Feature bloat and the tyranny of choice: Why I like distraction free writing tools

Research has shown over and over again that people want more options but then don’t want to deal with having to choose more options. This explains why app developers encumber their products with “feature bloat” and why we complain about it. Why we continue to abuse ourselves is a different story entirely, of course.

I admit to occasional cantankerous social media rambling about the good old days, when I play the role of the cranky old fart who preferred it before computers and smartphones were ubiquitous; when the home computer market largely catered to hobbyists, most of whom were “in the biz” in their day jobs. It’s an act, or perhaps more than anything, a punchline to a joke. Because I really don’t believe we were better off 30 years ago.

Things were simpler, of course, and the pace wasn’t quite as crazy as it is now, but ease of use and sophistication of tools, communications, operating systems, and other ancillary systems have improved so dramatically that it’s pretty incredible. The things I can do with my current computer and smartphone would be unimaginable to the 15 year old who fired up a 512K Mac all those years ago.

A few weeks ago I spent a bit of time running classic Mac OS and application software in emulation on my current Mac. It was a challenge and a lot of fun. My goal was to reacquaint myself with my favorite old-school Mac word processor, T/Maker’s WriteNow. WriteNow was developed for the original Mac and was a favorite of early Mac users straight up until the Mac’s transition to the PowerPC architecture. I’ve written about it before.


Working with WriteNow helped me understand one modern trend a bit better: “Distraction free” writing tools. I spend most of my time these days in Ulysses, which has the added benefit of some nifty iCloud sync features and multi-platform support that lets me run it from any device I happen to have at the moment. I also frequently dabble with 71 Square’s Focused (which started life as Typed before Realmac reinvented Typed as a blogging service). They and other similar apps enable the writer to enforce some discipline by offering an environment that simply encourages a focus on the act of writing. If you find modern word processors like Microsoft Word and Apple Pages to be too cumbersome and intrusive, as I do, distraction-free writing tools can be of enormous benefit.

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In some ways, they’re a real throwback. Using that emulated Mac Plus with WriteNow provided me with an almost purely distraction-free environment. The small screen, streamlined feature set and limited operating system capabilities enforced a discipline of use. You couldn’t meander off and surf the web for a few hours, hop on Facebook or send instant messages.

It’s a bit like the punchline in the Simpsons episode Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment: “To alcohol!,” says Homer. “The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”

Constantly evolving and improving technology has changed the way we use computers – we’re at once able to do enormously more sophisticated things with them than ever before, but that comes at a price of increasing intricacy and complexity in a way that makes the technology no longer as user-friendly as it was before.

Fortunately, developers of distraction-free writing tools understand that sometimes less is more.

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