Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New breed - conclusions

What works for you may not work for me. At this moment, I'm looking for a storage system focused on plain text, Dropbox and (to a lesser extent) Google. Then, I want to be able to get to my files, to revise them, from any of my platforms. I want a clean editing environment that has a handful of functions readily to hand, that doesn't get in my way.

So based on this quick review, I seem to have settled on a few clear choices. All of them (other than Simplenote, which has its own cloud storage) allow me to edit files sitting in Dropbox, which makes them cross-platform.

Windows: Simplenote (and ResophNotes), WriteMonkey and Writebox. WriteMonkey begins to look like a true, new, writing environment. Focuswriter is another good choice. Note that all of these are free.

Mac: Simplenote (and nValt), Writebox, and Focuswriter. But I'm leaving that platform. Again, all are free.

Linux: Simplenote in browser, Focuswriter, and Uberwriter. Uberwriter costs $5; the others are free.

iOS: SimpleNote, Daedulus, Writebox, and I still like Plaintext 2. Editorial would be the next step up, but I don't seem to need it, just yet. Only SimpleNote is free. But the others are all very inexpensive.

Android: Simplenote, and Writebox. Again, SimpleNote is free. I didn't get into JotterPad X, which seemed another fine choice, and also offers *local* storage on Android devices. I can also use a combination of the Dropbox app and some built in editor options. Writebox, then, would be used for the creation of new files.

My broader conclusion is that I like the shift to minimalist, plain text, markdown files. I like the look of the apps, I like the robust durability and portability of the files, and I like the new, surprisingly low cost of the applications. While my preferred writing environment continues to be the cross-platform (at least on Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops) Notecase Pro, I find that it's easy to write in these new applications.

What do you think?

New breed - Daedulus

Daedulus is iPad only, and has a unique UI. Instead of the file and folder metaphor, or the two column approach, Daedulus uses "stacks." A stack is like a folder. Sheets can be created within it - and can be flicked around within the stack, or across them in one of the best uses of the touch screen I've seen. I'm writing these reviews in Daedulus, and it's a lot of fun. With the ability to shuffle the sheets, and search across them, this is far better than Plaintext. 

While the basic version is free, to get Dropbox syncing and exporting, you need to shell out some cash. I bought the bundle for $3.99.

Daedulus syncs up with Ulysses III through iCloud, I understand, but I haven't tested that. Although I have a Mac (my son's abandoned laptop), it's not really my basic platform.

It is Dropbox enabled -  the files are syncing to a Daedalus folder within Dropbox.

New breed - Plaintext2

One of the first iPad applications I bought was a version of WriteRoom -- arguably, the Mac app that kicked off the whole minimalist writing movement. 

In general, WriteRoom was a stripped-down screen that offered either one or two columns of text. In the two column version, it offered the title of notes on the left, and a wide panel on the right for the text of the selected entry. WriteRoom could be toggled to one pane - full screen text entry, an immersive environment that left you with nothing but space to write. 

WriteRoom no longer works on my recently updated iOS 8.1.2 iPad 2. So I replaced WriteRoom with Plaintext 2. Frankly, Plaintext 2 is not quite as good. It also isn't free (although it's not expensive). Although it does a fine job of integrating with Dropbox, and makes word counts even handier, it has lost the powerful search function, both within and across notes. Still, for short pieces, and for organizing those pieces into something very like folders, it's a pleasureable, intuitive, plain text and focused writing experience.

New breed - Uberwriter

Uberwriter is a Linux-only, Ubuntu-based markdown editor with some strong export options (odt, pdf, epub, rtf, html, latex source, MediaWikie markup).  It sells for $5.

Other features inclue:

- 'Focus' Mode greys out all but the sentence you are actively working on.
- Fullscreen Mode
- Inline Markdown Highlighting
- Live Word and Character counting
- Preview
- Out of the box math support.

I haven't tried it, but it seems a useful tool, and maybe the only Linux markdown editor of note at this writing.

New breed - SmartDown

The Aflava software, SmartDown, is billed as a minimalist markdown editor for Windows. After its free beta, it had an introductory price of $19.95, down from its retail price of $24.99. (This compares to $14.99 for MarkdownPad for Windows, another contender.)

It has a simple, "sandwich" menu interface, with a pleasant enough gray-blue background. It seems to be close to my essential writer tool chest requirements. 

Note: it appears that I can only edit one file at a time. That's too bad.

It has a full complement of text editing and navigation commands, excepting movement by paragraph ((ctrl-up/down). 

Folding 

SmartDown offers *folding*. Anything that follows a heading (line preceded by hashtags) until another heading of the same level or higher can be collapsed simply by clicking on the along the left edge of the window. I guess this includes any other text, until the next header. That's my primary interest in this program.

Spellcheck

It works as expected: anything it flags has a wavy red underline. The dictionary files came with the program, based on Hunspell and Chromium dictionary files for English.

Focus mode

I went to preferences and turned on this toggle. All it seems to do is highlight the current sentence. Once one finishes the sentence, it grays out. Not terribly useful for me, I think, and not the "hoisting" feature (pulling an outline level up so that it is the only visible section on the screen) I thought it would be.

Summary

I like it. It's fast, easy to learn, easy to use, not a bad place to work. Again, I have a growing preference for elegant software. I suspect there is much more that I could do with this - setting up text snippets, and digging a bit deeper into markdown syntax. 

After having spent some time looking at other "zenware" type writing tools , I think SmartDown is quite good. I can thinking of two things that distinguish it from WriteMonkey: live preview of markdown (on demand, rather than constantly on screen), and no need for .net. That probably increases its portability. But I also think that I probably wouldn't use it. I use outliners for complicated things, or LibreOffice for standard documents, and a variety of other apps on other platforms (Workflowy, SimpleNote). My usual discovery is that I don't actually need more tools. I need to spend more time using them.

New breed - WriteMonkey

This writer's environment is free (although donations are accepted, and there is a fee to get various plug-ins), Windows only, and first requires the download and installation of the 4.0+ .net platform (so needs to be installed in anything up to Windows 7, but is there from 8.0 on) . WriteMonkey is a zip file download; once extracted, it can be copied to anywhere, including a USB drive.

The screen is by default perfectly white paper blank. F1 brings up a host of commands. 

Cursor tests

After running through the usual keystrokes:

- all good. There's one change: Alt-Up arrow moves the whole paragraph up, which I adore. Ctrl-Up moves the cursor by paragraph.
- I like the automatic indenting that happens after the insertion of a hyphen.
- Search and replace is solid - one file at a time, I believe.
- ///Bookmarks may be placed - three hyphens, or Alt-M. And the jump command (Alt-Left or Right) allows one to skip around by headings or by bookmarks.

Text checking

- Automatic word count at lower right corner of screen.
- Spell check is a batch process - F7.

Formatting

F1 pops up the help screen. And there are a bunch of interesting commands like "select next sentence." 

After using the complement of various markdown commands, you can check them by entering Ctrl-Shift-E, then selecting Markdown preview.

Exporting

I seem to be able either to export to various formats, or to copy and paste as, for instance, HTML. Through various plug-ins, I can also get a live preview, as opposed to choosing to export to a print preview.

Other

No code folding, at least as of yet. 

WriteMonkey doesn't allow working with more than one file at a time, howeer, the Ctrl-Tab commands allows the rapid recyling through recent files.

There are some interesting things going on with "repositories" - a section within the existing file? 

Summary

The navigational tools and general aesthetics feel good. Rather than just a markdown editor, it really is a writer's toolkit.

New breed - StackEdit

Stackedit (https://stackedit.io/) is a browser-based, markdown editor. It's simple enough for content creation: type on the left panel, see the result on the right.

It also offers a word count, although I had to look for it. On the lower end of the right panel, there's a vertical three dot icon. Touch that, and a box pops up with a panel including a charcter count. Touch that number, and get a word count. The panel will even stay on the screen. It doesn't seem to have a search function, or navigation.

Moreover, although this stores content in the local browser cache, it can be set to sync with Google Docs or Dropbox. Unlike some of the browser editors I've seen, it works well on mobile platforms. It is free, although it prompts you for a $5 donation.

New breed - Writebox

Writebox is a free, in-browser app for Chrome and web browsers. There is a separate app for iOS and Android (for $1.99 each). Its font and background can be fiddled with, but beyond that it is stripped down, perfectly comprehensible, and works with Dropbox and Google Drive. It understands markdown, and can offer a toggled preview. It offers a word count, and the ability to save as html or email text or html. It does not have navigational aids (bookmarks or jump functions) or the ability to directly print.

Apparently it doesn't work as well on the mobile platform browsers. Once you start typing, the menu options disappear.  It has also been reported to struggle with large files (5,000 words or more). But again, there's an advantage to something that stretches across multiple platforms. While it isn't free, it's not expensive, either. I sprung for it.

New breed - Focuswriter

There are a good selection of other "minimalist" programs around on all platforms (WriteRoom, Q10, Darkroom, PyWriter, etc.), but Focuswriter has the distinction of being cross-platform: it is available for the Mac, Windows, and Linux. It is free, and open source.

I looked at it on the Mac. What I like about it:

- plain text - but saves to other formats.
- works with Dropbox
- “distraction free” environment, meaning full screen
- themes (allowing one to change background, including putting an image on the screen, and fiddle with text fonts, sizes, and color) 
- word count
- spell check
- multiple files can be edited at once
- a “focus mode” that highlights either the current paragraph or sentence

There are advantages to having a program that looks and works the same on all your desktops. However, Focuswriter doesn't exist on the iPad or Android.

New breed - Simplenote

Simplenote was one of the first applications I adopted to keep track of notes from multiple devices. It follows a two pane format: title on the left column, content on the right.

Simplenote doesn't do formatting (although the web version, and some clients do offer markdown and Rich Text). Nonetheless, it does have a full complement of text editing controls, gives me an automatic word count, offers a fast and powerful search function, and presents a clean user interface. I do a lot of writing in it, mostly short pieces, but sometimes as long as a magazine article. While Simplenote doesn't offer outlining, it does have a robust system of tagging. Tagging isn't outlining. But it's handy.

Simplenote is free. It saves its files on its own cloud, which has proved to be reliable, and does an admirable job of syncing quickly and correctly across every platform I use. (It also has some popular variants on the desktop: Notational Velocity and nValt for the Mac, Resophnotes for Windows, and nvpy for Linux, among others.) 

New breed of writing apps - introduction

Word processing / text editing / writing software is going through some interesting changes lately. A handful of reasons come to mind.

1. Legacy software is often too complex, riddled with little-used options lost in mazes of menus. We spend more time trying to track down the command we do want than in creating content.

2. It's also a sad reality that many of us have lost files to the proprietary formats of now abandoned software. Wordstar is gone. WordPerfect is gone. The files of Microsoft Word (with its "embrace, extend, and extinguish" approach to standards) are notoriously balky, and likely to be corrupted. But the oldest format of plain text - a format  that can be looked at and edited by many free programs on almost any platform - endures. It is reliable and reusable.

3. Mobile computing is on the rise. We spend less time in front of one machine in one location. We spend more time with smart phones and tablets, which run entirely different operating systems. A particular writing program is unlikely to exist on all of them. But plain text is also portable -- given a cloud-based storage system (like Dropbox or Google), the same file can be edited across several devices in the course of a day.

4. Writing now has many other destinations than paper. It could go to an email, to a blog, to a webpage, to an ebook, to a publishing workflow for a magazine. Today's text is designed to be shared, not just formatted and printed directly.

5. Finally, the Internet itself is a powerful distraction, with notifications popping up all over the screen, and the siren song of endless links.

A combination of all these things has led to the rise of a new aesthetic in writing software: simplicity.

This kind of software goes by many names: distraction-free, zenware, or minimalist. In general, the idea is this: the program has a very small, coherent set of functions. It uses a lot of white space (or black space, or gray space) -- and very little else to clutter up the screen. The application may expand to take up the whole screen, shuffling the World Wide Web offstage entirely. It creates plain text files, although the new "markdown" tags preserve most of the information in the RTF format, but far more simply, and produce much smaller files that are far more easily read by humans and computers alike.

My own writing software needs are modest. While I work on a variety of platforms (Windows/Linux, iPad, Android tablet, and even an old Mac, occasionally), the features I look for don't change much.

Text creation: I look for a consistent set of keyboard text controls that allow me to move rapidly around a sentence and paragraphs instead of fiddling with mouse and touch screen. Let's put search and replace here, too.

Text checking: writers need word count and spell check.

A very few formatting controls (header, bold, italic, links) are handy.

Exporting to other file formats: email, html, doc, pdf is important. 

Outlining: I really like the ability to fold, unfold, navigate, and structurally rearrange my text in larger blocks. ("Folding" hides text subordinate to a heading, allowing the writer to more easily see the bones of a piece.) Until now, these have been considered "outliner" functions, and few word processors have them. But recently, some markdown editors have rolled out the function.

So in the last weeks of December, 2014, I've been looking at some of this new breed of applications. The choices are idiosyncratic: these are the things that caught my eye, and I thought might work in my changing environment. Here's a quick look at them.