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Articles In Category <em>   Apple</em>

Articles In Category Apple

December 29th, 2012

Trying To Tame Mountain Lion Without A Hat

Remember my angst about whether I should migrate my computing life to Mountain Lion? Well, that story's now over, and Mountain Lion has won.

Mounting A Lion VirtuallyMore on that in a moment, but first I want to briefly describe my experiment in using Mountain Lion as a virtual OS inside Parallels Desktop — an experiment I've now abandoned. The process was quite simple once I figured it out, but it took more setup than expected. You have to install Parallels Desktop on both Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion, and then, on Mountain Lion, make a virtual disk of the Mountain Lion OS, which is one of the default choices when defining a new virtual OS in Parallels.

    
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September 4th, 2012

Still Thinking About It: Can You Mount A Lion Virtually?

Now that I've effectively passed Lion by, I'm thinking again about whether or not to upgrade from Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). As noted in an earlier article explaining why I've avoided Lion, this is the first time since Mac OS X debuted in 2001 that I've hesitated to upgrade. So here it is again: Should I? Why not?

One of the main reasons to upgrade is to take advantage of iCloud, which has become a more serious need now that Apple took MobileMe away from us. I can no longer sync my Safari bookmarks automagically, for example. However, I'm still pissed that Apple hasn't made a version of iCloud available for the many folks still on Snow Leopard.

Speaking of which, what exactly is the breakdown of Mac users in August 2012? It's only been a month since Mountain Lion was released, but clearly upgrading is happening pretty quickly. According to the stats from NetApplications.com, Lion users account for about 35% of the market, Snow Leopard users about 34%, and Mountain Lion users about 20%. There are still about 10% of users hanging on to Leopard. That Snow Leopard figure is pretty damn high considering how long Lion has been out, and is one that Apple should be paying more attention to.

    
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July 14th, 2012

On Theming Mac OS X: How Long Can I Hold On?

CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black are marvelous, foolhardy, and frivolous experiments in theming the Mac OS X user interface. As they were in the beginning, so they remain today: Elegantly imperfect software products, which will always be buggy. It's just the nature of the experiment. Why? Because they try to do something Apple works hard to prevent, and therefore are outlaw apps: Only able to pop up here and there with a sparkling, think-different approach that just isn't meant to be.

I am the foremost user of these two themes, and I continue to develop them because (1) it's still possible and (2) I really like them. As the author, I'm tolerant of their occasional misbehavior, but I understand that not all observers are so patient. Nobody likes a screaming 3-year-old while enjoying a quiet evening at one's favorite restaurant. I'm no different in that, but I do try to make sure my children learn how to behave as new situations arise that cause them to flare up.

Still, there are always new situations, and, well, children will be children. My children are still quite young, but the day may come when either they are banned from new restaurants for their behavior, or I become too exhausted from apologizing for them to take them out in public any more.

With each release of its operating system, Apple drives me one step closer to that edge. It's not intentional, I'm sure... In the interest of providing a safe OS environment, Apple continues to tighten the knot around inter-application interactions — especially those that allow third-party software, like CrystalClear Interface (CCI), to load itself into other applications, such as the Finder or TextEdit. And yet, without that kind of interaction, CCI and Crystal Black (CB) could not function.

For now, it appears that CCI will survive the transition to Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8), but as with every release of Mac OS X since Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), the amount of effort to do so is greater. And I fear that as the technologies introduced by Apple for increased security in Lion and Mountain Lion are more widely adopted by software developers, the number of applications that won't run CCI properly will increase.

In some future update, Apple could introduce a change that will turn off the lights for CCI and CB for good, as well as those for AppMenu Magic and my freeware Text Tools. Such a change would mean I could no longer develop the software, let alone support it.

    
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March 2nd, 2012

Too Tame To Tempt:   Eleven Things That Keep Me From Upgrading to Lion (Mac OS X 10.7)

Mac OS X 10.7 ("Lion") Too Tame To Bother With

As anyone who reads any of my voluminous writing on the subject over the years can attest, I am a big admirer of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Mac OS X. This is one of the only negative articles about Mac OS X I've ever felt need to publish. (The only previous one I can think of was about Spaces, which is still a flawed implementation of virtual desktops.)

However, as much as I've tried to, I just don't like Mac OS X 10.7 ("Lion") — certainly not enough to upgrade to it from Snow Leopard. Unlike every previous update to Apple's Unix-based operating system, there's really nothing in Lion that's truly compelling or will make me more productive on my Mac, and lot that isn't and won't.

    
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January 24th, 2012

Text Tools for Mac OS X: Free At Last!

MarsThemes Text Tools Software

Some variation of these text tools have been included in CrystalClear Interface, as well as Crystal Black, since those applications were first released. However, the tools have nothing to do with the theming of buttons and windows, or with the general appearance of Mac OS X. I added them because they address a real need of mine, which no other software could do.

As a writer, I need ready access to a range of text functions, and I need them in whatever application in which I happen to be writing. In most of the rich text editors I use, those functions are available somewhere in the app’s menus, but typically they're in different places within each app. Some apps don’t include one or two key functions at all.

Mac OS X has a rich text framework that provides just the set of editing tools I require, and it would be extremely handy to be able to access those tools consistently across apps. This is precisely what the MarsThemes Text Tools do: Grant easy access to the key Cocoa text tools that writers and editors need but can’t find.

    
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February 3rd, 2011

Crystal Black for iTunes

Last fall, I released an early version of Crystal Black for iTunes 10.1 on my deviantART site and have updated it once or twice since then. This post announces an update of the theme for iTunes 10.1.2 and adds a couple of minor enhancements for 10.1.1.

Crystal Black is a theme for Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" that I'm still refining and plan to release eventually. I published a preview of the theme last fall, and also migrated the theme to iTunes 10 when it came out. Since theming iTunes is Preview of Crystal Black Theme for iTunes 10 Using High Contrast Mode quite a bit easier than theming the entire operating system, I decided to release Crystal Black for iTunes first.

This version of Crystal Black for iTunes continues to improve its usability when iTunes is set with the hidden "High Contrast Mode" option. High Contrast Mode effectively inverts white and black in the iTunes sidebar and playlist contents (see screenshot at right), and looks great with Crystal Black. The high-contrast option is accessible through various utilities you can download to customize "hidden" features of Mac OS X. I use and recommend the free, open-source Secrets for such customizing. Secrets installs an easy-to-use and auto-updated Preference Pane and includes hidden options for a wide variety of third-party apps, in addition to Mac OS X.

One more application-specific Crystal Black theme I plan to release soon will be of interest primarily to web developers: It's a theme for Safari's Web Inspector module. Stay posted for more on that, and for more about Crystal Black as a whole.

    
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Posted in:Design, Theming, iPod & iTunes, |
March 27th, 2010

The Ultimate Solution To Window Clutter:
You Can Call Me SAM

I've observed that one of the most intractable problems bedeviling computer users, which makers of operating system software never seem to solve, is that of "Window Clutter." The inability to …

  • Stay focused on the window you're working in, while
  • Keep auxiliary windows handy and visible when needed,
  • Avoid confusing any of these windows with those of other running applications, and
  • Maintain some reasonable level of aesthetic quality to your computer desktop.

… is a nettle that keeps on pricking. At least, judging from continued user grumbling about it and the continued, less-than-satisfactory, though often valiant, solutions that user-interface experts keep offering users as the final salvation from this longstanding hindrance to productivity, I conclude that the nettle is alive and well.

That Window Clutter should still be a topic of conversation among engineers at Apple (I don't think Microsoft has any high-level staff who really care about or understand the issues surrounding interface usability, and Linux developers don't have the time to do so) is testament to their failure to stamp out a problem that appears from Mars to have a fairly simple solution, namely:

  • Make it so that only one application's windows are visible at any one time.

Affectionately referred to as Single Application Mode, or SAM, this is the default desktop environment on Mars. It's also widespread on Earth, though its human adherents often practice SAM quietly or even in secret because it's not an official, supported Mac OS X desktop environment.

Still, we find SAM the best way of dealing with today's large monitors, huge RAM capacity, and equally huge software options—all of which spell Window Clutter at a scale never before experienced.

    
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June 18th, 2009

A Gift for Self-Deception

You Can't Get A HorseFor a long time now, I've been explaining why the world would have been better off if Apple's computers had come to dominate homes and businesses. I've focused on the virtues of Apple's software almost exclusively, even though Apple has for most of existence been primarily a hardware company, like Dell or Hewlett Packard. Why? Because it's clear to all us Martians that what makes or breaks a computing experience is the software. To paraphrase one of your ex-Presidents, "It's the Software, stupid!"

I've also come to believe that humans are genetically predisposed to self-deception, allowing them to talk themselves into whatever point of view is most convenient, or is perceived as being in their best self-interest. Thus, argument over the relative worth of one technology or another is pointless, because no carefully researched and supported set of facts will ever be enough to persuade someone with the opposite view. Indeed, the truth of this axiom is encapsulated in the common human phrase of folk wisdom,

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

I've noted that when someone conjures this phrase to explain a colleague or acquaintance's intransigence about something, those listening will nod to each other knowingly and somewhat sadly aver, "So true."

And yet, how many humans really think they're as "stupid" as horses?

    
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January 11th, 2009

Apple a Monopolist? Only in Microsoft-Think

I recently read another positive article about Apple in Computerworld, this one covering Apple's 5 Biggest Moments in 2008. Unlike some other Apple coverage in Computerworld, this one was largely a yawn, but don't you know that most of the comments (as usual) were from Windows partisans who were simply angry that Apple was given any positive coverage at all!

Recently, that seems to be the standard for virtually any online article that has something nice to say about Apple. Rather than commenting on the substance of the article, some anti-Apple type will immediately start dissing the company in a totally ignorant and offensive manner. Sometimes, such drivel will be met with commenters defending Apple, but quite often it merely attracts other Apple hecklers.

The Computerworld article cited above was no different, but there was one comment from a guy who, though claiming to have some positive feelings about Apple, levels a charge that comes straight from the Microsoft propaganda machine. This propaganda only started a few years ago, when Apple began to have success with non-computer products like iTunes, the iPod, and now the iPhone. Microsoft loved to spread the word that Apple's products were all "closed," while Microsoft's were "open," and many listeners, without actually thinking about this illogical line of thinking, bought the propaganda and are now spreading it themselves.

I just couldn't let this challenge go unanswered, so I didn't. The following is what I published in response on Computerworld. In a nutshell, it explains why this guy's line of reasoning is bunk, and why, no matter how much Microsoft would like folks to think so, Apple is absolutely not a monopolist in any sense of the term.

    
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November 7th, 2008

A Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software Part II:
13 Apps for Managing Documents

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

This second part of my report on the iPhone application marketplace covers the class of software that, while still falling squarely in the overall eReader category, is designed primarily for storing and managing documents. The primary distinctions between this class and the one covered in Part 1 are that the eReader apps discussed here:

  1. Handle a wide variety of common file formats found in the workplace, rather than just text and proprietary eBook formats,
  2. Don't include controls for customizing fonts,
  3. Don't let users do full-text search on documents,
  4. Have good embedded browsers and follow web links,
  5. More easily let users move files to and from their iPhones, and
  6. Typically let users organize and rename files and folders within their interface.

It still surprises me how rapidly this market is evolving, and that evolution makes keeping tabs on the capabilities of each application--and even on the entire set of applications--quite challenging. As I was finalizing this report, a new application in this class came to market that, it turns out, I've found to have among the very best features of any that came before. I have no doubt that many of the applications reviewed here will continue to be refined, rendering this snapshot fairly obsolete fairly quickly. But the observations here accurately reflect the current state of iPhone eReaders.

    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/Touch, |
October 14th, 2008

Discover a Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software
Part I: Eight Apps for Reading Books

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The iPhone application marketplace now offers a tantalizing variety of tools that can be used as eBook readers and file managers. As I concluded in the September 2008 report, "Without Even Trying, Apple's iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes," the iPhone and iPod Touch hardware finally enables truly practical eBooks, and the software now available for the iPhone platform just clinches the deal.

Having worked with the growing number of these applications since the first started appearing in June, I've concluded that the market is clearly divided into two major objectives:

  • Applications designed primarily for reading text (books), and
  • Applications designed primarily for storing and managing documents.

As I compiled notes and usability data on this group of applications, it became clear that trying to cover all 19 different applications for the iPhone that can server as e-document readers in one article (a 20th was released just as I was finalizing this report) would be a bit much--for me as well as for readers. As a result, this will be the first of two installments of the overall report. (Note: All of these applications, with one exception, work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices going forward.)

This first part covers the following iPhone applications, which are primarily aimed at reading text and HTML documents:

  1. Bookshelf
  2. Bookz
  3. Reader
  4. Evernote
  5. Instapaper
  6. iSilo
  7. ReaddleDocs
  8. Stanza

The second installment will cover applications that specialize in enabling document repositories on the iPhone: Air Sharing, Annotater, Caravan, DataCase, File Magnet, Files, Folders, iStorage, Mobile Finder, TextGuru, and TouchFS.

    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/Touch, |
September 8th, 2008

Without Even Trying, Apple’s iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes

I recently decided it was time to look again at the state-of-the-art in eBook reader hardware. It seems like I've waited forever for a company to design one I could really use in place of the traditional paper-filled parallelepiped. I first got excited by the possibility while implementing the PDF format for a magazine on CD-ROM back in 1995. "Wow!," I thought, "Whoever wrestles PDF onto a small electronic device is going to make a mint!"

Of course, PDF turned out to be not particularly well suited to small viewing screens, since publishers would have to make a special layout for the PDF version. And so, years went by, with talk of E-Ink, electrowetting, electronic paper, and other exotic technologies appearing to be on the verge of practicality.

What most of the would-be designers of eBook readers have seemingly failed to grasp, however, is that to replace paper books, eBooks must be nearly as light and portable as a paperback. They must work without cords, and be compatible companions to one's daily trip to the little boy's room. (I've honestly never met a woman who reads in the john, but it seems nearly all men do.) They must be able to accompany you to the beach, the pool, or the mountains. I'd really like something I could read while holding it in one hand, like I do a paperback. I don't want a reader that will break the bank, either. And most of all, an eBook reader needs to be comfortable to use in bed or in your favorite armchair.

Even today, with devices shrinking towards the ideal size and weight, nearly all fail to meet my needs for one reason or another. Quite surprisingly, one device has in fact replaced books for me, and it's not one I ever thought would or could. Because I had bought the device for another purpose entirely, this eBook reader has actually cost me nothing whatsoever.

This article covers five eBook reader devices, including two that are full-fledged personal computers serving as an eBook reader by way of third-party software, and another that is a multifunction "smart phone" with eBook reader capabilities. All five devices have strongly positive characteristics, and two of of them possess the full range that would allow them to serve as portable eBook readers for organizations that need access to technical and policy documentation. Even though I personally need a reader that's useful for novels and such, I'm evaluating these based on their utility as devices for storing and reading technical and other documentation rather than literature, each of which have quite different requirements for eBook reading.

    
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April 14th, 2008

WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0

Looking back,Cascading Style Sheets!This is an update to the article I wrote last summer, when Safari 3.0 was first released. In the 9 months since then, a lot has happened, and I wanted to try to keep this info up to date. Opera, iCab, Konqueror, and Firefox have all made progress in adopting CSS 3.0 specifications, the next generation of the W3C's Cascading Style Sheets standard.

However, the WebKit team continues to lead the pack, as they have since I first contemplated this article over a year ago. In the last 6 months, that team has not only adopted more of the CSS 3.0 specs ahead of the others, but they have proposed several exciting new specs of their own, which the W3C is taking up as draft recommendations.

In addition to updating the state of CSS 3.0 in WebKit/Safari, I've also added some new demos for the Backgrounds section.

Here are the CSS 3.0 features I wrote about in July 2007:

  1. Box-shadow: Yes! Add drop shadows through CSS!
  2. Multi-column layout: Can we really do this now? With HTML?
  3. Resize: Give JavaScript hacks a rest and let users relax when typing input on web pages.
  4. Rounded corners: Any
    can be made round.
  5. Colors with transparency: There goes another ugly hack from way back!
  6. Background image controls: Remember how great it was when you could add images as well as colors to an element's background CSS style? Well, it's about to get a whole lot better!

And since then, WebKit and Safari 3.1 have adopted the following new ones:

  1. Adopted last October, WebKit introduced its first take at CSS Transforms, which it has submitted to the W3C for consideration. With CSS Transforms, <DIV>s can be scaled, rotated, skewed and translated... all without using JavaScript!
  2. Announced at the same time is the equally exciting implementation of CSS Animations. At the moment, the only type of animation that's documented and demonstrated on the WebKit blog is based on CSS Transitions, which let you define how an object or attribute changes over time from one state to another.
  3. Also in October, WebKit added the CSS Web Fonts feature, which lets designers beam fonts to users through CSS and HTML, approximating the capabilities of PDF in a much lighter-weight form.
  4. Then, after a lull, things started to heat up again last month, when Apple released Safari 3.1. Safari 3.1 incorporated all of the CSS 3.0 features WebKit had pioneered earlier, plus it added a bunch of things the WebKit team hadn't blogged about. Chief among these was support for CSS Attribute Selectors. This is something of a holy grail to advanced web developers, since it opens up a whole world of possibilities for using the Document Object Model (DOM) to build better web interfaces. When released, WebKit was the first and only browser to support this geeky, but highly practical feature.
  5. And then, just today, WebKit added support for CSS Gradients to its portfolio. Gradients are not yet a CSS 3.0 specification, but they are part of the HTML 5.0 spec. No doubt Apple's implementation will be referred to the W3C for consideration.
    
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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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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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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, |
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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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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December 23rd, 2006

Leopard’s Spaces: Virtual Desktops for the Rest of Us?

I’ve been intriguedVirtual Desktops by the concept of virtual desktops since encountering them in a Unix system many years ago (I think it was an SGI Irix system), and then later when I set up Linux about 5 years ago to play around with that OS firsthand. Then, a couple of years ago I saw an early build of Virtue Desktops and thought it was pretty cool. I really loved the nifty transition effects and all the desktop customization you can do with Virtue.

However, Virtue seemed pretty flaky at the time, so I looked around to see what other virtual desktop environments there were for Mac OS X. To my surprise, there were several in addition to Virtue… including some commercial implementations. After trying all the free ones (I wasn’t interested in paying for this feature, since I didn’t even know if I’d like it), I decided Virtue was the best of the bunch.

But I also decided that Virtue’s flakiness was simply adding more time to my routine rather than helping me organize my work, and I finally broke down and decided to try You Control Desktops. Now, it may be a total coincidence, but just after I installed Desktops and restarted my system, the whole OS began to flake out, and I ended up having to trash my hard drive.

Needless to say, whether that was You Desktops’ fault or just a bad hard drive kicking in, it soured me on the whole idea of virtual desktops for awhile.

Then, when Apple announced in August that one of the premier features of its forthcoming Leopard OS would be a virtual desktop system called Spaces, I thought that maybe someone would finally get this thing done right on Mac OS X. Maybe the problem has been that the implementations I’d tried just weren’t intuitive enough, or right-featured enough, to be useful to me. I even said this out loud in an article of video snippets from the WWDC keynote that I published in mid-August.

Spaces IconApple’s initiative with Spaces also made me question my previous conclusion that virtual desktops were not worth the effort. If Apple is investing the energy to bring virtual desktops to “the rest of us” someone at Apple must believe that they are a user interface enhancement that will really benefit “us.”

So, I opened my mind once again to the idea of virtual desktops. As a member of the select Apple developer group, I’ve been getting the Leopard “seeds” as they’re released, and I’ve taken the opportunity to try out Spaces along with other new features of Leopard. Given my nondisclosure agreement with Apple, I’m not going to say anything about Spaces that isn’t revealed in Apple’s own presentation of it on the Leopard website. Instead, I’m going to spend a few minutes sharing my impressions of virtual desktops in general and of four other specific VD applications that are already available for Mac OS X:

At the outset, I’ll confess that my note-taking for this exercise wasn’t as rigorous as usual… I didn’t test for the same set of features in each application. Unfortunately, I can’t go back now and refresh my memory for the commercial products, because their demo licenses have expired. The reason for my relatively sloppy approach probably reflects my renewed conviction, after thoroughly testing Spaces, that for most computer users, virtual desktops are a waste of time and effort. Simply put, they’re an idea whose time has passed.

That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I realize, and one likely to make a good number of fellow geeks stop reading right here. After all, some users of virtual desktops feel strongly that they are highly valuable and necessary—for them. And I suspect that’s true. Given the probability for misunderstanding when expressing an opinion on a topic like this, I want to begin by exploring why virtual desktops arose in the first place and what benefits users get (or believe they get) from them. I also want to explore the expectations users have of virtual desktops like Spaces, in the very likely event that they’ve never actually used such a system themselves.

    
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November 28th, 2006

What If Growl Displays Were Just Little Web Pages?

If you’re a Mac user who’s GlassCandy Growl Artwandered in to this article and don’t know what Growl is yet, you might want to stop by that essential open-source project’s home page to get acquainted. Once your Mac starts Growling, you’ll understand how fitting it is that Apple’s naming all their OS X releases after large cats. :-)

If you’re a Windows user, you’re still welcome to read up on Growl and why it’s become a standard component of so many Mac users’ desktops even though it’s still only at version 0.7.4. If you find Growl cool, too, you know what to do.

This article isn’t about Growl, though. It’s about Growl displays—the part of Growl you actually see when an event occurs you’ve asked to be notified about. You see, like many other cool apps nowadays (Adium, Synergy, Menuet, etc.), Growl is “skinnable.” Part of the fun—and the utility—of Growl is that users can customize the appearance of different kinds of alerts. In fact, Growl provides you with an astonishing degree of control over your customizing, and this flexibility is one of Growl’s coolest aspects. Using the Growl Preference Pane, you can:

With so many options, it’s no wonder that Growl users collect Growl styles like some Mac users collect system icons or desktop pictures!

Growl notifications can take several forms: Email, speech (using the Mac’s built-in vocal chords), or visual displays. The visual display types are roughly broken down into two kinds:

  1. Displays you build with AppleScript or xCode (those with the extension .growlView), and
  2. Displays that are basically just little web pages (those with the extension .growlStyle).

It’s the latter type I want to briefly shout about today.

    
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November 17th, 2006

Ten Ways To Make a Podcast, Plus One

Old Classic 45s Jukebox Feed in iTunes SearchIn August 2005, I was all pumped up to make my first podcast, and the webosphere was full of great advice, new tools, and lots of encouragement from Mac zines and blogs. I was particularly excited to put together an "enhanced" podcast using the new iTunes extensions Apple had released earlier that summer. With enhanced podcasts, you can embed "chapters" into a single audio file, and mark each chapter with text and images. That way, when the podcast plays in your iPod or in iTunes, the text forms a set of hyperlinks so the user can hop from one part of the podcast to another, while your chapter pictures help set the mood. This was a great new publishing medium, and obviously publishers all around the world were excited to adapt their ideas to it.

The podcast tool market was still in its infancy a year ago, but already there were quite a few choices. There were fewer choices for doing enhanced podcasts, but I had no trouble finding a good piece of freeware for my experiment: ChapterToolMe was awkwardly named but easy to use, and in no time I had a podcast to submit to the iTunes music store.

The aim of my podcast experiment was to publish the latest mp3 snippets added to the Classic 45's "Jukebox," and I planned to include a brief, spoken narrative about each 45 rpm record. I used Soundtrack Pro to assemble the audio file, and that was the time-consuming part. Stringing the mp3 bits together didn't take too long, but getting the narrative just right did. After doing one, I decided I simply wouldn't have time to make a series out of this, and my life moved on to other creative endeavors. (To my surprise, I see that my original podcast is still in the iTunes inventory... you can find it by searching for "Classic 45s Jukebox" or perhaps trying this URL.)

A few months ago, I finally sat down and adapted my PHP script that updates the regular RSS feed for Classic 45's to create a new feed just for jukebox items, including an enclosure tag for the mp3 files. Then the project lay dormant until last week, when a possible method of automating the podcast process suddenly hit me.

New Classic 45s Jukebox Feed in iTunes ListRather than putting together one big audio file, with recorded narration, and then dividing it into chapters using an enhanced podcast tool, I could just release each mp3 file as a separate episode. Each episode could include the text narration and facts about the record, plus the label or sleeve scan I normally include on the site. I wasn't totally sure this would work, but it seemed worth testing. If it worked, I could release a podcast without eating away up any more of my precious spare time. When I pointed Safari to the mp3 feed I'd made earlier, it loaded the "podcast" right up, displaying the HTML and image content along with a link to the enclosed mp3 file for the last 36 jukebox items. I then went to iTunes and entered the feed URL as a new Podcast subscription, and lo and behold, iTunes also loaded the feed, even providing little Get buttons for subscribers to download each episode they want.

So, the concept seemed sound, and the next step seemed to be a tools review. Was there some cool new application that would help me with the project? Perhaps there were new capabilities of the podcast specification that I could leverage. Thus, the usual sequence of my life played out again: One project led to another! :-)

    
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October 29th, 2006

How Many Firefox Extensions Does It Take To Make One SafariStand?

The title of this Many plugins built into SafariStandarticle is deliberately provocative: I don't know the answer to the question, and I don't really care. But having been there with Firefox many times, all I can say is that Safari plugins like SafariStand make me grateful that I don't have to find out. I've found it much easier to utilize and keep track of one plugin rather than keeping, say, six or more in sync and up-to-date.

Our culture is generally dominated by a "more is More" attitude, so that the browser with the most plugins is believed by definition to be the best horse to bet on. This is the same argument some Windows users have made for years with respect to their choice of operating system: I want to use the computer that has the most software to choose from. This argument is proven empty when you actually sit down and compare the quality of Mac software in a given functional category versus that of Windows software (don't take my word for it: Actually do it yourself sometime), and that emptiness carries over to the issue of browser plugins. Certainly, there are some software categories that you legitimately need access to a Windows PC for. But if you notice, nearly all such categories cover business, rather than personal, requirements, and they're for very narrow fields of interest indeed. The only personal software category where the Mac actually lags Windows is gaming, and I predict that the gap in gaming titles won't be nearly so large a year or two from now as it is today.

As far as the supposed dearth of plugins for Safari in comparison with Firefox, SafariStand is an excellent case-in-point. There are other excellent multifunction Safari plugins (Saft, PithHelmet, Safari Extender, for example), but I'm highlighting SafariStand because it's not only great, but also free. After all, if a Safari user finds they are starting to buy plugins, they really should consider paying for a browser that has dozens of plugins already built in, like OmniWeb. Being the cheapskate I am, I like free things, and SafariStand is one of my favorite freebies for Safari. Besides, most Firefox plugins are free, so it seems only fair to restrict this plugins conversation to those that Safari users can add without paying extra.

SafariStand Main MenuIn this article, I'm going to focus on just a couple of the best bits from the latest SafariStand beta, which are just too wonderful to remain obscure from the Safari-loving hordes. But very briefly, here is a list of the main functions that SafariStand adds to Safari. To gather these functions into Firefox would require the gathering of a half-dozen or more separate plugins, each of which would have to be authorized and kept up to date, etc.

  1. Option to restore your last workspace, or any of the pages you had open, on launch.
  2. Add sidebar with thumbnail tabs.
  3. Customize search engines available in the standard Google search form.
  4. Automate "find" function without having to type Cmd-F.
  5. Add color labels to your bookmarks.
  6. Enable site alteration, customizing allowable plugins, images, JavaScript, style sheets, and more for any website.
  7. Colorize the HTML source window, and make it editable.
  8. Reorder tabs in a window (this is a native feature of Firefox and will be one in Safari 3.0).
  9. Use the "Stand Bar", a floating palette with searchable bookmarks and history, as well as customizable SafariStand folders and RSS feeds.
  10. Configure your "Bookmark Shelf," a floating palette that lets you build and access saved "workspaces," which are lists of sites you open up in a browser session and want to save for later use.
  11. Access one of the best "Page Info" stores now available for any browser.
  12. For any site you're visiting, easily see a list of all the cookies the site has set, examine their contents, and/or delete one or more of them.
    
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October 4th, 2006

Three New Safari 3.0 Tricks Are Producing Leopard Lust

You’ve heard about one or two of them, and you may even have seen a YouTube video of Safari 3.0’s tab tricks. But let me tell you, as part of my Building Leopard project, discovering Safari 3.0 has left me with an insatiable desire to work in Leopard full-time. There are three standout features that I really miss when I “degrade gracefully” to other modern web browsers on my Mac—and that includes Firefox 2.0x, Opera 9.x, and Safari 2.x as my regular web companions.

Even though Firefox has enough cool extensions to keep a software addict fed from now until next year, none of them match the upcoming features Apple has cooked up for Safari 3.0 in Mac OS X 10.5 (”Leopard”). Likewise, Opera and its talented development team is going to be left behind the curve for awhile, as are better-than-Safari wannabes like Shiira and OmniWeb on the Mac. (It took Microsoft 5 years to add tabs to its browser, and from the way they’ve implemented them, I still don’t think they quite get it. So, no, I’m not expecting any innovative new ideas in web browsing from Redmond any time soon.)

Ok, with a buildup like that, I can hear you Safari naysayers out there beginning to clear your throats in preparation for throwing out some canned dissults about Safari. Save ‘em.

I’m not sharing these in order to put down anybody else’s browser of choice (well, IE is so far down it’s hard to do anything else!), and I’m not suggesting they are going to revolutionize web browsing, even remotely. The ideas Apple has implemented are not so unique that the company should have taken out patents or anything. Rather, these are incremental innovations of the sort that keep the art of web browsing moving forward. It’s ideas like these that could potentially jog the minds of other creative programmers, who will then go off and imagine some other cool new enhancements for Firefox or Opera or Shiira or OmniWeb.

In the end, it’s all good for web surfers like you and me. (Hey! Are humans and martians who browse the web “web browsers”? If so, when do we get new features?)

    
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September 25th, 2006

Analyst Missing Secret Ingredient in iTunes/iPod Video Service: No DVD Involved

DVD to iPod Software Booming

Rob Pegoraro does a great job balancing coverage of the Mac with that of Windows in his Washington Post tech column. However, I think he missed a key selling point in the iTunes video store launch when he wrote in a recent column that Apple’s new offering was “worth skipping.” Pegoraro gave two main reasons why the iTunes video store is uncompelling at the moment:

  1. There aren’t enough titles (though he concedes the titles that Apple’s rounded up are top-notch), and
  2. You can’t burn your purchased movies to DVD.

Pegoraro’s right about the iTunes store’s movie selection, although I had no trouble finding several I’d like to buy. But his second criticism about DVD’s is way off the mark. That’s because I believe the iPod will eventually make DVD’s obsolete in the same way that it’s making audio CD’s obsolete today.

    
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September 23rd, 2006

And Another Thing The Mac Can Do That Windows Can’t: Remember Your  !*?\&^!*%   PaS$w0rdZ!

Keychain Icon

I didn’t intend to write this article today… In fact, I’m right in the middle of three others that I want to finish. However, it just leaped at me from the front page of today’s Washington Post Business page, and I couldn’t resist. In an article called Access Denied, the writer bemoans the many passwords and PINs and such that the modern, web-connected human must juggle in daily life. People today have so many passwords to remember, they simply can’t, and this undermines the very security the passwords are set up to ensure, since companies will typically allow a shortcut to someone who claims to have forgotten a password—for a bank account, for example.

When I forget a password, I launch Keychain Access, which is a surprisingly sophisticated application that I use in a very simple way. Namely, I enter a search term in the search field, which invokes a live search on the Keychain database and displays matching results below. Each result shows the username associated with the website or application, so it’s easy to find which Key I’m looking for. Double-clicking on the Key brings up a dialog panel that gives me some management capability on the particular key. I’m sure this is cool and significant, but I go straight for the “Show password” checkbox.

    
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September 18th, 2006

Building Leopard: An Excuse To Take a Mac OS X Software Inventory

As a self proclaimed Software Addict, I have a real problem. Well, many real problems, actually. Downloading software not only consumes hard disk space, but it also bloats my Preferences folder over time as I launch each software package to try it out. If that weren’t bad enough, many applications leave pieces of themselves in the “Application Support” folder, the “PreferencePanes” folder, the “Contextual Menu Items” folder, the “Services” folder, and sometimes in the “Plugins” and “Input Managers” folders. Then, of course, there are the Unsanity “haxies,” which put themselves in the “Application Enhancers” folder.

The worst problem, of course, is the amount of time my addiction consumes… But I don’t want to talk about that, thanks.

When my addiction was just beginning, I forgot that if I told an installer I wanted the software available “for all users” on my Mac, it would put the pieces in the top-level Library, rather than in my home Library. So, as my Mac has aged and gone through, now, four different versions of Mac OS X, I’ve felt a great need for doing spring cleaning to tidy up a bit. Earlier this year, I bought AppZapper, which I really like. It helped to clean out a ton of preferences, application support, and other files for software I had long ago decided I didn’t want. But that was, unfortunately, just scratching the surface of my depraved software addiction.

When the preview build of Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) came along recently, I decided to do a completely fresh installation and start over. At first, I assumed Leopard would be too unstable to form a base for this new start—after all, it’s still in an Alpha stage. However, so far I’ve been quite impressed with its degree of stability. With only a few exceptions—mostly in some of the newer functionality—Leopard has proven very reliable indeed. Some of the new features are so compelling for me—particularly the enhancements to Safari, Preview, Mail, and Automator, and the wonderful new DashCode tool—that I decided to try to move as much of my current production environment to the Leopard “fresh slate” as I could.

Having decided this, it seemed logical to turn my housecleaning project into a baseline configuration project. In other words, I would start with nothing but Mac OS X and the Apple apps, and I would move to Leopard all of the software I need for the various projects I’m engaged in, as the need arises. I would document each change to the baseline configuration and note what kind of software or configuration change I was making. This way, I’d end up with a complete software inventory, including all of the various bits that make up my rich Mac OS X environment. In the process, I’d clean out software I don’t really need, which can only be a good thing.

    
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Posted in:Mac OS X, Software Musings, |
September 9th, 2006

NeXTSTEP in 1992: If Only We Had Known . . .

Thanks to an article on the Rixstep blog (”The Object Oriented Cake“), I took the time to listen to Steve Jobs introducing NeXTSTEP 3.0 back in 1992. As Rixstep points out, in 1992 Microsoft was just introducing Windows 3.1 and was still trying to build Windows NT. The hardware it ran on was unbelievably weak. As an example, consider that it wasn’t until early 1993 that Intel introduced the Pentium, which ran at an astonishing 66mHz!

Meanwhile, in 1992 Apple had just introduced System 7 the year before, which turned out to be the last truly significant upgrade the company was to make until OS X was released in 2001. Even so, among the “innovations” in System 7 was color computing. (Can you say, “take me for granted”?) Apple had also just introduced the first Macs powered by the new RISC-based PowerPC chip based on their collaboration with Motorola and IBM.

In the Unix world, Solaris 2.0 was just a baby that year, FreeBSD was gestating for a 1993 birth, and Linux was still reaching for a 1.0 release.

Ponder these few moments from computing history as you watch a very youthful Steve Jobs dazzle us with the remarkable achievements of his company’s operating system, NeXT, and its new application development tool, NeXTSTEP 3.0. Truth is, NeXT was so far out there in 1992, a lot of the folks in his audience probably couldn’t believe it was real. After all, these marvels were running on hardware that was only somewhat less puny than the day’s most powerful PC’s, and some of the features he demonstrates are ones we’re still waiting for today!

It should really make you wonder what went wrong after 1992. Why don’t we have PC’s, applications, and development platforms today that fully match the power of NeXT and NeXTSTEP? Mac OS X comes close, but it’s still hobbled with remnants of the Classic MacOS. Besides, the Mac hardly represents “mainstream computing” in 2006.

I know I’m gonna get it from the “never say die!” Microsoft fans out there, but it’s clear to me that the major villain in this story is none other than the company formerly led by Bill Gates. If you want an example of why monopolies are bad for the economy and bad for consumers, just watch this 14-year-old demo of an operating system that you can’t buy anymore. When brilliant technology like this can die stillborn–and no one notices–something is definitely wrong with the marketplace for new technology.

For my own convenience, and therefore yours, I’ve split the video (previously disseminated through YouTube and Google Video) into six parts, each corresponding to one of the major themes in Jobs’ talk.

    
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Posted in:Apple, Innovation, Mac OS X, |
September 6th, 2006

Quicksilver Dresses Up Its Cube

If you’ve been hoping Blacktree would enable the planned customization feature for Quicksilver’s Cube interface, I’m happy to report that the wait is over!

    
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July 31st, 2006

Protecting Windows: How PC Malware Became A Way of Life

Waving the White Flag To the Windows Virus Plague

Ah, computer security training. Don’t you just love it? Doesn’t it make you feel secure to know that your alert IT department is on patrol against the evil malware that slinks in and takes the network down every now and then, giving you a free afternoon off? Look at all the resources those wise caretakers have activated to keep you safe!

  • Virulent antivirus software, which wakes up and takes over your PC several times a day (always, it seems, just at the moment when you actually needed to type something important).
  • Very expensive, enterprise-class desktop-management software that happily recommends to management when you need more RAM, when you’ve downloaded peer-to-peer software contrary to company rules, and when you replaced the antivirus software the company provides with a brand that’s a little easier on your CPU.
  • Silent, deadly, expensive, and nosy mail server software that reads your mail and removes files with suspicious-looking extensions, or with suspicious-looking subject lines like “I Love You“, while letting creepy-looking email with subject lines like “You didnt answer deniable antecedent” or “in beef gunk” get through.
  • Expensive new security personnel, who get to hire even more expensive security contractors, who go on intrusion-detection rampages once or twice a year, spend lots of money, gum up the network, and make recommendations for the company to spend even more money on security the next year.
  • Field trips to Redmond, Washington, to hear what Microsoft has to say for itself, returning with expensive new licenses for Groove and SharePoint Portal Server (why both? why either?), and other security-related software.
  • New daily meetings that let everyone involved in protecting the network sit and wring their hands while listening to news about the latest computing vulnerabilities that have been discovered.
  • And let’s not forget security training! My favorite! By all means, we need to educate the staff on the proper “code of conduct” for handling company information technology gear. Later in the article, I’ll tell you all about the interesting things I learned this year, which earned me an anonymous certificate for passing a new security test. Yay!

In fact, this article started out as a simple expose on the somewhat insulting online training I just took. But one thought led to another, and soon I was ruminating on the Information Technology organization as a whole, and about the effectiveness and rationality of its response to the troublesome invasion of micro-cyberorganisms of the last 6 or 7 years.

Protecting the network

Who makes decisions about computer security for your organization? Chances are, it’s the same guys who set up your network and desktop computer to begin with. When the plague of computer viruses, worms, and other malware began in earnest, the first instinct of these security Tzars was understandable: Protect!
          Protect the investment…
                    Protect the users…
                              Protect the network!

And the plague itself, which still ravages our computer systems… was this an event that our wise IT leaders had foreseen? Had they been warning employees about the danger of email, the sanctity of passwords, and the evil of internet downloads prior to the first big virus that struck? If your company’s IT staff is anything like mine, I seriously doubt it. Like everyone else, the IT folks in charge of our computing systems at the office only started paying attention after a high-profile disaster or two. Prior to that, it was business as usual for the IT operations types: “Ignore it until you can’t do so anymore.” A vulgar translation of this “code of conduct” is often used instead: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Unfortunately, the IT Powers-That-Be never moved beyond their initial defensive response. They never actually tried to investigate and treat the underlying cause of the plague. No, after they had finished setting up a shield around the perimeter, investing in enterprise antivirus and spam software, and other easy measures, it’s doubtful that your IT department ever stepped back to ask one simple question: How much of the plague has to do with our reliance on Microsoft Windows? Would we be better off by switching to another platform?

It’s doubtful that the question ever crossed their minds, but even if someone did raise it, someone else was ready with an easy put-down or three:

  1. It’s only because Windows is on 95% of the world’s desktops.
  2. It’s only because there are so many more hackers now.
  3. And all the hackers attack Windows because it’s the biggest target.

At about this time in the Computer Virus Wars, the rallying cry of the typical IT shop transitioned from “Protect the network… users… etc.” to simply:
            Protect Windows!

    
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July 18th, 2006

Yahoo! Widget Engine: Konfabulator’s Legacy A Worthy Sidekick for Dashboard

Yahoo Widget EngineI admit I was skeptical when Yahoo took over Konfabulator last year.  Apple had released Dashboard for Mac OS X 10.4 (”Tiger”), which had some clear advantages over the old Konfabulator widget model.  The first time or two I tried the Yahoo widgets, I was singularly unimpressed not only with the performance of the widgets but also Pod Util Softwarewith their quality. They reminded me of why I had never been impressed with Konfabulator, although I’m sure Konfabulator’s wanting money for their product had something to do with that, too.

Also there was Yahoo! itself… a company that until the last 12 months or so had been growing more conservative, more commercial, more corporate, and less fun than the Yahoo I started loving 10 years ago. Not only that, but Yahoo appeared to be less and less friendly toward the world’s Mac-minded minority. I had grown so disenchanted with Yahoo mail that I finally gave up last summer and packed my bags for the terrific IMAP mail service called Fastmail. Yahoo Widgets Home Page imagesSo it was a bit of a surprise when Yahoo wandered into territory that originally had been 100% populated by Mac-type aliens. Clearly, the visionaries had regained some influence at the company, as other recent smart moves testify (see all the cutting edge Yahoo goodies at the Yahoo Developer Network).

So, when I downloaded the Yahoo Widget Engine (YWE) 3.0 in December, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that things had changed quite a bit.  Setting it aside until last month, YWE 3.1, the latest release as of this writing, confirmed my first impressions. YWE widgets are now very well behaved, for the most part, and take no more system resources than Dashboard widgets do.  Plus there are actually some widgets that don’t have good Dashboard counterparts.

Yahoo Widget Main Menu

But finding more great widgets isn’t the only thing that’s made YWE a standard part of my desktop.  What I really admire is the YWE implementation of widgets, which has firmed up my longstanding view that Apple needs to modify the Dashboard concept to make it more flexible, if they want Mac users to truly embrace widget-dom.  The particular traits I admire are nothing new… they were standard in Konfabulator, and there’s one application for Mac OS X called Amnesty that will emulate the concept. I have stubbornly refused to pay the $20 that Mesa Dynamics wants for Amnesty, especially now that I use YWE, which does most of Amnesty’s tricks for free.  So what exactly are those tricks?

  • Run widgets like normal applications outside of Dashboard
  • Easily change a widget’s “window level”–meaning, where it resides starting from the desktop itself up to a window that floats persistently above all regular windows, with several layers in between.
  • Ability to lock a widget in place
  • Ability to set transparency for a widget.
  • Ability to access widgets–and their preferences–from a handy menubar item.
  • Ability to stop and start the widget layer as the need arises.
    
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June 21st, 2006

On Open Formats and Closed Minds: A Love Story

Ancient storage formatsWith growing interest and amazement, I read the back-and-forth argument between two long-time, highly respected Mac nerds yesterday on the subject of Mark Pilgrim’s decision to abandon Mac OS X for Ubuntu Linux. John Gruber is simply one of the best Mac writers there is, and regardless of what he has to say on a particular subject, you have to admire the elegance, precision, and logic of his writing. So when Gruber raised questions about the wisdom of Pilgrim’s move in a recent blog post, his large readership weighed in, and Pilgrim responded, you can be sure that a great many Mac users like me paid attention.

As usual, I agreed with nearly everything Gruber had to say, and the couple of niggles I have are not worth mentioning here since they would distract from the purpose of this article. And what is that purpose, you are wondering? Before I get to that, let me briefly summarize (if I dare) the exchange so far between Gruber and Pilgrim.

  1. Pilgrim has become fed up with Apple’s “closed”-edness. After 22 years as a sophisticated, high-end user, he’s decided Apple’s “closed” ecosystem of software and hardware is too closed for him. His primary concern is that the integrity of the data he stores in that ecosystem is at risk, because Apple doesn’t always document its data formats and doesn’t respect for long the proprietary formats it develops for storage. Pilgrim feels jerked around from one closed format to another and is tired of the data conversions and consequent data loss they inevitably entail.
  2. Gruber is surprised and a bit incredulous that Pilgrim would have suddenly been bitten by this bug. He agrees that closed formats aren’t good for long-term archival purposes, but questions whether losing his iTunes metadata and other format problems is worth chucking his expertise with the Mac operating system for something completely different. He points out that a good backup strategy is part of the solution to preserving precious content. He also devotes a large part of his response to criticizing the Mac blog writers who had knee-jerk reactions against Pilgrim’s decision, and who cited old “Mac is better than Windows because…” arguments without realizing the advances Windows has made since Windows XP (or 95, or whatever). Gruber argues against black-and-white thinking in general and for the very reasonable position of respecting other people’s choices even if you don’t agree with them.
  3. Pilgrim replies that Gruber missed his point and reemphasizes that his feeling “closed in” by proprietary formats has been coming on for a long time. Apple’s decision to abandon the widely used and understood mbox format for Mail was just the last straw. He feels betrayed that Apple switched formats in Tiger without informing its users, without providing them a way to back out, and without documenting the new format.

So why do I want to wander into this disagreement between two Macintosh heavyweights I don’t know, but greatly admire and respect? As I read their separate articles, I saw something with my Martian eyes that may not be clear to them. What I saw wasn’t an OS switch story, but rather a love story.

    
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June 12th, 2006

Tell Me One Thing You Can Do With a Mac that I Can’t Do With Windows! (Part 3)

3. Use Real Productivity Applications To Get Work Done Faster, Easier

Automator Rides on ApplescriptAs inventors of new tools have done throughout human history, the visionaries who designed and built the first personal computers saw them as tools that would provide an immense boost to human productivity. And they weren’t just thinking about business productivity, folks. They were also thinking of personal productivity: Getting more things done faster so we’d have more leisure time.

Today, in our Microsoft-Windows dominated world, we use the term “productivity application” to refer to Microsoft Office, and we think of the personal computer as a business tool. (Quick: Do a Google search for that term–”productivity application”–and see what you get.) But has Microsoft Office provided us with more leisure time? Of course not. Microsoft Office is a business tool that replaced prior, non-electronic tools like the typewriter and pencil. If it has enhanced productivity at all (and that is arguable), the productivity gain has come in the form of more output per worker… not more leisure time for the individual. In any case, whatever productivity impact Microsoft Office and its ilk had on the business world was completed many years ago. Yet even for businesses, productivity didn’t stop with improving our ability to prepare reports and memos, or compile numbers in spreadsheets, or do overlays for a presentation in PowerPoint.

Productivity goes up whenever you can suddenly do a task in less time than before, either at home or at work. Since its beginnings with the original Apple computer, Apple has appeared to be pursuing a vision that steadily expands the personal computer’s potential to save you time… to do complicated things simpler. Apple’s operating system recognizes that this kind of productivity gain begins with the simplest interface to the computer: Finding things, opening applications, printing, opening documents, organizing information, and the like. As a result of this vision, Mac OS X has two built-in features that are simply lacking in Windows, and they enable “productivity” applications that are truly the envy of the Windows world:

Applescript and Application Services.

    
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May 17th, 2006

Yahoo’s Ajax/DHTML User Interface Library Apparently Fails Its Own Test

Yahoo Blocked
I have been among the developers and observers who have praised Yahoo for the technical strength of their recently launched User Interface Library. In my tests for the Ajax/DHTML Scorecard project in March, Yahoo’s library was a clear “A” in its cross-browser credentials, and I was very impressed with Yahoo’s development team, which published clear and exacting browser standards for their library.

According to Yahoo’s own Graded Browser Support table, Safari is an A-graded browser, meaning it achieves the highest level of support possible with the Yahoo interface library. Clearly, the thought that went into this table is impressive, and the authors conclude the explanation that precedes the table itself with an appropriate quote from Tim Berners-Lee on the importance of cross-browser support:

“Anyone who slaps a ‘this page is best viewed with Browser X’ label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network.”

It is therefore highly disappointing and disillusioning to discover tonight that Yahoo has released a preview of its new, Ajax-enabled home page with support only for Internet Explorer 6.0 and Firefox 1.5. The only logic one can use to justify such a move is based on a totally PC-centric viewpoint, which argues that only Windows users are worth troubling with, since they comprise the vast majority of potential viewers. But this is precisely the viewpoint that must cease if Web 2.0 is to become the fertile melting ground for truly cross-platform interdependence that it wants to be. It’s simply not the viewpoint of any company that really cares about Berners-Lee’s vision or about the millions of users on platforms other than the virus- and malware-riddled mess that is Microsoft Windows today.

    
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May 14th, 2006

Is It Possible This Reuters Writer Can’t Read? Nah!

While reading MacDailyNews this evening, I happened on a remarkable story entitled, “Another iPod+iTunes FUD article keeps the disinformation flowing.” With a sigh, I took a look to see what idiot could possibly not understand the iPod and/or iTunes after so many years and so many articles.

As it turned out, the depth of this writer’s ignorance is absolutely shocking. There’s no way he could honestly think this stuff is true. If he does, he has no business covering complicated technology topics like the iPod and iTunes, because clearly the product’s available options are far too difficult for him to grasp. Concluding instead that he’s probably a bright guy, I’m tempted to conclude, as MacDailyNews did, that his piece in Reuters is a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers and smear Apple’s innovative and highly successful music service. The article appears as part of Yahoo’s Finance site with the innocuous-sounding title “Do you own songs bought online? Well, sort of“.

    
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May 3rd, 2006

At PC Magazine, Writing About the Mac With PC Blinders On

PC Mag’s Michael Miller has written what I’m sure he believes is a reasonable comparison of the state of things with Mac OS X versus Windows. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s full of B***hit, ensnared in a system he thinks he understands but is really merely apologizing for. In doing so, he adheres to old Mac myths that he’ll probably believe till he steps over that final cliff.

Miller tries once again to make the case that Macs are more expensive than PC’s and that they don’t have enough software. If I weren’t so irritated by this, I’d simply yawn. In one case, he writes of visiting the Dell store and buying an E1505 notebook for only about $1,300, while the entry-level MacBook Pro with roughly the same specs is $1,999.

    
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April 25th, 2006

xCuts Dashboard Widget: Tripping the Light Script.aculo.us

xCuts widgetI’ve been writing for some time now about the kinship between Apple’s Dashboard Widgets and web pages. I’ve recently written a time or two about Ajax and the various wonderful dynamic HTML (DHTML) JavaScript libraries that are now available to web developers. And when I first starting compiling the lists of available Ajax/DHTML JavaScript libraries, I was planning to grade Apple’s Widgets library along with all the rest. In explaining why I didn’t, here’s what I wrote last month about Widgets and DHTML pages:

It’s interesting that 2 months after an Adaptive Path essay coined the term “Ajax,” Apple released Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger”, with its amazing and powerful dashboard widgets system. Within a couple of months, there were over 1,000 widgets available on the web, and these little babies were capable of completely replacing (almost all for free!) a number of system utilities, menubar items, and whole applications on the Mac. I’m tempted to think that awareness of Apple’s widgets helped promote awareness of, and interest in, what could be accomplished with rich Ajax/DHTML toolkits. After all, widgets are simply little Ajax/DHTML programs running in a special layer of Mac OS X called the Dashboard… They use exactly the same technologies as all of the Ajax/DHTML libraries, and in fact you can run them inside of Safari outside of the Dashboard.*

And so, it was fitting that when I finally found time to work on a widget I’d been planning to build since last summer, I decided to use one of the leading Ajax/DHTML toolkits rather than Apple’s own, for most of the widget’s functionality. Having done most of my recent DHTML web work with Prototype and its light-hearted, freewheeling sidekick, Script.aculo.us, I naturally turned to those libraries to help me out.

    
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April 3rd, 2006

MovieLink: How Stupid Can You Get?

    
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March 22nd, 2006

Windows Blogger Gets Excited About A New, Innovative Windows Tool That… Is A 5-Year-Old Mac OS X Feature

    
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Just Say No To Flash