Noel Rappin Writes Here

Text Auditor

Posted on May 31, 2007

I hate Microsoft Word. I feel that I came by this rightfully, after a whole book’s worth of numbered lists that refused to line up, images that refused to stay put, and the truly irritating indexing interface.

For a long time I’d sort of rant about how word processing was this core user task and we still couldn’t figure out the right UI for it. I’m not totally backing off that, although I’ve also read people ranting that text editing was solved 20 years ago by Emacs and Vi, and there’s no point in looking at anything new, which achieves a level of crankiness that makes me look calm.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about writing about text entry and UI was the sheer number of different programs that I use for various kinds of word processing or text editing. Most of these are optimized for a specific set of activities, and do that particular job well enough that it’s worth learning a new program in order to get that benefit.

More and more, I find myself also using tools that help me with text cross-applications, like generic text expansion tools, or clipboard history tools, or even monster aggregators like Quicksilver. Put that way, it sounds a little bit like the OpenDoc dream, where your spell checker would come from one place, and your text editor from another, and the font manager in from another. But OpenDoc was about components instead of applications and looking at the list below, it’s pretty clear that applications aren’t going away anytime soon…

So here’s a list of all the apps I can think of that I do some kind of text edit in, with some comments.

Adium/Pidgin – IM Clients (Adium Mac side, Pidgin in Windows, plus another couple for internal work things). None of these has a ton of text editing support, although I do wind up typing a fair amount of text into them over the course of day. Pidgin has a great name, but I really wish it had one piece of AIM functionality, namely the ability to read text in a different size then you send it.

Eclipse – Currently it’s my Windows side Ruby/Rails editor of choice, although I’ll probably change my mind six more times before I settle on something. It’s also my Windows Perl editor of choice, as it seems to be the only free editor that does syntax checking.

GMail/Google Docs – Gmail, obviously, used for email, although I do sometimes use it as quick storage for text I want to be able to work on from multiple locations. You’re supposed to use Google Docs for that kind of thing, and I do, sometimes. It’s great for collaborating (we used it for final notes on the manuscript for the wx book, for example). But for normal use, it’s just a hair too unresponsive, and the UI is just a touch awkward within the browser.

IntelliJ IDEA – Java editor of choice. Still the most fully featured of the big Java IDE’s, although the other’s are catching up. A big memory hog, though.

jEdit – Window’s side default text editor, especially for Python. Been using it for years. Very nice feature set, I’m used to the controls, decent syntax coding for the languages I use.

Jer’s Novel Writer – I don’t use this as much as I’d like, but I’m putting it in here as a great example of tuning a text entry program to a specific use. In this case, writing fiction. Nice features include easy annotating and the ability to specify separate display and printing formats – very useful for keeping your print document in manuscript format.

MarsEdit – Well, I’m writing this post in it. Mac side editor of choice for blog posts. Why did I spend $25 on this when it’s functionality is pretty easily replicated from TextMate? Good question. It’s got a very clean UI, and I like that it previews while you type. And if I need to do something fancy, it interfaces with TextMate.

MS Word – Windows word processor when forced to use it. Word actually isn’t that that bad if you stay within the confines of a four-page office memo. Once you add styles, though, it’s a mess. Actually, I don’t think anybody’s really solved the UI for a WYSWIG styles system – which is one reason why I use HTML, Textile, or Markdown where I can. I feel like I have much greater control over the styling if it’s all in text.

NeoOffice – Mac side word processor of choice, although I rarely use it for the reasons given above. I’ve gone through all the free or free-to-try alternative word processors on the Mac, and NeoOffice is the one I keep coming back to (especially since the newest version, which fixed some performance issues).

Outlook – Windows email program. Possibly the worst styled text email editor around. I think it’s the only one that, if you insert a paragraph in the middle of a quote from a previous email, keeps the quote formatting on your new text. This is, shall we say, not helpful.

PowerPoint – I guess it’s a text editor, of sorts. This is here mostly for a mini-rant… I know that everybody says that effective presentations should have minimal text on each slide. I even agree. But… in many environments, including lectures and a lot of corporate situations, the slides become a de facto deliverable to people who are unable to make the original meeting. If you don’t have enough text for those people to follow along, they will get angry…

TextMate – Mac side programmer editor of choice. I tried a number of different editors when I switched to Mac and realized that jEdit didn’t really play nicely with OS X. I find the TextMate UI to be unusually clean, and it’s the most powerful and extensible text editor not written in Lisp.

VoodooPad Lite – Mac desktop Wiki application. I’d probably use this more if my daily work were Mac side. It’s very nicely done.

That’s a lot of applications. I’m pretty sure I missed some, at that. I think my point is that specialization is the way to solve the text UI dilemma. Still, needing 13+ apps to solve my basic text entry needs…. seems less than optimal somehow.


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