in commentary, Mac apps

Why aren’t more apps using LinkBack?

I just read about LinkBack, an open source framework sponsored by Nisus Software that’s been around since 2005. I guess I’m a little late to the game, but I thought I’d share it in case you’ve never heard of it. Right now, 22 applications support it.

LinkBack is best described with an example: Suppose you create a vector graphic in Lineform. Then, you drag and drop your creation into a VoodooPad document. Later, you realize you need to update the graphic. Since both apps support LinkBack, you double-click the graphic from within VoodooPad, edit it in Lineform (which opens automatically), then save it. Now your embedded VoodooPad graphic is updated.

That’s handy.

I’ve been thinking about what applications I use that support a similar sort of inter-application linking. Let’s see. I can open up and edit my iPhoto images in PhotoShop. I can use CSSEdit or TextMate to directly edit documents on the server with Transmit. And Adobe CS3 handles cross-application editing of files fairly well (within the Adobe apps, of course). That’s all I can think of.

I found two posts relating to the launch of LinkBack from March 2005. One is from TidBITS, the venerable weekly Mac newsletter that’s been around since 1990. The other is from O’Reilly’s LinkBack launched with relative optimism. Yet I could not readily find any recent posts, reviews or otherwise about it. So why haven’t more developers integrated it into their products? Why only 22 apps after three years? Anybody?

By the way, in the post from, the author (Giles Turnbull) pointed out that one can hit ⌘-J while typing a post in MarsEdit to open up an external text editor. I did not know that. Now that I do, I’ll probably be writing all my posts in TextMate — the TextMate HTML bundle and text abilities are far more robust than MarsEdit. Of course, I could add my own Markup to MarsEdit, but I think it will just be easier (more efficient) to open it up in TextMate. I thought it was pretty cool that I learned a new tip from a three year old post.

  1. On Linkback: I find it really useful with OmniGraffle, Keynote (needs a plugin, recently updated for the latest iWork), and LaTeXiT. I did not know VoodooPad supports it, which is very nice. Oh, and looking at the list of applications, I also see Curio. Great!

    I find that the best use for LinkBack is not linking (many applications support external links now), but for embedding some form of export. Let me give an example: if I need some LaTeX equation in a presentation, I generate it using LaTeXiT and drap the pdf output to the presentation. I actually need the pdf to be displayed (and not just referenced) in the presentation, and this is where LinkBack shines. I do similar things with OmniGraffle diagrams (in fact, I often have presentations containing diagrams containing equations…)

  2. I think the reason LinkBack isn’t more widespread is because it’s a fairly passive feature: useful if you need it and know about it, but something that otherwise just lurks silently in the background. Additionally, I don’t think people think to request it from developers.

    If more developers were aware of the technology and decided to implement it, I think LinkBack could gain pretty widespread acceptance to the point that users would just assume an application would have it (kind of like Sparkle). However, I think such a movement would have to come from the developers; users aren’t going to think of this themselves, because it’s not part of the standard way we work.

  3. brab: given your line of work, I imagine you probably need the embed more than most since you’re always needing to place complex equations created in LaTeX. I didn’t even know what Curio was, by the way, but you sounded pretty enthusiastic about it, so I’m off to check it out.

    Ian: Yeah, and Sparkle is a really good example — most people just expect apps to have a self-update feature now and are probably annoyed if it doesn’t. About LinkBack, I guess what interested me most about it is the idea of apps sharing data robustly, seamlessly and in both directions. I’d really like to see the ability to change an embedded object in one app and have this embedded object update in all instances wherever it appears (in as many apps as it is embedded, as well as the original file).

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