Tag Archives: web application

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

image

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.”

It’s Not the “Death” of Microsoft, it’s the “Death” of Software

Paul Graham writes an interesting obituary of Microsoft, killed off, as he sees it, by applications that sit in your browser. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before every application we need can grabbed off the server.

This is the kind of established wisdom of Web 2.0 folks these days that prompts only howls of “old news”. In some senses it’s right. I don’t use an email client anymore, nor a news/RSS reader. I try to use a calendar app like Outlook as little as possible. I even use Google Docs sometimes. But we’re a long way from interesting, complex applications running in the browser.

The problem: Most web applications are broken, and if we were paying for them, or Microsoft were making them, we’d be howling. Google Docs’ word processor, for example, quickly breaks down on bigger documents (weird artefacts appear in the text, keyboard shortcuts stop doing what they’re supposed to.) Its spreadsheet program mangles spreadsheets. The functionality in both is extremely limited for anything more than the most basic tasks.

All this takes us to a weird place: We somehow demand less and less from our software, so that we can declare a sort of victory. I love a lot of Web 2.0 apps but I’m not going to kid myself: They do one simple thing well — handle my tasks, say — or they are good at collaboration. They also load more quickly than their offline equivalents. But this is because, overall, they do less. When we want our software to do less quicker, they’re good. Otherwise they’re a pale imitation of more powerful, exciting applications in which we do most of our work.

Like what? Well, what have I got running on my (Windows) desktop right now:

  • BlogJet — blog writing tool. Online equivalent: Blog service tool. Difference: BlogJet more powerful than its browser equivalent, no latency, lets me work offline. Can move it around the screen and outside the browser. Can use ordinary editing shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+K.
  • ExplorerPlus – file management tool. Lets me see what’s on my computer and move stuff around. Online equivalent: None? (ExplorerPlus now appears to be an orphan, sold by Novatix to SendPhotos Inc, but now no longer visible on their site.)
  • Text Monkey Pro – cleans up text. Online equivalent: Firefox plugin Copy Plain Text
  • ConnectedText – offline Wiki type organiser/outliner. Web app equivalent: TiddlyWiki. Jury still out on which is better
  • MyInfo – outliner. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any online outliner. There must be one.
  • PersonalBrain: thought organizer. Online equivalent: Don’t know of any.
  • Mindmanager: mindmapper. Online equivalents: bubbl.us, Mindmeister, Mindomo. Difference: Mindmanager much more powerful, works with more branches without losing effectiveness, integrates with other tools.
  • !Quick Screen Capture: screen capture tool. Online equivalent: Not known.
  • PaperPort: scanner and PDF database. Online equivalent: None.

Now it’s not as if I’m using these products because I think they’re all great. It’s just that no one has come along with anything better (Mac users: your cue to point me to great Mac equivalents). The past seven years, in fact have brought along nothing exciting in the offline apps world so it doesn’t surprise me that online applications, for all their simplicity, are getting the attention. (Don’t get me started on how weak and unimaginative PaperPort is. Mindmanager is still not as good as it could be; outliners are still doing very little more than their DOS forebears, and the lack of decent file managers is a crime.)

But all this just proves to me that there has been little real innovation in software in the sense of making programs do more. Web 2.0 has excited us because we lowered our expectations so much. Of course web apps will get better, and one day will deliver the functionality we currently get from desktop software. They may even do more than our desktop applications one day. But isn’t it a tad strange that we think this is all a huge leap forward?

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.

 
 
 
 

ZeroDegrees Responds

Further to my ZeroDegrees debacle, in which I succeeded in spamming 2,000 people in my contact book with barely a click, here’s a response from ZeroDegrees‘ Jas Dhillon, CEO and president of the company, and Mark Jeffrey, VP of Product, to my questions. I’ve edited a little for length.

How is it that even experienced users can be duped into sending invitations to their whole address book? Why is there no confirmation option, or chance to select who they include?

We don’t force you to invite any of your contacts if you don’t want to. If you want to selectively invite your contacts you can click on the “Not Now” button, login to the web application and selective invite your contacts to join ZeroDegrees and become part of your “friends network.” We do provide a customization button where you can accomplish exactly what you requested. The customization button is on the lower left hand corner of the “build my network” box. After clicking the button, you can manually select contacts from your list that you do not want to send a ZeroDegrees invite to. It is that simple.

How does one remove one’s contacts from ZeroDegrees’ servers if one decides not to continue the service?

Just drop an email to customer care requesting that your name and contacts be removed from the ZeroDegrees server. This is done within 48 hours of receiving the request.

How does ZeroDegrees plan to make money from the service?

Stay tuned.

Sorry, but I don’t really think these answers are sufficient. The process to manually select contacts should be the default: It should be very, very hard for users to send emails to everyone in their address book, and it should be very, very easy for them to (a) know this is happening and (b) be able to stop it at any point. None of this is true in ZeroDegrees’ case. It does not sound “simple” to me, and I suspect it wouldn’t to the casual user.

Secondly, removing one’s contacts from ZeroDegrees’ servers should not involve sending an email to customer care or having any direct contact with the company. By definition someone wanting to remove their contacts from ZeroDegrees is probably wanting to minimise any contact. There should be a checkbox or some other prominent menu option that makes it easy for users to do this. This option should be part of the uninstall process, too, since it’s likely many folk uninstalling the program are those who want to unsubscribe from the service.

Lastly, not giving any clue about how the company intends to make money from the service is only going to add to suspicion about what ZeroDegrees plans to do with all the sensitive data it is collecting. The company should be upfront about this. None of these issues is new: We’ve been here before with Plaxo which has endured a battering from users concerned about privacy. Plaxo, at least, has responded to those concerns, and is stronger for it. The chances of ZeroDegrees avoiding that scrutiny, if it gains any traction at all, are slim.