The Power of Tiddly

This week’s Loose Wire Service column, a service for print publications,  is on the TiddlyWiki, a piece of software I find myself coming back to from time to time:

This isn’t for everybody, but I’ve found myself recently going back to a little itsy bitsy piece of software that turns your browser into a notebook cum database.

It’s called TiddlyWiki, and it takes the two concepts — tiddlyness, as in smallness, and Wiki, as in simple editing software — about as far as you can take them. The result: a flexible piece of software that contains both the programming needed to run the thing and the information you put it into in one file.

This is how it works. You download the software from, a site run by the TiddlyWiki’s creator, Jeremy Ruston. The file itself is just an HTML file, the same as most web pages you visit.

Inside that one file is all the code you need to start your own TiddlyWiki. Once open, the file has a title, a menu on the right and a couple of basic entries — called Tiddlies, in the trade — already open.

You can then add your own entries by clicking on “New Tiddly”. You can change the title and subtitle of the page by editing the corresponding Tiddly. It’s both nerdy and intuitive: You quickly learn that it’s possible to convert plain text to bold by adding you add two apostrophes before and after the text you want emboldened.

To highlight text in yellow add two @-signs before and after the text. And so on. To edit a Tiddly just double click anywhere in its text; when you’re done, hit Control + Enter, or else click on the Done button.

The power of the TiddlyWiki is, in my view, in how you can organize your entries. You can add tags, or labels, to each entry, adding new ones on the go or from a pull down list of existing tags. You can then see at a glance what entries you’ve got with those tags. You can see your entries in chronological order, or alphabetically. Or you can search through the entries looking for specific words.

Why might you want something like this? Well, there are a number of advantages:

You have a project and you want to keep all the data in one place. Or you want to create small databases of, say, recipes or contacts for a specific project.

You don’t want to splash out for expensive database or outliner software.

You like something like EverNote, but you can never find what you’re looking for.

You crave simplicity. TiddlyWiki is not as fancy as most programs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful.

You’re using both Macs and Windows computers (or Linux); TiddlyWiki works on most browsers, and of course doesn’t care what operating system it’s on.

You like trying something new, but don’t want to get a headache. Tiddly, as they say, ain’t fiddly.

You want something you can put on a USB stick and carry with you, and use on any computer without installing something.

You want to create a quick and dirty website (TiddlyWiki can be uploaded and used as a website, though it’s not overly elegant; as all the data is in one HTML file, it may slow loading the page.

You like programs that are always improving themselves; a passionate user base is always coming up with improvements and add-ons. A great way to waste an evening.

I messed around with it a couple of years back and enjoyed it, but bumped up against its limitations. My main problem was that adding too much to a TiddlyWiki makes it unwieldy. This time around, instead of adding everything to one TiddlyWiki, I made different ones for each specific project.

Keeping the entries smaller and the number of entries to 20 or so made it much easier. It got me through a tricky project, I have to say.

Downsides? Some people swear by the TiddlyWiki, but I suspect it’s the kind of thing you play with, and perhaps come back to from time to time, as the mood and need take you.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone either; some of us just need things to be a bit more straightforward than TiddlyWiki presently is. But for the rest of you, this is a great way to try something a bit different and see if it fits a need you have.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

How to Convert Word 2007 Docs for Macs

A few readers have asked how to convert Word documents created in the new Microsoft Open Office XML Format with the docx extension so they can read them on a Mac. The answer: awkwardly.

Windows users have a converter they can download.

The Microsoft Mac team promised something similar back in December and yet haven’t, as far as I can see, delivered.

Into the gap have stepped some third party developers:

  • Docx Converter will convert a Microsoft Office .docx file into a simple html file. (It strips out some of the formatting, but now supports bold, italic, and underlined text. Left, right, center, and justified alignment etc.) A Mac widget is also available.
  • docx2doc allows you to upload a docx document It was free, but apparently seems to be in such high demand it now costs either $1 or $2 per document converted. Payment is via PayPal; upon payment you’ll receive a download link via email.  
  • Panergy’s docXconverter sounds more straightforward, but will cost you: $20 or $30 for two years of maintenance and upgrades. We should hope Microsoft won’t be that long to come out with their own converter.

None of these is perfect; we shouldn’t have to hand over money just to read a document. Of course the best solution is to save documents in the old doc format if you’re going to share them with other people.

Thanks to these sites, and the comments on them, for pointers: CreativeIQ, APC Mag an Lifehacker.

Microsoft’s IE About Turn

Microsoft, apparently reacting to the rise of Firefox and criticism over security, has reversed engine and said the next Internet Explorer update would come before the next version of Windows, according to CNET:

Reversing a longstanding Microsoft policy, Bill Gates said Tuesday that the company will ship an update to its browser separately from the next version of Windows.

A beta, or test, version of Internet Explorer 7 will debut this summer, Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect said in a keynote address at the RSA Conference 2005 here. The company had said that it would not ship a new IE version before the next major update to Windows, code-named Longhorn, arrives next year.

More on the official IEBlog.

Of course, it’s not just about security. CNET points to complaints about the fact the last version was only available to those who already had XP or had paid for an operating system upgrade, while others have complained about IE’s lack of adherence to web standards such as CSS, PNG, XHTML and XML. To that I’d the tendency to develop pages, either on the Net or within Office, that can only be viewed with IE.

As one poster to the (rather pompous and PR-spun) blog posting announcing the upgrade put it:

But how long do you have to hear people scream and scream and scream that they need and want an updated IE? You play it as if you guys are doing your customers a favor! Get real! You’re only doing it because [Firefox] is gaining popularity.

Stick to standards and don’t add any MS proprietary bs to it and I’m sure you’ll win back a lot of the fans you’ve lost.

(For a glimpse of the legitimate concerns, as well as the rather, er, strong emotions elicited by the topic of browsers, the dozens of comments that follow the blog posting are worth a read. Reading them you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the IE developers who post to the blog; it must be demoralizing to get as many flames as compliments. And I wonder how many more were deleted for language. )

And while we’re on the subject, what I’d like to see next are companies — particularly those in banking and public databases — ensure their sites are compatible with non-IE browsers. It’s shoddy, lazy, and poor business practice to exclude users based on what browser they’re using. Perhaps we should be building a directory of those websites that don’t support all W3C–compliant browsers?

Update: Office Update You Should Probably Have

 If you’ve already upgraded to Microsoft Office 2003 (why, exactly?) there’s an update you should download. This update, Microsoft says in its understated way, “fixes a problem that occurs when you try to open or to save a Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 file, a Microsoft Office Word 2003 file, or a Microsoft Office Excel 2003 file that includes an OfficeArt shape that was previously modified and saved in an earlier version of Microsoft Office.”
It turns out that if you save one of those files containing an OfficeArt shape (a particularly kind of graphic) in Office 2003, then open it in an earlier version of Office, you may lose the whole thing. Or, in Microsoft-speak, “you may experience the following symptoms:
The document may not open completely.
The document may be corrupted.
The document may open but with missing content.
You might receive an error message.”
You’ve been warned. More details here.

Column: WordPerfect Office

Loose Wire — Office Challenge: Corel Software’s latest version of WordPerfect Office has some great features, including a dictionary to die for and fumble-free format switching; Is it time to ditch Microsoft?
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 8 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It requires a brave soul to take on Microsoft on its home turf. Even more so when one of the main selling points is a blue screen that nostalgically reminds users of their youth.

Enter WordPerfect Office 11, the latest version of Corel Software’s suite of applications that is supposed to be an alternative to Microsoft Office, the lumbering behemoth that accounts for more than 90% of the “desktop office-productivity applications” market (in other words: word processing, spreadsheeting, making slide shows to impress the boss). At $300, it’s quite a bit a cheaper than Microsoft’s offering, and with its flexible upgrade policy, it means you can more or less trade in any competing Microsoft program for about $150. Not to be sniffed at if you’re tired of shelling out for a whole department’s worth of word processing. Oh, and for legal eagles and apparatchiks who love the old DOS, blue-screen look of WordPerfect, there’s that too, along with most of the original keystrokes.

But does it really make sense to ditch Microsoft Office? There are plenty of reasons you might not want to: While the main elements of WordPerfect Office are similar to those of Microsoft’s, don’t expect to find all the commands and keystrokes in the same place. That means you and your cohorts will have to unlearn quite a lot. And there are bits missing: There’s no e-mail program in this version, for example. While I found some elements of the word-processing part of the suite useful, I encountered what can only be called weird formatting issues, which nearly cost me this column.

But there are some positives. It will run on operating systems from as far back (gasp) as Windows 98, whereas Microsoft Office 2003 will only run on Windows 2000 and XP (go figure: it takes a non-Microsoft product to run on a Microsoft platform). There’s a great thesaurus and dictionary, courtesy of Oxford, which together give you extended meanings, choices of usage, related words, antonyms and what-have-you. Quattro Pro is a sturdy Excel spreadsheet replacement, while Presentations is half graphics package, half PowerPoint presentation creator.

And Corel goes the extra mile in ensuring that you can switch between formats easily: Say you composed a document in Microsoft Word; you can easily open it in WordPerfect, edit it, and then save it in either format — or countless others. You can even save a file in the Adobe Acrobat format, a great way to ensure your documents look as good on other people’s computers as they do on yours.

This commitment to easy jockeying between formats is a major strength. But it’s only part of what may be the future of software, and, perhaps, the salvation of Corel: easy switching of data between computers, between programs and between platforms, using something called Extensible Markup Language. XML — an open-source language developed by a consortium of manufacturers and developers — is an improved version of HTML, the programming language used to make Web pages. Simply put, HTML uses hidden tags so that different browsers know how to present information in similar ways: The tag <Title>, for example, tells the browser to use whatever font and layout it is programmed to use for that style to display the title of the Web page you’re viewing. HTML tags, however, are preset — Title, Bold, whatever — whereas XML tags can be modified by the user. Under XML a tag can be very specific, classifying the data it refers to: <Explanation of technical term>, for example, or <Inventory of pigs’ trotters from the Russian Steppes>, or <Information given by tech columnist that is needlessly confusing reader>. Any document that uses those tags can, in theory, hook up with another document that’s agreed on the same tags, meaning data can be shared, compared and combined easily, without a lot of converting and other jiggery-pokery.

What’s this got to do with Office suites? WordPerfect seamlessly weaves XML into its component programs, so users can, with relative ease, save documents in XML format. And, while Microsoft in theory offers the same thing, there are signs that it’s not quite playing ball: Only the whizzbang top-level version of the upcoming Microsoft Office will support full XML capability, according to press reports — a step back from its present version.

The reason? No one’s saying, but it’s quite possible that the Redmond giant sees a threat to its de facto dominance of the Office market. Not because folk like Corel may be stealing a few customers, but because XML may end up replacing the formats that you save your document in. Right now, most documents are saved as Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets as Excel files, etc. This makes sense because most people use those programs. But what happens if people start using XML — open, flexible, free — as a format instead? Microsoft may be left out in the cold.

This may never happen. For all their faults — and there are many — Microsoft Office’s programs rule the roost, and part of the reason for this is that they are good. Well, quite good, anyway. And while folk may grumble, no one’s really challenging them. Corel is to be congratulated for pushing the envelope with version 11 of WordPerfect Office, but as of this month it’s struggling to find a buyer.

My advice? Unless you’re mightily sick of Microsoft Office, or desperate to save cash, don’t ditch it quite yet. If you are, you might want to try another option first: OpenOffice, a free suite of applications which, given that most folk use only a fraction of their Office suite’s features, may well be enough.