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8 Days a Week: How I Write ... and Notes from the Week

Over the years, I've gotten a lot of questions about how I work, how I'm able to write as much as I do, and so on. Some of the answers to these questions have manifested into the "What I Use" series of articles, since people seem particularly interested in exactly which hardware, software, and services I'm using, and every time I publish a new version, there are further questions. It's not something I would have thought of communicating on my own; this was driven purely by reader questions.

It's hard to document because the tools I use change regularly in some cases as technology marches forward and I test and try, and sometimes adopt, new things. And of course the way I work and write, in general, has evolved over time. 18 years, in fact.

During this time, I've written and co-written over 20 books by my count, and with rare exceptions I've been the primary author, or at least "the one who wrote the most," and usually by a wide margin. The first of these books, Visual Basic 3 Projects for Windows, was started in 1994, and it sort of set the stage for what's happened since. That is, I started off as a tech editor for the book, was asked if I'd like to contribute some writing, was then asked if I'd like to become a co-author, and then ultimately wrote most of it myself.

(This isn't to diminish the contributions of the other authors in the slightest. I literally couldn't have done it without them, and they had previously come up with the Visual Basic projects on which the book was based. I didn't write an original VB project of my own for the book until the VB 6 edition years later.)

During the intervening years, I've started the WinInfo email newsletter (1995) and this web site, the SuperSite for Windows (1998), and I've continued updating each regularly ever since. I write weekly editorials for Windows IT Pro UPDATE (also since 1998), a monthly column for the print magazine (Need to Know), and other articles for Windows IT Pro/Penton. I contributed to Connected Home Magazine for several years, and have since moved that content, where it made sense, to this site. And I've been blogging in a traditional sense for over a decade, most recently on the SuperSite Blog.

During this time, virtually everything I've written has gone through Microsoft Word, starting with version 6.0 back in 1994. As an aside, Word was one of two software applications that convinced me that the PC was the future (the other was id Software's "Wolfenstein 3D") while Commodore and the Amiga fell apart in the early 1990s. I was able to use the beta version of Word 6.0 because my wife briefly worked at a company that did computer training manuals, and I was hooked immediately: There just wasn't anything this good on the Amiga.

I've upgraded to each version of Word, and Office, in turn, partially because I wanted or needed to write about it from a review or book standpoint but also because I had become a writer and whatever improvements Microsoft made, sometimes large, sometimes small, impacted my life pretty dramatically. For example, Word for Windows 95 made news because it was 32-bit, but the big change there was the automatic "red squiggle" spell checking feature; previously, you had to fire off manual spell checks from time to time. And Word 97 added green squiggles for grammar. Progress!

So Word has been central to all the writing I've done. But that could be changing, thanks to three separate but related developments.

First, as Word has improved, it's also become too much, in a sense, and I've often wondered whether an over-reliance on its many automatic correction features has negatively impacted my writing. Certainly, I get a number of corrections for grammar and spelling issues to my online articles, many of which seem unnecessarily basic to me. And I know that some of my contemporaries--Mary Jo Foley, for example--don't even use Word for their own blog posts. This used to be confusing to me, but in this context, I think I'm starting to understand.

Second, Microsoft and various third parties began promoting the concept of note-taking. Microsoft's solution here is OneNote, which was originally offered as a way to collect information--text, graphics, and so on--that could be later organized and perhaps made into a finished document using Word or other Office applications. I used OneNote for a few years, and liked it quite a bit. But as originally envisioned, OneNote stored all of your notes in a single file that was tied to a particular PC. And moving notes around was somewhat convoluted and error-prone. So I gave it up.

Third, the cloud happened. This impacted OneNote in that it is now possible to use this application in a purely interconnected way, where the master copy of the notes you access are stored in the cloud (SkyDrive, SharePoint, Office 365) and you just connect to them from PC-based versions of the application (and sync the content locally for offline use). This major overhaul, introduced with Office 2010, changed everything. And I've been experimenting with both OneNote and Evernote, a third party note-taking solution, to see whether these solutions could possibly replace Word.

Tied to that third factor is a related evolution of Microsoft's Office applications into web-based versions called the Office Web Apps. Included here, of course, is a cloud-based version of Word, and while it's currently a decent rendition of the traditional Office application, it does have a few limitations that make it less than ideal for my purposes. The big two are the lack of an offline mode and the inability to change the view style while editing to anything other than a full-browser-width editing pane that is simply unusable for real writing.

They'll get it there. But that's the point: Word is ever-evolving, as is the technology we all use day-to-day. And one of the things I've resolved is that I'm going to seriously look at cutting back on software and services that aren't beneficial and focus on those that are. There are no sacred cows, and based on my experiences for the past month or more, I'm reasonable sure the way I write--today and going forward--is changing yet again.

But I'll save that for a future column.

Notes from the week

Since the previous 8 Days a Week article, a few things have happened.

Microsoft expanded on what turned out to be a fairly controversial Building Windows 8 post about picture passwords after a security expert said that this solution was "a toy" and insecure. The resulting post, Optimizing picture password security, doesn't really add anything to the discussion. And then Microsoft went dark for the holidays. That's OK, the rest of us kept working.

Our good friends at the Chinese tech site PC Beta leaked a bunch of new shots of Windows 8, this time for build 8172. (As a reminder, the Developer Preview is build 8102, so this build represents at least two months' worth of new work. Well, sort of. These interim builds tend to be from a specific feature team, so it represents more work mostly in just one area.)

So what's new in the shots?

Well, the Start screen features a decidedly navy blue background image, compared to the green one we see in the Developer Preview. Microsoft's Jensen Harris told me that the Windows Division planned a different color default background for each milestone build (Beta, RC, RTM) and that the final version, which was already selected as of September, would be spectacular. So perhaps the navy blue color is the one for Beta.

Feeling blue: The Windows 8 build 8172 Start screen

Looking at the other shots and comparing them to the same UIs in the Developer Preview, a few interesting changes reveal themselves. For example:

Theme colors. If you're familiar with Windows Phone, you know that that system uses a set of theme colors, with a dark (black) or light (white) background and your choice of 10 accent colors. These accent colors can be auto-applied to titles and other app elements. In Windows 8 build 8172, we can see this effect happening as well, with the accent color (navy blue) being applied to heading elements in Metro interfaces.

Above, the Windows 8 Developer Preview's Control Panel screen...

... and here, the same screen in build 8172, renamed to PC Settings

Plain English. Microsoft is de-emphasizing technical jargon for simpler, plain English names. For example, "Control Panel" has been renamed to "PC Settings." "Lock screen notifications" is now "Lock screen apps" (which "run in the background and show quick status and notifications."

No changes to Explorer. From what I can tell, the legacy Windows desktop and Windows Explorer has not changed between the Developer Preview and build 8172. A point-by-point comparison of the Explorer ribbon between Desktop Preview and build 8172 reveals no changes, not even a refreshed icon. This could be because this build was leaked from a team not involved with the Explorer stuff, remember. Or maybe it's just more "done" and less prone to changes at this point.

Charms. There is one big difference on the desktop, though it's not related to Explorer-based technology per se. In the Developer Preview, when you mouse down to the lowermost, leftmost pixel on the screen, you get two overlays on the screen, one for the charms and one for the date and time. But the charms overlays sort of works like the Start menu, minus most of its functionality. So in build 8172, the charms overlay is where it belongs, in the same position as it is when you access it in Metro: On the right side of the screen, centered from top to bottom.

How charming: The Charms move to the right side of the screen where they belong

And... That's about it for this week in Windows 8. More soon!

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