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What Are the Best “Focused-Writing” Apps for OS X?

I wrote an article a while ago about The Tools I Use: Writing and Text Apps, discussing the different apps that are part of my writing toolbox.

In my latest Macworld article, I look at several “focused-writing” apps for OS X. “These apps, increasingly popular of late, allow you to write in a focused environment, export your writings to various formats, possibly apply basic styling, and let you print your work.”

I have tested many of these over the years, and, while my choices may not match yours, it’s worth looking at what’s available. I picked several that I like a lot, and it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage of excellent apps in this category for OS X.

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Does Microsoft Office for iOS Matter?

Microsoft has released iPad versions of its Office apps, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Microsoft is very late to the party, so the real question here is do these apps matter?

Alas, the answer is Yes! They matter a great deal to people who are locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, mostly because the companies they work for depend on these products to create documents. While Apple’s iWork apps – Pages, Numbers and Keynote – do a good job at importing Microsoft documents, they’re not perfect. If you’ve got a complex report that you’ve been working on in Word, and you want to access it on your iPad, you can either export that file in RTF format, or import it in Pages from the .doc file, but there’s a good chance that the formatting won’t match. If you use any kind of auto-numbering or fields, they won’t transfer at all, so you simply couldn’t use Pages to edit the document (though you may be able to view it).

But this app is expensive. Office Mobile is free to download, and you can use it for 30 days; after that, you need an Office 365 subscription (currently $10 a month, but a cheaper Office 365 Personal subscription will soon be available for $7 a month; you can purchase a one-year subscription via an in-app purchase for $100). You can view documents without a subscription, but you cannot either create or edit documents without paying.

Compare this to Apple’s offerings: Pages, Numbers and Keynote are free. They’re free to download, and free to use. (Granted this is a recent change, but ever before they became free, they only cost $10 each; to buy, not per month.)

However, Microsoft’s subscription also includes access to desktop versions of these apps. If you get, for example, an Office 365 Home Premium subscription, you have access to Office apps on up to 5 PCs or Macs, along with 5 tablets. You also get an extra 20 GB storage on OneDrive, for each of up to five users. So, if you want to use Office apps at home, and have several users, this is almost a good deal.

I’m not a fan of the subscription model, but if I did use these apps regularly (which I don’t), and with multiple users, I’d probably consider that to be a fair deal. The upcoming Office 365 Personal subscription at $7 a month seems a bit steep to me; I think a single user subscription should be about half the price of the five-user version.

By the way, you can get this subscription cheaper from Amazon: an Office 365 Home Premium one-year subscription is currently only $67.15.

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Trademark Troll Candy Crush Saga Fails IPO

Back in January, I wrote Why you should delete Candy Crush Saga. This game is made by a company called King Digital Entertainment, who has launched an IPO today on the New York Stock Exchange. King priced its shares at $22.50, and, at closing time on the first day, the shares have dropped more than 15%.

With most IPOs, there’s an initial euphoria, with large investors hoping to cash in on short-term gains. But with King’s reputation as an evil trademark troll, it looks like investors aren’t going out of their way to buy the shares. Heck, even Jim Cramer said, “It’s a Stephen King horror story.”

The shares might recover, and might go on to be winners, but it’s obvious that King does not have a good reputation, and only has one best-selling game, which only makes money through dubious in-app purchases. I hope it tanks.

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Apple to Refund Some In-App Purchases Made by Children

In-app purchases have been a problem for Apple, but more of a problem for parents, whose kids may have spent lots of money on extra lives, coins or toys in the games they play. Personally, I think the in-app purchase-based economy is evil, and companies like Apple should stop it: there are games where you can spend hundreds of dollars buying extra lives and hints, and the process is just manipulative.

The problem with in-app purchases and children, however, is that Apple allowed in-app purchases to continue for a period of time after a parent entered a password. So, a kind could buy a game – or, more often, download a free game – and the parent would enter a password for the purchase. They could then buy in-app purchases without the parent needing to enter the password again for a certain time.

Apple has sent out emails to iTunes account holders offering to refund some in-app purchases. Here’s what they say:

Dear iTunes account owner,
Apple is committed to providing parents and kids with a great experience on the App Store. We review all app content before allowing it on our store, provide a wide range of age-appropriate content, and include parental controls in iOS to make it easy for parents to restrict or disable
access to content.

We’ve heard from some customers that it was too easy for their kids to make in-app purchases. As a result, we’ve improved controls for parents so they can better manage their children’s purchases, or restrict them entirely. Additionally, we are offering refunds in certain cases.

Our records show that you made some in-app purchases, and if any of these were unauthorized purchases by a minor, you might be eligible for a refund from Apple.

If you’ve made any in-app purchases, you’ll get an email like this. And if you think any of them were made by your kids, take advantage of this opportunity to seek a refund.

Some of the highest grossing apps are “free” apps that thrive on in-app purchases. Apply has changed the in-app purchase process slightly, but I think it’s still a bad way for the app economy to work.

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Dragon Dictate for OS X Keeps Getting Better: Read my Macworld Review

I’ve been dictating, and using speech recognition software, for more than 15 years. Over the years, I’ve watched as Nuance’s Dragon Dictate for OS X has improved. I reviewed Dragon Dictate 4 for Macworld, and found its accuracy to be noticeably better than with the previous version. And they’ve added a transcription feature that lets you transcribe recordings of any voice, not just your own.

But you should probably read the full review…

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Apple, Amazon to Pay Correct VAT Rates in EU Countries?

An article in The Guardian this weekend claims that the recently announced UK budget includes a provision “making sure that internet downloads are taxed in the country where they are purchased, meaning web firms such as Amazon and Apple will have to charge the UK’s 20% rate of VAT. At the moment they are allowed to sell digital downloads through countries such as Luxembourg, where the tax rate is as low as 3%.”

Currently, all major companies that sell digital content in the EU siphon that money through the complicit little country of Luxembourg to save a lot on VAT. According to the budget document, “…the government will legislate to change the rules for the taxation of intra-EU business to consumer supplies of telecommunications, broadcasting and e-services. From 1 January 2015 these services will be taxed in the member state in which the consumer is located, ensuring these are taxed fairly and helping to protect revenue.”

There’s something I don’t get, however. As far as I understand EU taxes – and I collect and claim VAT for my professional expenses, so I do know how it works – no single country can decide what will happen in other countries. So if this change were to be made, it would have to be an EU decision, not one made by a single country.

Intra-EU goods are charged the rate of VAT of the country where a business is based, and there happen to be lots of businesses in Luxembourg. However, the 3% VAT rate in Luxembourg only applies to books; other digital items are taxed at 15%, and that rate is increasing to 17% in 2015. Amazon UK has a help page about VAT rates which states:

Sales of digital products and services including Kindle content, Amazon Apps, Software & Digital Games (including prepaid gaming cards), MP3 downloads, Cloud Player, and Cloud Drive are shown inclusive of Luxembourg VAT rates of 15% (3% for e-books).

Unfortunately, The Guardian chose to simply say “as low as 3%,” rather than to go into detail about the actual VAT rates charged.

So there’s no worry that music or apps will cost 20% more, as some news outlets are claiming. If anything, they may see a 5% increase, but it’s more likely that large companies, such as Amazon, will just eat the difference for now, to not disturb the round numbers they use as prices.

As for Apple, it’s a different story. They charge 23% VAT on certain purchases:

The VAT rate for Apple customers who purchase Electronic Software Downloads or other Apple products which are classified as services under EU VAT law will be 23% Irish VAT. This is because the place of supply of these products under EU VAT law is Ireland as the country from where Apple Distribution International makes these supplies.

However, this only applies to items Apple sells through their online Apple Store, not the iTunes Store, which is taxed via Luxembourg. For example, if you purchase a developer account, or iCloud storage space, you’ll be billed at 23% VAT. But all iTunes Store purchases get the Luxembourg rate; at least until next year, when they’ll be billed at the local rate.

It’s worth noting that Luxembourg is one of the countries with the lowest VAT rates on ebooks. Most countries – including the UK – charge VAT on ebooks as though they were apps or music, not the same rate they charge on physical books. However, ebooks should soon cost less in the UK. They currently get hit with 20% VAT, and an EU rule is harmonizing VAT rates for print and ebooks in the near future.

But it’s certainly a good thing that these companies will pay VAT in the countries where they make their sales. This is logical, and it should never have been otherwise. Now, if only governments can get these companies to pay income tax on the profits they make in each EU country…

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New York Times Mobile App Plans to Dumb Readers Into Addiction

I’m a somewhat regular news reader. I’m not in any way obsessed or addicted – I can go a couple of days without checking the news on my computer or iPhone – but I do like to keep up with what’s going on. (Those who are obsessed with following the news might want to read Alain de Botton’s recent book, The News: A User’s Manual (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) to get a bit of perspective.)

I’m also a long-time reader of the New York Times. Back in the day, I used to read it on “paper,” and looked forward to getting the massive Sunday Times to read with brunch, bagels and coffee. In later years, I’ve followed the Times on the web, and found it to be a generally (though not always) reliable source of news.

When the New York Times launched digital subscriptions, its pricing kept me from reading it much. While I do think that newspapers (and their web sites) should not be free, I think the Times went too far. Not only do they have three different prices – one for web and smartphone access, one for web and tablet access, and one for “all digital” access – but it’s too expensive. Since I read news on at least two devices, I’d have to pay $8.75 a week, or a whopping $455 a year. Nope, that’s not going to happen.

But the New York Times is doubling down. They’ve announced a new app at SXSW which, for $8 a month, will provide “a curated feed of stories with specially crafted blurbs of key points, allowing readers to scroll down without tapping to get an idea of the most important news of the moment.” In other words, big pictures and a few words. Users will be able to click through and actually “read” the news as well, but the goal is to just blurb people into submission.

The New York Times has certainly lost its way. Not only is this a pedestrian idea, but the goal is to “addict” people to the news; executive editor Jill Abramson said, “I really believe that we will be, and I hate to use the word addicting, but addict a whole new audience to the New York Times.” This is exactly what de Botton talks about in his book, when he says, “We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt so passionately about only hours ago.” The New York Times is diluting the news in shiny, trying to get people “addicted,” rather than trying to inform. It’s lost its way.

I use Flipboard to read the news on my iPhone and iPad. It’s not great – it doesn’t have as many good sources as I’d like – but at least it lets you read full articles and keep up with what’s going on. I’d very much like to have a single, reliable source to read the news, but with the current pricing, and the future dumbing down of the news, that source won’t be the New York Times.

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App Review: Vox 2.0, a Minimalist Music Player

I recently reviewed Vox 2.0 for TidBITS. This minimalist music player is meant to be an anti-iTunes, and it has many interesting features, notably the ability to play music files in FLAC and Ogg Vorbis formats.

However, it doesn’t stand up to my iTunes library; it chokes on the number of tracks I have (over 60,000 these days), taking more than ten minutes to load the library.

Read my review to find out more.

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