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For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
Mars Report:

True Confessions of a Mac Software Addict

Published December 9th, 2006

Hello, my Software Addiction Can Enrapture!name is Leland Scott, and I am a software addict. Put me in front of a cool-looking website with cool-looking software to download, and I’ll use my hefty Verizon FIOS bandwidth to have that sucker on my hard drive almost before Safari has a chance to warn me that the download might contain an application.

This didn’t used to be a serious problem… it was just a harmless, fun pastime. But in recent years, Mac OS X software has been on a major growth spurt. Each year the problem gets worse. There’s a Windows blogger I know who has a similar problem, and I really don’t know how he copes. He developed a cool website to publish his thoughts and let the world know of his favorite Windows applications, called The Great Software List. He’s been doing this for years, and it shows: The site is well organized, and he clearly explains his standards for great software and why he’s chosen the ones he has. The author has 184 Windows applications on the list… these are the apps that have earned his highest 5-star rating.

When I think about how many mediocre Windows apps he has to wade through to find these gems, my head spins. Keeping up with the onslaught of Windows software releases has to be a more-than-full-time job. I’m assuming there are probably at least 5 Windows apps released for every Mac app these days… That’s purely a guess, deliberately on the low side of a hypothesis based on the assumed Mac market share. I would go absolutely bonkers if I tried to download and demo any more software than I already do, which is simply overwhelming nowadays. I wonder if worries about viruses, spyware, and other malware keep my Windows counterpart’s download addiction under some control? Maybe so…

For the last 12 months or so, I’ve been trying out a way to manage my software habit in a rational manner. Here are the steps I’ve taken:

  1. I stopped monitoring both VersionTracker and MacUpdate for new software and use only the MacUpdate RSS feed now.
  2. All software downloaded is tagged, with a brief description, version number, and home page URL, and I blog the download to my bookmarks as well as to the Software Addicts page I built for newly added software.
  3. As time permits, I go through that list, usually starting from the oldest items, and carefully try the software out, jotting down my impressions (pros and cons) and deciding whether to chuck it or adopt it.
  4. If the software is in a category for which I’ve already downloaded several apps to try out, I’ll try to demo them all as a group. In this case, the notes get stored in a DevonThink Pro sheet to keep them organized.
  5. When I make a decision, I’ll write up a mini-review.
    • If it’s software I really like a lot, I’ll take some screenshots and often a screencast and publish them in the Recommended Software section.
    • For full-category reviews, I’ll publish them as major articles on the Mars blog. Such reviews can take several days to prepare, given my over-meticulous attention to detail. I’ve recently published such reviews for iTunes controllers, podcasting tools, MySQL managers, personal information managers, and several others.
    • For rejected software, I write up a mini-review for the Rejected Software section, often with screenshots, and usually with my table of pros and cons.
  6. Afterward, I clean up my hard drive, moving rejects out of the “Demo Software” folder and winners to my Applications folder somewhere. If a winner requires a license fee, I’ll pony up for that. (Do you see why I might be biased toward freeware on Mars?) In DevonThink, I toggle checkboxes to done, and I’m finished! Ta Da!

So, what exactly has this done for me? Mostly, it’s kept me from downloading the same software over and over. As an addict, I’ll download any software with a “download” button if I’m not careful. (Pathetic, I know.) My 50-year-plus brain just has a hard time keeping track of what software I’ve tried and what I’ve said “Yuck” to. I’m pretty good about remembering software I’ve adopted, especially if there was a price tag attached. But it’s the large—and exponentially growing—category of Software I Haven’t Tried that causes me problems. With this system, I can easily find out if I’ve already tried iSoftware or xApp and when. I can also recall what I thought of it, and what specifically was wrong with it. If I’ve already downloaded and registered a given app, this keeps me from doing that again.

The plan was to help me get through my demo software list more quickly. After all, that’s play-time for me. A huge part of my addiction is a love of the New: Seeing what new ideas programmers have come up with to solve a given computing problem. And as we all know, Mac users in general are typically the most creative in their field, which means Mac programmers are forever coming up with a better mousetrap of some kind or other.

However, the plan has failed miserably. Demoing software has become too much like work, and not enough like fun. My Demo Software folder just keeps growing, no matter how fast and efficiently I work at whittling it down. This means that I always seem to be running 6-9 months behind, trying out software I downloaded 6-9 months ago rather than the ones I downloaded yesterday and was so excited about. Mars Software Punchlist Here’s a chart of my “software punchlist” that I started keeping 6 months ago (in June 2006). It shows the number of software packages I’ve reviewed and adopted, the number I’ve downloaded to try out, and the number I’ve reviewed and rejected. In some ways, it’s a gratifying measure of achievement, but it’s not exactly the achievement I was after.

For awhile, I was able to keep the “pending review” list stable at about 250, but it’s started to creep up again lately. Besides, stabilizing at 250 wasn’t the plan… I wanted to get that list down to zero over time, so I could try out the latest and greatest while they were still that! And even this relative stability has been achieved only by putting aside many of my other addictions: Programming, web site design, Mac OS X theming, record collecting, and writing on other subjects. So, something’s got to give, and it’s going to have to be my approach to managing software addiction.

From now on, my mini-reviews are going to be a lot more concise. Any software-category reviews I do will likewise be much more pithy. Fewer words. Fewer images and movies. I’ve simply got to spend less time writing up reviews and more time actually reviewing. This will also mean that rather than giving some software packages my full attention—in order to adhere to my innate notions of fairness—some will be dismissed or recommended after much shorter “spins around the block.” In other words, first impressions will prevail more often than not. Software that makes me get out the owner’s manual in order to get started isn’t going to get out of the parking lot.

One thing I have to keep reminding myself about here is that I’m not earning any money from this activity. I’m not asking software companies to give me licenses for reviewed software (well, very rarely), and I’m under no obligation to pay attention to what advertisers or sponsors of this website (which I aim to keep at zero) think about the views expressed here. Heck, I don’t even like the idea of cluttering the site up with Google adwords ads, let alone the numerous other “affiliate” ads I could take advantage of.

But there’s no shortage of Mac OS X software addicts shouting their opinions on software to the world these days. I think Mac users do this much more than Windows users, simply because there’s so much more great Mac software as a percentage of the total. So, does the world really need to hear from another Mac software addict blogging about what he thinks the best Mac OS X launcher software is? Or what his top 10 favorite Dashboard Widgets may be?

Actually, I think it does.

I have increasingly come to believe that pro technology journalists over time evolve to become an extension of software companies’ advertising strategy. There’s an inherent conflict of interest between the desire to fulfill a public good by conducting a fair review of new software—thereby aiding readers in making what may sometimes be difficult or confusing selections among competing or overlapping products—and the obligation a publisher feels to the companies whose products make its very existence possible. Getting to know and becoming pals with the development staff of software companies would sure be fun, but it doesn’t do much to help you maintain an independent viewpoint, does it? As much as I admire Macworld and its knowledgeable staff, its coverage of Mac OS X software has become increasingly suspect over the years. Perhaps it was always suspect, and I just didn’t know enough about the market myself to realize it.

I don’t mean to pick on Macworld unduly… I think the same thing is true of any commercial journalist who’s trying to cover a product market for her readers. Yes, they have bounds within which they need to operate in order to maintain credibility, but ultimately if you’re a food critic who is always treated like royalty at Restaurant A, you’re liable to end up promoting Restaurant A at the expense of Restaurant B, which you may never have heard of, or which didn’t know who you were when you stopped by to chow down. This is the topic of an entire other article. I touch on it here only to explain why I believe the world’s a better place for guys like me and my Windows colleague, who simply want to celebrate great software and let others know of their findings.

As much as I love great Mac software and relish trying out the latest and greatest new shareware, I’ll stop sharing my opinions if I ever think I’m getting too cozy to any particular product or company to be objective. Piss me off with a lousy upgrade, or neglect your previously great product while a newcomer rushes in to fill a growing need, and I won’t hesitate to jump ship and shout about why I think the newcomer deserves attention. Brand loyalty, be damned! You’ve got to earn my praise for each product, and you’ve got to keep your product up to date to sustain it. Like the author of The Great Software List, I’ve got high standards and a philosophy of interface usability that’s all too often disappointed by shoddy, mediocre software. One of these days, I’ll take the time to write those standards down.

One thing I refuse to do, however, is to get treatment for my software addiction. Great software is one of the reasons I love my Mac, and I simply won’t give it up. Yes… I am a software addict, and proud of it!

However, I do need to tone it down so that my other obsessions can be fed once in awhile, too.

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