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Articles from    2007

Articles from 2007

October 31st, 2007

In Praise of Third-Party Mac OS X System Enhancements: Hats Off to Mighty APEs, Incredible InputManagers, and Satisfying SIMBLs!

On the Unsanity website this week, a heated discussion broke out regarding some problems Leopard users were having with an older version of the company’s Application Enhancer (APE) module. What ensued both there and across the web–wherever those “blue screens of death” were discussed–was a revival of the ongoing argument about how “safe” APEs are. Most of the writers also bundled InputManagers and SIMBL (Simplified InputManager Bundle) plugins into the mix, which just pissed off the developers who know how different APEs are from those beasties. Meanwhile, developers of APE haxies and InputManagers have had to continuously address legitimate concerns about the security of their products and their impact on system stability, and so they’ve tended to become a bit defensive even in constructive arguments. I was so distressed by it all that I was moved to write the following lengthy entry on Unsanity’s forum. It turned out to be an article I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now, and for this Mars report I’ve spent some time cleaning it up and adding information to it. I hope it adds something mostly positive to the debate about the value of these kinds of system enhancements. At the very least–if you have the patience to wade through my overlong prose–you’ll be rewarded with a list of 30 “system enhancements” that I use (or have used), which try to explain why I find them so useful and necessary to my Mac Life.
    
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October 11th, 2007

Update On That Crystal I’ve Been Growing

I can’t believe it’s been 2 months since I published the preview article for Crystal Clear 1.5! What was going to be a 2-3 week project after that turned into a monster of a project that’s taken me on several journeys into the bowels of Mac OS X and Cocoa, the primary framework for building Mac OS X software in the programming language Objective-C. But the story of those journeys–if I ever have time to write them down–is an article unto itself.

Today, I just want to briefly report what’s going on with Crystal Clear. Besides the features noted in August, the screen movie above shows a variety of noteworthy advances, some obvious and some not so obvious. Here are the ones I want to point out in particular:

    
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August 15th, 2007

New Crystal Trinket Eliminates Maintenance on Your Menubar

Crystal Menubar Now Available for Crystal Clear Users

I’m releasing this in advance of Crystal Clear 1.5 since it’s ready to go and there may be one or two folks who are tired of dealing with the “roll your own” menubar from version 1.2, even though it did eliminate the ugly menu-extra smudgies of previous releases.

With Crystal Menubar, you just drag the application to your hard drive (the “Applications” folder, maybe?) and click it. This will put the nice, clear Crystal Menubar in its rightful place at the top of your screen. After that, you can just forget about it. Use whatever desktop picture that strikes your fancy!

If you decide to use it, just add it to your Login Items in System Preferences (the Accounts pane) so it gets launched when you log in.

    
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August 12th, 2007

An Intimate Evening With Two Dozen iTunes Controllers

One question that mightiTunes Controllers pop into your head when you contemplate the fact that there are at least two dozen different software applications for Mac OS X that want to be your iTunes controller is, “So, why not just use iTunes to control iTunes?” If you’ve never used iTunes before, you might also be wondering, “What’s wrong with iTunes that makes so many people avoid using it directly?”

This is indeed a curious paradox at first blush. iTunes is the world’s most popular digital music jukebox software. It has a screaming wonderful interface that just gets better with each iteration. Its innovative design practically defines “ease of use” in this category. So, why have so many developers expended so much energy and creative imagination on redefining how we interact with it?

There isn’t just one answer to that question, but here are a few possible ones:

  • Mac users are too impatient to switch applications in order to change songs. They want an application that can overlay whatever they’re currently doing, providing immediate access. Call this a variation of the “Instant gratification” impulse.
  • Because the iTunes API makes building external interfaces to it so easy. You often get the impression that some iTunes controllers are their developers’ first foray into xCode and/or Cocoa programming. Call this a variation of the “Because we can” impulse.
  • Because a programmer had a new idea that was too cool to pass on. Either the idea was really new, or it was building on someone else’s idea. Some of the iTunes controllers are clearly attempts to improve other ones that already exist. Call this simply the “Urge to create.”

Notice that none of these possible motives is an attempt to remedy a shortcoming in iTunes, or even to add significant functionality to the application. The only thing that comes close is the addition of tools to fetch album art from the web, or to integrate with a social music networking system like Audioscrobbler. Instead, they’re simply tools that extend the iTunes interface into every aspect of a Mac user’s workflow… making it practically ubiquitous as we work.

A couple of weeks ago, I set out to survey the market to identify all of the iTunes controllers that are currently supported. (There are still old links to some phantom controllers on MacUpdate, but I won’t tell you which.) Having found 24 of them, I clearly don’t have the time to prepare a full snapshot of each as I’ve done for other software categories recently. In order to keep this workload sane for me, I have to skinny it down to the basics–my notes, a link, price info, a version number, and a recommendation.

    
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August 6th, 2007

Crystal Clear 1.5 Preview:
Yes! The Term “Opaque Window” Is An Oxymoron

After all, who Crystal Clear Safari 3.0 Windowwould ever install an opaque window? In the real world, a window by definition is clear—you can see through it. If it weren’t clear, you couldn’t very well call it a “window.” In other words, an opaque window is an oxymoron. Yet, that very oxymoron is the norm on our computer desktops today. As Crystal Clear evolves, its aim is coming closer to making opaque windows as much of an oxymoron on your desktop as they are in that wall over there.

Computer desktops have slowly evolved since 1984, when the first Macintosh was introduced. With each operating system release, Apple has added more realism to the graphics that make up application windows, the desktop, and their various “widgets” and icons. Microsoft and other GUI-design-wannabes have followed along as closely as they could. Through this process, our software windows and icons have gained a little 3D through primitive shading, higher resolution displays, larger icons, better shadows, alpha transparency and compositing, smoother animation and transition effects, and so on. These changes have produced a dramatically more “realistic” look-and-feel today than we had in the beginning. Undoubtedly, this evolution Mac OS GUI Circa 1984will continue, and desktops 10 years from now will make today’s look similarly primitive.

The Crystal Clear experiment is asking the graphical question, “How about using transparency to improve realism, while enhancing the beauty of our desktops at the same time?”

Up to now, the Crystal Clear theme for Mac OS X has brought clarity to your Aqua window toolbars, titlebars, and menubars. Crystal Albook icons clarified your system and application icons. And there has been much rejoicing.

However, a common question from early users of the theme was, “How about the window edges? How about the status bar? How about Safari’s bookmark and tab bars?” Unfortunately, none of the tools in a Mac OS X themer’s bag of tricks (chiefly, ThemePark ) can help affix transparent colors or graphics onto those bits of Aqua windows, so I had to throw my shoulders up in a major, sad shrug.

Fortunately, my little experiment in alpha transparency didn’t end there. The SetAlphaValue software that’s been a key part of Crystal Clear’s magic from the beginning has led me on a merry (well, mostly merry) romp through Objective-C and Cocoa Land, the world of geeky wonder that lies behind each object on your Mac OS X desktop. With much open-source Cocoa software code, two excellent books, and the rich universe of web Cocoa resources in hand, I’ve been slowly absorbing the syntax and grammar of Objective-C, the programming language of choice for Cocoa application development. As I got deeper into the “messaging” framework that’s a key part of Cocoa, I realized I could hack SetAlphaValue to do much more than just adjust window transparency.

    
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July 20th, 2007

If I Complete A Digression, Did I Get Anything Done?

I’m drowning in ideas I have no time to pursue…! I think this is what some people mean when they complain of “information overload.” In my case, it’s more like “idea overload.”

I recently tried some of the “getting things done” software tools I’ve downloaded in an attempt to get my idea-log under control… but none of them really helped. I’m leaning to a href=”http://bargiel.home.pl/iGTD/”>iGTD since it’s free, full-featured, and actively under development, but honestly, the work of compiling my list of projects and trying to prioritize and schedule them, etc., merely made me even more aware of how swamped I am, and how far behind I am in the things I want to be doing!

I will certainly be getting some of these “things” done eventually, but it sure is harder as the projects pile up. And my wife keeps wondering why I’m killing myself over work I don’t even get paid for…! Now, there’s a conundrum that simply could not have existed before the web came along. Am I having more ideas for interesting projects now because there’s a potential audience that might be likewise intrigued? Or is my “idea center” being overstimulated by the vast number of other fascinating projects now so readily at my disposal? And is ADD merely a byproduct of living with the web? That is, are we more distractible today because web browsing can lead us onto so many irresistable, multi-nested, looping digressions? No wonder so many of us have trouble getting anything done! :-)

    
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June 11th, 2007

Leopard’s “Quick Look” Raises the Bar for File Previewing

Leopard's Quick Look Adds Pizzazz To File PreviewsWith Leopard's forthcoming "Quick Look" feature in the Finder, Apple is leaping ahead of the file-previewing game by providing a separate, translucent preview window of amazing flexibility and beauty. Quick Look can preview movies at full size or even full screen. It can preview text, HTML, and PDF documents and even let you navigate them. If you select multiple files, Leopard provides an "expose"-like view that lets you navigate among them. Or, if the files are images, you can quickly go into slideshow mode. There's much more... but ain't that enough for now?
    
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Posted in:Apple, Innovation, Mac OS X, |
June 6th, 2007

Crystal Clear 1.2: The Transparent Revolution Cleans Up Another Opaque Holdout

This Preview shot of Crystal Clear Dark 1.2 article introduces the latest version of Crystal Clear, which features an enhancement to the system menubar transparency that was described in an article last week. Although I didn't find time to work on the Crystal Albook icon set since the last release, Crystal Clear has a large number of enhancements in various button elements, as described below. I do hope to get some work done on Crystal Albook next time around.

  • An experimental approach to solving the problem of "extra overlay shine" on most menu extras in the system menubar (statusbar). This approach can eliminate the visual discord created as menu extras overlay their own "toolbar" over the preexisting one. In opaque toolbars, this isn't noticeable, but it's bothersome in any toolbar with alpha transparency. (This part of the update is described in the recent Mars article, "Desperately Seeking Clarity: Wiping the Dirt from My Crystal Clear Menubar."
  • Crystal Clear toolbar elements for Camino.
  • New design for menu selection highlights in Crystal Clear Dark. Similar highlights also appear now in the Finder sidebar.
  • Completion of pushbutton and popup button elements for Carbon apps (such as Photoshop). (The buttons were already complete for Cocoa apps.)
  • New Crystal designs for the bevel buttons (butted and otherwise) that are the bane of my existence when theming Mac OS X. (O! Apple... Please make these go away in Leopard!)
  • Reworking of the large metal buttons.
  • Various other tweaks and fixes, plus a few more menu extras.

Future releases will work on standardizing the appearance of various otherwise-similar button elements, reducing the height of some pushbutton elements, and completing unfinished work on the slider elements.

    
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Posted in:Crystal Clear, Theming, |
June 3rd, 2007

Desperately Seeking Clarity: Wiping the Dirt from My Crystal Clear Menubar

If you're a fan of Crystal Clear who's noticed---and been seriously bothered by---the "smudges" on the Crystal menubar behind most of your menubar apps, I think you'll be pleased by this report about the new version of Crystal Clear. Work on the menubar is hardly the only improvement in the theme, but it's probably the most significant one.

I think of the menubar smudges as "extra shine," because that's kind of what they are: They result from a double layer of the menubar graphic in the space the menu extras occupy. This smudging might not be so distracting if it were applied evenly across all of the menu extras, but of course that's not the case. As a result, from the first menu extra over to Spotlight, the "smudge" comes and goes and can be visually disturbing if you let it.

This smudging is the number one complaint about Crystal Clear, and I'm very pleased to announce that the new version will offer a nice, clean, truly crystal-clear menubar with (virtually) no dirt whatsoever! Unfortunately, you can't download it today, because I don't have all the files quite ready. But I promise to make them available very soon. :-)

    
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Posted in:Crystal Clear, Theming, |
May 16th, 2007

My Passionate Fling With iWeb Is Wearing Me Out!

iWeb SirenSince releasing of Crystal Clear and VacuumMail earlier this year, my download traffic has overridden my .Mac account ... and twice (so far) I've had to upgrade my account to accommodate the bandwidth. I don't mind that, nor do I mind the additional traffic on the Mars Downloads pages. What I do mind is the time it takes me to keep those pages updated! In fact, it takes so long I haven't been able to keep them in sync with the new stuff I was making.

I've been a pro webmaster for, well, a long time... since 1994, in fact. So keeping a couple of simple pages updated shouldn't make me break a sweat, right? Damn right! Problem is, the Download pages started as an experiment with Apple's iWeb software last year, and iWeb and WordPress don't mix well. To help them get along, I devised a simple checklist so all I'd have to do was:

  1. Generate the raw HTML from iWeb
  2. Massage the HTML by
    1. Tweaking a few CSS styles,
    2. Doing a few search/replaces,
    3. Doing a bit of reformatting, and
  3. Plopping the iWeb HTML in the WordPress template, and
  4. Moving the iWeb graphics and other files to the server.

At least, that's how I thought it was going to go. As it turns out, the convoluted HTML and CSS code that iWeb generates invariably causes problems when running inside Mars. This means each update can turn into a 2-3 hour scavenger hunt, with each contestant (Me, Me, and Me) trying to find a lost px in a huge block of unreadable code.

So last week I vowed to find another way, and I think I have. The end solution means more work up front in generating the site to begin with, but should make it very easy to rearrange, add, or rewrite content or images on those pages.

    
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May 1st, 2007

Window Tricks: Extending Your Power Over Mac Applications

I recently Window Magic Trickscompleted a review of all the currently available tools that add a class of functionality that I’m calling “window tricks” to your Mac. Such tools have existed for years, but last year saw some new tools in this category, as well as more visibility thanks to an increase in the number of new Mac users who’ve migrated from Microsoft Windows.

What these users are looking for typically is some freedom from the Mac OS X user interface constraints on how you can move and resize your application windows. As new Windows users discover, Apple’s user interface guidelines prescribe very specific parts of the window that can be used to move it (usually, just the toolbar and titlebar) or to resize it (just the lower right-hand corner of resizable windows).

Longtime Mac users (me included) generally agree that these guidelines are sensible and work well. Unlike MS Windows windows, Mac OS X windows typically don’t have “chrome” on their sides that can be used for grabbing, and that’s precisely where Windows users are accustomed to resizing and moving theirs about. Apps that do have “sides,” like the Finder, can indeed be dragged about from there. But they can only be resized from the lower right.

Even so, all Mac users have likely experienced an occasion where they’ve managed to drag a window to a location from which it can neither be resized nor moved. Don’t ask me how at the moment, but believe me, I’ve been there. There are also occasions when it would be more convenient to resize a window by its lower left corner rather than the lower right. It’s not hard to imagine what kind of configuration I’m talking about there. And in these circumstances, it’s no doubt crossed your mind that it would be sure nice to have some way to grab that freakin’ window and move it without having to do a major dance, reshuffling other components of your desktop in order to make that one simple change.

    
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April 18th, 2007

Apple Mail Slowing Down? VacuumMail Can Probably Help

Originally published 3/9/07, updated 3/26/07:
VacuumMail now comes with a full installer package, which puts VacuumMail in your Utilities folder, the Launch Agent in your Library (makes the LaunchAgents folder if you don’t have one yet), and also optionally includes Peter Borg’s handy Lingon software for customizing your Launch Agent. No other changes are made to VacuumMail itself at this time. I’ve updated the link, though, to point to the new installer download.

VacuumMail Icon

A lively discussion and exchange of information occurred recently on Hawk Wings, the blog site mostly devoted to news and resources for users of Apple’s terrific Mail program. A colleague at work sent me a message on Tuesday, excited when word on Hawk Wings started circulating about a “vacuum” process available for SQLite databases that appeared to dramatically speed up Apple Mail. He had tried the recommended vacuuming and definitely noticed peppier Mail performance. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I’d become engrossed in developing and polishing up an AppleScript utility to automate a periodic vacuuming of my Mail, which I’m of course dubbing VacuumMail.

As the Hawk Wings discussion unfolded, we learned that Mail maintains an SQLite database called “Envelope Index” in your ~/Library/Mail folder, which gradually grows as the number of emails in your mailbox does. Natively, Mail performs no optimizations on this critical database, which contains pointers to all of your mail that become fragmented and somewhat disorganized over time. At the office, my Envelope Index file was over 100mb, and at home it’s about 30mb. SQLite offers a “vacuum” Hawk Wings Blog Headercommand that rewrites the Envelope Index, optimizing and reorganizing it for faster access. It sounds a bit like what happens when Mac OS X defragments your hard drive periodically.

SQLite IconAt first, news of this function took the form of a shell command you can run in Terminal. It was quite interesting and exciting to see how the Mac users reading of this learned more about it as information was shared, and the command itself became more concise and precise as the day went on. Other users discovered that SQLite offers an “autovacuum” process that can do vacuuming without prompting, and I’m sure that’s a great thing as well. However, we also learned that vacuuming is a more robust and thorough optimizing of the file, since it actually analyzes and rewrites the whole thing, whereas autovacuuming acts only on a certain recent portion of mail pointers. The basic Terminal command turns out to be:

sqlite3 ~/Library/Mail/Envelope Index vacuum;
    
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March 30th, 2007

How To Use TextEdit as an HTML Editor

TextEdit's Underlying Glow Is Very StrongLike most geeky Mac users, I delight in the little "easter eggs" I discover from time to time as I use my Mac. It's especially satisfying when I stumble across something cool about apps I thought I knew... even mundane little apps like TextEdit. This article describes how I learned to use TextEdit as an HTML editor (!!) It's the first in a planned series I'll be publishing to share and preserve my personal Mac OS X "easter eggs." I've already got a long Edgies note that's full of little tips and tricks on topics like Pages, Quicksilver, contextual menus, PackageMaker, and DevonThink Pro, as well as more on TextEdit.

I originally published this particular tip on MacOSXHints last summer, and I always intended to republish it here... but, well, I'm only now getting around to it. MacOSXHints is a great resource for Mac users, and I search its archives frequently. However, as a purveyor of tips, it's a bit limiting, since you can't include images or movies in your writeup, and you don't have much control over how it's presented. One of the main reasons I purvey tips, by the way, is to try to counteract the drivel a Google search often dredges up. For example, I searched again today to see if anyone had published this useful tidbit about TextEdit and couldn't find it anywhere... for the most part, Google gave me articles like this one on About.com, which just don't tell the full story.

    
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March 18th, 2007

Quietly, Safari Finally Gains WYSIWYG Editing Powers

A quiet revolution has taken place for Mac OS X Safari users, but I haven’t seen anyone celebrate it… and I’ve looked! There isn’t even a mention of this dramatic change in Safari’s powers on the Surfin’ Safari blog, where the open source team that’s evolving the WebKit rendering engine used in Safari announce new features and updates. Lately, this team has implemented a number of really amazing features from the CSS 3.0 specification, and each has been trumpeted with some eye-popping examples. But not a word about this.

Well, I for one am celebrating the upgrade with this article and proclaiming to the world that finally, at last, Safari is gaining parity with the other modern browsers in letting users perform WYSIWYG editing whenever the application calls for it. Mac users like me who have simply done without rich-text editing in their WordPress blogs and Gmails, bristling with an unfamiliar envy at the vast majority of users who take this functionality for granted by now, can finally save ourselves some typing and edit in our web browser with the same ease we do in a word processor.

    
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March 17th, 2007

An Ongoing Review of Personal Information Management Tools for Mac OS X: No Perfect Solution (Yet)

There are definitely Many Choices: Proliferating Titles in Mac OS X PIM Softwaresome life decisions that you should think twice before revisiting. I’m talking things like your marriage, your decision to have kids, your choice of college, your upcoming vacation plans… maybe your car and house. But honestly, don’t politicians make too much of clinging to decisions they made that turn out to be wrong? And don’t some of them place way too high a value on consistency over a long period of time in one’s personal values and beliefs? Is that “fortitude” or “stupidity”? Heck, as Joni Mitchell once pointed out, “Life is for learning.” If you acknowledge that learning changes you by adding new ideas and insights, then individuals who never change their mind about things aren’t particularly good role models for an advanced society… are they?  

Astute readers of this page are probably starting to wonder where the hell I’m going with this topic. “Is this an article about PIM software, or not?” Well, it’s actually highly relevant, because one type of decision we make quite often nowadays should be easily reversed. If it isn’t, we’ve made the wrong choice and should change our minds immediately. I’m talking about one’s choice of software applications.

It’s ironic that so many “technology experts” think of Apple as the company that locks users in with proprietary hooks, when Apple has never been the source of such danger at all. Yes, Apple’s hardware is proprietary, but think about it: If you want to extract your data from a computer, what form does the data take? Hardware? Of course not… it’s the software, stupid!

The danger of lock-in isn’t from hardware, it’s from software. Since Mac OS X hit the scene 5 1/2 years ago, Apple has been delivering a platform built on open source, standards-based software. Even when they come up with a proprietary file format, they will shortly reveal easy ways of getting your data into and out of that format. I’m not saying Apple has never been stupid about this, but their stupidity about formats is the exception rather than the rule. As a pure software company, Microsoft’s business model is built on secret, proprietary formats that hook in to secret code in Windows, closing the Windows environment and locking users into an apparently velvet prison.

I didn’t mean to digress onto Microsoft (yet again), but my point is that one of the main reasons I use Mac OS X drives a lot of my software decisions: I don’t want to get stuck. I want to be able to migrate freely to a new software application if the features and benefits are compelling enough, and I don’t want worries about how I’ll migrate my data to be a show-stopper.

With this in mind, I’ve been eyeing the market for personal information management (PIM) software on Mac OS X for a couple of years now. I’ve felt a little like a honey bee, alighting briefly on this software package, then moving on to another, and another, all the while sampling a dozen more. The tool I’m currently using has been my “flower” for the longest period so far: DevonThink Pro.

Though far from perfect, it’s the best tool I’ve yet found, with the most flexibility for getting data into and out of its data store. DevonThink Pro covers the widest range of data types, and encompasses a large universe of possible uses and usage scenarios. However, it took me quite awhile to get comfortable with DevonThink, and even now I continue to discover better ways of working with it. And because of a few glaring limitations, as well as my general Software Addict’s mindset, I continue to sample the competition.

This article is not about DevonThink Pro, although I’ll share a few thoughts along the way. Rather, it’s intended to be an ongoing repository of my observations about software products that overlap with DevonThink as I try them out. Given time constraints, these are not complete reviews of the various products, but rather they simply document my quickly written notes on pros and cons during the course of my evaluations. Because new versions of software often overcome limitations in earlier versions (but, as self-evident as this may be, it’s not always true), it wouldn’t be fair to set these notes in stone forever. For any products that have enough “pros” to make me want to return and sample new releases down the road, I intend to revise the entries as the products evolve.

 

One of these days, I’ll hopefully find the “perfect” product and can close the door on this category of software for awhile. But in the meantime, I’m keeping the door wide open and welcome any newcomers that look interesting and aren’t outrageously expensive.

    
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March 7th, 2007

Mac OS X Spreadsheet Roundup:
A Few Excel, The Rest Should Be Shot

It’s a Spreadsheets Abstractlycommon myth in the Windows world that Mac users have to make do with only one software title for every 10 that run on Windows. The myth arises from the teeny-tiny or nonexistent retail space afforded to Mac software in the computer stores where Windows users shop. However, the reality is far from that perception. Prior to the emergence of Mac OS X, Mac users did commonly face slim pickings in many software categories, but times have changed dramatically, and nowadays many software categories present so many choices for Mac users that the situation is downright uncomfortable. I certainly feel that way at times!

One of these days, I’m going to do a study of the comparative availability of software titles between Mac OS X and Windows, and my going-in assumption will be that users have an equivalent or greater degree of choice on the Mac platform today in categories such as

  • personal information management
  • personal organizers
  • graphic design tools
  • 3D design and animation tools
  • image management tools
  • project management
  • word processing tools
  • programmers text editors
  • Music mixing and editing tools
  • News aggregators (RSS/podcast readers), and
  • many others.

Notice that not all of the categories I’m listing are in the realm of creative arts.

However, one category that’s still under-served, in my view, is the original killer app, the good-old spreadsheet. I haven’t researched the Windows market for spreadsheet software, so perhaps the same dilemma affects those guys, too. Undoubtedly, the underwhelming selection of spreadsheets for Mac OS X results directly from the influence of Microsoft Office, and what is probably its best component, Microsoft Excel.

In this article, I’ll review all of the applications that provide spreadsheet-type functionality for Mac OS X, and as you’ll see, not many will come through with flying colors.

    
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February 13th, 2007

Crystal Clear: Pushing Mac OS X Windows Beyond Translucent

With Crystal Clear Window Edgesthe recent launch of Windows Vista and its new Aero interface, everyone who knows of it is thinking about transparent/translucent windows. Indeed, folks who are into theming have known of Aero for years, since, well, it’s taken Microsoft years to get it to market.

Mac users have already enjoyed transparency in their applications for years now, though not as part of the window “trim.” (As I discuss briefly later on, Aqua doesn’t actually have much “trim”.) Rather, it’s just something we take for granted in applications like the Dock, Dashboard, and Expose, and QuickTime Player (which pops up throughout Mac OS X to present slideshows, image thumbnail views, and of course full-screen video), as well as in Apple’s growing use of “HUD” displays, which use a transparent black interface.

Then, of course, there are apps like Quicksilver, which has taken advantage of transparency in its Bezel interface for years, and more recently in its amazing, animated Cube interface, Growl, which uses Apple’s bezel framework in several styles, and Quicksilver's Cube Interface with Transparent List Viewnumerous others like DropCopy (whose whole interface is transparent), QuartzClocks (which lets users adjust the transparency of your chosen clock), and AlarmClock (which again uses the bezel framework to great effect).

Nevertheless, when I first saw Mac themer/designer Ice Specter’s attempts to develop a transparent theme for Mac OS X that would duplicate the look of Aero, I was “hooked on transparency” in a big way. At the time, I didn’t realize that Ruler Aero, Ice Specter’s theme, was emulating the new Windows “look,” but it wouldn’t have mattered in any case. For one thing, as cool as Ruler Aero was, it wasn’t usable enough, and it had this disconcerting blend of transparent toolbars (in metal apps) and opaque ones (in everything else). It was a proof-of-concept, and a terrific one at that.

But from the get-go, what Ruler Aero made me lust after wasn’t Windows Vista Aero-style translucency, but rather totally transparent windows. In addition, I wanted a theme that would give me transparent toolbars in both metal apps like the Finder, QuickTime Player, and Safari and in regular Cocoa apps like Preview, Mail, Activity Monitor, Keynote, and Pages (in other words, in most of the apps I use).

However, after experimenting off and on for a couple of years to achieve the look I had in my head, I had pretty much given up. Every thread I followed in the theming forums concluded that transparency wasn’t possible in a Mac OS X theme except in the few places Ruler Aero had achieved it. I concluded that Apple had designed Mac OS X and Aqua so as to completely thwart all attempts at my transparency nirvana.

Then, quite by accident last month, I stumbled onto a setting in Apple’s Cocoa framework that finally unlocked the secret of transparency for Mac OS X’s toolbars. I’ve now finished applying that setting to a Mac OS X theme that enables totally see-through windows, and I’m calling it “Crystal Clear.”

    
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Posted in:Crystal Clear, Theming, |
February 10th, 2007

Crystal Clear Preview: See Through Windows On Your Mac

What could be more logical–or more beautiful–than crystal clear windows on your Mac? Were grey metal windows something we yearned for? Of course not! Windows were made to see through.

Coming soon to a Mac near you… Crystal Clear, a new experiment in alpha transparency for Mac OS X.

Here are some preview shots of a few of my favorites.

    
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Posted in:Crystal Clear, Theming, |
January 8th, 2007

Still Seeking Freedom From Quicken: Alternative Personal Finance Apps for Mac OS X

I’ve Quicken Jail Barsbeen using Quicken on my Mac for over 10 years now. Quicken came free with the very first Mac I bought back in 1996, and having nothing else to compare it against, it seemed like a pretty good thing. Sure, it was buggy, and as time went by I realized it was just a pale shadow of the version Intuit was providing to its Windows customers. But it definitely was saving my wife and I time at the end of the month in paying bills and reconciling the checkbook.

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to Quicken’s face, but unlike Henry Higgins’ statement in My Fair Lady, that’s not a compliment. I hate Quicken’s face, in fact, and I detest the continued second-citizen status Quicken consigns me to in the world of personal finance. That’s not totally Intuit’s fault, but they haven’t done a good job of improving Mac users’ lot much over time. I guess I should feel lucky that I can connect online and automatically download transactions from my bank. Too bad I can’t do the same with the mutual fund company where I have my IRA money.

The worst thing about Quicken’s face is the total absence of control over all the windows that get spawned. You think the Finder is bad? Then you haven’t spent much time in Quicken! Fortunately, I use WindowShade to keep my account windows from taking over, but do you know what? Quicken can’t remember from session to session where I’ve left my windows, or in what state I left them. This means I have to spend a minute or so each time I open the damn software to rearrange all those windows. What fun! :-{

The next worst thing is the incomprehensible set of menus and toolbar items. Quicken’s interface appears to have grown like the suburbs of most U.S. cities in the last few decades—that is, totally without order, logic, or aesthetics of any sort. This is probably why I never venture far when I enter QuickenLand… Just do my checkbook, pay a few bills, update a few stock prices, and get the hell out of there.

Naturally, Quicken has no concept of the Mac OS X Cocoa framework, so all the neat little user interface utilities I use in my other Mac apps don’t work here… or they work with a jerk. Application services? Ha! Automator actions or Spotlight support? Ha Ha! Intuit has made no attempt whatsoever to keep Quicken up to date with the latest and greatest Mac OS X technologies, and if I’m a typical customer, I can understand why.

I’m so locked into Quicken that it’s almost painful contemplating my escape. Not only do I have the last 10 years of financial data locked in there, but I also spent a lot of time early on entering all my data back to the early 1980’s. Some of my investment account data go back even further than that. I know that some Mac customers have gotten free, but I also know they probably had to spend a lot of time digging themselves out. And once they were out, did they feel like Neo waking up outside the Matrix? Lord, I hope not!

So I’ve been keeping a close eye on the various personal finance packages that are available for the Mac. In the last 2 years, there have finally been a few apps that looked interesting enough to do more than just open them, take a quick look around, and leave. I’ve now tried four of them and have at least four more to go. As I finish the trials, I’ll keep this article updated on my prospects for a Quicken escape.

    
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Just Say No To Flash