When Simplenote 2.0 showed up, I didnt think I’d ever want to switch to another app. Simplenote took something simple, and exponentially enhanced it without losing that original simplicity. But as good as Simplenote, it still follows closely along the path of obvious user interfaces. User interfaces of the past can work fine on the tablet, but magic is waiting if you just put some thought to it.
Oliver Reichenstein (@iA) of Information Architects has been pondering over how best to transfer analog information into the digital age. We’ve been holding on to conventions of our analog past where they have no place to be. We think of pages and page numbers, where it’s perfectly obvious that a page has no relation on a digital screen, not unless you’re printing it.
Text editors on the iPad have so far been quite usable. Simplenote is a fantastic example of an effortless writing tool that can fit into anyone’s workflow. Even the Notes app in iOS 4.2 has got Helvetica and MobileMe syncing, making it a default writer. But as we’ve learnt from experience, there’s always room for improvement.
Writer is an app that tries to figure out what makes for a great writing experience. That’s all. A good writing tool lets you write, but where a blank page and pen is all you need in the analog world, digital needs something additional support to tame its nuances. You need to deal with files, or at least not have to deal with them. There’s the keyboard, which makes unintentional typos, unlike when writing with a pen.
Writer is very pretty to look at, though not in an obvious way like Simplenote. The large monospaced font gives you the perfect feel for writing. iA chucked out the page metaphor (though I haven’t seen it being used in other apps lately) and have instead added a timer, approximating the time it would take to read that article in full or up to the point of the cursor. This timer comes up whenever you pause your writing, so it’s not distracting in any way. I’m not sure why they’ve included character count instead of the more useful Word count, but it’s not important.
Writer’s innovative feature, is the focus mode. When you get into the focus mode — denoted by a lock icon — it flushes all distractions out of your view. All you see is the keyboard, and three lines of text, the rest of which are faded out. This is a pure writing mode and is not meant to edit your text. You cant even move the cursor around using your finger. I’d love to use focus mode, if it worked. What they don’t tell you about focus mode, is that it loses the iOS text replacement feature, which you know is crucial when writing with the soft keyboard. I was shocked to see the number of mistakes I was making. There’s also a bug in my case, where the focus wouldn’t shift to newly created lines, rendering the entire mode useless for me.
UPDATE: I didn’t realise that my using iOS 4.2 beta had resulted in the focus mode (and scrolling) behaving badly. I checked with a non-beta user, and it seems to work fine.
Writer does come with a keyboard enhancement. You can move back and forth between words or letters, and it has some standard punctuation. I would have liked those quotes to have been a little smarter, but overall the keyboard enhancement is very useful. For those wondering, yes, it works just fine with the bluetooth keyboard.
A good writing app needs to sync. Writer joins the trend of supporting Dropbox sync, which basically saves text files into a folder named Writer inside your dropbox. It works fantastically, and I can use it with Notational Velocity without any problems. The best part about the writing tools lately, is that you can mix em up like you do with Twitter clients. Writer syncs with Dropbox, syncs with Notational Velocity, syncs with Simplenote, and so many of the apps that are gonna be out soon (I know Hog Bay Software already has their PlainText app in review). My only concern is that each app wants to use their own folder in Dropbox instead of being able to choose a folder — hopefully they’ll realise the need for a custom folder name.
All in all, Writer is an excellent example of the kind of user interfaces that are possible if someone puts their mind to it. Writer has a lot of little things that are too hard to notice, but make all the difference. For instance, the send-to menu has a Mail text button, and a Copy text button. The difference here being that so far I’ve had to manually select all text and then use the standard cut/copy button, which works, but is crude in the grand scheme of things. Text selection also works better, as Writer automatically selects whole words, but you almost don’t notice it’s doing that because it will also transparently detect when you want to select in between characters.
Writer is a little buggy right now. Due to the non-standard user interface, I’ve had issues with auto-scrolling and major issues with Focus modeBugs are iOS 4.2 beta issues you shouldn’t concern yourself with. If I do have a complaint about the app, is that it’s layout makes it a difficult editor. You can’t see more than six lines while in landscape, mostly due to the enhanced keyboard and large font. Difficult to gain perspective about the length of your article, and move around paragraphs, especially with this new way of displaying article length—the time it would take to read it. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
[UPDATE: Focus mode problems and scrolling issues due to iOS 4.2 on my iPad, as pointed out by Reichenstein in the comments. Edited the article.]