Tag Archives: operating systems

Directory of Distraction-free Writing Tools

(2009 June: added two no delete editors)

Editors

A working list of tools to reduce writers’ distraction. I’ve been using some of them for a while; I was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s latest post on the matter to collect what I could together. All are free unless otherwise stated. 

No backspace/delete editors

Typewriter “All you can do is type in one direction. You can’t delete, you can’t copy, you can’t paste. You can save and print. And you can switch between black text on white and green on black; full screen and window.” Freeware, all OS.

Momentum Writer Same idea, really. “Momentum Writer is the ultimate tool for distraction-free writing. Like a mechanical typewriter, users are prevented from editing previously written text. There are no specific formatting options, no scrolling, deleting, or revisions. Momentum Writer doesn’t even allow you to use the backspace key. Momentum Writer forces you to write, to move forward, to add new words. It halts the temptation to linger, revise, and correct. Momentum Writer is a typewriter for your PC.” Freeware, for Windows.

Multiplatform

JDarkroom (works on Windows, Macs and Linux, thanks. Tris): “simple full-screen text file editor with none of the usual bells and whistles that might distract you from the job in hand.”

Windows

TextEdit (there seems to be a Mac product of the same name. The Windows website is under reconstruction so I can’t grab a description, but downloads are available.)

NotePad ++ “a generic source code editor (it tries to be anyway) and Notepad replacement written in c++ with win32 API. The aim of Notepad++ is to offer a slim and efficient binary with a totally customizable GUI.”

EditPad “a general-purpose text editor, designed to be small and compact, yet offer all the functionality you expect from a basic text editor. EditPad Lite works with Windows NT4, 98, 2000, ME, XP and Vista.” Lite is free; Pro is $50

PSPad code editor

And some so-called ‘dark room apps’ which blank out the outside world:

WestEdit “a full screen, old-school text editor and typewriter. No fuss, no distractions – just you and your text.”

Dark Room: “full screen, distraction free, writing environment. Unlike standard word processors that focus on features, Dark Room is just about you and your text.”

Q10: “a simple but powerful text editor designed and built with writers in mind.”

Mac

TextMate: “TextMate brings Apple’s approach to operating systems into the world of text editors. By bridging UNIX underpinnings and GUI, TextMate cherry-picks the best of both worlds to the benefit of expert scripters and novice users alike.” ($54)

The Mac dark room is WriteRoom “a full-screen writing environment. Unlike the cluttered word processors you’re used to, WriteRoom is just about you and your text.” ($25)

GNOME etc

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gedit

Distraction reducers

Write or Die: “web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.”

XP and the User’s Loss of Nerve

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Poor old Microsoft. They’ve had to extend the life of XP by offering it as an option to customers buying new hardware for another six months at least. They realise that people aren’t going to buy a Vista machine unless XP—what’s wonderfully called “downgrade media”–comes with it:

“As more customers make the move to Windows Vista, we want to make sure that they are making that transition with confidence and that it is as smooth as possible,” Microsoft said. “Providing downgrade media for a few more months is part of that commitment, as is the Windows Vista Small Business Assurance program, which provides one-on-one, customized support for our small-business customers.”

There’s a deeper issue here: Microsoft is beginning to recognise that no longer is there any appetite for users to upgrade operating systems themselves. Remember those lines around the block for Windows 3.1, 95, 98 and XP? Well, OK, maybe not all of them, but according to Wikipedia the fanfare surrounding the release of Windows 95 would nowadays be reserved for the ending of a major war. Or the launch of an iPhone, I guess.

Now we’re only interested in software upgrades if it’s a hardware upgrade. If then.

To be fair, I suspect this isn’t just the fault of Vista. I think a few other things have changed:

  • we’re less excited by software these days. Hardware we can get excited about, but as the proportion of people using technology has grown, the appetite for tweaking that technology has shrunk. Apple understand this, which is why they merge hardware and software, something Microsoft’s Balmer still doesn’t get.
  • Part of this is that I don’t think we believe our computers will do the things we think they will anymore. We drank the kool aid back then. We really thought the next iteration of an operating system would seriously improve our day. And, for the most part, it didn’t. So we moved on.
  • We’ve learned that our computers are getting too complex, and we trust them less. If it works, we’re happy. We don’t want to tempt fate by changing it. This feeds into security issues: We don’t feel safe online and so if we have any configuration that hasn’t arisen in calls from our bank or weird things popping up on our screen, we don’t want to experiment.

This feeds back to my running theme of recent weeks: The computer is becoming more and more like an appliance. We need it to to work, preferably out of the box. Apple (and the likes of Nokia, up to a point) have shown that to be possible, and so now we increasingly expect it of all our computing devices.

For the record I don’t necessarily think this is a good thing, because a dulled appetite for experimentation and change is never good, but after the ups and downs of the past few years, and the apparent failure of Vista, I can understand it.

In short, we users have lost our nerve.

Windows XP gets another lifeline : News : Software – ZDNet Asia

Photo credit: Bink.nu

A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A Read/Write Web? Sometimes

Another good piece over at Read/WriteWeb about the coming shift to the browser as the only program you’ll need, when all applications come from online. But, frankly, they’re going to have to get a lot better before that happens.

I love, for example, Google Calendar, and have foolishly started relying on it. At least, until it stopped behaving more than 24 hours ago. All I get is the above portion of the calendar application, the rest a blank page. It is the holidays, of course, so a snowy-white canvas seems somehow apt, but actually I’m still busy with stuff, and organising my life gets more complicated around these times, not less. So losing access to my calendar, and those I share, is, frankly, a bummer.

The fact that Google hasn’t offered a real person to fix this problem for me — the automated email I get says “Due to the large volume of emails we receive, we may not be able to respond to your email personally. Please be assured, however, that we read all of the emails we receive, and we use your feedback to improve Calendar” — means that I am stuck. Probably for Christmas, now, probably for New Year too. If I forget to turn up to something between now and then, blame Google.

Emre Sokullu in his piece talks about how a Google Operating System being “such a small system, that the number of possible problems will be very limited.” I don’t know much about operating systems, but I know enough about what goes wrong on a computer to know that anything on a computer is not a small system, and that it will go wrong. (Look at the cellphone for example: Every person I talk to with a smart phone and their first complaint is about hanging and resetting.)

Google is playing with us when it gives us great tools but leaves us hanging when they don’t work. Of course, the tools are “free” so we shouldnt’ expect too much, and they’re always in Beta too, right, so we should know what we’re getting into. (Everything in Google is in beta except for search, just in case you thought your Gmail account was a real product.)

I, and you, should learn the harsh lesson here: Anything online is only accessible when you’re connected and the service is running. Anything offline is accessible so long as you have your computer and the program is working. I know which one I’ll stick with for now. Everything online? No thanks. Not until it’s cooked.

Windows. How Much Pain Can You Take?

If you’re still happy with your Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium Edition then you’re on your own. Microsoft won’t help you out after July 11, 2006, when it ends public and technical support. This doesn’t just mean not having someone to talk to on the phone. It means no more security updates, too, effectively rendering these operating systems useless. It’s a bit like Mad Max shoving the weak and helpless members of the Thunderdome community out beyond the gates at the mercy of those really ugly people whose name I can’t remember. Maybe they didn’t have a name. Maybe this analogy isn’t as good as I thought it was when I started writing it.

Anyway. Microsoft says it is “is ending support for these products because they are outdated and these older operating systems can expose customers to security risks.” Well, yes, but isn’t this because you’re not updating them anymore?  “We recommend,” Microsoft goes on, “that customers who are still running Windows 98 or Windows Me upgrade to a newer, more secure Microsoft operating system, such as Windows XP, as soon as possible.” Of course it’s natural to suggest your latest product is the best one, but it always makes me chuckle when Microsoft say this. You can almost hear their salesmen at work with recalcitrant customers:

“Why did you buy Windows 98? What were you thinking?”
“Well, at the time you said it was great. You said it was the best thing ever.”
“That was then, buddy, this is now. Now it’s the worst thing ever, and you should get our best operating system ever, namely XP, right up until Vista is ready and it becomes the worst thing ever. Then you should buy Vista, which by then will be …”
“The best thing ever?”
“You got it.”
“Shouldn’t I wait for Vista, then?”
“I wouldn’t do that, buddy.”
“Why not?”
“Well, er, frankly we’re not sure when it’s coming out.”
“So you know when products die, but you don’t know when new ones are coming out.”
“That’s right. So you want this XP or not?”

Actually, there are lots of things going on here. There’s the fact that people are so excited about Web applications — programs you run from your browser, rather than as a bigger separate program — that there’s a question mark about the need for Windows. You can run a Web application from any operating system (and most browsers.) And even if you are using Windows, it doesn’t really matter which one — it won’t really improve the quality of the Web application you’re using. So if you can’t get the user excited about the operating system, at least you can get them scared about security. That might prod them to upgrade.

There’s also the fact that operating systems just aren’t as exciting as they used to be anymore. Windows 95 had people queueing up around the block. Since then users have had to be bullied, enticed and scared into upgrading. Sure, XP is better than 98. Actually a lot better. But better for who? For what? A lot of folk, it seems, are still quite happy with Windows 98. If you’re using a computer more than 5 years old, it makes more sense to use 98, because XP will limp along. If you have an office full of computers, you might not want to splash out on XP licenses for all of them, in which case 98 makes sense too. If you’re the kind of person that just doesn’t feel the crazy urge to throw away your computer every few years, chances are you’re still using Windows 98. In fact, according to anecdote, there are still a lot of them out there. They don’t tend to show up in statistics because they’re not often, or at all, on the Internet. (Think old folk; think fixed incomes; think people who aren’t gaga over the whole Web 2.0 thang as we are.)

Then there’s my own pet theory. Most people don’t install operating systems. They just buy a new computer with it already installed. So: Hardware manufacturers are so upset that Vista won’t be out for Christmas — meaning that millions of people won’t bother buying a new computer then because there’s no new operating system to run it — that Microsoft decided to retire 98, Me and all the other slowcoaches, knowing that people won’t “upgrade” their software, they’ll upgrade their computer.

Microsoft has tried to shove Windows 98, and Me (not me, but Windows Me, the operating system) out to the knackers’ yard before. In early 2004 they backed off retiring support for these versions of Windows hoping to keep customers from wandering across the street to Linux. One piece on ZDNet back then quoted a Microsoft senior marketing manager as saying of customers, and I quote: “The more they are used to working one way, the more [it is] likely they will want to continue working that way, so it plays to our advantage. If they move to another operating system, they will need to rethink and relearn. For some people, that is painful. This is also why so many people are resisting an upgrade from Windows 98.” I love this argument. Turns out it’s all about pain. “Our software is so hard to figure out,” the pitch goes, “it actually causes our users pain. We’re counting on this pain to keep our customers. Do you want our pain or someone else’s pain? We’re going to get them hooked, and then they figure the pain they’re used to is better than the pain they’re not. Of course one day we’ll make it impossible for them not upgrade, but by then they’ll be so used to the pain, they would prefer a little extra pain than to switch to another vendor. Which would cause them even more pain.”

That day has come. Paid incident support and critical security updates for Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Me will end on July 11, 2006. No other security updates will follow after this date. You’re on your own, buddy.  Good luck out there.

98P.S. Actually, not entirely. There is a Microsoft web page that is dedicated to Windows 98 users. But it hasn’t been updated since October 31, 2002, and is it a coincidence that the only photo on that page is of someone in a d’oh moment, where it looks like they just lost all their files or had a major security breach on their Windows 98 computer? Talk about subliminal messages.

 
 
 
 

Does IE7 Herald The Death of Windows 98 and 2000?

You may have read that Microsoft has launched a beta version of its browser, Internet Explorer 7. An aspect of this that seems to have not received widespread publicity is the fact that with IE 7, Microsoft has effectively killed off Windows 98 and Windows 2000.

In an interview with eWeek, Gytis Barzdukas, director of product management in Microsoft’s security business technology, says: “When we do all this engineering work, the architecture is changed significantly. In some cases, it’s more expedient for customers to just move to a new operating system where the enhancements are easier to deploy.” Ah. So that’s all we have to do?

Of course, it’s not the first time that folk still using Windows 98 have been left out. Windows 98 has not been supported by Microsoft since June 2002; ‘hotfixes’ — vital software patches, usually security-related — have not been provided since June 2003. The Windows 98 homepage has not been updated since October 2002, and the ‘Still Using Windows 98?’ tip page hasn’t seen a revision since September 2000.

So how many Windows 98 users are there out there? One poster to a Firefox forum reckoned between 20–30% of users, while a survey by AssetMatrix recently concluded that Windows 2000 “still accounts for nearly half of all Windows-based business desktops”, according to ZDNet.

This is always a tough one for Microsoft. It’s easy enough with physical products because there’s not much more you can do to support them, except fix them if they’re broken. With individual software products you could provide upgrades and fixes until a new version comes along but the choice for the consumer is clearer: Stick with an old version of Office if you are happy with the features, and the only thing Microsoft can think of to get back at you is call you a dinosaur (“Ouch! That hurt!”). Most programs have too many features, anyway, so the lure of more features isn’t that much of a lure for most people.

But operating systems — and any software that interacts with the Web and so needs security features — are different. Stop adding fixes and features and the software is effectively useless for the customer. So by not making IE available to Windows 2000 and 98 users, those folk are stuck. Unless of course they move over to Firefox or Opera. And what happens if they stick with IE 6? The first security vulnerability to come along is going to hit the most vulnerable bunch of people — folk who, for one reason or another, are quite happy with their Windows 98 computer.

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

Microsoft Does The Decent Thing

Good news for Windows 98 fans, and for folk who don’t believe in upgrading their software just because companies say it’s the cool thing to do. Microsoft has relented on its decision to abandon updates for Windows 98 and Me this week, saying it will continue to provide limited support for the operating systems until 30 June, 2006. During that time, ZDNet says, paid over-the-phone support will be available, and “critical” security issues will be reviewed and “appropriate steps” taken. Here’s another piece on the move from eWeek.

I think this is wise and decent of Microsoft. Although some figures for the numbers of users still clinging to the older operating systems might be skewed, a company like Microsoft can’t claim to be giving priority to security issues with one breath and then leaving many of its customers high and dry by not helping them with security fixes with the other. And while some folk might argue that XP is a far superior product and that customers who do not upgrade to it are, and I quote, ‘doofuses’, I can quite understand if someone feels 98 or (gasp) Me is enough for them. Let’s face it, for most tasks there’s not much more you need than a basic operating system that works. Software is digital, and therefore not a product that declines with age, so it could run forever. Microsoft should be happy people are still using their older programs, and be keeping them happy.

News: Type Anywhere, On Anything

 From the This Really Could Be Funky Dept: iBIZ Technology Corporation has introduced its Virtual Laser Keyboard and has promised to start shipping the unit by November for $99.00. The Virtual Keyboard is an infrared device that projects the image of a keyboard onto any surface, allowing you to type straight into a PDA, a desktop, a laptop or a cell phone running Windows and Palm’s operating systems. See a picture here.

News: Step Aside, Bill, Let Asia Take It From Here

 From the Suspect This May Be Wishful Thinking Dept Japan, South Korea and China are set to agree to jointly develop a new computer operating system as an alternative to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows software, Reuters quotes Japanese media as saying on Sunday.
 
It would likely be built upon an open-source operating system, such as Linux. The recent spread of computer viruses targeting the Windows system was one reason behind the plan, as it has awakened governments to the need to reduce their dependence on Windows operating systems.