Small, smart, and specialized

by kiminogomi

No, not me. This is about apps, specifically the iOS apps that I have learned to love and trust, and a few that are useful if sometimes irritating. The topic of specialization came up at this week’s New Media seminar, and it got me thinking about how specialized iPad apps have changed my relationship to writing and research, I think for the better. First, though I want to talk a little about my past experiences with writing on a device, which I think grounds my reaction to apps — but if that sort of thing bores you, skip the next three paragraphs.

If anything qualifies me to talk — sorry, type — about this subject, besides my lifelong addiction to writing, it’s my age. I went to graduate school toting a portable manual typewriter that had been my grandfather’s. Not that electrics didn’t exist yet — I’m not that old, thanks — but they were sort of unlovely objects. They sat there humming and buzzing to themselves, and they weighed a ton. Besides, I loved my little grey typewriter, which I named Wanda June after the main character in a Kurt Vonnegut play. In other words, I was pretentious. (Was? Says a little voice in my ear, which I am ignoring).

As time went by it became hard to find ribbons for Wanda June, or erasable paper, and I remember a brief dalliance with a Selectric. Then I started TAing, and began to hang around the University of Rochester Humanities computer lab. A Mac lab, but there were PCs too. As a graduate student I was entitled to a free copy of WordStar and a supply of discounted floppies — the big ones that really were floppy. Later I met my future husband’s nice little Mac: slide in a little square disc, with a satisfying click, and it would smile at you. And then you were writing, on a plump keyboard that made more pleasing sounds, by design, it turned out. I don’t even remember the name of that program, partly because it was so seamless, so unobtrusive. I wrote my dissertation on the Mac, and I still miss it — and I also miss my typewriter, which developed terminal mildew so that I couldn’t handle it without sneezing and getting nauseated. The only thing I couldn’t write on the Mac was poetry. I still needed the typewriter for that.

Ok, so then on to Syracuse University, where after a few years as an adjunct in Textual Studies I picked up a second job as a tech trainer in a separate college, one with a serious computer lab, a beta site for Microsoft (although as my boss pointed out, the whole world was Microsoft’s beta site). They called me the “naive user,” because I didn’t use the specialized language the real techies did, and so I was less apt to find helping various people the age I am now an occasion for mutual apoplexy. So I was trained to help people with basic problems and refer the more complex ones up the food chain. I was also sent home with a desktop machine loaded with the new NT OS (which I promptly crashed and had to drag bodily back to the shop, to the great amusement of my very pleasant colleagues) and a copy of TechNet, a searchable DB on discs that listed all the many “issues” NT users were apt to encounter. TechNet came out every month, and most of the entries began, “This behavior is by design,” a phrase I still chant quietly to myself whenever I have an overwhelming urge to smash the toaster with the rolling pin (toasters hate me. My daughter’s equivalent of the Proustian Madeleine will probably be the odor of burning Whole Foods French bread). Thus began my familiarity with the bloated, beige world of word processing in the 90s. I also met a small, dispirited group of faculty who were hold-out users of WordPerfect, which they preferred because unlike MSWord it displayed formatting codes. Microsoft was too “locked down,” another irony for an Apple fan.

At this point, the reader who has neither clicked elsewhere nor nodded off is no doubt wondering whither all this senile reminiscence is tending. My point, — honey, have you seen my specs? Oh wait, I’m wearing them. What was I — anyway, my point is that I have written on and tinkered with quite a few platforms, and had gotten used to the writing process involving sitting in front of a big beige or black box, a lot of waiting, a lot of screen clutter, a lot of useless options and defaults I needed to change . . .

I took to the iPad at once, to its smooth surface and the ease of its screen. What I wasn’t sure about was how I wanted to write on it. I tried a stylus, but my writing is just too messy, too slow. So I bought an alarming number of writing apps, probably about thirty if you count the ones that claim to do everything. I have small fingers, so the on-screen keyboard is fine for me, especially in landscape mode, but then there’s even less room for writing space if you have a lot of functions. What I wanted was the feeling I used to get when I was a kid with a pen and a notebook, scribbling in corners.

I found what is for me the perfect writing app quite serendipitously. At the advice of a smart colleague (thanks, Cheryl!) I had installed AppShopper and set it to hunt for discounted apps in the Productivity category. One day I saw one with a nice name, a literary name: Daedalus. The icon was attractive, too, clean black-and-white, a cursive D with an inviting lift of a virtual page at the bottom right corner. When I went to the developer’s site (I do not install anything that links to a cruddy site) I saw that my hunch was right: the title was an homage to my favorite author, James Joyce. So I pounced. That was a year ago, and five hundred pages. . . .

What do you need to know about this app? Well, it was designed by The Soulmen, whose other significant products so far include a more advanced word processor, Ulysses, which I mean to try when I get a Mac (sigh); a to-do list app; and what seems to be a very cool music player for kids, which I would install for my daughter were it not for the imminent risk of hearing “Call Me Maybe” another six trillion times. Anyway, I will at least consider any app this crowd designs, even if it involves directions for rotating the tires on a 1994 Volkswagen. Daedalus has just a few very smart features, including the ability to sort and stack “sheets” (documents), fool-proof export, etc. But the real deal, for me, is the way it works: tap once, and you’re writing. Swipe to change documents. That’s it (Ok, sounds too like a promo, but it’s accurate). It does other stuff too, but those are the important bits. Like a notebook, only I can read my own writing. And (cross fingers to avoid the anger of the electron gods) it doesn’t crash. I’m not the only fan by a long shot; check out the reviews.

Oh, and I can write poetry on it. It just looks right.

Ok, so that’s enough for one blog. Next: why I like a browser/writing app that does everything, including read things aloud in several accents, and where to find it. Also, why I like to make bubbles on my iPad . . . .