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Bill Bennett

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Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Why Westpac’s new online bank looks like iOS 7

Westpac

Westpac’s new cross-device online bank site has a modern, stripped-back feel. It treats us like adults.

It has a sophisticated, European look. Lots of white space. Spare easy to read type with lots of room to breath. Simple design elements. It’s visually flat. There’s an emphasis on colour and typography.

Icons are minimal.

Putting aside for one moment the bank’s signature bright red livery, the colours are muted. Things don’t shout or scream. It’s a long way from the Fisher-Price inspired designs of a decade ago that characterised the Windows XP era.

Apple-flavoured

While it is different enough to avoid infringing any intellectual property rights, it looks a little like Apple’s iOS 7.

So, being a blunt journalist, I asked Westpac design manager Brendan Marshall the obvious question: “Was it inspired by iOS 7?”

Marshall laughed at first. Presumably, because he understood exactly what I was getting at. But his answer was no, well, a sort-of ‘no’.

An online bank app is a sparse app

The point is he explained, modern computer user interface design is evolving towards these spare looking interfaces. Apple’s iOS 7 and the Westpac online banking site are part of the same general movement towards simpler, easier to understand and use designs.

It’s a good point, you’ll find similar minimal interfaces on other devices; Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 and the software Samsung Android overlays on its S4 phone are part of the same aesthetic.

Marshall says it’s a move away from the more elaborate designs of the past. It looks like the bank app of the future.

You can say that again. Gone are the faux wood panelling book libraries, fake green baize gaming tables and address book icons that look like, well, address books.

Today’s Westpac online bank website looks more like an iPhone app.

The best Mac apps for writers

While the Mac may not be a typewriter, many people use it to write. There’s a great selection of tools for the job. Some are conventional word processors, others are text editors and then there is WordPress which can put your words straight on to the web.

There are excellent free options, tools designed to fit niches, full-featured tools that do everything and minimal editors which do little, but keep you focused.

Here’s a run down of the most important Apple Mac writing tools.

Microsoft Word

You don’t have to love Microsoft Word to recognise it as the de facto standard for sending finished writing jobs to clients.

Everyone assumes you use it. Which means, even if you don’t use Word, you need a passing familiarity with it. People expect to to be able to open, write and edit documents in the Word format.

Many tools in this list can do that. All of them co-exist with Word in one way or another.

Given Word’s place in the world, there’s a strong argument for sticking with it when you write for work or for clients. Life can be less trouble that way.

Kitchen sink included

Word has everything you need in a word-processor. More to the point, it has everything anyone needs in a word-processor. That makes it a huge, sprawling monster of an application. It can feel bloated and clumsy. Complexity can also make Word hard to master.

Chances are you won’t scratch the surface of what Word has to offer.

For years the Mac versions of Word were quite different from Windows versions of the software. That’s no longer the case. Today you can switch from Word on Windows to Word on a Mac without any jarring adjustments.

Buy Word as part of Office 365

In fact I can use Microsoft Office on up to five devices. Office is also on my phone and until recently I had a Windows version running the Mac as well as the OS X version.

Depending on how you look at these things, Word is either a powerful, full-featured, professional document creation tool or bloated and clumsy. It manages both. There are tools like Track Changes which I deeply loath, but sometimes I work with a client who insists I use the feature. Well, maybe not if I see Track Changes coming first.

The current Mac version is Word:mac 2011. It feels as if it is two generations behind the current Windows version of the software. I could live with that, but Word doesn’t do a good job of getting out the way on the Mac.

Microsoft Word Mac OS X screen shot
Microsoft Word Mac OS X

Word:mac 2011 has a distraction free full-screen mode – shown above in the screenshot. The distraction free mode is great, or it would be if it stayed put. If I need to switch to another screen, say to check facts in an email or on a web page, the distraction free display reverts to a normal, distracting display. I jump to other screens a lot and find this annoying.

WordPress

WordPress can be as clean as a blank sheet of white paper in an old-school typewriter. It works. WordPress is fast, lightweight and relatively painless.

WordPress editor Mac OS X screen shot

However, it isn’t without flaws. While it is easy to add lists, embed media, link to web pages or produce elegant pull quotes, adding a cross-head is clumsy. I have to take my hands off the keyboard, mouse to the top of the screen and change the display from Visual model to Text mode then manually add the HTML command <h2> or perhaps <h3> at the start of the cross-head and a closing </h2> code at the end.

While WordPress gets the job done for posting stories like this one, it’s not a great tool for other writing jobs. Although I can’t easily write an interview for a client or newspaper then send it to them easily with WordPress, it is the jumping off point for this personal look at alternative writing tools.

Pages ’09

Pages ’09 is part of Apple’s iWork suite of apps. There’s the Numbers spreadsheet and KeyNote, a presentation tool. The three work well together in much the same way as Microsoft Office. Each of the three programs are in the OS X App Store and sell for $25 in New Zealand.

Apple sells the same titles for the iPad and the iPhone. New owners of those devices get free versions, it would cost me $14 to add the iPad version of Pages. That’s not a lot of money, but is in marked contrast to Microsoft’s approach which allows one purchase covering all supported devices.

Pages is well overdue for an update, the ’09 is a dead giveaway. Four years ago it may have been ahead of its time, today it feels somewhat old-fashioned.

Apple Pages '09 Mac OS X screen shot

At first sight Apple’s Pages ’09 resembles Microsoft Word. It has lots of features and options but not Microsoft’s bloat. Unlike Word, it does a great job of getting out of the way, there’s a distraction-free screen that works just as you’d expect. Producing documents that, as far as my clients are concerned, came from Microsoft Word is easy.

While Pages functions as a perfectly good word processor, that’s not what Apple has in mind for the software. Pages is more a flexible layout tool. In the old days we might even have described it as desktop publishing software – although it has nothing like the power of Adobe’s InDesign for professional work.

You can use Pages to create beautiful documents with images, graphs and tables. If I was preparing a business report, a newsletter or a book this would be my first port of call.

Google Docs

Modern Mac writing tools aren’t limited to the apps that run directly on the hardware. Anyone taking a look at the options should at least consider Google Docs and the Microsoft Office Web App version of Word.

Google Docs Mac OS X screen shot

Google Docs is sleek and clean. It’s a great option for collaborating with others although there is one specific and annoying flaw in Google’s software. Google Docs can also be used to send words to other online apps including WordPress.

Google Docs needs a more mouse action than Word or Pages. There aren’t so many keyboard short cuts. If you touch type, this will slows you down and could make your hands ache. If you’re not a touch-typist this may not bother you.

Second, the text can often be too small to read, zooming Google Docs does strange things to the mouse and cursor so they no longer line up properly with the page. This is the annoying flaw mentioned earlier. It means you might add a word or delete characters at the wrong place. If you’re working alone, you can just make the text larger, this is harder to do when you’re collaborating.

Another Google Docs problem is that its text can display too wide. This makes it hard for comfortable reading and means you’ll struggle with proofreading.

None of these shortcomings may worry you — they are possibly personal or just things that bother people like me who write for a living. I know other journalists who tolerate Google Docs, I don’t know of many who love it as a writing tool.

iA Writer

On one level Information Architect’s iA Writer is my favourite Macintosh writing tool. I first found the software on the iPad and now use it on my Mac for small writing jobs. Writer is not so great for anything over around 500 words.

That’s mainly because  iA Writer is a text editor. It is not a word processor.

I like it because it is clean and stays right out of the way. As I have written elsewhere, iA Writer the nearest thing in the digital world to using a mechanical typewriter and a clean sheet of paper. It does spell-check and it does allow minimal levels of mark-up.

iA Writer Mac OS X
iA Writer Mac OS X

iA Writer is fast and productive, but the reasons that make it great for short writing jobs work against it for longer more complex tasks. That’s because navigating long documents is hard when there are no obvious heads, cross-heads or bolded text.

When I purchased iA Writer for the iPad it was just $1.99, it now sells for US$5, the OS X version is US$9.

FocusWriter

Like iA Writer, FocusWriter is designed from the outset for distraction-free writing. The software is free, but you’re expected to make a donation if you use it.

FocusWriter Mac OS X screen shot

When you first open the application you nothing, just blank light grey screen. Start typing and the text appears in black, 12-point Times New Roman. On a MacBook Air the characters are tiny, barely large enough to read.

You can change the font, type size, colour, background colour and the line spacing. To get to the controls you need to mouse to the top of the screen. Once there you can set up themes. Normally documents are stored as plain text. If you need to work with Microsoft Office users you can save as RTF.

FocusWriter is the most basic writing software in this round up, but it gets the job done.

Other Mac writing tools

A couple of people suggested Mars Edit from Red Sweater Software. Others suggested BBEdit. It could best be described as a text editor, which makes it useful for dealing with HTML or CSS.

For short writing jobs iA Writer is my clear favourite. I’m struggling to find the best tool for longer jobs. At the moment I waver between Word and Pages. Neither is completely satisfactory, neither is awful.

Windows iTunes is a disgrace

You’d think Apple would have the sense to make Windows iTunes a wonderful experience. So wonderful that it tempts Windows users to see what other software marvels Apple is capable of. So wonderful they consider dumping Windows and shifting to a Macintosh.

Either Apple isn’t bothered about using its software as a marketing tool, or its programmers are incapable of writing decent Windows code.

Because Windows iTunes has always been rubbish.

Windows iTunes still rubbish after all these years

Windows iTunes is rubbish. And it hasn’t improved over the years, It crashes, it fails, it loses stuff, it doesn’t sync properly. It leaves behind a trail of junk all over the Windows hard drive.

Sadly, iTunes remains a must have because it is the only official way to sync an iPod, iPhone or iPad to a PC.

Sure there are other ways to deal with music. But they are all just as flawed. I’m not sure there is an alternative for moving files and apps between a computer and an iPad.

Not only is the software awful, but Apple treats Windows customers with contempt. Support questions go unanswered. Long-standing problems, which to this non-developer look relatively trivial, go unfixed even when they are widely acknowledged.

My latest problem is that I can’t install iTunes 11 on my Windows 8 desktop. One Twitter user told me not to bother – the older software is better anyway. Well maybe. But my iPad is an important work tool and I want to keep it up-to-date.

Not only will Windows iTunes 11 not install, but I can’t remove iTunes 10. When I attempted to remove the older program the uninstall failed. However that process also affected how the application works. I can no longer use my keyboard to control volume or to stopping files playing. Not a big thing, just more evidence that iTunes is broken.

Apple: please fix this.

My iPad, my accidental typewriter

As Robin Williams’ book title says: The Mac is not a typewriter. On the other hand, Apple’s iPad might be.

My iPad links to an Apple Wireless Keyboard and runs iA Writer. This combination gives me the closest thing I’ve seen in 25 years of computing to an old-school manual typewriter.

For a journalist that’s a good thing.

Typewriter easy

Apple didn’t design the iPad with word processing in mind.

On its own the iPad is a poor writing tool. Although the larger on-screen keyboard makes for better typing than using a smartphone.

Yet here I am tapping away and loving the experience more than I have done since my last typewriter ribbon dried up back in the 1980s.

Have I taken leave of my senses?

Let me count the ways I love you

Three things make the iPad typewriter-like:

1. Radical simplicity.

The iPad, Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and iA Writer make for simple and distraction free writing.

There’s no mouse. That’s great because lifting hands off the keyboard to point and click is the number one cause of pain for old-school touch typists working on PCs.

Until you stop writing, the keyboard controls everything.

At the same time, the crisp serif text on a plain screen is the nearest thing to a type on a sheet of paper. Wonderful.

2. Text editor

iA Writer is a text editor. Not a word processor.

There’s nothing dancing on my screen. No pop-ups, no incoming email. At least not the way I’ve set things up.

It is just me and my words. The only word processor-like feature is the iPad’s built-in spell checker, which mainly stays out-of-the-way.

Best of all, iA Writer doesn’t do page layout. I don’t care how my words look because I can’t tinker. That’s one less thing to worry about.

This all adds up to fast, productive writing.

3. Quick on the draw

Typewriters don’t need to warm-up, to boot or load applications. Nor does the iPad.

My normal morning practice is to make a cup of tea while waiting for the PC to be ready for writing. The iPad is ready in seconds.

I can get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. The first 100 words or so are nailed on the iPad before I’d get started on the PC.

The best computer bits are still there

While my iPad writing combination kills the bad stuff about word processing, it keeps the best feature: The ability to go back over copy and make corrections. This was always a pain when using a typewriter.

And I send my writing to just about anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. Try doing that with a real typewriter.

Other iPad typewriter plus points

My iPad and keyboard are a lot easier to carry than my ageing and neglected portable typewriter – and easier than my laptop.

The battery life is long. I can work a whole day without needing to find a power point.

iA Writer uses cloud storage. You can choose DropBox or Apple’s iCloud. This means my work is available to me on any computer anywhere in the world.

The Mac still might not be a typewriter, but the iPad does the job for me.

Apple Store – time we had one in New Zealand

IDC Research reports Apple overtook Acer and Dell in a single quarter to become the second best-selling PC brand in Australian and New Zealand. Hewlett-Packard remains top.

Jumping a single place would have been an achievement, climbing two spots is outstanding.

Apple’s rise comes at a time the overall PC market is weak. Ironically, the main reason PC sales are soft because devices like Apple’s iPad and iPhone are eating into their sales.

IDC says one reason for Apple’s success is its retail store expansion. There are Apple stores everywhere around the world.

New Zealand Apple Store missing

Well, almost everywhere. We don’t have a single Apple store in New Zealand while Australia has 17.

Australia has about one Apple Store for every 750,000 people. By that reckoning, New Zealand should have at least five Apple stores. It would be enough for two stores, maybe three, in Auckland.

OK, so Australians are richer than New Zealanders. Even so, there should at least be one in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

A gentleman’s agreement?

I understand there was, or may still be, a gentleman’s agreement between Renaissance, the erstwhile exclusive New Zealand Apple distributor and Apple saying the company will not open an own-brand store here until some future date.

That day can’t come too soon. I know of friends who fly to Sydney expressly to visit an Apple store. I see this as a measure of the unsatisfactory New Zealand Apple retail experience.

There have been Apple products in my house since a few weeks after the first 128K Macintosh went on sale. We bought two Apple products this year, two last year and have plans to buy at least two more next year.

Apple makes outstanding equipment. Now I’m ready for some outstanding retail customer service. Let’s hope we get a store soon.

The Mac still isn’t a typewriter

For most of the 1980s and 1990s an Apple Macintosh was my home computer. I chose a Mac because of its elegance and its ability to produce beautiful print documents. At the time Windows and IBM PC computers were still in the text-only dark ages.

Early Macs had another advantage. They came with solid keyboards able to take a pounding.

I certainly gave mine a pounding. Like most journalists in those days I learnt touch-typing on manual typewriters – hammering out words on slips of paper.

Like a typewriter, not a typewriter

My Mac was typewriter-like, but it followed a different set of rules to any typewriter.

I needed a guidebook to get the most from my new tool and found Robin Williams’ excellent The Mac is not a Typewriter (ISBN: 0938151312).

The explained how to use the computer to make great-looking documents. Some tips, like not typing two spaces after a sentence, were obvious. Others were less so.

Dated

The book has dated. Parts of its content are no longer important. And some of its lessons are now second-nature to experienced computer typists.

Yet you’ll still get value from reading the book – if you can find a copy – because while we may not print as many documents as we did in the 1990s, we still create documents. And making them look good can be as important.

For example, there’s a section explaining why, most of the time, you shouldn’t use justified text. It is harder to read and large blocks of white space – known in the business as rivers – appear. They are ugly and distracting, yet you see them everywhere in PDFs and on websites.

The book predates the iPad. While Apple’s tablet is not a typewriter in the same way a Mac is not a typewriter, it is possible to get more of the old school typewriter feel on an iPad. Perhaps there is a book in that.