Saturday, March 05, 2016

Writing In The Clouds

We interrupt this novel in progress to bring you a word from our sponsor ...

Ever since I traded my little netbook for a Chromebook I've been experiencing an interesting migration. Mostly I'm happy with the Google cloud-based computer. It boots in 30 seconds, shuts down in about 3. (Don't you wonder why it takes Windows PCs so long to turn off? What are they doing?) The only time I've been aware of the invisible updates is when I noticed a tiny text message in the lower right corner that said softly, "Reboot to finish update." And I have never had to bide my time while staring at a screen warning me not to turn off my computer.

The adjustment came when I tried to determine the best way to use this as a writing machine, which is its main purpose in my life. I like writing on my desktop, too, but sometimes there's nothing like a comfy chair and a lap full of keys. Not to mention travel.

First thing I did, being an inveterate geek, was to use Crouton to install a full Linux system under the hood. Lots of online guides make this a pretty simple process. You still start up in Chrome's online world, but with a few keystrokes you can boot into a full Linux desktop. The only disappointment in my case was that I have not been able to get one of the features to work. You're supposed to be able to quickly flip back and forth between the two environments, but it doesn't happen on my HP. Not a big thing, though, since if I go into Linux I expect to stay there.

The Dropbox Snag

As I did with my netbook before, this let me install LibreOffice for document editing. Then I hit my first snag. I use Dropbox to make my documents available to me everywhere, but the HP has an Nvidia Tegra Arm processor -- and Dropbox, though it supports Linux, does not have a Linux client that runs on Arm chips. This meant I had to start out in Chrome, copy whatever files I wanted to edit into the Download folder which is also available when running Linux, then start Linux and open them from there.

A similar process would have been needed to copy the modified files back to Dropbox, but clearly this whole exercise would have seemed more trouble than it was worth. Someone has written some command line tools to do one-time Dropbox syncs in this situation, but I didn't care for that either.

Back in Chrome, there is support for Dropbox through a third-party app that integrates it into the file manager. The files are not synced to the SSD drive on the Chromebook, which would quickly eat up the limited space, but you can find your files and copy them or open them. Editing apps don't seem to be able to write directly to Dropbox, however, so you still have to save them to the Download folder, then copy them from the file manager.

What To Do?

Mentally kicking myself for not discovering this shortcoming in advance (and making a mental note to choose one with an Intel processor next time), I set out to explore my alternatives. Google, of course, would love for me to use their Docs suite for everything, and to save it all in Google Drive. But I've never been happy with the way Drive pushes you toward Docs, and vice versa. If Microsoft were in that driver's seat I'd be equally displeased. But they've actually done a better job at openness with OneDrive. And Docs is woefully lacking in formatting features, even for something as simple as fiction.

I played around with editing some of my Open Document text files (.odt) in Docs. You can do it, but it requires you to upload your file to Drive first. If you're trying to start a new Doc you can only do it in Google's own format. If you want to convert it so you can edit with LibreOffice too, you have to Download As .odt and save it back to your Drive, which is available in the file menu, then open that version of it. Are you kidding me? I think there used to be a Save As option that would let you change the format of the original file, but it's been removed.

With Docs eliminated, and still favoring Dropbox for storage, I looked for alternatives and found two options.

ZOHO To The Rescue

Zoho Office, a project started in India, was my first choice. It has a much more full set of editing features, including the ability to save named style sheets. It has Dropbox integration built in, though the free version (yes, it's free) is limited to syncing only a single folder with no subfolders. It will edit Open Document formats and save them as such. If you're creating a new document, you still have to do Export As, but you can save it directly to your shared Dropbox folder and then continue editing it there.

About the best endorsement I can offer Zoho is that I quickly went from experimenting to writing. I forgot entirely about what tool I was using and entered into creative work. And isn't that what good tools do? They disappear, and let you get something productive done.

The only glitch I found was the first time I went into Dropbox on my desktop and discovered 187 versions of the chapter I'd been editing. Apparently Zoho automatically saves every sixty seconds, and Dropbox treats each one as a new version. But I found there is a choice to do one-time syncs to Dropbox, and that alleviates the replication issue.

Zoho also offers their own cloud storage that will sync to your desktop, with 5 megabytes under the free plan. So if you're not wedded to Dropbox like I am, that might be an option. 

The OnlyOffice Route

I also explored OnlyOffice, which has a similar set of cloud based apps and storage. The initial attraction was the beautiful and complete Dropbox integration it offers. But there were downsides. You can edit Open Document files, but it has to convert them to Microsoft Office format for editing. There is an option to "also save in original format," but I didn't see any evidence that it did that when I selected it.

OnlyOffice uses HTML5 and Canvas to render your work on screen. While that sounds very hip and contemporary, I found it takes a long time to open and display anything. And on my Chromebook I couldn't find any resolution or zoom combination that would render the text in anything other than a fuzzy gray, which was intolerable. 

Anyone Else?

OnlyOffice has a 30 day free trial, but no free version. After that it costs $5 per user per month, with a minimum of two users. Do the math. Zoho has the free version, or you can upgrade for $5 per user per month, with no minimum. Combined with my pleasant user experience, I know which one I prefer.

We might well ask at this point, with Microsoft offering Office online, where are the LibreOffice developers and what are their intentions as everything moves to the cloud? At the moment, the only option is RollApp, which lets you run LibreOffice on a remote server -- as well as dozens of other open source apps like Gimp. There is a free version that offers read-only access to Dropbox. The paid version with read-write access is $7 per month, or $6 if paid annually. It sounds like a bargain compared to the option of just an office suite, but it seems a cumbersome way to go about it. And there's no way to use the apps offline since they're not really running on your own computer.

To Sum Up What We've Learned

Though some of this experience has been annoying and frustrating, it has demonstrated to me that the basic idea of the Chromebook is the future -- or the present, if you're already using one. With files in the cloud already, and an OS that updates from the cloud, why not apps in the cloud too? Increasingly, the bulk of what we do is destined for the online realm, and fully interdependent with it. 

Take this blog, for example -- composed entirely in Blogger, automatically saved and backed up so I won't lose anything, and instantly published everywhere. Excuse me a moment while I click the button...