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Web/Tech, Writing

Going on a software detox diet

A comment yesterday reminded me what a software junkie I used to be. Had I tried TextExpander instead of setting up auto-correct in Word? Of course. And Typinator. And probably lots else besides.

I started using computers in the Eighties, when most of them were as inadequate as they were expensive. True they could do things that nothing else was capable of. But there were always holes, glitches, things you needed that weren’t there out of the box.

So software junkies like me used to hang around CompuServe and places looking for shareware options to tweak our systems. Remember Ram Doubler, without which most Macs were unusable for a while? Or — gulp — Now Utilities, which could be heaven or hell depending on which way the wind was blowing? If you want to recall the full horror of those days click that link to a review of Now on TidBits. I shudder to think of the torture we used to go through. So much did these things proliferate – and so hard to handle after a while – that you had to learn how to diagnose extension conflicts to keep your Mac standing.

The extension conflicts issue has gone away. Computers are a lot more powerful these days. Not that software junkies haven’t stopped loving the merry-go-round of course. I’ve lost track of how many different apps I’ve bought from the App Store. Writing apps, info apps, photo apps, task and list managers, utilities and things to put in the menu bar.

Don’t use many of them. But that curiosity – is there really something out there that can make me more productive? – never goes away.

Well not till now. I’ve designated 2013 the year of the software detox diet. The first part of that has been to move from the Mac to Windows. I’ve had a great time with the Mac. I know lots of people love it. I just happen to think that Windows and Office 2013 are better for what I want to do with a computer these days (which is my prerogative, just as it’s someone else’s to feel differently so if you feel that decision is worthy of jihad please move on).

But that TextExpander comment brought it home to me why I want to do this. It’s to stop fiddling with the computer and start using it more effectively for the reason it’s there: work. Because the endless search for something to make you more productive does the opposite. It’s fruitless at best and a work-avoidance ritual too. I don’t need them any more. Everything I require to work is there already, inside Office. So why add to the expense and complexity?

Look at this bluntly. I do four things during the working day.

  1. I write.
  2. I send emails, maintain an address book, keep a diary and a list of things to do.
  3. I go online.
  4. I make notes and store research.

Word handles the first. Outlook the second. Any web browser the third (this site is hosted with WordPress.com so that includes website management too). And OneNote the fourth. I don’t need a Windows version of TextExpander because, as I explained yesterday, the autocorrect routines do the same for me within Word, Office and OneNote. So if I want to set up a shortcut for my postal address I do that just once in Word and it’s there for the rest of the apps. Yes, utilities like TextExpander can do a lot more than that if you explore them. But it’s a lot more I never used. So I don’t need something else to clog up the taskbar.

I don’t want to make videos on my computer. I don’t play around with music or games. If you do you’ll feel differently but for me the only extra piece of software I’ve added to my Windows system over Office is Adobe Photoshop Elements to handle pictures.

If I can restrict the software on my computer to one common industry package my life becomes so much simpler.

I’m not sure that many people writing about technology really get this. The Windows Surface RT tablet has taken a kicking in the PC media precisely because it can’t run much in the way of desktop software except Microsoft Office (shorn of a few things I never use such as macros). That doesn’t bother me at all. I can write and take notes on the thing as easily as I can on my full-blown desktop. I can access the same files through a common Skydrive cloud connection, without swapping formats or getting involved in some tedious sync routine.

If I want to edit or resize a graphic I can use a handy little Windows 8 ‘modern’ app called Fhotoroom which does an excellent job and costs all of 99p. Yes, the coming Surface Tablet Pro looks nicer, with better resolution and the ability to install the full range of Windows software. The RT doesn’t have Outlook, which I miss a bit. And the Pro has a pen.

But it’s likely to be almost twice the price at £800. The RT tablet does the job of writing, OneNote, email and web very well. Am I really going to pay another £400 just for the ability to install a bunch of software I don’t actually need?

For the pen and the higher resolution – which could be handy for proof markups – possibly. But for more apps? No. The diet continues, and right now I’ve no great hunger to break it.

17 thoughts on “Going on a software detox diet

  1. An excellent post David. Sound advice too. I look at the plethora of idle software sitting on my MacBook Pro and shudder to think of the amount of money I’ve parted with, just to enable those particular bit patterns. Where software is concerned, I’m a bit like a kid in a toy shop. If I pared down to the apps I actually use…
    Good to read that the transition to Windows and Word has worked so well for you. Is Scrivener still in the mix?

    • Scrivener’s there in Windows and I’ll use it when I need it. Not sure it’s required for the current projects to be honest. But I still recommend it for general use, especially for people starting out. The big problem with Scrivener for me (and it’s my problem not the app’s) is that I have to deliver and revise in Word. It’s a pain writing in one thing and then doing the rest in another. Not everyone will have that issue.

  2. justinhp

    Great post, David, articulating what I’ve felt for a while. I love the beautiful simplicity of Office and the new Windows, a powerful simplicity that has definitely increased my productivity.
    And I’ve found that the detox principle stretches to phones, too. My HTC Windows phone is a productivity device – I make and receive the odd call, text, send emails, look at the odd web page and use the excellent Office integration to view and make comments on files on the move. My bloated iPhone with its gazillion and one apps to make shopping lists, remind me to put my pants on and give me a Tarot reading every day is a distant memory!

    • Yep – phone apps are part of the problem too. The only ones I need are trains, twitter and WordPress. All there on Windows Phone thank you. If I want my horoscope read I’ll go elsewhere.

  3. Software is like an addiction. I do get a little endorphin rush from launching some cool new program and going into the preferences to fiddle with the settings. It must be very much like the feeling an alcoholic gets from cracking open a bottle and smelling that first whiff of Bourbon. Maybe someone will start a 12 step program.

    “Hi, my name is Ben, and it has been two days since I bought a new app.”

  4. Norman

    Wisdom lives behind your words David, I have almost scraped my Mac clear of extraneous ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ apps. Referencing is the bane of my life and TE, after a little time spent setting up, has saved me a raft of it. Horses for courses.
    I also love to write and can’t work with a clear mind in clutter so I think I get your bid for minimalistic bliss. Now, back to the Mac to scrunch up some more useless cr@p.

  5. Ric

    Thanks so much for this very informative blog.

    Funny, I’m doing the very same thing (software detox) myself. And, based on many positive comments from, as you say, real people (such as yourself), plus my unhappiness with both the direction Apple is going and their increasingly buggy and dumbed-down software, I am also considering returning to Windows after nearly a decade as a Mac users.

    I wonder if I might interject a question here, one that should have been raised when you were discussing Word 2013 (but perhaps fits in with a software discussion). It has been a mantra among so many, for so many years, that Word is a disaster at long documents, that it is about as stable as a shelf full of pottery in a California earthquake. I’ve been lucky. A Word doc has only fallen apart on me once. But lots of people do complain. So my questions: Are those fears regarding Word warranted in your experience and that of your writing colleagues? And if Word is such a dog, why would publishers insist on using that format when there are other, more stable options? Surely they wouldn’t want to risk publishing dates by having a Word doc throw up on itself the day it goes to the printer! (And if it’s not true, where do you think this bad-mouthing comes from?)

    Again, thanks for both the blog and your entertaining writing.

    • Word on the Mac is a real dog but it’s the app not the files. The last time a doc wouldn’t open there it opened fine on Windows. I’ve written two books in the 2013 beta without any problem. I’ve never known a Word file corrupt in the production process.

      So I guess the bad feeling comes from Mac Word users with bad experiences and I sympathise there. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a general WP alternative on the Mac I can live with

  6. Hugh

    I’ve had Word for Windows corrupt a long-form document more than once. From memory, I think the problems involved the Word outliner and/or the Document Map. To be fair, this was something like six, seven or more years ago and involved Word 2002 or 2003. But the problems drove me to find alternatives and led me on a route which took me eventually to Scrivener and the Mac. I’m sure that Microsoft haven’t let whatever caused such unreliability and instability remain, and no doubt Word 2010 and 2013 is as solid as, well, any software can be. But several times bitten…

  7. Hugh: only my experience, but I’m a longtime Mac user and have had more problems with the recent version of Word for Mac than Word for Windows. I tried the Windows version based on David’s blog entries about it and I find it is better than the Mac version, both in stability (esp when dealing with heavily annotated manuscripts, which would crash the Mac version) and in features designed to be helpful for long documents. I’d had horrible memories of Word for Windows’ earlier versions from past experiences, but this version is, I think, much better. It’s really the only program I run on my cheap Windows laptop but it does exactly what I need it to do and has not given me problems.

    • It seems to be very much down to the app, not the file in my experience. My 215K Word MS of The Killing only opened on my MacBook Air with difficulty, generating errors about ‘events failing to fire’ which made me determined not to try to work with it there. But it opened fine on my iMac in Word. It also opens fine and more quickly than the MBA on my little Windows RT tablet. I really didn’t feel comfortable working on big files in Mac Word, though I know many people do still use it for novel-length work.

  8. And in fairness I should note that both versions–Mac and Windows–seem much less likely to crash than in the past. Mac Word would crash with a heavily annotated file, but I wouldn’t lose data. It was just unsettling. Same file had no problems on the Windows version. I still use my Mac for most of my work, writing in Scrivener and using Word for Windows in the revision stage, and to review electronic copyedits from my publisher. And I’m not buying any new software! :-)

  9. Hugh

    David and Jeff, thank you for the reassurances. I agree: it’s certain that my reservations are out-of-date. And I also agree, on the basis of David’s posts, that a combination of Word 2013 and OneNote for long-form writing looks very seductive. I think that OneNote in particular, doesn’t really have an equivalent on the Mac, although Curio comes close – and for Word, Microsoft would have been very stupid not to learn from previous failings, and also from what some of its rivals are now offering. Of course, a five-year investment in Apple hardware and Mac software is difficult to dump, I definitely don’t miss all those operating system and anti-virus updates (yesterday I spent an hour updating my wife’s PC), and I remain a committed fan of all things initiated by Keith Blount. Parallels? VM Fusion? Fussy, and you still need anti-virus protection.

    • I found virtual machines more trouble than they were worth. Boot Camp was better. Windows 8 is very unfussy in my experience. For antivirus you just use the built-in Windows Defender that comes for free with Microsoft. On a day to day basis I wouldn’t say Windows 8 was especially prone to updates. Certainly not as much as earlier versions and when they do happen they don’t seem to insist you restart the machine immediately.

  10. Hugh: I bought a dirt cheap Toshiba laptop, running Windows 7, to run Word; I figured if I wasn’t happy with it (I hadn’t used Windows in years) I could easily sell it to a neighbor or on Craigslist. It has run just fine. I did install anti-virus software on it (Norton 360), and Word (not the full version of Office), which I didn’t feel I needed. It has not given me a moment’s trouble. It doesn’t sound like David has had problems with Windows 8 but I’m sticking with Windows 7 for now, since this isn’t my main machine.

  11. I’ve found that Windows 8 runs better than Windows 7 in Boot Camp. I’ve got a year-old 15″ MacBook Pro which I use as a desktop at home and now boot into Windows so much more than OSX that I’ve reduced the Apple partion to the smallest that I can get away with.
    On the move a Series 9 Samsung Ultrabook and the Windows Surface RT do just fine coupled with an Office 365 subscription. And, as David says, Office 2013 rocks.

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