Writer Pro: patently amateurish

Minimalist software with illusions of grandeur

I really liked iA Writer. Not for what it did (it’s essentially a bare bones text editing app) but more for what it didn’t do: much. It is by not doing much that it achieves its greatest strengths: it loads fast, it isn’t distracting, and it prevents the tweak-settings-to-perfection procrastination sinkhole.

iA chief, Oliver Reichenstein, didn’t miss an opportunity to wax poetically about his minimalist brainchild, touting every small UX decision as the result of copious research (which, If I had to guess, amounted to a few napkins worth of prototype sketches). Reading him, you’d think iA Writer was the best thing to ever happen to software: an exquisite experience, uniquely tailored to the needs of the modern writer, the software equivalent of that Fallingwater house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Actually it is just one of many nearly identical minimalist text editors. There is Byword, Writedown, Texts, Machiatto, Ulyssess III, Mou, Editorial, Elements, Plain Text, and quite a few others. I know because I’ve tried most and I still use several — despite being samey, they still have a couple of different strengths each.

When iA announced their new product, Writer Pro, I was eager to give it a try. They mentioned a new, innovative, “workflow” process (based on some German scholar’s research, no less) and some groundbreaking “Syntax Control” technology. A flashy landing page and an article, nay advertorial, in The Verge convinced me to fork out the $20 asking price, a move I was soon to regret (that neither iTunes nor iA offer a downloadable trial version didn’t help).

It took me all of 10 minutes of playing around with Writer Pro to find out it was actually worthless. Unfittingly to an application touted as a “professional” upgrade, essential Writer features such as Dropbox syncing were missing in action, as was direct access to your Writer iCloud documents. But I could forgive those shortcomings as the growing pains of a new product, had the new features been any good. Spoiler: they weren’t.

The “workflow” feature consists of a four-way toggle (“Notes”, “Write”, “Edit”, “Read”) that merely changes the font that you see your text in (and, when in the “Read” mode, locks the editing of your text). You don’t even get to keep your notes intact as you write your content — everything goes in one, single, document.

As for the “Syntax Control” feature: it merely highlights parts of speech, according to a 7-way radio toggle (“Adjectives”, “Nouns”, “Adverbs”, and so on). That’s all there is to it, and with minimal syntax awareness to add insult to injury (you can see some verbs being erroneously highlighted as nouns and vice versa). At best, it is a small time feature of marginal utility.

Where iA Writer shined with its minimalism, Writer Pro makes grandiose promises that then fails to fulfil. If this is “opinionated software”, its opinion seems to be that I’m a sucker that should be taken advantage of. Even more so with Writer Pro for iOS, which I haven’t tried, but appears to be a terribly broken product rushed to market in order to get us suckers’ holiday bucks. It doesn’t even have Markdown syntax support.

Now, you could just count me as an unsatisfied user, and that would be all. But it gets worse. Overly excited with his “ invention”, Oliver presented ‘Syntax Control’ in interviews, posts, and tweets as a groundbreaking feature, the result of “four years of work”, that his company will patent pronto and third parties will have to license to implement. He even stooped so low as to threaten developers with litigation if they attempt to copy it, with all the arrogance and assuredness of someone who just invented cold fusion.

Heck, the thing is not even iA’s invention. Not only it’s just a trivial UI over an Apple provided API, but even the UI itself was copied from an Apple demo in WWDC 2011, down to the use of a vertical row of part-of-speech selectors. As for the “four years of hard work” to implement it, those merely consisted of hooking a Cocoa text view with the relevant API (something which takes all of 10 minutes and 20 lines of code).

After the understandable backlash by developers and users, iA backed down, and in an obvious face-saying attempt said that it was all “a joke”, that they wont seek licence fees, and that they will not sue anyone. Unfortunately, the half-assed, ill thought, piece of software released as Writer Pro was not a joke ― or maybe it was too, but they still get to keep the money.

There are a few lessons in what happened here:

  1. When your core offering is a minimalist product, don’t make too much of your “problem solving” UX skills. You are not solving hard problems in an intuive and unique way — you’re merely avoiding them by focusing on fewer features. Which is valuable too, but doesn’t make you quite the cross between DaVinci and Dieter Rams you fancy yourself.
  2. If you’ve have a nice little following for your product, don’t piss people off with a half-baked piece of crap paid upgrade, especially when one of the two major features announced is merely vapour and the second is a stolen idea of marginal utility.
  3. Developers and users are not idiots. You may fool some enterprise manager you’re consulting that your “ingenious” solution to their problem was the result of years of hard work and research (and good for you), but a developer can recognise an NSLinguisticTagger when he sees one, and is able to call you on your embarrassing bluff.