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Small but perfectly formed annoyance

For more than a decade now I've been hunting for the ideal pocket word processing kit, for obvious reasons. I've gotten arbitrarily close on occasion, only to be disappointed by excessive hype or defeated by my own aging eyeballs ... but I really thought iWork on the iPhone was going to be it. Alas, the disappointment is all the worse ...

Apple today announced an update to iWork — Pages now runs on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Add one of these keyboards to Pages on an iPhone and it should do the job. Pages has, over the past year, replaced both OpenOffice and Microsoft Word as the gadget I go to when I need a word processor — uncomplicated but powerful, with good page layout and aesthetics, and enough functionality to do what I need to integrate my workflow with my publishers. (Who like to use Word documents with change tracking for copy edits these days: I think Cthulhu has taken over their IT departments, but I can't buck that particular trend easily.)

Unfortunately they managed — very unusually for Apple — to cock up Pages on the iPhone completely. They did this by focusing on page layout so single-mindedly that they've produced a word processor you can't write (or edit) with.

That's not to say that it won't display Pages for Mac or iPad documents beautifully. If all you want to do is look at a 3" high picture of a printed page, it's brilliant. However, it's missing two critically important features, without which you can't actually write on it. Firstly, it doesn't support landscape rotation. You're stuck looking at the picture of a page in portrait orientation — which, if you write double-spaced documents in 10 point Courier on 12 point spacing (standard publisher's manuscript format since the year zero), is utterly illegible. More annoyingly, if you pinch-zoom to look at the text Pages doesn't rewrap the text to fit within the screen width; you end up looking at a clipped window on the page.

What were they thinking? What use is a word processor that doesn't actually let you see text and edit it unless you set up your document template to use a single 6 centimetre wide column on A4 pages?

For once Apple's single-minded focus on aesthetics and design has caused them to emit a turkey that can only be described as not fit for purpose. I suspect there's a moral in this somewhere ...

In other news, here is a cat who begs like a dog.



Much the same could be said about the early versions of Pages - took a few iterations before they created the Word Processor mode.

But perhaps you're in a niche too far (Apple are unlikely to design a decent WP UI that depends on you having an external keyboard for an iPhone app - good opportunity for a third party though, especially if sold in combination with keyboard).


I can't imagine writing for real on a phone screen, no matter how pretty the phone. And with a full-sized keyboard it's not a pocket solution anyway - so why not go with an iPad or something else with a reasonable screen size?

Not that I'm arguing your point - this seems like a failure on Apple's part to understand that a word processor is first and foremost intended not to view words, but to process them.


I'm just boggled that Apple produced the wrong version of pages. They could have done a page viewer, or an editor that compromises but does all the soft re-wrapping you need to write. They picked the former.

Ah well, at least I've got Documents to Go, which does the right thing (even if it's somewhat uglier on the design front) ...

What use is a word processor that doesn't actually let you see text and edit it

It almost sounds from that that what you have there isn't a word processor at all but a page layout package - something which has been mostly subsumed into word processors these last many years.

Ah, the days when you edited your text in one program, then used Aldus Pagemaker to actually lay it out. Who had the processor power to do all that real-time layout as you typed?

Yes, I know that Quark and its ilk are still out there.


Yeah, I'm also curious why Charlie wants to do word processing on an Iphone. Charlie, don't you have to lug the keyboard around in a bag, anyway? Is the weight difference between the Iphone and IPAD that big a deal?


The keyboard I linked to weighs a third as much as an iPad, about twice as much as the iPhone. It's a maximum of one centimetre thick and weighs no more than the old Stowaway folding keyboard, while being bigger and more robust.

If you always carry a phone anyway, then by adding this keyboard you've got general purpose text entry wherever you are.


"for once"?


Pages started out as a page layout program on the Mac -- then developed word processing features so that in its most recent incarnation it's a pretty decent WP. Trouble is, the iOS version is weighted too heavily towards layout, not text entry, and they've totally missed the point of having a WP on a small screen.

I used to be able to write okay on an 80 column/25 line amber or green screen display. You can easily cram that many characters legibly onto a retina display, but you need the basic tools for editing and entering new text.

If some of the rumours about speech recognition tech and iOS 5 are correct, it's possible that within six months we'll all be wearing headsets and dictating to our phones. But that doesn't get you away from the need to be able to edit. Layout isn't something I'd ever want to do on an iOS device, unless they come up with something much bigger and more powerful than an iPad ...


They've had a pretty good batting average for the past couple of years.


Out of curiosity, what's your favourite way of doing change tracking? I ask because I'm quite alright with using diffs and just the plaintext (coming from a programmer background), but people I work with are heavy MS Word users and generally insist on using change tracking. I get that it makes things easier for them, but maybe there are better alternatives.


When I write, I write. When I process words, I don't use something like this li'l text-box. Can we decide that writing is something different than processing words, please?


"diff" is great with plain text under *nix, but Word is far from plain text (or even a rich text format [note I don't mean the specific format "RTF", but any format using tags to apply effects to text]).

Actually, Word seems to almost require Windoze, and I'm not even aware of an application that can emulate "diff" functionality in Windoze.


I'm not even aware of an application that can emulate "diff" functionality in Windoze.

GNU diff is available under cygwin


For once Apple's single-minded focus on aesthetics and design has caused them to emit a turkey that can only be described as not fit for purpose.

Well, I've always disliked Apple's designs, from day zero. I'd rather that my toilets work with a range of rear and defecations sizes, rather than be narrowly tailored to Jobs specifications.

The only time I enjoyed Apple was the first few iterations of OS X, before they managed to "Apple" it up with all kinds of fancy object-oriented administrative concepts which made it painful to customize (beyond Apple expectations of use).

But then again, I look for hackability in DVD players, I hate automatic car doors, and my homes are always seriously modified.


GNU diff is available under cygwin

Great, but if you're running Cygwin, you're no longer running native Windoze, but trying to run Cygwin as an X over a Windoze kernel, and trying to persuade corporate IT to let us do that would be the stuff of nightmares!


Who mentioned running 'X'? And if you support department won't let you have a tool (be it cygwin or winmerge or whatever) then that's a political rather than platform issue.


There's a programming tool called 'BeyondCompare' that my company uses.

Not only does it have a simple-compare for use on files, but it can also handle recursive diffs on folders.

It's not pure-diff, but it's useful. There might even be an MS-Word plugin for it...


While your publisher insists on receiving dblspace 12pt-spaced 10pt Courier, what is there to prevent you writing it in whatever form you want - columns as described, if necessary - and reformatting it when you send it to them?

Possible answer: you wouldn't write stuff on an iPhone, you would copyedit, so it's necessarily in their format. But then, does change tracking work if a doc's edited in Pages?


While your publisher insists on receiving dblspace 12pt-spaced 10pt Courier, what is there to prevent you writing it in whatever form you want - columns as described, if necessary - and reformatting it when you send it to them?

Habit. Like, 25 years of habit in writing in regular manuscript format (albeit single-spaced for on-screen reading).

Incidentally, Pages on iOS doesn't do change tracking, or a lot of the stuff the desktop application can manage. So I'm looking to Pages for iOS as a text entry tool, not a layout or proofing tool.


Anyone know why 10 point courier, double space and left-only justification is the norm for fiction publishing? It's not in other genres of publishing, and, personally, I find it hideous on the eye. Fair enough, zapf chancery isn't a good idea, but surely typewriter aesthetics have had their day. Any explanations welcome ...


You are still saving your work in something non-proprietary like ODF, yes?


Mr. Stross is expecting Pages for iPad to be something it isn't -- a word processor. Pages is suitable for reading and making minor changes to documents that one has authored on one's Mac. Maybe jot down a note, preserve an idea, that kind of brief writing. Authors should stick to the word processor of their choice on their Mac.

I used to be able to write okay on an 80 column/25 line amber or green screen display.

I was under the impression that amber-on-black caused less eyestrain than black-on-white when you're dealing with something emitting light -- so I always figured that as one got older one would find it more comfortable to read and write with an amber-on-black colour scheme. I have heard the opposite from typography/layout otaku, but I chalked it up to paper-centrism (you know, the thing Ted Nelson accuses almost everybody of). Should I take your comment to indicate that amber-on-black is less readable for you now than it once was?

N.B.: I realize that in the context of writing something intended to be consumed on paper, having a paper-like interface is completely reasonable, even if you aren't doing the layout. While I may want to compose and peruse code in monospace in an amber-on-black terminal running vim (and compose plenty of other things that way too), that doesn't necessarily extend to reading or writing fiction, especially in the case when plaintext is the last of a long line of intermediary formats.


For ASCII-based format (plain text, TeX source, markdown, etc.) wdiff might work better than diff --- it does comparisons by the word, which means that it deals better with cases where a paragraph reflowed. But of course, it's unlikely to cope well with Word files.


I always have a bad feeling using word processors to process book-length content. While we also used OpenOffice documents to put together two of our book projects in the past, I much prefer using TeX documents under version control. A central repository is easily set up and given a decent IDE (Texmaker, TortoiseSVN/Git et al), everyone can access it. But I was under the impression that creative writers preferred special writing software like Storybook anyway?


How is the Targus keyboard better than Apple's wireless keyboard MC184LL/A?


Because material submitted to publishers needs to be proofread and marked up in various ways that typesetters understand. Using the same font every time makes this much easier than e.g. something where I and l aren't easily distinguished.


Fair enough, zapf chancery isn't a good idea, but surely typewriter aesthetics have had their day.

Have you produced a thesis recently? At many universities, they still require double-space, single column with 1" margins, single-sided, 12 pt serif with figures on separate pages -- even when they never create a print copy! So you're force to produce pdf's that are completely unreadable on a screen, and would come to 500 pages as a print out -- to fit layout conventions for hand-bound, typewritten manuscripts from the 70s.

Sometimes the answer to "why?" is "they don't know what the fuck they're doing" (aka, bad habit).


There are text diff tools for Windows - let me Google that for you: diffutils at gnuwin32. (I personally use an ancient tool from the Microsoft compiler toolkit. It sucks but I'm used to it.)

Word is a different beast entirely. Its rich text format is rather rich indeed, so a diff is pretty meaningless. Now, if you wanted to stipulate that all the text were just text (i.e. no fancy features like columns or what have you) then I'd write a Perl script against the OLE interface and output whatever diff format you prefer.

I think most people underestimate the amount of lock-in that pertains in the document handling industries with regards to Office and Windows. I'm a technical translator. Everybody runs on Word. Everybody.

But I was under the impression that creative writers preferred special writing software like Storybook anyway?

If you get 50 random creative writers together, and ask them about their preferred writing software, you'll get about 40 different answers. The duplicates will be a mixture of "is there writing software other than MS Word? I'm not very technical" and "I use pen and paper, because [I like it/it's the only way I can write and keep my day-job/anything else destroys my creative juices/computers scare me]". Every writer's process is different, because every writer's brain is different, and things that work really well for one person annoy the hell out of the next writer down the shelf.


"Apple know best" You'll just have to lump it.

Same as MicroSaft, but with about a factor of 10^6 more bullshit. Which is why I won't go near Apple products. At leat I KNOW MS are in it for their profit, and are not shy about it.


In other news .. Just looked at the "Brother Bimbo" You Tube ... That does it, Charlie... I'll be e-mailing you LOTs of pictures of Ratatosk & Hex ...... ( Assuming that I can get them past your spam-filter/gateway filters)


I don't think there's going to be a good solution out there, not for a while yet.

My last Palm was an M130. I got the IR folding keyboard for it -- keyboard folded up little bigger than the Palm with case and unfolded to something roughly the size of a small laptop keyboard, cramped but usable. A little mast would stick up to see the IR window and boom, connected. A Docs2Word package would sync between the PDA and the main computer. Very slick.

And really, it was all the more I needed for portable word processing. It wasn't great for doing revisions but it was great for doing typing on the run, especially when I didn't yet have a full-sized laptop.

These days, an ipad or iphone or ipod touch should be sufficient for all word-processing needs. After all, my old DOS machines were good for that, too, and look at how much more power these things have! The only problem is nobody else really uses them that way. With bluetooth it's perfectly conceivable that you could get a folding keyboard with a little stand to prop them up on but you're still not going to see people writing good word processing apps for them.

About the only thing google docs mobile is good for is the most minimal edits. I can't proof my own content for crap on my writing PC -- I have to change the presentation in order for mistakes to really stick out. So that leaves me either printing it out on paper or looking at it on a very different screen like my ipod touch. Have a lie down, get comfy, start looking for errors. But then it's better to get back up and fix it directly than to poke around with the dodgy editing interface.

These are real edge-case uses we're talking about. I read the usenet posts of Palm engineers who were equally baffled by the early adopters trying to do word processing on Palms. "But why?!" Classic example of the engineers thinking they're designing one sort of product and the users saying "Well yeah, but it could also do this!" and bastardizing some homebrew software to make it do just that.


I know what you're getting at.

I think the publishing business doesn't want writers to do page-layout. Even those pretty "handed" quote-marks can mess things up. They still want something that would be possible in the typewriter era.

Of course, the Americans also struggle over the difference between æther and ether which can be rather important if you're doing steampunk.


Yes; it predates computerized typesetting. Basically, typesetters (the human kind) needed to do estimates of the number of words -- and number of pages -- in a finished book on the basis of the typed manuscript. Sticking to this format allowed them to "cast off" -- generate an accurate word/page count estimate. As editorial staff trained up in this era, it's stuck as a convention for how MSs are presented because it's what editors are used to reading and marking up by pencil.

Hint: just because it may seem logical to you to use a computer, it does not follow that that's what authors do. Many still use manual typewriters. Generally the old, famous ones who sell well ...


ODF is non proprietary? Hahahahaha ...

If I want non-proprietary I use UTF-8 and MarkDown. (I can't roll my own ODF parser from scratch, but MarkDown is another matter.)


Mr. Stross is expecting Pages for iPad to be something it isn't -- a word processor.

That's what it says on the tin.

If DataViz can write a word processor for the iPhone, why can't Apple?


I can still write on an 80x25 character display; it's just that in this day and age we have bitmapped displays and the ability to render more than 80x25 characters on a screen.

Funnily enough, having an entire page of textual context makes writing easier.


But I was under the impression that creative writers preferred special writing software like Storybook anyway?

Storybook? Never heard of it.

Actually, you'll find that many writers still use pens. Others use manual typewriters. For those of us who use computers Microsoft Word is the overwhelming majority choice, to the point where it's what publishers' IT departments expect you to use (because who has heard of anything over than Windows XP and Office 2003, after all?).

I'm currently working on a novel with Cory Doctorow. We're using MarkDown for formatting and (at my end) BBEdit or MacVim and (at his end) I think Emacs or GEdit.

My last couple of novels both used Scrivener, because they were structurally complex and I needed a lot of metadata tagging/outlining/structure editing tools. (Probably the main reason I don't dive into Scrivener full time is because it's closed source and not cross platform.)

The next novel is shaping up right now in Pages because it's relaxing to look at, but may end up migrating to MarkDown or MultiMarkDown if I get too pissed off with it. The advantage of Pages is that it can import and export Word documents, interoperates with Word for change tracking (an editorial requirement these days), and is more stable/less buggy than the various forks of OpenOffice. MarkDown doesn't let me avoid Word documents, it just postpones the evil day when I have to switch formats before shoveling the book into my publishers' production toolchain.


How is the Targus keyboard better than Apple's wireless keyboard MC184LL/A?

It's the same layout and size as the Apple keyboard, but (a) it weighs less, (b) it has a lower "step" at the back (because it runs on AAA cells rather than AA), (c) has a better battery life, (d) the function keys work properly with iOS (e.g. return to springboard, power on/off, and so on) ... and (e) it's cheaper.


Can we run emacs on iOS yet?


No Escape or Control keys, so forget doing it on the iOS keyboard.

If you jailbreak, however, you can install emacs and ssh into iOS. It's just another UNIX under the hood, after all.


Kris Cringely was of the opinion that Apple crippled word processing/word processors on purpose on the iPad, in order not to eat into the word processing market/use for the iMac, and other bigger, costlier computers Apple sells. You could use the same logic for the iPhone.

On the other hand, if I'm to believe Jakob Nielsen (and I tend to believe hinm more than Cringely) Apple is just plain "aint I a cool kid" dumb when it comes to the basics of human-computer interaction in gesture devices. Of course, since he's a Dane with a PhD. in engineering he says it more politely and with tons of scientific arguments.


An Android Cell with a built-in keyboard might be better suited for word proccesing. at least untill they work-out the kinks with the laser-projected keyboards.

ps. not interested in Apple v. Android arguments, i'm talking about simple functionality


Fair enough--though if medicine moved at this pace they'd still be drilling holes in skulls to let the demons out. As for the folks still using the clickety-clack, I often wonder at how hard it must be to edit. I guess it's a good incentive to get it right first time round.

@Anura: Yes, I've been in that swamp before. My understanding was that formatting styles--the MLA, for example--have to be perfectly reproducible on a manual typewriter so as not to disadvatage scholars in the third world. It's a laudable aim, I guess, but I'm not sure it makes much sense now, given the ubiquity of cheap computing.


Charlie, have you looked at Bean? It's a relatively simple (compared to the likes of Pages or Word) open source word processor for the Mac. (Not directly relevant to your iOS complaint, but the discussion seems to have branched out a bit.) It fits my own fairly modest needs perfectly; these days I do as much writing as possible in Bean and only export to Word when I need to fit into someone else's workflow. Of course I'm no professional author so it may well turn out to be missing some vital feature (the lack of stylesheets may be a showstopper).


I think that I found what you're looking for...however there will be some trade-offs involved.



What about some of the barebones-type text editors like TextWriter, Simplenote, PlainText, WriteRoom, and so forth?


Software asside, I can't imagine doing any writing of length on a touchscreen. Perhaps bite the bullet and get an Android with a 4" or 4.3" screen? Some have a slide-out qwerty keypad which would give you some hope of typing anything at length and with speed.


I am more puzzled by the silent consensus that Word change tracking is evil. In my experience, it is invaluable for writing documents with multiple authors.


Lack of stylesheets is indeed a show-stopper for me.


Issues with Wurd "change tracking":- 1) Nothing ever gets "really deleted" until you turn "track changes" off, do File -> Remove hidden data, and then File -> Save as, giving the result a new filename. If you're working on, say, commercially priviledged material, intellectual property, personnel reports... I'm sure it's obvious why you want stuff to be really deleted when you delete it! 2) When you do (1) above, the file shrinks to about 50% of its original reported size! 3) Wurd has file size limits, in terms of disc space, word count, and number of pages in a file. See (1) above for why this is a possible issue for a novelist (more so for, say, the new "Honor Harrington" than for one of Charlie's, since the last several HH's have run 800 to 1000 printing pages in softcover).


It's not that Word's change tracking is evil so much as Word is evil. It's designed to give the illusion of being usable by untrained casuals, is subject to feature bloat on an epic scale, its style model is a hideous car-crash mix of two different paradigms (so that if you are collaborating on a document designed with a style sheet with someone who believes in applying text attributes directly you will end up with the most horrendous mess), and with Microsoft's frequent file format changes -- to force upgrades -- it's not even compatible with earlier versions of itself.

The trouble is, Word has warped our expectations of what a WYSIWYG word processor should look like so badly that we can't recognize a better option when we see one.

There is one honourable exception to this litany of horror: Microsoft Word for Macintosh 5.1a, which was a thing of beauty. Alas, they stopped selling it in (if I remember correctly) 1990 or 1991, and replaced it with the ghastly mess which was Word 6 for Mac (at the same time they jumped Word For Windows forward to Word 6, presumably for version number sequentiality with Word 5.5 for DOS). Word 5.1a for Mac didn't have a macro language, but ... the whole thing fitted in 3Mb (including dictionaries and extra twiddly add-ons and file import/export filters), ran happily on a machine with 1Mb of RAM, was blazingly fast, didn't have an obese cloud of random gunk orbiting it, and Got The Job Done.

I believe there are still novelists out there who use it.


It occurs to me that an excellent target for an Open Source project would be to pick a cross-platform library (Free Qt, perhaps) and to deliberately clone the user interface of Word 5.1a for Macintosh, but with ODF or RTF as the underlying file format. The target should be parsimony, or what passes for it these days -- it should run reasonably briskly on a Pentium-2 266 running an old release of Linux with 128Mb of RAM and a 1Gb hard disk. That, and it should be able to edit a 1Mb styled text document (no images or embedded objects from other programs) without consuming more than, say, 16Mb of physical memory (which would put it miles ahead of OpenOffice or Microsoft's current ghastly obsession). And it should look and work like Word 5.1a, modulo the window decorations.


"Generally the old, famous ones who sell well ..." On the other hand, my friends at Locomotive Software (remember them?) always reckoned that Locoscript on an Amstrad PCW was the word processor of choice for the majority of Britain's unpublished authors.


I confess to having tried to write a novel using Locoscript.

I switched to Protext in a hurry and never looked back. (Then moved on from CP/M to MSDOS ...)

However my first published short stories were written in Locoscript.


I forgot about the style sheets. Subconsciously suppressed memories are brought back to mind. The pain! Some scientific journals like to provide very detailed style sheets, which one cannot apply afterwards. You have to write or paste the text into the proper places. When you paste with formats, you mess up the style sheet. When you paste without formats, you loose important formating like super- and subscripts. This is fun if you have hundreds of chemical or mathematical expressions. And you cannot write directly into the style sheets, since your co-authors will mess it up without fail.


... and if you want to import or export a current generation Word or ODF document, that should be an external converter program that you don't normally carry around with you.


Cygwin is not your average tool though, more like an entire workshop! It was banned at a company I used to work for on the grounds that it allowed developers to do too much. They trusted us to write software to run a major financial institution, but not to choose our own tools! Turns out it's very hard to stop developers getting hold of what they want....

I use either BeyondCompare or ediff, depending on circumstances. After ten years of being forced to use Windows at work I have had to adapt slightly. At least I don't have to use ClearCase any more :-)


May I just say....



Having had to use Word for a variety of applications for the last mumblety-years, I've found Word 2010 to be a massive improvement on previous versions. Ok, so the ribbon interface isn't to everyone's taste, but it's far more stable, especially on large complicated documents - I can't remember when it last crashed on me.


the word processor of choice for the majority of Britain's unpublished authors.

Which may be because it was the cheap tool purposed for the task. If the proportion of published writers using it was lower, that could be that they were happy with the tools they already used, or that they had upgraded to a more solid tool.

(My former brother in law wrote his first two books on a BBC Micro using Wordwise - which was amusing for me since I worked for Acornsoft at the time and we had our own WP offering, View™, and yet I used to get roped in for tech support. I suspect he's switched to a PC for his more recent biographies.)


I can't remember when it last crashed on me.

I can't remember the last time I had Word 2000 crash on me. On the other hand, I've got code here that attempts to automate it from outside, and the automation interfaces are a heap of foetid dingos' kidneys. Really, MS, when you started thinking of Office automation, you should really have reimplemented the whole architecture as DLLs hosted in a minimal front end.


You may. But I will respond "not all of them it doesn't; in particular it doesn't show anything relating to 'legal' paragraphing or font effects".


I can't remember the last time I had Word (any variant) crash on me either. That doesn't mean that it's actually stable though; just that it's in the middle ground of "not so unstable as to be actively annoying or unusable, but not totally bomb-proof either".


As a sysadmin myself, the response should be: "Tell me why you need it to do your job, and I'll help you install it myself"

But if your boss has decided that you should use (eg) Word with change tracking, rather than a text editor and diff, then you'll either have to put up or find a new job.


The ribbon interface, in combination with the ludicrous trend for wide-screen-TV aspect ratio screens on laptops, eats valuable vertical real estate.

It is an abomination in a word processor.

Thing is, when we read, if the column of text is too wide our eyeballs are forced to scan sideways back and forth to take in a line of text. This is fatiguing and slows down the reading process (which is an integral part of the writing process). So there's a limit to how much of a wide screen you can use for writing -- either you have to zoom the text to huge size, or you use a columnar window that is narrower than the screen.

Now the ribbon is in principle a good idea -- exposing controls in a complex application to make them easier to find is usually good -- but MS for no sane reason made it a horizontal ribbon. At the top or bottom of the column of text, it eats into the valuable vertical real estate. A sensible ribbon design would be arranged vertically, at the left (or right) of the text window -- like the slide-out trays in Apple's Pages, for example.

I've played with Word on a machine (a Sony Vaio P) with a letterbox screen so wide and shallow that the ribbon occupied a third of the screen's vertical real estate. Useless, utterly useless!


I suspect the programmers have screens like the one I use - a Dell widescreen 1920 x 1200that rotates to portrait.

In portrait mode, the normal extra wideness becomes extra height within which the ribbon lives very happily.

As you say, not useful for laptops, at least not until someone produces a practical rotating screen laptop.


In working with other authors I'd really like to rely on versioning tools to keep track off where comments/changes came from and write documents directly in TeX or a similar format. Word change tracking is pretty nice aside from the fact that it requires me to run Word with all that entails. LaTeX might be a bit tiresome sometimes (okay, a lot tiresome, full of programming conventions out of the 80s) but it generally gets out of the way a lot quicker than Word does.

It strikes me that people in the software industry already did a lot of hard work on how to work collaboratively on large projects (even if there are some assumptions that don't translate to straight-up writing vs coding) and that we might as well use those tools. Never been able to sell any non-coders on using (proper) versioning though.


The ribbon UI collapses. If you double click on the title of one of tabs you get a menu bar just displaying the titles. The ribbon then acts as a pop-up UI.

This is the main thing I like about it, you end-up with almost no widgets on the screen.


The ribbon interface, in combination with the ludicrous trend for wide-screen-TV aspect ratio screens on laptops A trend which has been caused primarily by the associated trend for giving "road warriors" a laptop & DVD drive for "doing their paperwork", and which they then promptly want to use for "watching DVDs in their hotel rooms in the evenings".


MS Word is a Swiss army knife, not a dedicated SF genre novelist's writing instrument. It can do everything pretty much but nothing perfectly which is why it has sold millions (probably billions) of copies over the decades it has been available.

That longevity is another reason for its ubiquity; a track record of Being There is what distinguishes MS and Oracle from most other mayfly software companies such as, say, Ashton Tate or Novell.


Other than "having a superficially shallower learning curve", Wurd does pretty much nothing that I've ever wanted much if any better than WordStar or WordPerfect 5.1 did, and just plain isn't as good at some things, such as numbered paragraphing.

If you like, what I need is a set of box spanners, but Wurd insists on trying to make me use them, screwdrivers, Allen keys, Torx drives and feeler guages all hung on the same handle.


I'm effectively locked into OpenOffice Writer, since I wrote my first book with that and do not want to go through another horrendous learning curve with something else. It's not perfect, it works, and its free.


I don't really care about the word processing software but I have a very strong affection for IBM Model 25 keyboards, the kind with the buckling springs. IBM doesn't make them anymore but you can find retailers on the web selling new versions using the same manufacturing equipment as the original. I love my clakey-keys! Can't stand modern membrane keyboards. Ruins any attempt at proper writing.


You mean the M-series keyboard? Got one next door, gathering dust -- I managed to wean myself onto chiclets, which are a lot lighter, cheaper, and more compact.

If you use a Mac, you might want to investigate the Matias Tactile Pro 2.0 keyboard -- same buckling-spring technology as Cherry and IBM used back in the day, but modern USB 2.0 with Mac keycaps. $SPOUSE is clattering away on one in the next office as I type.


On the other hand, if I'm to believe Jakob Nielsen (and I tend to believe hinm more than Cringely) Apple is just plain "aint I a cool kid" dumb when it comes to the basics of human-computer interaction in gesture devices

Their entire "human factors" is just crap -- it's stuck in the 80s, and the only reasonable that they're at all acceptable is because everyone else is stuck in the 80s as well.

Think on the mac their insistence on the "application bar" at the top -- that made good human factors sense in 1987 when a hires screen was 640x480. But with two screens each 1900? Getting to your menu is almost impossible -- and key accelerators are limited on purpose.

Or look at the most horrendous programming language of all -- applescript. Bad design from the top to the bottom -- but because it had a few cute ideas that then became a fetish, the language was encrusted into all mac interfaces until recently.

So -- the iOS is going to be a frozen interface with what seemed like a good idea on the first iphone.


The trouble is, Word has warped our expectations of what a WYSIWYG word processor should look like so badly that we can't recognize a better option when we see one.

That's the underlying trouble with everything -- most of us can't distinguish what is good from what is popular. Popular is usually a function of social inertia.

I've generally found that the lazy heuristic is to simply assume that anything popular isn't good -- it's not foolproof, but it's a lot more likely to be correct than the inverse.


Yeah, my bad. Model M was the keyboard, Model 25 was the first computer I encountered it on.

The only mac I have is a mini used as an entertainment center PC so I use the Mac wireless keyboard for it. Not bad for a dinky board but I luvs me the clacky boards. :)


Heh, I once repaired a PII-266 laptop with 192MB of RAM, running Windows XP and Office 2003. Word /flew/ on that old clunker. Five seconds (timed!) to start Word from nothing.

I'm certain that its lack of antivirus software had much to do with it, but three years later I'm still deeply impressed by that old thing.


Like I said Word does everything but nothing perfectly. It almost certainly does do numbered paragraphs but not as well as another word processor you used ten years ago that did them really well. It also does tables, graphs, style sheets, change tracking etc. etc. ad nauseam, all things I don't myself use much if at all. It does EVERYTHING and that means someone looking to use something they call a "word processor" will find all they need in Word as a subset of its entire capability.

To mangle another metaphor, it's a giant SUV not a sleek sportscar but it will do the daily commute or bring home a load of IKEA furniture or let you drive from coast to coast. It's not the best thing to do any of those jobs but it only takes up one parking space in front of the condo and the basic controls are the same whatever job it's doing.


Reply to something buried way back now, but it's not true that all publishers require 10pt Courier - I've done four books with Penguin, two with the Hachette group, and not once had anything to do with Courier (or had them ask me to). Neither did any of the other authors whose typescripts I've seen. Same with my agent. (Mostly in 12pt Times, though I may have handed in one or two in a sans-serif font at some point.)

Not saying it doesn't happen or that people don't still use it, but it's not required. "All characters very clearly readable" is the standard I've been told (double-spacing, obviously, still mandatory for that reason as well as for edits).

I don't know what the current iteration of Word's like for editorial change-tracking, but the 2008 (?) one was awful for selecting tiny changes (insert or delete a comma here, etc.). Absolute mouse precision or you couldn't hit the bloody thing to tell it whether to accept it or not. Pages, with the side-note accept/reject format, is so very much nicer in that regard.


I don't know if anyone has mentioned your recent interview with Singularity Weblog, but it's very good.

You make good criticisms of the techno-utopian Singularity crowd and mention a lot of problems facing civilization in the near future, but I take you aren't in the full-blown "the end is nigh" camp yet?

Have you considered writing a dystopian or post-apocalypse novel with your take on the future if things go badly? Every SF writer of note needs at least one good P-A novel, don't they?


My favorite was Wordperfect 5.x for DOS, clean blue screen with white letters and the reveal codes command. You could lean out all the superseded codes and also more importantly you could find out why your formatting wasn't working. Installing all of the print drivers was "interesting" and it made me valuable in the work place. I still have the install disks. Now where did I put that 5" floppy drive?


Aside, speaking of Mechanical Keyboards. I cannot find a Bluetooth one for love nor $$. The only one is a Japanese ultra-rare sell-your-first-born Daitec one that looks like this:

A serious gap in the market I think.


I'm no good with things that involve arbitrary programmer-defined codes (human languages involve historically defined and physiologically based codes so I'm better with that) so I was sure glad when word processors all shifted to "full screen edit", which is also known as WYSIWYG.

But there's no such thing as a true WYSIWYG word processor yet. They all place invisible codes that you can't see and, more often than not, can't act on with direct manipulation. Word is excruciatingly painful with this.

That's why I loved the old Wordperfect so much. You could use it in full WYSIWYG mode but you could also get into the "reveal codes" mode, and then actually see the codes and manipulate them directly.


Well, you know what Donald Knuth did.



I took a look at Scrivener's web site because I remembered some positive comments you've made in the past about its power for outlining and organizational tasks. It seems there's a Windows and Linux version on the way this year. Two questions:

-Will you consider using it once you're free of the platform lock-in, assuming the port doesn't suck?

-How do you think it might work as a coding or at least designing platform? I find that my design process starts from a simple outline, adding more and more detail and eventually splitting into multiple files. That sounds like something Scrivener might be good at.


I always preferred the mac standard keyboards, the clear and white ones that shipped with the eMacs and iMac G4's. I'm typing on one now, in fact. Lovely key action, ergonomically a dream, and can be had for under a fiver from select car boot sales (I'm stockpiling them, though so far the one I got back in 2003 is still going strong).

Also can survive most canned beverages.


How long has she had the Tactile Pro? My formative learn-to-type years were spent on a mixture of Apple Extended Keyboard II keyboards and Model M's, and for the past 15 years I've stuck to the Model Ms. I keep thinking about giving the cherry switches a shot again, but I've heard Vague Bad Things about the durability on the Tactile Pro, and the spacing on the Das Keyboard just gives me the fits.


For that form factor you're probably best off with mature technology. A small notebook and pen works well, even with my execrable handwriting.


{ TOC \o "1-1" \t "Heading 2,2,Heading 6,1,Heading 7,2" }

Actual Word "codes" behind the Table of Contents for a real document here at work. What was that about comprehensibility again? ;-)


She's on her second -- the first drank a mug of coffee -- so she's only had this one for about 12 months.


For that form factor you're probably best off with mature technology. A small notebook and pen works well, even with my execrable handwriting.

"You're complaining that the new BMW X series you were wanting doesn't come with a vital feature -- why don't you get a rusty bicycle instead?"

I'm left-handed and get writers cramp addressing an envelope. I can enter text twice as fast finger-typing on an iphone as I can write with a pen, and I can type an order of magnitude faster than I can write. My handwriting resembles a spider on crack and is incompatible with pretty much every handwriting recognition program I've tried, so I'd end up typing the work anyway. Finally, handwriting is utterly shit if you write sentences iteratively, backing up and changing words regularly.

The pen is obsolete. Has been for decades.



My handwriting these days is used pretty much only for addressing envelopes and signing cheques. Which I do maybe half a dozen times a year.


Ref #94 and 95 - My handwriting probably isn't as bad as Charlie's but the only way of testing that would be to double-blind test it at a con with folks that don't know us.

I also do a bit more than envelopes and cheques, but that's cos it's sometimes easier to write something and re-type it than to generate it on a Unix box, ftp it to a PC, copy onto a flash drive, and then transfer that to another PC in order to incorporate into an e-mail!


I stopped reading Jakob Nielsen the first time he wrote about the iphone interface. His thoughts were completely in the land of theory and stuck in the WIMP model of user interaction.

In the meantime, in the real world, anyone with a young child and an iphone knew that the touch interface was the most intuitive computing interface yet.

I'm sure by now he's come around...


No one has mentioned lyx (sophisticated quasi-wysiwyg with latex back-end) :-( Open source. Version with svn if you want, drop down to latex editing if you really need to, etc. It sounds like some of the commentors here might like what they find. - happy lyx user


I last used LyX in anger back in early 2000. And very anger-inducing it was!


Nielsen hasn't "come around". His group just launched yet another study proving (in my eyes) that the current implementations of touch interfaces/gesture interfaces are still laced with some very deep faults. It isn't just Apple.


The smartphone keyboard problem is one I mentioned just yesterday. Remember the fancy celphone based MMORPG scheme from Halting State? Some hobbyists want to actually do this, apparently as an independent invention or parallel evolution.


Seems something like Dasher could work well on smartphones. Not sure how scalable downwards their implementation is (at present they seem somewhat tied into the GNOME environment), but the idea seems simple enough. And it looks pretty quick too.


Click on Mobile Dasher on the page you linked too. IPhone, Android, Winmo. I used to use Dasher on Palm. Quick but vertigo inducing.


Ooh, shiny! I have no idea how practical this is for an experienced user, but it's a text input form I've never thought of before. It looks really bizarre at first glance but I'm getting the idea that it would become intuitive and natural very quickly.

This might not work as well for MUDs (text based virtual realities) on phones, where there's very limited screen space, but we're looking at two niche applications.

You're not typing, you're flying through Borges' Infinite Library. I hope to see more of this in the future.


Clearly your kitty treats are yummy. I'm amused by the snoring and kicking videos too.


Charles - I recently got the Targus keyboard linked above to turn my iPod Touch into a portable writing machine. I dug around and found NoteMaster Lite did the trick for allowing me to hammer out some ideas out in the field and then sync them up to a full-size computer when I got home. It's not perfect, but it has Landscape mode and was easy to set up. It uses Google Docs as the central sync mechanism, for better or worse.


Logitech supposedly has Bluetooth keyboards and mice, including an interesting-looking "tablet keyboard for Android 3.0". I say 'supposedly' because I haven't encountered one yet. And there's the small problem of finding an Android that speaks Bluetooth.


As far as I can see, the Samsung Galaxy tablets have Bluetooth, even the first one that ran Android 2.x. I suppose some of the cheapo tablets might not, but I've not noticed any lack of Bluetooth on Android.

(Mind you, although I have BT on my machines, I usually keep it turned off.)



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 1, 2011 2:26 PM.

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