Finding a replacement for iA Writer

Image from iA Writer press kit

Image from iA Writer press kit

Microsoft Word was deleted from my computer many years ago, it possessed far more features than my needs required, and it’s ridiculously heavy handed interface was painful to use. Since then I’ve experimented with a number of different solutions, from the robust Nisus Writer to the simplistic Textedit. I also created prototype for a “universal text box” from which all data could be sent, much like Drafts 4 or Editorial on iOS today, but I lacked the programming ability to make it work. Eventually, I settled on BBEdit and Textmate for a long period of time for both writing words and mark-up. Then along came iA Writer and despite a particularly rough start, whereby it didn’t support Chinese, it has been my go to tool for writing text of all lengths ever since.

I love the simplicity, the bundled typeface and the fact that I can open the app. on my iPhone, start typing almost immediately, come home, finish where I left off on my Mac, and later edit on my iPad. Markdown support means I don’t have to remove my hands from the keyboard. There is also the oft promoted concept of distraction free writing, which has value, but until you block Facebook, distraction is still only a keystroke away. There are a number of other subtle decisions they have made that make using the app. a joy, including how it saves with an automatic title in case I forget to.

iA Writer is an important part of my workflow, enough so, that any email that requires a thoughtful response, beyond my usual short blunt replies, particularly anything written in Chinese, is first written in iA Writer.

There are a multitude of dedicated note taking apps. which might be better suited to the majority of what I do, Notational Velocity, Evernote, and Apples bundled notes app. come to mind but I prefer to do as much of my writing in one environment as possible.

Unfortunately, lately I’ve noticed a couple shortcomings with iA Writer which I surprisingly hadn’t noticed in the past.

First, after you have written your document, you need to do something with it, save, send and print are the usual choices (“what can you do next” are natural questions you might record in testing). Unfortunately, iA Writer has extremely limited options in terms of where you can “send” the document. On the iOS version you can email the formatted doc. from within the app., which allows you to send it to Evernote or to an email recipient. Using the Mac version you can open the saved files in other software that supports the exported format. There isn’t a publish to services like WordPress or Evernote feature, which seems like an odd exclusion for an app. designed in an age where many never sent their writing to print. In iOS 8 you can use the open in service to send to Evernote but it’s saved as an attached file and unusable. Cut’n’paste is the quickest way to use the text you have written, but cut’n’paste is still painful in iOS. This in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but this lack of any real publishing options takes away from the overall utility of the software.

Bug: an annoying new behaviour of hiding the text behind the extended keyboard.

Bug: an annoying new behaviour of hiding the text behind the extended keyboard.

Second, and most disastrously, you cannot search text inside an iA Writer document. At least not using iA Writer and not using Spotlight on the Mac (Spotlight doesn’t index Markdown files). I realised this recently when I received an email thanking me for my interest in an opportunity, and asking to set a time to come to their company to discuss. Well, I didn’t remember sending an email to this person, but I did recognise a name in the email chain, and tried to search my past correspondence for any mentions. There were none, in fact no results appeared for any common search terms in iA Writers iCloud folder. I thought it was some bug in OS X, of which there are an increasingly large number of late, but iA Writer support graciously informed me via twitter that it was a limitation of Spotlight. They gave me a possible solution which didn’t work. On iOS you can’t search content inside a different app.’s database (one possible work around for iOS is to abandon iCloud and switch to Dropbox, thereby allowing others apps. access.) Siloing peoples data inside your app. seems like a huge mistake and judging by their support forum, it’s a mistake they don’t seem to be in any rush to rectify. iA Writer is not a good place to leave your data.

screen-shot

Bug 2: Often when I use iA Writer on my iPad I can’t bring up the sharing options or open another file. The bottom and top areas of the interface disappear when writing but often don’t want to reappear. Only doing the iOS equivalent of a force quit brings it back.

Because of this I have spent time looking at a number of different editors that support markdown, including: ByWord, iA Writer Pro (still no search), Typed, Desk, Daedalus and Ulysses.

I use Evernote a great deal but have never really enjoyed using it to enter text, it’s more of a collaboration tool and data bucket for me.

Byword wouldn’t work without internet connectivity the first time I opened the app., and there were some quirks with Chinese text. Importantly you can search! The publishing feature is great, if a bit unpolished, and will send your unformatted text straight to Evernote. If WordPress is your thing Desk on the Mac might be a better choice. It uses the default type choices on iOS which aren’t that great.

iA Writer Pro has a number of features that should be present in iA Writer, like night mode, plus adds a whole new workflow that at least initially places your files in different folders depending on the particular stage of writing you are in. The result tends to be confusion and even greater difficulty in finding past documents.

Typed looks promising but there isn’t an iOS version at present. I’ve tried apps. with soundtracks that supposedly help you get in the zone and I personally don’t see the need. Seems like a distraction to both the writer and the developer.

Desk is the one app. I haven’t tried but it does look very promising, especially with an enthusiastic developer and a growing community. Unfortunately there isn’t an iOS version and it’s current focus on WordPress makes it perhaps not an ideal choice. I will follow it’s development and recommend it to others when appropriate.

Daedalus main purpose appears to be as an iOS partner to Ulysses with a mental model of how to treat document management even more obtuse than iA Writer Pro. I wanted to like it but felt it’s forced metaphor got in the way.

Ulysses is far more extensible than my needs require but the complexity of the tool can be easily hidden. It’s extensive export options could prove to be valuable. Unfortunately it too doesn’t support web services, nor does it have iA Writer’s Nitti typeface, but there are work arounds. Importantly it supports full text search, including iA Writers files on iCloud, which may allow me to continue to use a different solution on iOS. That will mean I won’t be able to use apples oft touted “hand-off” feature but I have yet to see that work in any real world use case. It’s truly a wonderful app. to use.

Since I started writing this short piece, iA Writer for Mac has been updated with the ability to add links using Markdown. I love this stripped down approach to software, just adding what is absolutely necessary and not trying to appeal to all possible use cases. The fact that so many developers agree is great as it gives a range of choices. While I am still rooting for iA Writer to fix the above mentioned problems, it’s now a toss up between Ulysses and Byword, which though designed towards different needs, seem to both work well for me.


Practicing with Sketch

icon-practice

I spent an hour this week trying to come up to speed with Sketch as an interface design tool, not just a wire-framing tool. Lightweight software like this appeals to me as they tend to focus on specific use cases vs. a more swiss army knife approach. The result can be seen in both the speed of the software, it’s function, utility and importantly it’s price. Unfortunately for me I’ve come to rely on specific features of Illustrator which make up for my lack of love for bezier curves. With Illustrator, I can import sketches, create some outlines and in many cases just clean up the curves and be finished. I haven’t seen anywhere yet where Sketch has any crutches to help people like me.

I’m still planning to spend more time using Sketch before deciding to replace Illustrator and OmniGraffle in my workflow. I’ll be finishing the interface design solely in sketch of a couple apps. I’m involved with.

The above is a bit of skeumorphic goodness from the days before Apple dictated everything should be flat. It’s amazing just how dated that style has become in a very short period of time. Though unpolished it was great practice in using Sketch.


App. development is often completely senseless

Craig Mod shares his incite on how apps are made – a process he compares to making pottery. Creating a convincing argument that the how process makes absolutely no sense.

Apps mirror life in their unfairness. Time spent making an app in no way guarantees successes, financial or spiritual. Grizzled developers toil for years and ‘lose’ to the ‘chain-smoking geek’ in Vietnam with the twitchy bird. Guy doesn’t even want the money.

This is so true. How many projects have I started early, or first, or toiled for years on, only to discover someone built a similar idea and brought it to commercial or critical success.

The first pass should be ugly, the ugliest. Any brain cycle spent on pretty is self deception. If pretty is the point then please stop. Do not, I repeat, do not spent three months on the radial menu, impressive as it may be. It will not save your company. There is a time for that. That time is not now. Instead, make grand gestures. General gestures. Most importantly, enumerate the unknowns. Make a list. Making known the unknowns you now know will surface the other unknowns, the important unknowns, the truly devastating unknowns — you can’t scrape our content! you can’t monkey park here! a tiny antennae is not for rent! You want to unearth answers as quickly as possible. Nothing else matters if your question marks irrecoverably break you. Do not procrastinate in their excavation.

How are apps made?


Rise Alarm Clock


Rise is a "delightfully simple and unique" alarm clock, now available for your iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch. Shows promise. I prefer UI’s like this to the more heavy handed skeumorpic style seen in most of Apple’s offerings.


Joikuspot

As I can’t seem to get a reliable wifi connection this morning at the ITRI campus coffee shop – I keep requesting a password and it never comes – it seems like a good time to put Joikuspot through it’s paces. JoikuSpot is software for S60 series mobile phones which allows me to connect my laptop to the internet using my Nokia’s 3G connection. In effect Joikuspot turns my mobile into a portable wifi hotspot for myself and others. It works pretty well. Though it has slow through-put the experience over all is superior to the broadband connection I have at home which always suffers severe latency problems. I’m using the free Light version but even after this limited trial I’m sold – I’ll be purchasing the premium version.


No cut ‘n’ past in Illustrator

I’ve had this error pop-up regularly for ages when I am using Adobe Illustrator and it drives me mad:
quicktime and a decompressor are needed to view this image
A completely unintelligible error message. What the hell does this mean exactly? I have Quicktime and it’s only a jpg so I have all the necessary resources to allow for what is in every other application on the Mac a basic mode of interaction – cut ‘n’ paste.
So far the only answer I have found is that simply the only way to import a jpg into Illustrator (and InDesign) is to use the ‘Place’ command. That seems unintuitive but if that’s the case than why not say so in the error message!
You can cut ‘n’ paste easily between Adobe applications just not from the Finder into Illustrator and InDesign.


iPhoto magic

I’m importing 6 months of camera photos into iPhoto, the only means in which I take photos these days, and somehow iPhoto detects duplicates. That’s a neat feature I haven’t seen before.
Later: Oh and it catalogues my camera movies as well. I think I might just come back to using iPhoto again after using iView for years.


Adium the memory hog

I’ve been experiencing some severe slowdowns on my Powerbook lately, actions seem to take an age to complete. I have to free up some disc space it seems for the incredible amount of virtual memory that both the OS and applications in general gobble up. But a surprising culprit for eating up the finite amount of real memory was Adium. 140 meg of real plus 350 meg of virtual memory. This is more than Photoshop! Can’t programmers create lightweight apps anymore?
I don’t know how much the memory hungry Adium contributes to my Powerbook woes but I don’t need to keep in touch that much to not try alternatives. Like email.
msn: 21 meg (rm) 160 (vm)
skype: 44 meg (rm) 248 (vm)
yahoo: 45 meg (rm) 200 (vm)
ichat: 19 meg (rm) 178 (vm), ichat agent 5 meg(rm) 108meg (vm)


Yojimbo your life


I have been spending allot of time lately writing for weblogs and performing some general research for other projects that I am working on. It’s not unlike the the activities I performed when I was writing my thesis where I would want to record and create all kinds of data from many different sources. When I was writing my thesis I didn’t really have a great workflow and I am sure that I wasted a great deal of time as a result.
Currently I am using a workflow based on using simple text files and Quicksilver. But I don’t really find it as enjoyable a process as many do and I have been interested in finding a better tool that can save me some time. A wiki of some sort might even accomplish allot of what I need but it isn’t as efficient as many applications that integrate themselves with OS X. I might still take the time to set-up a wiki in the future for longer and more permanent bits of data.
Bare Bones software’s new Yojimbo seems to be a simple tool that will do what I want it to do and thankfully nothing more. And though I am sure that I have seen other tools in the past, they all suffer from offering a complex set of features that have no real use for me. From the Yojimbo site:

Yojimbo makes keeping all the small (or even large) bits of information that pour in every day organized and accessible. It’s so simple, there is no learning curve. Yojimbo’s mechanism for collecting, storing and finding information is so natural and effortless, it will change the way you work.
There are as many uses for Yojimbo as there are users of it. It accepts almost anything—text, bookmarks, PDF files, web archives, serial numbers or passwords—by dragging, copying or importing. You can get anything out of Yojimbo you put into it, in its original form—no lock-in.

Yojimbo allows me to tag and organize the type of information I collect sufficiently – and the search function works fine too. I particularly like the persistent tab on the side of my screen. I can drag and drop all kinds of data onto it and it will immediately organize it by type. I can then go in later and further categorize it. Yojimbo is a Tiger-only application because it relies on the latest Mac OS X advances. For instance, it’s a Core Data application, so that your items are kept easily and automatically in a SQLite database. Yojimbo also makes all non-encrypted items individually available to system-wide Spotlight searches, by representing each one as a stub in your Caches folder. All in all pretty cool.
Mac OS 10.4.3 or later is required to run Yojimbo.


Camino Browser revisited

camino.jpg
While visiting Chientai at his beautiful new office in the Creativity Lab I noticed his new browser of choice Camino. I hadn’t seen or used this browser in quite some time and quite happy to see it’s development continue. For me the greatest improvement since I last took time to use Camino is the visceral changes to the UI. I like it allot. I’ve never been a fan of the pinstripe look found in many earlier examples of Apples software interfaces and I am one of the few who probably likes the brush metal look of supposed Apples media software. I do join the chorus in my disappointment that Apple seems to lack consistency through-out it’s software UI. Perhaps the rapid changes apparent in web interfaces are affecting the software development culture.
If you haven’t tried Camino in awhile go have a look. It’s works really well.