’s powerful. It’s easy enough to make a link from a Things action to its information resources in DEVONthink. Linking from DEVONthink information back to Things so that you can bounce right back to your project planning without lifting your hands from the keyboard? That’s harder, and it’s the true value of Hook.

    A note on terminology: giving things a good name is hard, but I might’ve called “Hook to Copied Link” almost anything else. My mind kept reading “Hook” as a noun, as though I were converting it to a “Copied Link” similar to calling “JPEG to PNG” in a graphics program. Instead it’s a verb: “create a link back to the item whose link is in the clipboard” is clearer to me, although too verbose.

    Hook is available in a free version that’s focused on opening links, not making them. The idea is that you can send your coworker a link to a file stored in Git or Dropbox, or an email they were Cc’ed on, and they can go straight to it. That’s nifty, but in practice I can’t imagine my friends tolerating this: “hey Tom, I’m going to send you a link, and you’ll need to download this free app from…” “Stop right there.” Hook is cool and I’ve told several friends about it, but I’m not kidding myself about the likelihood of them all installing it.

    Maybe I’ll look back on this in a few years and laugh at my own skepticism because it became the universal standard app that everyone uses, but I’m not counting on it.


    CogSci, Hook’s authors, have an interesting licensing model: if you buy the “essentials” or “pro” version, you can use any new versions that come out within 12 months of your purchase date for free, forever. If newer versions come out with features you can’t live without, you can buy a discounted renewal license that’s good for another 12 months of updates.

    I love this idea. I hate renting software, and this is a nice compromise between an unsustainable “buy it once and get free support for the rest of your life” and “keeps working as long as you keep paying”. I wish this licensing model were the norm.


    The few things I dislike about Hook are minor:

    1. It’s not available for iPhone and iPad. I’m not sure how an iOS version of Hook would work (perhaps through the Share action? Through drag and drop?), but I wish it were on my favorite mobile platforms. I’m using my iPad for a lot of work I’d would have used my Mac for before and cross-platform tools are splendid. An mobile “Hook Lite” version that supported opening hook:// links would help a lot.
    2. I haven’t met another person using it. Although I’ve read articles about Hook, I’m the only person among my friends, family, and coworkers who has it installed. The link sharing idea could be brilliant if it becomes ubiquitous but I don’t want to be its lone evangelist among the people I know, many of whom are still annoyed by my Emacs and Amiga days.
    3. CogSci: please ask someone who doesn’t work with you to review your home page. All the information there is technically accurate, but much of it only becomes clear to users who’ve downloaded Hook and experimented with it. If I hadn’t been evaluating the app on the recommendation of a friend, I might not have downloaded it. Your app is cool. Give it some marketing love!

    Summary: try it.

    I like Hook. I haven’t registered it yet but I’m leaning that way. Again, if Hook only allowed me to create deep links into apps that don’t natively support them, that’s enough reason to buy it. I’m not sold on the life-changingness of the bidirectional links between documents — not because I don’t think it’s an wonderful idea, but because I’m a sucker for things that promise to be the cure for what ails ya and then become disillusioned when they’re not as amazing as I’d hoped. For example, I’d heard that Zettlekasten note keeping is the magic key to life-long productivity, but realized that it’s a nice solution to problems I don’t have. I’m being cautious about Hook for the same reason. But skepticism aside, I think its core conceit that making links between all your related resources is valuable has merit, and Hook makes this easy. I’m still in the trial period my wish is it’s as helpful as CogSci thinks it will be.

    Try Hook. I think we’re going to like it.