Foxmarks for Safari (and Internet Explorer)

Over the last couple of years one of the things that has kept me a devotee of the Firefox web browser is the Foxmarks extension. This is an addon that enables you to synchronize bookmarks across different copies of Firefox on different platforms. There are three computers that I use regularly: a MacBook, a PC running Linux, and a PC running Windows XP in an office I share at the University of Liverpool. It is very useful indeed to have the exact same bookmarks on all of these machines. There are lots of other good reasons for using Firefox, but there are times on the Mac when Safari just works better. It’s definitely faster and is much better integrated with key Mac applications such as Scrivener. Safari is a fairly limited browser in terms of features though and up to now using it has also meant keeping track of bookmarks manually. No longer. Foxmarks is now available for Safari on the Mac, on the iPhone/iPod Touch, and for Internet Explorer. I haven’t yet tried it on IE7, but it appears to work perfectly in Safari. Get Foxmarks, for Firefox, Safari, and IE here.

Saving Bletchley Park Huts Campaign

The Shedworking blog is publicising the campaign to save the rapidly crumbling Bletchley Park huts. These were home to the most strategically important shedworkers in history: they cracked the codes used by the Germans during World War II and helped bring the war to its conclusion.

As we all know, the Bletchley Park huts are in considerable danger. Happily, campaigners are working hard to save these historic shedlike atmospheres. For more details, please go to Save Bletchley Park and the Saving Bletchley Park blog … [Link]

Edit 9 February 2009. Bletchley Park Hut 6 has been entered for the 2009 Shed of the Year competition. The entry on Readersheds is here. And it’s in a sorry state. A good showing during Shed Week, which begins on July 6th, might help save this historic hut.

In Praise of Scrivener: a writing tool for writers

By inclination I prefer to use software that runs on several different platforms, but one exception is Scrivener, which runs only on the Mac. Scrivener is essentially a word processor, but it is not your father’s wordprocessor. Scrivener is writing software created with writers in mind. Where wordprocessors such as MS Word or OpenOffice Writer are designed to create documents, Scrivener is intended for managing writing projects. It handles every aspect, from arranging narrative, developing characters, and organising research, to the writing itself. I should say right now that this post is not so much a review as a celebration. This piece of software is truly impressive in the way it addresses very specific writerly needs.

It took me a while to get into using Scrivener. I started using it off and on early in its development, but I began using it seriously about half way through writing my ‘beer book’ some time in early 2007. It transformed the process. Instead of having research scattered all over the place, Scrivener pulled it all together. The Scrivener files (.scriv) are actually folders that contain the whole project. So while a short book might contain a couple of megabytes of rich text, a Scrivener project could be much larger. For the record the Cain’s book .scriv, even though I only moved to Scrivener half way through, is well over 20 40 megabytes: it contains pdfs, images, chunks of text, saved web pages and so on. This kind of conveniently accessible data soup will be familiar to anyone who uses Mac OS X, but the Scrivener interface makes it all very easy.

In the Scrivener window itself the writing and research are contained in two sections.

The writing section is obvious: it’s the area where you keep your writing. Cleverly though, it is unlike the normal wordprocessor model in that it allows you to write in chunks, all of which are available all the time. Rather than a whole bunch of files accessible only through your file manager, all your notes and short chunks of text are available instantly within Scrivener. It is possible to move sections around, merge them, turn them into an outline, move notes to the research section and so on. The flexibility of it is brilliant.

The research section is where you store research materials. This can be anything you can save and view in Mac OS X. From pdfs to Word documents, to saved web pages, you can organise everything easily. I happen to use two screens when I’m doing most of my writing, which allows me to open research materials in a window in the left screen and keep writing in the right (Scrivener) window. Scrivener allows you to split the screen so this will work on a single screen setup, but having two screens really unleashes the power of the research section. For instance, I can open a multiple saved web pages in the web browser Safari in the left screen while running Scrivener for writing in full screen on the right.

Two other features of Scrivener are worth mentioning. Firstly, Scrivener has access to all the text formatting tools in Mac OS X, so you can view your text as you like it. The idea though is that Scrivener is primarily a writing tool, so it is expected that you export your text to a wordprocessor for final formatting. It’s what wordprocessors are for after all.

The second key feature is full screen mode. Lots of ‘no distraction’ text editors are available these days. Write Room is probably best known on the Mac, but even iWork has a full screen mode now. Scrivener’s blows them all away. Not only does it provide more information in full screen mode than the others, but it allows almost limitless formatting. If you want green text on a black background, that’s fine. Maybe you want a single white page, or to be able to see the windows behind ever so faintly. However you like to work, Scrivener seems to cater for it. And because of that, it gets out of the way and lets you write.

I work almost exclusively in Scrivener now, exporting text in .rtf format for processing in final draft. It is primarily aimed at fiction writers and ships with templates for novel and screenplay writing. The flexible research tools also make it well suited to large projects, but my non-fiction projects seem to work just as well, whatever their length. Oh, and did I mention Scrivener has a versioning system built in? If you don’t like your current draft, or part of it, you can go back to an earlier copy with a single click.

Having somewhat obsessive geeky leanings I like trying out new software and I download a lot of new things. Most don’t last and even fewer get my money. If you’re a writer and you use a Mac, Scrivener, at $39.99 is one of the best software bargains out there.

The Scrivener homepage is here. Here’s a video tutorial for Scrivener.


E-readers: the possibilities for writers

At the Kenyon Review blog David F. Smydra Jr. ponders the double-screened laptop and gives a gentle wrist slap to those of us who have been speculating about e-readers and the future of reading. I plead guilty as charged, Your Honour. More important, he thinks, is the future of writing. Well worth a read:

So maybe we shouldn’t spend as much time asking which technologies readers will embrace – “Will we ever love the e-book?” or “Will we read magazines on our phones?” — as which technologies artists will employ to better transmit their work. If a writer knows that she could display her words digitally, and hyperlink the footnotes to appear in a Kindle’s second screen (for instance), or if the next generation’s Kurt Vonnegut knew he could insert animation into the text instead of line doodles, then couldn’t that push forward the art? Imagine a poem written with a specific musical harmony intended to play in the background. Or a novel with different narrative threads intended to display on side-by-side screens at different junctures in the story.

Link.

More on iwork.com: Online Fonts

octidextro.us has some interesting speculation about whether Apple is planning on making iwork.com deliver fonts universally online. As users of online word processors such as Google Docs will know, the range of fonts available is limited to those likely to be available on any computer (not many). And as any editor of technical documents and books will know, fonts have to passed around with documents if you want the person on the receiving end to see special characters and symbols, or even just an unusual typeface. Siobhan and I had some trouble with this while we were working on Key Ideas. So what happens if you want to use iwork.com to distribute a document with a specialist font? In iwork.com the primary document will be ok, because it seems Apple have decided to make the viewable ‘web version’ something like a PDF. But what about the downloadable wordprocessor-compatible versions? This could be the answer and if it is, it’s a huge breakthrough:

In the excitement about Apple’s beta version of iWork.com – the web-based document sharing/collaborating feature of their iWork suite – people have been asking about fonts. Specifically, what happens when you use a font that that isn’t available on the receiving end of the shared document?

I thought immediately of the news that the nightly builds of Webkit [the underlying software behind Apple’s Safari web browser, Google’s Chrome, and others] support downloadable fonts. All it takes is a couple lines of CSS and, as Jobs would say, “Boom.”  [Link]

Of course this doesn’t just apply to iwork.com. When Safari and Chrome catch up with Webkit a wide range of fonts could also be available in Google Docs and Zoho.

iWork.com: Apple's Rainmaker?

When Microsoft first began to dabble in online document sharing it took a different approach from existing online office suites offered by the likes of Google and Zoho. Where its competitors allowed editing of documents from within the web browser, Microsoft decided that the ‘cloud’ should become an element of its existing Office productivity suite. Accordingly while documents created in Word 2007 could be viewed online using a web browser, they could only be edited using Word itself. In October 2008 this changed with the announcement that the next version of Office, ‘Office 14’ will include online document editing using a web browser.

Apple seems to be ignoring this development. All you will be able to do using the new online version of its iWork 09 office suite, announced yesterday, will be to make notes on existing documents. Full collaborative document editing will require a copy of iWork 09 and an iWork.com account. For the time being iWork.com is in free public beta, but it will eventually be a pay-for service. What made this announcement stand out in an otherwise mundane keynote at the Macworld conference, is that it indicates Apple’s direction for the next few years.

For the record, I think iWork is in many ways a fine suite of software. The wordprocessor/DTP element, Pages, is sleek and easy to use, while Keynote makes presentations a lot easier to put together than any other similar package I’ve used. Keynote certainly seems to suit more discursive presentations than business-leaning presentation software such as Powerpoint. I also prefer Numbers over more traditional spreadsheets, though I don’t use spreadsheets all that often. What is happening with iWork 09 however is indicative of the two dominant approaches in the battle to control the Web.

On the one hand are Google, which bought up Writely and turned its online wordprocessor into Google Docs, and Zoho, which provides a remarkably diverse set of online productivity applications. These companies, among others, see a cross-platform future in which the web browser is the place where things get done. The addition of Gears, which allows offline editing of web-based content, and the development of ‘Web App’ mini browsers such as Fluid, degrade the barrier between desktop and web. Google’s Chrome web browser also allows users to create a desktop ‘application’ out of any website. Google hopes to encourage them to do so with its own online office suite.

On the other hand are Apple and Microsoft, both of which depend on the success of their own particular platform. Despite its upcoming move to the browser some components in Microsoft’s Office Live service still require Internet Explorer 6 or 7 (and specifically Active X), which don’t run anywhere but on Windows. Apple’s MobileMe services (online calendaring, email etc.) work in several different browsers, but only on the Mac or on Windows. Forget using Firefox to check your MobileMe calendar on your shiny new Linux Netbook in other words. Edit: Actually, while MobileMe didn’t work in Linux at first, and I couldn’t get it to work yesterday before I wrote this, it is now working for me in Firefox on Linux. If you’re having trouble, clear out the caches and cookies and whatnot. You still have to click through an ‘unsupported browser’ message though, and it’s possible things are not working as they should (but thanks to Terry in the comments for prompting me to try again).

Clearly there are good reasons for Microsoft and Apple to tie their online services to their own products. Microsoft depends heavily on income from Office, while Apple has to sell Macs and keep people using them. But I can’t help thinking that while the ‘cloud’ services they offer might well turn out to benefit other areas of their business for the time being, this isn’t the best way to make customers hang around in the long term. For instance I might well sign up and pay for Apple’s iWork on the web if it is competitive with Google Docs, but not if I have to buy iWork 09 as well. The same goes for MS Office and its ‘Live’ counterpart if it won’t work properly anywhere but Windows.

People want to be free to work when and where they like and their computing environment is increasingly a cross-platform one. My guess is that in the long term Apple will have to follow Microsoft and break the link between its desktop office suite and the iWork.com services. These attempts to lock customers in to buying a particular product in order to use a service available elsewhere for free or at low cost are very similar to the music industry’s insistence on downloaded music being crippled with DRM. And we know how well that worked out, don’t we?

Stanza Makes Wired's 'Best of' iPhone Apps for 2008

Stanza (iTunes Store) the application that turns the iPhone and iPod Touch into an excellent book reading device, has turned up at number 10 in Wired’s end of year roundup for iPhone applications (via Lifehacker). I’ve read several books this way so far and recommend the experience. It’s surprisingly comfortable and easy. It’s the time of year for rash predictions and for the record mine is that e-readers of one kind or another will be the big story in publishing this year. Dead tree books are not going away, but there is no longer any practical reason (other than price) not to read on an electronic device.

Publishers target iPhone, Nintendo DS for ebooks

Karen Templer continues what she calls her ‘near-constant ravings’ about iPhone reading apps with the news that Random House is now offering free books to iPhone readers through the Stanza download channel. But the iPhone isn’t the only more-useful-than-you-might-think device in town. Earlier today the BubbleCow twittered about HarperCollins offering books on the Nintendo DS. The collection on offer comes in the form of 100 classic titles and all the usual suspects are here, including Treasure Island, which was the first book I read on my iPod Touch. I enjoyed it immensely.

I must say it seems a bit strange seeing the Nintendo branding alongside these titles, but a pattern is emerging. It seems to have dawned on the publishers that people are walking around with large numbers of devices with screens on which reading is more than just acceptable. As I’ve said before, this isn’t the end of the book; it may be a tough time for the Kindle and co. though. As a recession emerges from the void like a Klingon ship uncloaking it will be difficult to sell new devices dedicated to reading, but the iPhone, DS, and a raft of other smart phones are already in our pockets. Still to come are new releases, but it can only be a matter of time. My plea as usual is to bundle access to the ebook with the dead tree version. Please.

People prefer the pre-installed web browser

Yesterday something unusual happened on this blog. I posted a piece about reading books to my daughter on my iPod Touch and it was picked up by the Mac news site Macsurfer. Now usually the number of visitors on this site bounces along at around 40-50 unique visitors each day (I love you all) and most come from search. That’s ok since this site is really just a place to find me and some of my work on the web. But yesterday, December 1st 2008, over 1000 visitors arrived, delivering many thousands of hits and page views in just a few hours, almost all of them from Macsurfer. Since I have the stats for December 1st, and since almost all the traffic for that day came from a single Mac-related source, we can speculate wildly draw some interesting conclusions about the browsing habits of Mac users. Firstly, here are the stats for December 1st (if it’s too small to read go ahead and click on the image to make it bigger, but I’ll be mentioning the relevant numbers below):

The first thing to think about is the proportion of operating systems, with Macintosh at 69.9% and Windows at 22.9%. This is almost exactly the reverse of what I normally see, with Linux a little lower than usual at 0.6%. What’s more interesting though is when you look at that in the context of the browsers. 60% of visitors were using Safari, the browser that comes with every Mac, and this is almost exactly the same percentage of people using Internet Explorer, the browser that ships with every Windows PC, on a normal day. The proportion using Firefox is the same as usual at around 20% and Internet Explorer, at 12% occupies the position usually held by Safari.

What interests me about this is that Mac users have usually chosen to use a Mac and are therefore used to making computing choices. Most Windows users take what they are given at work and may be inclined to use the same thing at home. Some will be actively choosing Windows of course, but active choice is not necessarily the default position for Windows users as it is for Mac users. Yet when it comes to browsers Mac users seem just as reluctant as Windows users to try something they have to download. It could be of course that Safari is just the best browser on the Mac (I disagree), but if so then the same must be true of Internet Explorer on Windows. One additional point is that even on this single day the list of browsers is as long as it usually is at the end of a month, suggesting that the more esoteric end of the market is not dependent on particular interests. It’s a shame my AmigaOS visitor didn’t show up yesterday.

So there you have it, some evidence that pre-installed browsers are the ones people use even when they have a choice. Mozilla and Google should take note and get Firefox and Chrome pre-installed on as many PCs as possible.

Accidentally Great: Apple's Answer to the Kindle

On Sunday mornings my daughter and I like to read together for an hour or so. She’s still small enough to sit on my knee while I read to her, but as she grows it gets more difficult to juggle book, child and coffee cup in ways that make the experience relaxing. Enter the iPod Touch which, since the arrival of the app store in the summer, has turned into my go anywhere, do anything device. It handles everything from email, calendaring and project management, to music whenever and wherever, web browsing, games, audio books, instant messaging, and now reading. I am just staggered at how useful this gadget has become, even in its more limited, non-phone incarnation. I hardly ever put it down. So far I have read two novels on my own this way, but I didn’t expect it to work so well for reading out loud. Still, daughter and I read Grimm’s fairytales this Sunday using the free Stanza app and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I’ll be loading it up with other children’s books and they’ll be there for our regular reading sessions and for whenever there are a few minutes when she needs to be kept entertained.

By coincidence Karen Templer at Readerville has been having a similar experience of reading on her iPhone and has written an excellent overview of how to go about doing it and what makes it so good. As she points out, Apple CEO Steve Jobs isn’t interested in making a reading device because he thinks there is no market for them. It’s odd then that his company turns out to have made such a great one:

I’ve been of two minds about the notion of electronic books. Like any hard-core booklover, I love the physical object. (See Most Coveted Covers for evidence.) It’s hard to imagine curling up with a hard little plastic or metal doohickey instead of ink and paper. On the other hand, the idea of carrying an entire library around in your pocket—the ability to switch between books or buy a new one at any instant—has obvious appeal. Which is a big part of why devices like the Sony Reader hold no appeal for me. Not being a gadget person, the last thing I want is an extra one. The Kindle has the benefit of direct, wireless downloads and some level of web access, which makes it a bit more appealing than those that require you to be at your computer to buy and transfer a new book. But a device of that size, heft and limited function means having to choose to carry it along (or not) each time one leaves the house. I never leave the house without my phone, however, so when it became clear that the sexy, multi-talented, reasonably priced, second-generation iPhone was going to be open to third-party applications (“apps”), and that among them would be reading software, I mapped a course. …

Well worth a read. Here’s the link again.