What does your software do?

In the last few weeks a Mac and iPad app called iA Writer has been doing the rounds on the Internet and garnering rave reviews. Since my Mac Mini is currently disconnected and Apple doesn’t seem to be in the mood to refresh the Air, I haven’t had the chance to try it out. But based on what I can see on their website, it looks like an exquisitely designed app. However there seems to be one problem: it doesn’t do very much.

Given my personal preference for minimalism, it is a bit odd that I’d critique an app for doing too little. But I’m coming to realize that pure minimalism is the wrong approach to take towards modern software. We live in an era of incredibly powerful, well-connected machines. And yet most of our day-to-day software does little more than the equivalent software of years past. It’s one thing to say that our software should do a small number of things well instead of bombarding the user with lots of unused features. But it’s another thing to say that we shouldn’t be trying to press the boundaries of what our software is genuinely and usefully capable of.

iAWriter strikes me as a particular example of this trend. It may be a very well designed (and perhaps even beautiful) text editor, but at the end of the day it’s still just a text editor. Sure it has some plus points: it supports live Markdown rendering, but the implementation is personally unsatisfying — if you’re going to render Markdown, why keep the plaintext Markdown characters? It also ignores the fact that most of the text we seem to be writing nowadays is for sharing. All the bloggers going crazy over it seem to miss the fact that it doesn’t connect to their blogs in any way, leaving them to manually copy-paste or come up with some elaborate (if clever) hack job to go from editor to web page. Let me reiterate: iA Writer is a beautiful text editor, but that’s all that it is. And that’s a shame because I’d like to see great engineering and designing talent go into helping me do my job better rather than just making me drool. The one part of that I feel genuinely makes it a better editor is focus mode: that’s something I’d like to see get into other text-based applications.

In contrast to iAWriter is Instapaper. It’s admired by a lot of the people who seem to have taken a liking to iAWriter. But the big difference is that Instapaper actually moves consumer computing forward. I can click a little bookmarklet on any text-heavy page on the web and instantly the text gets extracted and sent to a variety of reading devices. It fundamentally changes the way I do reading on the web, it’s not an incremental upgrade or an aesthetic redesign. It actually does more and better than any software tool before it. That’s the direction I would like to see our software going.

As I think about more about the state of consumer software it becomes abundantly clear that I am very much a power user. Ben Brooks loves iAWriter because it helps him focus on writing instead of being distracted by things like tweaking the user interface. He says that the end product of that focus — better articles — is what matters even if he has to do a whole lot of copy/pasting and manual editing to get there. All he cares about is the end product, not how he got there. For me, that’s not enough. I want a good, polished end product, but as a creator I want a great workflow, tuned to my specific needs. That’s why I use Emacs, Jekyll and LaTeX for a lot of my longform writing. (I’m considering sitting down and integrating WordPress into the flow too.)

In a more general sense, we don’t want to be making separate programs for power users and non-power users. We shouldn’t have Emacs for me and iAWriter for Ben Brooks. What we need is for everyone to be a power user. Not in the sense that they all use Emacs and Linux, that’s superficial. But users need to be able to tune their workflow and tools to their specific needs. Ben should have an editor that has beautiful fonts and focus mode and let’s him one-click publish to the web using whatever platform he likes. But to do that users need both the tools that facilitate such power use and the skills and mentality to make their customizations. Unfortunately I’m not very optimistic about either, not at the moment anyway. Feel free to make me feel more hopeful in the comments.

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