The Buzz on Buzzword

Every so often I stumble across a new piece of software that just does its thing exceptionally well. In a world too full of very ordinary software products, its nice to find one occasionally that just does its job very well, with a feature set that has all the stuff you want and is not cluttered up with stuff you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, an interface that is intuitive and clean so that it can be used without any real learning curve. Voicethread is a great example of such an interface.

It’s really exciting to see so many of these well crafted apps starting to appear on the Internet as web apps, sometimes called Rich Internet Applications or RIAs. RIAs, when done well, can give the impression of behaving like a desktop app but with all the added advantages of being in the cloud… advantages such as ubiquitous access, remote storage of data and the ability to collaborate across time and place. Google Docs uses this model and is a fine way to create online documents that can be shared for collaborative purposes.

The problem with Google Docs (at least as far as word processing is concerned) is that from an interface point of view, it’s not the prettiest way to interact with your words. It’s certainly not a true WYSIWYG interface, so that when you add tables and graphics to the document you really have no idea what it will look like when printed. I find Google Docs a hugely convenient way to work with documents that need to be accessed from anywhere or need to be shared with others, but because it is essentially a HTML based writing space, I do sometimes lament the way it handles the niceties of layout and page design.

So I was super excited do discover Adobe’s Buzzword this week. Buzzword is an online word processor written in Flash that does nearly everything Google Docs’ word processor does but has a much nicer, much prettier and much more intuitive interface. You can sign up for a free account and try it out at no cost.

Buzzword comes from Adobe and really starts to show the enormous power of Flash as a development platform for the web. Obviously the combined brainpower and engineering that came about thanks to the merger between Adobe and Macromedia is starting to really show some results of how powerful their combined thinking can be. (You can see evidence of that in the latest Adobe CS3 Suite – some awesome new features in Photoshop for example)

Opening Buzzword gives you a regular pageview layout, with familiar dropdown menus and tools. Using it is a familiar experience if you know anything at all about Word. You get less of course, and you can’t make tables of contents, do mail merges, use document maps or change case options. There are many things that Buzzword won’t do. But most of those features are not used by the vast majority of word processor users, who are happy to be able to set font styles and typefaces, add tables and images, change font colours and make bullet lists. Buzzword has all of these common features (with some nice usability tweaks, making some features, such as bulleting and numbered lists, even easier to manage than in Microsoft Word). Buzzword is nice to use, with funky animations as documents open and close, document listings that get rearranged automatically, and so on. It just feels good to interact with.

Where it really comes into its own is in the way it enables shared collaboration. Just like Google Docs, Buzzword allows you to invite people to either view, review or co-author a document, Viewers can just read them, reviewers can leave comments on them, and co-authors can make changes. Google Docs can be quite laggy however, and there can be delays between when a user makes a change and when the other collaborators see that change… this makes it hard to use in real time. What I really like about the collaborative nature of Buzzword is that it clearly shows who are the collaborators, shows when they are online, when they are editing and it has a clever lockout system that makes it impossible for two co-authors to edit a document at the same exact instant. As soon as a change is saved however, it is instantly reflected on the other users screens. This works amazingly well for multiple people working on the same document at the same time, and ensures that people don’t inadvertently write over the top of other people’s changes, something that is easy to do in, say, a wiki. Buzzword makes you wait your turn until the previous user finishes with their changes.

Buzzwords can import and export text documents from .txt, .rtf, .doc, .docx and .xml. It has no spreadsheet or presentation tools, but as a word processor it’s very nice. It’s not a Word killer but nor is it designed to be.  For someone with basic word processing needs who wants the benefits an in-the-cloud service like this can offer, Buzzwords is worth a serious look.

In summary, I’m really impressed with the WYSIWYG look and feel of Buzzword. Although I have a lot of documents stored on Google Docs I can see myself migrating most of them over to Buzzword, not only for the improved collaborative environment but just because it’s so much darn nicer to use!

When Everything Looks Like a Nail

The regularity of my blogging has dropped off a bit lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of writing a book about the use of interactive whiteboard technology for teachers. Although I’ve got almost 20,000 words written so far, I am way behind deadline and really need to get the first draft finished so it can be submitted to the publishers in a few weeks. Until I get that done, every time I feel the urge to blog I have to remind myself that there is a (new) deadline looming and direct my writing efforts to the book instead of the blog. I feel bad that my blogging has been suffering lately, but I really need to get this done. So there you have the reason I’ve not been updating lately.

However, I simply had to take a few minutes to share this wonderful new tool I’ve found called Scrivener. It’s an incredible tool for anyone taking on a large writing task and I really can’t believe I’ve never tried it before. I had heard the name mentioned but assumed it was just another word processor. How wrong I was!

There is an assumption that the defining software tool for writers is Microsoft Word. While Word is a very powerful application and has many, many features that most people never even discover, Word can be a frustrating tool for anyone contemplating the writing of a very long piece of work such as a book. I use Word a lot and know it quite well… in fact I hold a Advanced level Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word, so I feel quite at home in it. I can generally twist Word to my will and make it do pretty much whatever I need, but it’s still a pain in the neck when working on something as large and fragmented as a book.

There’s no doubt that Word is a great tool for certain types of writing. But as they say, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Enter Scrivener. Designed expressly for anyone working on long documents that require many edits, such as books and screenplays, Scrivener takes an entirely different approach to writing. Essentially, it treats easch writing task as a project, collecting resources for writing into a single place and then enables you to break long text into short, movable, definable chunks, letting you categorise and synopsise each chunk and assemble them into the final work. You can break text into chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences… whatever you like… and move them around to let your ideas flow far better than Word will ever allow. Unfortunately Scrivener is a Mac only application, but Windows users might like to check out PageFour which apparently does similar things.

Using Scrivener has been somewhat of an eye-opening paradigm shift for me. It has challenged my assumptions about the very nature of the software tools we give our students. It made me realise what a mistake it is to assume that Word – or any “industry standard” software tool – is necessarily the tool for the job as far as student use is concerned. We inflict tools like Word on our students because they are supposed to be “what everybody uses” and we insist that the best tools to teach them to use are the tools used “by industry”. The fact is, schools are not offices, and the writing needs of a business person are not necessarily the writing needs of a student. The best tool for a student is not the one that they will use when they get older, but the one that helps them do what they need to do right now.

There is nothing “wrong” with Word, but having now spent some time with Scrivener it is now painfully obvious just how much more we could offer our students if we stopped assuming the tools of the business world were what they should master in order to create written texts. Real writing is a process of collecting ideas and thoughts together, manipulating them into a cohesive form, and editing and re-editing them until they make sense to other people. I now see how tools such as Scrivener approach the task of writing from a completely different angle and enable it to take place in a far more fluid way.

Now back to work! I have a book to finish…

PS: Here’s a video that gives a great overview of what Scrivener is all about…

video overview

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Living in the Cloud

Until fairly recently, most of my computing was done locally using “real apps”. By this, I mean they are cllient-side applications installed on the hard drive of my own computer. I guess I’ve always liked the speed and convenience of having my applications – tools like Office, email, calendar, feedreader, etc – right there on my hard drive where I could get to them running at full local speed. Once you’ve been spoilt by the responsiveness of locally-run apps, web apps that run from the Internet just aren’t as snappy.

Of course, many will say that locally installed apps are old skool; that if you really think with a Web 2.0 mindset, then running your key software directly from the Internet makes more sense. The world is certainly trending that way, with a proliferation of Web 2.0 apps that now run directly from “the cloud” and computing devices designed to work this way, such as the Macbook Air. Computing in the cloud started with obvious applications like webmail, but have now extended to office productivity software, photo editing, even video production, all workable with nothing more than a web browser and a broadband connection.

Life is all about compromises and finding the right balance. Although I’ve been resisting cloud computing for a while, my circumstances changed recently and I decided to make a switch to see if I could manage moving my basic tools off the desktop and into the big blue nowhere.

The real trigger for making the move to the cloud was an increase in the number of computers I was working on every day. My main machine has been a Macbook Pro, which I essentially did everything on. I also owned a 20″ iMac on my desktop, but that was used mainly for editing podcasts and storing my media with iPhoto and iTunes. I really didn’t spend that much time on the iMac, although it’s a beautiful machine to use. Since we moved house recently though, I’ve been using the iMac a lot more, even more than the MacBook Pro. Then when I started the new job I was given a Toshiba 12″ Tablet PC as my work machine.  It became awkward to manage all my stuff since it was now spread across three different computers, all using locally installed software applications. Suddenly, locally installed apps were making a whole lot less sense, with important emails and documents never on the machine I happened to be using, my work calendar and my personal calendar getting out of sync on different machines, and I figured it was time to start looking for a better way to consolidate my digital life.

So here’s the problem… I had three machines grabbing email from 5 different accounts, two calendars that needed to be kept separate but I also needed to cross reference them against each other, a writing project which required collaboration with another writer in a remote location, and a group of RSS feeds that were being picked up on three different machines. My digital life was a mess…

It was finally time to submit to the cloud computing model and take all of these disparate bits and move them to cyberspace, where I could access them from any computer. There are many tools to enable this, but I decided to go with Google’s tools since they seem to work really well together and one login would give me access to everything… Gmail for my email, Google Reader for my RSS aggregator, Google Calendar for my appointments, and GoogleDocs for my documents. I won’t labour the point about these tools since I assume most people are already pretty familiar with them, and using web apps is hardly a revolution, but I did want to mention a few tweaks and tips that really made the move to the cloud so much more workable for me.

First, Gmail. For a long time, I’ve been a heavy user of Entourage, and more recently Apple’s Mail, and really liked them.  Although I’ve had a Gmail account for ages, I mainly used it just as my secondary mail account. My real mail comes in on chris[@] and I didn’t really want to switch that. Thankfully, Gmail has the ability to hook into my ISP’s account and pull my regular mail into the Gmail service. This means that I can now stick to my long term email address via my regular ISP but get to it with the convenience of Gmail’s web-based anywhere-access. I added another POP account I had and I can now send and receive mail from any of these addresses via Gmail, from any machine, with the added advantage of a powerful spam filtering service freely supplied by Google.

Second, my feed reader. I tossed up whether to use Google Reader, Pageflakes, NetVibes or Bloglines. The new Bloglines beta looked good, but had a few annoying behaviours. After testing each system for a few days, I decided on Google Reader. Once it’s set up, it works very smoothly with Flock – my browser of choice – to add RSS feeds. The way it displays feeds is really intuitive and each to understand, and it was able to import the OPML file from my desktop feedreader, Vienna. So far, I’m impressed with Reader and I can now check my feeds from any machine, and keep them all in sync.

Google Docs are wonderful. Although I’ve got a Microsoft Office Specialist certificate and am a pretty capable “power user” of MS Word, like most people I mostly use it to type up fairly simple documents. Google Docs may lack many of the features of Microsoft Office, but they are mostly features I don’t use anyway, and the ability to collaborate on documents with other people more than makes up for the missing features. Working across several machines, the ability to have all my documents accessible from one place – the Internet – is an incredibly useful concept. But I was really won over with Google Docs when I saw the Firefox plug-in called GDocs Bar. This plug-in gives one-click access to Google Docs for both accessing your online files as well as uploading new ones. GDocs Bar makes Google Docs so much more functional.

Finally, the other big problem was that my personal calendar was being managed by iCal on my MacBook Pro, and my work calendar was being managed by Outlook on the school’s Exchange server. This made it hard to look at both my work and personal events together, as both were kept in separate places although they had overlapping events. The killer link in making the move to the cloud came with the ability to sync both the iCal and Outlook calendars into a single Google calendar. To achieve this, I used a $25 app called Spanning Sync to synchronise iCal to my Google calendar.  It works fantastically with perfect two way syncing. I then used the free Google Calendar Sync tool to do a two way sync of my work Outlook calendar into my Google calendar. The end result is that my online Google calendar now pulls data from my two separate calendars and displays it in real time, in one place, easily accessible from any browser.  This is way cool…

The bottom line is that I now feel I have a really workable cloud computing experience, with all my key information stored in one place – the web – that I can get to from any of my machines. I know there is still plenty of life left in the locally installed software model, especially for the more computationally intensive multimedia applications, but so far I’m pretty impressed at just how easy and effective it has been to move my most commonly used productivity apps to the cloud.

I just hope we can trust Google.

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