Is iA Writer 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 5 screen shot

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.

A breeze compared to Word, Pages

Of course you can do much the same with, say, Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. Up to a point.

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.

Focus

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.

Markdown

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’s 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.

Subtle difference

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.

Efficient

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.

Version 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.

You can find iA Writer in the app stores or visit the company’s website.

PressPatron

You may have spotted the PressPatron banner at the top of this page. It invites you to be a supporter. There’s also a button to the right of this text.

They are both part of my PressPatron campaign. It’s a new way of crowd-funding websites.

I’m one of the first journalist-bloggers in New Zealand to use PressPatron. That puts me in good company. Russell Brown at Public Address got there first. Brown’s campaign has been running for about a month.

PressPatron is new, so there may be bugs in the system. Please be patient.

Soon you’ll see PressPatron banners in a lot more places.

Newsroom and Scoop are onboard. So is Sciblogs, E-Tangeta and TheatreReview. We’re all small, independent New Zealand online publishers.

What is PressPatron?

PressPatron is a way for readers like you to support the media you use. It is voluntary and painless. You get to set the amount you contribute. You can make a one-off payment or commit to a series of payments over time.

Most of all, PressPatron is not a pay wall. The stories on this site will stay free. You don’t have to pay a cent. The idea is that you’re supporting a website, not buying anything.

For now PressPatron is a New Zealand service. The founder, Alex Clark in Wellington, plans to offer it to overseas publishers. I’ve been talking to Alex about the idea for some time now and feel like I’m on the ground floor of something important.

One of the things I like most is that PressPatron doesn’t get in the way. If you don’t like seeing the banner, you can click it off. The sidebar button will stay, but it’s not offensive or distracting.

What will I do with the PressPatron money?

This site was never designed to by a source of income. It’s not my job. But it does cost money to run and it costs money to cover New Zealand technology.

So my first goal is to collect enough money so this site pays for itself.

Running this site isn’t expensive. There are managed web host fees and a handful of licences and subscriptions for services.

I’m a strong believer in paying people for work. That means paying for things like WordPress plug-ins, even when contributions are voluntary.

Around $500 will cover all my costs.

More, better local technology reporting

Any money I collect over that amount will go towards my journalism expenses. Among other things that means covering conferences and getting to industry events that might not otherwise get the attention they deserve.

InternetNZ’s NetHui is one example.

Open Source Open Society is another candidate. It would be good to get to Multicore World, ITX and the Linux AU conference when it is in New Zealand.

Some Commerce Commission conferences could do with a reporter watching what goes on. I’d also like to get to some out-of-town press conferences.

Tuanz events are useful. In my experience other smaller, narrow focus trade events can be valuable. I learned much from going to ISPANZ a year or so ago.

I’ll use any money raised money to pay for travel, accommodation and meals. Nothing fancy. At this stage PressPatron is not going to provide my income. That will continue to come from paying journalism and writing jobs.

PressPatron goals

  • First I want to make $500 to cover site costs.
  • If I reach a total $1500 I’ll be able to attend two out-of-town conferences that I wouldn’t otherwise get to.
  • A further $1500 means I’ll be able to attend all the big local scheduled events without needing to pick favourites1.
  • Any money raised over $3500 will be spent traveling outside of Auckland to get a wider perspective on technology. It means driving or flying out-of-town to chat to more people, more often.
  • If PressPatron takes off I’d like to spend some money on better photography.

  1. Although that depends on my availability and the amount of paid work I’ve got at the time. Sometimes conferences clash with publishing projects. ↩︎

deathtostock_modernworkshop-04At The Register Shaun Nichols writes:

“The tech press has dared to lean away from its core mission of making technology companies more profitable, says tech advocacy house ITIF.”

The ITIF or Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is an industry think-tank. It issued a report looking at “a change of tone in technology reporting” between the 1980s and this decade.

Long story short, it says the media moved from a positive attitude towards the industry to confrontation.

This, according to the ITIF, is because being tough on the industry makes it easier for tech media to turn a profit.

It goes on to talk about the media being ‘biased’ and distorts the public view of technology.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. There’s a lot to unpack, but here are a couple of ideas to think about.

Advertising

In the past publishers made money selling advertising to technology companies. They were a great sales conduit. It worked.

The technology industry was the tech media’s most important customer. Rivers of gold poured in.

While there are publishers who publish nice stories in return for advertising dollars, that was never a great business model. Reader are not fooled. They don’t stick around for blatant propaganda.

The advertising money didn’t buy favourable coverage, at least in the better publications. It did foster a favourable attitude towards the industry. The coverage reflected this.

The partnership also meant journalists and publishers spent time in the company of tech industry people. That too is good for creating a positive attitude.

One conclusion of the ITIF report is more advertising would repair media relations.

Readers and journalists

In the old model, advertisers paid for journalism, but journalists serve readers. Few understood this then. They still don’t.

As Nichols says, we’re not industry cheerleaders. We don’t earn cheerleader, public relations or marketing-type salaries.

Our job is to inform readers. If there is more cynicism in technology media (see the next point) then that is what readers want.

Modern reporting tools mean we know what stories rate from the minute they go online. Guess what? Readers are less likely to click on happy-slappy, isn’t everything wonderful darling stories.

In other words, journalists and publishers respond to reader demands.

Don’t shoot the messenger if they now have a darker view of the tech industry. Get your own house in order.

It’s all nonsense anyway

To argue tech media is meaner than it ways, say, thirty years ago is bonkers. The big newspapers and media sites are full of thin press release rewrites. It is common for blatant propaganda to appear as factual news.

Take, for the sake of argument, Computerworld New Zealand. Thirty years ago, even a decade ago, it was breaking news stories. It was quoted in Parliament. Today, it runs nothing that didn’t start life in a public relations office.

That’s not to say all the tech media is soft. It isn’t. But the ratio of soft stories to more hard hitting news is off the scale. You have to wonder if the ITIF is paying attention.

cyber

Stick the words computer-, net-,  web-, online- or digital- directly in front of other words and you won’t scare the population half to death:

  • Computer-gaming
  • Net-gaming
  • Web-gaming
  • Online-gaming
  • Digital-gaming.

None of these are remotely frightening. They barely raise an eyebrow.

This is just as true when whatever being discussed has negative, or less than positive implications. You know these things aren’t necessarily good. They can be scary, but they’re not going to terrify anyone:

  • Computer-surveillance
  • Net-neutrality
  • Web-porn
  • Online-privacy
  • Digital-disruption

But when cyber is used as a prefix it is almost always viewed as something bad:

  • Cyber-bullying
  • Cyber-crime
  • Cyber-sex
  • Cyber-war
  • Cyber-terrorism

Although it was big in the 1990s, the term cyberpunk is out of fashion. There may be pockets of geekdom where it is still celebrated, but as far as techno-muggles are concerned, it is faintly threatening.

Even the innocent and, now anachronistic, cyberspace now sometimes carries faint negative connotations. At least in some circles.

This is because we’ve become used to newspapers and TV reports using cyber as their favoured technology-bogeyman word.

That’s not always a bad thing. It’s a form of shorthand that flags what’s coming next. Getting the attention of the great unwashed then warning them to take appropriate care with passwords, privacy and security can often be difficult. So telling them in advance the story is scary at least gets a warning message across.

Likewise, those dreary, cliched clip art images of burglars in striped shirts and balaclavas sitting at computer terminals is another useful form of shorthand. Sure it is crass and unimaginative. Yet people get the message that something’s afoot even if they switch off to the main story being told. And who can blame them for switching off? Often the stories are dull or incomprehensible to everyday folk.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7Technology publications and daily newspapers are full of gushing Samsung Galaxy Note 7 reviews.

Samsung deserves much of the praise. It’s an impressive phone. Expect a review here in the next few days.

Where reviewers give stars, the Galaxy Note 7 either gets five or 4.5. When they give a percent the scores are often north of 90 percent.

Glowing praise

Many of the words reviewers use to describe the phone are glowing. One phrase that pops up a lot, is best ever. Some call it the best ever Android phone. Others are more general. You might also see best phone period.

Which means reviewers like it. But best ever?

On one level the phrase is meaningless.

Few Apple product launches pass without an executive saying a product is the best ever.

Of course an iPad launched in 2016 is the best ever iPad. Apple would be in a sorry state if this year’s model was worse than last year’s.

Language inflation

It’s not just Apple that talks about products this way. Everyone talks up their business. We’ve become immune to inflated marketing language.

Yet reviewers should be dispassionate observers. At least the ones working for respectable publications are.

When they say a phone is the best ever, they are passing an objective judgement. The implication is that they have seen lots of phones and of all they have seen to date, the one in question is the best.

Which it might well be.

That Apple logic applies to reviews. Most of the time this year’s phones are better than last year’s phones.

When they are not, that happens sometimes, it’s a big story.

Looked at that way, saying best ever is the same as saying new or improved.