Zenware: Back to basics?

One of the differences between working on a computer and working on a typewriter is that a typewriter offered far fewer excuses not to do your work. As noted by Jeffrey MacIntyre in a recent Slate article, and by sites such as Lifehacker, a new trend in minimalist software dubbed "zenware" is trying to get around this by minimizing the distractions that litter your desktop.

Let's face it -- it's just way too easy to click away from a boring report over to Facebook, YouTube, or the latest game that you're obsessed with. I've got to admit that there have been days when I found myself drifting into "research" that involved checking out the latest movie reviews or political free-for-all.

In an effort to see whether a more simple approach would keep me more focused, I tried a freeware text editor called Q10, which promised on its home page, "Finish that first draft. Now."

I have to admit that, after working with Q10 for about an hour, I found it peculiarly effective. The app presents you with a full-screen blank page for your text; the defaults are a black screen and yellow text. You can tweak basics such as background and text colors, paragraph spacing, and line spacing; a barely visible bar at the bottom of the screen offers word count, file name, and time. You can insert notes into the text; or set an alarm to go off at a specific time or after you've reached a specific word count.

And that's it. No sidebars, no customizable top-of-the-page toolbars. All features are accessible by Ctrl-key commands -- if you don't remember one, hit F1. I found that I wasn't nearly as tempted to leave Q10 do a bit of surfing or check my e-mail -- partly because the very fact that I was working on such a simple interface reminded me why I was there.

In many ways, apps like Q10 (or WriteRoom for the Mac, DarkRoom for the PC, and JDarkRoom, for Mac, PC, and Linux) are very reminiscent of long-gone DOS-based apps like WordStar or Xywrite. They weren't pretty, and you had to learn a bunch of keyboard commands. But they were efficient.

Interestingly enough, the majority of zenware out there seems to be directed toward Mac users, to whom the concept of a plain, un-prettified interface will be even more alien than to Windows users (some of whom may still remember the days of green screens). It's certainly questionable whether, whatever their OS, today's graphics-happy tech users could be reconciled to a plain interface (not to mention keyboard commands). But for administrators who have seen their productivity numbers drop -- or for freelancers who are too easily distracted -- these apps may be worth a try.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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