Reclaiming friendship

I spent the single most unproductive hour of my month having tea with a comparatively new friend. Wouldn’t have changed that for the world: there is something energising, nourishing, exciting about nattering over tea. If I did nothing in that hour – and I absolutely did nothing – then the hour after it was far more productive because of taking that time.

So I’m keen on tea. And there was cake this time: chocolate is my Kryptonite.

But there wa also friendship. I read somewhere that we tend to keep our friends for around seven years. I can think of people I’ve been close to for longer but I was a little reassured by this idea of natural moving on because I’ve lost a lot of pals and it could be argued that they tended to disappear on me after about that time. So it’s not me. And it’s not them.

I think it might be me, though. So I was taken with this piece from the always superb Brain Pickings:

We call “friends” peers we barely know beyond the shallow roots of the professional connection, we mistake mere mutual admiration for friendship, we name-drop as “friends” acquaintances associating with whom we feel reflects favorably on us in the eyes of others, thus rendering true friendship vacant of Emerson’s exacting definition. We have perpetrated a corrosion of meaning by overusing the word and overextending its connotation, compressing into an imperceptible difference the vast existential expanse between mere acquaintanceship and friendship in the proper Aristotelian sense.

Reclaiming friendship – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings – 16 August 2016

She’s talking about reclaiming the word friendship and I read that also as making a stand for how important friendship is. Being Brain Pickings, Popova does as ever gather insightful quotes and detail from great minds but also as ever, what she says herself is arresting. Have a read of her full piece.

How Microsoft Word became useful again

Originally, Microsoft refused to put Word on the iPhone or iPad and trusted that its millions of users would go oh, okay then, we won’t buy an iPad. It didn’t work out quite like that and a fair short summary is that Microsoft shot itself in the foot many, many times.

For once people bought iPads and were therefore required to use alternatives to Word, they discovered there are alternatives to Word. Suddenly all of Word’s brilliance gets forgotten and all of its outrageously irritating problems get remembered as we go discover we can get more done without it. In truth we actually can’t: Word is the most powerful word processor there is but with great power comes stupid problems so something which technically does less is much more useful because we can use it more. If you can get your writing done without Word changing the formatting on you, without Word simply crashing just because you dragged in a picture like it said you could, then you get more writing done.

Shunning the iPad was Microsoft doing its once typical and once extremely successful technique of pitching its bulk against a competitor but this time the competitor won and the blowback damage to Microsoft was huge. Word ceased to be ubiquitous. People stopped buying Word just because it was Word. Not just people who were buying iPads but people who were buying word processors for any machines. Including Windows PCs.

Good. We are now back in a world where you have many choices for how you write your words and if choice can be overrated, it’s better than when we just had the one.

But last year Microsoft finally brought Word to iOS and I wrote about how surprisingly good it was, particularly on the iPhone. I’ve changed my mind a bit since then: I hardly touch it on my iPhone but I do keep Word on my iPad and I use it from time to time. It’s been steadily improved too, plus the original slightly messy business of how you could read but not write in it unless you paid some money is gone. You can now use Word without a subscription and it’s worth keeping.

I don’t find myself moving over to it for everything, even though I’d like to find one single application I could use everywhere. As it is, I’ll write on Drafts 4 for iOS, or Pages for iOS and OS X, on Evernote everywhere, Simplenote in many places and occasionally Word. I feel slightly schizophrenic which is fine, but I also find my writing is all over the place. I’ve a hundred or more pieces in TextEdit. A dozen in OmniOutliner. It can take me a spell to find what I’m sure I wrote the other day.

So I can appreciate what this fella Andrew Cunningham says in Ars Technica. The short summary is that he’s now turned. It took the new beta version of Word for Mac to tip him over, but having the one word processor on OS X, iOS, Windows and Android has snared him:

So yes, Microsoft didn’t make it to the iPad or to any of these other platforms as quickly as it could have or should have. There will be people, including some at Ars, who found other non-Microsoft solutions that worked for them in the meantime. But I find myself revising my initial “too little too late” stance to something closer to “better late than never.” A subtle distinction, maybe, but an important one.

You win, Microsoft: How I accidentally went back to Microsoft Word – Andrew Cunningham, Ars Technica (20 June 2015)

Read the full piece.

How file formats matter

This is an article about many of the file formats we are familiar, from HTML to Photoshop, but what interests me is this about word processors:

WordPerfect was always the best word processor. Because it allowed for insight into its very structure. You could hit a certain key combination and suddenly the screen would split and you’d reveal the codes, the bolds and italics and so forth, that would define your text when it was printed. It was beloved of legal secretaries and journalists alike. Because when you work with words, at the practical, everyday level, the ability to look under the hood is essential. Words are not simple. And WordPerfect acknowledged that. Microsoft Word did not. Microsoft kept insisting that what you saw on your screen was the way things were, and if your fonts just kept sort of randomly changing, well, you must have wanted it that way.

On File Formats, Very Briefly, by Paul Ford · The Manual

I could be wrong, of course, but it always seemed to me that WordPerfect was developed by writers and Microsoft Word by engineers. For all that I admire engineers, in this case I think they did a poor job. In WordPerfect, a document is stored in sequence, paragraph by paragraph, fine. In Word, every single paragraph is like a separate document with lots of pointers back and forth to others. It’s like the paragraphs in a Word document are all free-flowing, free-standing and only happen to line up the way you want.

Maybe I’m just too into this stuff, but if you are too, then do read the full piece.

In praise of Microsoft Word for iPhone

Honestly, I used it on my iPad and I liked but there I couldn’t be bothered to switch to it as my regular writing tool. When it comes to my iPhone, I started the app and even having to schlep through a quite short login process made me close the app again. Doubtlessly the next time someone sends me a Word document to read, I’ll do the deed. But it is strange how I can recognise the benefits of Word, especially in its new iPad version, and appreciate how well done it all is, yet still can’t be arsed to use it.

A very long time ago now, I used to write for a company that used WordStar. You don’t remember WordStar. One morning we all came in and found that WordStar was gone. Completely. Through some deal or other, the company now exclusively used WordPerfect. And WordPerfect was so good, I don’t think it held up our writing in the slightest. It was just obvious how to use it and we did. Until one morning when another deal meant WordPerfect was gone and Microsoft Word was in.

That was a different matter. That was tough work. That was deadline-affecting work, that one was. So I did come to Word with a lot of annoyance and over the years I’ve gone through many stages. I can’t remember how long I used Word as my exclusive word processor but it was a long time and ultimately it was by choice: Word was doing things I needed. I even got to the point where I would read How to Bend Word to Your Will and enjoy it. Until I realised I’d rather be writing books than studying an Open University-level course on how to use this software.

Right now I’m in the mood where if Word is what opens when I click on a document, I’ll write it or edit it or continue it in Word. Otherwise, I’m all over the place. Pages. Drafts. Evernote. I haven’t got a home, so to speak, I haven’t got a default word processor I feel comfortable in.

Whereas this fella has Word and he loves it on the iPhone. More than I could think feasible, yet also very persuasively, too:

Longtime iPhone users have been waiting a long time for this moment, but now we finally have an excellent way to work with Word files on an iPhone. If a client or colleague emails a Word document to you while you are out of the office, you can now easily read and edit the document on your iPhone. And if you have your iPad with you, you can take advantage of the larger screen to work with the document. Either way, the Word app lets you do many of the same things that you could do with a document using the full version of Word on a PC or Mac, and perhaps more importantly, the powerful Word app lets you do just about everything that you are ever likely to want to do on a mobile device.

Review: Microsoft Word for iPhone and iPad — view and edit Word documents on any iOS device – Jeff Richardson, iPhone J.D. (7 November 2014)

Read the full piece for specific features that make Richardson happy – and happy enough that he even thinks the iPhone version scores over the iPad one in some respects.

What you wish for may turn out a bit meh: Word is free on iPad

I’m not a fan of Microsoft. It’s been years since the problems and the failings of Microsoft Word outweighed all its benefits for me but it did and it does have those benefits. Microsoft Excel is and always has been very good. PowerPoint – well, let’s not do that. No need to be rude.

So for years my only interest in whether Microsoft would bring its Office software to the iPad was a kind of business fascination. It used to be that Word was so big, nothing else breathed at all. You can be certain that there were people in Microsoft who believed that keeping Word and Excel off the iPad would kill Apple’s tablet. Be certain of that. Because they were.

And, demonstrably, they were wrong. I think they were wrong enough that it has damaged them. Not because selling Microsoft Word for iPad on day one of the iPad would’ve brought in a lot of cash and kept on doing so for all these years. But because refusing to do it meant people had to find other word processors and other spreadsheets.

Once millions of people found they really, really did not need Word, they recognised that they really, really did not need it. Microsoft may have believed people would avoid the iPad because it wouldn’t run Word and being wrong there would’ve been bad enough. But being freed of Word on iPad means free of Word anywhere.

There are other factors that have made Word stumble and I don’t know what they are. But it’s now getting on for eight years since Microsoft switched Word over to the .docx format and still people send you the old .doc ones. Nearly a decade and people have not upgraded.

In The Blank Screen book I mention discovering after a month that I hadn’t got Word on my MacBook. And a little while ago I thought I was going to write you a news story about how Microsoft Word, Excel and the other one are now available for free on iPad. But instead, I’m thinking about how tedious it would be to switch to Word again.

Let me explain one thing. You have been able to download Word and Excel and the other one for some months now and you could read documents, you just couldn’t create or edit any – unless you paid a subscription.

As of today, not so much. You still can and you still get benefits from having that but you can use Word without it. All you have to do is sign for a free Microsoft account and off you go.

I signed up and off I went. And I also linked my Dropbox account so I could get to a lot of my current and recent documents here on the iPad. It was a chore looking through them all for documents I could open and in the end I just wrote a new one.


Microsoft Word for iPad is good. It feels better than the PC and Mac ones. But it’s too late for Word to be anything other than a curiosity to me now. I wondering whether that’s the case for most people.

Go take a look for yourself: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft The Other One are all on the iOS app store now.

Pardon? Microsoft embracing Dropbox storage

This removes another block to my using Microsoft Word for iPad. Up to now – and remember that isn’t very long, it’s not a huge time since Word and Office first came to iPad – you have had to use OneDrive for storage. That’s Microsoft’s equivalent of Dropbox and iCloud and it’s convenient if you’re an Office 365 subscriber. If you’re not, it isn’t. Not so much. Certainly not as handy as being able to save and open documents directly with Dropbox.

I’d have said Dropbox was an obvious route to go. But I’d also have said Microsoft would never do it. And the result was I never even thought about it enough to write it. So this was a surprise:

Microsoft and Dropbox are teaming up today to more closely integrate Dropbox into Office. The surprise partnership will benefit Dropbox users who use Office across desktop, mobile, and the web as Microsoft’s productivity suite will soon become the standard way to edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files stored on Dropbox storage. Office for iPad will benefit the most, with an update coming in the following weeks that will allow Dropbox users to link their account directly to the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint iPad apps.

Dropbox and Microsoft form surprise partnership for Office integration – Tom Warren, The Verge (4 November 2014)

This isn’t just that you can fiddle your way into sometimes using Dropbox, it is that you can seemingly even choose to skip OneDrive completely.

Now, if only Microsoft would sell a version without an annual subscription. Read the full piece.

The case for ditching Microsoft Office if you have a Mac

Well, I think this is part of the case. It’s a fine enough argument but maybe it’s not stating anything new: Apple’s Pages, Numbers and especially Keynote are in many ways better than Microsoft Word, Excel and especially PowerPoint. For better, I don’t just mean free or that they are installed when you buy a new Mac, I mean actually better.

That’s an easy claim to make when one’s work is not stretching the limits of what word processing, spreadsheets or presentations are doing. Except Keynote vs PowerPoint. That’s a separate argument, less because Keynote is as good as it is and more because PowerPoint isn’t.

But it’s this kind of more-complex, depends-on-your-needs argument that maybe this article from Apple Gazette lacks. But for an otherwise good laying out of the situation, take a look:

For years, Microsoft Office has been the gold standard for productivity software for business. If you took an inventory of the applications on most computers used in the corporate environment, chances are you’d find some version of Word, Powerpoint, and Excel installed on the majority of hard drives. MS Office has gotten so ubiquitous in fact, that it is installed on more than 85% of business workstations worldwide, making it as dominant in the productivity software space as Window is amongst operating systems. Fortunately, Apple has created a viable alternative to Office in the form of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, collectively known as iWork. These apps provide most of the same functionality as Microsoft’s software, but with the simplicity and ease of use that we expect from an Apple product. Here’s iWork is the better software solution for Mac users.

Why Apple’s Productivity Apps Should Replace Microsoft Office for Mac Users – (no byline), Apple Gazette (24 October 2014)

Read the full piece.

How a fan recommends Nisus Writer

We're in a spot where Microsoft Word has lost its strangelhold on the word processing market and other alternatives are doing well. But before it got to that level, Word had competitors then too. One of them was Nisus and I knew it well from writing news stories in computer press that covered it. I'm not sure I ever tried it myself, though I must surely have done at some point, but I had and still have a high opinion of it for two reasons.

One is that Nisus introduced some features that all the best word processors now have – and yet which took them all years to adopt. I'm thinking chiefly of non-contiguous selection: the way that you can select this sentence, scroll down a bit, select another one and then when you copy or cut, those two sentences are taken.

But the other reason I rate Nisus without having much or maybe any direct experience of it myself is that it used to engender passion in its users. Nobody ever evangelised Word. But Nisus had its champions.

And now it does again.

Things turned around in 2011 with the release of Nisus Writer Pro 2.0. This was the first version of Nisus Writer to include both change-tracking and comments, plus most of my favorite features from Nisus Writer Classic and a bunch of new capabilities. All of a sudden I had my old toolkit back, in a modern package. It was as though I'd been limited to a machete and an open fire for all my cooking needs, and then walked into a fully equipped restaurant kitchen. In the years since, it has grown even more capable and reliable.

Tools of the trade: Why I prefer Nisus Writer – Joe Kissell, Macworld (21 May 2014)

The full piece is very interesting about Nisus's place in word processing history – and even its lore – but also specific about its advantages. If you're on a Mac and you dislike Word, take a look.

Microsoft lowering cost of Office for iPad – a bit

Microsoft gives and Microsoft takes away. It’s interesting that this is in any way interesting: Microsoft Word for iPad, especially, is so much better than expected that it has become a genuine, serious contender. Enough so that if the pricing weren’t an issue, you’d have bought it and tried it already. Pricing is an issue, though, because you can’t buy Office for iPad at all, you can only rent it.

From launch to now, that meant paying $99 or so per year for an Office 365 subscription. Office 365 predates the new iPad offering so people and businesses who had already bought in to that programme for their home or work computers could just shrug, download Office for iPad and start working. While the price is a barrier to casual users, for serious regular users and devotees it was as close to a bargain as you could get. Office 365 effectively gave it to you for free: it cost you no extra to have a couple of iPads in your subscription.

That’s changed.

Now there is Office 365 Personal. There’s also Office 365 Home: Microsoft will never give up on making you study the feature list and regret your choice later.

Office 365 Home has UK pricing here and it’s £79.99 per year or £7.99 per month which gets you Microsoft Office on up to five PCs or Macs plus up to five iPads.

Office 365 Personal is £59.99/year or £5.99/month and for that much less you get much, much less. Only one PC or Mac (not even one of each) plus one tablet.

The two programmes also have storage but, hand on heart, I don’t understand the options. Whatever it’s all about, the principle is the same: the higher price gets you lots more.

But if you can live with the Personal constraints and you know you need Office for iPad, go take a look. Bring a calculator.

Twelve million people can’t be happy

But hopefully a lot of them are. Microsoft's Office apps for iPad have been downloaded more than 12 million times in the week since launching. That doesn't really mean 12 million people: I downloaded Word and Excel so that's two right there.

Actually, I downloaded Word and Excel, then deleted them – and tonight I just downloaded Word again. None of these are any use unless you pay an annual subscription which is doubtlessly worth it for many but isn't for me. However, you can use the apps to read Microsoft documents. I didn't have any at all the night I downloaded the apps the first time.

But tonight I got one. I'm reading a draft of a book and it happens to have been written in Word. Normally I'd just read it in Mail – that will show you the text perfectly well – or maybe I'd pop it into Pages – which opens Word documents just fine. This time I got Word back, opened it up and it's really good.

The book and Microsoft Word for iPad.

The text is beautifully crisp and well designed, it is a true pleasure reading this document in Word for iPad.

Still not going to subscribe, but now I think I will keep it around. I wonder if we'll ever know how many of the 12 million downloads will stay and how many of those will turn to subscription ones. But you've got to hand it to Microsoft: this is a nice piece of work.