By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Green text on a blank, black screen, with a square, blinking cursor. This was how most of us wrote on a computer in the early 1980s, and it's resurfacing a quarter of a century later.
These spare working conditions rely not on an '80s-vintage TRS-80, IBM PC or Apple II, but on a laptop built less than a year ago.
The software, called WriteRoom, seems to have cast a shiny new Mac laptop back to the dark ages of DOS. There are no menus, toolbars or icons to suggest that you can do something besides write. And that's the point.
Taking away modern word-processing conveniences and hiding every other program on the computer might seem like an idiotic thing to do. But this odd experiment, a $24.95 application available for a free trial, shows how distracting computing has become.
Any given task you might want to undertake can be interrupted by dozens of other tasks: new e-mail, instant messages, fresh headlines in your RSS newsreader, software updates and so on. It's so easy to inform and entertain yourself so much that it becomes impossible to get anything done.
WriteRoom ( http://hogbaysoftware.com), developed two years ago, is an extreme but understandable response to the excesses of multitasking.
This relentlessly mono-tasking program aims to recreate the tyranny of the typewriter, with which you have a blank piece of paper in front of you and no one else will put words on it. The program even scrolls text as you type to keep your attention focused on the center of the screen, just as the upward scrolling of paper would in a Smith-Corona or a Selectric.
WriteRoom does permit you to copy, paste, drag and drop text, and it underlines spelling mistakes in red. Standard keyboard commands to open and save files work. A word count appears in the bottom-left corner of the screen when you move the cursor there. Other basic commands pop up in a right-click menu.
But every other upgrade offered by the past two decades of word-processing software disappears inside this sensory-deprivation tank.
You can't fight writer's block by seeing how your words look with different typefaces, indents or line spacing. (You can, however, flip to another program with keyboard shortcuts; WriteRoom can't defeat your worst instincts.)
Microsoft, Apple, Google and other word-processing purveyors can't be too worried about a tiny program crafted by one person, Jesse Grosjean, a programmer from Bangor, Maine. (Before developing it, Grosjean worked from 2000 to 2003 at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab.) He estimates that 4,000 people have paid for WriteRoom since he began charging for it in January 2007, plus an unknown number of users who got it as part of a shareware bundle.
Grosjean is on to something.
Some tasks are better done in isolation. Why do I do my best editing and fact-checking with a printed copy of an article? Why is reading a book more pleasant than reading the same text on a computer screen?
A Windows equivalent of this program, the free DarkRoom ( http://they.misled.us/dark-room), quickly emerged after WriteRoom's release. Other programmers have written utilities that force you to focus on a single program by blanking everything else on the screen.
A few mainstream, name-brand programs have picked up on this trend as well. Apple's iPhoto, for example, offers a full-screen mode for browsing, viewing and editing pictures.
These applications aren't just curmudgeonly exercises in computing nostalgia. Computers really were worse 20 or 30 years ago, and reverting to a DOS or Apple II program will not make you more productive.
But programs sometimes throw information at us, rather than help us process it. Some only magnify the problem with pushy behavior, like when an application throws an alert or dialog in front of whatever you are doing.
Even well-mannered software can do little about the ceaseless temptation of the Web, where there's always something new to read or look at -- not least during a presidential campaign and March Madness.
Fortunately, we don't need to throw out or rewrite all of our existing programs to start treating this collective bout of attention-deficit disorder. Our old software already has options that can help focus our attention--the "maximize" button that blows up a program's window to fill the screen in Windows, or the "Hide Others" command that makes every other program on a Mac vanish.
Or you could just remember that you're allowed to close your e-mail program and your Web browser.