I gave a presentation to my students today on writing and research tools, doing what I always do — apologizing for the limitation of every single thing that I showed them. Zotero is pretty good at building a research database — but you can’t use it to write. MS Word 2008 is a champ for layout and even does a good job at formatting bibliographies — but it sucks for organizing research or pulling data from an application. Scrivener is a good place to organize research or notes and build drafts — but it turns PDFs into pictures and doesn’t really handle citations. Yep and Papers are great PDF organizers, but not much else. (I didn’t even want to get into DevonThink.) But Papers builds in a WebKit browser, so you can do research and navigate into online databases and plug anything you find right into your library.
This feels like the big conceptual leap. We’re finding our information on the web. We’re writing our documents on the web. We’re storing our data on the web. We’re using the web to collaborate on docs. But while online storage and collaboration are winners, AJAX writing apps kind of suck. They’re low-powered exactly where we need the full power of a rich client. We don’t just need more formatting and layout options; we need to be able to manage databases, for research and reading material, and lots of interconnected projects that bridge online and offline work.
What I want is just what my title says: a specialized browser-based client devoted to writing.
A couple of years ago, Firefox released a “Campus Edition” of their browser. It had a handful of extensions: FoxyTunes, StumbleUpon, and Zotero. Harmless, but far from what’s needed. Still, FF’s open-source customizability points the way towards the future.
Flock is a FF/Gecko-based web browser I use a lot to upload pictures to Facebook or Flickr. It’s got built-in clients to upload and browse media, to do social networking, or to handle RSS and webmail reading. Everything it does, it does pretty well. But it veers more towards a heavily skinned and extended browser than an independent application that uses the web.
That’s what Songbird is. It’s Mozilla’s attempt to build an open-source alternative to iTunes. It does just about everything that iTunes does, which basically means that it’s a solid database that plays music and talks to your devices for you. The key differences are that 1) Songbird is extensible and 2) Songbird’s got Firefox all up in it. It’s partly so it can easily access online services like Last.fm, but if you click “New Tab,” you’ve got yourself a web browser. (iTunes has got web capabilities too, but they’re artificially limited — you can stream and download data, and browse the Apple Store, but that’s it.)
Why not something JUST like this for writing and research?
Open up FireWrite/WriteFox (my secret favorite name for such an application is “Ink”) and what do you see? Well, like Songbird, you start up with a database. In there you’ve got drafts, notes, PDFs and images, anything with WORDS in it that you might use to write. Not only does it link to (and help you organize) documents on your home machine, it also keeps stable links to online documents — whether web page snapshots a la Zotero or links to shared documents in Google Docs.
You can keep your docs organized according to a classic folder drill-down, but the real power is in the ability to tag documents and create collections and smart collections. This way the same document can exist in more than one conceptual “place” in your working hierarchy. I can also link documents to one another, through both tags and by matching words, phrases, and citations — just like the hyperlinks that Vannevar Bush first imagined.
This means that when I use Ink to store a document, I can extract its bibliographic information — when I cut and paste a quotation from my research into a draft document, that bib info comes with me, as an XML object (like in Word 2008). When I click that link, I can pull up the original document. What’s more, at its best the database can match phrases/citations to create hyperlinks on its own. (DevonThink tries to do something like this.)
My database can also give me information on people — my collaborators. If I click “Robin,” I can see all the documents we’ve shared with each other. I can also click on a doc stored on my computer, change its sharing option, mirror it in the cloud and share it with other people — all within the application.
Why wouldn’t I just go to Google Docs? Well, the fact that the application itself isn’t online means that I can put most of the power in the client! Web browser commands do web browser things. Ink’s commands do office suite things, like sophisticated page layouts, customized menus, multiple views, converting document formats, etc. I love keeping my documents in the cloud — but that doesn’t mean I always want to work there, especially with a client app that’s cluttered up with stuff designed to do something else.
The web connection also lets me do autofill bibliographies — give it title and author and it’ll pull the data from Amazon or the Library of Congress and give you the rest of it, then format it. (EndNote does this now, but it’s no different from what Songbird does with albums.)
And anything the app doesn’t do? You can build a plug-in.
Why can’t we do this?
A friend recently pointed out to me that the developer of Scrivener — which out of all of these applications I’ve listed, is the only one (including MS Word) that actually seems to be designed to help anyone WRITE anything — wasn’t / isn’t a professional programmer. He learned how to code because he wanted something he could write with. I don’t know, maybe that’s what I’ll have to do to.
But my inkling is — heh — that I’m not the only one who needs something like this. That the logic of the database and the logic of the web browser HAVE to converge with the power of the writing client. That we’re ready for something that isn’t designed for producing cheap flyers or business letters to be printed out on dot matrix printers on PS/2s, but something that genuinely harnesses the truly humanist apps we’ve developed since then. Call it iTunes for writers, Songbird for writers, Scrivener for academics, whatever. But let’s call it something.