Quick review of IA Writer – a minimalist writing tool

I recently began using a new writing tool, iA writer. It is one of a slew of new programs that are “minimalist” writing tools including Omniwriter and Writeroom. They help you focus on actually writing rather than tinkering with fonts, layouts, hyperlinks, grammar checkers and other distractions. I was led to search for a new writing tool by Redmond’s Law of Large Numbers which states that a large and complex enough document will definitely crash Microsoft Word. I have been revising a paper for a journal and when it began crashing every ten minutes, I realized I was totally distracted by having to restart my word processor and guessing what changes had actually been saved. I was no longer focused on writing.

Initially I was skeptical and thought a minimalist tool was nothing new, just a modern version of Vi/Emacs or any of the LaTeX editors I’ve used. But it turns out to be a different user experience after all. Even compared to any of those, iA Writer is distraction free. There is no way to underline or italicize text. There are no styles, hyperlinks, or colors or fonts. There are no obscure Control/Alt/Esc commands to remember. There are however numbered headings which is useful. The overall effect is that your mind stays focused on paragraph structures, flow and generating interesting content.

The experience isn’t like using Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit(Mac) either. On iA Writer, one interesting feature — probably its only feature — is the “focus mode” which highlights the currently edited sentence and fades everything else into grey. This keeps your attention squarely on clarifying exactly what you are trying to express in the current sentence. I like that a lot. Oh and it does look great on screen, a bit like the typerwiters from days gone by.

iA Writer syncs to Apple’s iCloud, so you can edit on your Mac, iPhone or iPad and not worry about backups. You can roll back to different versions using iCloud’s built-in features. If you use Windows, the options include Darkroom, Focuswriter and Writemonkey but I haven’t tried any of those.

Because of its lack of features, a minimalist writing tool isn’t for everything, certainly not equation-laden articles. But it is great for a first draft and if you are primarily writing text. I am currently keeping iA Writer as part of my workflow, using it to draft things, then pasting the results into a word processor or other application for layout and finishing. If you have used such a tool, do share your experiences (good and bad) below.

ps: this blog post was written in iA Writer.

Cloud computing and the “me versus you” problem

A Personal Workspace
A Personal Workspace

I’m finally getting back to blogging after spending a couple of months traveling then catching up with work. This week I was invited to speak at a “guru forum” of managers and academics who work in information technology. Among the many issues that were discussed, two conflicting trends were identified. On the one hand many corporate organizations are moving towards cloud services and all-in-one outsourced solutions (Oracle, SAP, IBM, …). On the other hand individuals are moving towards a “bring your own” model, bringing their own computers, e-books, cellphones, iPads and other devices to their workplaces. With the advent of smartphones and social media platforms such as Facebook, computing is becoming more consumer-centric and primarily a means for social interaction, rather than just a tool for specific tasks like word precessing and accounting.

These opposing trends create a disconnect at the workplace between the ability of firms to manage and control information (especially proprietary information) versus the desire to give employees flexibility and freedom in choosing the tools they really want to use. My view is that the trend towards consumer-centric computing will dominate the other paradigm. There is no turning back the preferences of modern information workers who grew up with their iPads, Android phones and Kindles. Companies should embrace rather than fight the trend.

How do we solve this “me versus you” problem? i.e., organizing information on multiple devices in a way that separates private from work and other shared information in an easy but manageable way? Existing solutions are unsatisfactory because they do not adapt to the different and changing contexts that individuals find themselves in. Companies like Apple, SAP and Oracle take a fully integrated approach, allowing you to run everything on their software and leveraging their own cloud solutions, treating each device as a client. Bringing this to the extreme, you can run entire virtual machines from your own device with everything hosted on the service provider, such as via Amazon S3 or OnLive. Unfortunately this is often an all-or-nothing proposition, so while it creates separate contexts, the operation across contexts is not seamless. You’re basically running separate computers (or syncing to separate clouds) from within your own device, and it is slow and clunky to inter-operate between them.

In contrast, other firms like Dropbox provide services that integrate into your existing applications and folders, but end up being highly fragmented especially when it comes to setting permissions and giving access. Each application and each collaborator needs to be authenticated, so coordination can be a hassle. This week my colleague tried to set up a shared Dropbox folder for the faculty members at our school, and it seemed a lot more of a hassle than it needed to be, especially the bit about inviting each user and trying to get them to actually sign up to the Dropbox cloud.

The good news is that the solution of the “me versus you” problem is closer at hand than many might think. The architecture for such a solution already exists in products like Google Circles and VMware but is not yet pervasive. Here’s an example of what one such solution might look like. At present most operating systems support multiple workspaces, but for now they are all tied to the same set of permissions and applications. Well, imagine a future in which each workspace on your device is authenticated to different sets of applications and clouds. For example, your device could include a personal workspace that authenticates to Apple and Dropbox and which contains your personal files, apps and Facebook page. A second workspace could authenticate to your office, with the IT system at your office determining what apps and cloud services are made available and which of these you can transfer across workspaces. A third workspace could be one created by your friend so that when you visit her house, her workspace would appear along with some of the data and services from her home network that your friend is willing to share with you.

A small number of us already have something close to this setup running on our computers by using multiple virtual machines that are active simultaneously. But it isn’t the same thing. I’m thinking of something with much more integration than is available in existing virtual machines and with much less of the “heavy machinery” that is needed to support multiple operating systems on the same machine (the action is in the data and apps, not in the operating system itself anymore). I also have in mind something more dynamic, for example with the ability to seamlessly add or remove workspaces when the context around a person changes. In the example above, if your friend defines a workspace that is shared with you when you visit her, that workspace should actually exist in a virtual sense, and it should slide on and off your various devices in a consistent manner including your smartphone, iPad and notebook computer.

Granted, the ideal solution in my head might be a bit far-fetched. However I suspect it will become prevalent in the next several years. I don’t know what it would cost in terms of implementation and adoption. However, the fundamental issues are of great concern among industry practitioners such at those attending the IT Guru forum, so I suspect that over the next few years entrepreneurial firms will end up exploring solutions and frameworks along these lines.

Videos now online: New Models for Book Publishing

Several months ago I wrote about a public forum we organized on the future of book publishing. Our panelists included Piers Pickard (Editorial Director at Lonely Planet), Graeme Connelly (CEO of Melbourne University Bookstore), Nathan Hollier (Manager at Monash University Press), Max Barry (independent author) and Emmett Stinson (Melbourne University lecturer in publishing and communications). Since then, dramatic changes have occurred. Lonely Planet has reorganised while moving aggressively into apps and digital publishing. Amazon has entered the publishing business, bypassing traditional publishers. Books have gotten shorter with efforts like Amazon’s Kindle Singles and TEDBooks being particularly interesting. Closer to home, Melbourne University Bookstore will be privatised soon. So, I decided to spend some time during the weekend editing the video from our public discussion. The podcast is now online. Please follow the link and watch it if you are interested in book publishing.

Not all dropouts are created equal

There is a growing concern about the value of university education. The main complaint is that it is becoming too expensive. However, Michael Ellsberg goes as far as to suggest we invest not in university education but in “the kids who are dropping out of college to start new businesses”.

There are many facets to this debate, but I just want to point out one thing: not all dropouts are created equal. The current people who succeed after dropping out are a highly self-selected bunch. They are people who would probably have done extremely well regardless of whether they had dropped out or not. In other words, they dropped out despite a high expected rate of success, which means their expected returns from dropping out were high.

As you increase the number of people who drop out, you are drawing upon a different pool of people, with different abilities and propensities to take on risk. The dropout rate is around 16% in the UK and and 17% in Australia. For the sake of argument, imagine that we increase the dropout rate to 50% next year and ask those dropouts to start up companies. Do you really think this will greatly increase the number of successful entrepreneurs who end up like Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs? Having read several biographies of such individuals, my understanding is that success in each case was due to strong personalities, a willingness to take on risks, childhood experiences (or lack thereof), self-motivation, and a variety of other factors. Being a dropout was part of that journey, but wasn’t the underlying reason for success.

The present system is broken; tuition is too high and the quality of education at many universities leaves room for improvement. As someone who studies innovation I believe we should encourage entrepreneurs. But I don’t think the solution is to have more students drop out. What I predict will happen is a change in the price of educational degrees (as suggested by Mike Ryall), but more importantly that educational approaches and instructional styles will change. Whether that change will emerge from existing institutions or from entirely new organizations remains to be seen. Where there is a pressing problem, there arises the opportunity to serve a market need.

Podcasts on innovation by Tucci, Cassiman & O’Sullivan, Lim

I recently uploaded video podcasts for a couple of events organized by Melbourne Business School and IPRIA:

  • Chris Tucci presented last week on “Creative Destruction and Intellectual Property: What’s an Incumbent to Do?” Part 1 covers the key concepts and Part 2 presents examples from his research.
  • Bruno Cassiman and Don O’Sullivan presented several months back on R&D strategy and executive compensation, respectively. Bruno’s talk was on how collaboration on research and development (through open innovation and science linkages) can dramatically affect R&D outcomes. Don spoke on how the structure of executive compensation relates to the valuation of intangible assets.

Thanks to each speaker for allowing us to share their presentations online.

In addition I was recently featured in an interview on the University of Melbourne Up Close podcast. It is on the effect of acquisitions on inventor productivity and based on my research with Rahul Kapoor.

Impressions of the Occupy Melbourne protest

Occupy Melbourne
Occupy Melbourne

Today I happened to walk by the Occupy Melbourne protest and took some photos. They have set up a tent city next to Melbourne Town Hall. It was refreshing to see people with so much enthusiasm. The protestors seem peaceful and reasonably organized. Just as with Occupy Wall Street, several committees have been formed for dealing with various issues (media, parenting, food, legal, etc.). For example they have a communal kitchen which seems well run. We visited the main tent and it was interesting to watch a meeting in progress.

To me, the Occupy Melbourne group seems less `emergent’ than what the Wall Street group has been described as. Occupy Melbourne seems primarily to be an alliance of existing organizations, each with its own agenda that is already formed. These are broad in scope and they go well beyond the financial crisis to also include groups supporting indigenous rights, the Palestinian cause, the Falungong, renewable energy, and several other causes.

The result of this is that while chatting with people from several groups, it seemed they were quite keen to recruit me (and my donations) for their specific cause, rather than being truly in support of an overarching one. It felt a bit like being at a country fair with several different stalls to shop at, rather than a unified political rally. Perhaps this is also the case at the other “Occupy” events?  I wonder if these coalitions can really get together because they cover such a broad range of things, some of which are inherently quite distinct. And with so many existing groups, I wonder if new individual voices will actually be heard. Lets watch and see how things develop.

Spend on windshield insurance instead of a better car alarm system

Crime Scene
Crime Scene

Recently our car was broken into, despite being parked in what I thought was a relatively safe place. While getting the broken window replaced, I learned that a key consideration when designing car windows is that they shatter safely, so as not to injure passengers. Car windows are not primarily designed to keep the crooks out; in fact the police officer who inspected our car was surprised that the burglars apparently needed to hit our window more than once in order to break it.

A corollary is that car windows are easy to replace. If you design something to break, you might as well make it easy to swap. Many car windows are apparently held in place by just two little hinges (as is ours) and the entire replacement process takes 15 minutes.

What this means is that you are probably better off paying for optional “glass insurance” than you are for a better car alarm system. If someone wants to break into your car, the alarm is not going to stop them. It might even lead them to damage the door or other parts of the car that are more expensive to repair than the window 😉

In Australia, even “comprehensive” insurance packages do not usually cover damage to windows or windshields. In our case this is an optional extra that costs around $60/year. It turns out that each window costs around $200 to replace (the deductible is typically around $500). So at least to me, this seems a worthwhile extra to pay for.