July 4, 2021

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Obsidian Is Going to Eat Everyone’s Lunch

Remember how VSCode gobbled up market share?

The main players in the text editor space were Sublime Text, Atom, Emacs, and VIM.

In macOS, they were joined by BBEdit and TextMate.

Now it is VSCode and everyone else.

The Era of Visual Studio Code | Roben Kleene

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I predict that the same thing will happen in the note-taking space with Obsidian. Obsidian will eat everyone’s lunch.

Why?

There are several reasons for this. Let’s go through them.

Free

Obsidian is free to use. You can pay to support the product. You can pay to incorporate sync and publish features. But you don’t have to. The product is fully functional in the free version. There are no nagging or related annoyances if you choose to keep using the product and not pay anything for it.

It is difficult to compete with a free alternative. It is even more difficult to compete with an exceptionally well-thought-out free alternative.

Obsidian Is a Great Markdown Focused Text Editor

Based on Electron, Obsidian is a great product.

  • Full support for CommonMark and Github Flavored Markdown.
  • Local files. You own the files and they reside on your hard drive and not on some unknown cloud managed by your note-taking application.
  • Customizable themes.
  • Customizable hotkeys.
  • Powerful linking features to build your knowledge base.
  • An amazing plug-in ecosystem which has started extending the product.
  • A vibrant community of users both in the forums and on the discord channel.

Obsidian Is “Sticky” Software

What do I mean by “sticky” software? It is software that grows into you. The more you use it, the more you learn it, it becomes a part of you and you get hooked. Obsidian is like that. It does a whole host of things and it is good at them. You discover them and find yourself elated that you have a new trick up your sleeve at making Obsidian behave the way you want it to.

How do you create “stickiness?”

These are the features that help:

  1. Customizable. Everything in the way Obsidian looks is customizable. It is a rabbit hole that will lure you in. If you are a CodeMirror wiz or a CSS wiz, you are going to have a lot of fun tweaking Obsidian to behave the way you want it to. If you are clueless about these things, like me, you are going to have a lot of fun learning. Copying from others and making small changes to Obsidian will fill you with joy.
  2. Customizable hotkeys. Every command in Obsidian is capable of having a keyboard command assigned to it. And you can choose them. Gives you the ability to define the editor you want. An example, Obsidian Hotkeys: Favorites and best practices - Obsidian Forum.
  3. The Plug-ins. Plug-ins fall into two categories. One set of plug-ins add features to the editor. Typewriter Scroll Obsidian Plugin is an example of that. The second set of plug-ins afford you the ability to add multiple workflow improvements to the editor. QuickAdd for Obsidian, or Dataview: A complex query language implementation for the Obsidian note-taking tool., are examples of the second kind. This group is geeky, but the plug-ins add features to the workflow which make Obsidian unique in the market. Entering this rabbit hole will lead to increased customizing of your work in Obsidian. This is the kind of feature which turns software into a cult. Users become true believers. Look at the Emacs user or the VIM user. Obsidian has the beginnings of that.
  4. Knowledge Management and the ecosystem around it. There are a bunch of people who are making money selling various courses build around the concept of knowledge management using Obsidian. That ecosystem is going to keep growing and Obsidian is going to be growing its user-base. This is going to happen because the core of the concept is relevant and meaningful to everyone. We have access to too much information. We are all struggling to use this information. Knowledge management as a function is built around this truism. This is the backbone of Obsidian, the reason for its being. That universal reality is going to make the product “sticky.”
  5. The community. Obsidian has built a user community around its forum and the Discord server. It is populated by a host of helpful, kind, and polite users helping each other. The two developers have a vocal presence on both channels. An engaged user base is going to help propel the philosophy and the product to other users. This is going to mushroom. Being a part of the community will add identity benefits to its users. Putting it in plain terms, stupid people have no knowledge to manage. By definition, if you are trying to manage knowledge, you have differentiated yourself from the clueless.

“Sticky” software creates barriers to switching. If you find yourself relying on Obsidian for all of your work, you are going to find it difficult to move on from it. The invested time in learning and creating familiarity is the sunk cost that will keep you in Obsidian. Why would you take the trouble of checking out something new, if you are happy and comfortable in the solution you are using?

Bottom Line

If you are competing with Obsidian, you are screwed. That includes the major players like Roam Research, Notion, and Logseq. You are going to be around, but the market leader is going to be Obsidian. You are going to be playing catch up. The battle is over.

I wanted to end the article here. But my marketing brain wanted to answer the next question.

How Do You Compete Against Obsidian?

I know about the macOS side of the market. My comments are about that market. Don’t know Windows or Linux.

Rich text

Don’t understand it, but there is a sizable chunk of customers who love rich text. Position your product for that crowd. Of course, that will mean you are stuck to a format that is not malleable and the product is going to have to do a lot of things on its own and won’t have a plug-in ecosystem around it. But the people who love rich text are not going to mind. A product that does this well is Scrivener. Yes, it is positioned as “writing software.” However heavy users of Scrivener tend to use it for everything, including note-taking and journaling.

Go Native

Be more macOS compliant than Obsidian. That is not difficult to do. Support Services. Support the native dictionary. Support text replacement settings. Support iCloud. Have an iOS and a macOS presence and tout that you are wedded to the Apple ecosystem. That is going to get you some traction and lose you some of the cross-platform users. That is the cost of this focus. Ulysses, Drafts and Bear are examples of this strategy.

Build a Product Which Is Extendable by Design

If you are going to directly compete with Obsidian, you need a plug-in ecosystem. This is a risky strategy. Building a community around your product is difficult. Drafts has done an excellent job of that. It is doable, but it is not easy.

I am not sure about Nova1, but it is also trying to implement that strategy for a text editor. Nova is also playing the “native” product card, but that is a difficult game to play in the text editor marketplace. Sublime Text, BBEdit, and TextMate are “native” too.

Target Your Product to Smaller Niches

Design a note-taking app for engineers. Design a note-taking app for software developers. Design a note-taking app for fiction and non-fiction writers. Specialize. If you are focused on a smaller segment, you might be able to play in the plain text market, the specialization has to add real value for you to sustain a fight against “free.”

Simple

A market hole that exists in a lot of software markets is “simple.” Developers shy away from it, but there is a market for that. Explicitly make your product simple. The product does less but is easy to use and easy to learn. By design, it is a distillation of the feature set of the behemoths and is fast and competent. The charm of Notational Velocity and nvALT was attributable to the “simplicity” in their use and design. They were note-taking apps that did not have the features of the big guns but were easy to use and filled the needs of many users. nvUltra2, still in beta, could be another competitor in that space. The Archive (macOS) • Zettelkasten Method also plays in that space.

The geeks are going to move to feature-heavy applications, but normal human beings don’t want to deal with complicated note-taking applications. They will like a solution that lets them take notes and access them easily without worrying about links, back-links, and graph views of their notes.

Think about Byword. The sustained popularity of Byword is due to its simplicity.

Simple software has its adherents.

Reposition

Change the rules.

Drafts is an excellent note-taking application or a writing application. But it is positioned as the entry point for all your writing. The logic? It is the only one in that space. No one explicitly competes in that space. You start writing in Drafts and then take the content over to some other program. Why the hell would you want to do that? I want to start writing in my editor and stay there. What is with the moving around? But it works for Drafts. In reality, it is an excellent text editor. With a whole community of users who design themes and actions for the product. You could if you wanted to, live entirely in Drafts. Letting it handle everything that you write. But the positioning works and Drafts is an essential product for many users both on iOS and macOS.

Is iA Writer: The Benchmark of Markdown Writing Apps a writing app or a note-taking app? Who cares? iA Writer is a writing program that restricts the choices you can make by providing you a well-designed environment for you to live in. They, unlike Byword, have steadily added features to the product. iA Writer handles and manages all your files and folders of text files and aspires to be the best Markdown-focused text editor that it can be. You can take notes in it, you can write your version of War and Peace in it. Characterized by fast search, great Markdown support, and an iconic writing environment, iA Writer competes well in this space.

That is what I have at this stage. Don’t pick this fight if you can avoid it. But these are some ways you can carve up a niche in this space.

Conclusion

I enjoyed writing this article. Hope you enjoyed reading it. As you can tell, I am all-in on Obsidian. I haven’t had this much fun since discovering and adopting Sublime Text as my main editor. I will write more about Obsidian as we go along. I will end here for now.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie.

Note: Thanks to Photo by Alexas Fotos.

Another take on Obsidian: Notes on Obsidian


  1. VSCode is probably beating it silly, that is why Nova has to do ridiculous things like claiming that the latest release is version 7. It was released less than a year ago. Come on, version numbers should mean something.↩︎

  2. nvUltra is going through a redesign of some sort. The beta is stuck to minor bug fixes and the main activity is going on off beta. I have no idea what is going on, but I suspect that the changing market conditions (Roam and Obsidian), have necessitated a re-evaluation of the product. Again, I have no idea if this is true, but that is my gut instinct.↩︎


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