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balancing software engineering & infosec

Review: iA Writer

posted on Aug. 20, 2012, noon in app, review

In my 25 years on earth I was called many things. But poet or author is not on the list. I am not exceptionally good at writing nor is it easy for me. Still I am sitting in front of my screen and writing this words that should, somehow, maybe magically, become a review of a program which can only do one thing: show an edit field so you can enter text.

Imagine you are an ordinary geek who loves to share his sarcastic, sometimes not really well researched, highly opinionated rants with the rest of the world. You look for some blogging software, maybe you use a hosted service, maybe you write it yourself. After all the things you consider fun you are sitting in front of your computer and have to write something so you can share it with the rest of the world.

Maybe you stick to the default input method of your software. Some creepy AJAX interface that was only build for one purpose: annoy you till you start screaming at your screen, threatening to kill a puppy and quit your browser. Maybe you just fire up {vim/emacs} since everything else you do happens in there so why not writing? For all the fancy people among us add Sublime Text to the list.

Of course you read some blogs and tech sites. And there is one kind of software you regularly read about and just do not understand why every journalist in the world acts like they found the cure for cancer. I am talking about writing software that takes possession of your screen and only shows you the line you are currently writing. Stupid journalists, I could write something similar in some hours.

You read more reviews and cannot get rid of the feeling you are missing something. Maybe it is not a technical point. Maybe those people who make their living with writing have a reason to pay a lot of cash for something this trivial. A lot of cash for an edit field with some styling. Stupid journalists.

But then, one day, you decide that you have to give it a try. Some more articles about similar software appeared and you start considering that you could be missing something. You pay 8€, luckily it was on sale, for the OSX application and 0.79€ for the iOS version. Why both of them? If you want to give it a fair chance you should have use both of them if you own an iOS device. More about this later. After a short download you have a new button on every device you own. iA Writer.

After the first start you give it the "unimpressed" glance. A nice minimal application. An edit field. With a blue cursor. After suppressing the "I could have written this myself" feeling you start typing. You have a vague idea for a blog post and just type. And you reach the end of the screen and still see everything you have written. Where is the magic? Where is the focus mode? Oh, right, click activated. You look at it for a moment and continue writing.

After some time you hit [command][s] and leave focus mode. Shocked you look at the bottom of your screen. Reading time "8 minutes". Around 1900 words. I think I wrote less in the exam for my diploma and still got a decent grade.

Is this the magic behind the cheap 5 hour edit field styling? Maybe. The fact that you can focus your eyes on the middle of your screen and do not have to look around, see nothing but the line you are currently writing is a pleasant experience. But is it worth 8€ or even 16€? I would say yes. You do not only get a nice editor for writing. You even get all the default OSX features every editor with a native edit field has like grammar and spelling correction for free! While I did not consider the font that important, my girlfriend even called it ugly, you get used to it. Not sure why but after some time you start liking it. Stockholm syndrome?

This is only where the magic begins. Open Writer on your iPad, start outlining a post or write some paragraphs, open it on your Mac and continue. The iCloud synchronization is great. No need to search DropBox, nothing you have to do but writing. You really only do this one thing. Writing. Writer takes care of the rest. It does not offer options. There is no customization. There is nothing that takes away your focus form the actual task.

The biggest question is: "Do I really believe it is worth spending 18€ (and I think it will also be something around $18) for 'just' that?" The answer is easy. Yes. No matter if you are a professional journalist or just some geek blogging, Writer will make it a great experience. I do not know how and I refuse to try to explain it since I have no idea what I should explain. But writing is fun. It is not stressful. There is nothing getting in your way.

I am no poet or author. I think I never will be one. But I used many different applications. Starting from S9y, MovableType, Wordpress, Vim, TextWrangler, Sublime Text,… and many more. I I wrote code, I wrote blog posts, sometimes on sick days, when I was really confused and not myself even some bits of documentation. In 15 years writing on a computer (yes I was lucky and was allowed to write my first big homework on my dads computer) it never felt so good, so natural, so fun. Just as a side note. The integrated markdown support is really nice. After getting used to it you will miss in in every other editor.

I have no idea why. I cannot explain it after four month using it and I cannot give you well-founded reasons. But if you write or consider writing, even if you only write 4 blog posts a year for 3 people reading them, go and buy Writer. It will be worth every cent.