org-mode In Your Pocket Is a GNU-Shaped Devil

February 3rd, 2010  |  Published in mac and iphone  |  22 Comments


If the iPhone has helped me accomplish one thing, it has probably been to make it easier for me to stay away from Emacs.

It works like this:

It is not controversial to assert that Emacs is an environment all its own. You can find libraries and packages that allow Emacs to acknowledge and talk to outside environments, so it’s not a closed environment, but it’s different enough that there’s some fiddling involved to get it chatting with the outside world.

The iPhone could also be considered an environment all its own, but it’s an environment built with an eye on a broader context. iPhones have a pretty easy time doing things like talking to iCal or Outlook with a few button clicks, for instance. Now, unlike Emacs, there’s a point with the iPhone where no amount of grunting or straining will matter, and if you want it to talk to something else nobody else has bothered to make it talk to, there’s an SDK you can download.

All that said, when Emacs and iPhone can both respond to a particular requirement with “there’s an [app|elisp package] for that,” the iPhone variation will usually involve a quick download and three or four fields in a configuration screen, tops.

When I got an iPhone, I was a pretty heavy Emacs org mode user. The smartphone I had prior to the iPhone was a BlackBerry, and the BlackBerry never really talked to my Mac on any useful level: lost contacts, extra contacts, a new contact for every phone number I had listed for what had once been a single contact, crummy calendar syncing, forget about bookmarks syncing, etc. etc. etc. Because the BlackBerry sucked for me as a Mac user, and because iCal was anemic when it came to todos, org mode was able to fend off everything.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about org mode except to say that it’s neat. You just open a “.org” file in Emacs and start typing using a pretty simple notation. For instance …

* PracNet

** TODO Look at reviews: can we get user information to the front page? (ASP)

   DEADLINE: <2008-07-03 Thu>

** TODO Look at inside pages: make a toolkit for callouts that can fit into the CSS

   DEADLINE: <2008-07-07 Mon>

When that text appears in an Emacs buffer in org mode, it’s nicely color coded. A few keystrokes make it easy to cycle between “TODO” and “DONE” or some other status.

As with all things Emacs, it’s very customizable.

Then the iPhone came along and promised me that if I would accept a few small tradeoffs, it would sync up with a lot more of my stuff: bookmarks, addresses, e-mail, etc. etc. etc. I’d have all that stuff in my pocket, and when I returned home my Mac would automagically commune with it to learn what had changed in my absence.

org mode fell by the wayside, and the little ecosystem I’d created within Emacs crumbled because it was no longer a place to live … just a place to visit when I needed to push text around.

So MobileOrg strikes me as fascinating and horrifying at the same time. All it does is this:

You save your Emacs org mode files on a WebDAV server, load MobileOrg onto your iPhone, and you’ll have org mode on your iPhone and it’ll all sync up, just like Remember the Milk or ToodleDo or any of the other todo services that have “an app for that.”

“If you are a MobileMe user, you already have access to a WebDAV server: iDisk,” says the MobileOrg site in a manner I cannot help but read as insinuating.

“Sucker … walked away from Emacs and even took the extra step of slurping the MobileMe kool-aid thinking it’d harden your resolve against ever returning. Well … fine … keep your precious iDisk … it will become the tool of your re-liberation.”

Less than two years ago, when I was venturing forth from org mode and getting to know the iPhone as a way to keep all my Stuff in sync, MobileOrg would have had me at hello. Now it just gives me the shaking fits.

With Emacs, you don’t just go “la la la … I’m gonna add org mode back and call it a day!” You think to yourself, “I love org mode. I wish there was an easy way to turn an e-mail message into a todo …” and the next thing you know you’re dealing with how to configure GNUS.

Then you think “All my calendar stuff is in Google calendar … how can I get it into my org mode agenda?” and that means you’re off reading this guy’s page and just getting angrier and angrier.

Then you go in the kitchen and make a drink, and while you’re making it and calming down you think to yourself, if I’m doing all this stuff in Emacs anyhow, what would it hurt to follow Twitter in Emacs?

Now you’re not drinking because you’re angry … you’re drinking because you wonder what happened to you and it makes you sad. But you’re drunk, so it seems like a perfectly good idea to build an entire Web site using nothing but Emacs because then you can get a LaTeX version of it for if the asteroids hit and their radiation destroys all HTML. And having decided to do that, part of you thinks about how glad you are you have org mode, so you can organize the lengthy process of making sure you never have to leave Emacs again.

It’s knowing what’s in store for me as I sit here with MobileOrg on my iPhone and the necessary WebDAV share all set up that makes me read this and just want to spit nails:

At its core, Org-mode is a simple outliner for note-taking and list management. You can learn the basics for using it in five minutes. This may be all you need, and Org-mode will not impose more complex features on you.

That’s right … because org-mode is just a collection of lisp running in an editor. It cannot impose more complex features on you. The genius of org-mode is that you will eventually impose more complex features on yourself.


  1. Jason Earl says:

    February 4th, 2010 at 4:22 pm (#)

    I would like to thank you for the best article I have read in my entire life. I will say that I simply gave up and carry around a netbook so that I could have a proper Emacs with me all of the time.

    Unfortunately, my netbook makes for a very poor phone.

  2. Per says:

    April 4th, 2010 at 7:12 am (#)

    Hi, it was nice to read your thoughts. Org-mode indeed seems simple at first, but then you get hooked and start to dig deeper and deeper. Org-mode now constitutes my existential centre point. I have a hard time to get people realise its greatness – the learning curve is somewhat steep if you want to reach the real gems.

    I can understand your point, and why you left the org-mode-goodness behind. This won’t work for me though, it’s just too satisfying. I’m setting up all kinds of sync between my new Android phone and my repository of org-files.

    Good luck with your new way of organising stuff. /Per

  3. David Rivers says:

    August 6th, 2010 at 10:45 pm (#)

    Lmao! I just discovered Org-Mode and have once again knowingly directed myself into a rabbit hole. I use a Palm Pre, so I’ve already decided that I should write a WebOS app for Org-Mode, like that iPhone one (Le sigh…).

    I’m sure I’ll spend all weekend trying to figure out how to get Org-Mode agenda files to sync to my Google Cal., but what can I say? I kinda knew that The UNIX Way was a time-suck getting into it anyway. The rabbit hole just gets deeper and deeper…

  4. Brad says:

    September 9th, 2010 at 10:07 pm (#)

    LOL when I got to the agenda bit and getting angrier and angrier, and especially your last line. Comic genius. You helped me laugh about my tumultuous relationship with the org-mode rabbit hole. I created the first hack to capture voice notes directly into org-mode via the Reqall iphone app. Help! Can’t I forget lisp and make do with Google tasks in my gmail window? Although … maybe I could sync those with org-mode TODOs… I need a drink.

  5. Greg says:

    September 16th, 2010 at 4:58 pm (#)

    Argh… Just when I was getting through my org-mode “TODO” list on what I needed to learn or customized in org-mode I now have to take a look at the Google Calendar integration..

    Curse you! (Great post… I swore I was done with emacs 10+ years ago and here I am… Again. I haven’t fallen down the color rabbit hole again though… Yet.)

  6. link dump › links for 2010-10-01 says:

    October 1st, 2010 at 5:03 pm (#)

    […] org-mode In Your Pocket Is a GNU-Shaped Devil :: dot unplanned With Emacs, you don’t just go “la la la … I’m gonna add org mode back and call it a day!” You think to yourself, “I love org mode. I wish there was an easy way to turn an e-mail message into a todo …” and the next thing you know you’re dealing with how to configure GNUS. […]

  7. sapht says:

    October 7th, 2010 at 8:37 am (#)

    From my perspective, org-mode is a data organizer and GTD system in one. I’m originally a vi user, but now I’m learning emacs for the sole purpose of using org-mode. I really believe the frustration you describe is self-imposed and not necessary for the system to function. Even if you need to spend time hacking away to integrate it with Calendar Application Y, Web Service X and Email Program Z, I feel org-mode is so well-made it replaces competing applications even below the highest level of integration and complexity.

  8. Josh says:

    November 1st, 2010 at 2:30 pm (#)

    I have been neglecting org-mode of late since I haven’t been able to get it working intelligently with Outlook (the scheduling and email vehicle of choice at the company at which I work), but thank you for inspiring me to rekindle my obsession.

  9. mph says:

    November 1st, 2010 at 4:38 pm (#)

    Well, Josh … I don’t know what to say except “I’ve failed.” ;-)

  10. New Years’ Resolution one of two: Emacs, Emacs, Emacs « Intellectual Scribblings says:

    January 5th, 2011 at 11:10 am (#)

    […] org-mode In Your Pocket Is a GNU-Shaped Devil | dot unplanned – down the rabbit hole […]

  11. If I'm doing all this stuff in Emacs anyhow, what would it hurt … @ Sore Eyes says:

    August 13th, 2011 at 3:21 pm (#)

    […] if you're not a fan of Emacs, if you're any sort of geek you'll find the feelings evoked in org-mode In Your Pocket Is a GNU-Shaped Devil horrifyingly familiar:With Emacs, you don't just go "la la la … I'm gonna add org mode back […]

  12. Bob says:

    September 3rd, 2011 at 11:59 am (#)

    For years I have been trying to escape EMACS and org-mode. I thought when I got my Droid X that would be the time. But it just won’t happen. I am addicted. There is no mistake. I can’t even take the first step of ditching LaTeX.

  13. caughtinatrap says:

    October 19th, 2011 at 7:21 am (#)

    Very funny! I was just searching for a way to make emacs the editor for outlook so I didn’t have to leave emacs or org-mode when I clicked onto this page. this was after spending several hours getting Ispell and Flyspell to work in windows xp. I am so hooked. Evil genius.

  14. son says:

    October 28th, 2011 at 7:16 pm (#)

    I love this article! Thanks for your clever expression.

  15. OrgMode for iPhone | Revolusionline says:

    December 5th, 2011 at 1:07 pm (#)

    […] […]

  16. David Ongaro says:

    March 4th, 2013 at 12:02 am (#)

    Just noticed today’s the 3rd birthday of this article. To appreciate this day would you let us know how far you’ve come with your org-mode integration?

  17. Not so much after all :: dot unplanned says:

    May 5th, 2013 at 11:01 am (#)

    […] the org-mode one one, because it really seems to make people […]

  18. Svlad Cjelli says:

    September 6th, 2013 at 10:37 am (#)

    So true!

  19. Onkell Wang says:

    December 9th, 2013 at 2:25 am (#)

    My answer to your problem: have a copy of org files in Dropbox, which are read-only. And then, when you are not at home, write down everything in a file which also located in Dropbox. When you return home, sync by hand to your editable org files.

  20. Fred Concklin says:

    January 28th, 2014 at 4:06 pm (#)

    This is all too real for me. Try linking to IRC rooms in org-mode through launching ERC.

  21. Nathanael Farley says:

    July 29th, 2014 at 2:10 am (#)

    Story of my life! I love org-mode but it need it mobile. MobileOrg has moved on (you can use dropbox now) but it’s no lisp interpreter.

    At the moment I’m trying to get Evernote integration with org-mode. Either that, or a phone that runs on Emacs lisp.

  22. Org mode vs. Evernote | The Breakfast Tram says:

    October 17th, 2014 at 6:34 am (#)

    […] to create presentations, normal documents and create multi-code documents. But by far, the best/worst feature is the ability to extend Org mode yourself. You can literally spend days configuring and […]

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