If I didn’t promise to help you out in the next sentence, you’d probably have to look up skeuomorphism in a dictionary.
In simple terms the word means something that resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.1
The word may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.
Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.
You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you this is where you throw things away.
The smartphone is skeuomorph central. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious. The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.
Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.
Soon electric vehicles in Europe will have to make noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.
The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.
There’s a special breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.
Mr flippy floppy
Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.
It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives. An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.
No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.
Time to put skeuomorphism to bed
While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.
Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper. Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.
1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎
Many computer users don’t need to spend extra money on security software. Others do. This helps you decide where you fit.
Windows users can get Microsoft Defender1 for free. MacOS has built-in security features2.
For many people these free OS tools are more than enough protection.
That doesn’t mean there are no risks. The online world is as dangerous as ever. Yet, for many people there’s little value in paying for protection. Spend the money elsewhere.
Paid-for computer security won’t be foolproof even if you buy the best on the market. A clever social engineering attack can shimmy past the smartest defence.
A common example is when a crook persuades a victim to hand over a password or let them behind the defences.
Perhaps the most powerful way of defending your computer and data is making frequent encrypted backups. You can automate this in Windows and MacOS.
Given a choice between spending on security software or backup, I’d pick the latter every time.
You should make more than one kind of back-up. Perhaps use a cloud service and a local hard drive or network server. Ideally back up to a removable hard drive that you can store away from your computer.
Always test back-ups to make sure they are usable.
With back-up you can recover from most attacks, even ransomware . Some security products and services include back-up as part of their deal.
Who needs extra security?
If you deal with customer data or anyone’s personal data the law says you must protect it from attack. Security software goes some way towards meeting your obligations. It will reduce the likelihood of attack, criminals often find enough low hanging fruit elsewhere to leave your protected data alone.
If you have valuable data including material you want to stay secret. This includes things like business plans or product designs.
If you are a potential target for online criminals. This can include having valuable IP that crooks or foreign governments might want. It also includes things like working for political parties or campaigns where there are people who would be only too happy to embarrass or expose your data.
If you indulge in risky behaviour online. This can mean activity like illegal downloads or visiting dodgy streaming sites. Some sites at the dark end of the web are fronts to help find victims.
If you run a small business where employees are on a local network or you have a home system with teenagers. Sure, you can trust the people you know, but you can never be certain that others might make mistakes, either by indulging in risky behaviour or being susceptible to scams. Spending a couple of hundred dollars on security is easier and less stressful than attempting to monitor and police other people’s activity.
Microsoft Defender isn’t perfect, but it does a good job and doesn’t get in the way, unlike some paid-for security software. ↩︎
In six years I’ve never had the slightest security scare on my Macs ↩︎
If that’s too much, you can enter a full screen mode and the menu bar disappears from sight. There’s also a focus mode that can hide everything except the paragraph or sentence you are working on.
No fiddling with iA Writer
This simplicity allows me to focus on writing. There’s a wonderful passage of text written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams where he describes the creative ways he prevaricates with his work. It involves tinkering with fonts, type sizes, widths and so on.
The mere presence of all those options can be a distraction. iA Writer does away with it. As every long-term Apple user understands, restricting your options can boost productivity.
While, on one level, this iA Writer approach has always worked well for me, it has, at times been a problem. In the earlier versions of the software those choices were too restrictive. The text size was fixed and there was a strict monospace Courier-like typewriter typeface.
Good in theory, but in practice we reached a point where I was struggling to read my text on the screen.
I have an eye problem and every so often have restricted vision, to get around it I need larger, clearer typefaces. When that wasn’t an option with iA Writer I found myself using different writing tools. The, now apparently defunct or neglected Byword was a solid alternative with variable fonts and text sizes.
iA Writer addressed these issues with the last two releases of the software. Version 5.2 builds on version 5. There are now three typeface choices: Mono, Duo and Quattro. As the names suggest the first is monospaced, the second uses up to two spaces and the third can use as many as four.
There’s a lot of nerdy material on the iA Writer website about fonts. It all boils down to the newer options making it much easier to read your words on the screen.
Uno, Duo… Quattro
The most recent typeface, Quattro combines the benefits of fixed and proportional spaced fonts. It is particularly easy on my eyes. Better still, it is legible if I need to read or write on a smaller screen, say an iPhone.
iA Writer has always done a good job of exporting to Microsoft Word. The latest version improves this functionality. If you want you can write documents with footnotes, tables or even inline images and convert them to Word .docx format. This is essential for my work as almost every client expects to see a Word document.
The software also integrates with other services. The only one I use all the time is the post to WordPress option. This was sometimes a little tricky with earlier versions of iA Writer but has been good since version four.
Sharing an iA Writer strength
You can also save documents as HTML, which is powerful when fixing web copy. As you might expect with a made-for-Apple app, iA Writer deals brilliantly with the internal Apple sharing functionality. They work well with the iOS Files app and on both operating systems with iCloud. One neat aspect of this is that I can draft a post on my Mac and then edit on an iPad or iPhone later. You can also link them both to Dropbox.
When I first purchased iA Writer for iOS, the price was, from memory, US$3. That was an introductory deal. It later moved to $5. Today it is US$9. The MacOS version has increased more in price, today it is US$29. Get it from the app store. You have to buy the app again when there’s a major upgrade, but the price is low enough for this to not be a deal breaker.
One last thing. iA Writer stores documents as plain text, but it uses Markdown formatting. This is a simple way of adding headers, bold, italics, hyperlinks and so on to you text. These show up in the text editor as punctuation marks. You can then create a preview to show how the document looks after converting it to HTML, Word format or whatever. It might sound off-putting, but in practice it’s easy to use.
Is iA Writer 5 a text editor? Or is it a minimal word processor? The software is both and neither at the same time. It’s an elegant stripped down writing tool that’s perfect for 2018.
iA Writer starts from the premise that some writers focus on their words, not how they look on a page.
There are no distractions. The software has almost no moving parts. Words on a screen, that’s it. iA Writer feels the nearest thing to using paper in a typewriter and yet it is as modern as the iPhone X.
If you like your writing software flashy and complex go elsewhere. If you need to do tricky typographic work or lay out pages, this is not for you. It is a writer’s tool, pure and simple.
MacOS and iOS
There are versions of iA Writer for iOS, MacOS and Android. It works best with Apple kit. If you don’t use Apple hardware, the software is a good reason to change. If you have an iPad Pro, this would be a good time to invest in a keyboard, although iA Writer is fine if you write on a glass keyboard.
That’s because cloud is central to the software. You can store documents locally on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, but why would you when you can save them the cloud and have them sync between devices.
This works so well that you can type away on, say, a MacBook, race out the door and pick up from where you left off on an iPhone.
The app-OS-hardware integration has only improved with Apple’s recent move to iOS 11.
Word is a hefty MacOS app. It rarely starts without checking to see if there is a software update — usually once a week. Often you’ll need to wait 15 minutes or so before working while Microsoft handles the latest updates to all the Office apps.
Even when there are no updates Word is not instant on. iA Writer is ready immediately. Often a Word work session starts with something other than jumping straight into writing. Maybe you need to find the right fonts or styles. There are always things to fuss over.
With iA Writer you are ready to go almost from the moment you click the app’s icon. There is nothing to fuss over. Almost no possible choices to make.
The idea behind iA Writer isn’t new. A decade ago there were minimalist word processors and writing tools for Macs and PCs. You may recall WriteRoom or Q10.
There were others. And if you didn’t want a special app, there were the basic text editors shipped with operating systems and tools derived from the Linux or Unix text editors. Even the MS-Dos versions of Word Perfect were minimal in this way. So were older programs like WordStar.
All of them attempted to keep out of your way. In place of a fancy user interface and menus full of esoteric commands, they relied on the user learning a few standard codes. These were embedded among the words to handle things like bold text, heads and so on.
iA Writer uses Markdown to do this. Markdown is simple and keeps out of the way. Type a single hash # character at the start of the line for a top level head, two hashes means second level head and so on. It takes seconds to learn a days to master.
One key difference between iA Writer and earlier simple writing tools is the beautiful integration with the hardware, software and cloud services.
It’s as if the the software developers digested the entire Apple less-is-more credo and spat it out as a perfect writing application. Perfect is not too strong a word here. Although this style of perfection may not be to your taste.
iA Writer 5 rival
Only one other application comes close to iA Writer’s elegance and simplicity. The excellent Byword has its own minimalist aesthetic. It too is lightweight, simple and stays out of the way.
Unlike iA Writer which offers next to zero choices, Byword gives you some options. You can change a few things.
This may sound like a cop-out. It isn’t. I have a medical condition which means my eyes sometimes don’t work well. When I’m having bad eyesight days, I can’t adjust the iA Writer type to a bigger size, I can’t alter the font or screen colour to make reading easier. With Byword you can make these changes.
The result is the two similar minimal writing tools have distinct personalities. They work for different types of use. iA Writer is all about the writing and precious little else. You can use it for complex writing jobs, but it works best for blog posts, putting down thoughts and things like journalism.
Byword is a touch more sophisticated. You can write a book or a 3000 long-form feature in either app. If you want something more, Byword is the first stop on the road from iA Writer to more complex tools like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word.
There’s something else important about iA Writer and Byword. The two apps have an impact on the way you write. I find I can sit at a Mac or iPad and zip through a thousand words or so in quick time. This blog post will take less than an hour to write.
Between the minimal software and the Markdown editing language there is almost no reason to move your hands from the keyboard. That’s when you have one on a Mac or say with your iOS device.
With, say, Word, the composition part of the writing process takes longer. There’s more scrolling up and down the page. More distraction. Sure, you can make the words look pretty as you go, but that’s a barrier to getting the right words written efficiently.
iA Writer 5
In November iA Writer reached version 5. It was a free upgrade to those who had earlier versions. There are changes. First the iOS version now works with the new iOS file system.
There are other changes which added functionality without adding complexity. One is that it is now easier to create tables in text.
iA Writer’s other big change is there is a new duospace font. Since the software first arrived there has been no choice other than a standard monospace, typewriter-style font. Now you can choose monospace or duospace.
This sounds like a big deal. In many ways it is. And yet, you’d hardly notice it. I knew I had set the new font in my preferences after downloading the update, but had to go back a moment ago to check I was using it. That’s how subtle it is.
Indeed, while typing away you hardly notice any of the improvements in the last seven years and five versions of iA Writer. That’s the whole point of a minimalist application.
Designers and other professionals love its power. So do hardware makers. Photoshop chews through computing resources. You need a powerful processor and lots of ram to make it work. Even then it can be slow.
Acorn 6 compared to Photoshop
Acorn is the polar opposite. It has fewer features. Relative to Photoshop, it sips resources.
I found Acorn when I moved to a MacBook Air . Photoshop runs on the Air, but it isn’t pretty. After asking around I found and purchased Acorn 5. I wish I had found Acorn earlier.
While there is power in Photoshop, I only ever scratched the surface of the software.
As a journalist, my image processing is cropping and tweaking to make pictures clearer. Often that’s simple. It means applying filters or adjusting colours and contrast.
On the rare occasion I want to do more, Photoshop’s steep learning curve is, well, steep.
It means struggling for a few minutes. Then giving up by reverting to a less ambitious plan B. If the job has enough budget, then a professional can do the job.
Which meant I wasn’t getting value out of Photoshop.
The cheapest way to buy Photoshop is to pay a little over NZ$30 a month for a subscription.
At the time of writing you can buy Acorn 6 outright for about three weeks’ Photoshop. There is a limited-time US$15 promotion. When the price returns to US$30, Acorn 6 will still cost less than two months of Photoshop.
Everyday image editing
I use Acorn 6 every day. While I still only scratch the surface of the software, going deeper is less time consuming. It’s less daunting. Flying Meat software provides all the online help and tutorials you might need to solve problems.
The software never pushes against the resource limits of my MacBook Air. Acorn is snappy all the time, no matter what you throw at it. OK, that might not be the case if you try something heroic. That’s not somewhere I go.
I’ve yet to find any image editing task that I want to do, but can’t. If there’s something tricky and there’s a budget, I’ll still hire a pro to do the work with Photoshop.
Knowing when to walk away from time-wasting is a useful life skill for a freelance. So is knowing when to buy a low-joule image editing application.