iA Writer

iA Writer is the most clever text editor I’ve ever seen. Serious. Just watch its 1-minute presentation. It’s a lot of fun. I watched it three times already. They say:

iA Writer for Mac is a digital writing tool that makes sure that all your thoughts go into the text instead of the program.
That’s a lot of shared mindset with Novelang. While both tools leverage on a Wiki syntax, iA Writer tackles the problem with a dedicated graphical interface. It’s a minimalistic text editor that dynamically adjusts its display according to a Wiki syntax ( Markdown ). It has no menus, no preferences, and, well… almost no features. You pay for getting rid of the crap. It’s a paying application, only available on Mac and iPad, through the AppStore. Yes, it screws GPL lovers, but that’s not a reason to not look closely at what it does.


iA Writer relies on the Markdown syntax. I don’t like Markdown syntax , for various reasons.

But Markdown is simple enough to be extremely fast to learn (especially with HTML left out). By sticking to this minimalistic level, iA Writer becomes easy to learn and keeps focused on the text being written.

I should have invented it first!

During a presentation of Novelang for corporate use, a guy asked me: “Do you plan some graphical editor for Novelang?” I answered: “Never, it would lose the purpose of the tool. Maybe I’ll package some syntax highlighting configuration for text editors one day but nothing more.”

This was a decent answer, but iA Writer is more clever. I didn’t envisage dynamic formatting, just because it seems hard to program. One author if IntelliJ IDEA explained that they fully rewrote a Java parser by hand to be fault-tolerant. The rule about parsers is: don’t write them by hand because you’re not clever enough for that. And Novelang syntax is more complex than Java.

I didn’t play with iA Writer so I’ve no hint on how its parser works. Probably the display asks for a best effort given a paragraph, and when the parsing fails there is just no styling. Because of the interactive nature of the application, the user quickly learns how to fix broken text.

Novelang’s strict parser offers strong guarantees about correctness, and that’s a strong point when it comes to generate the final document. But this all-or-nothing approach greatly reduces interactivity. (Interactivity happens later in the Web browser, with some JavaScript to show metadata.)

iA Writer found a new path to the ultimate ease-of-use, while still relying on the Wiki syntax that’s at the heart of Novelang philosophy. I’m just disappointed I didn’t think first about an “augmented” text editor for aiding input of a Wiki text. On the other hand, this wouldn’t have helped me to keep focused on a restrained feature set.

Outsmarting iA Writer?

Spending hundreds of hours of effort to mimick iA Writer sounds like a waste. On the other hand, iA Writer only runs on the Mac/iOS platform and doesn’t offer more than a text editor when inserted in a publication chain. By now, a simple mix of Notepad++ , Novelang and git already offers a complete collaborative solution.

But iA Writer is not the end of the story. By now it works with a full-size keyboard, or with iPad’s keyboard emulation – not the most comfortable thing you can dream about. There are things to invent for a post-iPad world, when handheld devices will have something like a decent virtual keyboard . Starting experiments on a graphical interface with a dedicated parser could be a step in the future.


By now, Novelang is good at what it does, but lacks a few features: intralinks, embeddability, ePub, and desktop integration . It’s important to finish that first.

Novelang could support Markdown as optional syntax. This would make iA Writer the editor of choice and keep Novelang project focused on document agregation and rendering. Two different syntaxes trigger the “double feature alarm”. The source parser could become a pluggable thing, letting other people implement Markdown support. By now, the very few users of Novelang are happy with the out-of-the-box experience and didn’t ask for such geeky features.

Hacking a special text editor component that behaves like iA Writer’s one could be a nice experiment, but it shouldn’t be part of Novelang’s core before years.


dinobib said...

I just discovered your work. I am a french graphic designer and during my studies, i worked on a project about novlangue (not yours but '1984' ones). It doesn't have anything in common with your language synthax and crosspublising effort. I have created a text editor to write in novlangue (1984 ones) for this art project. You could see two implementation of the software (one with normal keyboard and one with a particular one) in the following videos http://vimeo.com/5541456 and http://vimeo.com/5541782
The project was larger than that, it includes writing about novlang grammar and syntax, designing a typeface for writing novlangue and many others design related things. Seeing a developer have named novlang a new syntax language made me smile.

Laurent Caillette said...

Great work! And I like the dedicated font which really captures the 1984 spirit (old computers, ugly technocratic things).

I don't know what you had in mind, but the NovTextEditor definitely looks like a SMS device on a 20" screen. We're used to think there already is a Big Brother inside each one's pocket because of call history and geographical location, but SMS pursues that effort by driving people to think with a 50-word language.

I like your blog. Could we continue discussing (probably in French) in private?

dinobib said...

Thanks. Yes the font was designed with old computers and old OCR fonts in mind.
The predictive idea was really taken from cellphone prediction mode. It really was a nice way (even on computers) to restrain the language at the same time it provide the user the false idea he is actually choosing something.
Sure we could continue discussing in private and french would be easier. contact chezle dinobib point com