Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Small Apps Loosely Joined

[Over 3 weeks since my last entry - time flies when you're having fun; OTOH, when you're under the pump, it seems to take forever and still not be enough, oy!]
The title is a steal from Alan Levine's CogDogBlog. That article was a nice find, leading to some really useful ideas about Web 2.0 and the myriad of tools that can be put to work in the classroom.
But this article is not about Web 2.0 tools, but about applications.
The other day I found my trusty Victorinox swiss army knife which had been MIA for some time. Once upon a time, I used that knife for all manner of things. It's nowhere near as loaded (overloaded) with tools as the one in the picture, but it was a serious part of my toolkit for several years.
Now, though, my toolkit has expanded considerably, and I have specific tools for specific jobs, so my little swiss knife isn't used, and wasn't missed when it went AWOL.
Similarly, MS Word used to be the application I used more than any other, once upon a time. But these days, MS Word is rarely opened. When I receive Word docs, I usually open them with WriteInOne (or NeoOffice if need be). If I'm creating documents to send to others, I use Lyx, and send the PDFs that it creates.
That's if it really needs that level of formatting. If just text will do (for something that will go by email, or that I'm drafting for this blog, for example), I'll use TextForge.
If I need to do some serious find-and-replace work, in all likelihood the data is raw text to start with, so TextWrangler or SubEthaEdit are my tools of choice. I use OmniOutliner for outlines (who woulda thought?) and OmniGraffle for charts.
The one area where I need Word is documents with equations in them. MathType plays so nicely in Word that it's hard to break away from that; given that I share such documents with my Maths teacher colleagues, for that specific situation, I need Word.
This isn't an anti-Microsoft rant. It's a reflection on how my work practices have changed as I have found better tools for specific situations. Jim Mullaney quipped that Word has more built-in functions than there are words in the English language! But ask the question: why?
Software that takes the swiss army knife approach ends up feeling bloated and clunky. Finding the function you want within the morass of options when you pull down a menu becomes an orienteering exercise.
I find that I'm constantly looking for better ways to do things. And small, polished apps that purport to do only a particular job, but do it really well are getting the thumbs up.
I wasn't enamoured with Preview when I first saw it - I felt it was a poor man's Acrobat Reader. But I've grown to appreciate its simple interface and capacity to handle a variety of file formats. The annotation tools need improvement, but for most of my PDF viewing, it's a good fit. (But I'm keeping my eye on Foxit.)
Lyx is a word processor I'm learning to love. I type. I add things (images, tables, sidenotes, footnotes, comments), and tell Lyx what it is, but never bother with where it will go. Lyx does that part, and I rarely feel the need to go back to adjust the position of anything.
SubEthaEdit is an excellent text editor for working on web stuff, which for me is almost entirely HTML, CSS and PHP. I still like Dreamweaver, but I'm no longer using it nearly as much.
The point is that this overall blend of small apps works better (for me, at least) than the alternative (feature-laden software like Word.) It's like the tools in my toolkit - the tool designed for a particular job is always going to produce a more satifying result. (You can imagine how pleased I was when my wife bought me a router - no, not the computer kind, the wood-working kind.)
Small apps, no specific connection between any of them, except that all put together, they allow me to do everything I want with little fuss and get satisfying results. Swiss army knife software will continue to exist, and no doubt suits some, but my suspicion is that as users gain experience and expertise, they end up drifting away from such bloatware and turn to small apps loosely joined.