Choosing the right Dropbox-enabled text editor for the Mac, iPad and iPhone: Writeroom, iA Writer and Droptext

Writing was the reason I got my first computer, a i386SX PC with Windows 3.0 and Microsoft Word 1.0 installed, well before the age of the Internet. I rapidly got into the habit of using it for everything I wrote, and taking it into class, because I found I wrote much faster with a word processor than by hand. I even got into a row with my French graduate school because they wouldn’t let me use one during exams, despite my arguing that I’d got so used to working on a keyboard that I couldn’t write with a pen anymore. I would also frequently call Microsoft’s support team asking impossibly nerdy questions or to complain about a feature that was lacking, leading one of my respondents to tell me I knew more about Word than anyone among his colleagues. I would impatiently await each new iteration of Word, although after a while I got pretty dismayed by some of the useless rubbish that Microsoft was adding to new versions, like interactive paperclips and the like, and lost interest in the later versions.

Most writing nowadays involves drafting either emails or online content in simple text form, making Microsoft Word obsolete in most present situations

After I started using email in the mid-1990s, switched to Mac and then started blogging, the way in which I wrote changed pretty radically once again. Instead of software geared towards producing a formatted document for printing and physically delivering or sending to a recipient, pretty well all of my time was devoted to producing texts destined to remain online in one form or another. This made Word’s sophisticated, but 100% proprietary formatting redundant, the first of many walled gardens I was subsequently to discard as my life became increasingly digital, web-centric and stored in the cloud.

The focus on email for private communication and on online publishing for sharing documents has made writing childishly simple: all you need is a text editor that can swiftly and easily transfer the result of your labours to the desired destination, making writing a straightforward two-stage process: drafting a text, then processing it by applying the appropriate protocol (classically, HTML for web publishing, SMTP for email). Using a word processor in such an environment is absurd, which is why Microsoft’s attempts to envelop email in yet more proprietary software via its Outlook programme go in exactly the opposite direction to that in which recent technology has been taking us. As a result of this trend, software in the style of Microsoft Word has become largely irrelevant to my needs, except when I need to send a letter by post, and my requirement has shifted to the opposite extreme: I now look for text-editing applications that provide as little distraction as possible when actively engaged in writing.

With the emergence of the iPad, the main challenge has shifted to syncing draft texts between devices, and developers have been rather slow to rise up to it: the best way to achieve this sync is currently Dropbox

I explained in an earlier post why I save time using Writeroom to actually draft text. In a later post, I showed why I use Markdown to format documents as required, a much more efficient and elegant choice than the available WYSIWYG alternatives.

In recent months, however, my needs have changed yet again, mainly as a result of using the iPad, which I carry with me a lot, far more than I did with my MacBook. I find myself spontaneously carrying my iPad around everywhere I go, either in my briefcase, bag or even in my hand if I’m just dropping down to the nearest café: this means I’m able to start writing, often on impulse, in just about any situation. This is an enormous convenience, but unlike what happened previously, when I did most of my writing on my Mac, I now need a first-rate text editor, suited to the extra constraints of writing on the iPad [i], with which to write, store and access my work. When using my Mac, I’ve been using Writeroom for the past three years and loving it, because of its pleasant, distraction-free interface:

Writeroom's soothing, distraction-free interface
Writeroom's soothing, distraction-free interface is still the best text editor for writing on the Mac.

I had got into the habit of saving these texts in a folder that synced with a cloud-based setup using Hog Bay Software’s server. This was intended by Jesse Grosjean, the developer of Writeroom, as a temporary solution because nothing else was available at the time. Although proved somewhat capricious and logging into the service using a client was nearly always problematic at best, it was a tolerable compromise for me because I seldom needed to actually write texts on the iPhone.

In any case, I soon gave up on Writeroom for iPhone (which could only sync with and did not seem very good at it) altogether, stopped using the unreliable and got into the habit of saving my Writeroom for Mac texts in a folder specifically designed to sync with Simplenote, the popular note-taking app for iPhone and iPad that is declined in both free and premium versions: to do this, I simply added Notational Velocity, a lightweight but populat text editor for the Mac, to the applications opened by default when my Mac starts up. So long as Notational Velocity is running in the background, this then automatically syncs any texts I saved in the desktop folder of my choice to the Simplenote cloud server. Simplenote’s big drawback, however, was that it didn’t provide a satisfactory desktop application (Notational Velocity is not at all suited to drafting long texts), although I remedied this quite easily by using Writeroom. Also the Simplenote user interface on the iPhone and the iPad was nowhere near the soothing simplicity offered by Writeroom for the Mac. So I had for some time been looking for a solution that would allow me to sync text files seamlessly and automatically between Mac, iPad and, if possible, iPhone.

Hog Bay Software was well aware of the issue. By Mr Grosjean’s own admission, the iPad and the irresistible rise of Dropbox changed the stakes completely:

Then the iPad showed up. For me that changed everything, WriteRoom is an obvious app for the iPad, and I wanted to do it right away. But it turns out that iPhone apps that are scaled up to iPad size just don’t look good (see TaskPaper for iPad as an example). TaskPaper is more about functionality, so I didn’t mind so much in that case, but WriteRoom is all about environment, I needed the iPad UI to be good.

This lead to lots of work trying to come up with a WriteRoom UI that works on both iPhone and iPad. Lots of fun, very interesting, and I’ve always “only a few weeks away from the finish line”. So I ignore the existing WriteRoom for iPhone issues because I know something better is nearly here.

Then the Dropbox public API showed up. That changed everything again. I’ve never wanted to write and maintain my own sync service, but there was no other choice. Now I can outsource all that work to Dropbox. But to do this I still need to rewrite my model layer to support Dropbox sync?

Mr Grosjean is right about Dropbox. It’s by far the best way of syncing data on the cloud. Because of its popularity and of the availability of an API, a wide range of third-party client applications has sprung up to enable users to connect to the Dropbox database without even having to open the official Dropbox applications (although these are excellent). And because Dropbox actually syncs to a mirror folder that resides within your desktop file system even when you do not have Internet access, you can effectively rely on it for any data you want to be able to access from other devices: I use it, among other things, for my iTunes library (which took several days to complete the initial sync, though), encrypted online password data, documents and work in progress. I’m currently mobilising just over 70 per cent of the capacity available on the $19.99/month 100GB scheme.

At the time of writing this post, the promised Dropbox-enabled, universal text file creation system promised by Hog Bay Software has yet to materialize [ii]. But two interesting alternatives have.

Update September 28, 2010: Just a couple of days after this post was published, Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software’s PlainText was approved by the Apple Store. It has much better Dropbox integration (you can choose your default folder rather than have the app create one for you, for instance), and adds TextExpander functionality. It doesn’t have the very nice customised soft keyboard that iA Writer has, though, but that wouldn’t be an issue for those using a bluetooth keyboard.

iA Writer for iPad and Droptext for iPhone provide excellent mobile complements to any Dropbox-enabled desktop writing application

iA Writer for iPad, which launched last week to universal acclaim, is an app that enables you to create, save, open or edit text files stored on a dedicated folder on your Dropbox server. It does everything that Writeroom for the Mac does, with the same basic focus on ‘minimising distractions’. The interface is stripped down to the minimum. Although you can’t customise it in the same way that you can Writeroom for the Mac, the special version of the monospaced font Nitti Light, optimised for the iPad, is a success and is extremely legible. A very clever addition making for much quicker typing, even on the iPad’s virtual keyboard, is the new row of keys on top of the standard iPad keyboard: this includes the arrow keys, as well as quick access to frequently used punctuation.

iA Writer can be switched into so-called Focus Mode, which supposedly recreates the experience of writing by hand or on a typewriter; all but three lines of text are grayed out, and you lose auto-correct, spell check and other such “distractions” of modern writing tools:

iA Writer interface
The interface of iA Writer for iPad is specially-designed to make writing on the iPad as easy as possible. The special top punctuation bar speeds up typing considerably. This screenshot shows iA Writer in so-called Focus Mode.

Although I haven’t so far found myself using Focus Mode so much, iA Writer is surprisingly pleasant to write on: the emphasis has been so squarely laid by the developer on making writing as care-free as possible that I found myself drafting this post on it almost as comfortably as when I’m using Writeroom on my Mac. Obviously the day when I’ll be able to draft and publish a post entirely on my iPad hasn’t yet arrived, owing to the lack of a decent iPad blogging client (I’ve been nagging Daniel Jalkut, the developer of my favourite such client, MarsEdit, to come up with an iPad version, but I’m still waiting). Images also can’t very easily be prepared for web publishing on an iPad at present.

To replace the currently useless Writeroom for iPhone, I recently switched to Droptext, a $1 universal app with which you can access your texts from either the iPhone or the iPad:

Droptext for iPhone
Droptext for iPhone is the missing link that enables me full access, via Dropbox, to any texts in the same way as my desktop and iPad clients. It can be customised if desired, with my preference going to the white font/black background shown here.

It doesn’t have the extra features offered by iA Writer, but you aren’t limited to the dedicated Dropbox folder that iA Writer creates for you (while not a deal breaker, this is one of my few peeves with iA Writer, which I hope will be corrected in the next version; I’d also like iA Writer to sync texts in the background, rather than forcing you to remember to click the sync button to do so.).

Separating on-the-fly notes and draft texts

With the much wider range of writing apps currently available, it makes sense to use a different set of applications for the drafting of fully fledged texts and for the jotting down of quick notes that serves no purpose other than keeping things in mind for future use. The Writeroom/iA Writer/Droptext combination is ideal for the former, while I have now dedicated my Simplenote account to on-the-fly note taking. Although Simplenote can be accessed from the desktop using its web interface, I like using a desktop client for this: the very popular Notational Velocity, described above, is one option if you want to do this. I prefer Just Notes, a donationware app by Matthias Hochgatterer [iii]. Its main advantage over the slightly more top-heavy Notational Velocity is that its tiny window can be made to float above any active application, including browser windows, even when the latter are in focus, which speeds up copying and pasting considerably.

Another very straightforward alternative for note-taking for those who already use it and want to keep the number of applications and platforms they use down to a minimum, obviously, is Evernote: it has excellent desktop, iPhone and iPad clients and I use it extensively to store records of anything i want to keep track of, including scanned versions of any written correspondence I send or receive. The only drawback with using Evernote for ordinary on-the-fly note-taking, in my eyes, is that it isn’t primarily a text editor and it’s rather incongruous to keep notes in the same location as the other material curated on Evernote.

But that’s a matter for personal preference, of course. The fact is that in the last three years text editing has gone a long way towards catering for every possible need we may have.

  1. I use a physical keyboard if I remember to take one with me, as this speeds up writing on the iPad a lot. Since iOS 4, these keyboards can now be used on the iPhone too.
  2. An iPad app called Plaintext has been submitted to the iTunes store.
  3. Just Notes hasn’t been updated since 2009, but I’m hoping it will be eventually. Notational Velocity is always there as a backup desktop Simplenote client and is almost as good.