WordPress database error: [Table 'llscotts_mars.wp2_categories' doesn't exist]
SELECT cat_ID FROM wp2_categories WHERE category_nicename = 'apple/innovation'

Musings from Mars » Innovation
Musings from Mars Banner Image
For Software Addicts: Yes!MaybeNah!
News Posts In Category <em></em>

News Posts In Category

September 1st, 2012

Apple v. Samsung: The True Story

Apple v. Samsung. Everyone who thinks Samsung got shafted and/or that the decision was wrong should read this excellent article. It's not an opinion piece, by the way: It's full of actual facts about various patent cases and about the Samsung decisionmaking that the jury was presented with. Clearly, Samsung made a conscious choice to copy the iPhone, and they succeeded. Wildly. Apple was right to take them to court to protect their intellectual property rights, and the jury was right to decide in their favor. If you're on the fence about the decision, this one will definitely tip you over to Apple's side.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
April 15th, 2010

The Future for Home Computing

The iPad is the future for home computing - Computerworld. My iPad hasn't arrived yet (I opted for the 3G version, since I don't believe in cellphones and their parasitic subscription fees), but from what I know this Computerworld writer is spot-on. Not only am I a cellphone luddite, but a laptop one as well. I bought a MacBook Pro a couple of years back, but just couldn't make myself need or want it. (Ended up giving it to my wife.) But the iPad sounds like the laptop I've been waiting for! And it also means that, as much as I rely on my iPod Touch for eBook reading now, I'm very much looking forward to getting my mitts on the new iBook store. This is a great summary review of the iPad and captures all the salient reasons why Apple has another (and perhaps its biggest yet) hit on its hands.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
November 3rd, 2009

ComputerWorld Pits Snow Leopard Against Windows 7 (Again)

Smackdown: Windows 7 takes on Apples Snow Leopard. Now, this is more like it! Whereas the earlier ComputerWorld reviewer basically called the OS's an even match (while exposing a lot of his own ignorance about Mac OS X), this fellow understands completely. In his closing remarks, he concludes:
As an IT professional, I support both operating systems at work. But I have Macs at home; after all, who wants to troubleshoot computer problems on their own time? My final verdict in this smackdown? It's not even close: Snow Leopard is the better OS.
I couldn't have put it better myself. :-)
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
June 23rd, 2009

WebKit Introduces Styleable Scrollbars

Surfin’ Safari - Blog Archive » Styling Scrollbars. I've been so busy I missed this... it's another in the WebKit team's aggressive expansion of the possibilities for user interface development using the basic stuff: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The brief article on the Surfin' Safari blog has a pointer to an interactive demo.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
May 23rd, 2009

Compass: A New Concept for Managing CSS Styles

Compass Compass is an open-source project built on Rails that's currently in development. It proposes to provide a full-fledged framework for CSS stylesheets, whereby you would store data in Compass and then generate styles as needed for your various website projects. Compass also anticipates the need to use CSS as one way of including semantic data with your website.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
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!"

Technical Note:

This article utilizes some WebKit-specific CSS coolness, which those of you running Firefox, Opera, or other browsers will miss out on. (Even users of Safari 3.1 can't see the image reflections... that CSS feature is as yet only available in the latest versions of WebKit.) These CSS 3.0 tricks eliminate the need for a whole slew of graphics, JavaScript, and other code that were previously needed to produce them. Instead, with one simple CSS style element, I can add shadows to page elements (like tables or boxes), set elements with rounded corners (even table cells!), and set reflections on images. It not only makes the page download faster, but it saves me a heckuva lot of time to boot! I'll be documenting more of these CSS advances in the ongoing Mars article, WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0.

Here are some screenshots in case you can't see what I'm talking about: Fancy image, Fancy table, Fancy box.

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. The five devices reviewed are:

  1. Eee PC 901
  2. Iliad
  3. iPhone / iPod Touch
  4. Kindle
  5. Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium

OfiPhone as eBook Reader these five devices, the one that emerged as the runaway winner for both literature and documentation--much to my surprise--is Apple's iPhone or iPod Touch. The iPhone's small display, it turns out, is plenty big for comfortable reading, and its form factor make it the ideal eBook reader I've been looking for. Given its numerous other capabilities besides eBook reading, the iPhone / iPod Touch is an obvious choice. Among its virtues are its

  • Ability to manage all the relevant native-format files an organization is likely to produce,
  • Instantaneous availability,
  • Easy navigation,
  • Wide variety of eBook reader software,
  • Simple and powerful connectivity,
  • Integrated web browser and mail client,
  • Bright screen,
  • Excellent readability, and
  • Advanced security.

In addition to its use as an eBook reader, the iPhone has many other enterprise uses, not the least of which are its built-in cellular phone, Bluetooth receiver, GPS, and synchronized email. The iPhone also has excellent support for Windows users and can be centrally managed by an IT organization to enforce configuration and security standards.

EEE PC as eBook ReaderFor personnel who require a highly portable, full-featured PC, the Eee PC is an excellent choice. Given its very reasonable price, this device is an engineering marvel:

  • Tiny, yet with a decent-sized keyboard,
  • External controls for essentials like screen resolution and brightness,
  • Built-in state-of-the-art Wi-Fi and Bluetooth,
  • Ethernet port and 3 USB 2.0 hubs,
  • Video camera and microphone.

With dedicated eBook reading software such as MobiPocket installed on the Eee PC's Windows XP operating system, this micro-laptop can serve users well as an eBook Reader. The only downside is the eBook reader software's lack of support for native document formats, which must be converted to the MobiPocket format (and many cannot be so converted). For users who do not need the resources of a full-blown PC, the iPhone or iPod Touch would be a better solution.

Iliad as eBook ReaderThe Iliad's primary virtue is its wonderfully readable e-Ink text display, and it also has a good, portable form factor and hardware navigation controls. The Iliad also allows users to set a PIN number to protect content stored on it. Beyond those positive characteristics, there's not much to recommend the Iliad as an eBook reader for use in storing and accessing documents other than literature. And the price one has to pay for this one-trick pony, literature-only reader is far too high, in my opinion.

The Amazon Kindle is an impressive dedicated eBook Reader. The device's

  • Reading software,
  • Navigation ease,
  • Annotation support,
  • Searchability,
  • Readability,
  • Rapid start-up time,
  • and
  • Form factor
are all among the strongest in the group. However, the Kindle falls down in its support for the kinds of document formats most organizations will be using and in not providing some means of securing Amazon's Kindle eBook Readeraccess to content stored on it. The Kindle does not accept USB "sticks," either, so the possibility of storing sensitive documents externally is limited to Amazon's online Kindle service. Unfortunately, in my testing, that service was not always available, so in emergency situations I would not want to rely on it (for now, at least). Like the Iliad, the Kindle serves no purpose other than as an eBook reader, and as such its price seems quite high.

The Samsung micro-laptop gets excellent scores for search, document-format support, ease of adding documents, bookmarking, networking, and eBook navigation. However, all of these scores reflect attributes of the top-notch MobiPocket reader software, as well as its accompanying Creator software, which does a good job at converting common office-type files to HTML and/or Mobi format. Unfortunately, the Samsung hardware, combined with its reliance on the underlying Windows XP operating system, make this a poor choice as a portable eBook reader. The device is very slow to start up, has a very tiny and hard-to-use keyboard, and offers navigation options that aren't suitable for the onscreen software. The Samsung supports touch control, but the display targets that one must interact with to navigate are much too small. The same problem holds for the device's Samsung Q1 as eBook Readerwand, which requires a very steady hand and precise accuracy to reliably trigger onscreen controls. The device's external keypad is horrible and requires far too much effort for an emergency operation. Using a portable keyboard is probably not a practical alternative, either, since it requires the user to have access to a table and chair to enter data or navigate the Samsung. Finally, when not plugged in to an electrical outlet, the display's screen is so dim that I had to bring out a magnifying glass in order to navigate. I won't even mention here how ridiculously expensive the Samsung is, since it can also be used (*wink* *wink*) as a portable PC.

The summary table below presents a matrix of the various attributes used for this review. Items in light green indicate the basic criteria were met, and items in the darker gradient green indicate that the device excelled in fulfilling that particular requirement. White cells are those where the given reader failed to meet a requirement. Following the summary table are detailed tables for each of the five devices, with my review notes organized into Pros and Cons for each.


Functions/Usability Matrix

Device Characteristics

Iliad
($699)

Kindle
($359)

Samsung w/ MobiPocket
($1,299)

iPhone
($199)
iPod Touch
($299)

EeePC w/ MobiPocket
($599)

Supports native formats including images

Can organize documents into folders

Is password protected or supports encryption

Enables full-text search

Documents can be easily transferred from a computer

Bookmarks can be added within files

Documents can have a table of contents

Provides both portrait and landscape modes

Support web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Font faces and sizes can be customized

Accessing and navigating content is easy

Documents are easy to read

Hardware design is well suited to reading

Has easy connectivity to local networks, or supports USB

Provides speedy access in emergencies

Has good hardware navigation (pen, keypad, touch screen, other controls)


Eee PC 901
(with MobiPocket Reader Software)

Pros

Cons

  • Nice design very small, but with relatively large keyboard.
  • Bright screen, and device includes external brightness controls to change it.
  • Networking upgrades that make this device very easy to connect: Built-in Bluetooth, and the latest, fastest 802.11n wireless receiver.
  • Standard Windows XP security features, including support for enterprise-grade standards.
  • Very quick to boot up (about 30 seconds).
  • Device has plenty of hardware ports, including 3 USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, external display, and memory card.
  • The device's trackpad is a commonly used alternative to the mouse, and this one works similarly to others.
  • Device has some surprisingly advanced features for its size and price, such as a built-in video camera, microphone, and high-quality and audio output ports that support 5-1 speaker configurations.
  • Besides wireless connectivity, I could use Ethernet to add this computer to my network, and I could also use a USB thumb drive.
  • I had no trouble connecting to my wireless network or to my Mac's Bluetooth service for file sharing (etc.)
  • Given its impressive and wide-ranging functionality, the Eee PC's price (about $600 retail) makes it a great value.
  • Despite the larger keyboard, I still found that it required quite a bit of practice to use efficiently... especially if you're frequently switching from a regular-sized keyboard.
  • In the toolbox of busy geeks, it's important that the tools don't fight with each other all the time, which they tend to do if they are all activated the same way.
  • Somewhat slow to boot down.
  • Using the Eee PC requires navigating through the full-blown Windows XP or Vista interface, which is way overkill for an eBook reader. Despite the bright screen, high resolution, and large keyboard, these versions of Windows are more difficult to use than the iPhone's interface or that of dedicated readers. In addition, the EeePC doesn't come with any eBook reader software built-in. For the purposes of this review, I downloaded and installed the MobiPocket Reader, which is a very good option for Windows users.
  • The EeePC has no built-in Wand or Touch-Screen capability.


Irex Iliad

Pros

Cons

  • The text display on the Iliad is excellent in normal indoor lighting. (I haven't yet tried it outdoors on a sunny day.)
  • The Iliad provides a wand for use in navigation, and I found that it works quite well (once I was able to locate the "real" one... the case includes a backup that's inactive).
  • Besides the wand, the Iliad has external navigation controls that are reasonably intuitive.
  • The device remembers where you left off reading a particular book.
  • The Iliad can be configured to display text in landscape as well as portrait mode.
  • The page navigation tools work well and are quite simple.
  • The Iliad supports use of a PIN number to protect the device. I set one up, and this works well.
  • iRex uses an embedded Linux operating system for the Iliad, and provides an extensive site for developers who want to help develop the software.
  • The Iliad's hardware is well designed. Its size is small enough, and its viewing screen generous enough to make a pleasant eBook reader for novels and other nontechnical works of fiction and nonfiction.
  • The Iliad is very slow to start up.
  • I would prefer a touch navigation system or easy-to-use keypad rather than (or in addition to ) the wand.
  • Navigation can be very confusing without reading the manual. Iliad relies on a variety of unlabeled icons and unnamed buttons, few of which are immediately intuitive to use.
  • Iliad is very slow in responding to movement from page to page during this session certainly not useful for anyone who was working in an emergency situation.
  • The Iliad can be configured to display documents page-by-page or as a continuous page. However, in the continuous mode it doesn't provide any way of "scrolling", so it's of questionable value. I would prefer a device that supports scrolling as well as page-by-page reading.
  • In landscape mode, the Iliad's navigation controls remain in portrait mode, which can be disconcerting.
  • The device provides no easy, accessible way to increase or decrease font size while reading.
  • Iliad's search function merely applies to the names of files on the device. It appears the Iliad cannot do full-text search, or otherwise search the contents of files.
  • The search function is only accessible when you're at the folder level. You can't invoke search while reading a document.
  • Getting around a large document with many parts can be quite cumbersome. A device like this needs to provide easy access to the document's TOC, or otherwise provide a tool to skip from chapter to chapter. The Iliad's only capability is to skip 5 pages forward or backward at a time, but the user has no way of knowing where 5 pages will take them, so it's a matter of guesswork, or you must return to the TOC and proceed from there. I suspect that the Iliad was designed primarily for reading novels, books that have no TOC and that you read sequentially from front to back. In this respect, it is not suitable to complex documents with many parts, such as the NSF COOP.
  • The electronic paper on this device leaves a smudgy-looking "ghost" print of the previous page in many cases (e.g., when going through the network profile setup screens). This is only a minor annoyance.
  • Setting up a wireless network profile did not work. I used the same settings as for all my network devices, including my iPod Touch. Iliad could not connect. I reentered my password and tried again, but no luck. I removed Iliad from its case and tried again, but nothing.
  • From what I could tell by navigating through the small number of documents that come installed on the Iliad, this device's navigation system will not be useful for a large document store. Navigation is too slow, and the number of documents viewable per screen is too small.
  • The Iliad does not support hyperlinks in PDF files, only in HTML files. From this, I assume (but haven't yet tested) that it doesn't support PDF bookmarks either. This is a serious drawback, since otherwise it is impossible to prepare a TOC for multiple documents the only option is using an Iliad folder, which, as noted previously, isn't suitable for a large number of documents.
  • Many business and personal documents have embedded tables, charts, and images of various sizes. Most are in color, which the Iliad does not support. I had difficulty moving such a document onto the Iliad to test its display for page elements like these, but this is a concern.
  • The 4-digit PIN supported by the Iliad is probably not sufficient to satisfy enterprise security requirements these days. Unlike the iPhone, iRex offers no enterprise-level solution for configuring and protecting the Iliad in an organizational setting. Still, the Iliad's PIN is more protection than Amazon offers for the Kindle.
  • I tried moving documents from my computer via USB and via a USB stick to the Iliad. I couldn't get any connection going with my Mac, but I could read documents from the USB stick. To do so, I had to find the appropriate setting, however, and change it back when not using the USB stick. Further, I found no way to move documents from the stick to the Iliad.
  • The MobiPocket reader on the Iliad is nothing like the desktop version. It has none of the additional features such as search and annotations. Apparently, the Iliad can read MobiPocket files, but that's the extent of its support.
  • Given the device's limited functionality (it's clearly meant to be nothing more than a dedicated eBook reader), its high price ($699 retail) makes it a questionable value.


iPhone/iPod Touch

Pros

Cons

  • Extremely compact form factor---nothing other than a shirt pocket (or similar) required to carry it around.
  • Bright screen, and device includes easy to use brightness controls (as well as auto-brightness) to change it. Also aiding readability are the IPhone's high resolution and font anti-aliasing.
  • The device's touch screen controls are currently the best in the industry response is excellent, and Apple's innovative "Multitouch" technology helps avoid "missed" touches.
  • Includes support for wireless 802.11b/g networking. The iPhone 3G also includes connectivity through Bluetooth 2.0.
  • For security, the iPhone has the following features for enterprise use (text taken from Apple's Enterprise Use overview):
  • Supports Cisco IPSec VPN to ensure the highest level of IP-based encryption for transmission of sensitive company information.
  • Employees can authenticate via password, two-factor token, or digital certificate.
  • iPhone also supports WPA2 Enterprise with 802.1X authentication � the standard for Wi-Fi network protection.
  • IT administrators can securely manage any iPhone that contains confidential company information using remote wipe and enforced security and password policies.
  • Instantly available from sleep mode. The boot down time is almost instantaneous, and the reboot time is about 30 seconds--the same amount of time as the EeePC.
  • iPod Touch and iPhone can connect to computers via USB 2.0.
  • Connecting to wireless networks for Internet and file-sharing was very easy and reliable.
  • The iPhone has some additional advanced features, such as a built-in video camera, microphone, GPS, push Email (both POP and IMAP), and (of course) the 3G data service for telephone use.
  • The iPhone OS, a version of Mac OS X 10.5, also includes other useful connectivity services, such as FTP and HTTP, enabling file-sharing and access through those methods.
  • Unlike dedicated eBook readers like the Iliad, Kindle, and MobiPocket, which require that documents be converted to proprietary formats or text/HTML, the iPod can view a wide variety of documents in their native formats, including:
    • Images (.jpg, .gif, .tiff)
    • Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, Powerpoint)
    • HTML (web pages)
    • iWork files (Keynote, Numbers, Pages)
    • PDF
    • Text and RTF
  • For document viewing, the iPhone/iPod Touch supports both portrait and landscape modes. Landscape mode is activated simply by rotating the device, a technique made possible by Apple's "Accelerometer" technology.
  • The built-in App Store is a powerful way to expand the iPhone/iPod Touch's capabilities. Many of the applications that have become available are directly relevant not only for eBook use, but for other enterprise uses. For example, a recent addition called WinAdmin lets Windows users view and run their desktop applications through the iPhone interface. In a separate report, I have reviewed and made recommendations for the following eBook reader (and related) applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch:
    • Annotater
    • Bookshelf
    • Bookz
    • Caravan
    • DataCase
    • eReader
    • Evernote
    • File Magnet
    • Files
    • Instapaper
    • Mobile Finder
    • Readdle
    • Stanza
    • TouchFS
  • With its 8- or 16 GB hard drive, the iPhone/iPod Touch can serve as a USB thumb drive for loading or transferring files among an organization's computers.
  • The iPhone/iPod Touch is the least expensive of the 5 reviewed devices. If you don't want the cellphone/GPS/video/audio features of the iPhone, the iPod Touch, starting at $299 for an 8GB hard drive, is a bargain... even compared with the Amazon Kindle, which retails for $359. If you want the cellphone and other features of the iPhone, $199 is quite low when factoring in its many uses beyond those of the typical smart-phone.
  • The viewing screen is small compared with dedicated eBook readers, though it's larger than other cellphones.
  • The onscreen keyboard takes some getting used to, regardless of how thoughtfully designed it is. That said, it's far better than the tiny keyboards used on other devices like the Samsung Q1U V.
  • The standard type size for navigation on the iPhone is a bit too large for displaying long document or folder names, and the font size for these user interface elements cannot be changed.


Amazon Kindle

Pros

Cons

  • The Kindle has a very good start-up experience. The "Quick Start" guide is an excellent introduction to the device's main features.
  • I found navigation very intuitive and quite like the "silver cursor" the Kindle uses to navigate within pages.
  • I was immediately impressed with the Kindle's ability to add notes anywhere on a page.
  • After registering the Kindle with Amazon, a required step for using the Kindle, I emailed 3 test files to see how their conversion service works. I used the "free" option at the address llscotts@free.kindle.com, which will email them back to me at my Amazon-account email address. Sending the files to llscotts@kindle.com costs 10 cents per doc, for which fee Amazon will then load the files directly to the Kindle.
  • I tried both methods of conversion, and received Kindle files from each within minutes. The Word conversion is very good, and preserves hyperlinks.
  • The Kindle can follow hyperlinks to web pages and to some internal links in some (but not all) documents.
  • Kindle search functions are excellent. My only quibble--and it's not minor--is that there's no way to search a single document. The Kindle searches all the content on the Kindle. My main concern here is the time required for a lookup. Presentation of search results is excellent.
  • Adding bookmarks on the Kindle is childishly simple. Besides using the menu and scrollwheel device, you can click on the "dog-ear" graphic at the top of any page to add a bookmark. Pages with bookmarks show an active "dog-ear" icon.
  • The Kindle supports several other types of annotations that could be useful. You can "Highlight" text, add "Notes" to documents, or "Clip" whole pages for permanent storage. Using the first two can be used for navigation, like bookmarks.
  • The Kindle preserves and displays images from converted documents.
  • The Kindle's keyboard is large enough to be quite useful far superior to devices like the Samsung, for example.
  • Connecting to my Mac via USB was an iffy proposition. It took several attempts to do so I'm not sure what the problem was, but certainly the connection was very slow to be established, compared to, say, a digital camera, camcorder, or USB stick.
  • After two days of use I concluded that the USB connection was so bad as to be unusable. The device kept connecting and disconnecting every few seconds. I reset the device twice, per Amazon's instructions.
  • The Kindle only supports a few file formats natively (Kindle (.azw), Text (.txt), and Mobi (.mobi, .prc). It can also handle mp3 and audible files. Some other formats (Word, HTML, and various image formats) can be converted to Kindle format using Amazon's online service. Documents to be converted are emailed to an account set up for a specific Kindle. Kindle has an experimental service for converting PDFs as well.
  • The on/off switch is in a nonintuitive location
  • Doesn't support landscape mode.
  • The Kindle doesn't reliably support links within HTML documents, though it does support external links.
  • The text converted from Word can be a little jarring, since it displays an abundance of unnecessary vertical white space, shifts fonts and font sizes for no apparent reason, and shifts between fully justified text and ragged text layouts. You can't change the converted documents, but it would be interesting to figure out what causes the irregularities. In addition, the conversion doesn't do well with formatting such as lists.
  • The Kindle doesn't allow users to organize files into folders.
  • On the Kindle Media Manager website, you can add tags to documents, but these aren't transferred to the Kindle.
  • The Kindle's web-page access is extremely slow. After several minutes of waiting for the device to connect to http://gets.ncs.gov, Kindle reported that the server was not responding. However, when I immediately entered the URL in my computer's web browser, the site came up instantly. I tried this twice with the same results.
  • Regarding access, several times during my test the Kindle reported that it could not connect to Amazon's Kindle server. This might suggest that the Kindle server should not our primary repository for NSF's COOP documents, though it would be useful as a backup location.
  • Since Kindle doesn't support spreadsheet documents, I converted the critical personnel roster to HTML and sent it off for conversion. Received an email from Amazon saying the HTML file (a format they are supposed to support) could not be converted:
    The following attachment(s), sent at 10:17 AM on Wed, Jul 23, 2008 could not be converted and delivered to your Amazon Kindle account:
    * COOP - Critical Personnel Roster - April 2008.html
    The following document and image types are supported as attachments:
    Personal documents: Unprotected Microsoft Word documents (*.doc), HTML documents (*.html, *.htm), and Text documents (*.txt)
    Images: JPEGs (*.jpg), GIFs (*.gif), Bitmaps (*.bmp), and PNG images (*.png)
    If your attachment(s) is one of the above file types, please ensure the document is not password protected or encrypted. If you need further assistance, please contact customer support at 1-866-321-8851.
  • The Kindle remembers where you left off while reading a document.
  • The type size on the Kindle's list of documents is too large it's hard to tell which document is which when the document names are so similar. You can't adjust the font size for this screen.
  • The Kindle's documentation says that it natively supports MobiPocket files (.mobi, .prc), but it didn't recognize two that I transferred, which were created using the MobiPocket software.


Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium
(with MobiPocket Reader Software)

Pros

Cons

  • The device is compact, though surprisingly heavy.
  • The Samsung PC offers three different modes for navigating and entering data: External keyboard, a wand, and a touch screen. Unfortunately, none of them worked well for me.
  • Standard Windows XP security features, including support for enterprise-grade standards.
  • I had no trouble connecting to my wireless network. The Samsung has a decent array of external connectivity options: Besides wi-fi (802.11g), there's Bluetooth and Ethernet.
  • The display on this device is so dim I couldn't read the password screen. It's bright only when connected to a power source, even if its battery is fully charged. It has no external brightness control, and despite numerous searches (even turning it over to my teenage son, who failed, too) I couldn't locate the magic switch in Windows' control panels to change it. Eventually, I took a magnifying glass to the extremely dim screen and went through the relevant control panels for half an hour or so, but I never succeeded in changing the screen brightness so I could use the device on battery power. Since one of the selling points of this micro-laptop is supposed to be its "ultra-bright LED backlit touchscreen LCD," (what is an LED LCD, anyway?) I either had a dud, the machine was badly configured, or the task was too hard for me.
  • I would not want to be the one who has to enter my organization's 13-character password regularly. The keyboard is too small, and having to use various shift keys is terribly cumbersome. Certainly, you wouldn't want to be doing that in case of an emergency, which is one of the scenarios for which the eBook I'm looking for is intended.
  • The touch screen, and the Windows-OS widgets that you must navigate with, are too small to easily manipulate the interface.
  • The Samsung has only one USB outlet, so you can't use an external keyboard and have it plugged into a PC at the same time.
  • An external keyboard isn't practical for mobile use, anyway, since you need to have a desk or table at hand for it to be used... and they may not be handy in an emergency.
  • Windows applications don't open with a single touch you have to "double-touch" them, which can be tricky. I located a setting that lets you specify "press once and hold" to open apps, but that was finicky, and I often ended up merely dragging the icon around. When I did succeed in getting a "launch" response, the app didn't launch directly. Instead, I got a contextual menu and had to press the item "Open" to launch the application.
  • The Windows OS requires that both the pen and the touch interface position the cursor in the target control area precisely. Thus, hitting a control with the pen spot-on is not sufficient in many cases. Controlling windows with your finger also becomes difficult when they lie on the right edge of the screen, since the control is abutting the device's case, and your (or, well, mine anyway) finger is too big to make the necessary connection.
  • The device couldn't connect to my Mac via USB, Bluetooth, or wi-fi, so I used a USB thumb drive to move my test documents to the Samsung.
  • As noted in my comments on the Eee PC, the full-blown Windows OS isn't well suited to eBook reading, because its navigation paradigm is difficult to use on small screens like this. Windows doesn't come with any eBook reader software built-in. For the purposes of this review, I downloaded and installed the MobiPocket Reader, which is a very good option for Windows users.
  • The Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium micro-laptop is the most expensive of the devices reviewed as possible eBook readers. In fact, it was almost twice as expensive as the Kindle, the second most expensive device. This computer retails for over $2,000, though Amazon has it for around $1,300. As an eBook reader, or even as a computer, it's difficult to imagine why anyone would think that price was worthwhile. Perhaps they haven't looked at the Eee PC, which has better specs, is only half the price, and is only slightly larger.
Image Reflections with CSS

Image Reflections with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

Box Shadows and Rounded Corners with CSS

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
April 14th, 2008

WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0

Cascading Style Sheets!
Note: This article was originally published in July 2007 and has now been updated with some of the newer CSS 3.0 tricks that are now available in WebKit, the open source frameworks on which Safari is built. (Many of these tricks are also now available to users of Safari 3.1, released in March 2008.) Although the textual introduction has been updated, it is still written mostly with its original perspective from July 2007.

A lot has happened in the world of web browsers and CSS 3.0 since I wrote this article last summer at the time Safari 3.0 became available as a public beta. Besides WebKit/Safari, 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 of my CSS playground at the end of the article.

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: The corners of any
    element can be made round to any radius you specify.
  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 bleeding-edge CSS features:

  1. Adopted last October, WebKit introduced its first take at CSS Transforms, which it has submitted to the W3C for consideration. With CSS Transforms,
    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. Using this specification, you can now program many kinds of animations with CSS alone.
  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 fully support this geeky, but highly practical feature. (Some of the other browsers have implemented partial support.)
  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. (This is the only new feature in this list that as yet works only in the latest WebKit nightly build.)

This article lists the CSS 3.0 features that were first available in Safari or the nightly WebKit browser. Besides listing them, I've tried to keep up with what the features can actually do for me as a web designer, so each feature is accompanied by a demo or two and some explanatory notes. Since some of the features are a bit complex, and almost totally lacking in documentation from either W3C (which only lists the standards, not the implementation details), Apple, or the WebKit team, I've had to experiment to discover what some of the attributes do.

Fortunately, a forward-thinking group of techno-weenies is keeping a close eye on the emerging details of the CSS 3.0 implementations, and they have done some experimenting of their own. Since they're in the same boat I am (actually, they have a much better boat!), it's not surprising that I'm finding ambiguities in the way they've built some of their demos. Still, it's the closest thing to documentation that I've found, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about CSS 3.0 pay a visit to the terrific CSS3.info website. In fact, you'll find links to their pages throughout this site.

Following CSS3.info's lead, I'm organizing the (at this time) CSS 3.0 available in Safari into four categories: Borders, Background, Effects, and User Interface. These correspond to the W3C draft modules for CSS 3.0. The fifth tab in the navigation control below gathers the CSS 3.0 specifications that have been implemented by Safari and at least one other major browser. As you browse through these up-and-coming features, I think you'll understand my excitement about the benefits they offer to web graphic- and user-interface designers.

In the first release of this article, I only had demos for the section on Borders. Today I've added demos for CSS Backgrounds, and I plan to continue experimenting with the rest as time permits. In the meantime, as mentioned before, do pay a visit to CSS3.info for their demos of each, or follow the links to demos at the WebKit site. I hope you're inspired to take up a keyboard and pound out some experiments of your own!

  • CSS3 Borders
  • CSS3 Backgrounds
  • CSS3 Text Effects
  • CSS3 User Interface Methods
  • Other Cool CSS3 Techniques
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
June 12th, 2007

MacFUSE and MacFusion: Very interesting development in information management

SeeAlso - macfusion - Google Code This page is the list of links from the MacFusion project, a Google open source initiative that's built on the MacFUSE project... another Google project. MacFUSE itself is based on the Linux-based FUSE project, which apparently lets developers present all sorts of information as file system objects. For example, the first such project I encountered was iTunesFS, which converts (on the fly) your iTunes library XML file into a browsable file system. It works kind of like iPodDisk does on your iPod contents. Anyway, I've just started to scratch the surface here, but it definitely looks like a worthwhile dig. MacFusion adds a menubar item to access your various MacFUSE installations--such as the one for Spotlight (?) and another for SFTP sources.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:InnovationTags: , , |
June 11th, 2007

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

Note: This article was originally published on October 22, 2006, but I removed it from Mars after realizing that revealing information about Quick Look violated my nondisclosure agreement as an Apple developer. Now that the "cat is out of the bag"--one of many beautiful cats Apple set free today--I think it's safe to put the information back online. In any case, today's news is a great excuse to re-celebrate both Quick Look and the other amazing new features of Leopard.

Leopard's Quick Look Adds Pizzazz To File PreviewsEach new operating system that's come out in recent years has tried to make previewing content from your file system easier and easier. Both Mac OS X and Windows have been able to preview images and some other types of documents within their relative file browsers (Finder and Explorer) for several years, and with both Leopard and Vista, the two are once again trying to outdo each other.

Mac OS X has had the upper hand in handling digital media, though, since you can browse and play live audio and video within the Finder as well. As far as I can tell, this functionality, which has never been part of Windows XP, is still left out in the forthcoming Windows Vista.

Apple's Quick Look Feature in Action on PDF FileVista has a document preview pane that lets you scroll through Office documents (and possibly text files), but as far as I can determine it doesn't help you with PDF files. Microsoft has added a number of other features like "smart" folders and live search, which of course come straight from Mac OS X.

But despite Microsoft's attempts to improve Explorer's looks and functions, it mostly seems to keep making Explorer more complicated than anyone really wants or needs. Of course, this is the Windows Way, isn't it? Never miss an opportunity to add an "Advanced" button whenever possible in order to cram in more useless but impressive-looking functions that only a Help Desk person could love. :-)

Using Quick Look To Browse Apple's TV AdsThis has left the field free for Apple to continue raising the bar on usability, making the Finder more and more indispensable. Although many of us keep hoping they'll rewrite Finder in Cocoa and add useful features like tabs, I have to say I'm pretty delighted with a new feature they've slipped in to the latest build of Leopard.

With "Quick Look," Apple is leaping ahead of the file-previewing game by providing a separate, translucent preview window of amazing flexibility and beauty. It 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?

Click  to play or hide movie.

Last night I made three movies of "Quick Look" in action. The first shows simple file browsing with multiple file types--HTML, PDF, and images (including a Photoshop file).

The second one I made while quickly browsing some Apple "Mac vs. PC" ads that I'd downloaded in QuickTime format. In recording the movie, I was simply moving my cursor in the Finder from one video to the next, and somehow Quick Look picked each movie up at the same point in the timeline rather than starting at the beginning each time.

Leopard's Finder Now Has Document Preview ModeUsing Quick Look in the Finder's Icon View

The final movie is a quick snippet of one of my favorite scenes from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. To me, this is the most amazing innovation of Quick Look. Although in Tiger, you can preview movies right in the Finder... it's not much fun, since you can't make them more than about 128 pixels square. In Leopard, you'll be able to resize the Quick Look bezel to full size or even full screen, just as easily!

And of course, Apple has endowed Quick Look with some eye-catching animation techniques, so that it's almost as much fun to invoke as it is to actually employ for previewing your files.

Besides Quick Look, Apple has enhanced file previewing in Leopard in a few other ways. First, you can now set a view preference to see file previews, which makes thumbnails for movies, images, PDF files, text documents, and other types. Of course, Quick Look can be invoked in any Finder view, even icon view. Also, if you're in column mode, you can now resize videos to their full size, whereas in Tiger there is some arbitrary size limit to video resizing, just as there is for images.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Apple, Innovation, Mac OS XTags: , |
March 22nd, 2007

Parallax Web Page Background Using Javascript and CSS

Parallax Background with Javascript and CSS Now this is a kewl implementation of Javascript! Talk about thinking outside the box... this is a totally new concept I've never seen before. Of course, it's also a great way to make visitors dizzy, but hey... some people like that, right? I mean, how about web pages as roller coasters or tilt-a-whirls?
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 27th, 2007

inkBook: Time To Get A Writing Tablet?

inkBook inkBook Inkwell-Aware Notepad AppOriginally downloaded January 27, 2007. I wonder how well this really works...? Writing is still the most intuitive data entry method for certain tasks, and Apple does have the Inkwell technology built in to Mac OS X. But how would this work for me? I guess I'll never know unless I find or buy a graphics tablet and try it out... I'm definitely curious.

Version as tested: 1.3.1.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 9th, 2007

iPhone: OK, I’m Impressed… Now Gimme The Goods!

Apple - iPhone Apple iPhoneIn these jaded times, it's hard to impress people. But I sincerely doubt that even the most ardent Apple-haters will be able to look at these demos of the new iPhone by Apple, Inc. (yes, they just dropped "computer" from their name!) without giving in to awe... pure, marvelous awe. If the delivered product is half as good as it looks, I'll be standing in line for one, because it so far exceeds my expectations that I'm really, really... impressed! The iPhone is a misnomer, because this is the "convergent" product the market has been anticipating for years. The iPhone is:
  • A widescreen iPod for video and audio, synked through iTunes
  • A mobile phone (yawn) with integrated camera, voicemail and photo sharing
  • A web browser (Safari), including email, Google maps, search, and widgets
  • A technological marvel, featuring a new "multitouch" touchscreen system (no buttons), an embedded copy of Mac OS X, wireless computing (bluetooth, 802.11b/g, and Cingular's Edge network, and sophisticated new sensors that do a heckuva lotta cool things just by moving the device around.

Did I mention it comes with a Bluetooth headset?

Help! I can't wait until June!

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 8th, 2007

Zirrus: An Online To-Do List App With Clear Clouds

Zirrus: A To Do List for The Rest of Us Zirrus (that's zirr.us, folks) is an amazing new Web 2.0 application that adds an innovation to to-do lists that I hope catches on. Certainly, I think it may make a difference for me. The idea behind Zirrus is to let users see their lists as a "cloud", where the priority you set is reflected in the size of the tasks. It also lets you automatically or interactively move tasks to a "Now" category, and it incorporates actual tags to help with categorizing your tasks. Of course, you can set due dates as well. The Ajax-based interface is a breeze to use, but if you need help, the 3-minute screencast is a good intro. I'm still amazed, and will be back to try my free account in real time to see if the amazement translates into actual improvement in getting things done.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 4th, 2007

Mogopop: New Web 2.0 Publishing Tool for iPod

Mogopop: Make It To Go

Mogopop LogoThis looks like a really cool Web 2.0-style application, designed specifically for the iPod. Mogopop provides a small application for Mac OS X and Windows users, which manages the installation of Mogopop content (and removal), which you can browse and download from the Mogopop website. Content appears to run the gamut of simple text to complex multimedia presentations with linked images, movies, and sound. In some ways, Mogopop is like some iPod notes creation tools, except that the content builder is part of the Mogopop website. Using the “Publish” part of the site, you can sign up for a 50MB space to create your multimedia masterpiece, which any user can then find and download to their iPod. To understand what’s really going on with Mogopop, I recommend checking out the excellent, short screencast. I’m looking forward to making some Mogopop content myself here soon!

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 26th, 2006

WebKit Team Adds New CSS Methods for Text-Stroke

Surfin’ Safari - Blog Archive » Introducing Text-Stroke Well this is certainly a useful addition to the type designer's bag of tricks when developing a web site design. I'm sure it'll be abused, but only after it's ported to Windows and all the PowerPoint-design hordes get hold of it. :-) Now that the WebKit team's made this code available, it suddenly seems so obvious, I wonder why the designers of CSS 3.0 didn't think of it? Oh well, you can't think of everything, can you?
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 19th, 2006

Onlife: Automatically Stores and Indexes Your Daily Activities and Content

Onlife observes your every interaction with iLife-related Apps and creates a “personal shoebox” of them

Pod Util SoftwareOriginally downloaded 3/20/06. Is there a category for a product like Onlife? Not that I know of. BackTrack stores all the keystrokes you type, and there are a variety of tools that store all the web pages you visit. But nothing that does that plus all of your mail, chats, etc. Sounds very interesting indeed! Did I mention that this is freeware?

Update 12/19/06. I’ve let onLife run freely on my system for weeks at a time on two or three occasions since I downloaded beta 3 in March. I still think this is a very cool concept, and the visuals and interface ideas are really terrific. There’s even been a slow but steady increase in support for more apps, but honestly I haven’t yet found a reason why I would use onLife. The one thing I kind of hoped to get out of it was an alternative safety net to retrieve lost text and the like. However, early on I discovered that onLife doesn’t preserve information you type into web forms.

Part of the issue for me is that like many “discover yourself” applications, onLife requires a lot of setup to be really useful. If you take the time to set up projects, and then remember to tell onLife you’re switching to a given project, you might come away with some useful data about your activities. But I’m not sure what I’d do with it, quite frankly. I’d rather take the time to set up projects in an Personal Organizer application like LifeBalance (which I haven’t had time to do) than go through a similar exercise in onLife.

onLife's Main Window

And despite the increase in supported applications, there are still quite a few that I use regularly that aren’t being captured in onLife. Right off the top of my head, I can think of DevonThink Pro and Ecto, both of which I use heavily in blogging and doing research. Newer apps like WriteRoom, of course, won’t be supported for months (if ever). A tool like onLife needs a whole gang of open source coders devoted to making it really useful… or else, they need to turn it into a money-maker so they can hire someone else. Heck, there hasn’t been any change of significance to the software since May, and the developer said recently that the next version would be trimming back features rather than adding them.

Bottom line, if onLife’s life-cycle regains some energy I’ll be the first to notice and take another look. In the meantime, I’m tossing this aside and closing the loop on this demo.

Version as tested: 1.0b5.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 9th, 2006

Edgies: Super-Stickies on the Edge of Your Screen

Edgies

Edgies Sticky Notes FreewareOriginally downloaded 7/19/06. Edgies remind me of Sticky Windows or, more recently, iXiu. However, unlike either of those, (iXiu isn’t released yet), Edgies is freeware, which makes it much more interesting. The other thing Edgies reminds me of is the way I used to use Drag Thing, with small, colorful tabs along the edge of the screen. Edgies can apparently hold anything a Sticky can, and will accept items dragged to them from other apps. Could be very cool indeed!

Update 10/14/06. Edgies is now $10 shareware.

Update 12/9/06. This latest version of Edgies is the real thing. It has now become a seriously great Mac OS X application that is well worth the money. It’s the best “edge of the screen” software I’ve ever tried and has customization options that will delight and surprise you. Unlike some earlier versions, this latest (1.1 beta 5.3) is stable and reliable. I guarantee that Edgies will teach you new ways of using your Mac and demonstrate once again that Mac developers are making the best and most exciting personal-use software on the planet. (I’ve added a screen movie at the end of the review, as well as a screenshot of the Edgies “memo list” window, which lets you manage your Edgies is a typical Cocoa word-processor mode, like TextEdit.)

Lest my rave leads you to think I believe Edgies is perfect, here’s my brief list of pros/cons notes on it. As you’ll see, there’s plenty of room to improve. But then, isn’t that true of just about everything?

Pros

Cons

  • Very cool concept
  • Lot of flexibility in setting up and managing edgies
  • List view shows all “memos”, which comes with a search field.
  • Edgies can store many kinds of data and file types.
  • Support for checklists.
  • Persistent presence without opening a separate application.
  • Several novel features such as balloon preview and tear-off notes.
  • It’s easy to move edgies around on the edge, or to move them from one edge to another.
  • New feature lets edgies automatically arrange themselves in an overlapping, tab-like manner. You have some customizing options for this, too.
  • Edgies provides an application service, and you can save selected text to make a new memo. In this case, text formatting from the source app is preserved (mostly… Edgies gets some stuff wrong. In my case, it boldfaced everything, when I had just set a heading bold. Note that in this case (imported text), I was able to set text attributes in the Edgy memo.)
  • Edgies provides a “Memo List” window that has some surprisingly powerful features. Not only can you set or change meta data here (including the edgie’s color), but you can search your edgies and, best of all, use the Cocoa ruler in a given note. The ruler gives you access to all your text styles and list options. It’s almost as good as working directly in TextEdit! The Memo List is a great way of organizing and managing some of your more — er — complex edgies. :-)
  • You can customize sounds to correspond with different Edgies events (but Edgies doesn’t provide any)
  • You can customize keyboard shortcuts for most Edgies functions
  • You can make new memos by dragging text, files, or images to the screen edge (this is configurable). If you drag a non-text, non-image file, Edgies will either embed the file in the memo or add a link. You can also drag URLs to Edgies to make bookmarks, etc.
  • For images, Edgies provides a couple of basic options: scale, rotate
  • You can add and manage checkboxes to any Edgie, making them do double-duty as to-do lists. And guess what! The checkboxes can be customized by color!
  • Edgies doesn’t provide an option for using a menubar item.
  • Export options limited to RTFD; however, Edgies provides a quick export feature that lets you save to a specified folder without dialog.
  • Can’t set default text color, which means using dark tab colors isn’t an option.
  • Edgies are somewhat slow to start up.
  • In latest build, I had trouble getting Edgies to eliminate the Dock icon. It turns out that Edgies needs to be in the main Applications folder for this to work.
  • Sometimes I couldn’t get Edgies to set font attributes (size, bold) or styles. It would set an underline, but that was it.
  • Edgies seems to forget its transparency settings for notes etc. Difficult to get settings correct. (That problem was caused by my use of SetAlphaValue, a cool Cocoa InputManager that lets you customize transparency settings in any Cocoa app. It was conflicting with Edgies’ own transparency settings…)
  • When making a new memo from the application service, Edgies seemed to forget it was supposed to stay “floating”. All other memos but the current one were hidden, and I couldn’t access them. Eventually, the other memos showed up, but it took time.
  • In the latest build, the memo list was unresponsive to mouse click… I couldn’t select any of the memos, and they didn’t display even when I used the “display” checkbox. Update: This problem apparently results from a conflict with OpenMenu, which I’m also testing. When I disabled OpenMenu in Edgies, the Memo List worked great.


Edgies Memo List Window

Version as tested: 1.1b5.3

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 5th, 2006

Contrepoint: A Unique, Rails-Like Way To Build Static Websites

Contrepoint - A Mac OS X website builder written in Ruby

Contrepoint Website Creation SoftwareThis looks like an interesting tool… The company’s website was developed with Contrepoint, and from what I could tell the software is freeware. With all the hoopla over Google’s Page Creator and Apple’s iWeb, it’s worth taking a look at another quick site developer like this one. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised! (The developer is also working on a Mac OS X Mail package, which, I pray, will provide a decent alternative to Apple’s Mail once he gets IMAP support added.)

Update 12/7/06. OK… I get it now. Contrepoint is more a proof-of-concept application than something appropriate for most publishers. Although it really does take a paradigm-shift away from database-driven websites and back to simple static text files. With Contrepoint, you just organize directories that are named to reflect the sections of your site, and you put simple text files (HTML not necessary) in them to contain your content. You can also put images and special text files that can act as captions. Contrepoint supports a simple markup that lets you set up tables and lists, and the application itself takes care of converting everything to HTML when you’re ready. It comes with several example websites and everything you need to learn how to build one of your own.

Contrepoint is built with Ruby, and its approach to website building reminds me a lot of the Rails way of building database-driven content. Not something I’d use myself, but very interesting all the same. Kudos to the developer!

Version as tested: 1.0.2.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
November 15th, 2006

Zune’s Debut Spoiled by a Brief Shuffle on CNN

CNN.com Video: Microsoft’s New Zune

Zune vs. Shuffle on CNNI saw this on TUAW, and had to share it here as well. This is a hilarious video that all Apple/iPod lovers will get a kick out of. While looking sheepishly like a Microsoft-paid spokesman, the New York Times fellow shows off the new Zune to a somewhat skeptical pair of CNN anchors. Then, at the end, one of the anchors whips out her new iPod shuffle and pins it to her lapel. Everyone agrees it’s much sexier than the Zune, and the other anchor wonders why Microsoft “can’t get some good designers in there” because the Zune is so “clunky” looking. Priceless!

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
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 add-ons like SafariStand make me grateful that I don't have to find out. For me, it's much easier to utilize and keep track of one extension 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 add-ons (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 extensions 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 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 extensions, 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.

SafariStand Actions MenuBelieve me, that's not the entire list... but I think you get the idea. SafariStand is free, is continuously being developed, and works seamlessly and quietly with Safari. You access SafariStand's settings either by the "Stand" menu that's added to the top-level menubar, or via one of two new icons you can add to your Safari toolbar. (If you try SafariStand, be sure to customize your Safari toolbar in order to add at least the SafariStand Actions Menu icon... it's the only way to access the new Page Info window, which I'll describe in a moment.)

Yet Another Improvement To Browser Tabs

The two features I want to provide more information about just showed up a few weeks ago in the latest beta release. One is a really useful, but simple, enhancement to SafariStand's thumbnail-icon sidebar that actually makes this tool usable for me. A couple of months ago, I went into detail about the design of the forthcoming Shiira 2.0's graphical tabs, comparing them with those in the new OmniWeb 5.5. As it turns out, as much as I like Shiira's thumbnail tab implementation, SafariStand's innovation is a brilliant improvement. I hope the Shiira developers are paying attention!

New SafariStand Preferences for SidebarOld SafariStand Preferences for Sidebar

The main problem I've had with thumbnail tabs up to now is that if you make them small enough so that they don't consume too much screen real estate, you can't (or rather, I can't...) distinguish them clearly enough to be useful. You might as well click on the tab to see what page the tab is for, since the teeny icon is too muddy to be recognizable. You could make the tabs big enough to see the thumbnail, but then you're eating up valuable screen space. (An approach some browsers have tried, including Opera and the forthcoming Safari 3.0, is to enable tooltip-like page previews when you hover the mouse over your tabs. This is another great way of letting users distinguish tab content, although it arguably takes more effort than well-implemented thumbnail tabs.)

Customizing SafariStand Page Thumbnails What SafariStand's developers have done is to add a cropping tool that lets you select the portion of web pages you want to see represented in the thumbnail. This lets you tell the browser to make a thumbnail of only a certain rectangular portion of a given web page. Since most web pages have their main graphical identification in the upper left-hand corner, you can now basically tell the browser to "blow up" that portion into your tiny thumbnail. This also lets you define how high the thumbnails will be, since you can define the height and width of the rectangle to be "iconized."

This is very cool indeed. It's also the kind of feature that a small movie can describe better than words, so check out the accompanying QuickTime animation if you're having trouble visualizing this functionality.

New SafariStand SidebarPrevious SafariStand SidebarThe new SafariStand sidebar has also been cleaned up in small ways that bring it up to date with the latest and greatest Mac OS X software: You now have the light-blue background from Mail, Ecto, iTunes, and dozens of other Mac apps, and you have the "new" standard drag bar that you can use to resize the sidebar. The new sidebar preferences let you decide whether the drag bar goes at the top of the sidebar or at the bottom. All in all, I really, really like the new sidebar. I also like the fact that I can use it while still keeping my regular Safari tab bar, because I like it, too... for different reasons.

"Page Info" Goes Graphical

The second big news in SafariStand is the "Page Info" window. I swear these developers must have read my raves about Shiira's new "Page Info" window back in August, because the new SafariStand window bears a striking resemblence to the one planned for Shiira 2.0. I find this new window invaluable, since as a developer it lets me very easily identify and peruse all the components of a given web page.

Inside the new window, you've got a screen with the basic page information: File size, referrer, user-agent string, and server headers. Next, a pane showing the page's "Sub Resources," a list similar to Safari's standard "Activity" window.

Then we get to the really good parts. First, a pane listing all the CSS files used in the page. Like Shiira's, just click on one, and the CSS file's contents can be browsed in the pane below. The list of the page's JavaScript resources works the same way. Both of these are the easiest way I've seen of quickly peeking at the scripts and CSS instructions used for a web page.

SafariStand's New Page Info WindowFinally, SafariStand's Page Info window has a paneful of the page's images. Here, rather than simply mimicking Shiira's excellent implementation, SafariStand's developer has improved on it. Where Shiira's window gives you a list of filenames, which you can then click to see each image in the lower pane (the same model used for CSS and JavaScript files), the latest SafariStand provides an instant preview of all the page's images, arrayed as in a Finder window set to Icon View. You also get a slider at the top of the window, which lets you set the scale factor for the icon view, so you can make the images larger or smaller. Click on an image, and a form at the bottom of the pane fills in information about it: Its filename, dimensions, and file size.

This is again so great, I had to capture a quick screencast of the way it works. Hopefully it's clear enough that you can get an accurate picture of how the window works.

Making Safari The Best That It Can Be

Now, it would be great if Apple would simply build some of these features into Safari. What I hear so often is that users think Safari simply can't do this thing or that thing... when I know for a fact that it can. You just have to find the right plugin. And there's a plugin for nearly everything you really want Safari to do. No, you can't have weather forecast information displaying in your status bar, and there's nothing quite like the Scrapbook you can use with Firefox. But honestly, there's probably more free stuff you can get for Safari than you realize.

SafariStand's New Restore Dialog That Greets You On Startup (Option)To begin exploring, start with Jon Hicks' great compilation of Safari add-ons at PimpMySafari.com. Here, you'll find over 50 great plugins for Safari, as well as an extensive collection of "bookmarklets," which are little JavaScripts you can add to your bookmark bar to perform a variety of useful tricks. (Hicks also maintains a similar site for Camino, Firefox's native Cocoa cousin that like Safari is viewed as "plugin poor" compared with Firefox and Mozilla. )

In a quick inventory of my own Safari add-ons, here's what I'm currently using in addition to SafariStand:

  • SafariBlock, an excellent ad-blocking tool comparable to Firefox's AdBlock extension. It can block Flash as well as image content, is free, reliable, and very easy to use.
  • The aforementioned Safari Extender, a $10 plugin that adds a variety of functions to your contextual menu in Safari.
  • Acid Search, a free plugin that adds extensive search engines and customization to the Google search bar, as well as find-as-you-type.
  • Safari Tidy, a terrific free plugin that validates web pages for (x)html compliance using HTML Tidy, and puts error and warning messages in your status bar. It also does some great upgrades to Safari's standard "View Source" window.
  • SafariScript, a terrific extension that takes advantage of the fact that Safari can do a heckuva lot with AppleScript that other browsers simply can't. The developer's website is a wonderland of great scripts that you can add to your new Safari Script menu, including some which are full-fledged plugins themselves.
  • WebDevAdditions, a plugin that corresponds roughly with Firefox's terrific Web Developer extension. It adds an array of menu items and contextual menus that let you parse, poke, and peek at a web page's structure, design, and functionality. It's gotten steadily better since it was first introduced in mid-2005.

PimpMySafari.com: Find Safari PluginsI highly recommend all of these add-ons to Safari, but if you're intrigued, be sure to pay a visit to PimpMySafari.com, where you'll find plenty more where those came from, with even more being added each month. You'll certainly find a prominent link to SafariStand as well! With all of these riches, there really is no need for Safari users to look enviously at the more than 1,500 extensions available for Firefox. After all, a huge number of the Firefox extensions merely cover functionality that Mac OS X "Tiger" users can get through Dashboard widgets (which are just little web pages, after all). And how many Dashboard widgets are available now, a year and a half after they were introduced? That's right... almost 2,400 as of today. Believe me, widgets are a heckuva lot more fun than browser extensions, and they're available when your browser isn't running, too. :-)

Uh-oh, you got me started on widgets... So, just to keep this in perspective, if you don't have Tiger and want widgets, Konfabulator is now free and living at Yahoo. Wouldja believe there are now over 3,200 Konfabulator-style widgets at Yahoo's widget portal? Like the Apple-style widgets, nearly all of these are free for the taking.

If that weren't enough, Google is now in the widget business, and though fledgling at this point, has a gallery with hundreds of little web widgets that you can add to your browser to do nearly anything you can think you might want to do on the web.

Now, I don't know about you, but that's more than enough "stuff" I can get nowadays to make accessing web content easier and more enjoyable on my Mac, no matter which browser I'm using. And isn't your ability to access content and services on the web faster, easier, and more fun the final measure of success for whatever web-browsing tools you use?

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
October 23rd, 2006

Desktop Picture Imperium: A Widget for Controlling Your Desktop Pics

Desktop Picture Imperium: A widget that gives you total control of the pictures you display on your desktop Desktop Imperium WidgetOriginally downloaded 10/22/06. The tag line for this Dashboard widget says it all. This is the most unique widget implementation I've seen to date... extremely thoughtful and innovative. It's a little finicky, but definitely worth the download. :-)

Version as tested: 1.2.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
October 4th, 2006

Google Chief Praises Apple’s “Most Remarkable” Resurgence

AppleInsider | Google chief shares kind words on Apple From a new interview in Time magazine, AppleInsider reports that Google CEO Eric Schmidt had some remarkably positive words about Apple Computer, whose board of directors he recently joined.  Saying his commitment to Apple is "personal," he unleashed this most quotable quote in the interview:
Apple is engaged in probably the most remarkable second act ever seen in technology. Its resurgence is simply phenomenal and extremely impressive.

Ain't it the truth?

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Apple, InnovationTags: , |
October 4th, 2006

Three New Safari 3.0 Tricks Are Producing Leopard Lust

Since publishing this article 2 days ago, I’ve learned that the textarea-resizing trick in Safari 3.0 is indeed an implementation of the CSS3 specification for resizing textarea form fields. The implementation you see in Safari 3.0 is probably experimental and will likely be modified somewhat before release.  As specified in CSS3, any textarea box can have attributes allowing horizontal, vertical, or both h&ampv resizing. Use of the attribute may be left up to the designer in the final browser, or—better still—universally implemented (as here) but with a preference to toggle it off and accept the style sheet provided by the site designer. This site has an excellent overview of CSS3 tricks—some of which are already implemented in WebKit/Safari, Firefox, and others—but many of which are not.

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.) (Update 10/5/06, 7:30PM EST. Someone has pointed out that Firefox does indeed now have an extension that enables resizable textarea boxes in Firefox 1.5! It doesn’t work quite right yet in 2.0, but it will soon I’m sure. See this site to download it.)

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?)

One final note before I get to the good stuff is that these three features aren’t the end of the story for Safari 3.0. There are lots of other enhancements, small and large. Two of the large ones are Web Inspector, which I’ve blogged about before, and which is now incorporated into Safari (if you enable the “debug” menu). And the feature Apple highlighted in the August developer keynote: Instant widgets, which Apple is calling “Web Clips.”

Trick One: Tabs on Steroids

With that, here are three short screencasts showing Safari 3.0 in action. The first is showing off Safari’s new tab tricks. Besides catching up with most other browser makers in letting users reorder their tabs through drag-and-drop, Apple is adding the ability to drag tabs off your browser and make new windows with them. Or you can drag tabbed windows from one window to another. You can also ask Safari to consolidate all open windows into one, making tabs for each. In all, these new tricks promise to make power-surfing even easier! (Note: Safari users have had several plugins available to enable rearrangeable tabs for quite some time… just not the real thing!)

Update 10/5/06, 8:00PM EST. It turns out that OmniWeb 5.5 now includes the capability of dragging page icons—the OmniWeb equivalent of tabs—from one window to another. However, you can’t drag them into new windows, and the mechanics of dragging to another window can be awkward since you can’t switch windows while dragging. However, for another take on tabs—and another glimpse into the future of web browsing—take a look at the article I wrote about Shiira a couple of months ago… more droolworthy tab goodness.)

Streaming QuickTime (1 Min, 7 Secs). Audio On | Off

Click  to play or hide movie.
Click  to play or hide movie.
Trick Two: Lightbox Searching

It’s very old news to Firefox fans that the Mozilla crew devised a wonderful enhancement to in-page searching some time ago, which lets you search “live” on any web page. Hitting Ctrl-F or Cmd-F (depending on whether you’re the Control type or the Command type) produces a nifty horizontal search area just above the browser’s status bar, and lets you enter various searches or navigate through results. Firefox also gives you a “Highlight All” button and a checkbox to do case-sensitive searching. Now, this is all well and good, and it’s one Firefox feature that I’ve really wanted Apple to bring to Safari. But you didn’t think it was the be-all and end-all of in-page search, did you?

With Safari 3.0, Apple’s engineers have buffed the idea to a fresh new sheen, in the process simplifying it and enhancing it so that it’s a noticeable improvement over the Firefox original. The simplifying part comes from eliminating the “Highlight All” button, for example. Apple’s usability radar clearly understood that having to make that a separate choice is simply redundant. Why not make “highlight all” the default? Who would want to see only one instance of their search term, anyway? When you’re looking for a word or phrase, you usually want to see all instances so you can pick the right one. One step eliminated.

The enhancement part comes from understanding the human mind’s need for contrast and clarity. It’s often difficult to pick out the highlighted search term, depending on how “busy” and colorful the web page you’re searching is. On a page with a lot of yellow graphics, a small yellow background behind your search term is not going to pop out at you. So, Apple deployed the same “lightbox” technique they invented for Dashboard—and which has since taken Web 2.0 by storm via a plethora of cool and useful JavaScript implementations, mostly for web galleries: Why not dim the page background and shine a sort of spotlight on the search terms? Hmmm… good idea!

Streaming QuickTime (1 Min, 5 Secs). Audio On | Off

Click  to play or hide movie.
Click  to play or hide movie.
Trick Three: TextAreas Come Alive!

As I note in the short video on this feature, this new capability of Safari 3.0 fulfills a dream that web designers have had since web applications were babies. How many times we’ve had to size and re-size TEXTAREA boxes to satisfy user requirements, while also maintaining some semblence of good page design? And how many times have we rearranged whole applications in order to avoid TEXTAREA input fields that were too many, too big, or too small?

So, what if you didn’t have to worry about that anymore? After all, is there a perfect-size-fits-all for a TEXTAREA field? Nah, definitely not. It depends on how much you have to say, and on how territorial you are.

Safari 3.0 in Leopard, at least in the preview release I’m working with, enables a “resize” corner that lets the user drag the damn text field to be as big as you want it. Could it be more perfect? Probably, but at the moment it doesn’t seem obvious to me how that would be possible. Take a look and see. (Note: This feature flickered briefly in and out of the nightly WebKit builds this summer… I guess it was Apple leprechauns trying the code out.)

Oh, by the way… Many enterprising JavaScript coders have figured out how to do enable resizable text fields by hacking the form code using CSS and JavaScript. So this feature is coming one way or the other. For a brief period, Firefox had a plugin that enabled resizable text fields, but for some reason that didn’t survive the transition to Firefox 1.5. I’m sure, after seeing this feature in Safari 3.0, the Mozilla folks will figure out how to bring it back. :-)

And just so you don’t think I’m leaving anyone out… The bright guys at OmniWeb have added a similar feature to their latest browser. At least, it’s going after the same usability problem… but from a different angle. Instead of resizable fields, OmniWeb users can click an icon to bring their text into a larger, resizable window to do their editing. A click in that window sends the text back to the text field. Sweet!

I just think the resizable TEXTAREA is better… it’s more intuitive for the user, and is more likely to bring a satisfied smile to their eyes.

Streaming QuickTime (2 Min, 33 Secs). Audio On | Off

Click  to play or hide movie.
Click  to play or hide movie.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
September 24th, 2006

Tom Yager in MacWorld: An Apple for the enterprise?

Macworld: Opinion: An Apple for the enterprise? Tom Yager steps out of his comfy InfoWorld role to offer this risky editorial in MacWorld. Of course, I completely agree with him... but the guy has gotten scorched lately with his support for the Mac platform. Scorched from both sides... Linux and Windows. I really hope some people pay attention this time... he's one of the few mainstream IT guys who gets it. Breaking through the wall of fear, suspicion, and loathing regarding Apple in enterprise IT is certainly proving tougher than I'd realized. Yager tackles many of the myths that PC guys simply don't want to see dispelled, including some I've been tackling in this blog:
  1. Macs are so expensive
  2. A PC is a PC; who cares who makes it?
  3. It's a proprietary platform
  4. Why invest in OSX when Vista is going to wipe it off the map?
  5. I can't manage a network of mixed platforms
  6. OS X Server is unproven in critical, high-availability, and large-scale deployments. It's an enterprise wannabe
  7. Apple controls the availability of systems, parts, upgrades, and service
  8. Apple's got a smoke-and-mirrors hack that makes Macs run Windows
  9. Apple's product line is tiny. All other Intel OEMs focus on choice.

Tom, thank you for tackling these myths so publicly. It's time more people in positions of IT influence did the same.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
September 23rd, 2006

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

4. Easily Manage Your Hundreds of Passwords

This is the fourth article in a series. If you’d like to read the earlier articles, here is the first article, here is the second, and here is the third.

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.

Keychain IconThe Post article requires a registration, but even if it didn’t, it’s worth quoting a few paragraphs from it before proceeding:

Between work and personal e-mail, multiple banking and retirement accounts, two association memberships, photo sites, Web communities, and retailers like Amazon.com and eBay.com, C. David Gammel maintains 130 online accounts, each requiring a user name and password.

Gammel tracks his sundry log-in information in a file on his computer, but on at least two occasions he’s confused or mistyped his password, and been locked out of his SunTrust bank accounts, forcing him to call the bank or look for an open branch to regain access.

“It’s frustrating — if understandable,” said Gammel, a consultant in Silver Spring. He has also been denied access on a news site when he couldn’t remember his log-in information, he said. “I bail on them if I’m having a difficult time,” he said.

Password peeves come as a cost of doing business online using multiple computer applications. A typical professional relies on a dozen or more programs or Web sites to manage his life at home and work, and many of those require user authentication for access.

But the increased reliance on technology and the commensurate accumulation of passwords has reintroduced human fallibility into the security equation. Consumers’ memories are straining under the pressure of remembering so many passwords. And when they fail to, companies increasingly are having to rely on the judgments of their employees to decide how to field calls from forgetful customers.

The average number of passwords used at work is between six and 12, and is increasing at about 20 percent a year, according to RSA Security Inc., a software and security consulting firm. To make matters more complex, Web sites and workplaces often ask users to change passwords at regular intervals, or require a mix of lower-case and capitalized letters, numbers, and special characters such as “#” or “$” — a practice that makes it harder for a hacker to guess at a person’s password.

But the abundance of frequently changing passwords — and the confusing jumble of permutations and combinations most computer users create — are not only inconvenient, they often undermine the very security goal they were meant to achieve.

At two-thirds of companies, workers kept passwords by writing them on a piece of paper kept in the office, according a study released last week by RSA. Another 59 percent stowed them in files on their computer, and 40 percent wrote them on sticky notes pasted around their computer monitor, allowing any passerby to see.

My first thought was, “Hmmm… These guys obviously use Windows. Probably never heard that life is not this way on a modern Mac.” Now, before you Windows bigots get your backs up and start thinking to yourself, “Oh, right. This guy is biased, always proselytizing for the cult of Mac, acting smug and superior”, just consider the possibility that Apple has figured this one out better than Microsoft, and that a reasonable solution actually does exist to ease the password burden.

My wife is always amazed when I whip out Keychain Access and look up a password to some long-forgotten website where I’d shopped once upon a time. Or if I forget my login to Wachovia, I just do a quick search in Keychain Access for the password. Again, in the interests of time, I’m going to skip a third-party description of what a Keychain is, and give it to you straight from the horse’s mouth (in this case, from Apple’s “Help” documentation on Keychain Access):

About keychains
You can use keychains to reduce the number of passwords you have to keep track of. A keychain can store all your passwords for applications, servers, and websites; cryptographic keys and X509 certificates; or even sensitive information unrelated to your computer, such as credit card numbers or personal identification numbers (PINs) for bank accounts.

When you connect to a network server, open an email account, or access any password-protected item that is keychain-aware, your keychain can provide the password so you don’t have to type it.

You start with a single keychain, which is created automatically the first time you log in to your Mac OS X user account. Your default keychain has the same password as your login password. This keychain is unlocked automatically when you log in to Mac OS X and is referred to in Keychain Access menus as the “login” keychain.

You can create different keychains to store passwords for different purposes (for example, one for work and one for online shopping) or make a copy of a keychain so you can take it with you to other computers.

Keychains can be accessible to just a single user or shared with the other users of the computer.

Now, I’ve done some research on this topic, folks, and as far as I can determine, Windows has no concept analogous to Apple’s Keychain. If someone knows otherwise, please enlighten me. You can write your own blog about how the Washington Post writer was being ignorant and not using his computer to his best advantage.

As that writer points out, you can buy third-party Windows software and services that attempt to do what Keychains do, but there are several pretty important ways that this solution is inferior to Apple’s:

  1. They cost money.
  2. They require learning yet another password.
  3. If you forget that other password, you’re f**ked.
  4. If you use one of the web-based services, your passwords are floating out there in someone else’s data server, vulnerable to breakins. Especially if they’re being stored on a, god-forbid, Windows server.
  5. They require setup.
  6. They might break if basic Windows APIs for password or security change in the future.
  7. They rely on companies that might go out of business, possibly taking all of your passwords with them.

Apple’s Keychain technology has gotten much better as Mac OS X has matured. In the first round or two—up until Jaguar (10.2)—it seemed to me that Keychains were vulnerable to getting mixed up. Not in a security-problem way, but just that you couldn’t always rely on Keychain Access to find a lost password. However, that was years ago now, and Keychain today is a marvel of efficiency and ingenuity. It’s saved me dozens of times from having to get a new password—which usually means having to change the password again—or, worse yet, having to call up a company, sit on hold forever, and convince the bored answering-service attendee to give me a new password.

As the Post article points out, this is a frequent possibility given the number of times we have to log in to websites and applications nowadays. Keychains and Keychain Access are simply wonderful tools that Mac users have at their disposal to ease one of the burdens of modern life.

I’ll leave it to the curious reader to discover an in-depth discussion of how Keychains work in a Mac user’s daily life. Very briefly, most Mac programs that set passwords give the user the option of storing that password in their Keychain. Safari and other WebKit-based web browsers have a preference setting that lets users store their login information to websites in their Keychain. One of the reasons I don’t use Firefox regularly is that it doesn’t have this option. I just really like having all my passwords consolidated in an easy-to-search, secure archive. Not only that, Safari can be configured to automatically fill in usernames and passwords for any items you’ve stored in the Keychain… something Firefox, unfortunately, just can’t do. (Note: Safari won’t do this for passwords stored on secured websites, but you can still look the password up in your Keychain if you don’t remember it.)

Main Keychain Access window

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.

Keychain DetailsIf I’m trying to access a password in a Keychain other than the one I logged into the Mac with, clicking on the “Show password” checkbox will require that I authenticate to see the password. If I don’t have rights on that Keychain, I’m blocked. But normally, the Key I’m looking for is one associated with my own user account, so when I click on the checkbox, my password displays in the little text field there.

That’s all there is to it.

Actually, I hardly ever see the Keychain Access interface in the screenshots I just showed you, lovely though they may be. That’s because I’m a Quicksilver user. Quicksilver can do just about anything, you know… including quickly looking up lost passwords. Just a couple of keystrokes here, a couple of flicks of the arrow key, and voila! Here’s a short movie to show you what I mean:

Click  to play or hide movie.

Miraculous? Hardly. Obvious? Definitely. Convenient? LOL

A reason to switch from Windows? Nah. I wouldn’t call Keychains a Windows killer, unless they happened to be your last straw.

I’m keeping this short because I’ve learned from previous writeups that the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”, is definitely true for stubborn Windows devotees. They will always think of some reason why this or that feature of Mac OS X is unimportant to them, and why they should continue acting as if Macs don’t really exist. This article is not intended to benefit those guys (and gals). It’s simply intended to point out that password management doesn’t have to suck.

If you were looking for a last straw to consider ditching Microsoft Windows, Keychains just might be it. In any case, they’re definitely another small thing Macs can do that Windows PCs can’t.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
September 9th, 2006

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

nextstep 3.0If 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 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.

 next os and bundled apps (7:51) networking & digital librarian (5:21)

Jobs showcases new features of the OS itself, as well as a few apps built with NeXTSTEP 3.0 such as NeXT mail, Lotus Improv (spreadsheet), and WordPerfect. As Rixstep notes in their article, Improv and WordPerfect were best-of-breed apps that included features that were only possible through the richness of the NeXTSTEP platform.

This segment begins to introduce NeXT’s advanced networking features, using the NeXT Digital Librarian app to demonstrate the ease of connecting to remote computers with a variety of operating systems and easily integrating the data found into a meaningful research session. Of course, It’s Novell that he uses to connect to the Windows PC.

 networking & collaboration (5:16)

Jobs continues to describe NeXT’s networking advantages (built-in TCP-IP, for example), while demonstrating a collaborative editing project involving content from a Windows PC, a Sun workstation, and a Macintosh. Using WordPerfect, Jobs pulls all the pieces together into a company newsletter.

 object linking & built-in fax (4:24)

Remember OLE? When was the last time you OLE’d anything? The original Microsoft OLE pretty much limited you to Microsoft software, and to Windows. NeXTSTEP’s DOLE (Distributed OLE) was the whole ball of wax. Objects could be distributed across networks and platforms, and links could be continuous… without even saving the “master” document!

 interface builder & the object cake (7:33)

Now comes the really exciting part! Jobs introduces Interface Builder, the ancestor of Mac OS X’s Xcode GUI builder. Only, according to Rixcode, the version in NeXTSTEP was far superior to today’s. And the reason why is summed up in the simple metaphor Jobs offers:
  1. “Think of NeXTSTEP, which is NeXT’s object-oriented development environment, as an object oriented cake. I’m about to show you just the frosting on the cake. Many people have tried to copy this frosting, but what they found out is without the object-oriented cake underneath it just doesn’t work.”

 dos & graphics power (4:20)

Jobs concludes with a brief demo of SoftPC running DOS (you’ll find a couple of good comic moments here), and then showing off NeXTSTEP’s graphical prowess in handling transparency, compositing, 3D objects, and more. Even if you forget for a moment this is 14 years ago, you’ll probably be impressed by what Jobs can accomplish with these tools.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Apple, Innovation, Mac OS XTags: |
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!

Now everybody can have their own cube, using the simple settings in the Cube’s new preferences pane. This feature showed up in Quicksilver build 50.

Quicksilver's Cube Interface Has New Preferences

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
August 29th, 2006

Tofu: Improves Onscreen Text Readability and Navigation

Tofu version 2.0 is available for alpha testing, adding columns to PDF files as well as HTML

Tofu Originally downloaded 3/28/06. This should be interesting… having been a typesetter at one point in my life and having worked in print media for longer than I care to remember, I know how hard it must be to develope a reliable algorithm for this kind of reorganization. Still, it really could make online reading easier. The alpha release of Tofu 2.0 is a first attempt to apply the algorithm to PDF documents as well as web pages. Oh, and it’s free, by the way.

Update 8/29/06 I meant to move Tofu to my “Recommended” list a long time ago, but forgot. I don’t use it all that often, but it’s an amazing demonstration of how to make text more readable onscreen. Works great with PDF files as well as regular text. I only wish the developer would spend a little more time stabilizing Tofu, because unfortunately I find it crashes more often than I’d like. Definitely give the 2.0 “alpha” a go, since it has some very nice extensions to the 1.1 version. One aspect I haven’t tried is Tofu’s speech recognition, which would make navigating multicolumn onscreen text even easier than with a mouse.

Version as tested: 2.0a2

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
August 26th, 2006

3D-Space VFS: File Viewer/Launcher in Fly-By 3D!

3D-Space VFS (Visual File System): Fast, Spectacular 3D File Browser/Launcher

3D Visual File System Software Originally downloaded 7/29/06. After a year’s lull, this project came back in June with a new release, and now they have another upgrade. I’m curious to see if the “major rewrite” that occurred prior to the June release had a significant impact on usability. Certainly, this is a cool idea, and worth taking a look-see. It’s shareware, with a free trial.

Update 8/27/06 I’m delighted to report that this alternative Finder interface is making terrific progress, and though it’s not yet an actual Finder replacement, it’s certainly a heckuva lot of fun! The current version (as tested) is stable, fast, visually stunning, marvelously addictive to navigate with, and provides a glimpse of what a usable 3D file system could be like. The developer has plans to fill some crucial functional gaps (as noted in the “cons” below) soon, and when he does, I expect to be using 3D-Space VFS for more than simple entertainment value. :-) At that point, I’d gladly plunk down some bucks to encourage his efforts on this little jewel. In the meantime, I highly recommend downloading and trying this one out. If nothing else, you can amaze your friends—whether they’re running Mac OS X already or are still hanging on to Windows!

Here’s a list of the pros and cons I noted in testing the software over the last few weeks:

Pros

Cons

  • Beautiful, fun, innovative
  • Glide option makes browsing quite practical
  • Scroll function now works very well
  • Zoom function very useful for navigating quickly
  • Nice customization options for icon size, text size, degree of tilt, opacity, responsiveness to trackpad or mouse input, and many more.
  • Each window has its own customization options accessable via fly-out 3D panels in the upper left
  • Responsive developer who’s rapidly expanding application’s functionality
  • Useful only for browse and launch in current form (need move, copy, delete, search, and, preferably, access to Finder contextual menus)
  • Setting window as tab “drawer” causes app to crash (MacBook only)
  • Can’t permanently define tabs (”drawers”) for a particular drive or directory (they switch to selected dir/vol when you close drawer)

Version as tested: 1.9.3

3D-Space VFS Software

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
August 7th, 2006

Time Machine Is Leopard’s New Killer App

Time Machine: A giant leap forward for backup Talk about jaw-dropping! If this thing actually works as advertised, it will instantly put the entire consumer backup software industry out of business. And a welcome dismissal it will be! Backup to date has been frustrating, time consuming, and difficult to get right. Time Machine looks like it will make it work intuitively and simply... another possible Apple triumph that will advance computing in a way that totally surprises me. Take a look at the video, either here or at Apple's Leopard site:
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
August 6th, 2006

Visor: How About A Bezel Terminal?

Visor: A systemwide, Quake-like terminal window accessible via hotkey

Visor Freeware Terminal Originally downloaded 8/1/06. From Blacktree, the developers behind Quicksilver, comes this new, innovative terminal “skin.” Visor is a terminal window that slides down from the top of your monitor and lets you start typing at the command line. This functionality will be familiar to folks who play Quake and other games, which has a console you can invoke at the top of the screen. Can’t wait to try Visor out!

Update 8/6/06 OK, it’s a keeper! Those of you who enjoy endlessly tinkering on the details of your user interface will get a kick out of Visor. Of course, you also need to be geeks who enjoy opening up terminal now and then. If your personality type is in the venn diagram of those two types, you will no doubt have already customized your terminal windows just so. In Terminal–as in iTerm, another great terminal app–you can specify fonts, antialiasing, background colors (or graphics), and type/hightlight colors, for example, among many other details. You can specify this information as a default, but then also customize individual windows with a certain look.

So along comes Visor, which is a SIMBL plugin that adds a new feature to Terminal app. Basically, Visor becomes a special Terminal window that you can style using the normal Terminal window tool. In this early stage of Visor’s life, you have to follow a couple of awkward rules in order to apply visual stylings to the Visor window. (I recommend that you set up your default Terminal window look/feel the way you want it before you begin styling Visor. This way, Visor will inherit your default Terminal window style and you won’t have to mess with the awkwardness very much.) First, you need to activate Visor when you open Terminal. Then, open the Terminal Window preferences. Then, close the Visor window (not absolutely required, but it might be more convenient). At this point, you can set your Visor window prefs and then relaunch the Visor window.

I found that Terminal—with or without Visor installed—can be a little unstable when you fiddle with the window preferences too much, so the fewer times you have to go there, the better. The one thing you can’t set when styling Visor is the font, including the font size. To style the font for Visor, you have to set it as the default for Terminal before launching Visor for the first time. If you don’t, and you want to change the font size in Visor, you’ll have to trash your Terminal preferences file and restart, or—and this was my approach—open the Terminal plist file in the Property List Editor (if you have installed Apple’s Developer Tools), or another package such as PrefSetter or PlistEdit Pro that can edit .plist files) and change the font size here. (This is the main glitch that makes me recommend setting your Terminal window preferences before installing Visor.)

Visor's preference pane is where all the fun begins!By default, Visor installs itself both as a root-level item in the Terminal menu, just above “Window settings…”, and as a menu extra on the left-hand side of the menubar. You can activate Visor from the menu extra or from a customizable keyboard shortcut (by default, it’s Ctrl-F1). Visor’s own preferences allow you to customize the timing and characteristics of its window animation, and most important, you can specify a quartz file as the window background… which combines with the Window settings (including opacity) to greatly expand your options for designing “cool” terminal windows! The Visor prefs also let you disable the menubar extra if you need to.

After setting up Visor, you now have a really cool way to get into Terminal, and as long as you leave Terminal running, that Terminal window is no more than a Ctrl-F1 away from you no matter what application you’re working in. When inactive, Terminal consumes Zero CPU cycles, and less than 50mb of RAM. One of the nice things about SIMBL plugins is that they don’t add process threads of their own… rather, they simply add themselves to the process thread of the application(s) they plug in to, so running Visor doesn’t put much additional strain on your Mac at all, while adding a level of cool that’s just too awesome to miss! Is Visor essential? Heavens, no. Visor is more icing on this very rich cake. But man, do I love icing! :-)

Considering that Visor is only a couple of months old at this point, and considering its source, I’m extremely confident that adding it to my permanent bag of Mac OS X interface tricks is a great idea indeed.

Visor with a translucent bezel-style background:

Visor with an image gradiant background:

Visor with a quartz movie playing in its background:

Version as tested: 1.2

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 23rd, 2006

Will iPods Become eBooks, Too?

Engadget: Apple to do eBooks? Here's a very interesting--and, I think, likely--rumor. It would be a logical upgrade from the iPod's current text-only notes capability. And highly welcome, too! There are many things one wants to say that are best said with pictures rather than words, and at the moment, you can't say them on an iPod. This would be great news, but they'd have to once again think about how to fit a larger display onto the iPod's tiny frame.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 18th, 2006

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

Mars Software Nuggets: Yahoo! Widget Engine

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). Microsoft probably thinks Google is worried about its recent attempts to catch up in the web services arena… but I suspect that the real competition is between Google and Yahoo. Of course, being from Mars, my instinct is to say,

“Hey fellas, it’s OK, now. You can both be great without trying to run each other into the ground. Just ignore all the media banter about battles and winners, and who Microsoft is gonna wipe off the face of the earth next. Just concentrate on what you do best: Being innovative… Imagining the unimagined… in other words, pushing that f**king envelope and finding the next paradigm to shift!”

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.

For example, a little gem that’s been around since Konfabulator called Picture Frame does what I keep hoping iPhoto Mini will–namely, let me run a slide show from my iPhoto library inside the widget.  Seems like a pretty basic need, but somehow Apple’s developers have missed out on that opportunity. The closest they’ve come is a fairly recent widget simply called Photo, which does the basics, plus adds all the groovy Core Image transitions to the mix. However, you can’t resize the widget, so you’ll miss out on the beauty of seeing your favorite shots sized to their full glory. You also can’t pause the show, which is a bummer because I often have to keep my favorite picture of Jackie beaming out at me for more than the default number of seconds. iPhoto Mini is a great widget with a lot of cool tricks, but your basic slideshow isn’t one of them. 

Another must-have from YWE is Minty, which is the best widget for monitoring your Mint usage stats.

MemoPad widget

And in a category so saturated with good apps and widgets that you’d think there couldn’t possibly be another great idea, a YWE widget called MemoPad has won a place on my desktop. It does three things well that beats out all other widgets:

  1. Provides a “file cabinet” where all your sticky notes can go when you want them off the desktop
  2. Provides a minimized tear-off pad for your stickies that’s so small as to be unobtrusive on even the most cramped desktop, and
  3. Looks so much like actual sticky notes adorning your monitor screen that you may be likely to try pulling one off in a fuzzy-headed moment.

I haven’t even begun to explore YWE widgets as I’ve done with Dashboard ones, so I’m sure there are many other splendid little goodies waiting in the Yahoo widget gallery.

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.

As you can probably tell, I’m completely sold on the utility of widgets… so many of these are at least as useful as some shareware desktop apps or menu extras.  But if I were using a laptop or had a 17″ monitor (or smaller), I’d be less inclined to experiment with them.  I didn’t fully embrace widgets until I began running them in “developer mode,” which lets you keep your favorite ones handy… right on the desktop. (If you want to try developer mode, check out this article from MacOSXHints, or you can also get this widget to help out.)

Using developer mode requires some compromises, however, since in this mode widgets live in the top layer of your desktop window hierarchy. Unlike YWE, you can’t adjust the window level, so Apple’s widgets always run on top of anything else you’re working on (except for a screen saver).  For example, if you run Aperture in full screen mode, your widgets will get in the way of Aperture’s controls…. unless you move them somewhere else.

With a 23″ Cinema Display, I’ve learned to work around this problem by carving out a slice of screen real estate for my widgets.  But most Mac users don’t have the luxury of a big monitor, and this, I’m convinced, explains all the grousing about and dissing of widgets that I hear constantly.  People may really like this or that particular widget, but they’re never going to take the time to explore the rapidly expanding world of widgets if they don’t like having to switch to the Dashboard layer every time they want to use one.  After all, if widgets are actually replacing desktop apps or docklets or menubar items, the Dashboard actually makes those functions a click or two farther away (unless you spend most of your time in the Dashboard layer, which I doubt).  Not only that, but quite often starting Dashboard takes precious seconds while you wait for the widgets you have activated to “wake up” (unless you happen to know about and are using the handy, free Dashboard Kickstart utility). 

Yahoo Widgets Standard Window PreferencesWhy would anyone use Dashboard for a calculator when they can summon Apple’s own desktop Calculator in one click of the Dock (or many other handy places one can store commonly used apps), or, like me, summon Quicksilver for a quick calculation?  The answer is, “They won’t.”  And since they won’t do that, they’re likely to dismiss the entire concept and the over 2,000 widgets that have been developed for Dashboard–many of which simply don’t have desktop equivalents, and nearly all of which are free!

No, YWE gets it right, and Apple needs to get it, too.  After all, YWE runs on both Mac OS X and Windows, and we all know what percentage of the world’s desktops Windows holds, don’t we?  At last count, Dashboard can claim a total of 2,088 widgets for its platform, but Yahoo! now has 2,891… having surpassed Apple and growing fast.  Apple needs to keep its system competitive in features if it wants to maintain leadership in this technology.  After all, you-know-who is planning to release its own widget system for Vista, and once that happens, who knows?  One thing I see that Vista has right is letting users keep their widgets persistent on the desktop.  As I understand it, the Microsoft way is inferior to the Yahoo! way, but it’s arguably better than the Dashboard layer alone.

Also expanding the “widget front” is Opera 9, whose users now have access to some very fine widgets thanks to Opera’s embrace of this technology. In Opera’s case, the widgets only work as long as you have Opera running, but that’s no problem if you’re an Opera user. Like YWE, Opera widgets can run on various window layers, and they share with all the other widget implementations the same open, standards-based underlying technologies. As of this writing, there are already over 400 Opera widgets! And if you think Opera developers are just trolling the same over-hunted territory where Apple and Yahoo widget developers have been, get a load of this little baby, which is one of several unique Opera widgets by Australian developer Benjamin Joffe.

In the end, I’m hoping all these widgets can coexist happily on my desktop (well, except for Microsoft’s widgets, which no doubt will only work on Windows).  After all, one of the best things about widgets is that they’re just HTML, JavaScript, CSS, XML, and a few images.  (Yes, they can have other things, too, some of which may be proprietary to a particular OS… but they don’t have to have anything but those basic open-standard components.)  This means that if you can build a cool web page, you can build a cool widget… and there are a lot more people who can build web pages–for any platform–than can build Cocoa apps!

So a tool I’m hoping someone releases soon is a widget converter, which could convert Mac OS X widgets to run in YWE, for example, or Opera widgets to run in Dashboard.  In the meantime, I’m perfectly happy to run Yahoo! Widget Engine alongside my desktop-handy Dashboard widgets. In fact, running YWE is likely to make me even more impatient to see Apple get on the ball and include a better widget system in Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 13th, 2006

Automator Virtual Input: Extend Automator To Control Mouse and Keyboard

Automator Virtual Input: Take control of your mouse and keyboard via automator

Automator Virtual Input Software Originally downloaded 7/13/06. Now this is getting strong:really interesting. Of the three huge new Tiger innovations Apple unleashed on the world in May 2005 (Spotlight, Dashboard, Automator), Automator has been a real sleeper. Though my sense is that it wasn’t embraced immediately by a lot of Mac users, its growth in functionality and scope is perhaps even greater than Dashboard’s, and a few years from now we may look back and realize that Automator was the most revolutionary of the three. Here’s a shareware set of actions that takes Automator where previously only tools like iKey and QuicKeys could go: Deep into Applescript’s user interface controls to make them accessible to ordinary mortals. It’s also precisely the kind of tool you’d need if you really want Automator to take the next leap beyond simple actions that have to be build for each application individually. Here’s a generic set of actions that theoretically will let you do anything to any application… anything a mouse and keyboard can do, that is. You can be sure I’ll give this a try soon, and if it works as advertised, fork over my $25.

Version as tested: 1.0

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 6th, 2006

Bullseye: A Radial Menu Launcher

Bullseye by Old Jewel Software

Pod Util SoftwareBullseye is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the first commercially available implementation of “radial” or “pie” menus in a desktop application geared to everyday use. Old Jewel Software released Bullseye back in 2004, but it only came to my attention a few months ago. Perhaps it never comes up in searches for “radial menus” or “pie menus” because the site doesn’t describe its user interface that way. However, that’s indeed what Bullseye is: A Mac OS X launcher app that uses radial menus as its organizing metaphor.

Bullseye

After testing Bullseye, I decided to not buy it for myself, since I’ll be using Quicksilver for everything I could do with Bullseye. However, I’m including it as a recommendation because it’s such a wonderfully innovative implementation of radial menus, which have just this year captured the imagination of user interface designers after having been on the drawing board by researchers for years. In fact, in the early days of the GUI, there were some primitive implementations. Bullseye gets it quite right, however. It’s a very easy to use, quite intuitive and flexible file and application launcher that is in many ways much more useful than the Mac OS X Dock. For $8.85, it’s quite reasonably priced and definitely worth a try if you’re interested in the concept.

Most Mac users encountered radial menus for the first time when an implementation of them was added to Quicksilver earlier in 2006 via the Constellation plugin. Where that plugin acts more as a file browser in one mode or as an alternative way of inserting the “predicate” in Quicksilver “sentences” in the other, Bullseye presents users with a radial menu of all their currently running applications.

Bullseye

Bullseye then lets you add all of your usual Dock items to the menu if you like, and you can drag folders and apps to the menu as the spirit moves you. Folders can be browsed as in the Dock through a contextual menu. Anything added to Bullseye can be dragged off with a “poof”–again, like the Dock–or you can modify the list of “Bullseye items” in the application’s preferences.

The preferences also let you customize the look and feel of the radial menu itself and its behavior in a number of useful ways. One note of warning… After upgrading to 10.4.7 this week, I’ve found Bullseye to suddenly be prone to “not responding” without trashing the preferences file. This had not been a problem at all before then, and it’s possible the problem is due to some other system configuration changes I’ve made lately… or even to a conflict with Quicksilver, since I’ve been fooling around with Constellation lately too.

Update 2/25/07. Bullseye has morphed into Trampoline , released today as version 2.0. The price has gone up to $20, so presumably Trampoline has more functionality than Bullseye.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 4th, 2006

Liquifile: New Visual Paradigm for the Finder

Liquifile 1.0 –liquid browsing for your desktop

Liquifile Finder SoftwareOK, I’m hip… I took one look at this one and knew it was outrageous enough to be possibly useful. There have been many attempts to improve on the “find” functionality of the Finder. Lately, I’m moving more and more toward using just Quicksilver for Finder functions. But Liquifile is “designed for visual thinkers” that represents characteristics of your files and folders in visual terms. Not sure exactly what that means yet, but the developers have a video available to help “visualize” the concept. Liquifile is shareware about $10. It’s a realization of a theoretical user interface known as “liquid browsing” which grew from the demos and trials explained on the Liquid Browsing website.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
June 17th, 2006

Apple Uniquely Positioned To Lead Web 2.0 Charge

10 Reasons Why Apple Can Kickstart Web 2.0 Here's an interesting article discussing Apple's .Mac service and why it, along with a number of other unique Apple assets, gives the company a lead in turning Web 2.0 to advantage.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Ajax, Apple, InnovationTags: |
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

This is the third article in the series. If you’d like to read the earlier articles, here is the first article, and here is the second.

As 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.

Automator Rides on ApplescriptToday, 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.

These two technologies work together to make possible software like Quicksilver, Automator, Butler, Launchbar, Proxy, iKey, and many many others that make working with applications, files, and folders on the Mac a joy rather than a headache. In fact, the web is littered with plaintive conversations among Windows users trying to find a Windows app that’s like Quicksilver or Butler. There simply aren’t any such apps. Yet on the Mac, there are numerous apps that are similar to Quicksilver, which itself is still free in its beta mode. Automator and Proxi are also free. So is the amazing Butler. Mac users love to argue amongst themselves about which is better, Quicksilver or Launchbar or Butler, when in fact they’re all simply excellent. On Windows, the options are slim and only half-baked (in that they do only a small subset of what the best Mac OS X tools do):

I’m sure there must be others, but that’s all I could find quickly. On Mac OS X, I could list literally dozens of apps that do what the Windows utilities do, plus a lot more. Quicksilver, Butler, Automator, and the others are simply the cream of the crop.

As a demonstration of this, I went to VersionTracker to compare the number of tools in this category between Windows and Mac OS X. Unfortunately, VersionTracker has no such category… they lump all of these into a “System Utilities” category. On Windows, this means “backup, defray, disk space”, and on the Mac it means “repair, customize, optimize, synchronize, backup.” Even though Windows has 95% of the market for PC’s (supposedly), it has only 1,745 items listed on VersionTracker, where Mac OS X has 949. If the proportions were true to the market share numbers, Mac OS X would have only 87 “System Utilities” apps.

But it gets even more interesting when you try to narrow this category down. I typed “Launcher” into both databases, and on Windows VersionTracker found 82 apps, yet on Mac OS X there are 90 “launcher” apps. Looking for “shortcuts”, I find 30 apps for Windows, but 28 for Mac OS X. The term “workflow” finds 38 Mac apps, 36 Windows ones. How can this be? If the apps were distributed according to market share, Windows would have 1,800 “launcher” apps, 560 “shortcuts” apps, 760 “workflow” apps, and a whopping 18,980 “system utilities.” (Who says Windows has more software?) In this one particular category, the huge difference simply demonstrates how much easier it is to write applications for the Mac that

  1. Launch applications, open files, and do other related tasks,
  2. Enable keyboard shortcuts that combine multiple steps across multiple applications into one step, and
  3. Design workflow systems that do even more complicated sets of inter-Application tasks much more quickly than is possibly with a manual process.

And the reason this is easier is that Apple provides the fundamental building blocks of Applescript and Application Services as part of the Mac OS X operating system.

Before I begin, let me make clear that I am no expert in either of these topics… my admiration for them comes strictly from my perspective as a Mac OS X end-user. Though I have tinkered with a few Applescripts, I have never written one from scratch. All the scripts mentioned here were obtained from the resources cited.

Applescript has been around forever, it seems… at least since I got my first Mac in 1996. (Here’s a nice, concise history of Applescript in the Mac OS.) The closest equivalent on Windows is Visual Basic, but my experience as a programmer makes clear that these are not, in fact, equivalent technologies. For one thing, Applescript is not a compiled language like Visual Basic, and it’s not reliant on process-intensive run-time libraries. More important perhaps, Applescript is designed for programming in natural language rather than machine-talk. From this excellent and very helpful comparison of the two scripting environments on xvsxp.com, here’s a brief example of what a script to display your startup volume’s free disk space looks like in each language:

Mac OS X:

tell application "Finder" to display dialog (free space of startup disk) as string

Windows XP:

Set objWmiService = GetObject("winmgmts:")
Set objLogicalDisk = objWmiService.Get("Win32_LogicalDisk.DeviceID='C:'")
WScript.Echo objLogicalDisk.FreeSpace

Now clearly, Applescript is more concise, easier to read, and easier to build other scripts from than the Windows scripting language. Perhaps this is why Applescript websites are filled to the brim with thousands of scripts, whereas Windows scripting sites such as this one offer just a handful of Visual Basic scripts. On Mac OS X, Applescript is used for inter-application communication, not so much for system administration. For that, Mac users are more likely to use the standard Unix shell scripts or Perl. The Windows Script Host (WSH) that Visual Basic communicates with works primarily at the lower level of the sysadmin rather than the higher level of the end-user.

Further, unlike Windows, which provides nothing for a budding scripter other than Notepad, Apple provides a couple of free first-class tools to help users build Applescripts: Script Editor, and Applescript Studio. These are designed to help prepare scripts of varying complexity, from a simple one-command script to a complex GUI tool that looks like any other Mac OS X application.

Script MenuIn Mac OS X, you can easily make use of the incredibly huge universe of prebuilt Applescripts and related tools by turning on Apple’s context-aware “Script Menu.” Once enabled, you can fill it up with a vast array of useful productivity scripts by first visiting Apple’s own library and then, as the need arises, explore the many other third-party libraries of AppleScripts. Then, when you’re in Safari, for example, the Script Menu will display Safari-related scripts; when in Mail, mail scripts; when in iTunes, iTunes scripts; and so on. The Script Menu is always present until you turn it off, or replace it with an excellent script menu like FastScripts. Besides this system-level script, many Mac applications come with their own set of Applescripts, which they provide in a separate menu: BBEdit, Adobe Photoshop, Endo, Growl, Soundtrack, DevonThink Pro, PulpFiction, and Ovolab Phlink are just some of the ones I have open at the moment which provide Script menus of their own.

So, what are some examples of scripts I use this menu for? I knew you’d ask!

  • Every day I use a script called FinderDuo that takes my jumble of Finder windows and rearranges them per my specifications into two neatly organized windows, one on top of the other. The script also opens the windows to my specified folder and view options.
  • Two scripts make it easy to turn Dashboard on and off with the click of a menu item.
  • I have separate scripts for Safari, Mail, BBEdit, and others that automatically position and resize the application’s front window per my specifications.
  • In iTunes, I have a set of scripts that lets me rate songs from 1 to 5. The set of scripts also lets me start and stop iTunes, move to the next song, increase the volume, etc. For iTunes scripts, be sure to check out the amazing Doug’s Scripts for iTunes.
  • I use a script that lets me switch to the Finder by pressing Control-F.
  • There are many more, but I want to move on to the next topic, which covers another kind of script.

Applescript Folder Actions

In addition to the Script Menu, you can attach Applescripts to file folders. The advantage of doing this takes awhile to sink in, but once it does… Woah! The possibilities are enormous for enhancing productivity. Apple provides a contextual menu that lets you enable/disable/configure Folder Action scripts for any folder on your file system. You can attach Applescripts (including Automator workflows) to do anything you can dream up. Here are some examples, which I benefit from many times every day:

  1. FolderOrg. This script automatically organizes any files dropped into a folder by date. It will create a folder for the date the file was added, and add any other files added on that day to the folder. It’s particularly useful for software downloads.
  2. Growl notification. Growl is another app that has no equivalent on Windows and could be the subject of an entire article. I use a folder action script from Growl that pops up a notification whenever a new preference file is added to my Preferences folder, or a new file is added to the Application Support folder.
  3. Upload Mars Images. I built this script with Apple’s Automator, and it saves me many steps in uploading images for this website. The script (1) checks to see if the added file is a PNG image, (2) renames it to lowercase and removes spaces, (3) FTP’s it to specific directories on both my test server and my production server, and (4) uses Growl to display a notification when done.

There are many other possibilities for what Windows users think of as “hot folders,” and I’m sure I’ll be expanding my use of them as time permits. On Windows, by the way, the main company that has provided this kind of functionality is Adobe. They were also the first to enable the use of “droplets” on Windows, as well as widespread use of drag and drop. All of these ideas come from Apple’s operating system, building software for which used to be Adobe’s bread and butter.

This brings me to the topic of Automator, the workflow automation tool Apple built as a new feature of Mac OS X 10.4 (”Tiger”). Automator has no equivalent on Windows whatsoever, and it really is a huge leap for improving your productivity with computer tasks. Automator is built on top of Applescript and in fact can be thought of as an “Applescript programming tool for the rest of us.” Like Applescript, Automator has in less than a year produced an entire ecosystem of websites, developers, and tools to take advantage of it. One of the coolest aspects of Automator is that it’s totally free, including nearly all of the prebuilt workflows you can download from the web. This includes the comprehensive set of Automator actions for Photoshop that Ben Long is providing on his digital photography website.

Automator workflow

Most Mac OS X applications released these days now provide Automator actions that you can use as building blocks for a workflow. Where before an application would be “scriptable” by publishing its Applescript dictionary, it now also provides prebuilt Applescripts as Automator actions. As a result, my personal library of Automator actions has grown exponentially since Tiger was released last year (I now have 460 actions), and as the library grows, the possibilities of enabling cross-application automation grows likewise.

If you’re a Mac user and haven’t begun to play with Automator, it’s time to do so. Just pick one of these great websites and start reading, learning, and downloading:

If you’re inclined to be a bit more geeky, check out Apple’s “Working with Automator” article on its Developer website. It’s for folks who want to build actions themselves rather than folks who want to build workflows with the actions, but it’s quite informative to understand a bit about what’s going on under Automator’s “hood.”

Automator contextual menuEvery time I open Automator, I come out armed with another useful little workflow that shaves a few seconds or minutes off my workday. Those seconds and minutes add up, folks, and they are the true measure of whether an application is improving your productivity. Keep in mind that before Automator, I was never able to learn enough Applescript to write any scripts myself and was reliant on web resources and the kindness of its many Applescript gurus. With Automator, I can now build a custom workflow involving several different applications in a matter of minutes. Here are a few of the workflows I use regularly:

  1. Upload PNG-24. This workflow is similar to the folder action I built to move files to this website, but for a variety of reasons, I launch the workflow manually rather than automatically through folder changes. I keep the action on my Finder toolbar (see screenshot below), so all I have to do is drag the image I want to move to the toolbar icon, and this launches the workflow. The workflow connects to my Classic 45’s website and FTP’s the file to a particular folder there.
  2. Unmount Volumes. I built this workflow to unmount two backup partitions on my computer, and I put the workflow in my login items so it’s launched when I log in. Automator can run Unix shell scripts as well as separate Applescripts, and that’s how this one works.
  3. Musicstack and Froogle. For Classic 45’s, I mirror my inventory of records on both of these websites. I have a PHP script that writes my inventory into a format that works with the Froogle XML API, and that is uploadable to Musicstack through Finder Toolbar Scriptstheir web form. With Froogle, the procedure is to FTP the file to a Froogle server. These Automator workflows (1) run the appropriate PHP scripts, (2) save the resulting browser output to a file on my hard drive, (3) FTP the file to Froogle, and (4) email me a notice that the work has been completed. No more manual inventory updates for Leland! Incidentally, the way this works is through an iCal plugin. Yes, you can save your Automator workflow in various ways, one of which is a plugin to iCal. When you do, you can easily schedule the workflow through iCal. I have the Musicstack and Froogle workflows set to launch on alternating days at 9:00 in the morning. Sweet, eh?
  4. Music workflows. I have a couple of workflows for handling new music recordings. In each case, I use Automator’s contextual menu in the Finder to run the workflows, which simply move the AIFF files I record in Soundtrack Pro to particular playlists in iTunes.
  5. Upload to Jukebox. This workflow, also launched from a Finder contextual menu, connects to a folder on .Mac and moves the file I’ve selected to it. Easier than drag-and-drop!
  6. Convert to PDF and Combine. Have you ever wanted to combine a bunch of text files into one PDF? I needed to do this one day, so I wrote a workflow and saved it as a Finder plugin. Now all I have to do is select the text files, click the contextual menu item, and Poof! Instant multi-document PDF.

I have more, but hopefully you get the idea. Believe me, these examples just barely scratch the surface, but take a look at the various websites linked here to get other ideas. The possible applications of Automator are literally endless, limited only by your imagination. Now, whenever I think of a way to combine some steps, I don’t have to go hunting the web for an Applescript. I just open up Automator, and 9 times out of 10, I have the actions I need to do the job. I also subscribe to Apple’s RSS feed for new Automator Action downloads as they’re published.
Despite all of its flaws, Apple gains the respect of users when it unleashes advancements in computing like Automator. It opens up enormous new doors to both developers, in devising ways to improve the functionality of their applications, and to users, in taking a fresh look at how we work. Other automation tools for the Mac helped lay the groundwork for this, and I’m still a very heavy user of iKey, for example. But Automator simply expands the automation universe in ways Apple’s customers hadn’t thought possible before.

Recently, Griffin Technologies released a free tool called Proxi that has characteristics similar to Automator. Though it’s optimized for automating Griffin’s own input devices to the Mac–like AirClick, Power-Mate, and RadioShark–it also interacts with dozens of other Mac OS X applications in very different ways. It’s promising to see Proxi released, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. From my perspective, Proxi is yet another example of how easy this kind of application is to build and provide for free to Mac customers nowadays.

Apple is understandably proud of both Applescript and Automator, and it’s easy to find information about them on the Apple website. The second broad technology I’ll describe in part two of this article, Application Services (”System Services”), is not so easy to find. I’ll explain why, as well as why, in spite of Apple’s reluctance to “market” them, Services are such a huge boon to Mac users’ productivity. They let us do things that are simply not possible with Windows.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
June 8th, 2006

OmniDazzle: Dazzle is Too Weak A Word To Describe This! Try “Awestruck”

OmniDazzle: Mesmerizing Mouse Movements OmniDazzle SoftwareDon't go too much by Omni Group's slogan for this new application, which just entered public beta mode. OmniDazzle has 11 distinct functions, all having to do with the mouse, but not all having to do with losing your cursor. Some are just plain fun, others seriously silly, still others marginally useful, and one or two mind-blowingly cool and useful. I won't get into all eleven... you really have to see for yourself. It isn't too hard, either. Omni Group has provided little screencasts for each of the eleven, and then you can download the software itself to try it out. (Believe me, you won't be able to resist!) Once you do, you're in for a 12th surprise: OmniDazzle has implemented the most amazing, intuitive, dazzling, and functional preferences system you've ever seen! This is one more implementation developers are making that uses Tiger's Core Image system to stretch the bounds of user interface possibilities. Simply awesome.

OmniDazzle's Preference Pane

I'm going to go ahead and recommend this creature without playing with it for more than 2 hours, because the feature I'm using now--which Omni calls "Focal Point" is just what I've been looking for. Focal Point draws a bright rectangle of light around the user interface object you're currently working in. If it's a form element--for example, the text box I'm typing in now--Focal Point brightly lights up that box. If it's a web browser window, then the whole window lights up. It's another example of the "Lightbox" effect that's become so popular with Ajax/DHTML web programming. Outside the bright area, the rest of the screen is dimmed... thus, the "Focal" aspect of the tool. I had previously used--and liked--a menubar widget called "Doodim", which did the same sort of thing, except it acted only on the front window, not on specific form fields within that window. But Doodim worked by a bit of Applescript wizardry that tended to be as distracting as it was useful. So far, Focal Point is just what the doctor ordered! These old eyes are growing a bit dim, and this really lights the screen up for me!

OmniDazzle's Preference Pane

OmniDazzle has an undetermined release date, but the current beta will expire some time in July. Enjoy it while it's still free!

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
June 2nd, 2006

PC World’s Best 100 An “Apple Lovefest”

Infinite Loop: PC World's Best 100 comes out decidedly Apple-heavy This reader points out that Apple dominates PC World's list of the best 100 products of the year, with a total of five products. No other company got more than 3, and Apple has two in the top 10! (The iPod Nano and Boot Camp) Not only that, PC World named Apple "Hardware Company of the Year!"
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Just Say No To Flash