TidBITS#1081/20-Jun-2011

The questions continue to come in regarding Apple’s transitions — Glenn Fleishman has the collection of what we’d all like to know about the upcoming move from MobileMe to iCloud. Mark Anbinder covers the quiet addition of unlocked iPhones to the U.S. online Apple Store; Jeff Porten reports on the “Do Not Track” header debate at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference; and William Porter contributes a cautionary tale about accidentally putting an SD card into the SuperDrive slot of an iMac. But the bulk of this week’s hefty issue comes from Joe Kissell, who looks in detail at the new Nisus Writer Pro 2.0, a significant update that brings the powerful word processor back into contention for serious writers. Notable software releases this week include MailMate 1.2, QuickSilver ß60, Kindle for Mac 1.5.1, Fantastical 1.0.1, Default Folder X 4.4.1, AirPort Utility 5.5.3, iMac Graphic FW Update 2.0, and Typinator 4.4.
 
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Apple Selling Unlocked iPhones in U.S. Online Apple Store

  by Mark H. Anbinder <mha@tidbits.com>
  7 comments

Last week, PCMag.com editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff weighed in on the question of whether Apple was about to release unlocked iPhones in the U.S. market, claiming authoritatively, “Apple won’t do it.” The next morning, Ulanoff admitted on Twitter that “I must eat my words,” as the company did exactly what he claimed it wouldn’t.

An unlocked iPhone, briefly, is a model that is not tied to a particular wireless carrier, but can be purchased without contract or commitment, and can be used with any compatible carrier of the owner’s choice. For the iPhone’s first few years, U.S. customers could purchase only iPhones tied to AT&T’s network. The iPhone models Apple added this year for use with Verizon Wireless can be used only on that carrier’s network. In fact, although AT&T and Verizon Wireless use incompatible technologies for their cellular networks, the GSM iPhone model designed for AT&T and most other carriers worldwide could work on the U.S. T-Mobile network if the phone weren’t locked, and the CDMA iPhone model designed for Verizon Wireless could work similarly on Sprint’s network in the United States.

Apple slipped four new models of unlocked iPhone into the online Apple Store: 16 GB and 32 GB models of the GSM iPhone 4, each in either black or white. Apple says the phones can be used “on the supported GSM wireless carrier of your choice, such as AT&T in the United States.” (While T-Mobile does use GSM technology, their 3G implementation uses a different frequency than AT&T’s, limiting the data throughput on an iPhone when used on their network.)

It’s important to note that an unlocked GSM iPhone still can’t be used on the Verizon Wireless network or other CDMA-based cellular network. (Some recent speculation has suggested that the Qualcomm chipset of Apple’s CDMA iPhone for Verizon Wireless could actually also support GSM carriers, and that an unlocked iPhone was coming that could be used on either type of network. I’m not surprised that didn’t happen.)

The biggest advantage we see for consumers is that an unlocked iPhone can be readily switched between carriers when its owner travels around the world. For GSM phones, all you need is a SIM card provided by your carrier of choice. (CDMA iPhones don’t use a SIM card, and no unlocked version is available at this time. In general, CDMA carriers in the United States have been reluctant to allow unlocked phones on their networks.) An unlocked iPhone should let consumers buy pay-as-you-go voice and data service for overseas visits, or save money by opting for cheaper plans from carriers who don’t need to make back the hundreds of dollars of outlay from subsidized phones.

As Ulanoff reasonably pointed out, there are good reasons for Apple to have avoided this move: It’s potentially more confusing for consumers, who mostly don’t want to have to shop for a carrier and a phone separately; and without the subsidy U.S. consumers are used to, the iPhone appears unattractively expensive. The 16 GB models cost $649, and the 32 GB models are $749, compared to the $199 and $299 prices for the equivalent models tied to AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

There’s enough demand for unlocked phones, though, for global travelers as well as consumers who prefer not to be tied down to particular carriers, that we figure Apple decided to take advantage of the end of its exclusivity arrangement with AT&T to make these phones available to those who decide they’re worth the unsubsidized price. Plus, it may cut down on jailbreaking, the prevalence of which Apple would undoubtedly prefer to reduce.

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MobileMe-to-iCloud Transition Messaging Provokes Confusion

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>
  21 comments

Plans for MobileMe never seem to go right. Its launch in mid-2008, as a transition from the previous .Mac service, was riddled with failures, data loss, and confusion (see “MobileMe Fails to Launch Well, But Finally Launches,” 12 July 2008). Steve Jobs, according to a recent Fortune report, berated the MobileMe team and then replaced the group’s head during a meeting at that time.

And now we’re partying like it’s 2008 once again. Immediately on the heels of the Worldwide Developer Conference announcement of iCloud, iOS 5, and the ship date for Lion, Apple sent email to MobileMe subscribers, theoretically explaining the situation. (For our initial coverage, see “What Happens to MobileMe” in “iCloud Rolls In, Extended Forecast Calls for Disruption,” 6 June 2011.)

In short, Apple extended all current subscriptions through 30 June 2012 for free, and suspended signups for new customers. In a support article, Apple said more details would be available when iCloud becomes available “this fall” (the third quarter of 2011), but that leaves months of confusion. Why not answer questions more clearly now and avoid customer frustration and confusion? It’s the Apple way, sometimes. Unfortunately, so much secrecy begets a culture in which clarity is the enemy of strategy.

The confusion was intensified by a report in This Is My Next, the Engadget team’s post-AOL project, in which Joshua Topolsky writes,

Let’s be clear about what happens when iCloud goes live — according to what was described on stage at the event, and what I’ve confirmed with Apple PR — the service will effectively replace the current web offerings of MobileMe. That means that when the cutoff date of June 30, 2012 comes around for users, the web-based email client, calendar, contacts app, and other components of the web suite will cease to exist. You will no longer be able to log in and check your mail through a browser, change calendar events, or edit contacts.

We have a query into Apple PR ourselves to find out whether Topolsky is characterizing that correctly. If so, this will be a big loss. If you lack access to a Mac or iOS device with which you sync mail, calendar events, and contacts, you’ll be cut off from your data.

Topolsky’s claims seem to be contradicted by other reports, such as one about Apple testing freshly written iCloud-based Web apps on its intranet. MacRumors just posted a screen capture of an iCloud invitation to a calendar that one of its readers appears to have generated using an iOS 5 beta.

Regardless of the future status of Web apps, a number of questions surround other current MobileMe-related services:

This is the list we’ve come up with so far. What other questions do you have about using MobileMe before the release of iCloud? And what other concerns do you have for those MobileMe-hosted data and services that Apple hasn’t yet discussed?

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iMac Users, Be Careful Where You Insert that SD Card

  by William Porter <wp@polytrope.com>
  12 comments

As a part-time but active freelance photographer, I copy a lot of photo files from SD cards to my iMac’s hard disk. I’m generally very happy with the iMac I bought late last year to replace the Windows system I had used for a few years previously. The iMac has a beautiful display, and since Adobe Lightroom 3 started to take advantage of 64-bit processing, I’ve been able to process hundreds of images on the iMac faster than I ever could before.

One of my few minor complaints with the iMac was that the placement of the USB ports on the back makes them hard to get to. My first solution to this problem was to add a USB hub. The hub sits on my desk under the iMac’s display where I can reach it easily. I put my SD cards into a small card reader and plug them into the hub.

At this point I have to confess that, if the iMac came with a User’s Guide, I never read it. So I had been using this wonderful machine for many months before I discovered, not long ago, that there are two slots on the right side of the iMac’s display: a larger slot for the iMac’s SuperDrive to accept CDs and DVDs, and a smaller SDXC slot designed specifically to accept SD and SDHC photo storage cards. I don’t have much use for the optical drive, but I was happy to discover the SDXC slot and stop using the USB-based card reader.

Oops! -- That is, I was happy until I got the two slots confused. When I first discovered the SDXC slot, I used it carefully, leaning around to view the side of the iMac when I inserted the card. But it soon became routine and I stopped paying much attention. And then, about a week ago, I blindly reached around to the side of the iMac and accidentally inserted an SD card into the optical drive bay. When an SD card is inserted properly into the SDXC slot, it doesn’t actually disappear inside the slot the way a CD does. A little bit of the card sticks out of the bay so, when you unmount it from your desktop, you can grab it and remove it. I knew I’d goofed as soon as the card disappeared completely inside the optical drive bay.


The optical drive bay has a fuzzy double curtain, presumably to keep out dust. It also makes it nearly impossible to look inside to, say, figure out what became of that SD card you accidentally shoved in. And it wasn’t clear what the best way to remove the card would be.

With some embarrassment, I explained what I had done to some of the Mac power users in the TidBITS author and editor community, and asked for suggestions. I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t the first person to whom this had happened, nor the second, nor even the third. And this was a group of highly capable, savvy users.

Paper Clips Rule -- Eventually I was able to extract the card from the optical drive. I unplugged the iMac completely, carefully turned the thing on its side (yes, this was awkward, given its weight) and, hoping to jostle the SD card up close to the fuzzy curtains, I very gently tapped the side of the iMac against the top of my desk.

Then I turned to the Mac user’s oldest and most versatile repair tool: a big, bent paper clip. I poked around blindly — and again very gently — inside the optical drive bay for several minutes without success until — eureka! — a tiny tip of the SD card peeked through the drive curtains. After that it was fairly easy to pull it out just a little more, until I could grab the end with my fingers and extract it.

After righting the iMac and plugging everything back in, I tested the SuperDrive and the rescued card. I’m happy to report that everything seems to be working fine. All’s well that ends without a repair bill or a trip to the Apple Store.

Elegance Versus Usability -- I’m happy to stipulate that I did a dumb thing, and I will certainly try not to make the same mistake again.

Even so, I think it’s pretty clear that the iMac practically invites this mistake. The placement of the two slots on the right side hides them elegantly from sight. But this elegant invisibility, combined with the proximity of the slots, makes it easy to slip up as I did.

Put bluntly, the position of these slots is a case of bad industrial design, and one that could be easily eliminated in a future iMac design. Apple could simply give the two slots more vertical separation on the right side of the iMac. Or, in moves that might involve more significant internal rejiggering, Apple could change the orientation of the SDXC slot from vertical to horizontal, or move it to the left side of the iMac.

Visual elegance and usability don’t have to be incompatible. I love my Magic Trackpad, for example, now that I’ve learned the various gestures that make it work. But with the iMac, the charge that Apple sometimes sacrifices usability in favor of elegance may have merit. Beyond the placement of the SDXC slot, I’ve observed a number of other industrial design decisions that seem to trade usability for elegance. For instance, you can’t adjust the height of the display (other than by stacking it on books), and the USB and other ports on the back side of the iMac are deucedly hard to get to. Then there’s the placement of the power button on the back of the iMac on the lower left side, which hides the button nicely, but makes it easy to put the iMac to sleep when grabbing the lower corners of the case to adjust its position or viewing angle.

There’s no question that the iMac is a gorgeous piece of design, and resolving some of these usability issues might hurt its aesthetics. Nonetheless, I hope Apple at least considers these usability issues in future designs. And in the meantime, if you have an iMac and use the SDXC slot, be careful where you stick those SD cards!

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CFP 2011: “Do Not Track” Debate

  by Jeff Porten <jporten@gmail.com>
  2 comments

So, do you want to be followed around by shadowy corporations compiling deep profiles about your activities on the Internet? Or would you prefer to enjoy hundreds of free online services, such as Google Search, which are supported by advertising revenue? The issue that these questions revolve around — developing user profiles that make it profitable to advertise on the Internet — was debated in a panel discussion on the first day of the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference.

The speakers in favor of a Do Not Track mechanism were arguing in favor of a proposed Internet standard that would embed the online equivalent of a “don’t call” list in your Web browser. Your desire to be tracked or not would be a simple on-off switch; when this switch is turned on, every Web page you request would also tell the Web site that you do not want your information to be compiled, resold, or data-mined.

But those against a Do Not Track approach stated that this option was too broad and would have unintended consequences: if you make it easy to shut off the entire flow of data — or worse in their opinion, the default situation — the revenue that drives all of the free services we have come to rely upon would dry up.

The Internet as presently implemented uses browser cookies to “solve” this problem, and solve is in quotes because it arguably doesn’t do a very good job of giving users any control over their privacy. It is exceedingly difficult for even technical users to discover how many third-party companies are being pinged with your data when you visit a Web page; Chris Soghoian from the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research cited the Wall Street Journal’s site as sharing its Web data with 38 outside companies (although it was unclear if this was an accurate count, or a rhetorical flourish). The issue, as he put it, is whether we should move on to use the Do Not Track header, which provides more control to every user, or use sledgehammer-like approaches such as ad-blocking services that shut down the entire torrent of targeted ads.

Not so fast, countered the opposition. A header system that makes it easy to block tracking mechanisms will have the unintended consequence of making it too easy; users will cease to benefit from tracking mechanisms in their favor, such as advertisements that are actually interesting, or other adjustments to the presentation and content of Web data designed to make the information more useful. The biggest concern, they said, was that the U.S. federal government may step in with a heavy-handed approach that will stifle free market innovation and new information services. The European Union is already moving in this direction, and its draft directive to implement privacy by default will make many online services impossible in Europe.

I’ll switch to editorializing here; if you want to watch the debate yourself, I’ll post the link here as soon as I have it.

My biggest issue with the people arguing against the Do Not Track header implementation was that many of their arguments were disingenuous; all three speakers were clearly well-versed in both the business and technical aspects of what they were presenting, and as such, they should have seen several flaws in their arguments.

Argument 1: Opposing Do Not Track promotes user empowerment, as it provides more granular ability for people to control what they see. This argument relies on the fact that you can now delete individual cookies, whereas a master switch would be all-or-nothing.

The problem with this is how many Internet users are “12:00 flashers,” meaning the people back in the 90s who were incapable of setting their VCR clocks. Today’s equivalent: the millions of people who type “google” into a Google search bar to get to Google, where they search for “apple” to get to Apple’s Web site.

These people do not want or need to be “empowered.” Empowerment in this sense is the privacy controls on Facebook: they’re granular, but they’re so darned hard to use — deliberately so, in my opinion — that most people don’t know they’re there, or what they’re for. “Empowerment” in this sense is code for “if we make it difficult, we’ll keep our status quo.”

Argument 2: If people stop trusting the Internet because their privacy is being exploited, that will kill Internet commerce; therefore, the free market can be trusted to set up a safe system.

I think this argument is a bit more difficult to untangle, but if I may be allowed to make an assertion without evidence: few people still think of “the Internet” as a monolithic system that can or cannot be trusted. It is simply too convenient to order books from Amazon and check your bank account statements online; the tipping point of “trust,” which was a serious issue ten years ago, has been passed. I’ve personally lost track of how many times Sony has had its PlayStation network hacked, or what data are circulating in the wild, but over ninety percent of their customers are back online. It seems to me that until anthrax is literally digitized and attachable to email, we’re not going to drive many people away from online commerce.

Argument 3: The data that people are providing are mostly harmless, and volunteered.

This to me is the biggest gap in understanding, and one that was not well-addressed by either side of the panel. For example, this morning, I provided my address to one Web vendor, told Google that I was taking a bus to the conference, and did some Web surfing on the bus. These data points are innocuous, right?

By themselves, yes. But compare my ZIP code to a demographic database, and you’ll start to narrow the probabilities of what kind of person I am. I’m the type of person who takes public transportation; you could probably easily learn from my Web browser history that I’ve never bought a car, or it might be a matter of public record that I’ve never had a driver’s license. And I’m the type of person who uses an Android smartphone, leases a 4G Clear MiFi hotspot, and carries an iPod touch. All of this data is flowing out through my Web browsers, purely because of my Internet usage.

Does that start to give you a sense of who I am? That’s from approximately an hour of online usage. Imagine what you could find out about me given a few weeks or months of collected data about the sites I visit and the vendors I patronize. The Do Not Track header is a step in the right direction; right now, we’re not leaving breadcrumb trails on the Web, we’re blasting whole loaves of challah from a howitzer.

The Do Not Track header relies on Web site providers to respect and comply with its instructions; that, to me, requires some regulatory bite behind it, as there’s very little incentive for companies to comply voluntarily, or even to agree on a standard, without the force of law behind it.

And because the Do Not Track system requires a Web server mechanism, there’s also an obvious route for the granularity that favors the advertisers: go to a Web site, such as Google’s, that needs to track you in order to customize your information, and it can ask you for permission to “whitelist” the site as trustworthy. Once you give such permission, the server can legitimately store profile information about you behind the scenes, but all other unauthorized sites would still be prevented from tracking you.

Unfortunately, the side opposed to legislation is entirely correct in not trusting the government to implement this properly, but not for the reasons they stated. It’s too easy for lobbying money to shift the argument in one direction or the other, or to create a law that is such a Hungarian goulash of conflicting interests that no one is served by the results. Other speakers at the conference were discussing current and future legislation in progress; if this is something that moves you, for or against, it’s a good time to get in touch with your Congressman, Senator, or Member of Parliament to let them know.

[Editor’s Note: Jeff Porten filed a number other stories from Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 that we’ll be trickling out over time in the weekly email issues of TidBITS. If you’d like to read them while they’re still fresh, look for “CFP 2011: Teens and Data Retention” (15 June 2011), “CFP 2011: Arab Spring or Twitter Revolution?” (16 June 2011), and “CFP 2011: Shine On, You Crazy Senator!” (16 June 2011). -Adam]

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Nisus Writer Pro 2.0: The Review

  by Joe Kissell <joe@tidbits.com>
  14 comments

Nisus Software recently released Nisus Writer Pro 2.0, a major revision to the company’s legendary high-end word processor. It had been more than a year since its last update, but the new version includes a vast number of improvements that more than justify the delay. In fact, it goes quite a bit beyond that. After following Nisus Writer’s ups and downs carefully these many years, I am equally shocked and delighted to say this is the first version of the application since Mac OS X was released — over ten years ago — that I can seriously contemplate using for my own professional writing.

The release notes make for extremely interesting reading. They detail over 500 changes, including major new features, minor alterations, and bug fixes. Among the headliner features of this release are several capabilities I’ve been wanting eagerly for years — change tracking, paragraph borders and shading, and drawing tools. Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 can also create PDF files with proper tables of contents and clickable links to internal references, export documents in EPUB format, add watermarks behind page contents, display a vertical ruler, show a customizable menu palette of special characters, and link to image files stored on disk.

Of course, Nisus Writer Pro retains such trademark features as multiple, editable clipboards; extensive support for multilingual text, especially in right-to-left languages; the world’s best find-and-replace capability; a built-in macro language; a glossary feature for automatic text substitutions; a first-rate table editor; multiple columns, sections, and other layout features; heavily customizable autonumbering, bookmarking, cross-referencing, indexing, and tables of contents; footnotes and endnotes; user-defined paragraph, character, list, and note styles; and a tremendously adaptable user interface, with such niceties as custom mnemonic multi-key shortcuts (such as Command-S-A-P for “Save as PDF”). And let’s not forget that Nisus pioneered features that are now nearly universal, such as noncontiguous selection (now called “multipart” selection) and unlimited undo and redo.

Before I go on, I should acknowledge that if your word-processing needs extend no further than the occasional business letter or shopping list, Nisus Writer Pro may not interest you much. This is a serious tool for people with heavy-duty writing needs — those writing books, dissertations, academic papers, legal documents, and other complex works are most likely to benefit from what Nisus Writer Pro can do best: manipulate text, in almost any way you can imagine. Need to go through a 950-page alumni directory and change every entry in the form “John Smith, Class of ’72” to “1972 [tab] SMITH, John,” with the year spelled out, the last name in uppercase, and the first name in italics? Nisus Writer Pro can do it in seconds. That sort of power is what sets Nisus Writer Pro apart from every other word processor.


I’ve been spending a great deal of time with the new Nisus Writer Pro, and in just a bit I’ll tell you all about it — the new, the old, the good, the bad. Because of my personal history with Nisus (the product and the company), I need to wrap this review in a bit of a story, which I’m sure will come as a surprise to no one. Those who have no patience for such things should feel free to skip ahead to the appropriate heading (“New in Two”). But let me do you the favor of summarizing my findings here at the outset: Wow — Nisus is back, baby! I’m geeking out over this software in a way I haven’t done since my earliest days as a Mac user. It isn’t quite everything I need it to be yet, but it’s finally within striking distance — by which I mean, close enough that I can make up for nearly all its deficiencies by way of a few carefully crafted macros. For someone who spends all day, every day, in a word processor and whose feelings about Microsoft Word are unprintable, this is huge. Those of you who traffic in text: go download this software right now. I mean it.

A Little Background -- Many TidBITS readers have known me since way back, and have heard this before, but the story is worth repeating. Back in grad school when I was studying linguistics, I was a PC user. But I sometimes used the Macs in the university’s computer lab, and when I mentioned to my adviser that I’d be using Word to write my thesis, he grimaced and said I should really look into Nisus (as it was called then) instead. I ordered a free demo copy, loaded the floppies on a Mac in the computer lab, and within minutes my fate — I mean literally, my entire career — was sealed. I was so overwhelmed with the capabilities of this program, which was far superior to anything available for Windows, that I decided right there and then to become a Nisus customer, which in turn meant that I’d be buying my first Mac shortly thereafter. (By the way, if you want an interesting historical perspective about the “good old days” of Nisus, consult Matt Neuburg’s massive 1992 review of Nisus 3.0, comprising 14 “articles” spread out over three weekly issues of TidBITS.)

In those days, Nisus was best known for its extensive multilingual support — this was before Unicode, when Macs needed considerable help to write in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Japanese. Most of my own writing, even then, was in English, but I did have to write long, complex academic documents. I found that getting my work done in Nisus was far easier than in Word, and quite a few tasks that required no more than a couple of clicks or keystrokes in Nisus were impossible to do in Word at all. Nisus was not only an exceptionally powerful word processor, it was endlessly customizable — if I needed to do anything that didn’t have a built-in command, I’d simply whip up a macro to add that feature myself. Sure, the software had its limitations, but it was far and away the best tool available.

Over the next few years, I lived in a number of places and did a number of things unrelated to linguistics or academia, but somehow I remained in Nisus’s gravitational pull. (I won’t get into the details here; buy me a beer at Macworld if you want to hear the whole thing.) Shortly after moving to San Diego in 1994, I managed to get a part-time job at Nisus Software — at first, helping to index the manual, then doing tech support — and eventually became the product manager for Nisus Writer. While I was working at the company, I also managed to land my first book deal — for “The Nisus Way,” a 600-page tome that was published at the end of 1995. Although my writing career was, shall we say, noncontiguous, it was Nisus that started the whole thing. It led me not only to the Mac but to TidBITS, and to Adam and Tonya (who were big proponents of Nisus Writer, and who for many years used Nisus Writer to produce TidBITS), and ultimately to my current habit of writing Take Control books and Macworld articles at a somewhat ridiculous pace.

Writing books in Nisus Writer was a joy. I never wasted time with tedious, repetitive activities, because everything I wanted to do could be heavily automated — and controlled from the keyboard. The software let me work at my top speed, without getting in my way or frustrating me. Although I’ve written many books in Word, I’ve never enjoyed the process. For serious writing, especially when it’s technical in nature, Word is a minimally adequate tool, the same way a Coke bottle is a minimally adequate tool for pounding nails. (In both cases, the tool also has an annoying tendency to break in the process!) Nisus Writer was a perfectly balanced hammer — exactly the right tool for the job.

Throughout various jobs and projects, I pretty much lived and breathed Nisus Writer for years. When an editor or colleague expected to receive a manuscript from me in Word format, I didn’t sweat it; I just did a Save As and no one ever knew the difference. But gradually, expectations changed. By the late 1990s, nearly everyone I worked with used Word’s change tracking, comments, and user-defined styles extensively, so exchanging documents with them meant ensuring that all those attributes came through perfectly on both sides. Nisus Writer couldn’t do that, so I reluctantly started using Word for the bulk of my word processing, though still relying on Nisus Writer when I could.

And then Mac OS X came along in 2001. Nisus Writer ran only in Classic mode, and not spectacularly even there. Nisus Software didn’t release a Mac OS X-compatible word processor until 2003, and that was Nisus Writer Express, a completely rewritten application that had but a tiny subset of the features of Nisus Writer Classic. It didn’t even come close to meeting my needs, and I was left without any word processor that had the majority of the features I’d come to depend on just a few years earlier. Never mind the faster hardware and the advanced operating system; my Mac had become far less powerful at performing the tasks most important to me.

I wasn’t the only one missing the capabilities of the old Nisus and dreaming of something even more advanced. In 2004, Adam Engst wrote “WriteRight: The Writer’s Word Processor” (17 May 2004), in which he lamented the lack of a serious word processor for professional writers, and imagined what an ideal tool would look like if it existed. (Spoiler alert: It looks very much like Nisus Writer Pro 2.0.)

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, every time Nisus Software announced an update, I excitedly checked the release notes to see if the software had gained the features I needed. Time after time, my hopes were dashed. Nisus Writer Pro 1.0, released to considerable fanfare in 2007, certainly made major strides in the right direction, and by the time version 1.4.1 came out in 2010, the software had regained perhaps 80 percent of the features I’d left behind in Nisus Writer Classic. Unfortunately, that remaining 20 percent was pretty important — and besides, my list had grown. For example, during the dark years in which Take Control relied on Word for creating ebooks (we’ve since transitioned to Pages), we became dependent on styles that included paragraph borders and shading, features that had never appeared in any version of Nisus Writer. Even though the application did finally add Word-compatible comments, my needs were growing at a faster pace than Nisus Writer Pro’s development.

I often reflected, as I disappointedly tried out each new version of Nisus Writer, that Adam’s complaint still held — like other word processors, Nisus Writer simply wasn’t designed for professional writers who work collaboratively with editors and publishers in the real world. It seemed to be a capable enough tool for creating documents that never had to be shared in an editable form, but that’s an increasingly rare mode of word processing.

New in Two -- And then came version 2.0. I was prepared for yet another disappointment, but when I started reading the release notes, my jaw dropped. It looked like someone at Nisus Software had been reading my mind. On paper, at least, the added (or restored) features appeared to meet every need on my list, including some obscure features we use lots in the Take Control world but hadn’t talked much about publicly. Could this be it? Had Nisus Writer Pro finally caught up with me? With a mixture of enthusiasm and dread I downloaded the new version and started testing.

Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 feels to me like the first version of the program that could be considered a proper Mac OS X-native heir to Nisus Writer Classic (versions 4 through 6.5, circa 1994–2001). Not only have most of the old features been restored, many have been reimagined — implemented in superior and often clever ways. At the same time, the program has picked up all the capabilities a modern Cocoa word processor should have.

Change tracking is probably the most important new feature. For anyone who works on documents in a team, or even with a single editor, being able to tell who modified what, in which phase of a document’s evolution, is imperative. As in Word, when change tracking is turned on, deleted text appears in a bubble alongside the main document, while newly added text is highlighted in a different color; each change is also marked with the name of the person who made it. Changes can be individually reviewed, accepted, or rejected in any of several ways, and changes of various sorts can be selectively hidden or displayed. It’s not identical to the way other applications handle the process, but it’s sensible and well-designed.

Paragraph borders and shading are also new, but seem to be off to a shakier start. I found and reported numerous anomalies in the way borders and shading are displayed (not to mention the ways they’re imported and exported, as I discuss ahead). Sometimes a portion of a border would blink on and off, or would appear or disappear when I clicked in an adjacent paragraph. If a paragraph is indented from the margins and has background shading, that shading sometimes doesn’t extend to the margins unless you also apply a border; in this and several other ways, the interactions between borders and shading are somewhat unpredictable. And if you apply a hairline border (that is, 1/4 point), it appears thicker on screen than a 1/2 point border, even when zoomed in to 300 percent. With significant fiddling, I was able to replicate most of the borders and shading we use in Take Control books, but this pair of features appears not to have been tested thoroughly and still needs some refinement.

You can now add a watermark to a document — that is, an image or text that appears behind or in front of the text on some or all pages — and that seems to work just fine, although I can’t say it’s something I’ve needed to do more than once or twice in my entire life.

On the other hand, the newly added drawing tools are quite nice. You can now add lines, arrows, shapes, callouts, and text boxes. Nisus Writer Pro offers elaborate control over these objects’ size, shape, stroke and fill colors, rotation, opacity, text wrap, alignment, grouping, and numerous other characteristics. I frequently need to include arrows, callouts, and the like in my documents, and I am impressed by the thoroughness and care with which these drawing tools have been implemented. My only complaint is that while you can apply attributes such as borders and shadows to imported graphics just as you can to shapes you’ve drawn, those options are available only for floating graphics, not inline graphics. (We often need to apply borders to inline graphics in Take Control books, and it’s no problem to do so in Word or Pages.)

Ins and Outs -- Compatibility with Word remains a priority for much of my writing, and in this respect Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 is a curiously mixed bag. Nisus Writer Pro uses RTF as its native file format — a smart choice, given its near universality and the fact that programs like Word and Pages can save or export files in RTF format. But the question for those who have to exchange files with Word users is whether a Word document can make a round-trip to Nisus Writer Pro intact — with or without using RTF as an intermediate format. The answer, as I can definitively say after considerable testing, is: sorta.

Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 includes two entirely different translators for importing Word (.doc or .docx) and OpenOffice.org (.odf) documents; you can choose which one to use for each file type in the Advanced pane of the Preferences window. If you choose “Mac OS X (faster),” files open almost instantly but lose so much of their formatting as to be nearly useless. If you choose “OpenOffice.org (more complete),” it may take several seconds longer to import a file, but considerably more of the formatting survives.

To test translation fidelity, I used Take Control manuscripts in Word (.doc) and Pages formats and opened them in Nisus Writer Pro every which way I could. I tried saving (in Word) and exporting (in Pages) as RTF and opening those files directly; I tried opening the Word files directly, using each of the translators; I tried exporting from Pages to .doc and saving from Word to .docx.

Files saved in RTF format came through fairly well because Nisus Writer Pro required no import translator to open them. But paragraph borders and shading were off to one extent or another, most bookmarks were lost, and internal links didn’t work at all. Outcomes weren’t as good when importing Word files. With the “Mac OS X” translators, the results were truly awful; the formatting was hideous, user-defined styles were gone, and in some cases hyperlinks were turned into useless raw codes in the text. The “OpenOffice.org” translators were much better, though still far from perfect. The user-defined styles came through, more or less, and most of the formatting was pretty close, but paragraph borders and shading were significantly off. Bookmarks and internal links were, again, either missing or broken. And, in the translated Word files, certain special characters such as curly quotes and em dashes were replaced, at seemingly random intervals, with garbage characters.

In fairness, these are all things I could fix with a macro, but that shouldn’t be necessary; the translators need improvement. Nisus Software acknowledged file-translation issues, but pointed out that since the company relies on third-party translation code, fixes are challenging at best. Be that as it may, I can see no argument for including the “Mac OS X” translators; the one-time savings of a few seconds in no way makes up for the terrible file translation. Nisus Writer Pro would be better off eliminating the preference and sticking exclusively with the better, if marginally slower, option.

To find out what would happen if I chose to work with a Word file in Nisus Writer Pro and then send it back to a colleague, I re-saved the files in Nisus Writer, and opened them again in Word. I was pleasantly surprised to see that comments and change tracking survived the round trip. Still, something was always off — a style wrong here, a border misaligned there. I imagine that for fairly simple documents without elaborate styles, the process could be seamless enough that an editor or publisher might not realize the file had been altered by another program. But for something of the complexity of Take Control books, translating into and out of Word format would be a non-starter.

Supposing we were to use Nisus Writer Pro from start to finish for Take Control books (thus sidestepping the whole file-translation issue), we’d be most interested in how well it creates PDF and EPUB documents. I’m delighted to say that PDF output was the best I’ve ever seen from a Mac application. Bookmarks came through correctly, as advertised; internal and external links worked as they should; everything looked exactly the same in the PDF as it did in Nisus Writer. Although nearly any Mac application can create PDFs, we’ve had serious problems with PDFs produced by Word and even Pages, and seeing such fine output from Nisus Writer Pro warmed my heart.

EPUB output was less impressive. It wasn’t terrible; the books are certainly readable, but the styling was iffy. In particular, to repeat a common theme, paragraph borders and shading rarely came through correctly, as they do when creating EPUBs from Pages. In addition, all the links to internal bookmarks were broken. It’s not terribly difficult to fix these things after the fact by editing an EPUB’s constituent XHTML and CSS files — for example, to repair the broken links, I simply replaced every instance of “%23” with “#” — but even though I could automate this sort of thing with macros, it’s a hassle that I’d just as soon avoid. I hope Nisus Software can improve EPUB output considerably. (And indeed, a representative from Nisus Software told me the bug regarding internal links in EPUBs will be fixed in version 2.0.1.)

Missing in Action -- File translation issues notwithstanding, Nisus Writer Pro has come a long way, and is indeed now tantalizingly close to being the word processor of my dreams. But it still has some other irritating shortcomings that I’d love to see addressed in the near future.

Although Nisus Writer Pro offers draft, page preview, and full-screen modes, all these share in common the limitation that a document can appear only as a continuous vertical scroll. You can’t split the screen to show different parts of a document at once, as you could in Nisus Writer Classic (and still can in Word, BBEdit, and many other applications). You can’t show two or more pages side-by-side, or even display page thumbnails. In short, you’re limited to seeing a single portion of your document that’s no taller than your screen. You can zoom in and out, but if you want to maintain readability and still see more than a single page of your document at once, you’re out of luck. I find this tremendously limiting, as I’m used to seeing as many as six full pages of a Word document on my 27-inch display and easily comparing text in two parts of a document without jumping back and forth. If I could change just one thing in Nisus Writer, adding more (and more-flexible) view options would be it.

Despite having unlimited undo and redo, Nisus Writer Pro still lacks one of my favorite and most frequently used Word commands: Repeat, which reapplies whatever command you performed last. Another Word feature I miss is single-click line selection (move the pointer into the left margin so it turns into a right-pointing arrow, and then click — no dragging required — to select an entire line). And although Nisus Writer’s paragraph styling features are quite thorough, they strangely omit a “page break before” attribute, which we use, for example, on all chapter headings in Take Control books. Sure, we can stick in manual page breaks, but being able to build that into a style is much more convenient.

Another thing both Adam and I noticed almost immediately was the absence of syntax coloring. When I need to edit code of any sort — Markdown, HTML, XML, PHP, Perl, or whatever — I immediately reach for a dedicated text editor such as BBEdit, which can automatically color-code tags, comments, variables, and other code elements to make the text more readable. It’s entirely fair that Nisus Writer’s developers don’t want to delve into all the sorts of features users expect in a text editor designed for programming. But TidBITS, Macworld, and many blogging platforms rely on John Gruber’s Markdown syntax for styling plain text using simple tags, and since so much of my writing uses Markdown, I have to choose between using Nisus Writer Pro and having those visual cues I’ve come to rely on. For that matter, syntax coloring would be quite useful when working in Nisus Writer’s own macro language, which after all can include blocks of Perl and AppleScript. (Sure, one could use a macro to apply static syntax coloring after the fact, but that helps little when actively writing — what’s needed is coloring that changes dynamically as you type.)

Speaking of macros, Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 is far beyond Nisus Writer Classic in its automation capabilities, and the flexibility to add entirely new features by writing macros is invaluable. Even so, the macro language as it exists today is a weird hodgepodge of several inconsistent “dialects” that frequently require jumping through a series of counterintuitive hoops to do ordinary things. For example, a macro can tell you the name of the font at the insertion point, but it took me an hour of experimenting and poring over the inscrutable Macro Language Reference to figure out the roundabout sequence of steps necessary to achieve such a trivial thing. Another example: If you want to resize a window in Nisus Writer Pro using a macro, you can — but only by embedding a snippet of AppleScript with the necessary command, as it’s not part of Nisus Writer’s own macro language.

The problem isn’t merely that the documentation is unhelpful; the macro language itself lacks cohesion and completeness. Experienced programmers will be frustrated to find that so many things act almost, but not quite, as they would in other languages; that “objects” don’t mean what one expects; that obvious features are missing; and that a macro’s left hand doesn’t seem to know what its right hand is doing. On the other hand, beginners will probably not get much beyond the simple Menu Command Dialect, because the language itself, and the reference material for using it, are simply too opaque. This is all a great pity, because macros are in fact enormously powerful, and with a bit of spit and polish, the macro language and its documentation could be made vastly more accessible to ordinary users.

In the “so near and yet so far” category, a few other items are worth mentioning:

Final Thoughts -- The features (and bugs) I’ve called attention to here are merely the ones that happened to catch my attention in several days of intensive use. Even listing the other features in Nisus Writer Pro would make this review twice as long — it’s a deep, deep program. So when I criticize the program’s shortcomings, it’s only because they stand out so starkly against the backdrop of a thousand brilliant, correctly functioning features. I mention the issues I do because they comprise — finally, after all these years — a relatively tiny delta between what I have and what I need.

Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 checks off almost every requirement for professional, modern word processing Adam imagined in a hypothetical WriteRight program back in 2004, and then some. The things Nisus Writer Pro still lacks are bothersome, but not so bothersome that I can’t use it to get my work done more efficiently than in Word or Pages. Even as I type this review in Nisus Writer Pro, writing macros and tweaking keyboard shortcuts as I go, I’m toying with the possibility of using the application to write an upcoming book. I mean that as high praise — and it also feels like coming home after 15 tedious years of wandering in the wilderness. I’ve been given the opportunity to enjoy the craft of writing again, and I find that deeply meaningful. I can’t promise you the same experience, of course, but I encourage you to give it a try and find out for yourself.

While the number of improvements Nisus Writer Pro has accumulated in the last year is breathtaking, I’d be happier with slow, steady progress — for example, monthly bug-fix releases and a handful of new features once a quarter. It’s fine to save up major changes for a paid upgrade every two or three years, but in my experience, customers are more content and loyal when they feel their needs are actively being addressed. And, I’d rather get 10 percent of the features I’m still missing in a few months’ time than to get them all — but only after waiting for years.

The reason I became a Nisus user way back when was the same as the reason I switched to, and stuck with, the Mac — it made my life easier, enabling me to get my work done with less grief and fewer distractions. With Nisus Writer Pro 2.0, the software has come almost full circle, and I once again feel that I can both use it and recommend it enthusiastically. Now if it could just move forward that last, tiny little bit, I’d be beside myself with delight. Then the only thing missing would be a proper book about the software. I know a guy who could write it.

Nisus Writer Pro 2.0, a 160 MB download, is a universal binary and costs $79 new, or $99 for a three-license family pack. Upgrades from Nisus Writer Pro 1.x or any version of Nisus Writer Express cost $49, and a 15-day free trial is available. (Nisus Writer Express, which has only a subset of the features in Nisus Writer Pro, remains available at $45, but hasn’t been updated since April 2010.)

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 20 June 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

MailMate 1.2 -- Freron Software has released MailMate 1.2, the company’s IMAP-only email client for Mac OS X. The new release features a new look and functionality for managing attachments, as well as an improved capability to handle HTML content in messages. Several user interface tweaks, particularly around contextual menus, have also been introduced; finally, the app adds the ability — currently marked as experimental — to compose messages using John Gruber’s popular Markdown format. ($39.95 new, free update, 3.0 MB)

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QuickSilver ß60 -- The popular launcher QuickSilver, which was recently resurrected from what looked like a slow descent into obsolescence, has been updated to version ß60. The new release, which is compatible with only Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, contains a veritable treasure trove of bug fixes and new additions. Among the highlights, you can now perform searches by file extension, find all the recent documents opened by any app, discover which apps are currently visible, and manipulate text using an improved interface. (Free, 1.6 MB)

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Kindle for Mac 1.5.1 -- Amazon has released version 1.5.1 of its popular Kindle app for Mac OS X. This update includes tweaks to the user interface and built-in dictionary to support the German language, the capability of displaying “real” page numbers for Kindle books that include them, and the capability to view passages that have been highlighted by other Kindle users. The Kindle app now also allows you to consult the built-in dictionary without leaving your book. The update is available through Amazon’s Web site; although the Kindle app can also be downloaded from the Mac App Store, the version there appears to be behind by several releases. (Free, 26.6 MB)

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Fantastical 1.0.1 -- Flexibits has released version 1.0.1 of Fantastical, its calendar-management tool for Mac OS X. The new release includes a number of bug fixes that affect several areas of the app, including the capability to invite attendees to a meeting, setting multiple auto-alarms, and changing locale formatting. In addition, Fantastical now also supports a custom URL scheme, which enables external applications to communicate with it more easily and create calendar entries automatically, and provides tighter integration with Microsoft’s Outlook and Entourage applications. ($19.99 new from Flexibits or from the Mac App Store, free update, 7.9 MB)

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Default Folder X 4.4.1 -- Navigating open and save dialogs will be even easier with St. Clair Software’s release of Default Folder X 4.4, which offers performance enhancements, new features, and improved compatibility with applications. New features include display of favorites even if they’re on unmounted drives, preloading of favorites and recent folders to improve performance, a three-finger swipe gesture to navigate up the folder hierarchy, and focus on the search field when Command-F is pressed. Along with some largely cosmetic bug fixes, Default Folder X 4.4 now works better with Firefox 4, QuarkXPress, REALbasic, Chromium, Brother ControlCenter, Shimo, and Neu. Notably, version 4.4 is compatible with Mac OS X Lion Developer Preview 4, which is good news for full compatibility once Lion finally ships. Version 4.4.1 shipped hard on the heels of 4.4 to fix two key bugs. ($34.95 new, free update, 10.5 MB)

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AirPort Utility 5.5.3 -- There’s likely no urgency in downloading this update, but AirPort Utility 5.5.3 fixes various unspecified bugs, along with one that could cause a crash during setup. Snag a copy next time you’re updating other software unless you need to set up an AirPort base station before then. AirPort Utility 5.5.3 requires Mac OS X 10.5.7 or later. (Free, 10.8 MB)

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iMac Graphic FW Update 2.0 -- Apple has released the iMac Graphic FW Update 2.0 to fix an issue that could in rare cases cause an iMac to hang during startup or while waking from sleep. The firmware update requires Mac OS X 10.6.7, but Apple doesn’t say which iMac models it applies to. Therefore, the easiest approach is to rely on Software Update to present you with the update. As always with firmware updates, be careful not to interrupt the installation process. (Free, 699 KB)

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Typinator 4.4 -- We missed this release a few weeks ago, but Ergonis Software has updated their popular text expansion utility Typinator to version 4.4, adding some welcome features and fixing a number of tweaky bugs. Improvements include control over the volume of the expansion sounds, fine tuning of the Quick Search feature, the Command-F shortcut entering the Search field appropriately, and numeric sorting of abbreviations and expansions that contain numbers. The bugs are all highly specific to different programs, and should improve Typinator’s behavior when used within Coda, Espresso, Sparrow, MessengerPro, FileMaker Pro, Adobe InDesign, Script Debugger, LaTeXiT, Google Chrome, Safari, RStudio, RubyMine, MacVim, iCab, MarsEdit, Photoshop, Editra, Unitron, Adobe Illustrator, and MacGiro. Phew! (€19.99 new, free update, 3.8 MB)

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ExtraBITS for 20 June 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Two particularly interesting bits of reading this week, though you’ll have to jump through a Google hoop to get to the Wall Street Journal’s article about Apple’s retail operations. Easier to get to, but less certain what it will mean, is the news about Garmin buying rival Navigon.

Wall Street Journal Examines Apple’s Retail Operations -- The Wall Street Journal has published a detailed look inside Apple’s retail store operation, giving us a glimpse at a workforce that is well-trained and tightly controlled. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to work in an Apple store, or just how Apple hit on its wildly successful approach after years of languishing in computer superstores, click through from the Google search results (the only way in for those who don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal).

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Garmin to Acquire Rival Navigon -- We’re uncertain if this is good or bad, but GPS giant Garmin is acquiring the privately held Navigon, makers of the popular Navigon MobileNavigator GPS app for the iPhone. The press release makes all the usual calming sounds, but the fact is that Navigon’s devices and apps were preferred by some over Garmin’s, leading to worry that Navigon’s differentiating features may just disappear.

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