Draft – web-based word processing for the non-print world.

Draft is a free web-based word processor with an emphasis on collaboration and version control.

Microsoft Word was created at a time when documents were printed, once for editing and then again the final product. These days many of our documents never leave the digital world and Draft is designed for this work style. It’s assumed that the writing, editing and publishing are all done on-line.

It is Markdown-based of which I’m a huge fan. However, Markdown is intentionally limited in features. This is a good thing since collaborators can quickly learn it. But, Markdown is no replacement for a full-featured word processor.

Files can be imported from Google Drive, Dropbox and others. Documents can also be created via email and sent to Draft. This is a very useful feature that many companies no longer offer.

Draft exports to PDF, Word, HTML and a couple others. Files can be directly published to WordPress, Blogger and more. (Although copy-and-paste seems easier.) Draft also offers a code-your-own publishing option through Webhook which is great for self-hosted sites.

Simply put, it is a very open tool.

Great for collaboration

Perhaps the best feature of Draft is version control. It draws from the coding community where projects become quickly hard to manage when many people are collaborating.

I only tested this process but the concept seems fairly simple. One person owns the master document. She/he sends a link to a collaborator who works on their own copy. The document owner can view and merge the edits as desired. Collaborators must register but only an email is needed.

Since collaborators work on a copy, there is no danger to the master document. Free to edit this page. Click here.

A few small things

Probably the biggest missing feature is a real-time chat mode (as Google Docs does). With all the chat clients available, this is probably not a problem. Draft does allow in-line comments (like Google), which are arguably more useful.

I didn’t encounter any advertisements but the possibility of them in the free version was mentioned.

I was amused by the “Hemingway mode” which disables the backspace key and forces you to keep writing. I doubt I’ll use the feature but it’s what we want our students do in their quick writes.

Draft offers a paid service to get your work edited by real people. (sort of like Uber for English majors, I guess) It’s an interesting financial model and I hope it is successful.

Cloudup – free, cloud-based file sharing

Cloudup is a free, web-based media sharing platform. Users are allowed to upload a maximum of 1000 items, 200 MB each. Yes! That’s 200 gigabytes of free storage. There are desktop applications for Macs and Windows but the web interface is meant to be the main way to use the service.

Cloudup allows for synchronizing, sharing, password protection, downloading and streaming of files. Files are simply shared with a unique web address like cloudup.com/c6n9XSN2kTH Any type of file can be uploaded.

Cloudup is provided by the amazing people at Automattic (WordPress, Simplenote, Long Reads, more). I have not extensively used this service but can recommend it based on Automattic’s reputation.

I have previously recommended Archive.org for hosting media (and still do) but Cloudup has the advantage of not giving-up copyrights. Archive.org has no private or password options. This could be very helpful for media made by students which you don’t want on the open web.

I could not find any way to embed media from Cloudup, so only the link can be shared. This might be a problem for some.


Tool: Cloudup

Description: Free, cloud-based media hosting.

Usefulness: very

Simplenote — free, cross-platform note taking

Simplenote is a free note-taking tool that can be used on the web or natively on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android or iOS. (what else is there?)

Simplenote is one of the best, least-known free tools I’ve ever used. It is a mature product having been around since 2008. It was acquired by the good folks at Automattic who made the full version available to all without ads or cost. I don’t like exposing students to advertising, so this makes Simplenote great in education. Users do need an email address.

Remarkably, Automattic puts no limits on how many notes you can take. None!

Automattic has developed Simplenote for more platforms but has not succumbed to “bloatware.” For me, a note taking program must be fast and simple like a real notebook. (I’m not a fan of Evernote for that reason.)

Simplenote supports Markdown of which I’m a huge fan. Backup is beyond easy — just download a .zip file and read your notes with any text editor. Simplenote also has tagging, sorting, revision history, collaboration, publishing but not many more features.

Publishing is so easy! A couple of clicks and you get a shortened URL like simp.ly/p/8LTSXK to share with students or colleagues. It’s one of the easiest ways I know of to publish a simple web page. All for free!

I haven’t tried it but collaboration seems equally simple — just use their email address as a tag and it shows up on their account.

Too Simple?

Text Only

Simplenote is strictly text-based, so you can’t easily embed graphics or pictures from your phone. This is one of the useful features of “Keep” by Google, also a simple program. With Markdown, you can link to graphics but those have to be stored elsewhere online. A service like TinyPic makes this fairly easy but it is another step.

No Spell Check

This is probably another deal-breaker for some people, especially if you are using this as a tool to publish directly to the web.


Tool:  Simplenote
Description: A free, text-based note-taking program which synchronizes across all your computers and phones.
Usefulness: very

Typora – fast, free word processor for your everyday writing.

TyporaTypora is free Markdown-based word processor.

Microsoft Word and Apple Pages are amazing word processors but bigger is not always better.

I have much more modest needs for that vast majority of my writing — bold, italics, headlines, etc. I must not be alone because a whole bunch of Markdown based word processors have recently sprung-up.

My favorite is Typora. It is free, simple and cross-platform. I have used the Linux and Windows version for months.

For those not familiar: Markdown is a very simple text formatting scheme that came from how people were already writing emails.

bold   italic

You can use a minimal text editor to write Markdown because it’s just a text file but Typora allows you to see the formatting as you write. Formatting can also be done with short-cut keys. ctrl+b = bold,     ctrl+i = italic,    etc.

Typora exports to Word, PDF, OpenOffice, HTML etc. There are also programs which convert Markdown to just about any format.

I have used Markdown for book-length manuscripts and it worked very well. The file was gigantic and it bogged down my full word processor to a crawl. Since Markdown is just a text file, it didn’t have this problem.

You can insert graphics but you won’t use it for desktop publishing. For your everyday writing, Typora and Markdown could be ideal.


typora.io

Description: Markdown based word processor for Windows, Linux and Mac (beta)

License: proprietary but free for now.

Usefulness: very

 

The Book Patch — affordable, honest self-publishing

book_patch_logoThe “vanity publishing” industry has a reputation right down there with Nigerian emails but there are some good ones and TheBookPatch really stands out.

The biggest scams seem to be minimum quantities, set-up fees and hidden costs. The Book Patch has none of these. Disclaimer: I have not personally used this service but I found almost no complaints about TheBookPatch,which is unusual.

TheBookPatch is truly self-publishing which means they will publish anything but leave all the editing, design and marketing to you. They provide templates and writing tools but your book is your responsibility alone. While they sell books on their own site, promotion and sales are also up to you. Most teachers and schools don’t need these services, anyway.

For a class book project or a school memory book, TheBookPatch is an excellent choice. A teacher can print a 60 page, B&W, 6” x 9” class book for less than $3 a copy. A full-color book would be less than $10. This is considerably less expensive than other self-publishing services I have used. Very helpfully, you can order a single copy (at a reasonable price) of your book for proof reading. In my experience, typos are much easier to find in an “advance copy” of a book and well-worth the cost.

To publish with TheBookPatch, you need to create a PDF for the body of the book and a separate color JPG file for the cover. TheBookPatch offers templates and clear, specific instructions for creating these. They can also create an ISBN number, also at a reasonable price. ISBN numbers are not required unless you want to sell your books through retailers.

Write_onlineTheBookPatch is also a cloud site for writers. They offer an on-line word processor that integrates with their print publishing service. I would probably use OpenOffice or Google Docs (if you need collaboration tools). Any application that creates a PDF file should work.

Bottom line: An affordable source for class or school self-published books.


Tool: TheBookPatch
Description: Affordable self-publishing
License: Open Ethos
Alternatives: Lulu, Kinkos, local quick print, others
Usefulness: very

imgur — easy, no registration photo hosting.

Imgur_logo.svgimgur does one thing — photo hosting. But, it does it very well. You simply upload your photo and use it on your web page.

Imgur seems almost too good to be true. It allows you to upload your image, without registration, which the site says will never be deleted.

Imgur accepts JPEG, PNG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, PDF files, which should include any type of graphic you’ve created. Any files, besides JPG, will be converted to PNG, which should not be a problem since PNG files are standard for web browsers. Nicely, Imgur also accepts XCF files which are native to the open-source GIMP photo editing program. I’m not aware of any other hosting service that allows this.

Bottom line: a very easy way to post a photo with no registration.


Tool: imgur.com

Description: photo hosting with no registration

License: Open Ethos

Alternatives: Flickr, Tinypic, many others

Usefulness: very

Bootstrap – a template for mobile-friendly websites

jjffjj_bootstrap_logo80% of Internet users have a smart phone, so your web sites simply must be mobile-compatible. Thanks to Twitter’s free Bootstrap template, this is now easy. Bootstrap has quickly become the most used template for mobile websites.jjffjj_bootstrap_screenshot

With Bootstrap the same web page adjusts itself to look good on full-size computers screens, laptops, tablets, phones, etc. Think of it as a “one size fits all” web page.

Bootstrap comes in all levels of complexity but it does require some basic HTML skills. There are many variants, so you can start with a simple blank page or a fully designed one. Bootstrap is also well-documented and has good tutorials.

Additionally: Google provides a very useful Mobile-Friendly Test site to see how your page looks on a phone and will give suggestions for improving. While Bootstrap is pretty amazing, it still may take some adjusting. Another good test site is here.

Bottom line: a great template if you are comfortable with a little coding.


Tool: Bootstrap
Description: Mobile-friendly template for websites.
License: MIT
Alternatives: WordPress, others.
Usefulness: very

tinypic — quick and easy photo and video hosting.

This photo was uploaded July 8, 2015.
This photo was uploaded July 8, 2015.

tinypic.com-logoThere several good free photo hosting sites but it’s a real time-waster for your students to create accounts. tinypic will host your students’ photos and videos with no registration or hassle.  tinypic is the free version of PhotoBucket which is a flagship photo hosting site.

A convenient feature of tinypic is that it provides the linking code for HTML and other common formats. And, it lets you link directly without advertisements. tinypic allows you to upload a photo directly from your phone via email (a feature I didn’t test).

There are better choices if you need your image to last for years since tinypic keeps your students’ images for only 90 days.  Even so, this should be fine for class assignments.


Original Video – More videos at TinyPic

 

Another potential downside is that all images are public but the odds of anyone stumbling across your photo are probably minimal. Photos are limited to 1600 pixels on the longest side and videos are limited to five minutes. If you submit larger items, they are automatically reduced.

The bottom line: tinypic is a super-easy way to post photos and videos for sort-term projects.


Tool: tinypic.com

Description: photo and video hosting with no registration

License: Open Ethos

Alternatives: Flickr, Imgur, many others

Usefulness: very

Archive.org Community Media – free, cloud publishing

Archive dot LorgArchive.org is now a great way to publish your eBooks.

You probably know Archive.org as a repository for live music or their Wayback Machine.

communityTextArchive.org also has a community media section where you can upload your eBook. It is an easy, open way to publish your students’ ‘zines, eBooks or student newspaper. One of the best features is that it allows you to embed your document in your website without advertisements.

For most people, the simplest way is to upload a PDF/Acrobat file of their ebook. I prefer the Comic Book Archive format and that works as well.

The only downside I can think of is that Archive.org has NSFW (or school) content. But, if your ebook is embedded on your own site, your students needn’t visit Archive.org or even be aware that it exists.

 


Tool: archive.org Community Media

Description: repository for self-published eBook

License: Creative Commons

Alternatives: Google Drive, Scribd, others

Usefulness: very

WPS Office – the best free office suite you probably haven’t heard of

I hadn’t heard of the freeware WPS Office but it has millions of users worldwide. It was started over 25 years ago as a DOS program by Kingsoft. This long history shows in its polished interface.
WPS Office looks vaguely like Microsoft Office but is more comparable to Libre/OpenOffice in its features. Power users will keep using MS Office but, for many users, WPS Office has more than enough features.

“WPS” stands for Writer, Presentation and Spreadsheet. It doesn’t have a database, desktop publishing, note-taking or other modules included in MS Office or even OpenOffice. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you only use the main three modules in MS Office.

WPS Office is highly cross-platform with implementations for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. The Linux version worked flawlessly for me but was less impressive on the iPad.  It claims to have collaborative and cloud features which I didn’t test.  There is also a pro-version but the free version is not crippled.

WPS Office offers templates and product support within a document window of WPS Office. You don’t need to web browse to separate page to find templates. Some people may find this intrusive but I expect more products to start doing this.
I like how WPS Office handles style sheets. Styles can be modified directly from the side panel without having to burrow down through menus. It is also very easy to switch between print view mode and web view mode which is useful if you are writing for both.

I was disappointed that WPS Office doesn’t support the Open Document standard but many people will be glad that it can use Microsoft formats by default.
WPS Office’s native format uses a *.wps extension (confusingly, the same as MS Works.) If you want to test compatibility I’ve exported an original .wps document to:  PDF  .doc and .docx  (right click to download)

I probably won’t switch from OpenOffice/LibreOffice since I use the draw module more than anything else and WPS Office has only the three modules. That being said, the Writer module of WPS Office handled frames well which is the core feature of desktop publishing. Also, as a matter of principle, I favor open source tools rather than just freeware.

Bottom line: good free suite if you often work with MS Office documents.


Tool: WPS Office
Description: three-component freeware office suite
License: open ethos (freeware)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Abiword, Google Docs
Usefulness: very