Overcoming Roadblocks to Blockwriter

Here’s an update on Blockwriter, my concept for a text editor that’s as reductive and productive as a typewriter. After a fair amount of reader interest, I was disappointed to find that no Cocoa developers actually stepped up to claim the idea and run with it. Of course, it’s presumptuous of me to assume that any idea I throw out there will ignite a flurry of developer activity, but still, you can’t blame me for hoping a similar application would magically appear on Version Tracker one day.

Then I got a note from David Goodman, a MetaFilter reader who liked the idea enough to post it to Ask MetaFilter, in the hopes that someone could point him to a similar product for Windows. A respondent to that post, apparently, decided to take up the challenge and, according to David, has begun to code a prototype in Python.

Which is great news, but as a Macintosh user, what I really wanted was a slick, beautiful Cocoa application, something completely native to the Mac. Then I got an email from Jesse Grosjean, proprietor of Hog Bay Software. Jesse was responsible for Hog Bay Notebook and its successor, Mori — both excellent examples of reductive, elegant and distinctly Macintoshian applications (full disclosure: I designed an earlier version of his Web site).

Blog, and Ye Shall Receive

Below: In the dark. What WriteRoom actually looks like.

As it turns out, Jesse has been working on a Mac OS X application he’s currently calling WriteRoom which uses ideas very similar to Blockwriter: it’s a simple text editor that goes full screen. In many ways, it’s even more dramatic than Blockwriter in that all users see on the screen is text — no window chrome, no buttons or user interface widgets, no nothing.


This is great news, but at the moment, the best thing about WriteRoom is that it’s a real, working prototype. You can download it yourself and run it today. (if you have a Macintosh. You do have a Macintosh, don’t you?)

Of course, it’s still an incomplete work, so there are some shortcomings — not being able to actually save a document, for instance, is probably a show-stopper for serious usage. But if you give it a test run, you’ll very quickly get an idea of how compelling a single-tasking application can be: immediately after launching WriteRoom for the first time, I found it very comfortable to write within. In fact, the name that Jesse chose is very appropriate — the application does very much feel like being inside a room that’s dedicated exclusively to the practice of writing.

Unfortunately, WriteRoom doesn’t do some things that Blockwriter does — or would do, I should say, if it ever gets built. These are things that I personally would really like to see: network blocking, sound muting, application isolation, and, most importantly for me, forward-only, typewriter-style text entry. Of course, adding those features would turn it exactly into Blockwriter, which I’m not sure Jesse wants, anyway. In fact, Jesse is wondering aloud how much people really need those other features, and if just adding file saving to WriteRoom in its current state might be enough to qualify it for shipping status. After using it, I actually think it might be. I encourage readers here to head over to Jesse’s site, download WriteRoom, give it a try and give him some feedback on just how much more he should add, and, importantly for scrappy, independent software developers like Jesse, how much you’d pay for it.

  1. I enjoyed your idea about Blockwriter, but I believe it should be two separate applications. One would just block out distractions, perhaps for timed intervals. The other would be the full-screen typewriter simulator.

    I’m a programmer (CS prof, actually) but not familiar enough with Cocoa that I could whip this up in a day or two. I may be able to coax Emacs to have a blockwriter-mode but it won’t be as pretty.

    Oh, and I know you already secured blockwriter.com, but I’d like to propose a different name: Luddwrite. Ha!

  2. The nice thing about an app like WriteRoom is that it’s so small and easy to change. For those interested I’ve just make another WriteRoom release that fixes a number of the glaring omissions from the first release. Now your text is automatically saved and there are a bunch of preferences for changing colors and fonts. Khoi’s links above should now download the newer version.

  3. I like WriteRoom, it does indeed have an immediate effect you have to try out to really understand. Nifty idea this minimalism!

    If it could save text, then it’s pretty much a winner as far as I’m concerned. Well … maybe a little Cocoa / WebKit derived spellchecking … ^W^W^W^W forget I said that!

    I guess it’s my experience in Word and the like which makes such a simple, clean and essentially direct interface feel so compelling. Sure my mind wants to start dragging sections of text around and to check this and that, but Khoi’s already covered all of that in the original Blockwriter post. I personally could easily live without the exact typewriter interface emulation and this little app could have legs.

    A part of me would just love an alpha channel option on the page background so I could *just* see through to my desktop like I have Terminal set up to do. But don’t let me ruin the interface mystique!

  4. Khoi:

    Nice idea, the feature bloat of word processors is beyond comment. But what I suggest to you is go buy a typewriter!

    We are prehaps fortunate in that today we can
    go to any flea market, thrift store or garage sale and get a typewriter good enough that that 40 years ago a secretary would consent to an affair with the boss to use for less than 10 USD. Add 3 USD for a new ribbon from Staples or Office Depot (sure, they still sell them) and your set until it breaks (when you just pitch it, afterall it was only 13 dollars!).

    There are 3 things that make me still want to own a typewriter:

    1. The joy of using a complex mechanical device cannot be overestimated. Using computers (even the slickest, most recent Apple machines) is not the same as using a device manufactured 40 years ago. The typewriter seems a much more honest and well manufactured device. An IBM selectric, primarily made of metal, will outlast any computer.

    2. I think I can argue that the right typewriter can be seen as a beautiful industrial design in and of itself (I own a 2 dollar Olivelli Praxis 48 by Ettore Sottsass, I believe it is in the MOMA collection).

    3. The physical process of incising a letterform onto paper connects me with a 2000 year tradition of print and typography in a way that the laser or ink-jet printer cannot. And a typewriter is much easisr to fit into an apartment than a Linotype machine!

  5. I like WriteRoom even better than I liked the idea of BlockWriter—I’ve tried it out and it seems like exactly the kind of app that would keep me from distractions. As soon as it has saving, I’m hooked. I don’t mind not having the typewriter-like no-backspacing function that you want, and I like the fullscreen all black environment better than the window with fadeout that you suggested. With that look, I can still see my distractions, begging me to return to them. WriteRoom’s pretty sweet.

  6. Again, I don’t see why you can’t just use WordPerfect.

    This business about not being able to back up and fix your mistakes is asinine. A Correcting Selectric could do that when I was a child. I want to write, not be penalized for typing errors.

  7. Joe, like it says in the remarks section below: please be nice. Though you may disagree with a feature or idea, I’d rather you didn’t use rude or insulting language here.

  8. Just an update, Dan, the programmer who’s coding a version of Blockwriter for Windows, has sent me a super-pre-alpha version to play with. It’s looking pretty good so far, and I think it will be a great app once it’s been tweaked a little. I’ll keep you updated.

  9. Sounds like an incredible concept for a product. Hope to see this on somewhere in the near future. I for one always welcome features that help the process be more concise, clear, and manageable:)

  10. Two interface thoughts:

    * When you press backspace and previously typed characters are X’d out, any other key hit after backspacing should put the cursor back wherever it was before you began hitting backspace.

    * Instead of playing the same keystroke noise each time, there should be five to ten randomly selected keystroke sounds (each very slightly different) to better resemble the sound of typing on a mechanical typewriter.

  11. I am still looking for a writing application that feels really comfortable, and one which actively prevents distraction. The typewriter emulation is a fun idea–my own self-limiting application would freeze the user from using any other programs for a set length of time.

    I strongly, strongly second Jim Hughes’ suggestion that–in addition to this app–you want a typewriter. The typewriter is an ultimate way to accomplish this effect, but the sounds and feel that you’d be emulating are actually real. The typewriter can have a similar effect to the effect you’re describing from WriteRoom: comfortable, multiplying your ability to concentrate, etc. A typewriter costs as little as, say, TextMate.

    For myself, I tend to want multiple ways to write: on a pad, on the typewriter, on the computer. When one medium starts feeling less productive I can switch to kickstart.

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