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Tot

Over the holidays, my friend Craig Hockenberry started working on a small Mac app with a small name: Tot. The basic idea: Tot has one window containing seven and only seven scratchpads for collecting text. Tot is most certainly not a full-blown notes app — it’s like the difference between scrap paper and a notebook. Tot is a replacement for temporary Untitled documents in your favorite text editor or full-blown notes app. Tot was largely inspired by Andre Torrez’s utterly simple but deceptively clever app Tyke — a simple scratchpad that lives in your menu bar.

By default Tot works like a regular Mac app, with an icon in your Dock and a regular window. But a prefs setting lets you turn it into a menu bar app, which, I suspect, is how a lot of Tot users will use it. The seven scratchpads are called dots, and each dot has its own color. They work like tabs, basically. You can toggle each dot between a basic rich text view (bold, italics, links) and a plain text representation that uses a small subset of Markdown for formatting. I, of all people, was actually against the Markdown feature on the grounds that parsing Markdown is a tricky can of worms, but Hockenberry made it work, and at this point, it’s hard for me to imagine Tot without this feature.

Once it became obvious that Tot was useful as a Mac app, it became obvious that it would be really nice to have an iOS companion app. Somehow, Hockenberry put that together too, with (in my experience) bulletproof syncing via iCloud.

Hockenberry’s colleagues at The Iconfactory made the whole thing beautiful. Two quick months later, and here we are: Tot 1.0 is shipping, in both the Mac and iOS App Stores. The Mac app is free of charge, and the iOS app is $20. Some number of you read the preceding sentence and thought, “$20 for a simple note pad, that’s fucking nuts.” Well, then don’t buy it. I love the pricing scheme. The Mac app is the main attraction for me, and it’s completely free. It’s a gift to the Mac community. $20 is, no question, a lot by iOS standards, but the “standards” for iOS utility app prices are so low as to make it not worthwhile to create iOS utility apps. And this is a simple one-time purchase, not a subscription, not an in-app purchase. You want to use Tot on your Mac? It’s totally free. You want to sync your dots to an excellent iPhone/iPad version of Tot, too? $20.

Tot isn’t properly scriptable with AppleScript, but it does have a URL scheme (documented in Tot’s excellent Help — just that fact that Tot has excellent Help is commendable nowadays) that you can call from AppleScript or shell scripts. Hockenberry wrote a small shell script that works as a command-line companion tool — you can use it to append to or get the contents of any dot by number. I’ve already forked it with a version that adds support for dot “0” (zero) to target the first empty dot, if there is one. So you can do:

date | tot.sh 0 -

to add a timestamp like “Thu Feb 27 16:48:16 EST 2020” to the first empty dot.

A few small details I adore:

  • When running in the Dock, the Mac app’s icon changes color to correspond to the current dot — and matches your choice of light or dark appearance.

  • The iPhone version offers subtle haptic feedback and animation when switching between dots. E.g. if you’re on dot 1 and tap dot 4, you’ll see dots 2 and 3 fly by and feel three subtle haptic taps.

It’s just a great little utility. The limited scope of Tot reminds me of whiteboard space — expansive, but impermanent and set in size. For me it hearkens back to the classic Mac OS Note Pad desk accessory,1 which was limited to just eight sheets, and intended to run as a small window. Tot is a very modern take on that very old idea.


  1. Fire up James Friend’s web-based classic Mac emulator and you can see Note Pad in action — Apple Menu → Note Pad. The fundamental similarity to Tot is striking. ↩︎