The Case for Simpler Tools

George R. R. Martin famously writes his books using WordStar 4.0 on a DOS-machine. He has a “real” computer on which he reads email and surfs the web and does all the other things required of modern man. His writing computer has no network and can only do one thing. It doesn’t try to spell check for him. It doesn’t pop up alerts that an email has arrived, or that Stephen King wants to chat. A focused tool allows him to focus. I think there’s a lesson here for all of us: when you focus you end up killing all your protagonists. No, that’s not it. When you focus you start thinking that the phrase “her nether lips” has no cheese in it? Not that either. Is it that when you focus you can write endless amounts of stuff? Yes! Exactly! Focus increases productivity.

Focus level one million.
Focus level one million.

I’m going to go ahead and postulate that focused tools help you be more productive, based on no evidence whatsoever. I feel this to be true and I find myself gravitating towards tools that are designed to do one thing well and that otherwise gets out of my way as much as possible. I’m not trying to describe an objective reality: when I say that IDEs are evil I don’t mean that you are a bad person if you like IDEs. I’m just saying that I hate you and that your lineage is questionable.

Computer programs used to be very focused. This was because the computers of old were very limited so their programs had to be simple.  As computers and their operating systems got more powerful and more and more tasks were computerised, it became possible to try to do more than one thing at a time. And we did. I’m inclined to think that it is non-controversial to say that perhaps we overdid it.

I think I can detect a slight resurgence of the focused tools though. Smartphones and tablets have brought some of the old focus back. An “app” commonly occupies the whole screen and doesn’t trick you into trying to do five different things at once. And some people — like old George R.R. — has started to recognise that multitasking isn’t helping us do what we want to do (unless “what” is stressing out and dying at 45). Multitasking, by definition, removes focus. Less focus, less actual work gets done. As I’m sure is proven by a paper somewhere.

A rant for your entertainment

Most IDEs, or Integrated Development Environments (in case you’re reading this for the jokes), illustrates the lack of focus that I mean. I don’t know about you but when I code I want to see code. As much of it as I possibly can. I have a seriously defective short-term memory so I’m constantly jumping around the code, checking what a function is doing; what a parameter is supposed to be; what that struct field name is called. Sometimes I need to see some trace output and two or three source files at the same time. To me, screen real estate is precious.

An IDE commonly splits the screen into a series of panes or windows. There’s usually a project window on the left side where you can see files and folders. Why the heck would I want to see files and folders while I’m programming? If I’m looking for a file then a window for that could pop up, but it’s not like I’m constantly checking the file names while I’m writing code. On the bottom there may be some sort of message or status window. The status is that I’m programming! Leave me alone, message window! On the right side you might find a debugger window or a symbol browser or something like that. A GUI can be really great when debugging but that is only like 90% of the time so please get it out of my sight!

In the middle, fighting for relevance, is (if you are lucky) a poor source code editor in which you do your actual work. In the end your sweet 24″ monitor is reduced to a 17″ editor window and that is just no way to live. I realise that you can probably apply XML voodoo somewhere and get most IDEs to look like EMACS and that is great. My point is that viewing all the available tools all the time may look cool in a screenshot but is just distracting in practice.

A totally representative screenshot of an IDE.
A totally representative screenshot of an IDE.

I won’t go on and on about applications that I think are overly complicated or badly designed. I will instead write a little about those that get it right. Tools that I think exhibits an admirable level of focus and are a joy to use because of it. Things that help me focus. I apologise if this makes me sound like a management consultant peddling a trivial slogan, “simplicity and focus”, as some kind of road to success. I would never sell out like that unless someone offered me actual money.


My preferred editor is EMACS. I recognise that I would absolutely hate EMACS if I had been introduced to it today. Back when I learned EMACS I was young and dynamic, curious, hungry for learning, and smelling slightly of peach. The inscrutability of EMACS made me want to learn it because knowing it would be impressive, and then (in the immortal words of Eddie Izzard), “people would shag me”. Now I have become a grumpy older guy. Some would say “mature” but that always makes me think of a particularly stinky cheese which is actually disturbingly accurate… These days I just want to get on with things. Write the code, fix the bug, have some coffee and get back home in time to mow the lawn and watch a bunch of identical TV shows about home styling. But I digress.

The reason I bring up EMACS is not because Meta-Control-Cokebottle-Hashtag-Detonate is the natural way to type the letter ‘n’, it is because EMACS illustrates the way good tools gets out of the way. EMACS is pretty hard to learn, but that does not mean that it is hard to use. Easy to use is often implicitly taken to mean easy to use for the beginner. This is not at all the same thing. Great tools are not designed to be easy to learn, they are designed to be easy to use. Easy to use, easy to learn, powerful. Pick any two.

Once you know the basics of it, EMACS allows you to edit text without EMACS getting in your way. It doesn’t hide some things in obscure menus, it hides everything. There’s no menu bar to steal pixels from your precious text. Well, actually, there is but fortunately you can turn that off with some LISP voodoo (clearly superior to XML voodoo). There’s no toolbar with stupid icons. Ok, it has that too but it can thankfully be disabled with some LISP magic. There no annoying status area. Eh, ok there is a status area and I’m not sure that you can turn that off. But it is really small! As I have convincingly demonstrated, EMACS is clearly superior to any IDE.

When all the voodoo has been applied EMACS really doesn’t get in your way.

Distraction-free EMACS. You can almost smell the awesome.
Distraction-free EMACS. You can almost smell the awesome.

iA Writer

Another editor that I really like is the one I’m using to write this very text: a program called iA Writer. iA Writer is designed explicitly to embody the idea of focus and simplicity. In its full screen mode iA Writer displays only the text that you write. No menus, no widgets, just black text on a white background. Options are severely limited: no font selection, no layout, no pictures. Just text. It’s not that iA Writer has no features, but the features have been very carefully picked. I find that this really helps. iA Writer is my WordStar 4.0.

I’m writing this on a bus on my way to work. That means no Internet. The combination of iA Writer and no Internet really makes a huge difference to my productivity. Being on a bus with nowhere else to go also helps.

If you don't get writers block by staring at this full-screen actual screenshot of iA Writer then you never will.
If you don’t get writers block by staring at this full-screen actual screenshot of iA Writer then you never will.


I recently ended a 13 year long love affair with the Sawfish window manager when I left it for Xmonad. Xmonad is a tiling window manager which means that it will put the windows on the screen according to a predefined layout, with no gaps. This means that there is no desktop, which I think is great. The desktop metaphor was useful when people didn’t know what a GUI was but it doesn’t provide any benefit to me. Why would I want a bunch of files lying around behind everything else?

The tiling aspect of Xmonad sort of forces you to be more organised. Since you cannot have windows that overlap you necessarily always see every open application. Instead if having a stack of windows ten deep, you need to put things on separate desktops. While this can at times feel restrictive, and doesn’t work well for some applications that love to open gaggles of small windows (GIMP, I’m looking at you!), it is remarkably liberating once you get used to it.

My Xmonad desktop, not at all posing for the shot.
My Xmonad desktop, not at all posing for the shot.

And the rest…

I’ll add two examples of simplicity and focus from the wonderful world of web.

This is the web page of Berkshire Hathaway. It is easily one of the 10 biggest publicly held companies in the world. Berkshire Hathaway owns, among many things, large parts of the Coca Cola Company, Wells Fargo and American Express. A single share of Berkshire Hathaway is worth $190.000 at the time of writing. Look at that web page again. It takes a certain kind of self confidence to maintain a web page that simple. And yet, nothing more is really needed.

Programming in the twenty-first century” by James Hague is my favourite programming blog. The site is, apparently, generated by 269 lines of Perl, including the HTML templates. Both the site and its implementation embodies simplicity and focus. Although I haven’t seen the Perl code I’m assuming that it is simple and pretty, based on mr Hagues blog posts. But I guess that it could also be Perl code.

Finally, I’ve written a little bit about analogue modular synthesisers. While a modular synth is by no means simple, I think the resurgence and current popularity (ok, “popular” is a rather relative concept) of analogue modulars at least in part reflects a wish to remove options. These days, when you make music in a computer your power is almost unlimited. Major music-making applications are huge and very complex and they encourage you to dive down and micro-edit the music. With a modular synth you remove a lot of the control. While you can nudge an analogue synth into a direction of your choice, you cannot force it to do your bidding exactly. You need to let go of some control and let the machine work on its own a little bit. This can be very freeing and creative. To be fair, a modular synth can also be an example of the exact opposite: an example of a tool that is so complex (and engrossing) that it consumes all your time and prevents you from spending any of it on the reason you bought  the damned thing the first place — the music.

Obligatory parting words of wisdom

Like anything in life, simplicity is best in moderation. A word processor in which you could only write the word “goat” would, perhaps, be too simple. A car without seat belts would be simpler, but not better. But in some cases, simpler really is better. The UNIX philosophy, if you will. The value of focus is readily evident in physical objects. Most people would probably agree that, all else being equal, a simple object is better than a complex one. Compare the Apple TV remote with the remote of any cheap TV. The TV remote isn’t complex because those who designed it thought that complex was better, it is complex because they couldn’t afford — or simply didn’t know how — to make it simple. Well judged simplicity is a valuable skill. Treasure it.

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