Product Reviews

Many years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was visited by Paul Schwejda, the inventor of the Adaptive Firmware Card for the Apple II. My AFC was misbehaving, and Paul was bringing me a replacement. While he was there, he said, “Let me show you what I’m working on now.” He popped a disk into my Macintosh SE 30, and brought up what was to become Co:Writer. This word prediction program for the Macintosh had a number of features that set it apart from all other programs on any platform. Not least of these was the “grammar sensitive” feature of the software. When the writer was in a place where only nouns and adjectives would make sense, only nouns and adjectives were predicted.

Over the years, Co:Writer has evolved to add features, and to try to become more responsive to the needs of the user. It has also become the de facto standard for school system word prediction and grammar support.

By default, Co:Writer is an unusual word prediction program because the user doesn’t type directly into their word processor. Instead, when Co:Writer is activated, the user types into a “Sentence Window.” When a sentence is completed, it is sent to the target word processor. This two-stage process makes some types of interaction much simpler to program, including some that might not even be possible with a direct approach. For example, Co:Writer can use the context of the words around it to predict the most likely next word.

One side effect of this approach is that the upper limit of typing speed, using Co:Writer, is necessarily lower than without using it. When a sentence has been completed, the user must wait for that sentence to be injected into the word processor (or other program) before proceeding. Since the intended users of Co:Writer have limited writing speeds, this is probably not a major concern, but it does limit the use of the program. Another feature available only because of the CoWriter environment is in-line prediction. When “flexible spelling” is turned off, CoWriter can place its predictions directly at the cursor, rather than in a column below it. This can reduce the time spent shifting focus between the cursor and the prediction list. However, it also has some significant effects on typing efficiency.

At times, the user will have typed exactly the word desired, but CoWriter will have added letters in-line as its best guess. The user can signal the program to use just what has been typed by pressing the backslash key("\"). This works, to but requires the user to think about the writing tool rather thanks what is being written.Each time this happens, the cognitive capacity available for writing is reduced. For some users, the gains in efficiency are probably worth it, but when setting up the program, with this effect must be considered.

In order for a writing support program to be useful, it must be used. Co:Writer is designed to provide maximal support, and as such, can be intrusive in the writing process.

As an example of this, the user writes in Co:Writer, and after having written, the text is sent to the target program. In order to make this work, CoWriter must know which program is the target. In the early days of computing, this was easy to determine. The computer could only have one program running at a time, so that “other” program must be the target. Today, though, a computer might have several programs running at the same time, and the target is harder to identify. Where most alternative access technologies keep track of the “foreground application” for themselves, CoWriter asks the user to supply that information. With the insert cursor in the target application, the user clicks the CoWriter icon to activate CoWriter.The user must keep track of two programs, increasing the cognitive load.

Speech Feedback

CoWriter provides voice feedback of what has been written, so that a user with better auditory than written language can be cued to what words are appearing in the document. CoWriter can read the current “in-line” prediction, the selected word from the list, and the finished sentence. Each of these options can be turned on and off independently, so the feedback can be tuned to the needs of each user. It is important to note that voice feedback can make some people crazy, while being critical to others. When used in a classroom settling, the computer should be provided with headphones, to assure that one person's support does not become other's barriers to success.

The Word Window

Because some people find the difficulty of writing into Co:Writer rather than the word processor (or other text program) to be challenging, recent versions of Co:Writer have added the option of showing only a “word window.” In this form, only the prediction list is displayed, and the user types directly into the target application. In theory, the word list can follow the cursor as it moves across the screen, but this depends on the application following rules which are commonly violated. Perhaps it is because of the integration of the grammar rules, or the speech feedback, but in this mode, the user can feel the constant drag of Co:Writer slowing the computer down. In the days when we measures processor speeds in megahertz, some degree of noticable lag was often inevitable. On todays multi-gigahertz processors, and with multiple processor cores in a single computer, no program should produce a noticable delay in processing when it purports to aid the writer. The "word window" cannot be considered a success in this version of Co:Writer.

The Bottom Line

Co:Writer provides a level of writing support that is unique in such products. It can provide in-line prediction of the current word. It provides speech feedback (not unique), and grammar sensitive prediction. It allows for (and corrects) "creative spelling."

However, it does this at a cost. It is a very intrusive program. To get many of the benefits, one must type into Co:Writer, then wait while Co:Writer types into the word processor. There is a constant drag on computer responsiveness that interferes with the writing process.

In all likelihood, there are some writers who will find Co:Writer to be an outstanding intervention, providing the type and amount of support needed. It is also abundantly clear that there are those for whom this is not the case (this author being one of them).

My concern about Co:Writer is that it has become the standard intervention in school system practice. Providing the same solution to everyone is not significantly better than providing no solution to anyone. Assistive technology interventions must be matched to the needs of the individual. Where Co:Writer is a good fit, it should certainly be provided. But it should not be the only entree on the menu.

Product Details
Product:
Co:Writer Solo
Price:
$325
Operating System(s):
Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows
Company Contact:
Don Johnston Incorporated
26799 W. Commerce Dr.
Round Lake, IL 60073-9942
Web Site:
http://www.donjohnston.com