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

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

News Posts In Category

March 5th, 2019

An Audiophile Listening Room with Apple’s HomePod

Apple's HomePod has been the underdog in the "smart speakers" category since its introduction last year. It's more expensive than the offerings from Google and Amazon, and Siri doesn't seem to be as powerful. I haven't used Alexa or the Google AI assistant, so I can't say what the difference may be. But let me just say that HomePod is a revelation in audio quality, and its "smart" features are more than adequate for my needs. The most surprising aspect of HomePod is that it has finally let me put together an audiophile listening room without taking out a second mortgage!

At its most basic, HomePod is a smart speaker with Siri built in and truly gifted sound quality. It's a breeze to set up... you just use your iPhone to pair and copy settings, which takes about a minute. My first use was to add some smart light bulbs to the house, and with Apple's HomeKit app on the iPhone that's a simple matter too. To activate a new device, you just scan an icon on the packaging and then assign it to a "room" in your house. (In HomeKit, you can set up rooms and "scenes" for your devices.) Once set up, it's a simple matter to say "Hey Siri" and then turn on or off a given bulb. HomeKit also makes automation simple, so you can easily have lights come on and off at different times of the day. With scenes, you can automate multiple devices with a single command. For example, when I go to bed, I say, "Hey Siri, Goodnight," and Siri turns off the basement family room light and the foyer light.

I also subscribed to Apple Music as part of my movement to the HomePod, and I've thoroughly enjoyed being able to listen to any given album by voice command. Of course, HomePods are also AirPlay speakers, so you can easily play music to them from your iPhone, iTunes, or other devices. It's simple to play to multiple HomePods at once, and Siri can move the music from room to room by voice command if you so choose.

But the most surprising aspect of HomePod has been its audiophile sound quality. Even bass response is great, which is amazing given the small size of these speakers.

I got a new HomePod for Christmas (I already had two) and decided to put it in the living room. It sounded so wonderful I decided to buy another one and set them up as a stereo pair. That's when the true value of these little speakers became clear.

With two HomePods now in my living room, I finally have achieved an audiophile listening environment at a truly reasonable price. The two little speakers pump out amazing sound, and they only cost me about $700. To replicate a listening environment with traditional high-fidelity speakers would cost at least $2,000, because you need not only the speakers (minimum: $1,000), but also you would need a receiver/amplifier and some components to get music into the system: A CD player or turntable, for example. On top of that, you would need some place in the living room to house the speakers (much larger than HomePods) as well as the stereo components... and that means another piece of furniture as well as considerably more space than my current setup requires.

With my paired HomePods, I just need to plug them into the wall and put them on a shelf. And voila! Instant audiophile listening without all the other setup headaches and at a much lower cost.

And I love the fact that the speakers have Siri built in, which means I can raise or lower the volume by voice, get information on what's playing, skip a song, or repeat... all by simply asking Siri.

The HomePod's audio quality is more than just a differentiating factor when you compare it to Google and Amazon speakers. It truly is great enough to compete with high-end speakers costing much more, and you can easily set up a listening environment that will tickle the ears of even the pickiest audiophile. A surprising punch for such a tiny device.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 29th, 2012

Trying To Tame Mountain Lion Without A Hat

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

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

Once I had the Mountain Lion virtual disk, I could import that as a new virtual instance in Parallels on Snow Leopard. Doing so was simple and straightforward, and I don't recall running into any glitches. After the import, I could "boot" into Mountain Lion as an instance of Parallels desktop, and then switch back and forth between the two OS's as I would between two applications.

The reason I abandoned this effort is that when I installed CrystalClear Interface (CCI) or Crystal Black (CB) on the Mountain Lion instance, Safari would repeatedly crash. Disabling CCI for Safari made no difference. Only by uninstalling my software would Safari work again. I tried various other tricks to overcome this, but failed. Since debugging Safari on Mountain Lion was one of the primary goals of this whole effort, this failure effectively shut the project down.

At that point, I was stalled on CCI vs. Mountain Lion, so I turned my attention to migrating from the old Quicken 2007 for the Mac, because it won't run on Mountain Lion. That migration could be an article on its own. :-)

The Unthinkable Lets Loose A LionAnd then, in a matter of moments, Mountain Lion became my default OS. Snow Leopard has now become a legacy OS for me, as has each Apple feline in its turn before that.

In those few moments, the unthinkable happened. Suddenly, the dark shade of death descended from the top of the screen, signaling the warning that all the busy bits we rely on to keep the trains running on our Macs had given up and gone home — and we had better do so as well.

Well OK... no big deal, right? I've experienced this kind of kernal panic message before and come out unscathed after a restart. But not this time.

This time, after the reboot, rather than returning to Snow Leopard, I found myself in Mountain Lion.

How could that be? And why couldn't I find the regular volume for Snow Leopard in the Finder? Likewise, why did Disk Utility show new partition names for the volume that used to have Snow Leopard on it? And why couldn't Disk Utility mount either of the two partitions on that volume?

It turns out that the volume files — the ones that store information about the folders and files on the volume — had been corrupted, and none of the tools I used to try to repair the partitions or volume worked.

Anybody who wants to bail on the rest of this story now are well advised to do so, since it's just going to get more boring from here. :-) I'm doing this mostly so I can remember what happened and what I did... just in case.

Eventually I gave up on the old volume, and after confirming that Time Machine had the files I'd need to restore, I proceeded to set up the two partitions anew. Though I thought I'd be able to restore everything, I was hardly feeling nonchalant as I clicked the button that erased all my files and settings for my old Snow Leopard partition.

I was able to restore all the files on the second partition, which houses most of my third-party apps, but when I attempted to reinstall Snow Leopard on its partition, I realized my stay in Mountain Lion would be even longer than I'd imagined.

It turns out that my install disk for Snow Leopard was corrupted, and I had no other way of getting Snow Leopard onto my Mac.

On the phone with Apple support, I paid $19 for a one-time technical support incident. The upshot of that call was that Apple would express-mail new install disks to me for Snow Leopard — at their expense. As nice as this was, it was late on a Friday afternoon, and I knew it would be at least Monday before the disks arrived.

Trying to Resuscitate Snow LeopardSo, here I was, abandoned in the relatively unfamiliar world of Mountain Lion, not yet having tested all my apps to see what might not work right. Since I use this Mac for running my businesses as well as for personal use, I naturally began to panic that I wouldn't be able to work as effectively as usual. Or worse, there might be some critical task I wouldn't be able to do at all.

Fortunately, as it turns out, most things I need to do daily work fine on Mountain Lion. There are just enough "gotchas" that I still don't feel quite at home here, but it's working out better than I'd feared. Which is a good thing, because after the Snow Leopard disks appeared and I reinstalled the OS on my old partition, I discovered that restoring my user account was not going to be easy.

Normally, on the Mac you use an app called Migration Assistant to restore user accounts and files from another Mac, another partition, or Time Machine, and it's a painless and reliable process. That's how I set up my user account on Mountain Lion — I cloned it from my user account on Snow Leopard.

I had planned to do the restore from my Time Machine backup, but when I attempted this, Migration Assistant couldn't find any user accounts on the Snow Leopard backup. The only accounts it found were on other partitions on my Mac, including my account on Mountain Lion.

After much gnashing of teeth, I decided to try to restore my account from the one on Mountain Lion. Since this was a clone of my Snow Leopard account, I thought this might work.

The restore did indeed work, and I thought I was a little closer to returning to my beloved Snow Leopard.

Unfortunately, the restore didn't move all the files needed for various applications to work, and it contained Mountain-Lion-specific preferences that merely confused some apps. This meant I had to try manually restoring files from Time Machine, a time-consuming and error-prone exercise that took several hours. Most of the files I was trying to restore reside in the top-level /Library folder, which is why they didn't get properly migrated with my home Library.

I finally got my iWork apps to run, but Photoshop simply wouldn't. "Your license has stopped working," is the error message Photoshop gives me. Now, I could reinstall Photoshop, but this might screw up Mountain Lion, where Photoshop works pretty much as expected. (I'm still using Photoshop CS4.) On the other hand, my developer tools — Xcode and Interface Builder (I'm still using Xcode 3.x) — worked fine on Snow Leopard. All of my projects could be opened and compiled, and each still had its whole history of "snapshots," which I use to track changes in the code. On Mountain Lion, by contrast, I keep running into permissions problems in editing project files, and compiling fails with inscrutable messages. Just as serious, Xcode refuses to read the Snapshots disk image for my projects, so I have no code history.

Facing Mountain Lion Without My Lion-Tamer HatMeanwhile, I've spent nearly all of my time since the crash on Mountain Lion, because that's where my day-to-day work now occurs. I've grown to appreciate more of Mountain Lion's enhancements — particularly document "versions" and application "memory" that restores active files automatically on launch — and I feel increasingly distant and nervous about trusting work done on my rebuilt Snow Leopard instance. Mountain Lion also solves my envy problem with iCloud, which doesn't work on Snow Leopard.

At this point, there is really only one barrier to my feeling completely comfortable on Mountain Lion: Xcode. If I can get Xcode to behave reliably on Mountain Lion, I'd have no compelling reason to boot into Snow Leopard. But as it is, I have to do all my design work on Mountain Lion and then compile code on Snow Leopard. When time permits, I'm going to figure out what I need to do to reconnect my snapshots to Xcode, and then Snow Leopard will be as obsolete for me as Leopard, Tiger, Panther, and Jaguar before it. (If any reader knows how to reconnect Xcode snapshots on a new volume, let me know!)

So, what does this mean for CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black?

For now, the MarsThemes software is in maintenance mode, meaning I'll be releasing updates to keep the software working, but not adding any new features. Bug fixes will be included in maintenance releases, but without my Snow Leopard debugging power I can't address any application-specific bugs. On Mountain Lion, Safari remains an enigma, and it troubles me that I have to keep CCI and CB disabled for it to run. It's extremely frustrating to not be able to debug Safari on Mountain Lion, but that was a problem before I found myself facing Mountain Lion without my lion-tamer hat.

So here I am, using Mountain Lion as my default OS and running back to Snow Leopard to use Quicken and Xcode. It's not the migration I would have planned — if I decided to migrate at all — but at least I'm through the worst of it and have survived.

The good news is that CCI and CB both run reasonably well on Mountain Lion, and I now go weeks without having to provide customer support. Who knows... maybe in a few more months I'll actually learn to love my new OS. I just hope Apple waits longer this time around before trying to move everyone to a new platform!

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
September 4th, 2012

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

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

Apple did improve Lion during the course of its life, and Mountain Lion seems like a logical and relatively smooth update. Most of the reasons I had for not liking Lion still stand, but a couple have been remedied. In addition, I've found more things to like. For example:

  • Windows resizable from all sides.
  • Quick Look feature in Spotlight: You can preview docs right from the Spotlight results list.
  • Improved Mail client: Many improvements, including finally providing the option to show previews on the right-hand side.
  • Change in default setting for opening new windows on login. Now the default is off, and Apple has provided a system preference option to help control this behavior as well.
  • Improved search/replace in TextEdit.
  • Improved CharacterPalette app.
  • Nicer full screen Quick Look mode.
  • Safari improvements: Tabs, downloads, among others.
  • Spotlight is searchable while it's building the index.
  • Improved Cocoa text tools.
  • Mountain Lion: Finder sidebar lets users decide how to organize the sections.

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

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

For me, the most daunting task of upgrading to Mountain Lion will be migrating all of my apps, their settings, and their licenses. Because Lion doesn't support Rosetta, I have to abandon any old PowerPC apps hanging around. The most significant of these is Quicken 2007, but I also have to upgrade my license for MaxBulk Mailer and a couple of others. Finding a replacement for Quicken remains a challenge, though I finally did find one that seemed worth buying: iBank. I haven't actually moved from Quicken yet for monthly financial balancing, but I think iBank will do the trick once I do.

To give you (and me) an idea of the application burden I'm looking at, I've compiled the following list, organized by major categories and subcategories. The colored cells on the far right represent how often I use each app — from light green (daily) to orange (quarterly). Apps I don't touch more often than quarterly aren't represented in the table, nor are apps that are part of Mac OS X (including iLife).

Category Subcategory App Name License Issues Use
Audio


Recording & Editing

Amadeus Pro C



ClickRepair C



DeNoise C



Logic Express C



iTunes Software Bowtie F



CoverSutra C



Animation & 3D


3D Tools Live Interior 3D C

Needs reinstall


Animation Morph Age C



Business


Advertising GarageSale C



MaxBulk Mailer X C

Rosetta - Upgrade


Product Delivery Endicia S



Spreadsheets Numbers C



Presentation Keynote C



Office Suites iWork C



Customization


Desktop Wallsaver F



GeekTool F



Interface Enhancements

CandyBar C



ThemePark 3 F



ThemePark F



Visor F



Software Preferences

AppHack F



OpenPListCM F



PlistEdit Pro C



TinkerTool System C



System Extensions CrystalClear Interface C



DefaultFolder X C



LiteSwitch X C



TotalFinder C



XtraFinder F



Design & Graphics


Color Utilities iPalette F



paintersPicker C 32bit


Drawing & Painting

VectorDesigner C



Image Editors

Adobe Photoshop CS4

C


Back In Focus C



Image Management

Icon2Image C 32bit


Aperture C



Screen Capture LittleSnapper C



Web Design Flux C



Developer Tools


AppleScript Sdef Editor F



Cocoa Development

Platypus F



Packages F

Needed install


Code Editors

Xcode

OS X



Code Management Code Collector Pro C



svnX F



Databases Querious C



Debugging & Testing

Xcode OS X



Hacking F-Script Anywhere F Interactivity


Pacifist C



AppHack F



SymbolExplorer F

Contrast problem


Web Development Espresso C



File & Disk Management


Disk Utilities Drive Genius C



File Browsers & Managers

Path Finder C



File Utilities Springy C



Disk Inventory X F



File Juicer C



Managing Digital Formats

Pavtube Blu-Ray Ripper

C



Software Management

RapidoSerial F



Home & Learning


Mail & Print Tools Endicia C

Dymo printer needed new driver


Personal Finance Quicken C

Rosetta - Need alt


iBank C



Powersnipe F



Photos & Slideshows

PhotoPresenter C 32bit


Reference MacTracker F



Google Earth F



Information Management


Bookmarking & Tagging

Leap C



Fresh C



Personal Information Mgmt

DEVONthink Pro C



Evernote F



Yep C



Securing Content 1Password C



Internet Tools


File Transfer Tools

MacTubes F



Xtorrent C

Note: Works with CB on Lion.


Yummy FTP C



News & Podcast Readers

Times C



Web Browsers

Camino O



Firefox O



Flock F



Chrome O



Opera F



Safari F



WebKit O



Browser Add-Ons

Flash Cache Server F



SafariStand F



Web Research

DevonAgent C



Voice & Chat

Adium O



Skype F



Productivity


Application Services

KavaServices C



Clipboard Utilities

ClawMenu C



Launchers

Quicksilver O



ClawMenu C



DragThing C



iKey C



Quick Access Tools

Fresh C



MenuPop C



FolderGlance C



OMC F

Required upgrade to beta version


QuickAccessCM F



OpenMenu X C



Shortcuts & Automation

Autopilot C



Hazel C



Shortcuts F



Spark F



TextExpander C



OpenMenu X C



A Better Finder Rename C



System Administration


Backup & Synchronization

Carbon Copy Cloner F



Chronosync C



Configuration

Lingon F



TinkerTool System C



Secrets F



System Maintenance

CleanApp C



Data Rescue C



iFreeMem C



VacuumMail F



What’s Keeping Me F



System Monitors

BackTrack C

Main App wouldn’t open from statusbar item


BwanaDik F



Growl F

CB Not Loading


MemoryStick F



Sloth F



Terminal & Unix Tools

ManOpen F



Task Management


Notes & Reminders

Edgies C



Sticky Notes C



Outlining & Mind Mapping

MindNode Pro C



MyMind F

Rosetta


Personal Organizers

MenuCalendarClock iCal C



Edgies C



Search

Leap C



DEVONagent C



EasyFind F



Time & Schedules

QuartzClocks F



MenuCalendarClock iCal C



Video


Screen Video

ScreenFlow C



Voila C



Video Players

MacTubes F



VLC O



Writing & Publishing


Rich Text Editors

Bean F



Screencasting

ScreenFlow C



Text Utilities

TextSoap C



Other Web Sharing

Twitterrific C



Word Processors

Bean F



Pages C



The most compelling argument for upgrading, quite frankly, is my need to stay current with users of my software, CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black primarily. Since I don't live in Lion or Mountain Lion, it's difficult to quickly test any bugs users report, and I'm not finding any on my own, as I typically do while using Snow Leopard. In addition, the burden of testing and quality assurance is much more difficult when I have to cover three operating systems, though that burden will remain so long as Snow Leopard has such a big market share.

Besides the issues I've already stated, the biggest argument against upgrading is that my software doesn't work as well on Lion or Mountain Lion as it does on Snow Leopard. For me, that's a big pain in the butt, and it doesn't let me enjoy the theming as fully. For reasons why this is an issue, see the recent brief article I wrote on the subject.

So, bottom line: I'm still on the fence. One possible compromise, if I can confirm it will work, is to run Mountain Lion as a virtual OS, as one can do with MIcrosoft Windows or Linux. If I can run Mountain Lion inside Parallels Desktop, for example, I could keep it handy for testing while running Snow Leopard as my primary OS.

Or, I could do the reverse: Upgrade to Mountain Lion and run Snow Leopard in virtual mode. I've read that these things are possible, but haven't gone down the path of actually trying them out yet.

If I can make the virtual OS route work, that's probably where I'm going to end up — at least until Apple releases its next big Feline.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
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
August 17th, 2012

Searchlight: Spotlight for Your Network

Searchlight: Find and stay up to date Searchlight SoftwareThis sounds like an idea I wish I had thought of! What a great one, too. I haven't tried it yet, but apparently the idea is that you run Spotlight on Macs you'd like searchable across the network, and Searchlight provides a web interface to Spotlight searching on that system. It also lets you subscribe, through RSS, to particular files, do saved searches, etc. At only $30, this is a winner if it works as advertised!

Update 8/18/12. It took me awhile, but I finally found Searchlight on another site (something called CASEapps.com). It appears to be abandonware, now presented as freeware. No mention of a price or registration on the website or the downloaded disk image. That being the case, I'm saving myself some time by deciding to leave this one where I found it.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
July 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a personal level, this would mean giving up an obsession that's outlived enormous odds. When I first took up theming for Mac OS X back in 2005, it was strictly a design job, with lots of time spent in Photoshop working with teeny, tiny bits of buttons and other interface elements. And there was a stable theming environment provided by a third-party application called ShapeShifter, which became obsolete when Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard').

CrystalClear Interface became possible only after I learned how to make application windows with transparent-capable backgrounds. And I learned how to do that only by gradually teaching myself how to write programs for Mac OS X using Apple's Cocoa frameworks and its native language, Objective-C.

I didn't sit down tonight to write a history of CCI, so suffice it to say that as CCI evolved, the programming component grew in inverse proportion to the design/graphics component. In fact, the design work is now quite subservient to the code.

This means I can no longer amuse myself by designing new themes. Instead, I spend most of my time making sure the existing theme designs will work on Apple's new Mac OS X releases. I already gave up the Glossy design on Lion, but I'd really love to rescucitate it — And I'll have to if I actually upgrade to Mountain Lion. Why? Because I really like the Glossy theme, and I'd want to use it myself. And then there's the matte black theme I keep dreaming about...

On a side note, have you noticed that in Lion Apple has almost eliminated the Aqua interface? In fact, the button theme they're using for most items looks and works suspiciously like CCI's "Unified Gradient" theme, which I introduced in 2009 to uniformly apply to all interface elements a button style Apple had added to Leopard. In Lion today, the main elements that remain candy-colored are Apple's "stop light" buttons, the progress bars, and odd pieces like the titlebars of list-view tables. Otherwise, Aqua is gone, though not replaced with anything so memorable. And hard-core themers continue to weep and satisfy themselves with such trivia as themes for the Dock (easy) or Menubar (much harder). Some also try theming buttons and such, but with Lion Apple has made even that mundane endeavor mysteriously difficult. (Buttons are composited against window backgrounds in a mysterious way that requires providing whole separate sets of buttons for Snow Leopard and Lion.)

Which brings me to the crux of this overly-long, overly-dreary essay: CrystalClear Interface exists today only because once I had seen how beautiful it could be, I couldn't let that beauty go. I simply can't stand working with gray-gradient windows all day, no matter how elegant they may be. And there are times when I really want/need a dark interface like the Black Gloss theme from Crystal Black.

So either I sever the cord with Apple's future OS X updates, or I sever the cord with CCI. It will have to be one or the other, and I'm not yet sure which that will be.

In the current setting, supporting Lion (and soon, Mountain Lion) has been royally painful. So much so that for the last 6 months I've spent most of my time getting CCI to run on Lion, or merely keeping it running. Not very satisfying for me, since I don't use Lion myself (yet).

An earlier article discussed the grief involved in updating CCI for Lion, and I mention it here because the problems haven't gone away. They've merely formed a continuous obstacle that becomes more and more tedious to work around.

In other words: Most of the fun of developing CCI has been held at bay, and the drudge work of keeping up with Apple has made me wonder how long I can hold out.

My fondest hope is that next time, Apple will make us wait longer than one year before throwing a new OS our way.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
March 2nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

And it's not as though I'm just waiting until a "stable" version of Lion is released, as some folks do. In the past, I was always the first on the new boat. It's been almost 9 months for me to take the plunge, and now, in another three months, I'll have another Lion to consider. So why bother with Mac OS X 10.7?

Perhaps some of Apple's vision for Lion will be better realized when Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8) is released this summer... but most of what I've seen is filling in gaps with apps that are available on the iPad/iPhone and don't have Mac equivalents (from Apple).

Still, I've heard nothing of such previous must-have new ideas and features that Apple regularly blessed operating system upgrades with, such as:

  • 2003: Expose (10.3, "Panther")
  • 2005: Spotlight (10.4, "Tiger")
  • 2005: Dashboard (10.4, "Tiger")
  • 2007: Time Machine (10.5, "Leopard")
  • 2007: QuickLook (10.5, "Leopard")

Though Snow Leopard didn't introduce any new "wow" technologies, it was much faster and more stable than Leopard, made useful enhancements to existing features, and was well worth the upgrade.

Here is a brief list of the things I really don't like about Lion (in no particular order):

  • Scrollbars. Because your way of scrolling on a touch device is "natural" on that device doesn't mean it's "natural" on the Mac. Yet Apple has declared that it is, and made what is an upside-down method of scrolling with a mouse the default on Lion.
  • User library. For some reason, Apple thinks it's OK for users to access its System Library folder and the OS installation's Library folder, but not the user's personal Library folder. By default on Lion, the user's Library is invisible, and you have to bend over backward to find it. This is a huge mistake. Applications often store files there that users may need, and that's where the user's Mail and Preferences files are located, among many, many other useful stuff.
  • Autosave. This sounded like a good idea when I first read about it, but in practice it's flawed. I think Mountain Lion may improve the feature, but for now it's more of a pain than it's worth.
  • Launchpad. Totally unnecessary — a bit of screen fluff transported from the iPod and masquerading as a new, useful app. In fact, users already have ways of organizing and accessing their apps: They're called folders.
    To expound on this a bit, it worries me that Apple will be migrating its iPad/iPod vision to the Mac a bit too far as time goes on. Apple's touch devices do not have file systems, and on those devices Apple correctly encourages a way of thinking about files and apps that doesn't require knowing where they are in some file hierarchy on the device.
    The Mac, however, is not a touch device, and it's far more complicated than an iPad. On the Mac, users need a file system or some other way of organizing files/folders/apps/etc. One way I've tried, but which which I've personally found too difficult to implement, is the use of tags. I use tags for content within certain apps, but generally not for items in the Finder.
    If Apple ever seriously considers replacing the Finder with something like Launchpad, I definitely will not be moving with them. Frankly, it reminds me of the Simple Finder, which you can make available as a way to give the user access to only certain apps, and to not much of the file system.
  • Preserving open windows/apps. There are times when this feature — which reopens all the windows and apps that were open when you logged out or restarted — is useful. However, as implemented, Apple defaults to forcing the behavior on the user, who must think quickly when logging out if they want to avoid it. When restarting your Mac, there's no way around it. Apple should provide a system option for users to control this behavior.
  • iCloud. Apple pitches this feature as being available only to users of Lion, yet it should be a no-brainer and much more friendly to its large base of non-Lion users for Apple to provide a version of iCloud for earlier versions of Mac OS X.
  • App Store. I really don't like the App Store. It has only a tiny fraction of the apps that users can find on sites like MacUpdate, and it doesn't let developers provide demo copies to download. As on the iPad/iPhone, the App Store makes you pay up front for everything you download, based solely on the developer's blurb and user ratings. For a $4.99 app, this may be appropriate, but for a $74.99 app it's not. Nor is it appropriate for anything much above $10. Yes, I have the App Store on Snow Leopard, but only because I downloaded it as a trial. On Lion, it's a built-in "feature." And one of the App Store's major features — it's ability to keep your apps in sync with new releases — is already handled for most apps by developers using Sparkle or some other "Update" notification mechanism.
  • Full-screen apps. I've written previously about how unnecessary "full-screen" apps are now that screen resolution and physical displays are so large. That said, it's certainly appropriate for some apps — like Photoshop, iPhoto, iMovie, and Logic — to provide a full-screen mode. It's just silly to tout this a useful feature of the operating system. Can you imagine a full-screen version of, say, Calculator? Or Safari? Or iTunes? What's the point? With a 23-inch display, apps that don't need the full-screen real estate and just harder to use. "App menu in the upper left hand corner — Check! Window close button in the upper right corner — Check! Text lines too long to be readable — Check!"
  • Finder features. On Lion, Apple decided to reverse the section of the sidebar devoted to disk drives, partitions, DVDs, etc., with the one devoted to custom shortcuts ("favorites"). And some of the stuff in the shortcuts section can't be moved ("All My Files") for example. Then there's the new "sorting" feature. Confusing, disorienting, too much trouble than it's worth.
  • QuickLook. Why mess with an already perfect technology? Yet QuickLook on Lion is different — and inferior — to that on Snow Leopard.
  • Toolbars. On Lion, Apple has removed the toolbar-toggle button at the window's upper right-hand corner. Why? It's frequently useful to temporarily close the toolbar, and this is a lot simpler than using the app's "View" menu to do it. Why remove a feature like this that's not doing anybody any harm?

There are, I think, a few things about Lion that are improvements over Snow Leopard. For example, I like the progress bars and the color blue in Aqua better. The window animations are pretty cool. I like being able to resize windows from any edge rather than just the lower right corner.

But as far as being tempted to upgrade, I think you can see where my pros/cons list has led me.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 24th, 2012

Text Tools for Mac OS X: Free At Last!

MarsThemes Text Tools Software

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

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

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

So, what text tools am I talking about? Here’s a list of the key tools:

  • Tables. I often find formatting content into rows and columns an extremely useful way of organizing information, but few RTF applications seem to agree with me. Mac OS X includes a quite functional table-editing tool that I can quickly use when needed without opening a CrystalClear Interface 2.6 Desktopprofessional word processor such as Pages, or reaching for a spreadsheet app like Numbers.
  • Lists. From time immemorial, both humans and Martians have found organizing information as lists to be an essential tool for viewing and encapsulating that information. Again, finding the built-in list feature can be a problem, especially in apps that don’t let you access Mac OS X’s RTF “Ruler” tool (more on that momentarily).
  • Links. In the internet age, writers often need to add hyperlinks to their documents, yet finding the built-in hyperlinking tool can be a challenge. The tool either isn’t there, it’s buried in a set of menus, or it’s somewhere that doesn’t make sense.
  • The Ruler. If you’ve ever used a Mac OS X RTF editor such as TextEdit or Bean, or some kind of information management application like DevonThink Pro, EagleFiler, or Journler, you’re probably familiar with The Ruler (though didn’t know it had a name). The Ruler is the strip of tools that appears above whatever text document you’re working on. It contains a menu of handy (and customizable) text styles, alignment tools, a customizable menu for setting line and paragraph spacing, a menu for setting and customizing lists, and a group of tools for setting margins, tabs, and indentation. Sometimes The Ruler appears automatically, but other times you must hunt for access to it. Unfortunately, many applications feel the need to replicate these functions in some quirky unique way (such apps include Evernote and MacJournal). In my ideal editing environment, I want to summon The Ruler when needed, and dismiss it when it’s not.
  • Strikethrough. Oddly, the only straightforward way of striking through text (a very useful thing to do!) is to open the Mac OS X Font panel, which has a menu that includes strikethrough and underlining functions.
  • Copy and Paste text styles. Yes, there are standard keyboard shortcuts for these functions, but I find they don’t work in all applications, and I often forget what they are. Yet I use the functions frequently.


One of my favorite uses of the Text Tools is in applications or text fields that support rich text but provide no access to RTF editing tools. An obvious example of this is Apple’s Stickies application, which apparently assumes that users only want to type paragraphs with no formatting. Using the Text Tools, you can add The Ruler, a table, and all the rest.

CrystalClear Interface 2.6 Desktop

Other note-taking apps I use heavily likewise provide no way to toggle The Ruler or add a table are Edgies and Sticky Notes. Both have some of the Text Tools accessible in their menus, but using their menus may be awkward. Since the MarsThemes Tools provide a contextual menu, the tools are always at your fingertips.

Other examples I like to point out are the Comments field in Xcode’s snapshots window and in the application Packages, the Notes field in Interface Builder, any text view you’re formatting in Interface Builder’s edit window, the image description field in Little Snapper, and various others. (For my developer colleagues, I should point out that using the tools in Interface Builder is especially nice, because it lets you enter attributed text without having to format it in an external RTF editor and then copying/pasting it into IB. Note also that I still use Xcode 3.2, so IB is a separate application.)

Then there are applications like Yojimbo, which should provide a way to format text, but don't. Here, the Text Tools let you add The Ruler, a table, etc.

As mentioned, the Text Tools are activated as a contextual menu — using either a right-click or a Ctrl-click — in the field or document you want to edit. The Tools also provide a keyboard shortcut — ^⌥ Y — to pop up the menu. The shortcut is particularly handy in fields CrystalClear Interface 2.6 Desktop(such as those in Interface Builder) that usurp the field’s normal contextual menu.

The MarsThemes Text Tools have only two user options, which you can access from the “Manage tools” item in the Text Tools menu, or from the “Text Tools” item in the application’s menu. The two options are:

  • Show more text tools
  • Show Manage Tools menu at top.

CrystalClear Interface 2.6 DesktopSelecting the first option adds the following tools to the menu:

  • Styles (used for adding a custom style to your personal list)
  • A “More Tools” menu, which includes the Capitalize functions, which normally appear in a submenu, as well as access to two handy formatting tools to control inter-letter spacing and baseline setting.
  • Access to the Substitutions setting panel.
  • A link to open the very handy Special Characters panel.

CrystalClear Interface 2.6 DesktopBy default, the Manage Tools menu appears at the bottom of the Text Tools menu,  but you can change that.

The Manage Tools menu also includes functions for checking updates, uninstalling, and getting help.

Finally, the Text Tools application is programmed so that it only loads into software that it detects has some kind of editing functionality. There’s no use loading the Text Tools into System Preferences or the Finder, for example. This keeps its overall footprint on your Mac as small as possible.

Text Tools is freeware, so give it a try! Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

The software will be added as a premanent item on the MarsThemes website, under Software. You can download it here.

★ Technical Notes

The Text Tools run as a plugin to the Mars Theme Loader (MTL) framework. If you do not have MTL installed, the Text Tools installer will do that for you. If you uninstall the Text Tools, the uninstaller will disable the MTL agent at that time.

There are very few components to the Mars Text Tools:

  1. The plugin (TTFilter.bundle) located at /Library/Application Support/MarsThemes/plugins, and
  2. A folder containing this document (as a PDF file) and the Uninstall program. That folder is at /Library/Application Support/MarsThemes/TextTools

To uninstall the Text Tools, open an application where they're active, open the Text Tools menu (easiest way is from the Application's main menu) and select "Uninstall Text Tools." If you have trouble finding an application that's running the Tools, open the folder referenced above and run the UninstallTextTools application.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
February 3rd, 2011

Crystal Black for iTunes

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

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

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

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

Update 4/18/11: The full Crystal Black 1.0 theme is now available from the Crystal Black website.

Installing Crystal Black for iTunes

The download contains a little application that installs the Crystal Black theme for iTunes. To install, simply double-click the application and select "Install." You can also use the app to restore the default iTunes theme. To restore, double-click the app and select “Uninstall.” You will need to authenticate as the admin user to make these changes

After installing or uninstalling the theme, you'll need to quit and restart iTunes for the theme to take effect.

Crystal Black for iTunes (Download file is 24.2MB)

Preview of Crystal Black Theme for iTunes 10
CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-11, Leland Scott
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Design, Theming, iPod & iTunesTags: |
June 4th, 2010

Google Ditching Windows?

FT.com / Technology - Google ditches Windows on security concerns. I do hope this turns out to be true. If so, it's about time some IT folks wised up about Windows. The myth that Windows security problems are all due to the OS' large market share continues to dominate mindshare, but it's just that… a myth. Microsoft is singlehandedly responsible for the Antivirus/Anti-malware growth industry, and all of the security patches needed to keep Windows secure is keeping a lot of IT guys employed. This doesn't mean that Windows insecurity is a good thing, folks.
    
  • 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
March 27th, 2010

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

Or, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Single Application Mode But Didn't Know Who To Ask

Update 4/15/10:

One flaw in Single Application Mode (SAM), alluded to but not sufficiently stressed in the article, is its impact on the Mac OS X application switcher (accessed with the keyboard shortcut Cmd-Tab), which is a function of the Dock. When SAM is running (regardless of which software you're using to run SAM), the switcher doesn't automatically toggle to the previously selected application when activated. Instead, it typically defaults to the current app. So if you want to repeatedly toggle between the front two applications, SAM is troublesome.

The solution for me has been to substitute LiteSwitch for the built-in application switcher. With LiteSwitch (which has its own SAM implementation), this problem disappears, and you get a much more powerful app switcher to boot. However, LiteSwitch isn't freeware (I think it's $15). I haven't found a freeware solution, but will keep looking. Perhaps I'll figure out how to build it myself! Stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

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

Being highly curious creatures, we Martians find it hard to resist interrupting our work to find out more about something unknown, like the peculiar way humans endow the use of words like "nettle," "wazoo," and so on, with meanings they didn't originally have. Fortunately, doing such a trivial thing on the Mac is so simple it's hardly an interruption. As I wrote at length in an article some years ago, all you need do is right-click on the word that interests you, select "Look Up In Dictionary" from the context menu, and Boom! You've got your definition without having to leave your document. The magical thing is that this works in any application on the Mac that's built with Apple's Cocoa frameworks (which is just about everything nowadays).

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

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

SAM does require some adaptation and adoption of new tools and techniques, which I'll go into in more detail later in the article. If you're interested in SAM but afraid it would be too disruptive to your work habits, let me remind you that one of the proudest characteristics of homo sapiens is your ability to quickly adapt to changes in your environment.

On Mars, we learned to love SAM when using DragThing a few of years ago… We noticed that DragThing offered the option to hide other apps when switching to a new one. Further, it allows you to specify certain apps that you don't want to hide when you switch to other particular ones. After adopting Quicksilver, I discovered that it offered the same option, but without any customization. After that, I started noticing the Single Application Mode option offered in a surprising number of applications. (You can find a large list of such apps later in the article.)

So, if you're not satisfied with Apple's previous attempts to diminish Window Clutter on your Mac (Expose, Spaces, and Visual Differentiation), and if you abhor the idea prevalent among Windows users that one should simply zoom every window to the full size of your display, this article intends to share with you Everything You Always Wanted To Know About SAM (But Didn't Know It Was A Topic).

There's a lot to cover here, so I'll give you just a few hints up front that you should remember even if you don't read the whole tome. By the end of the lesson, you should at least know the meaning of the following terms, and how to use the software they refer to on your Mac:

  • Single Application Mode, and how it differs from Single Window Mode.
  • Application Switcher, referring to the one built in to Mac OS X.
  • Running Dockless, meaning an application that runs without a Dock icon and without a main menu, but which is able to spawn its own windows of various types. The term also covers Dockless applications that run inside other apps.
  • Tear-Off Menus, a technology that dates back to the NeXTSTEP operating system, the foundation on which Mac OS X was built.

This article is presented in several sections. Here's a list of the sections so you can easily jump around to one of the topics that particularly interests you.

  1. How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?
  2. "Tradition Myths" About SAM
  3. From Apple's Archives: Single Window Mode and the Dock
  4. Getting Started With SAM
  5. Window Clutter: A Little History
  6. Alternatives To SAM For Slaying Window Clutter
  7. Glossary of SAM Speak


How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?

The problem of window proliferation today is not so much a factor of the number of windows you have open in a particular app, but rather how many apps you have open. Figure the average user has five or six apps open, each with one or two windows. You can easily end up with 10-15 windows vying for your attention on the screen, and even with monitor resolutions of 1920x1200 or higher, that's a lot of f*cking windows!

By using SAM to limit the number of visible applications to one, you can immediately reduce the number of onscreen windows by a factor of n, where n is the number of running applications that have open windows.

To demonstrate this mathematically (we love algebra on Mars!), consider the Mac OS X computing environment of a typical professional user these days. In this scenario, our user is running the following apps, each with its own set of windows and auxiliary panels (names shown are just typical examples):

ApplicationWindowsPanelsPersistent Windows
Finder 4
(or more)
0 4
Mail 2 2
(Activity panel, Preferences)
4
iTunes 1 0 1
iChat 1 3
(Video preview, buddy lists, etc)
4
Safari 1 1
(Downloads)
2
Preview 1 1
(Inspector)
1
iPhoto 1 2
(Effects, Adjust)
1
Pages 1 3
(Colors, Fonts, Inspector)
1
Third-Party App One (DevonThink Pro) 2 1
(Inspector)
2
Third-Party App Two (Amadeus Pro) 2 3
(Playback, Markers, Actions)
2
System Preferences 1 0 1
What about Dockless Applications?

Note that the calculation of Window Clutter doesn't include any number of other applications that run only from the global Menubar (or Statusbar), and which don't have a main menu of their own. This doesn't stop them from wanting to take up screen real estate, however. Typical applications in this category include:

  • menuCalendarClock iCal (may have one persistent window)
  • Quicksilver (pops up when summoned)
  • CoverSutra (may show current playing tune and/or a tune controller)
  • Edgies (may want to keep one of these stickies-like items onscreen)
  • A system monitor of some kind (for example, I always keep MemoryStick onscreen)
  • Helpful edge-tab tools (e.g., DragThing, Fresh, DevonThink Pro, Yojimbo, the Dock)

We also won't include the multitude of tiny windows called "desktop icons" (yes, they are windows) that users typically keep visible. (Can you feel me shuddering from way down there?) Remind me to share the secret of eliminating that source of Window Clutter as well.

There is another class of applications (of which we dare not speak!) which have no user interface of their own, per se, but rather live inside the interface of other apps. I use some of these religiously, and they all require screen real estate even though they aren't really "there:"

  • StepMenus. An invaluable open-source app that provides a movable, "tear-off" copy of an app's main menu.
  • CrystalClear Interface. Also invaluable to me—but hey, as the developer I guess I'm biased—as a way of making Mac OS X even more beautiful and functional than it already is.
  • SafariStand. This free add-on to Safari has more useful features than you can shake a fistful of Martian sand at. (I devoted a whole article to SafariStand some years back.) This app has several useful panels that I may have open from time to time.
  • Visor. A SIMBL plugin that enhances the interface to Apple's Terminal utility.

Now, into our equation we must figure that some auxiliary panels hide themselves when the application to which they belong isn't active. For example, color and font panels are only visible when the app that spawned them is active, or "in front." On the other hand, the very useful "Special Characters" panel persists across apps. (However, most folks don't know that if you click its Maximize button, you actually minimize the panel to a tiny square.) Apple is pretty careful about following its own user interface standards and makes sure that all "Inspector" windows (including the Effects, Image Adjust, and Media Browser panels that typically accompany the iLife apps) only show up when their particular application is active.

Even in Apple's apps, however, exceptions do arise. In Safari, the Downloads panel is visible even when Safari isn't active. In Mail, the Activity panel likewise stays visible. And in virtually all apps, any preferences panels you may have opened stay visible even if they have no relevance to the application you're working in.

So, back to our equation.

    Let n = Number of open applications
    Let v = Average number of visible windows per app

    Let w = Number of visible auxiliary windows in active app
    Let x = Number of persistent windows
    Let y = Number of persistent auxiliary panels
    Let z = Total number of visible windows

    Given these variables,

      z = (x1xn) + w
      v = z/n

    For the hypothetical desktop listed previously, this yields:

      z = 23 + w
      v = (23 + w) / 11

    If we let w = 1, then

      v = 24/11 = 2.2

By this calculation, then, in all likelihood there will be 24 visible windows on your desktop under the usual setup. And if you eliminated all but the active application's windows, the total would fall to between 2 and 3 windows.

A dramatic end, indeed, to the problem of Window Clutter… wouldn't you say?

Now, to graphically answer the question posed by this section, let's take a moment to visualize the above scenario. The screenshots below have the same application/window configuration, based on the preceding table: 11 applications running, together generating 24 visible windows. The first image is a default Snow Leopard desktop, without Single Application Mode. The second image has CrystalClear Interface 2.5 running, but with SAM turned off. The last image shows the dramatic difference when SAM is activated.

Default Snow Leopard Desktop (No SAM)
Default Snow Leopard Desktop (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 (No SAM)
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 with SAM
Snow Leopard Using CCI 2.5 with SAM
"Tradition Myths" About SAM

Despite its demonstrable power in dealing with Window Clutter, Single Application Mode is embraced by only a relatively few "power users" and, of course, by Martians everywhere—those of us who live among you as well as those on Mars. However, Martians have no real influence on the way humans interact with their computers, and in fact we have some difficulty articulating our ideas in a way humans refer to as "evangelizing." Therefore, despite its rational foundation, SAM continues to be shunned as a solution by Apple and by influential Mac pundits… Why?

There are several reasons, all of which are based in "tradition myth," and none of which outweigh the true virtues of SAM.

  • I need to be able to see windows of other applications so I can drag text from one to the other. No, you don't. Using Apple's Application Switcher (invoked by ⌘-Tab), it's a simple matter to select text in one application and drag it to a given window in another. Simply:
    1. Select your text.
    2. ⌘-Tab. While holding ⌘-Tab, select the application you want to drop the text in, using either your mouse or moving the cursor with an arrow key.
    3. Release -Tab and drop the text where you want it in the other application.
      Alternatively, of course, you can copy and paste rather than drag.
  • I need to be able to drag images or files from one application to another. This is a variation of the first myth and has the same solution.
  • I need to be able to see values (numbers, text, colors, images) in two applications at the same time. This is not a myth but is a real need that any solution to Window Clutter must address. Fortunately, virtually all SAM implementations make this relatively simple.
    • The base solution is to hold the Shift key while selecting a second (or third, etc) application from the Dock. Just hold the Shift key each time you need to switch from one application to the other while working.
    • Better solutions let you define which applications you never want to have hidden while using SAM or, better still (but requiring more configuration), define groups of applications that should remain visible together. Several applications that implement SAM offer this functionality.
  • Why bother when I can just use the "Hide Others" keyboard shortcut (Option-⌘-H) as needed? Well, my response is that if you want to use the keyboard shortcut each time you switch apps, then you should be using SAM. SAM is mainly a convenience, automating the task hiding other apps rather than adding the task to your regular workload.

Finally, the most insidious deterrent to the use of SAM is one that arises from ignorance or from age-old blinders that keep their wearers from seeing full 360-degree panoramas about the issue. To explain what I mean by this, I need to take a quick detour into some history about a relative of SAM's called "Single Window Mode."

From Apple's Archives:
Single Window Mode and the Dock
One of the Dock's Hidden Tricks

It's strange, but true, that the Mac OS X Dock has a "single application" mode of its own. To try it out, install Secrets, a GUI tool from Blacktree—the company that brought us the incredible open-source workhorse, Quicksilver. Secrets lets you enable the hidden Dock setting for "Single App Mode." You can also activate this Dock setting by typing these two commands in the Terminal (the second command restarts the Dock):

com.apple.dock single-app
killall dock

That the Dock has an implementation of SAM is curious, and it may be useful for some. However, it has several drawbacks from the Martian point of view:

  1. You have to use the Dock alone (read: click on Dock icons) to launch and switch apps, in order to make other apps hide when you do.
  2. Launching apps from Spotlight doesn't trigger SAM.
  3. Launching apps from the Finder—or from any other application launcher—won't trigger SAM.
  4. Switching apps using the Application Switcher doesn't do it, either.
  5. Curiously, you don't go into SAM mode even if you launch an app from a Dock Stack, such as one showing recently launched apps.

So, the Dock version of SAM is only useful if you use the Dock for all app launching and switching, which obviously isn't practical or efficient.

In the Beginning… Single Window Mode

Purple buttons for Single Window ModeAnother tantalizing remnant of Apple's flirtation with SAM is found in the graphics bundle that's been used by Mac OS X since day one. In addition to the usual red/yellow/green "stoplight" indicators at the top of every window, there's a purple one that's never been seen outside the few developers who worked on the earliest builds of Mac OS X… plus all those who saw Steve Jobs' Keynote presentation at MacWorld in January 2000, when Apple first unveiled its new Aqua interface.

For those of us who are fans of SAM, it's validating to listen to Steve extol the virtues of what was then dubbed "Single Window Mode." In fact, he spoke of it at length in a demo that concluded his entire presentation about the coming greatness of Aqua. During that speech, Jobs describes a solution Apple was building into Aqua in order to conquer the challenge of Window Clutter (see video of this segment below):

Let me go ahead and click a button that's on the right side of the top of the window pane. And this button is pretty cool. What it does is it says, "You know, when we have a lot of windows around on our system, it can get rather confusing for beginners, and even for pros.

If you're working back and forth between Illustrator and Photoshop or Photoshop and something else … These things can get very complicated on the screen.

What could we do to make life easier for our pro customers and for beginners? We came up with something pretty neat. You can click it from any window. You can turn it off and on.

And it's called Single Window Mode. So you just click this, and every other window on the screen is miniaturized. And when I click another window… Boom! They switch places.

It's very easy.

Wow… even from Mars we were impressed with Jobs' insight. Here's a guy who really understands user interfaces to software. He understands the needs of computer users, often even before they do. We had observed Steve Jobs and his return in 1997 to the promising company he helped found, and it was clear that this guy knows what he's talking about when he says things like, "Boom!"

Wazoo?

What the heck is a wazoo? And what do people mean when declaring something is "out the wazoo?"

Hmmm… Does "wazoo" really mean "anus"? Now we're really confused! To clarify, I click on the little "More" button in the lower right-hand corner of the pop-up, and I'm whisked to the Dictionary app itself, which explains:

Sure enough, our early impressions of Jobs were correct, and he's clearly not only a transplanted Martian, but that extraordinary Martian who is able to mind-meld successfully with humans. Since then, we've been importing Apple products "out the wazoo," as you say here on Earth.

Sadly, however, Apple didn't pursue this initial idea for a Single Window Mode. From the snapshot we were given, it appears that SWM was somewhat flawed, and I'm not referring to its unfortunate acronym. If SWM worked the way Jobs demoed it, it would have minimized all the other windows in the current application, as well as those in other applications. Clearly, that's not going to work, which may be why Jobs was talked out of it.

As one of the major gurus of Mac-Think, John Gruber gave us a clear explanation for the opposition to SWM in those early days of Mac OS X. This excerpt is from an interview by Marcin Wicary, keeper of the marvelous website covering the history of computer GUIs, Guidebook Gallery, in July-August 2005:

Q: Was single-window mode such a bad idea? Moved from the purple button to the confines of System Preferences, wouldn’t it be useful for beginners or refugees from the Windows world?

A: It might be a good idea for some entirely new system, but I think it was incompatible with the existing Mac UI paradigm. The Mac UI was, and is, meant to revolve around multiple windows. If you’re only going to show one window at a time, what’s the use of even calling it a “window”? Just take up the whole screen.

TiVo, for example, effectively is a computer with a single-window UI paradigm. But it’s screen-based, not window-based. In the same way that it didn’t make sense for Apple to add a single-window mode to Mac OS X, it wouldn’t make sense for TiVo to add a new multiple-windows mode.

As for beginners and Windows refugees, I don’t think they need protection or shielding from the true Mac UI. What would – and does – help them is when the regular UI is consistent, obvious, and intuitive.

My current theory is that this antipathy for SWM has swallowed any official support SAM might have had all these years. And yet, SAM is the solution that SWM was not.

  • SAM is SWM evolved.
Getting Started With SAM

But perhaps the best reason SAM isn't more widely adopted is that, especially for experienced Mac users, it takes some getting used to. This is why I refer to it in the CrystalClear Interface Preferences as a "new paradigm." The rewards of embracing SAM are great, but embracing SAM also means unlearning certain behaviors, and learning new ones. If SAM were openly incorporated into Mac OS X, its adoption could be more seamless than it is, of course.

So, OK, say I want to try using SAM. Where do I start?

Step One: Select Your SAM Sidekick

Despite its relative obscurity, SAM is implemented as an option in a great many Mac OS X applications that have some application-switching functionality. Here are some of the apps I know of that offer SAM as an option. I've personally used Quicksilver, LiteSwitch, and DragThing for this functionality and ultimately settled on LiteSwitch as the best option.

I chose LiteSwitch not just for its SAM-ability, but for its many other irreplaceable virtues. I now use CrystalClear Interface for SAM, but I cherish LiteSwitch because it improves on the Mac OS X switcher in so many ways. Of particular relevance to SAM is LiteSwitch's inherent app-switching behavior.

Apple's switcher doesn't allow you to repeatedly and quickly toggle two applications with one simple ⌘-Tab shortcut. After you toggle once, it forces you to navigate (with arrow key or mouse) to the other application you want to toggle.

For me, this is key, since without the quick toggle, I end up doubling the toggling effort. LiteSwitch doesn't have this drawback, and I would be hard-pressed to do without it. (By all means take a look at the more in-depth review of LiteSwitch I wrote a few years back.)

I am pleased to see that Proteron, the company that built LiteSwitch, appears to be back in business after a 2-year hiatus. What a relief to know that it'll be available and supported once again!

Here's that list of SAM-capable apps I mentioned earlier:


Step Two: Adopt Some New Tactics
  1. Make the Mac OS X Application Switcher your best friend. Once this mode of switching apps is second nature, SAM will also seem completely natural (if it doesn't at first), and you'll wonder why you suffered so long with all those windows cluttering up your screen! To invoke the Application Switcher, use the keyboard shortcut ⌘-Tab to show all your running applications. As an alternative to Expose, you might also find it convenient to start using ⌘-Tilde, which toggles through the various open windows in your current application.
  2. Hold the Shift key to add windows of other applications to the visible mix. For me, this requirement pops up when I use an application like the delightful color utility iPalette, and want to capture colors from another window and experiment with them while keeping the source window in view.
  3. Get used to the idea that drag and drop is just as easy between two windows that can't see each other as it is between two that can (setting aside for a moment the notion that windows can "see"). Think of this technique as an analogue to the Finder's spring-loaded folders, where you drag a file from one visible folder to another that only becomes visible after you've passed through one or more folder "dimensions."

    Only, dragging from window to window is easier. To do this, just make your selection and start to drag. Then, switch applications using the Application Switcher (⌘-Tab) and drop the item into your document as you normally would. You can use this technique for dragging text, files, images, etc., just as you would if the two windows were visible at the same time.

    One thing that's even nicer about this approach is that you don't have to move windows around to set up the right view for dragging between visible windows. (What a drag that can be! "Oh, Martha, he thinks he's such a wit, don't he?") However, you do have to make sure that the target window is active in the the target application, since you won't be able to switch windows in the target app during the drag.
Step Three: Add Software To Overcome Certain Niggling Problems
Niggling?

As those of you who've tried to get used to Spaces know, many attempts to solve Window Clutter create new problems rather than really solving the old ones. This isn't true of SAM, because it really does solve the problem of Window Clutter. However, it does introduce some problems that need to be solved somehow. Fortunately, we Martians have found free and easy solutions to all of them!

Problem 1.
Many applications let you set a given window as "floating" so that it stays "on top" of your window hierarchy even when you switch to another application. Only problem is, the window's "floatiness" is tied to the visible window hierarchy itself rather than to your workspace as a whole. As a result, the supposedly "floating" window gets hidden along with its application when you switch apps using SAM.

Typically, this problem occurs with respect to user interface elements that you want to remain visible no matter what other apps are active. Apps in this category typically include:

  • Launchers
  • Sticky notes
  • To-Do lists
  • Monitoring tools (e.g., clocks, system info)
  • Interfaces with inactive apps
  • iTunes controllers
  • Screen capture tools
  • Automation tools (scripts/shortcuts/workflows)
  • Desktop customizers

These kinds of apps play a role similar to the one that the Color and Font panels play in an application. If you open them, you want them to stay open—and not to hide behind other windows or apps—while you're working. In the context of SAM, tools of the categories above are ones you want to remain visible even if you switch to another app.

Apple provides many such interfaces to its own applications, including the following:

What about iTunes?

Yeah, well, if you rely on iTunes' floating controller, and aren't willing to part with it, SAM won't work for you. Thankfully, there are dozens of free alternatives that provide more functionality than the iTunes floater, so if you're willing to give one of them a try, you can still use iTunes to the full extent, but control playback with something else. For some ideas, refer to an article I wrote a couple of years back on iTunes controllers. It's out of date now, but still worth a look. Some newer alternatives are listed in the table below.

Solution: Find applications that allow themselves to be removed from the dock and to appear without a Main Menu. Such apps are referred to in the Apple developer documentation as "agent" applications, and many of them make themselves available as a statusbar item. There are quite a few apps that can morph from a regular app to an agent as a user option, and many that are agents from the get-go. Here are some of the apps I've used that I always want to remain visible while open, and which can accommodate that need nicely with SAM without any special effort. (I've organized these according to the category of apps listed above.)

Note: The apps with links in the table are ones that are not linked elsewhere in the article. Other than that, I'm not making any kind of particular statement about them. :-)

Category Application
Launchers Quicksilver
ClawMenu
DragThing
Butler
Overflow
iKey
Sticky notes Sticky Notes
Edgies
Monitoring tools Growl
BackTrack
BwanaDik
MenuMeters
iStat Menus
To-do lists MenuCalendarClock iCal
Pluto Menubar
Persistent interfaces to inactive apps DevonThink Pro
Yojimbo
DropCopy
Quicksilver
Fresh
BackTrack
Evernote
LiteSwitch
iTunes controllers CoverSutra
YouControl Tunes
Butler
ClawMenu
Quicksilver
Screen capture Little Snapper
Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts
Automation tools Quicksilver
AutoPilot
iKey
OpenMenu
TextExpander
Hazel
Shortcuts
Spark
Desktop Customization Picture Switcher
DeskShade
Wallsaver
QCDesktop



Problem 2.
What about applications that don't offer an option to run outside the Dock and without a menubar? I have several such apps that I run daily or frequently, and SAM really wouldn't be feasible if I hadn't found an easy way to "bend such apps to my will," so to speak. Here are some of my "problem," essential apps:
  1. QuartzClocks. A freeware app, this is simply the best desktop clock I've ever seen. Sadly, its developer had abandoned it the last time I looked, but you can still download it from MacUpdate.
  2. MemoryStick. Even though I also use iStat Menus, this freeware app is an even better way to keep on top of your Mac's memory usage.
  3. Sticky Notes. There are oodles of sticky-note apps in the Mac universe, but this is one of my favorites. The feature that makes Sticky Notes stand out from the crowd is that you can bind individual notes to particular applications. This is exactly what I want from a notes application… it's like putting a sticky right on the app itself! It's also perfect for SAM, because the notes are always there when the relevant app is open. The only problem arises for notes that aren't tied to a particular app…
  4. FlySketch. The very best app for annotating screen captures. Incredibly innovative… there's nothing like it.
  5. PixelStick. Great freeware for measuring screen coordinates when doing pixel-based design.
  6. iPalette. Terrific freeware for experimenting with colors. For developers, it's a great way to easily get RGB values for NSColor in your apps.

Solution: What you need is an easy way to toggle any app on your system between being a regular Dock/Menubar app and being an "agent" app that doesn't hide when you're using SAM. If you're a programmer or are otherwise technically savvy about the inner workings of Mac OS X, you could do this manually by editing a small file that appears in every Cocoa app's "bundle." But how much fun would that be? Although there aren't many utilities that will perform this feat automatically, there are a couple I know of, both free.

  • Dockless does precisely what you want. Dockless is reliable, simple, robust, free, and open-source! (Another cool thing about Dockless is that it also lets you go the other way: Make normally "dockless" (agent) apps appear with a menubar and Dock icon.) (For more words from me about Dockless, refer to my 2006 review.)
  • Configure Application Dock Tile has a trés ungainly name, but it can be more useful than Dockless for quick changes. The best way to use this app is to add it to the toolbar of Finder or Path Finder, and then use it as a "droplet." To toggle an app between having a menubar/dock and not having one, just drag the app to the toolbar icon for Configure Application Dock Tile (yuck!), change the checkbox state and save.
Problem 3.
If you use Dockless or Configure App… to eliminate an app's menubar, how do you gain access to the menubar when you need to? After all, most such apps have Preferences to set, or Help to access, or various functions that only appear in their menubar. Apps that offer a built-in Dockless mode take this into consideration and make their menu functions available in other ways, but apps that are coerced into running Dockless don't.

Solution: As with problem #2, there aren't many options that address this. But fortunately, the one I've used for ages still works great on Snow Leopard and, like Dockless, is free and open-source: StepMenus. By default, StepMenus provides a small floating panel that duplicates an app's main menu. You can position this menu panel wherever you like, or you can use the StepMenus System Preferences interface to exclude it from running in a particular application. (If you're a user of CrystalClear Interface, you'll undoubtedly see a similarity between the StepMenus preferences pane and the one for CCI. The similarity isn't accidental: I used some of the StepMenus code for CCI, since it was precisely what I needed for that app.)


Window Clutter: A Brief History

In the beginning, there was the very low resolution monitor for working with graphical operating systems, like the Mac and, eventually, Windows. For a very long time (in computer years), resolution was so low (600x800 pixels or less) that the only sensible way of working was to zoom each window to its maximum extent.

This hardly hindered one's productivity, of course, because it wasn't until the mid-1990s that computers had enough built-in memory to run multiple applications reliably. Still, you quite often needed to have two or more windows open in a given application—for example, in word-processing apps like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The number of windows you needed to work with doubled or tripled once sophisticated design applications like Photoshop and PageMaker came on the scene. At this point, working with multiple zoomed windows became a real pain, yet squeezing them to smaller sizes seemed to only make things worse.

For the longest time, it seems that a great deal of my time was spent repositioning windows so I could see what I was doing. Working in a word processor was one thing. Working in Aldus PageMaker was another thing entirely.

In a word processor, it's often desirable to see only one window at a time, as a way of reducing distractions. In fact, a few years ago it became de rigeur (at least in the Mac world) for such apps to enable a full-screen mode for composing text. This became a major selling point for rich-text editors like WriteRoom, and it soon became a standard feature of most apps that included a writing function.

When one is word-processing, having a single window consuming all of your screen real estate is not a bad thing, especially since you can specify margins so the text doesn't spread across the entire area.

As screen resolution rapidly rose through the 1990s, however, the habit of zooming every window to the full size of your monitor began to look pretty silly, and could actually dampen productivity. It's a known fact that humans read less efficiently when a column of text is too wide, because the eye has trouble making its way back to the left-hand margin while keeping each line in sequence. (For examples, see this or this in Google Books.)

When monitor resolution was 640x480, this was not a consideration. But on a 1024x768 monitor, line length in a word processor (or PDF file, web browser, or whatever you may be trying to read) becomes far too great to read efficiently. Still, zooming windows to the max remained the preferred, and expected behavior (especially on Windows)… readability be damned!

Application Switcher

The first great idea for dealing with multiple applications and windows on a PC actually appeared first in Microsoft Windows 3.x. It was then (and, I think, still is now) a feature known and used mainly by power users, but it was a brilliantly simple implementation. I refer here to the Alt-Tab keyboard shortcut, which displays a horizontal band of all your currently active apps and windows. The Windows implementation was fairly rudimentary, and it didn't change much (if at all) until the release of Windows Vista. To navigate the Windows switcher, you had to to everything with those two keys. In other words, you had to hold down the Alt key, press Tab, and then keep pressing Tab to navigate through the items (you could go backwards by throwing a Shift into the mix, but still had to keep holding Alt as well). This was useful, but seemed downright awkward after Apple finally implemented a similar feature in Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther).

Apple's innovations to the application switcher were not only visual (and it was very cool visually), but greatly enhanced functionality as well. You could navigate like in the Windows switcher, but you could also navigate using the arrow keys, select with the mouse, use the scrollwheel to navigate, drag items onto the applications to launch them, and hit Q to quit an application. There are a variety of other keyboard shortcuts as well. (See here.)

I understand that in Windows Vista, Microsoft has incorporated some of Apple's enhancements: You can now navigate through the items with arrow keys or your mouse. Unfortunately, from what I've read, the Windows switcher doesn't expand horizontally beyond its size in earlier versions of Windows; rather, it expands vertically in rows.

One of the most irritating aspects of the Windows switcher is that it displays both documents and applications. Therefore, it's not strictly speaking an application switcher, and there doesn't seem to be any way of making it so. (This is the main reason I can't bring myself to use Witch, an otherwise useful, once-free-but-now-shareware switcher alternative on the Mac. Witch has no way to limit its display to applications, either.)

Instead of displaying both windows and applications at the same time, Apple has sensibly separated the two, providing a different shortcut—⌘-Tilde—to navigate your open windows.

It wasn't long before monitors got bigger not only in resolution but also in physical dimensions. Can you imagine working on a 15-inch monitor nowadays? And yet, this was the standard size throughout the 1990s (unless you were very special indeed). With such a small monitor, most people didn't max out their screen resolution because at 1024x768, for example, screen type becomes way too small to read.

Soon enough, though, monitor size zoomed to 17-inch, then 20-inch, and now 24-inch as the expected standard for your basic computer system. Heck, the current model iMacs sport a 27-inch monitor in the top two configurations. (And here I thought my 23-inch Cinema Display of a few years back was so huge. And it is!)

For creative professionals, the problem of dealing with Window Clutter has long been handled by using multiple monitors. That's fine if you can afford it, but using multiple monitors introduces its own set of problems. I won't go into them now, but those of you who work that way know them all too well.

In the meantime, computer memory soared, so that what application developers, users, and hardware makers considered a baseline standard was an ever-shifting target. And no one ever seemed to get it quite right. Technical standards have simply moved far more swiftly than humans could adapt to them. (I wryly note that this deficiency is not shared by your Martian neighbors.)

It's sobering to actually review the timeline of the amount of random-access memory (RAM) that personal computers have relied on. As we all know, in 1984, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh—the first commercially available personal computer with a graphical operating system. It was also the first computer to boast 128KB of RAM! By the end of the year, for only $10,000, you could buy AT&T's new microcomputer and luxuriate in a full 512KB of RAM.

The race for more memory had begun, but it seemed to remain in Lilliputian dimensions for a very long time. By the end of 1989, Apple's Macintosh was still in the lead, with its top-end system boasting 4MB of RAM. IBM and Compaq PCs maxed out at 2MB. A decade later, top-of-the-line systems still peaked at 512MB or 1GB of RAM, while consumer systems like the iMac were holding 256-512MB.

Since 2000, It was in the last decade that RAM size really took off. The amount of RAM a desktop computer can consume nowadays seems ridiculously huge, a reflection of the transition to 64-bit operating systems. My 2-year-old Mac Pro can hold 32GB, and I've got 16GB installed. To buy a consumer system with less than 4GB these days is to buy a computer that won't run modern operating systems or the latest versions of the most apps. Heck, the $599 Mac mini has 2GB, and the $799 model has 4GB! The standard RAM for Microsoft Windows-based systems is similar, starting at 2GB for entry-level computers and rising from there.

For the purposes of this article, the main impact of exploding system memory has been to increase the number of applications one can keep open at the same time. It has become habitual for a typical user to leave applications open indefinitely, and then to not understand why their system may be slowing down after a few days. :-) (For a followup to this discussion, refer to the earlier section of this article, How Bad Is Window Clutter, Anyway?)

Alternatives For Slaying Window Clutter
Expose

I still think Expose is a visually cool way to view your open windows, but I frankly have never used it much because it just doesn't work for me. Rather than spending many more words explaining Expose, take a look at the preceding link and let Apple do the talking.

Basically, Expose has three modes, with the following default keyboard shortcuts:

  1. F9. This displays all the windows of all active applications on your system. Curiously, however, this doesn't show windows of applications that are hidden. Therefore, if you're using SAM, there is no difference between F9 and F10. (Perhaps that's one reason I've never taken to Expose…)
  2. F10. This displays all the windows of your current application.
  3. F11. This hides all windows and displays your desktop.

A very useful feature of Expose (which may not be widely known) is that whether you start with F9 or F10, you can navigate through your other applications and their windows by hitting the Tab key. Each click of Tab takes you to the next application set. Within an application set, you can navigate using the mouse or the arrow keys.

Still, Expose is at best a useful way of finding windows on your Mac, and is neither a practical application switcher nor a solution to Window Clutter. After all, as soon as you exit Expose, your cluttered Desktop returns, like Cinderella at midnight, to its former unlovely self.

Virtual Desktops (Spaces)

Back in 2006, I opined at great length about why Virtual Desktops as a technique--and why Spaces in particular--are poorly suited as a solution to Window Clutter. Rather than repeat all those arguments and observations here, I invite you to read the article, "Leopard’s Spaces: Virtual Desktops for the Rest of Us?", which I wrote while having access to developer releases of Mac OS X 10.5.

Even after I discovered Hyperspaces, a marvelous enhancement to Spaces that adds all the features I felt were missing in Apple's implementation, the basic problems inherent in Virtual Desktops remain:

  • They simply create more confusion than they eliminate,
  • They make it harder for you to find your application windows, and
  • They aren't really practical since the idea of segregating your different kinds of work into different desktops is impossible if you have even modestly complex kinds of work involving more than one application.
Visual Differentiation

Apple has progressively enhanced the visual distinction between your active window (typically the one you're typing in or whose controls you're manipulating) and the others in your active application. Windows in inactive applications have a slightly different appearance than inactive windows in your active application. (Say that twice fast.) But practically speaking, it's impossible to tell them apart.

This is why those who don't use SAM either must use something like Expose or ⌘-Tilde, or forever find themselves activating the wrong window.

Even when using SAM (either with or without CrystalClear Interface), distinguishing between your top-level window and the others in your window hierarchy is very important. By default, Apple helps differentiate the active window by adding an extra-huge, 3-D shadow (introduced in Leopard), as well as hints in the button widgets (color vs. no color, or faded vs. active appearance, or bright vs. dim, etc.).

In addition to Apple's visual techniques, CrystalClear Interface lets you further distinguish windows by their transparency, which is completely user-customizable. By default, the front window is mostly opaque, and the inactive windows are 50-60 percent transparent. Utility windows (Find panels, Color panels, and the like) retain the opaque appearance of the main window and are distinctively themed as translucent black (HUD) panels. Besides setting default values for all inactive windows, users can also set the transparency of individual windows that have unique titles to some custom value, retained across sessions.

In addition, CCI provides the option of turning shadows off for your inactive windows. This just takes Apple's approach one step further: Rather than minimized shadows in background windows, you can remove shadows from background windows entirely.

The bottom line is that Visual Differentiation as a strategy of solving Window Clutter is absolutely necessary and quite helpful. However, it is not sufficient to eliminate the problem entirely.

And that explains why here on Mars, we use Single Application Mode as the solution to Window Clutter.

Glossary of SAM Speak
Agent
An application that does not show a dock icon or have a Main Menu in the menubar. This type of application sometimes has an icon for accessing its functions and preferences in the Statusbar.
Dockless
An application that runs as an Agent.
Statusbar
The part of the System Menubar that extends from the Spotlight icon on the right to a point on the left that's not occupied by the current application's Main Menu.
System Menubar
The narrow strip at the top of the Mac workspace that contains the application's Main Menu and the Statusbar.
Main Menu
The part of the System Menubar occupied by the current application's menu items. The Main Menu usually starts with an item with the application's name, just to the right of the Apple Menu, and extends to an item named "Help" on the right.
SAM
Acronym for Single Application Mode.
Tear-Off Menu
An item from the Main Menu, or one of its submenus, that can be "torn off" and positioned as a free-floating window.
Auxiliar Panel
A window that contains tools used to change settings of various kinds in the main window. Such windows include the Font and Color panels, as well as Inspector panels such as those in Apple's iWork applications, or the ones in Preview and QuickTime.
Floating panel
A window that by default always appears above other windows in the application's hierarchy, except those that are also floating panels.
Single Application Mode
A Macintosh workspace configured so that only one applications windows are visible at any one time. Other application's windows can be configured to be temporarily visible as well. Any open windows of Agent applications also remain visible.
Single Window Mode
A Macintosh workspace configured so that only one window is visible at any one time. SWM exists in concept only.
Active [Window/Application]
The Active application is the one the user is currently working in. The Active window is the window of the Active application the user is currently working in, using either the mouse or the keyboard (or some other input device).
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
February 4th, 2010

Government Going Apple?

Government going Apple? - Security Systems News. I guess I missed this little tidbit from last fall, courtesy of Security Systems News. If true, it sounds like there at least a few Federal IT execs who are beginning to listen to reason, rather than being always feeling like they're on the defensive about Macs.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
November 13th, 2009

Microsoft Exec Admits Windows 7 Emulates OS X

Microsoft rebukes exec for Mac inspiration comment. They can run, but they just can't hide. :-)
    
  • 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
October 23rd, 2009

Analysis Shows Snow Leopard Faster Than Windows 7

Performance showdown: Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard | Windows 7 Insider - CNET Reviews. I think Windows 7 is supposed to be faster than Vista, but even so, Snow Leopard is so much faster than any previous Mac OS X system that I suspected it would come out on top in a test with Windows 7. And the test doesn't even measure such mundane tasks as application launch, let alone the time it takes to perform simple tasks like finding a file or application in the morass that is Window's file system and its pathetic Explorer app.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:MS Windows, Mac OS X, Macs vs. PCsTags: |
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
June 18th, 2009

A Gift for Self-Deception

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

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

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

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

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

The only time a change of opinion occurs is when some circumstance in a person's life changes sufficiently that what was highly dubious before is now patently obvious. This is why you read so many stories of former PC users who, when confronted with the necessity of using a Mac for a period of time, invariably come to understand how far beyond superior the Mac operating system is when compared with Windows.

I spend little time using Windows nowadays, but my wife is still forced to use a PC for her job. As we both work at home, I have become her de facto Help Desk support for tasks that her remote technicians can't handle. So it was that today I managed to raise my green blood pressure far too high for sustainable health, all in the cause of trying to get a scanner to work with her Dell laptop.

Working with Windows is a lot like trying to communicate with automated phone systems. One menu will explain a variety of choices. Then, you find that either none of them are helpful, or some of them promise more than they deliver. For example, in this case Windows let me know that I had attached a new piece of hardware. (Duh!) Then it offered options to (a) let it try to find the driver on its own or (b) insert a CD that contains the driver. I was skeptical of option (a) but decided to try that. Well, of course Windows came back almost immediately to tell me it couldn't find the driver.

On a Mac? Apple keeps hardware drivers current with all of its OS releases, including incremental updates, and I've almost never had to go searching for a driver for common hardware like scanners and printers.  (A Windows user at this point will self-deceptively point out how much more hardware is available for the PC, etc. All I can say is, Mac users have more than enough choices in hardware peripherals, thanks.)

Step two was so infuriating that I refuse to explain it in detail. This involved finding and downloading Canon's driver and software. The finding part was easy as pie thanks to Google and Canon's easy-to-use website. The downloading and installation parts, however, were beyond maddening. The experience exposed so many obvious weaknesses in Windows usability that I had to again wonder how PC users put up with it. I said I wasn't going to go into detail, and I'll try not to. But here are a few observations:

  1. Clicking download doesn't just download the file, as it does on a Mac. Instead, it spawns a dialog box that requires a choice: Download, or "Run". So, I ran. (Again, a Windows guru would say, "But you can avoid having to make that choice each time by..." And I say, "Yes, but you forget how clueless most computer users are. Even though you can do this, it's not the default experience that it should be.")
  2. So, after running, nothing happened. Nothing. I thought I'd done something wrong, so I downloaded again. My wife noted that Canon's site suggests saving the file rather than running it, so I did that. But where to save it? From the file browser it took far longer than it should to locate the Desktop, which I assumed would be the default location. Even if it's the default, I had to manually choose it. *Groan*
  3. So once the file was downloaded, I just wanted to click it on the desktop. Guess what? There's no obvious way to expose the desktop. My wife, a 20-year PC user, says she always minimizes all the windows to get there. Good grief. Think of all the lost time in corporate America with clueless users trying to find their desktop. Scary.
  4. Having installed, I then had to go through another wizard that wanted to help me help Windows connect the hardware with the driver. To get to the wizard, I had to find the control panel for scanners, another task that all its own makes using Windows look hard from a Mac perspective.

Why does this seem ridiculous to Martians? Simply because, using Mac OS X, you just plug your scanner in and... there's no step two. The Mac's built-in Twain driver typically can pair with the scanner even if the company-specific scanner is unavailable. And since this is a core service of the operating system, it works with any Twain-aware software. Isn't that an obvious approach?

This lengthy and agonizing task (don't even get me started on the Windows user interface, and I'm not talking about its relative beauty) reminded me of another tragedy of modern computing, which I've written about before. Namely, the institution of a "Help Desk" in all companies today is not one of the inevitable costs of having computers on every desk. It is quite obviously the result of having IBM PCs running DOS or Windows computers on every desk.

The process of setting up a scanner should be in the skill range of every computer user. In the Mac world, it is. In the PC world, it isn't. It's as simple as that. And you can extrapolate that observation to nearly every other aspect of office computing we have today.

The Help Desk is a huge revenue drain that every PC user simply assumes is necessary, because it has evolved to be so. Today, Help Desks are self-perpetuating organizations, typically driven by contract companies with a clear incentive to make themselves seem indispensable. These folks (or at least, the companies they work for) are at the forefront of the anti-Mac coalition devoted to doing whatever it takes to keep Macs out of the enterprise.

And who is the company that hires the Help Desk to question what the "experts" say? After all, these are the guys who daily keep their computing environment running. Business managers simply aren't qualified to make decisions about their computing infrastructure, so they rely on outside contractors for recommendations. And guess what? Those are the same guys who regularly argue for expanding the Help Desk and who regularly explain why it would be a mistake to let employees start using Macs at the office. (For more on this subject, refer to the third section of my earlier article, Protecting Windows: How PC Malware Became A Way of Life. The third section is called "Change Resisters In Charge.")

In this case, the advocates for the Help Desk aren't deceiving themselves. Many of them fully understand that if Macs came in, many of their jobs would go away. But somehow, the business managers and computer users continue to spend most of their time struggling with simple tasks rather than actually getting work done, all because they're convinced they have no choice. And having to use Windows, the average user continues to perceive their PC as this unpredictable, inscrutable, frustrating device whose only virtue appears to be access to the Web and to iTunes.

I'll never forget my highly intelligent disk jockey friend who purchased a high-end PC with all the bells and whistles for recording and editing audio and video. Not only did it cost more than an iMac with the same basic capabilities, but it sat in his house for over a year before he had the nerve (and time) to figure out how to use it to do the things he bought it for.

I tried to explain to him that... But you know how it goes. Tell a PC user how simple something like recording and editing audio is on a Mac, and either their eyes glaze over or they start to look at you suspiciously. And that's if they're already a friend!

But I'm done with trying to persuade humans of anything. They'll either figure it out, or they won't. Unfortunately, another observation I've made isn't good news for any human figuring out that they're wrong about something:

Changes in human understanding, and the policy implied by that understanding, only occur through crisis.

This observation is directly related to the original premise, because if it's impossible ever to "prove" an idea or even a set of facts to another human or group of humans through cogent argument, how do you manage to change awareness of the virtue of alternative perspectives? I'm taking back to Mars the theory that such changes are only possible after a human undergoes some life-changing crisis, or after a community of humans does the same.

In a followup essay, I'll discuss several other current controversial topics that have quite obvious answers, yet which humans--quite often on both sides of the debate--keep viewing from obviously kooky perspectives.

Well, obvious to any Martian I know, anyway.

    
  • 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
April 19th, 2009

Another Windows Guru Falls For A Mac

Living on Air: A Windows guru spends two weeks with a Mac. In this case, said Guru had avoided trying out a Mac for 25 years and finally took the plunge, only after being assigned to do so. Lucky him, he got to play with the latest model MacBook Air, but his article spends more time explaining why he now understands the appeal of Mac OS X. Though he does get a number of things wrong (heck, he only spent 2 weeks with the OS, but sadly writes as though he's now an expert on it), I think we can count him in the Switcher camp.
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
April 19th, 2009

Microsoft’s ‘Apple tax’ claims are ’stupid,’ counters analyst

Microsoft's 'Apple tax' claims are 'stupid,' counters analyst. Microsoft is still trying to convince the world that Macs are too expensive and not worth the price. This article makes a good argument why, even when Macs actually are more expensive, they are a significantly better value. Remember, price alone does not determine the value of a product. If it did, we'd all be buying no-name-brand TVs, home entertainment equipment, and other household appliances. There's a huge difference in using Mac OS X versus Windows, and that--along with the entire suite of Apple software that comes with it--is the key differentiator that Microsoft would like you to forget (or remain ignorant about).
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
February 2nd, 2009

Mac web share just shy of 10% in January

AppleInsider | Mac web share hits record 9.9 percent in January

This impressive news is all over the web since it was released yesterday. It's accompanied by the news that Safari's share has been rising more than any other browser in recent months, climbing over 8% in January.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Macs vs. PCsTags: , |
January 11th, 2009

Apple a Monopolist? Only in Microsoft-Think

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

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

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

So it was with this writer on Computerworld, who stated:

Ok, I have to do some flaming here. Apple is a VERY innovative company. I even own some Apple creations. However; not everything Apple does is golden and I think that was minimized by the article. They are the most controlling monopolistic protectionist company in electronics and media. I am not a Microsoft fan, but I am thinking even M$ worships at the alter of Apple's ability to monopolize. If M$ tried half the things Apple flaunts they would be in courts all over the world - again.

These OS revisions... Bunk. Usually not more then a service pack. True Leopard was an advancement, but with only a .x revision? Whatever. It is a way for Apple to make money that has not sunk in with the M$ lot yet. Yearly $99 updates... Much better then 4-5 year complete revisions overall for the company's bottom line. Apple's UNIX flavor is very friendly to these updates too, unlike the M$ monster.

AppStore. Distribution limited to Apple's discretion? Hefty profit sharing with Apple... There are pro's and con's but MONOPOLY is what it comes down to. The word never came up in the article but that is what it amounts to. Think if MS tried to do that? Or RIM or Palm, etc.

iTunes. True great functionality, but at the same time I have complaints. I want to buy 20 songs at once - still can't REALLY do that. (i.e. Fill a cart and then buy) How about the Apple updater that wants you to install all kinds of invasive apps all the time? It IS very invasive too - the fact that it bloats your OS by running half a dozen services at all times is nuts.

iPods/iPhones. Require iTunes for support... Only work with iTunes to date... MONOPOLY?

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

Confusion over the term "monopoly"

First up in the comments to this article there was the guy who asserted that Microsoft isn't a monopolist even though they have been convicted as one. They still have a legally defined monopoly on corporate desktops, as well as of office productivity software.

Then there's this guy who thinks Apple has a monopoly just because it owns and runs the iTunes store or the AppStore. This is MicrosoftThink at its greatest. Let's see...

Apple produces iTunes. Apple makes iPods. Apple makes iPhones. Apple makes Macs. Etc.

Apple doesn't let anyone else run the iTunes or Appstores, nor do they let other companies produce iPods, iPhones, or Macs.

Microsoft-Think says this is BAD. Why? Because MS is a software company that doesn't make hardware (well, except for Xbox and they're iPod-wannabe), but lets lots of hardware companies license their OS (with lots of strings attached, of course). This has been a very successful model for MS, but is it an appropriate model to use as the basis for looking at Apple?

Hardly.

Apple has always (well, except for a short period when they were desperate) maintained that ensuring quality products requires that they produce both the hardware and software components. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with this model. In fact, this is the model for nearly all the rest of the industrial market. The MS model is a historical accident resulting from IBM's dumb mistake in letting them provide the software for their PC, and then letting other companies clone said PC.

Consider:Toyota makes cars. Toyota makes trucks.Does Toyota let anyone else make Toyota cars or trucks? Of course not.Does that make Toyota a monopoly? It's really silly to ask.

Or...

General Electric makes refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers, radios, etc.Does GE license the blueprints for these products to other companies?Like I said, what a silly question!

Or...

Amazon.com runs an online store selling books and thousands of other products, sort of an online department store like Macys.While Amazon lets other sellers market their wares on the Amazon store, they don't let anyone else use the intellectual property they developed to build the store, populate it with goods, process transactions, handle customers, etc. No one but Amazon can run the Amazon store.

In much the same way, Apple lets musicians and software developers market their goods on their iTunes stores. Just like Amazon, Apple screens products and suppliers to make sure their products meet the company's standards.

Or finally...

Another parallel to consider re: the store concept is the brick-and-mortar model. Who do you think buys products for Macys? If you think it's anyone but a Macy's employee, you're seriously out of touch. Of course Macy's buys their own products, and they choose only those that meet Macy's standards. 

Why? Well, because it's a Macy's store!

There's nothing at all unusual in this, and if you think there is, you're simply living in a Microsoft-Think universe.

So, learn what a monopoly is, and what it isn't, before you start throwing that term around.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 8th, 2009

Microsoft Still Spreading Apple FUD on Prices

Microsoft bangs 'Apple tax' drum once again

Anyone who thinks there is a "new" Microsoft, one that isn't primarily interested in cornering even more of its monopoly markets, should heed the bullcrap this Microsoft spokesperson dished out the day before MacWorld. A couple of quick points here...

  • Microsoft Office is outrageously priced considering the paltry amount Microsoft spends in its production. If it didn't hold a monopoly of the office productivity market, the price would be down near where Apple's iWork suite now is... $49!
  • Microsoft charges way more for its operating system than is warranted by costs. Again, it gets away with this because it holds a monopoly on business desktops. For the business edition of Vista, Amazon.com has a discounted price of $250 (regularly $300), whereas Mac OS X Leopard (which isn't crippled like the "home" versions of Vista) runs $110 for a single license or $145 for a 5-pack.
  • Microsoft also gets away with charging outrageous amounts for developers to play in their party. To get the bare minimum necessary for developing with Microsoft's tools, you have to shell out $2,500. For Apple? Zero, zilch. And that's for the entire enchilada, including the iPhone dev tools.

Now, who's actually charging a tax here? Seems very obvious to me.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
January 1st, 2009

New Zunes Killing Themselves In Droves

30GB Zunes Killing Themselves In Droves | Gadget Lab from Wired.com

Even for those of us who have long maintained that Microsoft products are second-rate (or, in some cases, third), this is surprising news. Still, as a rational Martian I can't imagine why anyone except, perhaps, Microsoft's desperate shareholders, would think Microsoft--a maker of buggy software--could build a reliable music player. Maybe it's their success with the XBox... ?

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
December 16th, 2008

Computerworld: 68% of Businesses Say They’ll Add Macs in ‘09

Businesses double down on Apple; 68% say they'll add Macs in '09

Very interesting news! I hope it comes to pass. This is, as I've predicted, the only way businesses would start supporting the Mac: Their employees are starting to demand it.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Macs vs. PCsTags: , |
November 14th, 2008

iPhone Races Past Blackberry to No. 2 in SmartPhones

Apple edges out RIM to take No. 2 spot in smart phones Well, this must be a surprise to even the most ardent believes in Apple's new computing platform. Now, if you count folks like me, who use the iPod Touch, the OS X mobile operating system probably beats out Nokia's #1 slot. The fact that it has already surpassed Windows Mobile is also astonishing. Of course, Steve Ballmer says this is a temporary setback... one that will disappear by next year. As I recall, he said the same thing about the iPod a few years back, as well as iTunes, as well as ... anything Apple produces that competes with MS. Does that guy really believe his own FUD?
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
November 7th, 2008

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

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

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

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

It still surprises me how rapidly this market is evolving, and that evolution makes keeping tabs on the capabilities of each application--and even on the entire set of applications--quite challenging. As I was finalizing this report, a new application in this class came to market that,

Once again, another new iPhone app was released just as I was preparing to publish this report, which would make the 14th eReader in this category. It's too bad, because Discover is one of the best document-manager apps available. Best of all, it's free! I plan to add it to this review when time permits.
it turns out, I've found to have among the very best features of any that came before. I have no doubt that many of the applications reviewed here will continue to be refined, rendering this snapshot fairly obsolete fairly quickly. But the observations here accurately reflect the current state of iPhone eReaders. (As mentioned in Part 1, all of these applications work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, therefore, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices.)

This second installment covers 13 applications:

  1. Air Sharing
  2. A.I. Disk
  3. Annotater
  4. Briefcase
  5. Caravan
  6. DataCase
  7. File Magnet
  8. Files
  9. Folders
  10. iStorage
  11. Mobile Studio
  12. TextGuru
  13. TouchFS

As was the case for the applications primarily for reading text, none of the eReaders designed primarily for managing documents fully satisfies all of the requirements I've specified for them. Nearly all of them show red blocks in the matrix of capabilities that follows this introduction. There are also too many "light green" blocks in the requirements designed as key (those in boldface with the shiny highlight). If I could conglomerate the best features of each application, however, I'd have what I consider an ideal eReader, one that would satisfy all of the following requirements (in no particular order):

  • Handles most native file formats (including documents with images)
  • Formats HTML documents appropriately
  • Can organize documents into folders or categories
  • User can add bookmarks within files
  • Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes
  • Follows web hyperlinks
  • Lets user manage files and folders on the iPhone
  • Works offline
  • Easy to read and navigate documents
  • Easy to add documents
  • Provides a "full screen" mode
  • Resizes content automatically for both portrait and landscape modes
  • Remembers where you stopped reading

Because their orientations are quite different, the set of requirements for these "Document Manager" applications differs as well. Most of the above requirements are pretty self-explanatory, and I explained some of them in Part 1 of this review.

As noted in Part 1, any application that fully succeeds as an eReader must be able to read, navigate and appropriately format HTML documents. Whereas most of the applications covered in Part 1 could do that, only two in this list can. By "appropriately," I refer to the ability to wrap text lines while maintaining a given font size. HTML isn't PDF, and shouldn't be formatted as such. Most of these apps do this "appropriate" formatting for Word documents, and there's no reasons why they can't/shouldn't do this for HTML. That said, if an HTML file has been formatted using a rigid table structure, or if its text elements are set to specific widths using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), an eReader can be forgiven for not parsing such files into device-agnostic HTML. (However, eReader software should check to see whether an HTML file has a separate "print" CSS style, which typically removes such formatting and can be re-wrapped with a decent font size for the iPhone.)

Unfortunately, nearly all of these applications have a file-size limit, and I used one long test HTML document (about 700kb) that consistently crashed them. The exceptions were applications like TextGuru, which warned me that it couldn't handle such large files rather than trying to load them and then crashing. The file size limit seems to be much higher for some file types (e.g., PDF and web archives) than for others.

By "Easy to read and navigate documents," I mean the extent to which an application presents a document's text at a readable type size, and to which it provides appropriate navigation controls. Relying solely on the iPhone's native "tap" and "swipe" gestures isn't usually sufficient, since such gestures don't necessarily translate into navigation actions. For example, it's typical for a double-tap to mean "expand text view to fit the display," yet some of these programs also expect such a gesture to move a document forward or backward a page. Confusing the two makes navigation pretty difficult. Similarly, some of these applications use a tap gesture to mean "unhide navigation controls" when a user is in full-screen mode. If this is the case, and the user can only navigate by tapping, the full-screen mode becomes worthless. For navigating and reading documents, the best apps in this list are Air Sharing, Briefcase, File Magnet, and Files.

Since a major distinguishing factor of this group of applications is their ability to let users manage documents, it's pretty important that they provide ways for users to do just that. This means not only being able to move folders of files from your desktop computer, but also being able to rearrange and rename files and folders on the iPhone. Otherwise, the software doesn't really work optimally as a document manager. The best applications for this feature are A.I. Disk, iStorage, and MobileStudio.

One of the tantalizing possibilities that these applications offer is the ability to not only browse the web from within their interface, but also to be able to save web documents to the iPhone. Sadly, only one of these (Caravan) can actually do that at this time; hopefully others will take up the challenge eventually. That said, several of the apps have well-designed, integrated web browsers that let users follow links to the web and easily find their way back to the starting document without having to leave the application's interface. Those that have mastered this trick so far are Air Sharing, A.I. Disk, Caravan, iStorage, MobileStudio, and TouchFS.

A general complaint I have about these application is their inability to display PDF files appropriately in either portrait or landscape mode. In both cases, the display should focus on the text or page margins, not on the page borders. Not doing so makes PDF files difficult to read and navigate. The only app that handles PDF files well is Annotater, which specializes in that format. Annotater (yes, it's really spelled that way) at least eliminates the irritating "page border" and focuses on the page margin. It also automatically resizes PDF files in landscape mode, another important factor in PDF readability. PDF readers could be improved, however, by providing a "zoom" feature that would adjust the display to the text, rather than to the margin. It's difficult to do this by pinching, and after that, navigation can suffer if the document display slides off to the right or left.

As the matrix that follows this introduction shows, all 13 of the reviewed applications have something to recommend them. For specialized uses, nearly any one of them would work well. The only ones I can't recommend at this time are Folders, iStorage, TextGuru, and TouchFS. Of these, iStorage has some remarkably good ideas, but they aren't all well executed in the current release. TextGuru is designed primarily as a text/code editor, and its file-management and eReader features clearly haven't been the focus of the developer's attention.

For overall usability as a tool for reading and managing documents on the iPhone, and other textual material, Of the 13 applications reviewed, I found three that are clearly superior, and three others that, while not as good as the top three overall, are certainly good enough to recommend:

Followed by:

If you already have an account with Apple's MobileMe service, or with any other WebDAV service such as Box.net or MyDisk.se, A.I. Disk is an obvious choice. Not only does it integrate seamlessly with such services, but it comes the closest of this group to meeting all of the requirements for applications in this category of eReader. In fact, it is the only one that doesn't fail a single requirement. Incidentally, A.I. Disk is made by the same company, Readdle, that released the excellent ReaddleDocs application, which I rated as one of the top eReaders in the "text reader" category in Part I of this report. (It's worth noting that A.I. Disk was released after I had nearly finished this review, and in fact its release ended up delaying the review so I could include it.) The main weakness with A.I. Disk, however, is that it relies solely on external WebDAV servers for file management, and can't move files directly from your computer.

WebDAV
Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning, or WebDAV, is a set of extensions to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that allows users to collaboratively edit and manage files on remote World Wide Web servers. The group of developers responsible for these extensions was also known by the same name and was a working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The WebDAV protocol allows "Intercreativity," making the Web a readable and writable medium, in line with Tim Berners-Lee's original vision. It allows users to create, change and move documents on a remote server (typically a web server or "web share"). This is useful for authoring the documents that a web server serves, but it can also be used for storing files on the web, so that the files can be accessed from anywhere. The most important features of the WebDAV protocol are: locking ("overwrite prevention"); properties (creation, removal, and querying of information about author, modified date, etc.); name space management (ability to copy and move Web pages within a server's namespace); and collections (creation, removal, and listing of resources). Most modern operating systems provide built-in support for WebDAV. With a fast network and the right client, it is almost as easy to use files on a WebDAV server as those stored in local directories.Courtesy of Wikipedia

Air Sharing makes the top cut on the strength of its terrific navigation tools and overall ease of use. Those and its ability to share documents directly with other iPhone users overcome its biggest weakness: Air Sharing doesn't let users manage their files and folders directly on the iPhone. Rather, you must set up folder structures and populate them with files on your computer and then sync with the iPhone. Hopefully, the developer will address this problem in a future release.

MobileStudio (originally known as MobileFinder until Apple asked the developer to change it) excels at just the task that Air Sharing leaves out: Creating, moving, copying, and renaming files and folders on the iPhone. MobileStudio was also the first app in this class that lets users create and edit text file. It can even read and write .zip files, and you can set specific permissions on each file or folder--all within its interface. However, MobileStudio is weak in document navigation. Although it offers a full-screen mode, its lack of navigation options in that mode make it functionally useless. (For more information on this, see the detailed description of MobileStudio.)

The next three applications in the recommended list (these are designated with a light-green background in the summary matrix) all have some excellent features that may trump those at the top, depending on the weight you place on each requirement. Files is easy to use and makes reading documents pleasant, but it can't manage files on the iPhone and doesn't have an embedded web browser. File Magnet has the best reading environment of any of these apps, as a result of its innovative "tilt scrolling" and "auto-scroll" mechanisms. Its biggest weaknesses are lack of bookmark support and inability to manage files and folders. DataCase has good built-in navigation controls and automatic "full screen mode." It's also one of the easiest to set up and move files to and from the iPhone. However, it doesn't let users create, rename or rearrange files and folders, it's not particularly good at displaying HTML or handling web links.

The remainder of this report consists of a summary matrix showing the various capabilities and usability features of each application. In the matrix, a green block indicates that the app fully meets the requirement, and light green means a partial score. A red block indicates that the app fails the requirement, and light red means if partially fails. The gloss overlay highlights the core requirements for this category.

Following the matrix are separate descriptions of each application, organized into lists of "Special strengths," "Special weaknesses," and "Other notes."

Summary: e-Readers for Managing Documents (Table 1)

Air Sharing

A.I. Disk

Anno-tater

Brief- case

Caravan

DataCase

File Magnet

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works offline

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read and navigate documents

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


Summary: e-Readers for Managing Documents (Table 2)

Files

Folders

iStorage

Mobile Studio

TextGuru

TouchFS

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works offline

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read and navigate documents

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


image
Air Sharing

Version 1.0.3, $6.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Document lists can be resized by pinching
  • Features navigation menu by clicking the top toolbar
  • Can connect and share files directly with other iPhone users
  • Handy navigation controls overcome some of the limitations of the click/double-click method. The next/last page buttons on the toolbar are especially helpful in navigating PDF files. Air Sharing also has an icon in the top toolbar that takes you back to the beginning of the file� really helpful for long files!
  • Air Sharing remembers where you left off reading, and on launch returns you to the folder of the document you were reading last.
  • Excellent web browser integration: If you link to a web page, you can continue browsing as needed and then use Air Sharing's back/forward buttons to return to where you started. However, you can't download web pages as you browse them.
  • Automatic full-screen mode.
  • Very useful built-in Help.
Special problems
  • Support for RTF documents is still very iffy. Often, opening one crashes Air Sharing. When it doesn't,
  • formatting can become goofy--for example, everything starts to become underlined, and hyperlinked words or phrases get changed to "hyperlink." However, Air Sharing's documentation lists RTF and RTFD as supported formats.
  • Doesn't follow links in PDF files
  • Air Sharing doesn't let you set up files and folders on the iPhone, or move files or folders around within the folder hierarchy. To set up folders, you need to design the hierarchy on your desktop computer and then synch with the iPhone.
  • Has a little difficulty switching between landscape and portrait modes, often getting stuck in between modes, or changing very slowly.
Other notes
  • Air Sharing supports the file formats that Safari does (including .webarchive files written from Safari), as well as Microsoft Office formats supported on the iPhone. Support for iWork files is limited to the file preview embedded in the file package, and support for RTF/RTFD isn't reliable. One extra class of formats Air Sharing supports is source code, which it can display with appropriate syntax colors.


image
A.I. Disk

Version 1.0.1, $7.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Developed by Readdle, makers of the excellent ReaddleDocs reader, A.I. Disk is extremely easy to set up if you have an account with one of the supported WebDAV servers. Out of the box, A.I. Disk can connect to your MobileMe, Box.net, or MyDisk.se accounts, and you can add whatever other WebDAV servers you may use.
  • A.I. Disk makes it quite easy to create new folders and to move documents and folders around within its interface.
  • You can easily follow hyperlinks to web pages using the build-in browser, and A.I. Disk maintains back/forward buttons so you can find your way "home." Like most other apps in this category, however, you can't save web files to A.I. Disk.
  • Supports adding bookmarks within your files.
  • You can add an extra layer of security to your document store by setting a separate passkey.
  • A.I. Disk offers a handy slider for moving quickly through large files.
  • The software adds an "automatic bookmark" to return you to where you left off reading a document, though it always defaults to show you your root library folder when starting up.
  • You can email documents from within the software's interface.
  • In addition to Microsoft Office, HTML, and PDF formats, A.I. Disk offers full support for Apple-specific formats like those from iWork as well as Safari web archives. Curiously, it can't read RTF files, though.
  • For relatively short files, A.I. Disk does an excellent job at resizing to fit both portrait and landscape mode, and it also reformats HTML files appropriately to fit the display (excluding files that have pre-formatted tables or CSS styles).
Special weaknesses
  • A.I. Disk doesn't handle the display of large documents very well. It seems to take an unusually long time to finish loading such files, although it starts to display some of it fairly quickly. I found the early display more frustrating than endearing, since I couldn't use any of the controls or otherwise navigate the document until the entire file was loaded.
  • On a related note, although you can manually activate full-screen mode, the change can take quite awhile for long documents, and equally long switching back. In addition, when in landscape view, the control for restoring the navigation bars disappears, so you have to switch back to portrait mode to close the document or do anything else.
  • One of A.I. Disk's biggest weaknesses is its inability to transfer files from your computer. If you want to get such a file to A.I. Disk, you must first upload it to your favorite WebDAV account, and then download it to the iPhone.
  • It would be nice if A.I. Disk offered a way to upload files to your WebDAV servers, but it doesn't at this point.


image
Annotater

Version 1.2.619, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Annotater is unique among the current crop of eBook readers for iPhone in that it is based solely on the PDF format, for which it has the best support. It is the only app that includes full-text search of PDF files, and the only one that supports PDF bookmarks (or the table of contents you can set up in Acrobat).
  • Another unique characteristic of Annotater is that it supports PDF annotations, including drawing (in various colors, with your finger), text notes, and bookmarks.
  • Annotator is the only application that does a good job of eliminating the screen-real-estate-wasting border that seems to be the default way of presenting PDF files.
  • Synchronization through Annotater's desktop "Annotater Service" application is automatic and very fast. Once done, you can browse the files and decide which ones to keep. Whenever you launch the app, you can resynchronize, or add new folders to transfer. If you add more files to a desktop folder, you can have Annotater Service "reindex" the folder, making the iPhone aware of the new documents.
Special weaknesses
  • The desktop app only accepts folders to synchronize with the iPhone, not individual files. The folders, however, can be deeply nested if necessary. You cannot change the folder structure on the iPhone, or in the desktop app. The organization must be set up on your file system. Annotater will only synchronize any PDF files it finds in the folder structure
  • To use other file types, you need to first convert them to PDF, as Annotater cannot read HTML or any other native file types.
  • Annotater does not support encrypted PDF files.
  • No full-screen mode, although Annotater's settings let you define the toolbar's transparency, making it possible to read through.
  • The application provides no navigation controls while reading documents.
Other notes
  • Annotater relies on a wireless, Bonjour-aware desktop application ("Annotater Service") that supports only Mac OS X (at the moment). The restriction to Mac OS X support probably reflects the fact that any file on the Mac can be "printed" out to a PDF file.


image
Briefcase

Version 1.1, $4.99 (Lite version, free) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Briefcase is the most impressive application so far with respect to ease of connection to your computer and the ease of transferring files back and forth. You literally have to do nothing but log in. Briefcase identified any Bonjour-enabled computers on your network and presents them instantly in its interface. You have the option of having Briefcase remember your password, but the app warns you to use the iPhone's password-lock tool if you do.
  • You can not only connect to local computers, but also to any remote computers on which you have accounts. Even more useful for most users, iPhone users can transfer files among each other, assuming they have appropriate permission to do so.
  • Downloads that are interrupted when you quit Briefcase will be automatically resumed the next time the software is started.
  • Briefcase remembers where you left off reading and returns you there. But it doesn't remember which file you last had open or offer to reopen it.
  • For Mac users, Briefcase offers a plethora of special features for uploading files to your Mac, including:
  • Adding image files to iPhoto
  • Adding audio files to iTunes
  • Opening files automatically on the Mac
  • Setting images as your desktop background
  • Selecting specific folders to upload files, which you can bookmark in Briefcase for quick access later
Special weaknesses
  • Although you can download folders from your computer to Briefcase, there's no way to move files to folders, create new folders, or rename files or folders from within Briefcase.
  • In a typical first-release symptom, Briefcase's interface remains in portrait mode when you switch to landscape, making navigation and bookmark-setting awkward. Also, bookmarks you set in landscape mode don't take you to the same location when in portrait mode.
  • In the 1.0 release, I found Briefcase frequently ran out of memory and started acting erratic or bumped me back to the iPhone screen.
  • Many of Briefcase's special features are only relevant to Mac users. That doesn't make them any less special, but from the perspective of a Windows user, it makes Briefcase less useful. As the developer explains in his FAQ for Briefcase,
    While Briefcase was designed to work optimally with Macs, Windows users (with a solid amount of technical knowledge) can use Briefcase as well. Windows does not support any open standards for remote login out of the box, including SSH which Briefcase uses. This means that one must install and set up an SSH server under Windows before Briefcase can connect.
    Presumably, a Windows user would also need to install Bonjour for the automatic network detection to work.
  • Briefcase has a good built-in web browser that lets you follow links without leaving the app. Two problems, however, that hopefully will be fixed in a future release:
    1. Once you follow a link, there's no way to get back to your previous page (or to the Briefcase document you started with), and
    2. You can't save documents you browse to into Briefcase.


image
Caravan

Version 1.3, $2.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Caravan is another impressive iPhone app, which provides among the best integration between web, iPhone, and computer desktop. For connectivity to the desktop, Caravan relies on Bonjour and FTP. (Windows users will need to install Bonjour for Windows on their systems in order to use Caravan.) Unlike Mobile Studio, though, Caravan presents your file system on the iPhone, and lets you browse and download contents from within Caravan.
  • Using the same Bonjour connection, Caravan also lets users transfer files from the iPhone back to your computer's file system.
  • Caravan has among the best embedded web browser solutions in this roundup. Not only is the browser truly "embedded," so you can browse without leaving Caravan, but Caravan provides a "Download" button for every page you visit.
  • Caravan has an excellent interface for creating and editing folders on your iPhone. In addition, when downloading files, the user can browse to the correct folder--or even create it--before saving the file. Once downloaded or created, file and folder names can be changed as needed.
  • Caravan also lets users create and edit text files within its file system. These files are searchable.
  • Caravan has a related feature called "Edit as Text," which can be used to make changes to text files (including HTML) you download from your PC or from the web.
  • In addition to Microsoft Office formats, PDF, HTML, .webarchive, and text files, Caravan can also store and play audio and video files, and supports picture viewing.
  • A nice feature missing from too many others in this category is that Caravan follows HTML bookmarks within files. (Often, other apps try to reload the entire page to the bookmark which can cause your session to be transferred to the iPhone's web browser.)
Special weaknesses
  • Caravan doesn't let you move files to or from folders once they're created or transferred.
  • The "Edit as Text" feature, though great in concept, can destroy Word files if you try to use it with them. In fact, the main weakness in this feature is that it appears as an action for all file formats� even videos and images� whether or not they're actually "editable."
  • Caravan has no support for RTF or iWork file formats.
  • The application does not have any facility for adding bookmarks or other annotations to files.
  • Caravan has no full-screen mode and provides no in-document navigation tools.


image
DataCase

Version 1.1.1, $6.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Connects to Mac or Windows through Bonjour, setting up a drive in Finder or Explorer. Users can drag files to the drive(s) like any other folder on their system. This occurred without any action on my part.
  • In DataCase, you set up drives on the iPhone, and each drive can have a separate set of permissions, including read/write/browse. You can also set the drive as hidden and can have the contents of the drive backed up via iTunes' normal iPhone backup.
  • In addition, you can use a web browser to browse Database's content on the iPhone, using the iPhone's IP address at port 8080. Or, you can connect to DataCase's file store using FTP.
  • DataCase lets you filter file your document library by type, and it supports in-document bookmarks.
  • DataCase remembers where you left off reading a document, but not which document that was.

Bonjour
Bonjour iconBonjour, formerly Rendezvous, is Apple Inc.'s trade name for its implementation of Zeroconf, a service discovery protocol. Bonjour locates devices such as printers, as well as other computers, and the services that those devices offer on a local network using multicast Domain Name System service records. The software is built into Apple's Mac OS X operating system from version 10.2 onwards, and can be installed onto computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems (it is installed with iTunes, for example).Courtesy of Wikipedia

Special weaknesses
  • Built-in navigation support is OK, with forward/backward and end/beginning buttons in the top toolbar. However, these aren't available in "full screen" mode, and DataCase doesn't support navigation of HTML files in this mode except by swipe. Further, there's no way to initiate full screen mode� it just seems to happen when you resize HTML to fit the display. I couldn't get full-screen mode to activate in PDF files at all.
  • Follows web links in files, but doing so takes you outside of DataCase. This will close DataCase's connection with your PC, but DataCase warns you that this will happen.
  • DataCase takes a long time, and often freezes, when trying to load long HTML documents. In general, the app is just not reliable for viewing HTML.
  • A bug causes the DataCase interface to get confused now and then, with some buttons appearing where they shouldn't, etc. This requires closing and restarting the app.
Other notes
  • Supports standard Office documents (Word, Excel), PDF, HTML, audio, video, and images. (I had no luck with video files, however). It doesn't read RTF files, nor .webarchive files saved from Safari.
  • For PDF files, DataCase resizes content when switching from landscape to portrait mode, but doesn't do this for HTML.


image
File Magnet

Version 1.1, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Very sophisticated and innovative navigation options, including a (for now) unique feature called "tilt scrolling." Using this method, you just tilt the iPhone to scroll the text� the more you tilt, the faster the scroll. File Magnet also includes a nice "page down" button that animates the text down one page, as well as a horizontal slider for moving quickly through the document.
  • File Magnet has a very good embedded web browser that will follow hyperlinks within Word and RTF documents, including links to external PDF files. Within the browser, you can navigate to other web pages, but you can't get back to the document you started with from within this interface.
  • File Magnet's file/folder list is better than most, since it provides very good icon previews as well as subtitles indicating file type.
  • Though the application doesn't appropriately size text in HTML files, it does do this for RTF and Word documents.
  • File Magnet has a very robust, automatic full screen mode, and it resizes documents automatically when switching from portrait to landscape mode.
  • File Magnet remembers where you left off reading in all file types it supports, and it also remembers the folder you were last in. Most of the time, it also automatically re-opened the last file I was reading on launch.
Special weaknesses
  • No support for PDF bookmarks or hyperlinks.
  • Doesn't support bookmarks within documents.
  • File Magnet doesn't support any kind of file or folder organization on the iPhone. Likewise, you can't rename or create files or folders. All of this must be done before adding files through File Magnet's desktop application.
Other notes
  • Uses a simple desktop application, available for both Mac OS X and Windows, for moving files and folders to the iPhone.
  • Supports jpeg, gif, tif, png, html, rtf, rtfd, doc, txt, pdf, iPhone compatible movies and audio files. Now also supports native Excel, Powerpoint, and iWork files, as well as .webarchive files.


image
Files

Version 1.1.1, $6.99 (Lite version, free) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Files does an excellent job at handling a very wide variety of file formats. Although it doesn't resize HTML content to fit the display correctly, it does preserve HTML formatting, images, and CSS styles quite accurately. Besides handling the usual baseline of PDF and Microsoft Office formats, Files also fully supports Apple's iWork formats (Numbers, Pages, and Keynote), as well as web archive files.
  • Files remembers where you left off reading� an unusual gift in this category of eReaders. However, it doesn't remember which file you last had open or give the option to start there.
  • Files has good navigation features� in particular, providing a page up/page down button is useful for content that a user has resized with a pinch-type touch. This keeps the page from sliding left or right and maintains a steady reading view. Files also has "go to page" and bookmark navigation options, and users can move quickly up or down a document by holding the page up/page down buttons rather than tapping them.
  • Although Files doesn't win any special points for readability in general, reading PDFs in Files seems to be especially practical. For whatever reason, text in PDF files are very sharp in Files compared with some other apps. That said, it's disappointing that the app doesn't automatically resize PDFs or HTML files when switching from portrait to landscape view.
Special weaknesses
  • Users can add files and folders to Files when uploading from their computer, but there's no way to modify the folder structure or file names on the iPhone. Users can, however, delete files from the iPhone.
  • Files can follow web links in HTML and Office documents, but not in PDF or other file types. Further, following links takes the user out of Files, making it difficult to continue reading your original document.
Other notes
  • Files runs a WebDAV-enabled server that users can connect to from their desktop PC. Files provides the WebDAV URL on startup, and connecting to it is a simple matter (apparently a bit more complicated from a Windows PC than from a Mac). Files allows you to start and stop the server from within its interface. Once connected, the Files document store appears as a folder in the Finder or Explorer, and you can move files to the iPhone from this interface.
  • To access Files on the iPhone, you must authenticate with a username and password. This security setting is optional and can be configured in the Files options window. In addition, you can optionally password-protect the Files store itself.


image
Folders

Version 1.4, $1.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Users can add folders and change the names of files (but not folders).
  • Folders provides a built-in web browser that offers the capability of download HTML and other documents from the web. (However, see entry for this function in next section.)
  • Folders lets users password-protect individual files and folders� in effect, "hiding" them from intruders.
Special weaknesses
  • Downloading files from web is a great idea but is buggy and not very usable. The app reports an error with each file you try to download, and seems to download some of them multiple times. It wouldn't display a .txt file, but did display a .pdf one. The .html file I tried to download never made it.
  • Many screens display a "tool" icon that doesn't work.
  • Folders provides no way to transfer files to or from your computer, except by running your computer as a web server and connecting to that. The software description on iTunes speaks of being able to export files to your computer with WiFi, but I found no built-in way of doing that.
  • Sometimes you lose the navigation icon back to your "home" list of folders and documents.
  • You can't move files from one folder to another, nor can you add nested folders.
  • Folders provides nothing in the way of in-document navigation.


image
iStorage

Version 1.0.4, $5.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • iStorage has the best tools of any of these apps for connecting to network file systems and servers, navigating them, and uploading or downloading files. You can set up numerous network drives, which can read FTP sites, your iDisk (and other WebDAV servers), nearby Bonjour devices (such as other iPhones), and any computers on your local network you have access to. You can define and have iStorage remember the connection information for each server for later use.
  • With iStorage, you can bookmark files and/or folders on any of these network drives for quick access later on. The bookmark feature also applies to web pages you might encounter. This capability is unique among these apps, and it's almost enough to overlook iStorage's lack of in-document bookmarks.
  • Although the rest of the application's interface is confusing, inconsistent, and just plain buggy, the home screen is very nicely set up and very easy to use.
  • It's easy to create new folders (and subfolders) in iStorage and to move files into them.
Special weaknesses
  • iStorage has a number of excellent ideas, poorly executed. It's not clear what kind of application it wants to be. For example:
  • You can download HTML files just fine, but you can't view it except as source code. (You can, however, edit the source.) The HTML view provides good tools for zooming in text, but no control over font color (white) and background (black). In any case, since you have to read source code, what's the point?
  • iStorage has a nice built-in web browser, and a setting that lets it "Switch To Downloads." However, the interface provides no way to download files using the web browser.
  • iStorage has terrific connectivity to various document stores, but every document you try to download generates an error. Even if a document downloads, often the downloads are incomplete.
  • The application has poor navigation and toolbar functions. When browsing a network drive, it's easy to completely lose a way back to iStorage's home screen, for example. Likewise, when viewing a document list, there's both an "Edit" button, which only lets you delete files, and an unclear icon on the bottom toolbar, which you must use to move files into folders; as in other similar apps, these should be combined. Finally, one of the icons just duplicates the action of selecting a file from the list.
  • iStorage's file format support is weaker than most. In the latest version, I could now read Word and Excel documents in addition to PDF and images. However, that leaves HTML, RTF, .webarchives, and iWork formats, among others, that it can't help you with. Even text files I created on the iPod couldn't be viewed in iStorage.
  • Prone to crashing fairly frequently.
  • When you follow a hyperlink from a Word document and then close it to return to iStorage, the application returns you to document directory rather than to the document you were reading.
  • iStorage doesn't remember where you left off reading, loading each document from scratch on each access. I also found it annoying that you have to go through a set of menu choices when clicking on a file, one of which is to open it. The choices are great ("Info," which is how you'd change the file's name among other things, and "Upload," which lets you move the file to a server), but since I hardly ever used them, I'd rather have my choice of defaults (which would be "open").
Other notes
  • iStorage does a great job with switching from landscape to portrait mode when viewing documents, but it doesn't support this mode when traversing directories or using any other parts of the top-level interface.
  • iStorage supports full-screen mode, but it's a manual process that's not totally intuitive.
  • iStorage can follow hyperlinks from Word documents, but not from any other file type at this point.
  • iStorage has a search feature that lets you search on filenames in a directory.
  • For Word documents, iStorage resizes the file content when switching from portrait to landscape modes, but it doesn't do this for other file types that it can read (e.g., PDF).


image
Mobile Studio

Version 1.1, $1.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • One of the many impressive features of Mobile Studio is the ease with which users can copy, move, create, and rename files and folders, without relying on a desktop application.
  • Mobile Studio is also one of the only apps reviewed that lets users create and edit text files within the Mobile Studio hierarchy.
  • Mobile Studio also supports zip files. It can decompress zip files, and it can also compress files into zip format.
  • This application has excellent security features. It lets you lock the application with a password, in addition to the password lock available for the iPhone itself. In addition, Mobile Studio lets users define whether a given file is readable/writeable/executable, effectively letting you "hide" files from external sources.
  • Although it cannot download files from the web, Mobile Studio has an excellent embedded web browser, which lets users browse websites without leaving the app, as well as navigating backwards and forwards among the web pages they visit. Mobile Studio can follow hyperlinks in Word and HTML documents, but not in PDF or iWork files.
  • The application provides a very responsive slider control for navigating long documents.
  • Mobile Studio remembers where you left off reading (though not which file you last read).
  • This app has unique tricks like importing images from your photo library with the option to resize and/or crop them before placing them in MobileStudio. Cool!
  • Another unique feature of Mobile Studio is that it maintains a "trash can" that contains all the files and folders you delete� thus letting you restore files if necessary before deleting them for good.
Special weaknesses
  • Mobile Studio does a good job of appropriately resizing Word and plain text document content to fit the iPhone screen, but it fails to do the same with HTML files.
  • Users have no way to add bookmarks within their files, and there are no search or sort options.
  • Setting up Mobile Studio for file transfer is harder than necessary, and is perhaps the most difficult of this group of apps.
  • Navigating documents (I confirmed this in HTML, Word, and PDF) is a bit of a pain, since you can't use any kind of tap gesture to move back or forward. Doing so takes you out of full screen mode to use the slider. For HTML, this is also a problem since a double-tap gesture usually resizes the text to full width if it isn't already there.
  • Mobile Studio has a handy "Home" button on the bottom toolbar, but every time I used it I ended up with a black screen and had to exit the application to actually return "Home."
Other notes
  • Mobile Studio relies on FTP (and an FTP client) for transferring files to the iPhone. The app has built-in instructions for doing so from Mac OS X, Windows XP, and Windows Vista.


image
TextGuru

Version 1.0.7, $4.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Reading PDF and native Office documents with TextGuru is very good, with both landscape and portrait modes supported. Both of these modes offer full screen view and a slider for fast navigation. (The slider works better for Word documents than for PDFs.)
  • TextGuru is first and foremost a text editor, so many of its greatest strengths pertain to those functions. Though irrelevant to its use as an eReader, TextGuru's ability to edit (including search and replace, cut and paste, etc.) HTML and text files is remarkable. Other file formats (such as a test Pages document) can be viewed/edited as ASCII or HEX.
  • This application offers full-text search across your document store, and it can also do search and replace for editable files. For editable files, TextGuru navigates to the first instance of the search term and highlights it. However, there's no way to navigate to the subsequent instances.
  • TextGuru not only remembers where you left off reading, it remembers which file you last had open and takes you there first by default. You can change this setting in the Settings pane.
  • TextGuru is the only application in this review that by default reformat HTML content to a font size appropriate for the iPhone display. (Except, of course, where the HTML content is inflexibly formatted using tables or CSS styles.)
Special weaknesses
  • No landscape mode for HTML files.
  • No support for adding folders or editing document names. TextGuru's otherwise nifty FileServer software (available for both Mac OS X and Windows) also cannot share folders.
  • The interface can become a little confusing as you switch from document viewing to document editing to document searching. Another confusing aspect is in the search feature for editable files. Doing a search here launches the "Search and Replace" screen, but the implication is that if you just enter a search, the term will be replaced with nothing if you don't enter a "Replace" term. (In fact, that doesn't happen, but this could be much clearer.)
  • The search feature promises more than it delivers, in two respects:
  • It delivers some false results (for example, a PDF file showed up in a search for the word "bold", but I determined that the word does not in fact exist in that file).
  • It doesn't display the instances of the search text in the files when you open them. In the case of files of more than 1 or 2 pages, this renders the search feature less than useful.
  • TextGuru reads neither RTF nor web archive files, and to read HTML files you must first bring the file up into its text editor, and then switch to a web preview mode.


image
TouchFS

Version 1.2, $14.99 Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • TouchFS can follow hyperlinks in Word and HTML documents (but not in PDF files). It has an excellent implementation of an embedded web browser that doesn't take users outside of the TouchFS interface. The interface also lets user navigate backwards and forwards while they are browsing the web.
  • For HTML files, TouchFS follows in-document bookmarks as well as external links.
  • TouchFS lets users set up a username and password to authenticate against to protect access to the iPhone document store.
Special weaknesses
  • TouchFS offers no ability to annotate or add bookmarks to your files on the iPhone.
  • Users can't change the names of files or folders, or create or move them within the TouchFS interface.
  • TouchFS has no built-in navigation tools to help users while reading long documents. All navigation relies on swipes, which don't work very well if you've enlarged a particular document (as you frequently want to do with PDF files.) Lack of navigation aids also hinders reading of HTML files, since a double-tap changes the page zoom as often as it causes a page scroll.
  • The file list is difficult to use, since icons are so small you can't always tell what file type you're loading, and filenames typically don't display completely with the very large font size.
  • TouchFS has no full-screen view.
  • TouchFS resizes PDF files when switching from landscape to portrait view, but doesn't do the same for HTML. Like most of the apps in this category, it also doesn't attempt to appropriately format HTML to fit the screen with a readable font size.
  • Expensive. Considering how many other, better eReaders there are in this category--all for much less money--TouchFS is clearly overpriced. It's by far the most expensive of the bunch ($14.99, almost twice that of the top-rated app here, A.I. Disk, at $7.99).
Other notes
  • TouchFS supports display of PDF, Microsoft Office documents, HTML, and text files The application will display image files, but won't play audio or video files. It supports iWork formats using the document's PDF preview.
  • Like some of the other apps reviewed here, TouchFS uses WebDAV and Bonjour to connect the iPhone to your PC. The user connects to the iPhone server, which sets up a folder in Finder or Explorer from which you can add files and folders.

The summary table below uses some advanced CSS techniques that aren't yet possible with your browser. WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari browser (for both Windows and Mac), has implemented numerous features of CSS 3.0, as well as pioneered some candidates for new graphics functions using CSS. (For more information on these, see the Mars article on the subject, or visit CSS3.info.
In particular, the table uses CSS border-radius (which produces the table's rounded edge), CSS box-shadow (which gives the table a drop shadow), CSS gradient (which produces a gradient in the table headers), and CSS background-size together with background-attachment and background-clip (which lets me automatically resize a small tiled image-- --both horizontally and vertically to fit the various-sized table cells).

Here is a screenshot of how the top part of a similar table looks in Safari:

Screenshot of table utilizing CSS techniques not available except in Safari
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
October 14th, 2008

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

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Updated 11.14.08 to update information for Evernote, Instapaper, and Stanza to their latest versions. Updates to Bookshelf, Bookz, eReader, iSilo, and Readdle are forthcoming.

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

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

  • Applications designed primarily for reading text (books), and
  • As I finalized this report, a 20th eReader for the iPhone was released, but is not included here yet. Libris is an application specializing in text reading and has features similar to eReader. Its interface is--how shall I put it?--quite ugly, and so far I've found it rather annoying and somewhat difficult to navigate. However, it does seem to do the job and has a desktop application that's much better than Stanza's for converting documents to PalmDoc format and transferring them to the iPhone.
  • Applications designed primarily for storing and managing documents.

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

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

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

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

It's important to note that like any categories one devises for grouping things, theses two categories of necessity form a Venn Diagram. Some of the applications discussed in this article have characteristics that also make them useful for managing documents, whereas some of the applications that are most useful for managing documents are also quite good at reading text. Hence, my use of the qualifier "primarily" in the article title.

Venn diagram
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Venn diagrams or set diagrams are diagrams that show all hypothetically possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets (groups of things). Venn diagrams were invented around 1880 by John Venn. They are used in many fields, including set theory, probability, logic, statistics, and computer science.

Although most of these "Reading Text" applications are quite good--especially given how little time they've been in production--one of the frustrating aspects of this crop is that there is no single one that incorporates all of the potentially desirable characteristics. Some of the lacking abilities are, admittedly, optional. However, once you encounter the ability in one app, its absence in others becomes noticeable.

Again, because their overall orientation differs significantly, I found it fairer--and more helpful--to draw up separate sets of basic requirements for the two groups of applications. I'll go into the requirements for the "Document Manager" applications in Part II, but here are the requirements for those reviewed this time (in no particular order):

  • Formats HTML documents appropriately
  • Can organize documents into folders or categories
  • Includes search tool
  • User can add bookmarks within files
  • Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes
  • Lets user customize font faces and sizes
  • Easy to read text
  • Easy to add documents
  • Provides a "full screen" mode
  • Resizes content automatically for both portrait and landscape modes
  • Remembers where you stopped reading

I think most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but let me elaborate on a couple of them.

To traditional publishers of eBooks, use of HTML as a document format has been troublesome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of protecting copyrighted content using HTML. HTML is also perceived as being unable to easily handle included images, which some eBooks require. However, both Apple and Microsoft have developed archival formats for web pages, which encode the text and images into a single package. Although the package itself doesn't securely protect the content (there are "un-archivers" for both formats freely available), doing so is probably not beyond technical feasibility.

Sadly, only one of the applications in this review can handle .webarchive files (which you can create by saving web pages from Safari), which is a shame because this is the ideal, unlicensed format that preserves not only text, but also text formatting, tabular material, and images.

Still, a non-negotiable requirement, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to read and appropriately format HTML. Fortunately, most of the applications in this list can do that.

By "Easy to read text," my main consideration is giving the user some control over the size of type that's displayed. If you can also change the typeface and/or display colors, that's a nice bonus. All of the applications in Part I provide this feature, and it's a major distinguishing factor compared with the applications in Part II, none of which provide any sort of font customization tools.

Finally, after some use I've determined that any e-Reader I'll use must work even if I have no wireless or other network connection. It's simply unreasonable to expect that Internet access will be available during my backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park or while taking in some rays at a remote beach on St. John. And those are just some of the places I'll want to have a good book along with me. A book that simply "stops working" is obviously no good, is it? As a result, I can't recommend some iPhone applications that have otherwise terrific features. My books must work offline. (Frankly, even if you do have wireless Internet, I've found that sometimes the servers hosting my online books report that they're unavailable. When was the last time a book you were reading told you it was busy and couldn't be read right now?)

As the matrix that follows this introduction shows, all 8 of the reviewed applications have something to recommend them. For specialized uses, nearly any one of them would work well. The only exception at this time is iSilo, which is just so badly designed that it's not only hard to navigate, but impossible to use in any practical manner.

For overall usability as a tool for reading books and other textual material, I've found five of the eight good enough to recommend:

Bookshelf and Stanza are both excellent choices for general text reading, though they're quite limited in the range of document formats they support. Stanza has superior annotation capabilities, as well as full-text search that Bookshelf lacks, but Bookshelf makes it much easier to get content onto the iPhone and does a superior job of converting documents. Unfortunately, Stanza's desktop application, still in beta, is unusable for converting non-text document formats (particularly HTML and PDF) to text files, yet it leads users to believe that it can. To use files with Stanza, you really need to convert to plain text format before opening in Stanza Desktop, which is the only way to get personal/business content onto the iPhone.

One of the major weaknesses of both Bookshelf and Stanza is their lack of integration with any kind of commercial e-bookstore. This reflects their current inability to display DRM (digital rights management) content, which of course is the security wrapper commerical bookstores use to protect copyright. This means that your book choices are pretty much limited to public domain classics and other free books. I, however, want a reader that will easily let me buy the latest novels by my favorite authors, and that's the reason eReader is among the recommended applications. eReader has allowed me to completely eliminate reliance on paperbacks and other tree-killing book forms for casual pleasure reading. It's delightful and very reliable for this kind of reading, even though it lacks some of the primary requirements noted earlier. To purchase a book, I log in to the eReader bookstore and buy a book online. This places the book in my online "shelf," and when I launch eReader on my iPhone, the new book is there, waiting to be downloaded.

Readdle is on the recommended list because it's a terrific cross-breed between the text reader category and the document-storage category. Readdle can handle many kinds of native document formats as well as HTML, it excels at folder and file organization, and it has a well integrated web browser with which you can download files to your Readdle library. Readdle users also have an online account, which is a password-protected repository of their files. The repository accepts files through a web form, from email, or, for Mac OS X users, from a simple, drag-and-drop desktop application. Readdle lacks some of the standard features of the best text readers, such as customizable fonts and the ability to remember where you stopped reading. This latter weakness is mitigated, however, by Readdle's excellent bookmark support.

With its latest improvements, Evernote is now one of the applications I recommend in this category. Like ReaddleDocs, Evernote spans the "text reading" and "document management" categories, and it's chock-full of great features for gathering and managing a document and text collection that most of the other applications lack. Besides handling your everyday work or personal documents, Evernote can clip web content (similar to Instapaper) and, using its desktop or web interfaces, be used to create and edit content for the iPhone. Previously, its signature weakness that prevented me from recommending Evernote was its inability to work offline. However, you can now designate "Favorites" to be stored on the iPhone. Unlike any of the other eReader applications for the iPhone, Evernote's desktop software adds greatly to its overall value, with features approaching those of a full-fledged personal information manager. Still, it's not perfect: Evernote doesn't remember where you left off reading, so it isn't good for long documents. In addition, it doesn't support bookmarks or landscape viewing.

I really like Instapaper as well, but its use is limited to clipping web content and can't be used for storing/viewing personal or business documents. That said, Instapaper excels at saving web content for later use, and its ability to specially format HTML content for the iPhone is remarkable. For clipping full articles to read later, nothing beats Instapaper at the moment.

The remainder of this report consists of a summary matrix showing the various capabilities and usability features of each application. In the matrix, a green block indicates that the app fully meets the requirement, and light green means a partial score. The gloss overlay highlights the core requirements for this category, and red blocks show which application fails to meet those requirements.

Following the matrix are separate descriptions of each application, organized into lists of "Special strengths," "Special weaknesses," and "Other notes."

Summary: e-Readers Primarily for Reading

Book- shelf

Bookz

eReader

Ever- note

Insta- paper

iSilo

Readdle

Stanza

Capabilities

Handles native file formats, including images

Formats HTML documents appropriately

Can organize documents into folders or categories

Has password protection or supports encrypted files

Includes search tool

User can add bookmarks within files

Provides a table of contents

Handles both portrait and landscape reading modes

Follows web hyperlinks

Can browse and download files from the web

Lets user customize font faces and sizes

Lets user manage files and folders on iPhone

Can create and edit text files

Works without external web account

Usability

Easy to set up

Easy to read text

Easy to add documents

Provides a full screen mode

Resizes content for both portrait and landscape

Remembers where you stopped reading

Transfer Methods

Includes dedicated desktop software to transfer files

File transfers from documents stored on the web

File transfers from computer via FTP/Bonjour/WebDav

Overall Rating


image
Bookshelf

Version 1.2.1309, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent for reading text and HTML files, since the Bookshelf reader reformats them for the iPhone display and lets the user select font and font size for viewing.
  • A recent update added welcome support for RTF files (but not for RTFD).
  • Excellent navigation tools. Besides the usual click up and down to move from page to page, Bookshelf now includes a nice slider that lets you skip multiple pages forward or back.
  • Has a customizable auto-scroll mode.
  • Easy to use bookmarks function, and remembers which document you were reading and where you left off.
  • Excellent website support and bug-tracking/feature enhancements section.
Special weaknesses
  • Only supports HTML and text formats, plus some eReader formats (e.g., PalmDocs). Bookshelf tries to convert Word documents, but doesn't do so well enough to be useful.
  • Hyperlinks in HTML files do not work.
  • Doesn't support image files (in the documents I transferred).
  • Although you can organize files into folders prior to transferring them to Bookshelf, after that you can't change the file names, or move them to folders, etc, on the iPhone Touch.
Other notes
  • Uses free Java QuickStart desktop app to move files to iPhone (through a wireless Bonjour connection).


image
Bookz

Version 1.3.2, $4.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Integrated full-text search
  • Has cool page-flip animation for turning pages.
  • Excellent support for bookmarks and tags.
  • Portrait or landscape mode, but must be changed manually with the toolbar button (not by tilting device)
  • Very readable with good customization for colors, fonts, and margins.
  • Well integrated web browser includes support for bookmarks.
  • Useful navigation widget lets you see, by percentage, how much of the document you've read and then use the slider to move backward or forward.
  • Provides fine-grained customization for click control. Bookz lets users divide the display into 9 quadrants, each of which can be set to handle next page, previous page, toggle full-screen mode, show bookmarks, or add bookmark.
Special weaknesses
  • Supports only text files for now; displays only source code for HTML.
  • No facility for transferring files from computer. (The idea is that you'll get text files from web downloads or from libraries like Project Gutenberg.)
  • Can't add folders to device's library
  • Uploaded a .txt file to Google's Pages site, but the software wouldn't download it per the developer's instructions
  • Can't activate landscape mode when using the web browser.
  • Web browser offers to download "web pages," but then the application won't display it (except as source code).


image
eReader
image

Version 1.2, Free

Special strengths
  • Integrated search, including easy tool for finding next instance, and ability specify the starting page for the search.
  • Provides an integrated table of contents, from which you can select the desired chapter.
  • Remembers where you left off reading.
  • For books purchased from a compatible online store, eReader is the best application available today for overall readability.
  • Though it doesn't support the use of folders, eReader has built-in sorting tools for books by name, author, and date.
  • Excellent, customizable navigation controls and automatic full-screen mode (toolbars can be re-summoned with a small swipe).
Special weaknesses
  • Besides its own and some other eReader formats, this app only reads HTML, .rtf, and .txt files, and it removes or simplifies formatting in the process. In my test, images were stored but not viewable in the reader. The $30 eBook Studio software with which you can convert files to palmDoc format is outdated and has limited and rather clunky options for compiling eBooks from source files.
  • eReader's lack of support for common office file formats makes it unsuitable for business use.
  • eReader provides no way to move files to and from your PC/Mac.
  • There's no way to edit titles or other metadata (author, date) about the files in your eReader library.


image
Evernote

Version 1.5, Free Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Evernote is a multifunction content manager, capable of storing documents as well as text notes. In addition, Evernote can work with the iPhone or desktop computer to take photo, video, or voice notes. Further, it provides a browser "clipper" that lets you capture web pages (or portions of them) to your Evernote store. You can also email documents to add them to Evernote.
  • In addition to the Evernote iPhone application, Evernote provides a desktop application for both Mac OS X and Windows, as well as similar functionality on the Evernote website (when you log in). The desktop application and website let you do rich-text editing of notes, and even web pages. All three apps let you add and edit text notes to any kind of document.
  • Evernote supports full-text search for PDF, Word, Excel, HTML, and other kinds of documents. In addition to identifying files with search terms in them, the web and desktop versions navigate and display the terms at their locations in the documents. (The iPhone version also displays search terms in HTML files, but has no way to navigate to them.)
  • With Evernote, you can access a wide variety of attributes for the files in your collection, including: Information on modification and creation dates, attachments, source of note, and "To Do" information. All of these attributes can be included with search terms, tags, and notebook names as filters for searches on your document store. Such "smart" searches can be stored for reuse.
  • Evernote is very good for reading most HTML files, since it rewraps them to fit the display. Using the desktop application, you can further customize the display of HTML and text files by changing text fonts and sizes.
Special weaknesses
  • Evernote is one of the few iPhone apps in this category that does not support landscape as well as portrait mode.
  • Evernote's support for PDF viewing is weak. When opening one on the iPhone, Evernote doesn't download and display it automatically. Instead, it shows a small PDF icon that you must press to initiate the download. Once downloaded, Evernote provides no navigation tools or other assistance, so actually reading PDFs is all but impossible.
  • Evernote does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents, nor does it return you to the document--and the location in the document--when you reopen the application.
Other notes
  • To use Evernote, you must set up a password-protected account at the Evernote website. Accounts are free up to 40 MB per month of storage, and there are $5/month and $45/month subscriptions as well.
  • With Evernote, users organize documents into "notebooks." This can only be done via the web or desktop interfaces. Although you can't set up "sub-notebooks," Evernote emphasizes the use of tags, which you can use as an organizing tool. You can add and apply tags in all three versions of Evernote.
  • In setting up notebooks, you can specify "local" notebooks, which are accessible only on your desktop computer, as well as "public" notebooks, which contain documents you can share over the web. The default is "synchronized" notebooks.


image
Instapaper

Version 1.2, $9.99 (Free version also available) Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Excellent readability, since web content is reformatted to a text display on the iPhone.
  • Extremely easy and effective bookmarklet for adding content.
  • Introduced innovative "tilt-scrolling" feature, soon adopted by FileMagnet, which lets you scroll a document without touching the screen.
  • When viewing on the iPhone, you can toggle between the original "web" view, and the reformatted "text" view.
  • Instapaper is an excellent tool for gathering web content for later viewing, and its ability to save just portions of a page is very helpful.
  • The Pro version remembers where you left off reading and returns you there by default.
Special weaknesses
  • No search feature.
  • Only supports HTML and text files.
  • Follows hyperlinks, but frustratingly, can't add web content for later reading from the iPhone itself. Also, the application exits Instapaper when following a link.
  • Files can be manually added if they are located on a web server, but only from the web version of your Instapaper store not from the iPhone application.
  • Can't categorize, tag, or otherwise organize articles, either on the iPhone or on the Instapaper website.
  • Instapaper can't handle articles that are published in multiple "pages," which is the norm on commercial websites nowadays. Each page has to be bookmarked separately. I tried bookmarking the "print" view of an article on Information Week, but Instapaper couldn't access it later. (This isn't true of all such "print" views, however.)
  • Instapaper does not provide a way to add bookmarks to documents.
Other notes
  • Instapaper requires registration at the Instapaper website, which is the repository for notes you collect from the web. Instapaper is designed to easily save web pages, or snippets of text from them, for later reading.
  • A $9.99 Pro version is available which adds some useful features such as "tilt scrolling," remembering where you left off reading, and a few others.


image
iSilo

Version 1.20, $9.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Nice integrated web browsing, though it's unfortunate you can't save documents you browse to.
  • Full-text search.
  • Conversion from web pages to iSilo format (Palm format) works extremely well in most cases. If the HTML is not well formed or uses "clever" CSS tricks for formatting, the result is not so good. When the HTML result is good, the files are extremely readable.
  • From a converted web page, iSilo easily lets you navigate to other linked pages, displaying them in a likewise quite readable format. (Again, it's not clear why iSilo can't save these other pages directly.)
  • iSilo attempts to build a table of contents from the page's HTML structure. It loads these into the document's Bookmarks menu.
  • iSilo documents can have much richer elements than other eReaders reviewed here, including support for tables, images, linked sections, and others.
  • iSiloX, the desktop tool for converting HTML files to iSilo format, does very well when handling well formatted and structured HTML. It did a remarkably good job, for example, with a long Word document that was opened in Open Office and then saved as HTML. I was impressed that the conversion preserved the formatting of tabular data in the file. The conversion also resulted in a useful set of bookmarks for the document's table of contents.
Special weaknesses
  • Navigation and access to options is confusing. In many cases, the options either don't work or are too difficult to use. For example, the option to change a document's font face doesn't work. In another case, the option to enable auto-scrolling must be activated by navigating to another screen; when you return to the document, any click on the screen deactivates auto-scroll, and you must return to the option screen. Even worse, it's impossible to activate both auto-scroll and full-screen view at the same time, since each activation returns you to do the document view, and each access to the options view turns off the other option.
  • In general, too many useful options are hidden in submenu screens.
  • The application provides no useful navigation tools.
  • iSilo utilizes too many non-standard user interface methods that are therefore nonintuitive. As a result, too often I had to resort either to reading the manual or (more often) consulting the company's online support forum. For example, the function to delete files is "hidden" as a popup menu accessible only if you hold your finger on a document's icon in document view. Once you know this, it works fine, but this means there's an unnecessary learning curve and with it additional user support.
  • Loading one long document converted from a PDF file consistently froze my iPhone, requiring a reboot.


image
Readdle

Version 1.0.5, $14.99

imageSpecial strengths
  • Supports a variety of native office document and image formats, as well as PalmDoc format.
  • Has a well integrated web browser from which you can bookmark and/or save documents from the web, including web pages.
  • Remembers where you left off reading
  • Provides a nifty slider for navigation within documents, as well as a good bookmarking tool. Files can be navigated with a click or double-click at top or bottom of the display.
  • Supports "full screen" reading mode.
  • Documents can be organized into folders and into subfolders, both within your Readdle Storage area and on the device. You can also move files into any of the folders on your iPhone.
Special weaknesses
  • Readdle lacks support for RTF (despite what they say), RTFD, web archives, and iWork document formats.
  • Unfortunately, Readdle can't save web documents that you link to from within one of your saved documents only when you manually switch to its integrated browser. This is an oversight that hopefully will be fixed in a future release.
  • No search capabilities.
  • To rename your documents or folders, you must visit your Readdle Storage area online.
Other notes
  • Readdle provides a desktop application (Mac OS X only) for uploading content to Readdle's server, or files can be uploaded with a web browser. You can also email documents to your Readdle account to add them to your library. Content stored on the Readdle server is password-protected.
  • The Readdle iPhone app synchs with your Readdle storage, and files can be read remotely or downloaded for offline reading. Note that the synchronization isn't really that, since changes made in one repository aren't automatically made in the other. For example, deleting a document on your iPhone won't delete it from your online library.
  • Users can register for a free account, which is limited in storage and has some other restrictions. An "optimum" service is $5 a month.


image
Stanza

Version 1.5, Free iPhone app, beta Desktop app Home Page

imageSpecial strengths
  • Integrated search.
  • User can group documents within the iPhone app and easily add downloaded files to them.
  • User can increase or decrease font size, adjust color, font. Also customize background color, margins, justification of text. In addition, Stanza provides various other customization preferences, including navigation and display options.
  • The application tries to automatically add chapter information derived from the text, but gives the user no way to change them. However, it does let users add bookmarks to the documents.
  • Stanza's navigation mechanisms are terrific. Besides the chapter and/or bookmark options, Stanza has a slider that's particularly useful for moving within large documents. Navigation from page to page is similar to eReader just a tap on the left or right side of the display slides pages into view.
  • Stanza has a great online library of content available for download. Besides free books available ubiquitously these days for eReaders, Stanza's library includes content from newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, BBC, and Wired. These are all nicely formatted and very readable on the iPhone.
  • Remembers where you left off reading, and even returns you by default to the last document you had open.
  • Version 1.5 introduces some cool visual features that let users add custom images to their books and then displays them in a Cover flow view (when you switch to landscape mode).
Special weaknesses
  • Stanza's support for standard office document formats is very limited. Its desktop software claims to read Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, PalmDoc, Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format, HTML, and PDF formats, but in my extensive testing of HTML, RTF, Word, and PDF, Stanza failed to format the content in any reasonable way. Most documents had such badly garbled page elements (headings, line breaks, lists, vertical white space, paragraph breaks) that they were unreadable when transferred to an iPhone.
  • Besides page formatting, Stanza strips all documents of all character formatting (font size, color, style), tabular content, and images.
  • Stanza provides no mechanism for transferring content from the iPhone back to your computer.
  • I was frustrated that although Stanza offers the option of viewing text in left-justified format, all the documents I transferred showed up full-justified. This happened even when I specified left-justification on the Stanza desktop app.
Other notes
  • Stanza relies on a desktop application (currently in beta development) that can be used to open supported files and transfer them wirelessly to the iPhone. The app supports both Mac OS X and Windows. Lexcycle currently plans to charge "a small fee" for the software once released.

The summary table below uses some advanced CSS techniques that aren't yet possible with your browser. WebKit, the open-source browser engine underlying Apple's Safari browser (for both Windows and Mac), has implemented numerous features of CSS 3.0, as well as pioneered some candidates for new graphics functions using CSS. (For more information on these, see the Mars article on the subject, or visit CSS3.info.
In particular, the table uses CSS border-radius (which produces the table's rounded edge), CSS box-shadow (which gives the table a drop shadow), CSS gradient (which produces a gradient in the table headers), and CSS background-size together with background-attachment and background-clip (which lets me automatically resize a small tiled image-- --both horizontally and vertically to fit the various-sized table cells).

Here is a screenshot of how the top part of the table looks in Safari:

Screenshot of table utilizing CSS techniques not available except in Safari
    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
September 23rd, 2008

Microsoft IT Shops Upset At Apple’s “Patch Process”

Apple's patch process a mess, say researchers - Computerworld

This is clearly a case of limited-brain humans thinking that something different is something bad. Also a bit of Microsoft-minded FUD here, with statements about Mac OS X's "aging code base" (huh?) and Microsoft being "way ahead" of Apple in its security-patching (huh?).

Why should a company like Apple, which has never had even a minor security incident affecting its users, follow the lead of a company like Microsoft, which defined the way to Not build a secure operating system?

    
  • 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
August 31st, 2008

Monopoly Charge Against Apple Signals Rising Respect For Mac OS X

Psystar calls Apple a 'monopoly' in antitrust charges

It's amazing to me how strongly the readers of Computerworld agree with the monopoly charge and disagree with the views of those, like me, who believe Psystar is just frustrated at not being able to use Mac OS X on its hardware. Apple a monopoly? Hardly. But, as I said in my comment on Computerworld, it may seem so to those who think the Microsoft model of computing is both inevitable and superior to the Apple one:

Let's face it, the whole paradigm of computing is unprecedented in the history of manufacturing. And it's only... what... 30 years old at best? During that time, the two competing models that have emerged are:

  • Make operating system software and convince hardware makers to use your product (the Microsoft model), or
  • Make the computer hardware as well as the operating system needed to run it (the Apple model)

Obviously, the former has had much more success in the marketplace. But that doesn't mean it's the better model. Why? Well, for one thing, in this case the market didn't really make the decision... IBM did.

IBM was already a monopoly when it started making personal computers, and Microsoft just happened to be the lucky company chosen to make (or rather, buy) the operating system to run on it. That IBM chose Microsoft had much more to do with the sales savvy of Bill Gates than about the quality of their software.

Once Microsoft was in the door with IBM's PC, which was destined to dominate the business market because of IBM's existing standing in the corporate world, that market was simply theirs to lose. Since Microsoft never made hardware to begin with, they only stood to benefit when the IBM "clone" market developed. IBM protested, if you'll remember, but ultimately, since they'd published the specs already, there wasn't anything they could do about it.

Given this actual history, it's clear that Microsoft no more created the model that ultimately gave them a monopoly on corporate desktops than the market made a decision to adopt that model. It was just a fortuitous circumstance for Microsoft, and a reflection of the fact that their business model was in making software alone (until the Xbox and Zune).

On the other hand, Apple was a hardware maker that also made the operating system to run it. With only one brief period, the company has persisted with that model, and I believe they honestly think it's the only way to make truly great computers.

The issue today is that Mac OS X is becoming more popular, and other companies would like a piece of the action. That's well and good, but since Mac OS X is an Apple creation, they are in no way obliged to license it to others. It's like copying machines... Xerox created the market and the hardware, but ultimately other companies reverse-engineered it and made their own versions. Xerox was then forced to compete with other copying machines.

If anyone wants to compete with Apple's OS X, they'll have to build not just a hardware clone, but more importantly a software clone as well.

Because of the complexity and astounding sophistication of Mac OS X and its universe of frameworks, it would be very hard to clone. But ultimately, that's where the competition has to take place. Unless Apple agrees, they are in no way obliged to sell, lease, or share their intellectual capital with any other company.

That doesn't constitute a monopoly, folks. It just constitutes excellent product development and excellent engineering. It has nothing to do with monopoly at all, since there are plenty of competing computers on the market, and in fact Apple has a small minority share of that market.

Sadly, so many people simply forget history, or make up their own to suit their beliefs. Sad, and scary, too.

    
  • del.icio.us
  • Google
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
Posted in:Apple, PC PrejudiceTags: |
August 12th, 2008

Phishing and Safari (Part 2): A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Consumer Reports urges Mac users to dump Safari, cites lack of phishing protection

And to think I used to like Consumer Reports!

They keep writing me to "come back" and resubscribe, but I've told them that won't happen until they become objective and truly knowledgeable about the Mac... at least as knowledgeable as they are about Windows PCs.

And now, it turns out they're recommending that Mac users "dump Safari," which just happens to be the best web browser on the Mac platform. Oh, and since this article also appears on ZDNet, while other industry journals gave it little play, I begin to conclude that ZDNet is a rats nest of Microsoft zealots.

So, here's the little note I left them today about their latest phishing/Safari scare tactic:

There is nothing in common between phishing and viruses, adware, spyware, or other malware. Phishing is just an old-fashioned scam dressed up in new HTML clothing. Consumers need to be educated about it, and no anti-phishing technology is going to save them. For one thing, most phishing schemes come to consumers through their email client, not their browsers.

Oh, and 6 or 7 years ago, why didn't Consumer Reports advise Windows users to ditch IE? That would have been the single best way for them to avoid Internet malware, but I never heard them do such a thing. The phishing problem pales in comparison to the security nightmares we experienced after IE6 was released (and before SP2), and which millions of Windows users continue to experience today. Active/X is the most dangerous technology out there as far as security is concerned, but is MS being pressured to remove it from IE?

Unfortunately, I don't think we've heard the last of this... At least, until Apple goes ahead and joins the other browsers in adding "anti-phishing technology" to Safari. Like I noted above, it really makes a lot more sense to add this capability to users' mail clients, since phishing is just a form of junk mail in the end.