Don't Support Information Architects UPDATED

Last week Information Architects (iA) released Writer Pro, a follow-up to the company’s popular text editor, iA Writer. By far, their most heavily touted new feature is Syntax Control. Oliver Reichenstein, iA’s director, promised in a blog post to vigorously protect this new feature:

Syntax Control is a solid innovation, one we’ve been working on for more than four years. As with every serious design, once you have seen how it works, you can figure out cheap ways to copy it. We’ve trademarked and obtained patent pending for Syntax Control. If you want it in your text editor, you can get a license from us. It’s going to be a fair deal.

I’ve read this paragraph probably a dozen times now and I can think of no better word to describe it than “smarmy.” It’s not just the bravado in Reichenstein’s insistence that Syntax Control is such a solid innovation, it’s the pre-emptive accusation that any similar feature in an app would be “cheap.” This isn’t just an insult, it’s a threat.

When I hand my money over to a developer, I want to at least feel like I’m the reason their product exists, that it otherwise wouldn’t but for my interest, support and cash. Goading other developers into forking over licensing fees undercuts that feeling for me. While the full patent application isn’t available yet, Reichenstein tweeted an image that has “Method of editing text in a text editor” listed as the “Title of Invention.” That sounds precisely like the sort of broad software patent that discourages innovation.

But then there’s Syntax Control itself. I can’t figure out what, exactly, the innovation is. Here’s how iA describes Syntax Control on their product page:

Syntax Control dims everything but the chosen syntax, helping you focus, and control your writing style.

On the Writer Pro support forums, Oli Studholme speaks for iA in responding to early adopters unhappy with the app (emphasis not mine):

While we understand Writer Pro is not for everyone, I’m very surprised to hear you say it does “nothing new”. Regardless of your thoughts on Workflow, Syntax Control is not available in any other program, period.

But what about Agile Tortoise’s Phraseology? That two year-old app has a feature called “Inspect” that offers comprehensive statistics about your document like word count and readability. There is also a parts of speech analysis.

Had Agile Tortoise threatened action against anyone who would try to copy Phraseology’s Inspect view, would we even have Writer Pro’s Syntax Control?

All of this leads me to the conclusion that I should stop supporting Information Architects and I suggest you do the same. I bought iA Writer for the Mac and iOS long ago, but from here on out, unless Reichenstein and company do an about face, I won’t be giving them a dime. If you like the typefaces they include with their apps, go buy them from Bold Monday and Klim Type Foundry. If you need a text editor there are plenty of others available from less threatening developers. Here are some ideas:1

There is no need to support a smarmy, litigious operation like Information Architects. There is so much innovation coming out of other developers. Now get writing.2

Further reading: Gabe Weatherhead nails it, Ben Brooks offers some insight, The Soulmen whip up a demo showing how simple it is to recreate Syntax Control and Verge forum poster “Weswanders” does the hard work of questioning iA’s claims that The Verge sidestepped in this piece.

UPDATED December 26, 2013: This evening, after a public conversation with David Heinemeier Hansson, iA’s official Twitter account (managed by Oliver Reichenstein) tweeted the following:

Sounds good to me. I look forward to reading Reichenstein’s side of this.

  1. Affiliate links. I thank you in advance. ↩︎

  2. A brief postscript to all of this because I don’t want to write a separate piece.

    I wish both the press beta and the negative review were as prevalent in the software world as they are in the film world. Most movies, except for the real stinkers, are shown to the press ahead of time with the full knowledge that many of them won’t like what they see. And they’re going to tell people so.

    The iA forums and iTunes reviews are lousy with people crying foul because Writer Pro wasn’t what they were expecting. I wonder if a launch day Macstories longread on the specifics of what the app can and can’t do wouldn’t have changed Writer Pro’s early sales. Come to think of it, I don’t think iA even offered a press beta.

    Remember: it’s the stinkers that don’t screen early for the critics. ↩︎