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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.

    
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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.
    
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July 31st, 2012

Introducing Smooth Black: A New Button Theme for CrystalClear Interface

In my previous article I spoke of a desire to get back to theming, and specifically mentioned a desire to do that "black matte" theme I've been thinking about. I guess the article helped spur me on, because after several weeks of work I'm now ready to release Smooth Black, a new button theme for CrystalClear Interface (CCI).

Smooth Black complements existing CCI components, including its Black Gradient menubar and Smooth Black window theme. It rides on top of existing code that made Crystal Black possible, so the implementation went rather, ah, smoothly.

At this time, the theme is missing graphics for all of the "mini" components in Mac OS X buttons. As a fill-in, Smooth Black incorporates the Black Gloss graphics for the "mini" buttons. On Lion and Mountain Lion, the theme also needs to be fleshed out with a complete set of "small" buttons.

Again, implementing Smooth Black hit a reality wall when time came to take it from Snow Leopard to Lion and Mountain Lion. Because the Lion systems require a tedious manual process to update their buttons, this wasn't any fun. But CCI 2.7.6, released today, does incorporate the buttons for all three operating systems.

Note: Smooth Black owes a debt of gratitude to the authors of the ShapeShifter themes Rhino and Carbon Polymer.

    
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July 14th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

    
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June 8th, 2012

The big-talk, no-action Congress

The big-talk, no-action Congress - The Washington Post. Dana Milbank writes an excellent column for the Post. Lately, there have been a rash of articles pointing out what has been obvious to me for years -- namely, it's the Republicans in Congress who are to blame for that body's lack of progress in doing its very important work for the Nation. Here, Milbank describes the inaction in compelling terms, pointing out the silliness of the few "accomplishments" that have been claimed -- such as passing The Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012. Really, guys. Get rid of the Republicans this fall, and we can finally start to move forward again.
    
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Posted in:Human Behavior, Philosophy, PoliticsTags: |
June 8th, 2012

In search for civility online, is the Golden Rule the answer?

ISO civility in online comments - The Washington Post. This is a spot-on article pointing out the horrible state of interpersonal communication on the web. Nothing new, really -- it's been this way for years, but it's just getting worse. One big insight is the relationship between the "blinders on" mentality of those who troll the web and the "don't bother me with facts" mentality of the Tea Party and their ilk, like survivalists and members of the Government Paranoid. One group feeds the other, and they never read anything but what they agree with. These folks aren't looking for a conversation -- they're looking for a fight. And the rest of us must try really hard to turn the other cheek and not let the fight begin.
    
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February 1st, 2012

The Bother of Biological Bodies

Body Parts Needing Time-Consuming Care

When I came to Earth, I of necessity adopted a human form — in order to be less conspicuous. Little did I know what a mess caring for the human body would be.

The worst part about the tasks required to keep the body from deteriorating too much is that they take so much time. All of these mostly unpleasant activities could — if I let them — gobble up 1-2 hours of my day. Unfortunately, what I've found is that putting off some of these tasks merely means spending more than 1-2 hours when the deterioration has become more annoying than the tasks themselves.

So, what unpleasant and annoying tasks does the biological human body require? Here are the worst, from my perspective (in no particular order):

  • Emptying bowels. On Mars, our bodies do this quickly and cleanly, merely be ejecting a small, shiny egglike object when necessary.
  • Trimming nails. What a bother! And so prone to error, hangnails being the worst.
  • Brushing teeth. Seriously, there's no reason why human teeth should require so much care and expense to maintain. When was the last time you saw a cat brush its teeth?
  • Washing hands. Not unpleasant so much as annoying. Yet without frequent washings during the day, the body is vulnerable to attack by malicious microbes — and what a disaster that can be!
  • Cutting hair. Some people, I've noticed, actually enjoy this activity. But to me it's merely an annoying time-waster.
  • Trimming facial hair. Same as hair-cutting, except I don't think most men actually enjoy the activity.
  • Treating fungus. It seems that once you are invaded by fungus, it never goes away. It flares and fades and requires outrageous expenditures on a variety of products, none of which offers a permanent cure.
  • Minimizing body odor. Again, some humans enjoy showering, bathing, and the rest ... but to a Martian, this problem is best controlled by other, less time-consuming, means.

Now, granted, there are at least two biological functions that I find enjoyable — even though they both take a good deal of time: Eating, and orgasm. The former is a necessary part of maintaining the biological body, but the latter is not. It's merely a fun option... and one of the best things about living in the human body. :-)

    
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Posted in:Human Behavior, PhilosophyTags: |
January 20th, 2012

Bye Bye, Google

That's it... I'm done. Fed up. I've taken Google and shoved it off my system. Don't get me wrong... I like Google, though I like Google far less than I did 6 years ago. Its software has gotten too complicated... it's too ubiquitous... it's too intrusive... and it's too Windows-centric. I really hate Chrome, but don't have time to go into why today. I like Google Earth on my iPad, but hate it on my desktop. On the desktop, it looks just like a Windows app: Butt ugly. But what I really hate is the sneaky and intrusive way Google updates itself on my Mac. Without warning, Finder suddenly jerks me away as it loads the latest Google update and then deletes it when done. I just don't need that. I don't use Google's desktop software, so it's bye bye Keystone agent. Bye bye Google update agent. Bye bye Google Earth plugins and updates. It took me 20 minutes to finish everything, and I hope it doesn't start up again without my knowledge the next time I launch Chrome.
    
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Posted in:Internet, Software MusingsTags: |
December 1st, 2011

Mars Themes Website: New Home For Mars Downloads

A few weeks ago, I launched a new website — Mars Themes — as a central repository for all the various themes, app skins, applications, widgets, and so on that I've developed over the years.

These items — all available as free downloads, except for two — were previously in a section of the Mars website linked to the "Downloads" item in the navigation bar. That link now takes you to Mars Themes. (Oh yeah, the two not-free items are the software apps CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black. They have their own websites, but are also linked to Mars Themes.)

title textThe new site has all the content previously available here, plus a few more things. The site has a News section where all recent additions or changes are announced, and separate pages for Themes (for ShapeShifter only), Icons, Widgets, App Skins, and "More Freebies."

Not previously available are a set of icons I designed back in 2005, which were included in my ShapeShifter theme DeStyl Ruler. These icons are inspired by the early 20th Century Dutch art movement De Stijl, whose most famous adherent was Piet Mondrian.

Also now available are a set of desktop pictures that accompanied the DeStyl icon set. These designs deconstruct the Schroder House, one of the only examples of De Stijl architecture.

    
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Posted in:Design, Icons, ThemingTags: |
July 23rd, 2011

“Just Say No To Flash”
Join The Campaign! Add A Banner To Your Website

Just Say No To Flash: Join The Campaign!In the past few years, Adobe Flash has become more than an annoyance that some of us have kept in check by using "block Flash" plugins for our web browsers. More and more, entire web sites are being built with Flash, and they have no HTML alternative at all! This goes way beyond annoying, into the realm of crippling.

I had noticed the trend building for quite awhile, but it only really hit home when I realized that Google, of all companies, had redesigned its formerly accessible Analytics site to rely heavily on Flash for displaying content. This wouldn't be absolutely horrible except for the fact that Google provides no HTML alternative. I tried to needle the company through its Analytics forums, but only received assurance that yes, indeed, one must have the Flash plugin running to view the site.

Keep in mind that content like that on Google Analytics is not mere marketing information, like the sales pitch on the Analytics home page.

Those of us who are disturbed by the trend need to be a bit more vocal about our opinion. Hence, I'm starting a "Just Say No To Flash!" campaign, with its own web page, graphics for a banner, and the CSS and HTML code to deploy it on your own web pages.

I've mentioned this to some of my family and friends, and they often come back with: "So, Why should I say no to Flash?" I admit that as a power browser and a programmer geek type who, shall we say, makes more efficient use of the web, I'm more keenly aware of the ways that Flash is chipping away at the foundation of web content.

In the beginning, it seemed harmless: Flash was an alternative to animated GIFs, and an easy way to embed movies on web pages. But then advertisers wrapped their meaty mitts around it, and that's when Flash started to be annoying. However, one could block Flash in the browser, as part of a strategy of shutting out obnoxious advertising.

But publishing content via Flash is just wrong, for a number of reasons.

It's A Proprietary Technology
. . . Or, One Company Controls The Standard

I don't think Flash is what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind when he created the first web browser and the markup language called HTML to run the web. Then, as now, the web is meant to be open to all. It is meant to be built using open standards that belong to no individual or company. The main open formats that should be used to build websites are simply:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript
  • Images (open formats)

Open standards for video, audio, vector graphics, virtual 3D graphics, animated graphics, and others are also available to be thrown into the mix.

Adobe PDF is also a common format for distributing final-form documents, and PDF is based on open specifications for both PDF and PostScript that Adobe published back in the 1990s.

It Isn't Backwards-Compatible
. . . Or, How Many Times Do I Have To Upgrade My *!/?#%@! Plugin?

If you install a Flash plugin today, there's no guarantee you'll be able to view Flash content created 2 months from now.

If you have a Flash plugin from 5 years ago, it's probably useless today.

Flash is designed with built-in obsolescence, forcing users to repeatedly visit the Adobe website to get an upgrade. This is not only a bother, it forces one company's advertising into the world's face every time it releases a software update.

It Can't Be Customized
. . . Or, How Do I Increase The Font Size?

From time immemorial (well, at least since the beginning of web time), a web page's text could be customized to suit the user's taste and needs. All web browsers provide the tools to increase/decrease the font size, as well as to specify custom fonts for different page elements (headers, paragraphs, etc).

Flash throws all of that out the window with a terse shrug, "Let 'Em Eat Helvetica 10pt."

Its Content Is Inaccessible
. . . Or, How Do I Drag And Drop Images and Text?

No, you can't drag and drop images or text from Flash content. This most basic method of interacting with a web page—dragging images off the page, or selecting sections of the page to drag onto an email or text processor—is a non-starter if it's part of a Flash file.

Copy and paste? If the Flash programmer has been thoughtful, you should be able to copy and paste text. But don't even try to copy any other page element.

And that includes copying a link's URL. Right-click (Ctrl-click) anywhere in a block of Flash content, and you get the standard Flash popup menu. Not very helpful.

You Can't Save The Page
. . . Or, You Mean, I Can't Save A Copy?

Another common task many web users take for granted is the ability to save a web page as text, as HTML, or as a format like rich-text format. With Flash, this is impossible.

You may be able to save the file as a web archive, but there's no open standard for a "web archive," and getting at the content inside one is almost as hard as getting inside a Flash movie.

Flash Consumes More Of Your Computer
. . . Or, Running Flash Diverts Your Processing Power and Memory

When I'm running Flash — as I am now while shopping at Adobe — my Activity Monitor shows it's consuming a continuous 5-percent of my processing power, and about 130 MB of my RAM.

For What? There's nothing a Flash movie can deliver that can't be delivered using open formats. its heavy resource drain is one reason I keep Flash turned off when browsing the web.

You Can't View Flash on an iPhone or iPad
. . . Or, I thought Apple was the bad guy here?

Apple has very good reasons for not supporting Flash on its tiny devices. As the previous point makes clear, Flash isn't a delicate, lightweight technology that your processor and RAM won't notice.

When trying to build hardware and software for small devices that work well and don't lead to memory problems or application crashes, why wouldn't you ditch unnecessary technologies like Flash?

Obviously, Steve Jobs stepped into a hornets nest here, but I think the hornets were wrong.

Make Your Site Say No To Flash

It's easy! Just follow these two steps:

1. Download the Image(s)

You can copy and save one of the following images, or download the Photoshop source and make your own.

Just Say No To Flash - Banner At Bottom Right
Just Say No To Flash - Banner At Bottom Right
2. Add the CSS

Here are two CSS styles for positioning the Just Say No To Flash banner on your web page. One positions the banner at the top-right, and the other at the bottom-right. To use the styles, just copy and paste the following code into the <HEAD> portion of your HTML.

To place the banner at the top-right corner of your page:
  1. <style>
  2. a#noFlash {
  3. position: fixed;
  4. z-index: 500;
  5. right: 0;
  6. top: 0;
  7. display: block;
  8. height: 160px;
  9. width: 160px;
  10. background: url(images/noFlashTR.png) top right no-repeat;
  11. text-indent: -999em;
  12. text-decoration: none;
  13. }
  14. </style>
To place the banner at the bottom-right corner of your page:
  1. <style>
  2. a#noFlash {
  3. position: fixed;
  4. z-index: 500;
  5. right: 0;
  6. bottom: 0;
  7. display: block;
  8. height: 160px;
  9. width: 160px;
  10. background: url(images/noFlashTR.png) bottom right no-repeat;
  11. text-indent: -999em;
  12. text-decoration: none;
  13. }
  14. </style>
3. Add the HTML

Add the following to the beginning of your HTML, just below the <BODY> tag, or at the end, just before the closing </BODY> tag:

  1. <a id="noFlash" href="http://www.musingsfrommars.org/notoflash/" title="Just Say No To Flash!"> Just Say No To Flash! </a>

Please always link your image to http://www.musingsfrommars.org/notoflash/ so everyone can find the information associated with the image.

Thanks to the "Too Cool for Internet Explorer" campaign run by w3junkies for the concept behind "Say No To Flash," as well as for the general outline of information that campaign provided.

    
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June 8th, 2011

Introducing “Clear Crystal” System Icons for Mac OS X

The Sociology of Tornadoes

I'm happy to present a complete, new set of icons for Mac OS X, specifically designed to complement the Crystal Black theme. These icons can be used to replace the default "system" icons for folders, devices, toolbar items, Finder sidebar items, and others. The screenshots below display the icons for each system type.

These "Clear Crystal" icons come in sizes from 256 to 16 pixels. (I'm not a big fan of 512 pixel icons, which is why they're missing.) In the screenshots, the icons are shown at 72 pixels for the first four system groups. The fifth screenshot shows them at 24 pixels, and the screenshot of the Finder sidebar shows them at 16 pixels.

I see no reason to prepare unique icons for every flavor of removable disk one can use these days, mainly because at 16 pixels (which is how they typically appear in the Finder sidebar), the different designs are indistinguishable. Therefore, I've used the same design for CDs, DVDs, BDs, and all their various permutations.

Beginning with Mac OS X 10.6 ("Snow Leopard"), Apple defines a distinct set of icons for the Finder sidebar. Since these mostly duplicate those used for folders, I've chosen to use the same icon set for both. This is possible because icon sizes down to 32 pixels use the full design, while those from 32 pixels and smaller use a simpler design more distinguishable at small sizes.

Note that although I designed the icons for use with Crystal Black, I also tried to make them compatible with the default Aqua theme. They'll look best with dark backgrounds, but light backgrounds will work too. (The screenshots show them in use with Crystal Black.)

At the end of this article is a list of the icon sets that provided either templates or inspiration for the Clear Crystal icons. My sincere thanks to the many great icon designers who provide their work free of charge to the Mac user community.

Enjoy!

Installing the Clear Crystal Icons

This icon set is available as an iContainer for the application CandyBar, which provides a convenient way of quickly installing (or uninstalling) icons for the various system types. In addition, the Clear Crystal icons are available as Apple icon files for those of you who don't want to shell out for CandyBar.

If you have CandyBar, simply double-click the Clear Crystal Icons iContainer file to add them to CandyBar. Follow the instructions in CandyBar to apply the newly added icons.

To install the icons manually, you first select an icon in Finder and open the Info window (Cmd-I). Next, copy the small icon at the top of the Info window (to the left of the icon's name). Then, select the folder or item to which you wish to apply the Clear Crystal icon and open its Info window. Then, paste the copied icon over the small icon at the top of the Info window. Repeat for each icon in the set.

Clear Crystal Icon Set (Download file is 9.1 MB)

Folders
Dock
Network
Generic and Toolbar
Disks and Drives
Clippings
Crystal Icons at 24x24 Pixels
Finder Sidebar
Credits

I used the following icon sets to provide templates or inspiration for the overall design and for various individual Clear Crystal icons. I am deeply indebted to those who designed these sets, both for their graphic design skill and for their generosity in providing their icons for free to the Mac user community.

  • Albook
  • Antares
  • Black N White
  • G5 System
  • Glass Globes Desktop
  • Black N White
  • Mistikons
  • Neige
  • Photopro
  • TiCons
  • Tokens
  • XPack
    
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Posted in:Design, IconsTags: |
April 29th, 2011

The Sociology of Tornadoes

Or, Do Tornadoes Make Humans in Red States More . . .
  • Paranoid?
  • Envious?
  • God-Fearing?
  • Intolerant?
  • Republican?
The Sociology of Tornadoes

In recent days, I've been barraged by friends back on Mars inquiring about what psychological effects the recent spate of tornadoes in the South and Midwest United States must have on the humans there. Their interest got me to thinking, and I suddenly had an insight, which I'm sure has brightened the intellectual glow of many beings (both Martian and human) before me.

The insight encompasses the sociological effects of hurricanes as well, since the two devastating natural phenomena share some common traits... the most obvious being those furiously spinning wind and clouds.

My Martian theory also explains why tornadoes and hurricanes affect humans in ways that volcanoes, tsunamies, and earthquakes do not.

For brevity in the following paragraphs, I'm using the term "Recurring Events of Mass Destruction" (REMD) to refer to tornadoes and hurricanes, and the term "Unpredictable Events of Mass Destruction" (UEMD) to refer to volanoes, tsunamies, and earthquakes.

REMD. The distinguishing characteristics of REMD include:

  1. They happen every year.
  2. Though their frequency and severity vary from year to year, their geographical incidence is constant and encompasses huge areas of the country.
  3. Though you know they'll occur every year, you have no idea where exactly they'll strike.
  4. When they do strike, they invariably cause severe damage at the strike site.

UEMD. The distinguishing characters of these include:

  1. They happen whenever. Completely unpredictable.
  2. Most of the time, their effect on human life and property is minimal. Catastrophic events do occur, but their incidence is rare compared with REMD.
  3. The geographic range is much more limited and static than for REMD. Only a few States are affected by UEMD.

These widely differing attributes lead me to theorize the following psychological effects on humans who live in areas prone to REMD.

Dread The certainty of mass destruction lowers an unconscious web of dread on REMD people. Ongoing dread bends the psyche toward irrational fear of the unknown, as well as paranoia.
Envy and Schadenfreude Although humans like to think otherwise, those who live in an area where one's town can be devastated while a town close by goes unscathed invariably feel envy when this occurs. Likewise, those in the spared town will feel the opposite—schadenfreude. Although this affects victims of UEMD too, the sociological effect is lessened by the lower incidence and narrower geographical confines of UEMD. Over time, envy and schadenfreude become ingrained in a community's collective psyche.
Intolerance and Parochialism The widespread and continuous feelings of envy and schadenfreude can heighten suspicion of "outsiders" and lead to an intolerant, parochial view of the world. It can also make humans more stingy towards those beyond their immediate community. These people are more likely to adopt the philosophy, "Every Man For Himself," and they become incapable of seeing "beyond their own back yard" in terms of understanding people different from themselves.
Religiousness Throughout human history, people have been driven to religion to explain natural phenomena—both good and bad. If REMD are caused by God, then perhaps fear, dedication and prayer to God will help. Religion in REMD areas would therefore be expected to emphasize the fear factor of God, as well as a greater awareness of God's opposite—Satan, Evil.

People living with UEMD are also affected by these feelings, but to a much lesser degree. Because of the infrequency and lack of predictable recurrence of UEMD, the emotions do not grip entire communities or regions. The primary psychological effect on humans of UEMD is a sort of Stoic Fatalism, which can be summed up in the philosophy "What Will Be Will Be." Stoicism tends to make humans more tolerant of others and more broad-minded about ideas.

Given these characteristics, it's now worth mapping their effects geographically, in order to see how the incidence of tornadoes correlates with the incidence of humans with those characteristics. Since the psychological makeup of Republican (conservative) humans aligns pretty well with the attitudes of those prone to REMD, I am using voting patterns as a proxy for sociological differences between areas affected by REMD and UEMD. The maps below adopt the paradigm of "blue" and "red" States to view the correlation.

Notes: The data in Map 1 are derived from statistics published by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, and cover the 5 years from 2000-2004 . To improve focus, it doesn't show incidence numbers lower than 10. The number of States of a particular color on Map 1 is the same as the corresponding number Map 2 (Source: Wikipedia Commons). 

This is the color legend for Map 2:

  • The Republican candidate carried the State in the last four presidential elections (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008)
  • The Republican candidate carried the State in three of the four most recent elections.
  • The Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate each carried the State in two of the four most recent elections.
  • The Democratic candidate carried the state in three of the four most recent elections.
  • The Democratic candidate carried the state in all four most recent elections.
Map 1: Red and Blue States As Predicted by Tornado Frequency, 2000-2004 Map 1. Red and Blue States Predicted by Tornado Frequency, 2000-2004 Map 2: Red and Blue States As Defined by Presidential Election Results, 1996-2008 Map 2: Red and Blue States by Presidential Election Results, 1996-2008 Map 3: Red and Blue States Revealed By Filtering Maps 1 and 2 Map 3: Red and Blue States by Filtering Maps 1 and 2

Although not a perfect predictor, tornado frequency correlates pretty closely with election results: The States that lie in the tornado "alleys" of the South and Midwest are almost all populated by Republican-leaning voters. 

I should stress that this theory does not postulate that tornadoes are the sole predictor of a State's sociological makeup. For example, the characteristics this theory predicts for humans in REMD areas are also found in small-town and rural areas, which are heavily populated by parochial and intolerant humans. Red States that do not correlate with the tornado data but whose population predominantly lives in small towns and rural areas include Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska.

Among the blue States, the biggest outlier is Illinois, which maps as solid red in tornado frequency but solid blue in voting pattern. Though this result seems surprising—as well as contradictory to my theory—it can be explained by noting that the incidence of tornadoes is primarily in the southern part of the State, which is also heavily Republican and has long considered itself part of the South.

It's worth noting that many of the red and pink States on the third map are also those that suffer the most REMD by hurricanes—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Adding hurricanes to the tornado data above would undoubtedly also turn North Carolina red.

And this, my fellow Martians, is my explanation of how tornadoes affect the sociology of the human populations they afflict.

Schadenfreude.
Pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.

Envy.
A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.

Dread.
Anticipate with great apprehension or fear.

Intolerance.
Not tolerant of others' views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one's own.

Parochialism.
Having a limited or narrow outlook or scope.

Religiousness.
Believing in and worshiping a superhuman controlling power or powers, esp. a personal God or gods.

Stoicism.
The endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint.

Fatalism.
A submissive attitude to events, resulting from the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.

Broad-minded.
Tolerant or liberal in one's views and reactions; not easily offended.

Republican.
A person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.

God.
The creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes.

Paranoia.
Suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification.

    
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April 12th, 2011

Theming Snow Leopard:
How Hard Could It Be To Paint A Leopard Black?

Preview of Crystal Black Theme for Snow Leopard

Dark interface themes are extremely popular with a small, but very passionate, group of Mac users. Sadly, since Apple introduced Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), the old, relatively simple method of creating such themes on the Mac can't be used, and it took the theming community a good year and a half to figure out the current, relatively hobbled tools to theme the few bits of the interface that can be themed.

Given the weakened state of theming on the Mac, it's not surprising that the number of themes available has dwindled to a mere handful. And even those only go part of the way compared with what we used to be able to achieve with ShapeShifter. Still, the yearning for Mac themes remains strong among this community, and black themes are virtually nonexistent now.

Black themes have always been a challenge, because the frameworks used to build applications were designed to assume that text would always be black and the color of windows and buttons always light. Apple introduced a dark-theme paradigm a few years ago with its Heads-Up Display window style, which, with its translucent black background actually assumes that text will be white.

Starting with Leopard, developers using Xcode could tap into the HUD window style and use it whenever they want to, but most application windows aren't well suited to this, and Apple's user interface library still assumes that regular windows will be light, with black text. 

It's not only desktop applications that make this assumption. Web pages with button widgets also assume that the widgets will be light and their text black. On the Mac, it's becoming common for desktop applications to embed the WebKit for parts of their user interface—meaning that the button widgets are HTML- and CSS-based, not AppKit-based.

In addition to this basic problem, there's also the challenge of handling legacy applications based on Apple's earlier Carbon frameworks, as well as apps that are a blend of Cocoa and Carbon. Complicating this issue is that, as it turns out, applications built for the older PowerPC processor platform use a different part of the system graphics than those built for Intel chips.

If you try to design a theme that introduces black interface controls, you run into another challenge that has nothing to do with text. Many interface widgets use images rather than text to convey their purpose, so what if—as is usually the case—the application designer provides only black images for these buttons? Is a themer supposed to provide white images for every application a themee might want to use?

One specialized case of the images problem is the Mac OS X statusbar. Here, applications represent themselves almost exclusively as images, and nine times out of ten, the images assume that the menubar is light, so they should be black. Some enterprising themers have tried to solve this one by providing alternative white images for the most common statusbar applications, but usability can still suffer if someone using a black menubar launches an application that insists on putting a black icon up there.... one for which no white alternative exists.

Given all this, why would anyone undertake an effort to introduce a fully black theme for Snow Leopard?

I suppose it's because we Martians just can't step back from a challenge. Not to mention the fact that we, too, are afflicted with the passion for dark themes that many Earthlings suffer from. I also have a good starting point, having developed some useful techniques for the challenge through building CrystalClear Interface.

That said, the best I can offer still has compromised usability, which I detail below. But for the most part, I think I've succeeded in bringing to life a useable version of the legendary Cathode theme for ShapeShifter, in a redesign appropriate for Snow Leopard. The theme covers window backgrounds, background colors for tables and outline views, interface buttons, menubar, and text colors. It also coerces various types of windows to theme themselves in HUD style.

To acknowledge the theme's heritage, I've dubbed the theme Crystal Black. Crystal Black will be available for download soon, with a 15-day trial period and a purchase price of $6.00

It's important to note that Crystal Black and CrystalClear Interface can not coexist on the same system. You can't install Crystal Black until you uninstall CCI.

For my own documentation of this work, as well as to highlight the theme's strengths and weaknesses, the following list shows the various unique challenges I've faced in building Crystal Black and the solutions, if any, devised. Other challenges have been faced—and largely solved—in developing CrystalClear Interface, so I won't spend time on them here.

In the list, I've used a small graphic to indicate the degree of success in addressing each challenge:

★ Solid solution

☆ Partial solution

∅ No solution

For Cocoa applications:
  • Images on buttons and in column headings ★
  • Images and icons in the statusbar ★
  • Text color of buttons in web pages ★
  • Applications that use non-standard buttons and GUI frameworks. ☆
  • Text color on Finder items with color labels ∅
  • Cocoa applications that can't or won't take theming by Crystal Black ☆ (Problem solved 4/13/11.)
  • Cocoa applications that are on the user's "Disabled Applications" list ☆
For Carbon applications:
  • Text color for control widgets ☆
  • Color of titlebar and toolbar text ∅
  • Window and control object background colors ☆
Cocoa applications
★ Images on buttons and in column headings
Challenges
Crystal Black Theme: Buttons without Crystal Black software
  • All images need to be made white, but without making custom button images for every possible application. Somehow, black images must be inverted as windows load.
  • Some images are already "templates," easy to invert. However, other images look like "templates," but aren't, and making them templates isn't a reliable technique.
  • Images with color (hue > 0) need to be distinguished from black/white ones. Knowing the image's color space doesn't help.
  • Some images are "Core Image" images, which don't have a bitmap representation that can be easily analyzed. In this case, Crystal Black must create a bitmap representation in check it out.
  • Images in column headings aren't buttons, so they require extra processing. In many cases, they change often so must be analyzed repeatedly. Some have proven inaccessible.
Crystal Black Theme: Buttons with Crystal Black software
Solution
Each button and column heading in application windows are analyzed as they load to determine whether—and how—they require inverting. If inverting is needed, Crystal Black generates a new image and sets in place of the original.

Crystal Black Theme: Custom popup buttonStill, there are a few cases that haven't yet been addressed. One is the case where a pull-down menu contains an image. I hope to deal with this in a future update.

★ Images and icons in the statusbar Crystal Black Theme: Menubar without Crystal Black software
Challenges
  • For nearly all applications that have a statusbar item and associated image/icon, the image/icon is black in normal state and white when highlighted. This means the image is unreadable against a black menubar.
  • Unfortunately, the solution to the problem of images on buttons can't be applied to images and icons in the statusbar. In a few cases, the technique of inverting "template" images works, but applications with statusbar helpers that have invertable images are in a large minority.
Crystal Black Theme: Menubar with Crystal Black software
Solution
Most of your applications that have a presence in the statusbar—including all of Apple's—must have custom-built images. In Crystal Black, these images are installed in the application's Resources folder, while maintaining a backup of the original images. Crystal Black also runs an inversion method that works in a few cases, but can't be relied on for most.
★ Text color of buttons in web pages
Challenges
Crystal Black Theme: Web page buttons without Crystal Black software
  • Requires digging through the page's document object model and checking for buttons. Technique for theming push buttons is quite different from that for pop-up buttons.
  • Many pages use nonstandard button styles, themed through CSS, and these are much trickier to coerce into using white text.
Solution
Crystal Black Theme: Web page buttons with Crystal Black software
Crystal Black installs a custom CSS style sheet, which can be used with browsers that support custom style sheets. In the case of Safari, Crystal Black enables the style sheet automatically. Although this works, it manages to destroy a lot of custom-designed buttons along the way...
☆ Applications that use non-standard buttons and GUI Frameworks Crystal Black Theme: Oddball buttons
Challenges
Many newer Mac applications have buttons that are subclassed from the standard Cocoa button class and therefore don't respond to theming. Similarly, various open-source frameworks for building windows and buttons are in use, with similar challenges to theming.
Solution
Unfortunately, since Crystal Black cannot convert such buttons to its dark theme, it must apply a custom modification for each application to ensure buttons are readable. This means that some apps will have buttons with white text, since they aren't accounted for in Crystal Black.
∅ Text color on Finder items with color labels
Challenges
Crystal Black Theme: Finder labels were a problem for Crystal Black
  • When the Finder is in column or list view, and these views have the dark background users normally prefer in themes like Crystal Black, the names of files and folders that have colored labels cannot easily be read.
  • Despite numerous attempts, I have not discovered any method for changing the colors of these labels to provide ☆suitable contrast for white text.
  • In addition, because of the way the Finder's file browser works, it's not possible to coerce a specific file or folder to use black text instead of white, when the item uses a label.
Solution
Crystal Black Theme: Finder labels solved by forcing black text
There is no good solution to this problem. To keep Finder's column and list views readable, Crystal Black prevents the background color for these views from darkening to the point that would trigger the use of white text. In other words, the names of files and folders in the Finder will always display as black.
☆ Cocoa applications that are on the user's "Disabled Applications" list
Crystal Black Theme: Appearance of disabled applications without some help from Crystal BlackChallenges
If a user disables Crystal Black for a specific application, the software no longer has a way to transform text or images from black to white.

Without some action, this would be the same as a user downloading the (free) Crystal Black system graphics files and installing them without the software: You wouldn't be able to read a lot of the interface elements.

Crystal Black Theme: Appearance of disabled applications with help from Crystal BlackSolution
The problem can't be totally solved. However, Crystal Black does three things to maintain usability. First, the CB filter module (which is what determines whether to load Crystal Black or not) installs a minimal set of color instructions before declining to load the core software. These colors keep text on buttons readable. Second, the old Extras resources files have a few text-color settings that still have an effect, and these take care of text color on segment tabs. Third, Crystal Black sets some specific defaults for the disabled application that prevent it from using a totally black window frame. These defaults are swapped out if the user re-enables the app for CB.
Carbon applications

Carbon applications are incapable of loading Crystal Black to any meaningful extent. However, some such applications have components built with the Cocoa frameworks, and these components will load Crystal Black (unless the app is in CB's disabled apps list). An example of the latter is Adobe Photoshop CS4, which itself is a Carbon-based lifeform, but may have plugins that are Cocoa-based. In this case, the plugin will load Crystal Black as long as Photoshop itself does not have CB disabled.

At the time of this writing, the Carbon universe is split into two difference species: Those that will only run on PowerPC chips, or under Rosetta on an Intel chip, and those that will run natively on both kinds of chips. The distinction is important, because the different species, it turns out, use different system resources for some of their graphics.

In any case, the challenge for affecting Carbon applications with a dark theme is that it must be done in the "old-fashioned" way—using the graphics files that used to enable theming in the age of ShapeShifter.

☆ Text color for control widgets
Challenges
How to enable white text on black buttons and other interface elements without using software or the post-Leopard system resources.
Crystal Black Theme: Controls in Carbon applications helped with old-fashioned test-color settingsSolution
To a large extent, this is solved by relying on the pre-Leopard Extras resources files. Carbon applications make more use of these than Cocoa ones do, and Carbon apps that require Rosetta under Leopard make even more use of them.
∅ Color of titlebar and toolbar text
Crystal Black Theme: Titlebars in Carbon applications couldn't be fixedChallenges
How to enable white text on the labels of toolbar buttons and on window titlebars, without using software or post-Leopard system resources.
Solution
No solution found. This is one challenge Crystal Black has been unable to overcome. Since toolbars are an interface element that's uncommon on Carbon applications, the toolbar label problem isn't a huge issue. (The only such app I use is Yummy FTP.) However, nearly all windows have a title, and it remains black against a black background.
☆ Window and control object background colors
Crystal Black Theme: Background colors in Carbon set with old resources within limitationsChallenges
  • The background colors of various objects on a Carbon window are drawn from ancient system resources that aren't straightforward to use and that can mix with unexpected results.
  • The elements that must mesh to make a smooth, pleasing, darker-than-white color are nested, and some resources are used for more than one level in the nest.
  • One complication that became clear from this exercise is that resources used differ between Universal-binary applications and apps that must run under Rosetta.
  • The background color must remain light enough to provide contrast for both white and black text.
Solution
Ultimately, this goal required detailed mapping of resource "PPAT" (pattern) objects in the Extras files to observed results.  Thereafter, a good deal of trial and error was required to get the colors to mesh—for example, the background color of a "group box" nested in a "tab view", and the background color of buttons and other controls nested inside the "group box." 

I couldn't theme some elements to my satisfaction, however. In particular, I wanted the background color of a group box within a tab view to be lighter than that of the tab view. This isn't a problem, but, because the background color of objects within the group box use the same pattern resource as the tab view, the objects have a darker background than that of the group box itself. You can set distinct background colors of control objects that are inside a tab view from those that are outside the tab view, and of those that are in a tab view from those that are nested inside "secondary group boxes" within the tab view. But you can't do the same for objects within the tab view and those within nested group boxes.

    
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March 2nd, 2011

Theming A Web Page With Crystal Black:
A CSS Design for Web Inspector

One of the many challenges of building a usable black theme for Mac OS X is making it work with web pages. If you use Safari, the buttons, scrollbars, and other interface widgets on web pages get their marching orders from the system's graphics files—the same ones that regular applications use.

So, if a web page has a pushbutton, the button will by default take on the style of the active theme. If you're running Crystal Black, this means that the button inherits the Crystal Black style. We like this.

Color for the button's text, on the other hand, gets its marching orders from the browser's default Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) file—which, naturally, makes the text black, and therefore unreadable on top of a black button. We don't like this.

On first glance, the solution seems to merely design a special CSS file for Crystal Black and make Safari use it. Preview of Crystal Black Theme for Safari's Web InspectorAnd that does work for many web sites and many buttons. However, many folks who design web pages like to fiddle with the CSS style for their pages' buttons, and such fiddling means that there's nothing "mere" about designer a Crystal Black style sheet.

Further, many Mac applications these days have views that are simply embedded web content using Apple's WebKit framework. The practical implication here is that Mac apps don't know how to read a Crystal Black CSS file, so Crystal Black must do some fiddling under the hood to avoid having unreadable buttons in such web views.

Then there's Safari itself. I really wanted to theme the Web Inspector—the incredibly useful built-in website viewer/debugger/designer assistant—with the Crystal Black look and feel, but it wasn't immediately obvious how to do this. I assumed that the tool was just a part of Safari, and therefore built with classes and widgets from the Cocoa AppKit (which is the framework all Cocoa apps are built with). However, when I began to inspect the Inspector, I discovered that everything contained within its borders was simply web content: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images.

In other words, the Web Inspector tool is nothing but an intricate, sophisticated, and extremely well designed web page!

Having built a Crystal Black CSS file for web pages in general, and with my past expertise in CSS, I attacked this challenge with relish! It reminded me of the time I realized that Dashboard widgets are, at their core, nothing but little web pages (as are simply apps for the iPhone). In tackling this one, the main question was, How should the various elements look? And the hardest part was inspecting the various parts in of the Inspector in great detail to determine which CSS rules governed their default appearance and behavior.

As I discovered, the WebKit has a a sub-framework called "WebCore," which in turn has a folder of resources specifically for the Web Inspector. In the Inspector folder, among other things, is a suite of CSS files that handle different aspects of the Inspector's design and behavior. Of these, the primary one I needed to tweak was called simply "inspector.css."

Besides controlling the usual attributes of a web page—document elements, text elements, image elements, layout elements, form elements, and so on—this style sheet applies various advanced CSS properties that serve the purpose that in years past would have been handled by many individual images. As I've described this CSS 3.0 magic previously, there's no longer a need for using graphics and JavaScript to add box shadows, rounded box corners, borders, gradients, and reflections to your web pages.

Naturally, since the open-source WebKit project was initiated by Apple, and since that project zoomed ahead of all other browser engines in developing new ways to design with CSS, that's how the Web Inspector is built. This approach—using a command syntax rather than images to design a user interface—is one that Apple has been adopting for its desktop applications. In recent years, Apple has been adding new classes and methods to the AppKit that make it a trivial matter to build a window frame, a border, a toolbar, or a button using code rather than individual graphics. 

While this is a logical and efficient approach, it also presents challenges for theming Mac applications, a challenge that Crystal Black is often unable or unwilling to overcome. (The story of all the challenges in building Crystal Black are described in this article.)

Not so with the Web Inspector, fortunately.

The Inspector does use a few images in its design, but most of the toolbar, separators, and section headers are built with CSS gradients. Very cool indeed!

This bit of Crystal Black will eventually be bundled with the whole theme, but for now I offer it as a free download. Admittedly, the audience for such software is small—you have to like Crystal Black, and you have to be a regular user of the Web Inspector—but it might be of interest to others who are curious about how such things are done.

One caveat in viewing the screenshots... The scrollbars that appear, as well as the HUD window style, are part of the overall Crystal Black theme and are not part of the Web Inspector theme itself.

Enjoy!

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

Installing Crystal Black for Web Inspector

The download contains a small application that you can use to install—and to uninstall—the theme. Simply double-click and select "Install" to apply the theme. Or select "Uninstall" to restore the default CSS files and graphics.

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

Crystal Black for the Web Inspector (Download file is 1.0MB)

CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-11, Leland Scott
    
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February 23rd, 2011

A Black Gloss Theme for CoverSutra

I recently posted another member of the coming Crystal Black theme for Snow Leopard on my deviantART site. This new component is a glossy black theme for the popular iTunes controller CoverSutra.

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 a few weeks ago released a Crystal Black theme for iTunes. The skins for both iTunes and CoverSutra will, of course, be included in the full theme once it's out.

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 CoverSutra

The download contains a little application that installs the Crystal Black theme for CoverSutra. To install, simply doubleclick the application and select "Install." You can also use the app to restore the default CoverSutra theme. To restore, doubleclick the app and select “Uninstall.”

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

Also included in the download is a folder containing CoverSutra's default (black) menubar icon, as well as a white alternative for those who use a dark menubar.

Crystal Black for CoverSutra (Download file is 1.5MB)

CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-11, Leland Scott
    
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February 3rd, 2011

Crystal Black for iTunes

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

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

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

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

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
    
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Posted in:Design, Theming, iPod & iTunesTags: |
January 29th, 2011

The “Bloated” Federal Bureaucracy:
A Lie That’s Either Malicious Ignorance Or Deliberate Malice

The Incredible Shrinking Federal Worker

One of the truly bewildering traits of human beings is their ability—and even carefree willingness—to ignore facts that conflict with their current worldview. I touched on this topic in an earlier article, and find it manifested in numerous ways in this most viciously anti-rational political climate.

This article looks at data for a timely topic that's a favorite target for fact distortion: Has the U.S. Federal Government workforce grown too large, or not?

The "Tea Party" politicians, in particular, appear to be masters at the art of selling people willful ignorance, perhaps partly because they themselves drink from that cup religiously. Among the false ideas they consider common knowledge is the idea that the Federal workforce needs to be cut—presumably because it, like the Government as a whole, has grown too big. While they're at it, they'd also like to make sure Federal employees don't have a benefits package better than members of their own congregation do.

Recently, a Republican from Texas, Rep. Kevin Brady, submitted a legislative proposal to cut the Federal workforce by 10 percent. According to a Washington Post article, Brady's reasoning goes like this:

There's not a business in America that's survived this recession without right-sizing its workforce, without having to become more productive with fewer workers. The federal government can't be the exception. We're going to have to find a way to serve our constituents and our taxpayers better and quicker and more accurately with fewer workers. I'm convinced we can do it and we don't have a choice.

Including its overall premise, Brady's short statement includes several fallacies, and on Mars we find it alarming to realize that this guy is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Where I come from, those are pretty big britches! When someone with authority over such enormously important Government functions gets his facts wrong, one has to wonder whether he is deliberately lying for political reasons, or whether he's maliciously failing to determine the facts—instead shaping them to fit his policy goals.

Joint Economic Committee
The Joint Economic Committee is one of four standing joint committees of the U.S. Congress. The committee was established as a part of the Employment Act of 1946, which deemed the committee responsible for reporting the current economic condition of the United States and for making suggestions for improvement to the economy.

On Mars, such behavior is almost unheard of. When I first revealed it, my fellow Martians had trouble believing that sentient beings could behave this way. And even if someone were to deliberately distort reality, surely Earth's legal systems would be constructed to punish the act.

Apparently, however, this behavior is not only tolerated, it's rewarded by the mere awareness that it's tolerated. After all, if a lie—or deliberate ignorance—by someone in authority isn't challenged, it clearly achieves its purpose. And achieving one's purpose obviously counts as a success. (On Mars, we believe that this is one of the perverse lessons Americans learned from President Richard Nixon's downfall: If you're going to lie, cheat, embezzle, or otherwise commit illegal acts, be sure you aren't caught doing so.)

So, what fallacies does Mr. Brady disseminate in his statement? Here are two obvious ones:

  1. "There's not a business in America that's survived this recession without right-sizing its workforce." How can this be true? Clearly, as has always been the case, the economic downturn produces not only losers, but winners as well. Yes, the losers will have had to lay off workers, hence the rise in unemployment. But companies in growth sectors will not have done so, and they may even have continued to expand. In this downturn, for example, employment in the oil mining industry increased from 143,000 to 159,000 from 2007 to 2009. A better example is the computer services sector, where employers added 400,000 jobs.
  2. "The federal government can't be the exception." Someone like Brady who is in charge of National economic policy undoubtedly understands that reducing employment in the Federal sector is never a good thing during a period of slow economic growth. Even economists who aren't sold onKeynesian economics realize that the Federal Government should remain a stable economic player during times like this. Stating otherwise must be a deliberate deception.

Keynesian Economics.
A macroeconomic theory based on the ideas of 20th century British economist John Maynard Keynes. This theory argues that private sector investment decisions periodically lead to inefficiencies that cause economic output to fall and unemployment to rise. It therefore advocates active policy responses by the public sector, including an expansion of the money supply by the central bank and increased spending by the government, in order to stabilize output over this business cycle.

That leaves the notion that the U.S. Government must "right-size" its workforce in order to "become more productive with fewer workers." First of all, what does "right-sizing" a workforce mean? If you read Wikipedia's article on the subject, you come away believing that "right-sizing" is merely a euphemism for "layoffs" or "downsizing."

Some dictionaries, on the other hand, suggest there's a nuance to the term that differentiates it from "layoffs." Webster's, for example, defines the term as follows:

To reduce (as a workforce) to an optimal size

"Right-sizing" (or "rightsizing") is a term first uttered on Earth in 1989, when it was really just jargon to justify the downsizing that became de rigeur during the waning years of the first Bush administration. One of the main reasons companies downsize is that their workforce has bulged after a major merger with or acquisition of another company. And as you may recall, starting in the 1980s corporations did a heckuva lot of merging and acquiring. For awhile, even "rollups" where all the rage on Wall Street.

Rollup.
A Rollup (also "Roll-up" or "Roll up") is a technique used by investors (commonly private equity firms) where multiple small companies in the same market are acquired and merged. The principal aim of a rollup is to reduce costs through economies of scale.

After a merger or major acquisition, it's pretty standard to eliminate inherited workers who do redundant tasks, or those who have a record of poor performance. Companies who downsize for any other reason do so because they're performing poorly, as measured by revenue and profits. In this case, companies downsize to reduce their production costs and make their products or services more competitive.

So, there are two big problems with even suggesting that the Federal Government engage in "right-sizing:"

  • Governments are nonprofit institutions, and therefore notions such as competitiveness, profits, and product pricing are meaningless.
  • Governments don't merge with or acquire other governments. Well, unless you're talking about conquests, which surely is a special case. Occasionally, governments do split up... for example, when a U.S. State secedes from the Union, or when a country declares its independence from another. In this latter case, of course, the split governments will find the need to "upsize" their workforce rather than downsizing them.

Ah, but what if you believe, as lawmakers such as Brady do, that the cost of the Federal workforce is a major reason why the Federal deficit is ballooning? Well, then I suppose the suggestion does make sense.

Chart 1. Percent Change in Real Federal Spending and EmploymentAs it turns out—and here I'm finally getting to the crux of my argument—the Federal workforce has not been a contributor to the growth in Federal spending. If you're picking up an axe to cut the budget, hacking at the workforce is not only missing the target, but it will actually increase costs in the long run.

What evidence do I have to support such assertions? Consider the following facts for the 40-year period from 1970 to 2009, as illustrated in the accompanying charts:

  • Real (adjusted for inflation) Federal consumption spending increased 56 percent, while total Federal employment fell about 30 percent. Most of the reduction in Federal employment came in the defense sector, but the number of nondefense employees stayed basically flat during this 40-year period while nondefense spending shot up 150% (Chart 1). (Note: The measure of spending shown in chart 1 includes only "current expenditures," which basically counts spending required "to keep the trains running"—that is, to carry out basic agency missions.)
  • Chart 2. Levels and Trends in Federal Employment, 1970-2009From 1970 to 2009, total Federal employment shrank from 6.1 million to 4.2 million—again, mostly in defense. The nondefense Federal workforce was 1.96 million in 1970, and 1.95 million in 2009 (Chart 2).
  • Chart 3. Federal Employment as Percent of Total U.S. Employment, 1970-2009During these 40 years, Federal employment as a percentage of total U.S. employment dropped from 8.6 percent to 3.5 percent (Chart 3).

These facts make it obvious that the Federal Government has been engaging in "right-sizing" for a very long time. How could Federal employees not be a great deal more efficient and productive today if their numbers haven't changed in the last 40 years, while their workload and output have doubled?

Despite continuous calls for less Federal "intrusion" into taxpayers' lives, taxpayers have simultaneously been demanding and expecting more and more of their National Government. As anyone who has been even marginally observant knows, Federal responsibilities have expanded greatly since 1970. Among its new and expanded assignments are:

  • Occupational Safety and Health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created in 1970 to "ensure that employers provide employees with an environment free from recognized hazards, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive noise levels, mechanical dangers, heat or cold stress, or unsanitary conditions."
  • Environmental Protection. The Environmental Protection Agency was also created in 1970 and charged with "protecting human health and the environment, by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress."
  • National Security. The agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens have increased employment substantially during this period, especially since the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical Islamic terrorists. The attacks resulted in a reorganization of security functions from various agencies into a new agency, the Office of Homeland Security. The number of Federal security personnel at U.S. airports has also increased, of course.
  • Budget-Busting Federal Websites

    Regarding Information Dissemination, consider the huge cost and workload involved in building all the great Federal websites we now have—including the many channels to obtaining customized information from Federal databases never before available.

    For example, the charts and data shown in this article come from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the Commerce Department agency responsible for collecting and analyzing statistics on the U.S. economy. BEA is the organization that produces estimates of Gross Domestic Product, personal income, and much more. Their data is now available through an easy-to-use, customizable web interface that generates data in a variety of formats, including tab-delimited, which can be imported into spreadsheet software.

    Yes, the Government does much less printing now than it used to, but as one with first-hand knowledge of Federal publishing, let me assure you it costs much more now to publish on the web than printing ever did. For one thing, many agencies were encouraged to—and did—charge fees for printed publications. Obviously, they collect nothing from use of their websites. For another, nearly all Federal printed documents were required by law to use only black ink, or black and one other color. A tiny fraction used the four-color process that's standard for commercial printing.

    However, Federal web publishing has been under no such contraints, and so agencies have spent as freely as they thought necessary to make splashy, flashy, and sexy websites that could have been—and often are—designed by a Madison Avenue ad firm. Such sites look nice, but besides being expensive they too often make usability a secondary consideration to appearance. Where once a small agency might spend $500,000 a year on printing, it's now common for it to spend $1 or $2 million on their websites, while still printing some material. (Note: BEA remains a big exception to the norm. Their website eschews expensive graphics and other flashy flourishes, and is mostly easy-to-navigate textual content.)

  • Natural Resource Management. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which requires Federal agencies to ensure that their activities "do not jeopardize the existence of any endangered or threatened species of plant or animal or result in the destruction or deterioration of critical habitat of such species."
  • National Park System. Numerous Acts and Executive Orders have expanded the responsibilities of the National Park Service since 1970, including the General Authorities Act of 1970, the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
  • Drug Abuse. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 expanded and optimized the Federal Government's ability to control use of illegal drugs. Among other components, the legislation included the Controlled Substances Act, which established drug "schedules," into which various substances would be classified and for which misuse penalties would be defined.
  • Many other functions, including Immigration Control (yes, we have been spending more money and hired more people for this), Education, Technology Infrastructure, and Information Dissemination.

OK, so it's undeniable that Federal employment has shrunk in the last 40 years, while spending has grown. Doesn't that suggest that Federal employees are much more productive than they were 40 years ago?

Given the data in Chart 1, it's clear that productivity in the Federal sector has risen considerably. However, something must be missing, because it's nearly impossible for an organization to boost output by 50% while cutting its workforce by 30%. In fact, if you lay these data beside analogous ones for the private sector, Chart 4. Percent Change in Real GDP and Total U.S. Employment, 1970-2009 it appears that the Feds have been using some secret productivity weapon that they should now share with the private sector, so that it can downsize as the Feds have done. (Oops... no, that would cause a huge recession, actually.)

Since 1970, output of private industry has shot up 200%, but this was accompanied by a 70% increase in employment (Chart 4). This means that the gain in private output required 70 percent more workers over this period. If you apply that relationship to the public sector, Federal employment should have increased 15-20 percent to support its 50% growth in output over these 40 years.

So how did they do it? How could the Federal sector manage to increase output by 50% while actually reducing employment? The truth is, they couldn't have done, despite what the data show. For even though the data are correct for what they do measure, they are missing a big component of the puzzle, as you'll see.

The Missing Employment Data

Since Jimmy Carter came to office in 1976, every President except for George H.W. Bush has called for either cuts in or freezes on Federal hiring. This explains why Federal employment has remained flat for 40 years... it has been continuously downsized.1

The drops in defense spending and employment reflect both the end of the Draft and the end of the Cold War.

Given this history, today's calls for cuts in Federal employment are either dishonest and politically motivated, or they are misguided and made by ignorant politicians who have no business being in charge of the Nation's business.

The ugly truth is that for every Federal worker who hasn't been hired since 1970, one or two private-sector employees has been. For most of these 40 years, both the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. Government, whether led by Republicans or Democrats, have bought into the notion that "contracting out" (or "outsourcing") Federal jobs was a good way of stretching precious Federal dollars.

Contracting Out
In the context of the public sector, contracting out refers to the act of transferring work previously handled by public employees to employees employed by private contractors. Over time, through workforce attrition, this has the effect of replacing public jobs with private ones.

But this is simply not the case, for two simple reasons, which I plan to take up in a future article on Federal contracting:

  • Inefficiency. Outsourcing to private companies is often much more expensive than retaining work inhouse. Briefly, this is the result of:
    • Additional Overhead. Most large contracts are subcontracted, and even subcontracts are subcontracted. Each layer adds to the overhead cost of every dollar spent.
    • Inflexibility. Getting rid of bad Federal contractors can be as difficult as getting rid of a bad Federal employee.
    • Incompetence or dishonesty. Scrutiny of the background and expertise of companies hired by the government is much less exacting than that of potential employees. Too often, companies overstate their qualifications for a particular type of work, overstate costs, or both. Even when the private enterprise is at fault, the government agency loses time as work must be redone, and typically must shell out additional funds for the privilege.
    • Lack of continuity. When a company is newly hired to assume an existing task, it's far too easy for them to claim that the outgoing contractor had been "doing things wrong." Without continuity, Federal managers can face unmeasured duplication of costs merely because the new contractor has a different way of doing things. Sometimes a change is warranted, but too often it is not. This kind of waste can also occur when Federal managers change, but that happens far less frequently.
  • Conflict of interest. Private contractors are motivated by profit rather than by public service, and therefore should never be in charge of making policy or spending decisions that affect taxpayers. This is a clear conflict of interest situation, where the private company's goal is to make as much money as possible, and the Government's goal is to serve the public as best it can within its limited means.

Even if you don't see it the way we do on Mars, you will surely find it strange—and disturbing—that the Federal Government has absolutely no idea how many employees it has in the private sector.

If you walk through any Federal office today, you won't be able to tell which employees are contractors and which are on the Federal payroll. For all appearances, everyone there is a Federal employee. Yet they're not, and nobody keeps tabs on the ones who aren't, except to make sure they have the appropriate network accounts, desks, computers, and security badges. The Labor Department, which is responsible for collecting the Nation's employment data, has never included this information as part of its surveys.

Among other management consequences of this irresponsible lack of data is that it's impossible to know whether the Federal workforce is "right-sized" or not. It's also impossible to measure relative employment costs, or to compare productivity for the two groups.

And why do we not have these necessary data on private contractors?

First, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980—one of a series of misguided deregulation moves in the 1980s designed to get the Federal Government "off the backs" of private companies—made it extremely difficult for Federal agencies to add new questions to their existing surveys. And second, the lack of knowledge has been a mutually beneficial "wink" among cash-strapped Federal managers, cash-hungry private companies, and dishonest/ignorant legislators who want to claim they're cutting costs by keeping a lid on Federal employment.

Only in the last few years has the superiority of outsourcing public jobs been openly questioned, and that's been spurred mainly by concerns about the propriety and cost of contracting by the State and Defense Departments to support the War in Iraq. Yet all through the George W. Bush years, Federal agencies were under extreme pressure to "privatize" or "contract-out" any functions that weren't "inherently governmental in nature."

Inherently Governmental
More-or-less officially, an “inherently governmental function” is one that, as a matter of law and policy, must be performed by federal government employees and cannot be contracted out because it is “intimately related to the public interest.” This definition is quoted from a fairly comprehensive recent report (PDF, 822kb) on the term and its implications, published by the Congressional Research Service in February 2010.

Now, I know what "privatizing" means, ugly word though it may be. But no one—including those pushing hardest for it—can explain what an "inherently governmental" function is. If they were honest, such advocates would admit that any public function that becomes the object of lust by some industry group's lobbyists could not possibly be "inherently governmental," and therefore could be a candidate for privatizing or outsourcing.

To hear these people talk, the only "inherently governmental" jobs are those that make and administer budgets and contracts. That means no jobs for

  • Clerks
  • Scientists
  • Engineers
  • Computer specialists
  • Designers
  • Webmasters
  • Economists
  • Statisticians
  • Audio/Video specialists
  • Public affairs specialists
  • Writers
  • Editors
  • Security specialists
  • Meeting planners
  • Travel planners
  • Programmers
  • Systems designers
  • Accountants
  • Budget analysts
  • Etc.

This leaves jobs only for

  • Lawyers
  • Administrators
  • Managers
  • Budget officers
  • Contracting officers
  • Personnel officers
Myth of the Coddled Federal Worker

One final piece of the puzzle behind the recent calls for Federal downsizing, workforce attrition, and worker pay caps is the myth that Federal workers cost more than their private-sector counterparts, because of their great benefits. Legislators like Brady love to stick this one in their speeches because it's a guaranteed applause line, especially during great recessions.

Trouble is, it's not true.

I'm going to sidestep the whole debate about whether Federal salaries or higher or lower than comparable jobs in the private sector, because it's too complicated for a few paragraphs and perhaps even for an entire book. There are numerous problems with this analysis, including the difficulty of finding consistent data that tracks all the relevant variables —including worker age, education, experience, location, and job descriptions.

Federal Locality Pay

Under President George H.W. Bush, Congress passed legislation that granted Federal workers additional pay under a system of "locality adjustments." President Clinton more or less moth-balled the system, and then set one up that was a pale shadow of the original. Here's a link for more information on the topic.

Since the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) was mothballed in 1986, all new Federal workers have been in the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). FERS does offer a small pension, but it's nothing like the one CSRS retirees enjoy. In addition, FERS workers pay a much higher portion of their salaries for that pension than CSRS workers did.

Instead, a FERS retirement is heavily dependent on the Federal Thrift Plan, which is nothing more than a 401K program for Federal employees. (Federal workers don't have 401K plans.)

Federal employees have health care, sick leave, vacation leave, and other benefits that are comparable to those in any large U.S. company. I'll never forget moving from a Federal job at BEA to Citibank back in 1996, and finding that Citibank's benefits were superior to those I'd had in the government. Not only that, my pay was almost double, and I didn't have any onerous supervisory responsibilities. Citibank's pension system wasn't as generous as that from CSRS, but it was comparable to that of FERS.

Are Federal benefits better than those of your typical small company? Yes, very likely they are. And, given the vast difference between a Federal agency of 100,000 and your typical small company of 50, the difference is appropriate.

In any case, very few Federal contracts are awarded to your typical small company. At least, not directly. Any small companies that share in contract spending get work only through some "prime" contractor, not directly by some Federal manager.

CSRS was abolished not only to reduce the pay of Federal retirees, but also to add the Federal workforce to the Social Security pool. Under CSRS, Feds neither paid Social Security nor received its benefits on retirement. Under FERS, they do both in the same way that private sector workers do.

Another reason why Federal employees still have a decent package of benefits is that they are represented by a Labor Union, the National Federation of Federal Employees. If workers in U.S. companies get desperate enough, perhaps they'll recall that having a Union on your side is a good thing in the fight for decent pay and benefits. That's a lesson that's been lost over the years, especially since President Reagan started kicking Unions in the butt back in 1982.

However, just because workers don't have the pay, benefits, and pension they should have doesn't make it OK for them to demand cuts for those who do.

And politicians like Mr. Brady should know better.

    
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December 29th, 2010

Big Man in a Tiny Bubble Pops In To D.C.

Big Man in a Tiny Bubble Pops In To D.C.

He arrived from the tiny town of Butler, Pennsylviania, as part of the new freshman class of Angry Republican Congressmen. After all the feting and touring that greeted him in Washington, Mike Kelly was asked who had impressed him the most.

"Nobody," he said.

To be impressed by "nobody" must mean this guy is hugely impressed with himself, one would surmise. Well, yes and no:

"I hope I don't sound arrogant about this, but at 62 years old, I've pretty much seen what I need to see.”

Today's article in the Washington Post doesn't explore what exactly Mr. Kelly has seen in his 62 years, but from his attitude and statements, I would venture to guess it isn't much.

You see, Mike Kelly came to Washington because he is angry that the Federal Government "intruded" on the running of his General Motors car dealership, where he'd spent 56 years of creative energy. (I guess that means he'd been working on the business since he was 6. Just kidding.) 

And exactly how had it intruded? Why, it was making him sell Chevrolets instead of Cadillacs.

And exactly why was it ruining his business this way? Well, you see, Obama had (personally) taken over General Motors and was (personally) requiring dealerships to restructure as part of an effort to save the company.

"This is America. You can't come in and take my business away from me. . . . Every penny we have is wrapped up in here. I've got 110 people that rely on me every two weeks to be paid. . . . And you call me up and in five minutes try to wipe out 56 years of a business?”

This is a reasonable attitude if you believe that tiny, parochial self-interest should be the motivator of those elected to run a National Government. However, tiny attitudes from Big Men In Their Local Communities have no place in Congress. Indeed, those with tiny, uninformed beliefs who fail to see the big picture are precisely the ones inclined to take actions that will fail the interest of the public they're elected to serve.

They are also the most vulnerable to corruption, since if you believe that self-interest is the highest good, then you are likely to be impressed by visitors who flatter your ego and your opinions... and then offer to pay you huge sums to ensure your reelection or to sway your vote on an issue that serves your own interest.

A lot of Big Men in Tiny Bubbles like Mr. Kelly were frightened and outraged when the Obama administration offered to buy a 61% stake in General Motors in the summer of 2009. After all, wasn't this a "Government Takeover", or worse, a "Nationalization" of a private company?

If you were inclined to take a narrow view, it was. However, if you bothered to take the big view, it clearly was not. 

Obama was a reluctant participant in the process of saving General Motors, and his sin was that he insisted that the taxpayers have some control over the process. Rather than just handing $50 billion to a company that had proven itself incapable of turning a profit and had driven itself into bankruptcy, he stipulated that outside ("Government") experts have a say in how that money was used. The restructuring that resulted is what caused Mr. Kelly such pain in his private bubble.

As an article in The Economist—a business journal with no reputation for supporting Government intrusion into the workings of Capitalism—ended up apologizing to Obama for sharing the view that his action was a mistake:

August 19, 2010. Americans expect much from their president, but they do not think he should run car companies. Fortunately, Barack Obama agrees. This week the American government moved closer to getting rid of its stake in General Motors (GM) when the recently ex-bankrupt firm filed to offer its shares once more to the public (see article).

Once a symbol of American prosperity, GM collapsed into the government’s arms last summer. Years of poor management and grabby unions had left it in wretched shape. Efforts to reform came too late. When the recession hit, demand for cars plummeted. GM was on the verge of running out of cash when Uncle Sam intervened, throwing the firm a lifeline of $50 billion in exchange for 61% of its shares.

Many people thought this bail-out (and a smaller one involving Chrysler, an even sicker firm) unwise. Governments have historically been lousy stewards of industry. Lovers of free markets (including The Economist) feared that Mr Obama might use GM as a political tool: perhaps favouring the unions who donate to Democrats or forcing the firm to build smaller, greener cars than consumers want to buy. The label “Government Motors” quickly stuck, evoking images of clunky committee-built cars that burned banknotes instead of petrol—all run by what Sarah Palin might call the socialist-in-chief.

Yet the doomsayers were wrong. Unlike, say, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who used public funds to support Renault and Peugeot-Citroën on condition that they did not close factories in France, Mr Obama has been tough from the start. GM had to promise to slim down dramatically—cutting jobs, shuttering factories and shedding brands—to win its lifeline. The firm was forced to declare bankruptcy. Shareholders were wiped out. Top managers were swept aside. Unions did win some special favours: when Chrysler was divided among its creditors, for example, a union health fund did far better than secured bondholders whose claims should have been senior. Congress has put pressure on GM to build new models in America rather than Asia, and to keep open dealerships in certain electoral districts. But by and large Mr Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends. On the contrary, his goal has been to restore both firms to health and then get out as quickly as possible. GM is now profitable again and Chrysler, managed by Fiat, is making progress. Taxpayers might even turn a profit when GM is sold.

GM's payback to U.S. taxpayers has already begun, and as The Economist notes, the total repayment over time will likely exceed the original $50 billion investment.

Yet Mr. Kelly probably doesn't believe any of this. Why? Because he doesn't want to. It's not in his interest to do so. It's more convenient for him to believe it's all a lie.

After all, to change his mind would invalidate his reason for popping in to Washington. Given his arrogant attitude that he is the most impressive person in D.C., he is hardly the sort to question himself, let alone to burst the tiny bubble that brought him here.

    
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December 19th, 2010

Senate Exposes Gaping Hole in Conflict-of-Interest Law

Senate panel ban seen as double standard.

Just days after I opened an exploration of the way humans view conflict of interest, and how their personal self-interest makes understanding the way this topic is approached in different contexts, the Washington Post publishes a front-page article that exposes the kind of conundrum I'm planning to look into.

The Senate, you see, has no laws restricting the investments its members can make into companies whose fortunes their votes may affect. In particular, they may freely invest in companies that are major players in specific industries overseen by Senate committees. In the Post article, the industry is defense, and the committee typically has "inside knowledge" into the defense systems that will be built, and which companies will benefit from their votes.

This seems strange enough, but as the Post article points out, the Congress has passed laws that prohibit such investments by those appointed to run the agencies — such as Defense — that will let the contracts to carry out the Senate's decisions. Not only that, but such laws have long been on the books to regulate investment behavior by rank-and-file Federal employees.

    
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December 15th, 2010

To Act in My Own Interest, Or Not?
How Humans Deal With Conflicts of Interest (Part 1)

MINE: To Act In My Own Interest, Or Not?

For several years now, I've been troubled by how humans define the concept of "conflict of interest." My concern has grown as I've realized the importance humans seem to place on avoiding "it", or, at times, even the "appearance of it." The more thought I've given to the topic, the more confused I've become. My confusion stems from the observation that whether or not someone has a conflict of interest seems to depend on who is asking the question, what the context is, and whether or not the answer is in that person's own interest or not.  

Even more confusing is the paradox whereby humans believe that allowing a conflict of interest can be wrong in case A but right in case B. Again, the paradox may only be resolved if one assumes that the perspective of the believer is what determines the judgment of right or wrong.

Let me be a little more specific.

In most situations where humans raise the spectre that someone may have a "conflict of interest," the implicit notion is that having such a conflict is bad and should be avoided. Examples here are cases where a judge may issue a ruling that is in his own interest but not necessarily that of the conflicting parties. Or where a public official makes spending decisions that stand to benefit himself—or his friends, family, supporters, etc.—but not necessarily those who are supposed to benefit from the spending.

Most people I've talked to seem to think that this notion is obvious—that weighing such conflicts of interest in one's favor is wrong and should be avoided. As will become plain later in this essay, I certainly do not disagree with this notion.

On the other hand, either consciously or unconsciously, most humans in modern, West-European-modeled societies entertain notions of conflict of interest that, to my Martian mind, seem antithetical to the the one they espouse publicly. In this less-than-conscious notion, acting in one's own interest is something that society, instead of outlawing, should actually encourage, since acting in one's own interest is a natural human tendency that can't be legislated away. Not only that, but acting in one's own interest is viewed as ultimately the same as acting in everyone's interest.

This belief is the very basis of the dominant economic system of what are called "Western" societies. Capitalism would be far less effective, it is argued, if people were encouraged to consider anything other than their own interest in making personal choices, such as purchase and investment decisions.

In reading literature that explains the rise and rationale of Capitalism, texts keep returning to a writer called Adam Smith, whose 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, was particularly influential. Phrases from that book are frequently quoted to explain why the motive of self-interest is so beneficial to a strong Capitalist system. For example:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The most famous quote from Smith's book on this subject puts the notion of self-interest in a macro foundation he famously labeled "The Invisible Hand":

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Smith's promotion of self-interest as a core virtue in economic transactions became one of the central concepts of Capitalism. Unfortunately, the most influential modern spokesmen for Capitalism seize on self-interest as the rallying cry, neglecting various other central ideas Smith expounded in building his argument. Clearly, it is in the self-interest of the wealthiest and most powerful of a Capitalist society to argue that greed (which itself relies on blind self-interest) is a virtue (or, euphemistically, as a "necessary evil"), but it seems surprising that even humans of modest means agree with them. And none of those who subscribe to this argument perceive the central Martian concept that making the pursuit of one's personal interest the foundation of a society's culture is ultimately—and, apparently to most humans, unintuitively—counter to one's ultimate interests.

Again, though Smith is pilloried by many humans who oppose laisse-faire Capitalism, he is hardly the demon of self-centered greed that most of his ardent followers are today. In his first major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiment, which he “always considered ... a much superior work to his Weaith of Nations,” Smith explains that the pursuit of wealth and power is not a worthy goal in itself. Referring to the universal human desire for respect and acclaim by one's peers, Smith writes:

Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object: the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation: the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity; the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.

When Smith was formulating his philosophy in the late 18th Century, Christianity defined the dominant moral code in Western Europe—in both religious and political spheres of society—so his ideas naturally reflected that influence. And the idea at the core of Jesus Christ's teachings is that humans should reject self-interest and embrace an affection for one's neighbors and fellow planet dwellers as the highest virtue. At least in his writings, Smith states a contrary, more truly Christian view, which clearly counterbalances the promotion of self-interest in his overall life view:

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.

That the core teachings of Christianity run so contrary to human nature explains how so many humans can call themselves Christians while simultaneously worshiping at the altar of self-interest, working feverishly to accumulate personal wealth and power—seemingly to the exclusion of all other concerns. Many vocal leaders of the Christian churches provide an easy, self-interested rationale to justify this hypochrisy.  In particular, a recently deceased evangelist called Oral Roberts is often cited as the founder of televangelism, based on the notion that there is no moral conflict between the pursuit of wealth and a belief in the teachings of Christ. Roberts apparently based his misguided philosophy on this passage from the Bible's Third Epistle of John:

I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

Roberts wasn’t shy about sharing the story whereby as a struggling 29-year-old pastor, he read this passage, decided it meant that being rich was a worthy goal, and, as if to celebrate, bought himself a new Buick the following day.

How could any Christian take Oral Roberts seriously? On Mars, it's clear that a philosophy such as Roberts’ is nothing but a self-serving misdirection from the teachings of the religion's founding prophet. What I didn't understand until recently is that humans who choose to follow ministers like Roberts and his many emulators are simply not interested in being Christians, except in name. Such are delighted to realize that their religion spares them the agony of always keeping their self-interest in check.

This essay is the first of a series that will explore some specific cases where Western societies legislate to prevent "conflict of interest," and perhaps more interestingly, where they do not. The cases will be examined in the light of the way self-interest is perceived by individual humans, as well as by humans grouped into various, possibly overlapping, personal and business relationships. 

In reporting these ideas to my Martian peers, I am particularly interested in trying to sort out how humans rationalize the conflict between their own personal interests and the interests of broader layers of society. Is there a boundary that defines the point at which a human will give up pursuing his own self-interest and throw his lot in with the interest of a larger group? If so, there are probably different boundaries for the human clusters of increasing size that radiate outward to encompass the entire planet. 

Is there a point beyond which the majority of humans will not pass if it means abandoning their own interests? Or does everyone eventually perceive the point at which personal interests become irrelevant, and mutual interests merge?

Some humans reading this will undoubtedly argue that all of this is perfectly obvious, and such an exploration a waste of time and an unworthy intellectual pursuit. 

To those I say, please understand how we Martians think. On a fundamental level, Martian culture reflects some notions that are viewed as "naive" by humans who express their thoughts charitably, or as "sucker-bait," "gullible," or "dupable" by those who don't.

  • Before making any decision, from the personal level on up, Martians are expected to consider the decision's possible repercussions on fellow Martians and on the planetary resources on which they depend. The idea of having to make laws to enforce the runaway pursuit of one's self-interest is quite foreign.
  • Outside of the pursuit of pleasure, knowledge, and family harmony, the primary motivation of Martians is finding a life's work that suits one's personal gifts, and then working as hard as possible to make sure that the products of one's labor reflect the highest quality one can achieve. It is believed that in this way, one will naturally be rewarded by success and by enough wealth to ensure happiness.

Possible future sources of inquiry in this series include:

  • Consider a case where a private company is awarded a contract by a national government agency to help fulfill part of its basic mission. Clearly, the agency's interest is in fulfilling its mission as best it can within the constraints of its budget and its spectrum of resources. The agency's interest, however, is not the same as that of a private contractor, whose primary interest is in maximizing profit.
  • When lawmakers for the U.S. Congress make laws, whose interests are they serving? If their expensive campaign was financed by certain private groups, companies, or industry associations, isn't it in the lawmaker's interest to promote the interests of these financiers? If so, what impact does the interest of the broader mass of the legislator's voters make in decisionmaking? What if the lawmaker disagrees with the views of those who financed his campaign? And to what groups does the lawmaker refer when he inveighs against the "special interests"?
  • Suppose you're a Congressman who is asked to vote on a law that would reduce your income opportunities, while also restricting your access to fundraisers and lobbyists? If the majority of legislators were to make self-interest the guidepost of their decisionmaking, such a law would never be passed.
  • Is it appropriate for a profit-motivated company to be responsible for activities whose purpose is to promote the general welfare? This is a fairly common arrangement in the United States, as far as I can see, but it strikes me as a potentially disastrous conflict-of-interest situation. Obvious examples are private companies engaged in providing basic health care or education to the public.
  • What about the widespread situation where a monopoly company, or an oligopoly of companies, fulfills societies basic needs for infrastructure—such as electricity, inter-networking, water, and services distributed by radio waves? How about roads, bridges, airports, rail systems, and air travel? To what extent can these infrastructure requirements be compromised if fulfilled by companies motivated solely by profit?

That's it for now. More later.

    
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October 25th, 2010

Crystal Black Preview: A New Attempt To Put a Dark Skin on Snow Leopard

Like many themers for Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther"), I was awed by the beta releases of a theme called "Cathode" back in 2004. An artist named Dragun took the theme through a few iterations and then abruptly halted development.

Those of us who used ShapeShifter to run Cathode on our Macs understood why. Although Cathode was beautiful, in practice it was impractical. There were too many elements of too many applications that resisted a dark theme for buttons and window backgrounds.

For me, however—and I'm sure for many theming fans—the dream of using a beautiful black theme like Cathode was a siren call impossible to forget.  Over the years, the dream receded further from our grasp because of roadblocks Apple erected—intentionally or not—to the existing mechanisms of theming Mac OS X.

Starting with Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard") in 2007, the main tool for applying Mac themes, ShapeShifter, went bye-bye and has never returned. This is one of the main reasons I continued development of CrystalClear Interface, because it was the only way for me to apply a fully realized theme to Mac OS X.

Since Leopard, themers have been able to finesse the problem by changing the system graphics files that apply buttons, menubar background, basic window shape and color, and a few other items to your window appearance. Despite best efforts to unravel the secrets of the Mac's new ways of drawing itself, this mechanism isn't able to consistently change text color in the many contexts in which it appears in a window, thus making design and use of dark theme impractical.

As I'll describe in a future article, tackling the design of Crystal Black, a new theme inspired by Cathode, has been far from easy. And there remain user interface elements that totally resist its charms. But for me, those elements are few enough to make Crystal Black practical.

At this point, I'm confident that I'll be able to complete Crystal Black and release it at some point for all Mac users of Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). The theme is an offshoot of CrystalClear Interface (CCI) and uses much of the same code. However, Crystal Black is much simpler, has a smaller impact on the operating system, and is compatible with many more applications than CCI. Also unlike CCI, Crystal Black provides a complete theme for iTunes 10.

During early development of Crystal Black, I had intended it to be a feature of the next major release of CCI—and eventually it will be. In mid-September, though, I got the bright idea of forking Crystal Black as a separate application, mostly because I thought it would simplify its development and allow me to get it into user's hands more quickly.

Like all software development, it seems, the code cooperates only so far, and timelines end up stretching beyond intentions. That's been the case with Crystal Black, but I'm happy to say that not only is it nearing the end of its core development, but a lot of the Crystal Black code will be able to optimize CrystalClear Interface. It's kind of like what Jobs talked about in the recent keynote about Mac OS X and the development of the new Macbook Air: Things I've learned in developing Crystal Black will ultimately make CCI a better product as well.

As an aside to CCI users, I'm planning to put out a minor update soon that will incorporate the Crystal Black-enabled optimizations as well as address bugs and other changes made since the release  of version 2.5.6.3 in August.

This post, then, is simply a preview of Crystal Black, showing how it appears in various widely used Mac applications as well as in full desktops.  I hope you find it to be as gorgeous as I do!

CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-10, Leland Scott
    
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July 1st, 2010

White House Freezes IT Projects To Revisit Wasteful IT Contracting

White House, citing waste, freezes IT projects - Computerworld. Wow... this was certainly good news, especially given my rabid views on the subject, as often expressed on Mars in the past. Federal IT spending is grossly mismanaged and embarrassingly costly, driven as it is by decisions made by IT "Beltway Bandits" rather than by knowledgeable Federal managers. Virtually all of the IT contractors are in bed with Microsoft, so you find a strong monopoly of Microsoft solutions at Federal agencies. And yes, Microsoft products are the most expensive to maintain over time, and Office is ridiculously expensive and overkill as a tool for every desktop. Worst of all, IT contractors typically sell solutions that further lock Feds into the Microsoft ecosystem, thereby shutting out the feasibility of implementing less expensive solutions based on open standards. A good first step... Now let's see what becomes of it.
    
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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.
    
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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.
    
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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.
    
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February 2nd, 2010

Eight New Themes Coming in CrystalClear Interface 2.5

Besides the set of Crystal Document icons previewed recently, another feature of the forthcoming CrystalClear Interface 2.5 is a new set of eight beautiful preset themes, shown below. (Click the images for a closer look.) The themes are designed to complement the eight Frosted Crystals desktop pictures released with CCI 2.2. Of course, you can still set colors, frames, and transparency settings for Mac OS X windows to your own taste, as always. The preset themes are ones I've enjoyed and find a convenient shortcut to designing custom themes.

CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-10, Leland Scott
    
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January 22nd, 2010

Introducing Crystal Documents:
A Set of Document Icons for CrystalClear Interface

This is a set of 74 document icons intended to complement CrystalClear Interface and the set of Crystal Albook system and application icons I released a couple of years ago. The set covers most of the document types used by Apple's applications as well as a limited set of document types for third-party applications. The icon set for third-party apps will be augmented substantially as time permits.

These icons are available for download now, and they will be included in the forthcoming release of CrystalClear Interface 2.5 (more on that in another article). In CCI 2.5, you will be able to automatically install and uninstall the various icon sets displayed below, including any of the Crystal Docs icons for any of the third-party applications you use. The new icon install feature will be included in the new CCI Preferences window.

Enjoy!

Crystal Docs icon set: Standard Mac OS X Applications
Crystal Docs icon set: iLife Apps
Crystal Docs icon set: Standard Mac OS X Utilities and Core Services
Crystal Docs icon set: Mac OS X Developer Tools
Crystal Docs icon set: Apple's iWork Suite
Crystal Docs icon set: Third-Party Applications
Crystal Docs icon set for the Frosted Crystal desktop pictures
CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-10, Leland Scott
    
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August 14th, 2009

Introducing Frosted Crystals for CrystalClear Interface

These are snippets of the 9 "Frosted Crystal" desktop pictures that'll be distributed with CrystalClear Interface 2.2. The look of frosted glass looks terrific when viewed through CrystalClear windows! I hope you enjoy using them as much as I have.

CrystalClear Interface @ 2008-09, Leland Scott
    
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June 18th, 2009

A Gift for Self-Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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.

    
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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.
    
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February 21st, 2009

Taking a Snapshot of the Semantic Web:
Mighty Big, But Still Kinda Blurry

title text

It's still somewhat difficult to get a handle on exactly what is meant by the "Semantic Web," and whether today's technologies are truly able to realize the vision of Tim Berners-Lee, who first articulated it back in 1999. From what I've read, I think there's general agreement that we aren't even close to being "there" yet, but that many of the ongoing Semantic Web activities, technologies, development platforms, and new applications are a big leap beyond the unstructured web that still dominates today.

There is a huge, seemingly endless amount of work being done by thousands of groups all trying to contribute to making the Semantic Web a reality. In my few weeks of research, I still feel as though I've just stepped my toe into that vast lake of semantic experimentation. Partly as a result of the many disparate projects, however, it does become rather difficult to see the entire forest for all the tiny trees. That said, these thousands of groups do appear to be working more or less together on the basis of consensus-based open standards, and they have set up mechanisms to keep everyone abreast of new ideas, solutions, and projects, under the general leadership of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Semantic Web Activity. Semantic Web Stack As Envisioned by Berners-Lee As a starting point for exploration into this topic, the Wikipedia article that describes the Semantic Web Stack is quite good. Among its good overview and many useful links, the article includes the original conception of the Stack as designed by Berners-Lee. Besides cataloguing the sheer number of different projects all tackling different aspects of building a Semantic Web, it's important to distinguish ongoing projects from those that expired years ago—a distinction that's not always readily apparent to those peering in from the outside. Even excluding these, there are far too many projects to read up on in a few weeks, so this snapshot is necessarily incomplete. But after having the content reviewed by some Semantic Web experts, I'm confident it includes all the most significant threads of this new web, which, as Berners-Lee envisioned it:
I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.
In my tour of the Semantic Web as it exists today, it's interesting to note that most of the projects are geared not toward machine-to-machine interaction, but rather to the traditional human-to-machine. Humans being by nature anthropocentric, the first steps being taken toward Berners-Lee's vision are to build systems that are semantically neutral with respect to human-to-human communication. Once we can reliably discuss topics without drifting off into semantic misunderstandings, then perhaps we can start teaching machines "what we mean by" ... This paper is an attempt to assess the current state of today's steps, while compiling a list of resources that would prove useful to someone thinking about building a Semantic Web application in 2009. Challenges to Building Semantic Web Applications The process of applying concepts from the Semantic Web to build richer, more knowledge-oriented applications presents developers with several, somewhat challenging prerequisites:
  • Taxonomies for the content being published,
  • Ontologies for the content, based on the developed taxonomies,
  • Content tagged using the developed ontologies,
  • Database tools for storing and serving RDF and/or OWL ontologies,
  • Database tools for connecting ontologies with the content they describe,
  • Application server specializing in querying and formatting semantic content,
  • User interface tools to present semantic content in optimum, not necessarily traditional, ways.
Ontology standards One of the base specifications for ontologies, RDF (Resource Description Framework), is a well established standard based on XML and URIs. that is the basis for all the news feeds and podcasts one can subscribe to today. DAML (DARPA Advanced Markup Language) is one of the early ontology standards built as an extension to XML and RDF. Still widely used, DAML is also the precursor to OWL. OWL (Web Ontology Language) is a sophisticated framework built on top of RDF and is perhaps the most well known and most adopted of such ontology languages. OWL is the standard adopted by the W3C (the official standards body for web specifications). At the moment, there are several different flavors of OWL, which makes adopting OWL more challenging than using RDF.
Each of these requirements present a fairly steep learning curve to developers who have not previously worked with the technologies to build Semantic Web applications. Solutions for aiding with some of the requirements exist, but it's not clear how effective they are at this stage. For example, I have listed some tools that assist in extracting semantics from unstructured documents, and others that do something similar with content stored in relational databases. On the other hand, the process of tagging unstructured content appears to have no good automated solutions. The process of building an ontology can be quite time-consuming, unless there happens to be an existing ontology you can reuse. There are several extensive online libraries of ontologies that can help. One fly in this bibliographical ointment, however, is the difficulty one may face in choosing among different, perhaps conflicting, ontologies on the same topic. It's important to emphasize that one of the first steps in building an ontology is to build a taxonomy. Although ontologies are not taxonomies, they use taxonomies as their jumping-off point. Therefore, one has to be ready and able to build a taxonomy for a subject before one can build an ontology. Many of the tools and projects included here are designed to assist with building and browsing a web of Linked Data, rather than true semantic data. Some of the demo browsers for linked data don't strike me as being particularly relevant to most end-user requirements for knowledge management. However, linked data is quite useful in integrating content from across the web, and projects built around it typically make heavy use of RDF, SPARQL, and other related specifications. Websites that make use of linked data represent the vanguard of the application of Semantic Web concepts, and their number appears to be exploding at the moment. Well-known examples of the use of linked data are websites built as "mashups," such as Google Maps. Use of Microformats and RDF Triples is also a typical component of websites that expose their content as linked data. More powerful tools exist in the form of integrated application server suites, such as the OpenLink Virtuoso server, Cyc Knowledge Server, and Intelligent Topic Manager. The first two have open source versions that can be used by developers to "dip their feet" into the task of building a Semantic Web applications using sample data. Of the two, I was most impressed with the breadth of tools in the OpenLink project, as well as with the range and vibrancy of the Virtuoso developer community. Virtuoso also comes with a rich set of user interface "widgets" that can be of great assistance in presenting semantic information appropriately. A Possible Approach To sum up, the landscape of the Semantic Web is still quite fuzzy and volatile, with many mountains of activity building up rapidly and eroding with nearly equal speed. Which landforms will remain once the evolution is complete is impossible to say here in 2008. However, the landscape is exciting to watch and flush with tantalizing experiments that will undoubtedly inspire more experimentation in the years ahead. Obviously, given all of the preceding caveats, the decision to engage in a Semantic Web experiment cannot be made lightly. One must have a clear idea of the knowledge management/presentation problem that such an experiment is designed to solve, and an understanding of the resources that will need to be devoted to the project. Although the maturity of tools, standards, and processes for such a project is quite young, it would definitely be in the interests of an organization with suitable candidate data and sufficient resources (including time) to begin an experiment of its own as a learning exercise.
What is an ontology? An ontology is a systematic description of concepts, in detail and thoroughness such that a machine encountering the concept could "understand" it. In this aspect, ontology development is closely related to research into artificial intelligence. In the past, humans have relied on complex taxonomies to describe the way abstract ideas and concrete individuals relate to one another. Ontologies differ from taxonomies in the complexity and thoroughness of describing the relationships between the elements of a taxonomy. A typical taxonomy is a tree structure that arrays terms as categories and subcategories. However, no subcategory has any notion of its relationship to its siblings, nor to any other categories elsewhere in the tree. An ontology can describe these relationships, thereby enriching one's understanding of what a given category means. Further, each category (or "concept", or "class") in the tree can have its own distinct properties. Properties describe the relationships between and among individuals in the ontology. Individuals are the specific instances of each class that the ontology needs to be able to describe. Properties are characteristics of a class that help distinguish one group of individuals from another. For example, if we have a class "job" in our ontology, with a subclass "administrative" and a further subclass "computer specialist," we could distinguish all the individuals who are computer specialists by defining the job's characteristics (properties). A computer specialist "writes software programs," "performs desktop support," "manages databases," "builds web applications," and so on. With an ontology, we could very richly define a group of individuals using such properties. This is a simplistic overview of properties… OWL provides a vast array of ways to describe properties and of the types of properties one can describe.
I would advise against a major expenditure for such an experiment, however. As noted, given the state of the technology, it strikes me as being unwise to invest a large sum in any commercial product to use as an application platform. Most of the tools that exist for building Semantic Web applications have open source licenses, so it makes sense to restrict experimentation to such tools for now. The data store chosen for such an experiment should ideally be one that currently suffers from being both fragmented and unstructured, existing in incompatible file formats and stored in different locations within the organization's Intranet—all factors that make it difficult for users to locate specific information. Given the uncertainties surrounding such an experiment, the data store chosen should also be one that is not so volatile that time pressures can cause discontinuities in content over the course of the project. Whoever undertakes such a Semantic Web experiment needs to be prepared to conclude that the effort required to bring their experiment to fruition is too great to justify the added value. Even if this were to prove true in 2009, I'm confident that the impressive swirl of activity taking place now will coalesce into truly usable techniques and tools within a few years. The standards on which the Semantic Web will be built are still evolving, but they are much more mature than the methods developers have built to turn those standards into working applications. Therefore, having gotten one's feet wet in the state of things this year will undoubtedly provide a solid foundation for building Semantic Web applications in coming years. The bulk of this report consists of a compilation of resources on various aspects of the Semantic Web and developing Semantic Web applications. The resources are divided into the following categories:
Ontology Development Tools
Protege
  • Comes in two "flavors": Version 3.4 handles both OWL and RDF ontologies, while 4.0 is geared toward the latest OWL standards only.
  • Impressive software for creating OWL ontologies.
  • User interface is well organized, given the complexity of the objects and properties you're dealing with. The interface also must handle multiple views of the information, and it does so quite well.
  • Numerous plugins for Protege make specific task work easier. There are many more plugins for Protege 3.4 than for 4.0 at this time.
  • One plugin enables database connections, with which you can import entire databases or tables, including their contents. Tables typically become OWL objects, and columns become object properties. Impressively, this tool also creates a complete form with which you can enter new instance information. Each form field can also be customized after creation.
  • Protege can also export ontologies to "OWL Document" format, which is a browsable HTML representation of the ontology.
  • Stanford is developing a web-based version of Protege. The beta URL is at Web Protege.
Protege Plug-Ins
  • OntoLT. The OntoLT approach aims at a more direct connection between ontology engineering and linguistic analysis. Used with Protege, OntoLT can automatically extract concepts (Protégé classes) and relations (Protégé slots) from linguistically annotated text collections. It provides mapping rules, defined by use of a precondition language that allow for a mapping between linguistic entities in text and class/slot candidates in Protégé. (This plug-in is only available for Protege 3.2.)
  • There are a wide array of plug-ins for Protege 3.2, and a much smaller set for 4.0. This page from the "old" Protege wiki has good links to the full library of Protege plug-ins.
Ontowiki
  • Ontowiki is a tool providing support for agile, distributed knowledge engineering scenarios. It facilitates the visual presentation of a knowledge base as an information map, with different views on instance data. It enables intuitive authoring of semantic content, with an inline editing mode for editing RDF content, similar to WYSIWIG for text documents. Ontowiki is built on the Powl platform. I have downloaded and installed an instance of Ontowiki on my home computer; the installation and configuration was quite simple.
Application Development Tools
The list in this section is just a small subset of the tools now available for building Semantic Web applications. There are several complete, continuously updated lists on the web, including those at SemWebCentral and the Semantic Web Company. Developer Resources
  • SemWebCentral is an Open Source development web site for the Semantic Web. It was established in January, 2004 to support the Semantic Web community by providing a free, centralized place for Open Source developers to manage Semantic Web software and content development. Another purpose is to provide resources for developers or other interested parties to learn about the Semantic Web and how to begin developing Semantic Web content and software. SemWebCentral has the following major portals:
  • Web Tools by category, a list of 148 projects organized by topic and a wide variety of other attributes.
  • Code snippets, an archive of code snippets, scripts, and functions developers have shared with the open source software community.
  • Learn About the Semantic Web, a collection of overviews, tutorials, and papers covering Semantic Web topics.
  • Programming With RDF is part of the RDF Schemas website. It has links to repositories of programmer resources by programming language, showing the kind of documentation, code, and tutorials covered by the repository.
  • Semantic Web Tools is a comprehensive list of over 700 developer tools now available for semantic-web-related projects. There are several such lists on the web, but this one is particularly good since it breaks the list down by category and language, making it much easier to narrow down the list you're interested in. This site is hosted by the Semantic Web Company.
  • Developers Guide to Semantic Web Toolkits collects links to Semantic Web toolkits for different programming languages and gives an overview about the features of each toolkit, the strength of the development effort and the toolkit's user community.
Frameworks Sesame
    • Extensions and Plugins
    • Rio, a set of parsers and writers for RDF that has been designed with speed and standards-compliance as the main concerns. Currently it supports reading and writing of RDF/XML and N-Triples, and writing of N3. Rio is part of Sesame, but can also be downloaded and used separately.
    • Elmo is a toolkit for developing Semantic Web applications using Sesame. Elmo wraps Sesame, providing a dedicated API for a number of well known web ontologies including Dublin Core, RSS and FOAF. The dedicated API makes it easier to work with RDF data for the supported ontologies. Elmo also offers a set of tools related to the supported ontologies, including an RDF crawler, a FOAF smusher and a FOAF validator.
  • Sesame is an open source Java framework for storing, querying and reasoning with RDF and RDF Schema. It can be used as a database for RDF and RDF Schema, or as a Java library for applications that need to work with RDF internally. Sesame is extremely flexible in how it's used and can work with a variety of data stores, including relational databases and native RDF files. It can be deployed as a server, or as a library incorporated into another application framework. For example, Sesame can be used simply to read a big RDF file, find the relevant information for an application, and use that information. Sesame provides the necessary tools to parse, interpret, query and store all this information, embedded in another application or, if appropriate, in a seperate database or even on a remote server. More generally, Sesame provides application developers a toolbox that contains all the necessary tools for building applications with RDF. Commercial support for Sesame is available from Aduna Software.

    Sesame also has a large ecosystem of addons and related toolsets. The following are the main links to these.

Jess
    Jess is a rule engine and scripting environment written entirely in Sun's Java language by Ernest Friedman-Hill at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, CA. Using Jess, you can build Java software that has the capacity to "reason" using knowledge you supply in the form of declarative rules. Jess is small, light, and one of the fastest rule engines available. Its powerful scripting language gives you access to all of Java's APIs. Jess includes a full-featured development environment based on the award-winning Eclipse platform.

    A Jess Plugin for Protege is available, integrating Jess development with your ontology.

Jena
    • ARQ, which is a query engine for Jena. ARQ supports multiple query languages (SPARQL, RDQL, and ARQ, the engine's own language), and besides Jena it can be used with general purpose engines and remote access engines. ARQ can also rewrite queries to SQL.
    • Joseki, an HTTP server-based system that support SPARQL queries. Joseki features a WebAPI for the remote query and update of RDF models, including both a client component and an RDF server. The Joseki server can run embedded in an application, as a standalone program, or as a web application inside a suitable application server (such as Tomcat). It provides the operations of query and update on models it hosts.
  • Jena is a Java framework for building Semantic Web applications. It provides a programmatic environment for RDF, RDFS and OWL, SPARQL and includes a rule-based inference engine. Jena is open source and grown out of work with the HP Labs Semantic Web Programme. Important tools related to the Jena framework include:
The Owl API
    • RDF/XML parser and writer
    • OWL/XML parser and writer
    • OWL Functional Syntax parser and writer
    • Turtle parser and writer
    • KRSS parser
    • OBO Flat file format parser
    • Support for integration with reasoners such as Pellet and FaCT++
  • The OWL API is an open-source Java interface and implementation for OWL, focused towards OWL 2 which encompasses OWL-Lite, OWL-DL and some elements of OWL-Full. The OWL API was used to build Protege 4.0 and was developed by Co-Ode, the company that works with Stanford University on the Protege project. It encompasses tool for the following tasks:
Powl
    Powl is a web-based platform for building applications designed to support collaborative building and managing of ontologies. It supports many of the features of mature tools like Protege, but for web applications that can be used for team development of ontologies. Powl is an open source project that uses PHP and various RDBMS systems on the back-end. Ontowiki is an example of a collaborative application built using Powl.
Visualization and Query Tools Jambalaya OntoVista
    The University of Georgia, as described in the next section of Semantic Applications, has built a large number of interesting semantic software. OntoVista is a particularly useful ontology visualization, navigation, and query tool based on Jambalaya. OntoVista is adaptable to the needs of different domains, especially in the life sciences. The tool provides a semantically enhanced graph display that gives users a more intuitive way of interpreting nodes and their relationships. Additionally, OntoVista provides comfortable interfaces for searching, semantic edge filtering and quick-browsing of ontologies.
SWRL (Semantic Web Rule Language)
    SWRL is intended to be the rule language of the Semantic Web and is based on OWL. It allows users to write rules to reason about OWL instances and to infer new knowledge about those instances.
Pellet
    Pellet is an open source, OWL DL reasoner in Java that is developed, and commercially supported, by Clark & Parsia LLC. Pellet provides standard and cutting-edge reasoning services. It also incorporates various optimization techniques described in the DL literature and contains several novel optimizations for nominals, conjunctive query answering, and incremental reasoning.

    Pronto is an extension of Pellet that enables probabilistic knowledge representation and reasoning in OWL ontologies. Pronto is distributed as a Java library equipped with a command line tool for demonstrating its basic capabilities. It is currently in development stage—more robust and mature than a mere prototype, but less mature than a production-level system like Pellet.

    Pronto offers core OWL reasoning services for knowledge bases containing uncertain knowledge; that is, it processes statements like “Bird is a subclass-of Flying Object with probability greater than 90%” or “Tweety is-a Flying Object with probability less than 5%”. The use cases for Pronto include ontology and data alignment, as well as reasoning about uncertain domain knowledge generally; for example, risk factors associated with medical conditions like breast cancer.

OWL Ontology Validator
  • This online tool, developed as part of the WonderWeb Project, attempts to validate an ontology against the different "species" of OWL. Any constructs found which relate to a particular species will be reported. In addition, if requested, the validator will return a description of the classes, properties and individuals in the ontology in terms of the OWL Abstract Syntax.
Seamark Navigator
    Seamark Navigator is part of the commercial Information Access Platform from Siderean. Navigator is the relational navigation server component,which discovers and indexes content, pre-calculates relationships and suggests paths for data exploration. Its primary architectural components include a metadata aggregator, a scalable RDF store, and a relational navigation engine, all within an industry-standard Web services interface.
Unstructured Content Mining Tools Calais
  • The Calais Web Service automatically creates rich semantic metadata for the content you submit – in well under a second. Using natural language processing, machine learning and other methods, Calais analyzes your document and finds the entities within it. Calais goes beyond classic entity identification and returns facts and events hidden within your text as well.
Cortex Competitiva Platform
  • Cortex Competitiva employs collectively both state-of-the-art text mining technologies and consolidated techniques in data mining. The main modules of the platform are Information Collection, Information Organization and Collaboration, and Information Use Analysis.
IdentiFinder Text Suite
    IdentiFinder Text Suite, a product of BBN Technologies, lets users quickly sift through documents, web pages, and email to discover relevant information. It helps solve the classic problems of text mining: First, how to identify significant documents and then, how to locate the most important information within them.
DL-Learner
    DL-Learner is a tool from AKSW for learning concepts in Description Logics (DLs) from user-provided examples. Equivalently, it can be used to learn classes in OWL ontologies from selected objects. The goal of DL-Learner is to construc knowledge about existing data sets. With DL-Learner, users provide positive and negative examples from a knowledge base for a not yet defined concept. The goal of DL-Learner is to derive a concept definition so that when the definition is added to the background knowledge all positive examples follow and none of the negative examples follow. See also the Wikipedia entry for ILP (Inductive Logic Programming). What DL-Learner considers is the the ILP problem applied to Descriptions Logics / OWL.
Transformation Tools GRDDL
    GRDDL is a mechanism for Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages. It is a technique for obtaining RDF data from XML documents and in particular XHTML pages. GRDDL provides an inexpensive set of mechanisms for bootstrapping RDF content from XML and XHTML. GRDDL does this by shifting the burden of formulating RDF away from the author to transformation algorithms written specifically for XML dialects such as XHTML. A repository of transformations is available.
RDFizers
    The Simile project has developed a large number of "RDFizers," which convert various file formats into RDF. This page also contains links to the many RDFizers developed by other organizations to handle even more document types.
Database Tools
Query Languages and Tools SPARQL Query Language for RDF
    SPARQL is a w3c specification for querying RDF repositories. It can be used to express queries for native RDF files or for RDF generated from stored ontologies via middleware. he results of SPARQL queries can be results sets or RDF graphs.
Owlgres
    Owlgres is an open source, scalable reasoner for OWL2. Owlgres combines Description Logic reasoning with the data management and performance properties of an RDBMS. Owlgres is intended to be deployed with the open source PostgreSQL database server. Owlgres’s primary service is conjunctive query answering, using SPARQL-DL.
D2RQ
    D2RQ is a declarative language to describe mappings between relational database schema and OWL/RDF ontologies. The D2RQ platform uses these mapping to enables applications to access RDF views on a non-RDF database through the Jena and Sesame APIs, as well as over the Web via the SPARQL Protocol and as Linked Data.
Conversion/Transformation Tools OntoSynt
    OntoSynt provides automatic support for extracting from a relational database schema its conceptual view. That is, it extracts semantics "hidden" in the relational sources by wrapping them by means of an ontology. The approach is specifically tailored for semantic information access, enabling queries over an ontology to be answered by using the data residing in its relational sources. Its web interface accepts an XML representation of an RDBMS schema, which can be generated using a tool like SQL Fairy.
Relational.OWL
    Relational.OWL is an open source application that automatically extracts the semantics of virtually any relational database and transforms this information automatically into RDF/OWL ontologies that can be processed by Semantic Web applications.
Triplify SQL Fairy
    SQL Fairy is a group of Perl modules that manipulate structured data definitions (mostly database schemas) in interesting ways, such as converting among different dialects of CREATE syntax (e.g., MySQL-to-Oracle), visualizations of schemas, automatic code generation, converting non-RDBMS files to SQL schemas (xSV text files, Excel spreadsheets), serializing parsed schemas (e.g., via XML), creating documentation (e.g., HTML), and more.
Application Servers
OpenLink Virtuoso Universal Server
  • Virtuoso, developed by OpenLink Software, is a complex product that appears to be a total solution for hosting Semantic Web applications, among other uses. In the company's words, from a recent release: "Virtuoso enables end users, systems architects, systems integrators, and developers to interact with data at the conceptual as opposed to the traditional logical level. Data about customers, suppliers, invoices, and orders, stored in existing ODBC- or JDBC-accessible database systems such as Oracle, Informix, Ingres, SQL Server, Sybase, Progress, and MySQL, can be presented in RDF form for use in Semantic Web applications."
  • Virtuoso is also available in an Open Source Edition, a very active project that includes a large number of modules for use with various content management systems. The main difference between the open source and commercial editions of Virtuoso is the Virtual Database Engine, which essentially enables an application to incorporate multiple data servers in its queries.

    Also available as open source from OpenLink is its OpenLink Ajax Toolkit (OAT), which comes with a wide range of user interface and data widgets, as well as complete applications for building data queries, designing databases, and designing web forms. The OpenLink Data Explorer is one of these standalone OAT applications. Widgets that are part of OAT include:

    The standalone applications running on the Open-Source Edition all incorporate widgets from the OAT to create quite robust, desktop-application-like tools (the username/password for all of these is demo/demo):
  • OpenLink also provides OpenLink Data Spaces (ODS), which run on the Virtuoso server, either the commercial or open-source editions. ODS enables developers to create a presence in the Semantic Web via Data Spaces derived from Weblogs, Wikis, Feed Aggregators, Photo Galleries, Shared Bookmarks, Discussion Forums and more. Data Spaces thus provide a foundation for the creation, processing and dissemination of knowledge for the emerging Semantic Web. ODS is pre-installed as part of the demonstration database bundled with the Virtuoso Open-Source Edition. Existing ODS modules include:
Cyc Knowledge Server Intelligent Topic Manager
  • Intelligent Topic Manager (ITM) is a commercial semantic software platform that enables a wide range of applications in enterprise information systems. ITM is designed to help organizations leverage, organize and model content and knowledge, to manage business reference models and taxonomies, to categorize and classify content, and to empower search. The platform consists of the following components and functionalities:
Oracle Semantic Technologies
  • Oracle Spacial 11g is an open, scalable RDF management platform. Based on a graph data model, RDF triples are persisted, indexed and queried, similar to other object-relational data types. Application developers can use the Oracle server to design and develop a wide range of semantic-enhanced business applications.
Asio Tool Suite Available from BBN, the Asio Tool Suite is focused primarily on building Semantic Web applications by integrating an enterprise's existing databases and systems without the need for complete reengineering. Designed to address the volume, variety, and exponential increase in enterprise data, the Asio Tool Suite supports information discovery via Semantic Web standards and provides for data accessibility via queries posed in a user’s own ontology. The suite further enables integration of systems by building bridges in semantic meaning from one system to another. The suite consists of the following components: Parliament
    Asio Parliament, released as open source, implements a high-performance storage engine that is compatible with the RDF and OWL standards. However, it is not a complete data management system. Parliament is typically paired with a query processor, such as Sesame or Jena, to implement a complete data management solution that incorporates SPARQL standards. In addition, Parliament includes a high-performance SWRL-compliant rule engine, which serves as an efficient inference engine. An inference engine examines a directed graph of data and adds data to it based on a set of inference rules. This enables Parliament to fill in gaps in the data automatically and transparently, inferring additional facts and relationships in the data to enrich query results.
Cartographer
    Asio Cartographer is a graphical ontology mapper based on SWRL. It utilizes the core functionality of BBN's Snoggle open-source mapping tool to assist in aligning OWL ontologies. It lets users visualize ontologies and then draw mappings between them on an intuitive graphical canvas. Cartographer then transforms those maps into SWRL/RDF or SWRL/XML for use in a knowledge base.
Scout
    Asio Scout provides semantic bridges to relational databases and web services that let an organization keep their existing systems in place for as long as necessary to, for example, support ongoing operations. Scout's semantic bridges act like any passive data consumer, but unlike other counterparts, their functionality— in concert with Asio Semantic Query Distribution's high-level perspective—enables consolidated knowledge discovery that wasn't previously conceivable. Scout can be used for web portals, standalone desktop applications, or web-enabled applications.
Semantic Application Demos
Browsers and Search Portals
  • Disco - Hyperdata Browser is a simple browser for navigating the Semantic Web as an unbound set of data sources. The browser renders in HTML all information that it can find on the Semantic Web about a specific resource. This resource description contains hyperlinks that allow you to navigate between resources. While you move from one resource to another, the browser dynamically retrieves information by dereferencing HTTP URIs and by following rdfs:seeAlso links.
  • Umbel Subject Concepts Explorer is a lightweight ontology structure for relating Web content and data to a standard set of subject concepts. Its purpose is to provide a fixed set of reference points in a global knowledge space. These subject concepts have defined relationships between them, and can act as binding or attachment points for any Web content or data.
  • Openlink Data Explorer is one product developed from the open-source version of the Virtuoso Universal Server product. This is the platform used by the DBPedia project, including the demos on the DBPedia page. The demo below shows the XHTML view option of a Data Viewer ontology query.
  • Zitgist DataViewer lets users browse linked data on the web, starting from an RDF or OWL ontology URL.
  • The Sindice Semantic Web Index monitors, harvests existing web data published as RDF and Microformats and makes them available under a coherent umbrella of functionalities and services. Its index of data is presented as a search portal much like Google. Sindice is created at DERI, the world’s largest institute for Semantic Web research. It is based on DERI’s unique cluster technology which indexes and operates over terascale semantic data sets (trillions of statements) while also providing very high query throughputs per cluster size. Leveraging unique cluster technologies, Sindice performs sophisticated reasoning which dramatically enhances data reusability, search precision, and recall. It obtains data by focused crawling methods which detects and focuses on metadata rich internet sources.
  • The RKB Explorer is an application built using awards data from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It has used this data to build ontologies around NSF grants, and users can search and browse the data through the Explorer. All URIs on this domain are resolvable, and search results deliver HTML or RDF, depending on the content. The browse interface provides viewing and navigating using RDF triples, and the query interface provides access using SPARQL. I discovered this useful application through a search on "NSF funding" using Sindice.
  • Marbles Linked Data Browser is a server-side application that formats Semantic Web content for XHTML clients using Fresnel lenses and formats. Colored dots are used to correlate the origin of displayed data with a list of data sources, hence the name. Marbles provides display and database capabilities for DBpedia Mobile.
  • The Cyc Foundation Concept Browser lets users search and browse the content of the OpenCyc knowledge base.
  • Brownsauce is a Semantic Web browser that lets users browse RDF files on the web. It runs as a local Java client and has a built-in Jetty web server. Brownsauce uses the Jena Semantic Web framework.
Ontology Viewers and Query Tools
  • DBpedia is a community effort to extract structured information from Wikipedia and to make this information available on the Web. DBpedia allows you to ask sophisticated queries against Wikipedia and to link other datasets on the Web to Wikipedia data. DBpedia is one of the projects developed/sponsored by AKSW. A wide variety of articles and publications about DBpedia have been published (see the Resources section of this report).
  • jSpace is a WebStart java application that demonstrates how one might search and query a given ontological database. There are several example database available to download for use with jSpace. jSpace's development was apparently inspired by mSpace. (mSpace was an innovative, but now defunct, project that attempted to merge the power of Google with the powerful interface of iTunes. Although the mSpace demo of a classical music explorer is not accessible now, it's well worth checking out the video demos of it.)
  • Owlsight is an innovative web application that uses the Google Web Toolkit and the Est JavaScript library to let users navigate OWL ontologies, browsing the relationships between classes, properties, and instances. Owlsight uses the Pellet ontoloty reasoner.
  • OpenCyc for the Semantic Web is both a project and an OWL ontology browser. Using this tool, users can access the entire OpenCyc content as downloadable OWL ontologies as well as via Semantic Web endpoints (i.e., permanent URIs). These URIs return RDF representations of each Cyc concept as well as a human-readable version when accessed via a Web Browser.
Knowledge/Content Management
  • The KiWi wiki project proposes a new approach to knowledge management that combines the wiki philosophy with the intelligence and methods of the Semantic Web. (KiWi stands for "Knowledge in a Wiki.")
  • DeepaMehta is a software platform for knowledge management. Knowledge is represented in a semantic network and is handled collaboratively. The DeepaMehta user interface is completely based on Mind Maps / Concept Maps. Instead of handling information through applications, windows and files, with DeepaMehta the user handles all kind of information directly and individually.
  • Semantic MediaWiki and SMW+are extensions to the MediaWiki platform, described elsewhere in this report.
Application Repositories
  • MIT's Simile project has been extremely creative and productive in applying concepts of linked data, RDF, and the Semantic Web generally to demonstration applications, all available as open source. (Simile is an acronym for "Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments".) Some of its projects are included elsewhere in this report, but here is a list of some others relevant to the Semantic Web:
    • Longwell, a server application that applies concepts of faceted browsing with visualizing RDF stores.
    • PiggyBank is a Firefox add-on that enables users to develop "mashups" of web data by using "screen scrapers." The software also allows users to tag information found and embed RDF into their content.
    • RDFizers, described elsewhere in this report.
    • Referee, a server application that creates browsable RDF files from web server logs.
    • Welkin, an RDF visualizer built as a client-side java application. (Note: I couldn't get it to run on my Mac, even though MIT makes a Mac OS X disk image available.)
    • Fresnel, a vocabulary for displaying RDF.
    • Banach, a collection of operators that work on RDF graphs to infer, extend, emerge or otherwise transform a graph into another.
    • Data Collecton, a project that aims to develop a collection of RDF data sets that are generally useful for the metadata research and tools community.
  • DERI (Digital Enterprise Research Institute) International is the collection of bi-lateral agreements between like minded institutes working on the Semantic Web and Web Science. Its mission is to exploit semantics for people, organizations, and systems to collaborate and interoperate on a global scale. DERI conducts and funds research in Semantic Web technologies, conducts projects that have led to numerous prototype applications, and develops ontologies. The following are a few interesting links from DERI's Irish branch in Galway:
    • Research Clusters covering such topics as eLearning, Semantic Reality, Semantic Web Services, Industrial and Scientific Applications of Semantic Web Services, and Social Software. Each cluster has its own website and projects.
    • Research Projects, a lengthy list of ongoing projects.
    • Tools, a lengthy list of software tools available for download, typically from SourceForge.
  • University of Georgia's Large Scale Distributed Information Systems has a wide array of semantic applications available. The online repository has descriptions, downloads, and online demos. The applications cover such functions as visualization, ontology queries, ontology browsing, web services, and more.
  • 10 Semantic Apps To Watch From the ReadWriteWeb site, this is an intriguing list of new semantic-web-related applications that are now available out there. The article gives first explains what they mean by a "Semantic Application," and then briefly describes each application's innovative use of this new technology. The ten applications listed are:
  • It's also interesting to read the comments at the end of this article, many of which are from readers pointing out other semantic applications they have discovered.
Semantic Website Enhancements
Semantic Web Crawling: A Sitemap Extension
    This specification allows website managers to provide an RDF sitemap which would be visible to users browsing the Semantic Web.
Triplify
    Triplify is an open-source, light-weight add-on to web applications that can read the content of the application's relational database(s) and expose their inherent semantics. According to the Triplify website, for a typical Web application a configuration for Triplify can be created in less than an hour. Triplify is based on the definition of relational database queries for a specific Web application in order to retrieve valuable information and to convert the results of these queries into RDF, JSON and Linked Data. A "triplified" web application can then provide its data to other applications on the web, enabling use of its information in "mashups."

    The Triplify project already has configurations for a variety of widely used content management systems, such as OpenConf, WordPress, Drupal, Joomla!, osCommerce, and phpBB. (The page that has links to these configurations also has a great list of other Semantic Web resources.) Triplify is one of the applications developed by AKSW. (I plan to download Triplify and integrate it in an instance of WordPress on my home computer.)

Microformats
    Microformats are orthogonally related to the Semantic Web through their use of RDF-like attributes in CSS Class elements. Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards. They are highly correlated with semantic XHTML, sometimes referred to a "real world semantics", or "lossless XHTML." Microformats are designed to enable more/better structured blogging and web publishing. The Microformats site provides an array of code and tools for use in producing markup in microformats.
RDFa in HTML
    RDFa in HTML is a proposed W3C specification that enables markup of RDF-like syntax into XHTML content. RDFa in XHTML provides a set of XHTML attributes to augment human-readable contenta with machine-readable hints. It enables the expression of simple and more complex datasets using RDFa, and in particular turns the existing human-visible text and links into machine-readable data without repeating content. The goals and approach of this specification are similar to that of Microformats, but it extends XHTML by use of and RDF-like syntax rather than using CSS classes.
Exhibit
    Exhibit is a three-tier web application framework written in Javascript, which you can use with various kinds of data files, including JSON and RDF, to produce knowledge-enhancing "mashups" like Google Maps. Exhibit creates interactive user interfaces displaying record data sets on maps, timelines, scatter plots, interactive tables, etc. Exhibit is one of the projects in knowledge management developed by MIT, partly with NSF funding.
Semantic MediaWiki
    Semantic MediaWiki (SMW) is a free extension of MediaWiki – the wiki system powering Wikipedia – that helps to search, organise, tag, browse, evaluate, and share the wiki's content. While traditional wikis contain only texts that computers can neither understand nor evaluate, SMW adds semantic annotations that bring the power of the Semantic Web to the wiki.
SMW+
    SMW+ is Ontoprise's production version of the open source Semantic MediaWiki + Halo Extension software, which was originally developed as part of the 2003-04 Halo project for scientific information discovery. SMW+ makes the process of annotating wiki content much easier by adding a variety of useful interface tools, and it also helps writers research information by using the wiki's built-in ontology browser. SMW+ is designed to enable and enhance knowledge collaboration in organizations. It's available as a free download from Sourceforge, or as a reasonably priced bundled version for Windows. Ontoprise also offers service contracts for the product. The impressive detailed list of features on the Ontoprise website gives a good overview of SMW+ capabilities. These include:
    • Semantic Toolbar: Lets users create, inspect and alter semantic annotations in the wiki text without knowing the annotation syntax.
    • Advanced Annotation Mode: In this mode, wiki pages are displayed in the same way as they are displayed in the standard view mode. However, users can easily add annotations by simply highlighting the word or passage they want to annotate.
    • Ontology Browser: Allows easy navigation through the wiki's ontology without the need to access individual articles. It helps the user to understand the ontology and to keep an overview about it.
    • Question Formulation Interface: Normally, making queries against the semantic wiki involve knowing and using a complex syntax. The Question Formulation Interface provides a graphical interface that lets inexperienced users easily compose their own queries.
    • Auto completion: This tool greatly simplifies users' ability to generate annotations. With auto completion activated, users don't have to care about correct spelling of an article’s or property's name, because the tool extracts possible completions from the semantic context. For example, it checks what attribute values are possible for a particular attribute and show only these to the user. This tool is used in the wiki text editor, the semantic tool bar, the query interface and the combined search.
    ARC
      ARC is an API for LAMP-based (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) websites. Its goal is to reach out to the larger Web developer community, to enable the combination of efforts like microformats with the utility of selected RDF solutions such as agile data storage, run-time model changes, standardized query interfaces, and mashup chaining. ARC tries to keep things simple and flexible. All features are backed by practical use cases. One of the underlying premises of ARC is that RDF is a productivity booster that can make website implementation much faster if it's used pragmatically.

      ARC includes the following capabilities:

    • Parsers for RDF/XML, Turtle, SPARQL + SPOG, Legacy XML, HTML "tag soup," RSS 2.0, and others.
    • Serializers for N-Triples, RDF/JSON, RDF/XML, Turtle, SPOG dumps.
    • RDF Storage using MySQL with support for SPARQL queries
    • SemHTML RDF extractors for Duplin Core, eRDF, microformats, OpenID, RDFa
    • Use of remote stores, allowing the website to query remote SPARQL endpoints as if they were local stores (results are returned as native PHP arrays)
    • SPARQLScript, a SPARQL-based scripting language combined with output templating
    • Light-weight inferencing
    ARC applications and websites. Of as much interest as ARC itself are the numerous applications and extensions that have already been built with it, many of which are useful for semantically enhancing websites on their own. The following are a few examples:
      • Trice - A Semantic Web framework (still in development).
      Calais Marmoset
        Marmoset, one of several Semantic Web tools from the OpenCalais project, is a simple yet powerful tool that makes it easy for publishers to generate and embed metadata in their content in preparation for Yahoo! Search's new open developer platform, SearchMonkey, as well as other metacrawlers and semantic applications. Marmoset uses the OpenCalais web service, which can provide search engine crawlers with rich semantic data to consider when they index a site's pages. Yahoo!'s search engine can analyze this semantic data, provided in Microformats, and other search engines are likely to follow. As a result, users accessing a Marmoset-enhanced website through search engines will get better targeted results.
      Other Resources
      Ontology Libraries One of the best features of ontologies is their design for reuse. It's not clear to me what happens when you encounter a dozen ontologies for "person" or "job", etc., in the ontology libraries on the web, but it's certainly useful that you can search for existing ontologies and bring the objects you want to model into your own ontology. There are a few ontologies for commonly used objects that are nearly defacto standards now: The following is a list of other resources available for finding ontologies on specific topics:
      • Simile Ontologies This library includes those developed by MIT as part of the Simile project as well as a list of others that have been used by the project.
      • Swoogle Swoogle is a research project being carried out by the ebiquity research group in the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Maryland
      • Google Google can restrict its search to files of type "owl", as this sample search shows.
      • OntoSelect Ontology Library This library has an ontology search system with several unique and innovative features, including use of Wikipedia topics as the basis for one type of search.
      • BioPortal BioPortal is a sophisticated web application for accessing and sharing biomedical ontologies. It features several advanced search and visualization tools, as well as tools for mapping concepts between different ontologies.
      • SchemaWeb This is a comprehensive directory of RDF schemas which, in addition to typical browse-and-search interfaces, also provides an extensive set of web services to be used by software agents for processing RDF data.
      • Watson This link points to Watson's terrific web interface, which is one of the best for searching out ontologies that match your topics of interest. Watson also has a Protege plugin, but I haven't been able to make it work. The plugin, when working, would let a developer search and add classes to their ontology directly from within Protege.
      • TONES Ontology Repository This repository is primarily designed to be a central location for ontologies that might be of use to ontology tools developers for testing purposes.
      • Ping the Semantic Web Developed as a free web service by Zitgist, a company "incubated" by OpenLink, PingtheSemanticWeb (PTSW) is an archive of recently created/updated RDF documents on the web. If one of those documents is created or updated, its author can notify PTSW that the document has been created or updated by pinging the service with the URL of the document. PTSW is used by crawlers or other types of software agents to know when and where the latest updated RDF documents can be found. This dynamically updated library displays the 25 most recently updated ontologies, in real time. Using PTSW's data store, you can retrieve data on all RDF files by namespace or by class, with the option to download the files.
      Papers, Projects and Documentation
      • W3C Semantic Web Activity This portal can be thought of as the Semantic Web's "Home Page." It brings together a vast amount of primary source documentation of the Semantic Web's languages and other standard specifications, including OWL, RDF, RDFa in XHTML, and SPARQL. In addition, this portal gathers all the major ongoing projects involving the Semantic Web and the groups conducting them. The page also lists a large number of publications and presentations on Semantic Web topics.
      • Rich Tags This paper describes a proposal/project for developing a system that uses semantic tags for enhancing the searchability of web pages. (The proposal sounds similar to the W3C specification for RDFa in XHTML.)
      • Building A Semantic Website This article is a little old (2001), but has a good overview of the steps and components of building a web application using RDF ontologies.
      • TONES TONES is a European Union research project into the design and use of Thinking ONtologiES. Begun in 2005, it is scheduled to complete its work in 2008. The TONES website has links to all of the outputs of the project, including software tools and research papers. This PDF contains a 2006 presentation overview of the TONES project.
      • RapidOWL This methodology for developing OWL ontologies is based on the idea of iterative refinement, annotation and structuring of a knowledge base. A central paradigm for the RapidOWL methodology is the concentration on smallest possible information chunks. The collaborative aspect comes into play, when those information chunks can be selectively added, removed, annotated with comments or ratings. Design rationales for the RapidOWL methodology are to be light-weight, easy-to-implement, and support of spatially distributed and highly collaborative scenarios. This methodology is implemented in the OntoWiki software project.
      • Linked Data Comes of Age This very useful article clearly explains what is meant by linked data based on RDF and how it fits into the overarching vision of the Semantic Web.
      • Zitgist's Papers and Reports This is a useful list of resources on subjects relevant to Semantic Web research. The Zitgist Lab site also has a good page of documents on Best Practices for RDF.
      • RDF Schemas This site has a clear explanation of the various "vocabularies" used to develop ontologies: RDF, RDFS, OWL, and Dublic Core. The site also has a terrific list of resources for programmers.
      • Nodalities Magazine Sponsored by Talis, this free, bimonthly online magazine (released in PDF format) tries to bridge the divide between those building the Semantic Web and those interested in applying it to their business requirements. The magazine is supported by the Nodalities blog, podcasts, and Semantic Web development work.
      • DERI Papers and Reports This site contains a large collection of research papers and technical reports produced by DERI International.
      Business Resources This list includes companies I've encountered that appear to have substantial expertise in applying Semantic Web technologies to practical business requirements. BBN Technologies
        BBN is a technology company with a broad range of expertise, services, and products—including support for Semantic Web application development. As an indication of the impressive expertise of this company, BBN was the prime contractor for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in development of DAML (DARPA Agent Markup Language), which then led to their development of OWL. BBN also provides the Asio Tool Suite for third-party development and the open source Snoogle and Parliament tools.
      Cycorp
        Cycorp is a leading provider of semantic technologies that bring intelligence and common sense reasoning to a wide variety of software applications. The Cyc software combines ontologies and knowledge bases with a powerful reasoning engine and natural language interfaces to enable the development of novel knowledge-intensive applications.
      Clark & Parsia
        Clark & Parsia is a small R&D firm—specializing in Semantic Web and advanced systems—based in Washington, DC. They have expertise in a range of semantic-web technologies, including OWL, RDF, reasoning at scale, and ontology development. They offer commercial support for Pellet, a best-of-breed Open Source OWL DL reasoner in Java, and related systems.
      Semantic Arts
        This company helps companies (medium/large with 1,000 to 10,000 employees) migrate to semantically-based SOAs (Service Oriented Architectures).
      Zitgist
        Zitgist has a number of interesting products for viewing and querying the Semantic Web, as well as offering services for ontology development, content conversion, and web services. They also provide several open-source products for both consumer and corporate use in furthering use of the Semantic Web.
      Semantic Web Company
        The Semantic Web Company (SWC), based in Vienna, Austria, provides companies, institutions and organizations with professional services related to the Semantic Web, semantic technologies and Social Software. They provide services in consulting, education, and project management, among others.
      Talis
        Talis has developed its own application development platform—the Talis Platform—and also builds Semantic Web applications for other organizations. To date, Talis' applications have been geared to meeting the needs of libraries and academic institutions.
      Semsol
        Semsol offers a wide range of Semantic Web-related services, from consulting and data modeling to interface design and production. Semsol is a pioneer in bringing Semantic Web technologies to widely deployed server and database environments. Semsol is the company behind development of the open-source tool ARC, as well as for several of the applications built on top of ARC, including Trice, SPARQLBot, and paggr (referenced earlier).
      Cortex
        Cortex's software platform and consulting business is based on their Competitiva system. Cortex’s technology proposes to mine unstructured data on the Web, using Competitiva's intelligent system to automatically convert pages and documents to a semantic format (i.e. RDF). Cortex has an R&D team working to bridge the Semantic Web gap by automatically enriching text with semantic content for themselves and their customers.
          
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      November 7th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

      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.


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      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
          
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      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
          
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      Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
      October 1st, 2008

      Amar Sagoo: Software Design for Usability

      Amar's blog

      I first encountered this programmer several years ago when I downloaded and was awed by his Tofu application. For a very long time, I feared that Sagoo had abandoned the project, but today I was delighted to see that he has put out a new (2.0) version of that little eReading marvel.

      In checking out the rest of his site, and some of his newer (freeware) software projects, I also found he's written some very insightful essays on the subject of interface design and usability. Definitely worth bookmarking for future reference...

      Meanwhile, I've got to try to convince him to develop an iPhone version of Tofu. It puts similar eReader attempts like Stanza to shame!

          
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      Posted in:Usability, eReadersTags: |
      September 18th, 2008

      Recognizing Self-Evident Truths

      This being that most political of years, serious issues of national significance have been on my mind. Sadly, judging from the typical discourse I see Americans engaged in, I can only conclude that most humans seem to think it's best to just ignore serious issues. Why is it that people read body language more seriously than they do written language? And why is it, after so many years of evolution, a pretty face or the color of one's skin is more influential than what that candidate has to say about--oh, you know, energy policy, health care reform, global warming and environmental concerns, economic insecurities, abortion, and so on.

      There was an article in the Washington Post recently that finally expressed what has been obvious to me for many years now: Humans have become so cynical that they honestly believe everything is an opinion. There are no facts. If you don't like a particular fact someone presents you with, you simply respond, "Oh, you think everyone should just agree with you!" And likewise, if someone presents you with a lie that you like, you are quite willing to take it as gospel.

      There's no facing reality... no desire to really debate issues using facts. Heck, I'm beginning to think that too many Americans don't even know what a fact is. Here's a simple definition:

      Fact: The truth about events as opposed to interpretation.

      Ah, but now we enter a realm that, for many humans, presents great difficulty: What is Truth?

      It is a question that has reverberated throughout the Western world ever since Pontius Pilate asked the question of Jesus. Jesus had referred to a truth, and Pilate's question suggests that he doesn't believe there is such a thing.

      But of course, there is. That my cat ran away the day we moved to our new house is a fact. That my wife and I have been married now for almost 25 years is a fact. I have two sisters. That is also a fact.

      Extending these to more difficult lines of inquiry, it's clear that changes in earth's atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise, for the Arctic ice cap to melt, for glaciers around the world to disappear, and for the incidence of hurricanes and droughts to increase. These are facts, and nearly all scientists today agree that the inference from these facts is that Global Warming is a fact. It is the truth, even if it's extremely inconvenient.

      On Presidential Lies

      Likewise, it is a fact that the Republican candidate for Vice-President, Sarah Palin, did not oppose the "Bridge To Nowhere," as she claims. She ran for Governor on her support for the bridge, as a matter of fact. Only after Congress tabled the earmark Palin wanted for the bridge did she switch sides. Can you say "disingenuous?" She also didn't sell the Governor's jet on eBay, as John McCain has claimed.

      In fact, Sarah Palin and her fellow candidate, John McCain, are going down as the most dishonest folks who ever ran for the Presidency (in my lifetime, at least). Think that's hyperbole? I'm sorry to say that it's not. Every day, more evidence of their willingness to bend the truth backwards is showing up, resulting in nearly daily outcries in U.S. newspapers:

      And the list goes on and on... just search through Google News some time, and you'll see what I mean. Even though this year's persistent falsehoods are the worst yet, there have been plenty of the same by previous Presidents and their staffs. In fact, I'd argue that it's Presidential Lies that got us where we are in the first place. It all started with President Johnson lying about the Vietnam War, followed closely by Richard Nixon lying about the Vietnam War. And then the real whopper that really made Americans suspicious of their leaders: Watergate. But those observations lead to a huge digression that I should leave for another time.

      Here are a few examples of lies told by recent U.S. Presidents:

      Disingenuous: Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

      • John McCain: He continues to repeat the plain untruth that Barack Obama's tax plan would raise everyone's taxes. This scare tactic usually works, whether it's true or not. In this case, McCain knows it's a lie, yet he keeps saying it. As a matter of fact, Obama's tax plan would only raise taxes for the top 1% of America's richest. For every household that makes less than $250,000 a year, Obama's plan makes quite substantial tax cuts, whereas McCain's plan does not. As with Bush's deficit-busting tax cuts early in his term, McCain's cuts would benefit only the very rich and the corporations they run.
      • George W. Bush: Hmmm... Let's see, there have been so many lies, told so well, that on Mars we've determined he's lied more than any President in U.S. history. Everyone knows by know---as a fact---that Iraq never had "weapons of mass destruction," nor did Saddam Hussein have anything whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There are hundreds of documented lies by Bush and his administration in support of the larger one, but here's a good one. On October 22, 2002, as the public relations effort to sell the Iraq war to U.S. citizens was heating up, The Washington Post published an article whose title says it all: For Bush, Facts Are MalleableFor Bush, Facts Are Malleable, which cited two lies in two paragraph:

        In the president's Oct. 7 speech to the nation from Cincinnati, he introduced several rationales for taking action against Iraq. Describing contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq, [David, Bush] cited "one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." He asserted that "we have discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet" of unmanned aircraft and expressed worry about them "targeting the United States."

        Bush's statement about the Iraqi nuclear defector, implying such information was current in 1998, was a reference to Khidhir Hamza. But Hamza, though he spoke publicly about his information in 1998, retired from Iraq's nuclear program in 1991, fled to the Iraqi north in 1994 and left the country in 1995. Finally, Bush's statement that Iraq could attack "on any given day" with terrorist groups was at odds with congressional testimony by the CIA. The testimony, declassified after Bush's speech, rated the possibility as "low" that [Saddam Hussein] would initiate a chemical or biological weapons attack against the United States but might take the "extreme step" of assisting terrorists if provoked by a U.S. attack.

      • Bill Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Yes, that was a lie, unless you don't consider oral relations "sexual." And wow, did Bill pay for that one! Indeed, he was actually impeached for that lie... which, unlike the lies of the Presidents who preceded and successors, had zero impact on the health and welfare of the Nation. From my perspective on Mars, it's inconceivable that one President could waste $500 billion on a war the rationale for which he brazenly lied about, and yet receive no punishment whatsoever, while another President had a brief sexual liaison with another consenting adult and lied about it, a sin that led to his being impeached, for only the second time in U.S. history.
      • George H.W. Bush: George H. W. Bush's best known lie is, of course, "Read my lips, no new taxes." He said that during the campaign for President, and then proceeded to break that promise. But a far more serious lie is the one he repeatedly told the American people about negotiating with terrorists:

        Today I am proud to deliver to the American people the result of the six months effort to review our policies and our capabilities to deal with terrorism. Our policy is clear, concise, unequivocal. We will offer no concession to terrorists, because that only leads to more terrorism. States that practice terrorism, or actively support it, will not be allowed to do so without consequence.

        Only problem is, even as he made such pronouncement, he and the Reagan administration were secretly selling arms to Iran, in exchange for the release of hostages. They then turned around and supported the Nicaraguan Contra rebels with the profits from the secret Iran sales. This is all a matter of public record... it is fact, and yet, perhaps because of the complexity of the issues, or perhaps because of the popularity of Ronald Reagan and the transition of his administration to that of George H.W. Bush, the lie and the secret deal managed to wash over Americans' minds without really registering.
      • Ronald Reagan: On Mars, we found it hard to believe that anyone so misinformed could rise to become President of the most powerful country on Earth. We debated among ourselves whether Reagan's many factual errors were truly lies, or whether they reflected a fundamentally weak brain. Ultimately, we determined that Reagan was actually smart, and that he told lies in such an aw-shucks manner that the average American not only would believe him, but would never suspect he was lying. Besides lying about the Iran-Contra affair, like Bush, there are so many examples it's hard to narrow the list down. Here's one of our short favorites:
        "All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk." --Ronald Reagan (Republican candidate for president), quoted in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, February 15, 1980.
        As a matter of fact, even taking an estimate from nuclear industry sources, the typical nuclear power plant produces about 500 pounds of waste each year. I don't think that would fit under Reagan's desk, do you?

      This year, the spreading of lies and innuendo about the candidates--particularly, as usual--has become more brazen than ever. An example of this came to my attention a few weeks ago when someone on a mailing list I (used to) follow sent everyone a column spreading demonstrably false information about Barack Obama. This is only one such rumor that's been spreading virally through the web in attempts to smear Obama. Perhaps the dirtiest is the assertion that Obama is Muslim, because his middle name is Hussein. Well, no. If you read Obama's biography that will be clear, but the folks who make this up aren't trying to spread facts... they're trying to spread fear. I only wish more humans would see through their lies and punish the candidate who abides such evil to an extent that future candidates will think twice before adopting lies as a method of campaigning for President.

      On Obama

      All of which leads me to the lies taking place in 2008, nearly all of which are directed from the Republican candidates toward Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for President. A particularly inflammatory lie that has been making the rounds of right-wing religious groups on the Internet is the one that passed through my email recently. As part of an anti-Obama, viral web campaign, someone called Matt Barber of the Liberty Council published an article called "Obamacide." (Nice title, don't you think, for someone claiming to be a Christian?) The article accuses Obama of supporting "partial birth" abortion, using language that refers to Obama's "love affair" with the practice, which even Pro-Choice supporters do not condone. Here's an excerpt from Barber's libelous diatribe:

      While serving in the Illinois state senate, he led the fight against a state version of Born Alive that was substantively identical to the federal BAIPA. In 2002, BAIPA passed the U.S. Senate with unanimous, bipartisan support; yet, Obama vehemently opposed its Illinois twin. This places him on the furthest fringe of pro-abortion extremes. The man's devotion to the pro-abortion industry is so fixed that he would rather allow the murder of newborn babies than give an inch to the sanctity of human life.

      And Barber was just warming up at that point... there's much more in the article.

      If I may say so, this is precisely the kind of character assassination that Barack Obama is trying to eliminate from our national discourse.

      First of all, to oppose Obama strictly on the issue of abortion is to ignore the many other important issues the United States faces. My impression is that even many anti-abortion Christians are beginning to understand that.

      Most important, the charges made in Matt Barber's opinion piece are false. They are being spread around the web simply to make Obama look bad, and unfortunately many otherwise intelligent Americans are buying this baloney without question.

      After researching the source documents for what really happened, I determined the facts are as follows:

      1. Obama's Illinois senate votes in 2001-02 were on legislation that was radically different from the U.S. Senate's Born Alive Infants Protection Act (BAIPA) in 2002. How?
        • Illinois already had in place a ban on partial birth abortions, dating back to 1975. If you don't believe me, check out the Illinois code on this law.
        • Therefore, the Illinois bills were not, in fact, geared to providing the protection against partial-birth abortions that the Federal law was. To compare the two is simply deceitful on the part of writers like Barber.
        • The Illinois votes, which were joined by 40% of the Senate including several Republicans, were against proposals that would:
        • Provide damages to the family to the cost of raising the child, an obviously irresponsible open-ended liability. This included punitive damages against the hospital that delivered the child. Keep in mind that we're talking about a live birth that is protected under the law... not an abortion.
        • Redefine "live birth abortion" to include any non-viable fetus that showed signs of life after abortion. This would effectively ban abortion, since it's not restricted to the third trimester of pregnancy. The Federal BAIPA law requires that the "live birth" be a viable child... one that is capable of living outside the womb.
      2. Obama's statement that he would have supported BAIPA if he had been in the U.S. Senate in 2002 is not at all disingenuous. Although Barber calls BAIPA the "twin" of the Illinois votes, if you bother to learn the facts it's clear that they are not. To call them "twin" votes is to merely try to make Obama look bad. Is Barber and his ilk really the kind of authority you want to base your opinions on?
      On Communists

      In reaction to this obviously false information from Matt Barber, another reader of the email thread reacted this way:

      The last times we had the Communist party try and put a person in the white house, she was black. Now they are doing it again with a man of color and the blessing of the media. We've gotten worse than Sodom and Gomorra with trying to get someone to represent us in the white house who is left of left with a Marxist attitude and no respect for life.

      In a followup email, this person clarified his belief that "Communist = Socialist = Liberal."

      For a few minutes, my mind was in a state of serious cognitive dissonance as a result of that paragraph, because it so flagrantly violated my understanding of U.S. history and of its political realities. Here was someone I had exchanged numerous emails with opining that Obama and the Democrats were Communists.

      The notion that Obama is a Communist or Marxist is clearly a lie, a propaganda-motivated scare tactic at its very worst. It's the same sort of charge that was leveled against Franklin D. Roosevelt by Republicans during his term(s). To the hatemongers who spread this kind of crazy talk, folks from Obama's and Roosevelt's side of the aisle are guilty of one major, unforgivable sin: They believe that U.S. citizens deserve better living conditions than most of you have, and they believe the Federal Government can actually do something to help. There's nothing whatsoever Marxist, or Communist, about this approach. If those who spread such lies would ever bother to read Karl Marx, they would understand that. But they never will, because (I think) they believe Marx's writings were the work of the Devil himself.

      Cognitive dissonance: An uncomfortable feeling or stress caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a fundamental cognitive drive to reduce this dissonance by modifying an existing belief, or rejecting one of the contradictory ideas.

      Chief among Obama's "Marxist" ideas is that the U.S. should join the rest of the developed world in having universal health care. If you haven't seen Michael Moore's Sicko, you should. Even if you don't like Michael Moore or think he's some kind of left-wing nut, humans who want to form an opinion of him and of his movies like "Sicko" should really take the time to see them and judge for yourselves. Don't just take some right-wing nut's word for it.

      Obama also believes the Federal Government should be investing heavily in alternative (non-carbon) energy in order to become free of dependence on foreign oil in 10 years. Ridiculous? Perhaps... but at least it's a goal worth pursuing. One historical parallel you should recall in determining the idea's ridiculous-ness is the Federal Government's investment in the Interstate Highway System.

      Can you imagine our country without such a vital transportation network? And yet, if the government hadn't built it, who would? It was a huge investment, championed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that changed the lives of all Americans for the better.

      By investing in solar and other alternative technologies, the Federal Government, as the nation's largest consumer, has the ability to vastly expand that market, thereby lowering prices, increasing production, and improving the technology. Isn't this worth doing in order to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil? After all, would you have invaded Iraq if it weren't one of your biggest oil suppliers? Just consider how much money that war has cost, and the many better ways the government could have spent that money. I don't know about you, but the thought makes us Martians feel not only incredulous, but also incredibly angry.

      Incredulous: Unwilling to admit or accept what is offered as true.

      Incredibly: To a great degree; extremely or unusually

      Another major goal of Obama's is to address the issue of Global Warming. Don't you think this problem trumps abortion on the list of the Earth's ills? By abandoning carbon fuels, and enacting legislation like the one Bush vetoed recently that would have required reduced emissions, humans might have a chance to turn this around.

      On Abortion

      Regarding Christianity and one's position on abortion, it's clear that Christ would not have approved of the practice, as neither do the Catholic nor Protestant churches. However, it's important to understand and respect the fact that one of the singular, founding principles of the United States was--and is--the separation of Church and State.

      This means that the Government cannot pass laws that enforce the views of any particular religious group, and since opposition to abortion stems primarily from religious beliefs about the point in time when a zygote/embryo/fetus becomes a "person," anti-abortion laws such as those supported by Right To Life groups are clearly unconstitutional.

      The Religious Right, however, does not believe that the Separation of Church and State was ever a constitutional principle. In some ways, such an argument is in the same league as a belief that the Holocaust never occurred, or that the Earth is flat, or that humans have been abducted by Martians for scientific experiments. Poppycock! We would never do such a thing, my friends. Ours is a thoroughly peace-loving, generous, and thoughtful society. If we needed to learn something from a human's body, we'd ask them to participate in one of our studies: By choice, not by deceit.

      That said, there is certainly a great deal of interpretation that goes on in understanding when and how the principle of Separation became part of the U.S. Constitution. It's true that the literal phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution, but clearly the concept is there, ingrained in the American psyche through its founders' strong belief in religious liberty. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

      Two of the great thinkers at the time the Constitution was enacted had this to say on the subject of religious liberty. In making these declarations, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to propose religious liberty as a founding principle of a Nation:

      In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, in his famous pamphlet, Common Sense:
      "As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith"

      In 1779, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, proclaimed:
      "[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

      Later, as President, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association that is the origin of the controversial phrase itself:
      "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. "

      I think it's also important for Christians, as well as all humanity, to consider the many other forms of violence that occur in the world. There are many examples I could choose from -- human rights abuses, genocide, starvation, eviscerating the environment -- but a very pertinent one to the debate over abortion is the rate of child abuse in the U.S.

      Eviscerate: Deprive (something) of its essential content.

      One could easily argue that the violence inflicted on living children as a result of parental abuse inflicts far more damage on society than the violence of abortion. Not only are these children themselves the victims of often horrifying violence, but the impact of this violence on these children's' personality development will live on for years. Studies show that nearly all of the adults who victimize others--their wives, husbands, children, or others--were themselves the victim of violence as children. Thus, beating up your chienvironmentld causes a chain reaction of events that reverberates far beyond that single incident. According to Health and Human Services (HHS) statistics, there were 3.6 million referrals for incidents of child abuse in the U.S. in 2006--about 3 times the number of abortions. After investigation of all the referrals, it was ultimately determined that about 1 million children were the victims of abuse that year.

      There are many causes for outrage among those who abhor violence in this world. Abortion is one of them, child abuse another. But there are many others as well. My original point was that as Christians it's a mistake to make political decisions based on abortion alone, since it's not the only thing Christ cares about. I'm sure Jesus Christ would also abhor the alarming economic disparity between rich and poor in this country and many others throughout the world. As an anti-materialist philosophy at heart, Christianity has too often been mute to the economic violence meted out by greed, and has failed to join the battle against those who celebrate greed and become successful from it. Do Christians who stand by in the face of such injustice assume that the meek won't get their due until the Second Coming? If so, it's hard for us on Mars to understand how such seekers of monetary wealth can call themselves Christians. We fear that these are the same hypocrites who can't recognize a lie when they hear one, or, on learning it's a lie, continue to believe it true.

      I fear for Mankind, and for all of God's glorious creation, if these are the people who will inherit the Earth.

          
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      Posted in:Philosophy, PoliticsTags: |
      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

          
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      July 25th, 2008

      A Close-Up Look At Today’s Web Browsers: Comparing Firefox, IE 7, Opera, Safari

      My, we've come a long way in browser choices since 2005, haven't we? It's been a very heady time for programmers who dabble in the lingua franca of the World Wide Web: HTML, JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, the Document Object Model, and XML/XSLT. Together, this collection of scripting tools, boosted by a Browser choicestechnique with the letter-soup name "XMLHttpRequest," became known as "Ajax." Ajax spawned an avalanche of cool, useful, and powerful new web applications that are today beginning to successfully challenge traditional computer-desktop software like Microsoft Word and Excel. As good as vanguard products like Goodle's Maps, Gmail, Documents, and Calendar apps are, one only has to peek at what Apple has accomplished with its new MobileMe web apps to see how much like desktop applications web software can be in 2008.

      That this overwhelming trend toward advanced, desktop-like applications has happened at all is the result of the efforts of determined developers from the Mozilla project, which rose from the ashes of Netscape's demise to create the small, light, powerful and popular Firefox browser. The activity of the Mozilla group spurred innovation from other browser makers and eventually forced a trend towards open standards that made the emergence of Ajax possible.

      This article starts with a brief history of web browsers and then jumps into a look at the feature set of the four primary "modern" web browsers in 2008. The comparison of browser features begins by listing the core features that all these browsers have in common. The bulk of the article lists in detail "special features" of each browser and each browser's good and bad points, as they relate to the core browser characteristics. Following that, I present some recent data on the comparative performance of these browsers. The article concludes with recommendations I would make to organizations interested in making the switch from IE6 in 2008.

      1. Web Browsers in 2008: A Brief History
      2. Comparison of Browser Features
      3. Browser Performance
      4. Conclusions
      5. Bookmarks for Further Reading
      Web Browsers in 2008: A Brief History

      In 2008, web designers and programmers can finally see the light at the end of the very long, dark tunnel that began with the first browser wars of the late 1990's. That war introduced "browser incompatibility," as both Netscape and Microsoft struggled to establish their own, incompatible standards. At that time, the standards approved by the World Wide Web Consortium (w3c) were somewhat skimpy and behind the times in terms of what those companies wanted to do.

      It wasn't long before the w3c approved a standard for JavaScript, which Netscape had introduced a couple of years before, as well as a standard for CSS Level 2.0, which was to be a major advance in the "designability" of web pages. CSS 2.0 promised an end to the ubiquitous use of "font" tags, invisible graphics, and HTML tables on which designers relied to convert their ideas, typically developed using visual design tools such as Photoshop, to HTML. However, those new standards were too late, since Microsoft was making aggressive use of its monopoly on corporate desktops to promote Internet Explorer at the expense of Netscape. That effort, of course, eventually succeeded, and Microsoft was found guilty of antitrust violations (though never effectively punished for them).

      Even though IE eventually garnered a monopoly in corporate browser usage equal to Windows' monopoly as an operating system, web programmers and designers who developed content for the general public were still obliged to support two completely different and incompatible "standards," neither of which was truly standards-compliant. The dual nature of Browser market sharethe browser market caused programmers to shy away from JavaScript and CSS entirely, since it was too much of an effort to deploy them in a way that would render well on both browsers. Unfortunately, this meant that the state-of-the-web art remained stuck in 1998 until just the last couple of years, when Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari browsers began slowly whittling away at IE's dominance.

      Like earlier versions of Internet Explorer, IE 6, introduced in 2001 as part of Windows XP, maintained its own set of proprietary standards that largely ignored the leadership of standards bodies like the w3c. At that time, they could IE 7 vs IE 6afford to do so since there was virtually no competition left. However, by 2004, Firefox had emerged from the open-source Mozilla group (which evolved from Netscape's decision to open-source the Netscape browser code) as a very interesting, lightweight browser that prided itself on close adherence to w3c standards.

      Meanwhile, in Europe, the Opera browser was moving in the same direction as Firefox--toward full implementation of w3c standards for JavaScript and CSS 2. In 2005, Opera became a totally free browser choice, where previously it had used advertising as a source of revenue for non-paying customers. At this point, Opera became a more significant player, which, despite its very small market share outside of Europe, continues today.

      In 2003, Apple introduced Safari 1.0 for Mac OS X, and shortly thereafter Microsoft ceased support of Internet Explorer for the Mac platform. Safari was based on the open-source code used for the Linux browser Konqueror, and in 2005 Apple released the core Safari code--its "rendering engine"--as open source through establishment of the WebKit project. Since then, the WebKit team has made rapid progress in adopting w3c standards and bringing its code base up to the state-of-the-art as defined by those standards. Safari is the dominant browser on Mac OS X, with Firefox a strong second, and the increasing market share of Mac OS X in the last couple of years has resulted in corresponding increases in the market share of Safari. Now that Safari is available for Windows and is being used for Apple's iPhone platform, Safari's market share will likely continue to rise in coming years.

      In 2007, Microsoft finally responded to the growing competition from Firefox and Safari, and released Internet Explorer 7.0 in concert with its release of Windows Vista. Although IE 7 maintains a significant lag behind the other browsers in adopting open standards, it has made important improvements over IE 6. And the early beta releases of IE 8, accompanied by assurances from Microsoft's technical engineers, suggest that IE 8 will make even more significant improvements in becoming standards-compliant.

      It is the convergence of these trends that is causing that glow at the end of the tunnel at last. With the demise of IE 6 (whose market share is rapidly collapsing), the final major remnant of the ugly browser war of 1998-2000 will be a thing of the past. Since Microsoft appears serious about getting IE 8 to market in less than the 6 years that elapsed between IE 6 and IE 7, web developers can be hopeful that their use of JavaScript, CSS, and HTML will no longer be a struggle to find the right "hack" to accommodate all the browser choices out there. At that moment, the web will finally be ready to evolve into the platform that Java aspired to, but never managed to become: A platform on which developers can build applications that are agnostic both of the user's client and of their operating system.

      That outcome is a win-win for everyone… except, perhaps, Microsoft, since it will bring to fruition the open Internet it has tried so long to keep at bay.

      The next section of this report will look in detail at the feature set of the four primary "modern" web browsers in 2008, by market share. Following that, the report presents some recent data on comparative performance for these browsers, and finally I conclude with a brief set of recommendations. The browsers have all been tested primarily on a Windows Vista Ultimate platform, and the recommendations are geared to organizations that have been relying on IE 6 or IE 7 as their default browser. Safari, Firefox, and Opera have also been tested on a Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" system.

      Comparison of Browser Features

      This section looks in detail at the many features that both bind and distinguish the four browsers included in this study:

      The first part of this section pulls together all of the features these four browsers have in common. This set of features can be considered a baseline that defines what a "modern" browser can do. Naturally, some of the browsers are more "modern" than others, so they go far beyond these features in distinguishing themselves from the others.

      For each browser reviewed, the write-up begins with a list of the browser's "Special Features"--that is, its features that are unique or especially distinguishing. Following that, each browser's features are listed in comparison with each other in a list of "Good Points" and "Bad Points." Each item in these lists is categorized using the set of "Baseline Features" below.

      Baseline Features
      Accessibility settings
      • Ability to define page colors and page fonts.
      • Ability to set personal style sheets.
      • Ability to easily resize fonts.
      Ad blocking
      • Ability to prevent automatic loading of page images.
      Bookmark management
      • Ability to set bookmarks for web pages visited
      • Ability to organize bookmarks into folders.
      • Ability to arrange bookmarks in a special toolbar. Toolbar can contain folders of bookmarks as well as individual links.
      • Ability to import and export bookmarks as HTML.
      Configuration management
      • All of the tested browsers support use of a proxy server and use of an automated configuration file on the network for applying browser settings.
      Connection settings
      • Ability to define proxy and SSL (secure socket layer) settings, as well as supported HTTP protocols.
      Developer tools
      • Ability to identify errors (JavaScript at a minimum) when loading a web page.
      Downloads management
      • No common features.
      History tools
      • Ability to view browser history by date and to sort history items.
      • Ability to search stored history items.
      Home page settings
      • Ability to set home page and define basics about what browser shows when opened.
      Page information details
      • Ability to view page HTML source.
      Privacy settings
      • Ability to define basic settings for cookies.
      • Ability to define how long history items are stored, or whether they're stored at all.
      RSS feed management
      • Ability to subscribe to and view RSS feeds.
      • Pages that contain RSS feed information are identified with special symbol or option.
      Search engine support
      • Web search field located in the browser toolbar.
      • Web search options include some basic customization.
      Search-in-page tools
      • Ability to find words in the current web page.
      Security settings
      • All browsers offer the ability to turn off JavaScript and plugins.
      • Ability to block pop-up ads/windows.
      • Ability to define level of encryption.
      Standards support
      • Support for HTML 4.0
      • Support for CSS 1.0
      • Support for JavaScript/EcmaScript
      • Support for DHTML
      • Support for XMLHttpRequest
      • Support for Rich Text Editing
      • Support for basic image formats (JPEG, GIF)
      Tab management
      • Support for tabbed browsing (viewing web pages in tabs rather than individual windows)
      • Ability to rearrange tabs by drag/drop
      • Ability to direct links and new pages to tabs rather than windows

      The following matrix summarizes my analysis of each browser. The "positive" aspects of each are indicated with a light-green gradient, and where the positives are exceptionally strong, you'll see a darker green gradient. Likewise, the "negative" aspects are indicated with a light-red gradient, and negative traits that are especially bad have a darker red gradient. Where the background is white, the browser basically meets the baseline expectations listed above.

      Matrix of Web Browser Functionality

      Firefox 3.0

      IE 7.0

      Opera 9.5

      Safari 3.1

      Browser Characteristics

      Positives

      Negatives

      Positives

      Negatives

      Positives

      Negatives

      Positives

      Negatives

      Accessibility

      Bookmark management

      Configuration mgmt

      Connection settings

      Developer tools

      Downloads management

      History tools

      Home page settings

      Page information details

      Privacy settings

      RSS feed management

      Search engine support

      Search-in-page support

      Security settings

      Standards support

      Tab management

      Usability

      Firefox 3.0
      Special FeaturesFirefox 3.0
      • Firefox lets users search within a page simply by typing (without invoking search function), a very useful feature.
      • Ability to tag bookmarks and history items, and to organize those items using tags.
      • Best range of add-ons that can provide a greatly expanded feature set.
      • Ability to apply "themes" to customize the browser's look and feel.
      Firefox toolbar Good Points Bookmark management
      • Firefox's import function is very good and easy to use… not only does it import bookmarks, but most other browser settings as well (cookies, history, etc.) However, on the Mac it imports only from Safari, and on Windows it supports only IE and Opera.
      • Bookmark folders offer option of opening all links at once in a single window.
      • Users can drag page links into folders on the bookmark bar directly, rather than having to visit the bookmark management page to do so. (Safari also has this feature.)
      Connection settings
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      Download management
      • Full-featured Downloads window allows you to find downloads on your hard drive, open downloads, and search them. The window also displays the time/date of the download.
      History tools
      • Excellent history panel with lots of options for sorting/viewing and searching, as well as support for tagging history items.
      Page information details
      • Great page info panel with all the detail you'd want.
      Search engine support
      • Easy to use, customizable web-search field on toolbar, which includes optional "suggest" feature. Like IE, Firefox users can also import new search engines from a web page.
      Search-in-page tools
      • Excellent in-page search functionality.
      Security settings
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      Standards support
      • Support for most non-basic web standards, including:
        • CSS 2.1
        • XHTML
        • PNG, SVG
        • HTML Canvas
        • DOM 1, DOM 2
        • Minimal CSS 3.0
      Tab management
      • Supports dragging URLs to tab bar to open new pages.
      • Offers the option of saving currently open tabs for the next session.
      Usability
      • Firefox's Preferences window is very similar to Opera's. It has grown more complex over the years, but retains the deliberate simplicity it adopted as distinguished from the full-blown Mozilla browser it evolved from. Except for the label "Applications," its tabs are intuitive. As with the other implementations, one could argue about the emphasis placed on the various settings, but in general Firefox provides a very easy way to customize user settings.Firefox Preferences Window
      • Like Opera, Firefox is available for a wide variety of platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and other Unix systems.
      Other
      • Open source code means browser improvements and security fixes come more quickly.
      Bad Points Bookmark management
      • No support for Safari bookmarks on Windows.
      Developer tools
      • Only basic developer tools in the default configuration.
      RSS feed management
      • Firefox's RSS implementation is noticeably weaker than that of the other browsers. While plugins exist to improve its support, this review looks only at the browsers' default options. One major problem with Firefox's RSS support is that if you choose to always use "Live Bookmarks" for a feed, without knowing what that means, you can't change your mind later on. Live Bookmarks are an inferior method of selecting items to read, since it doesn't show the textual summary or graphics that may be provided in the feed. Rather, it shows only the headlines. Further, I could find no way to manage my feeds by deleting them or organizing them into folders once I had subscribed. Even if you opt out of using Live Bookmarks from the get-go, Firefox places a large box at the top of each RSS feed page asking you whether you want to use Live Bookmarks. Firefox also provides no way for users to mark articles as "read," to sort or search articles, or whether to view headlines or full article summaries… options offered by all the other browsers.
      Standards support
      • Only minimal support for major CSS 3.0 features, including lack of support for resizable text fields.
      Usability
      • Plugins and themes require reliance on third-party developers, who may or may not update a given plugin or theme for a new version of Firefox. They also require some user maintenance to keep updated, and users must restart the browser to install themes and plugins.
      • Like IE, Firefox does not preserve information entered on a form if you use the back button and then forward again. Anything you've entered is wiped out, unlike Opera and Safari.
      • Firefox is noticeably slower than the other browsers to launch and load the home page.
      • Firefox cannot open PDF files natively in the browser window without requiring a plugin.
      Internet Explorer 7.0
      Special FeaturesIE 7
      • IE 7 is the only browser that allows users to set more than one home page.
      • IE7's tab implementation has a feature that the other browsers could benefit from: A view showing large thumbnails of all current tabs, along with their page titles. This feature is standard in Shiira, a WebKit based browser, but not in any other browser that I know of. (There is, however, a plugin for Firefox and one for Safari that accomplishes this.)
      IE 7's toolbar Good Points Configuration management
      • IE has a large number of settings to help system administrators customize the browser configuration for users.
      Connection settings
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      Privacy settings
      • IE 7 has fine-grained tools for customizing privacy settings.
      RSS feed management
      • A welcome addition to IE7 is its support for RSS feed subscriptions. Its implementation is quite good, and as with other browsers you can manage your subscriptions in the "Favorites/History" area.
      Search engine support
      • IE 7 adds a search field to the toolbar. It can be customized, but comes with Live Search as the default rather than Google or Yahoo (the industry leaders). You can, however, customize the choice of search engines by visiting a Microsoft website and adding items to the list. This is a very easy process.
      Security settings
      • IE 7 lets you disable each plugin individually, so you can easily disable Flash once it's installed. (However, even after installing Flash, IE 7 could not load any pages on the website I was testing.)
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      • IE 7 includes a "phishing" blocker, which should help users identify sites that attempt to steal user passwords by appearing to be standard e-commerce websites like Amazon, eBay, or banks.
      Standards support
      • Unlike IE6 and earlier, IE7 joins the other browsers in partially supporting the PNG-24 standard, which allows designers to use images with alpha transparency.
      Tab management
      • IE can bookmark a set of tabs into a folder.
      Usability
      • Design is clean and easy to understand for the most part.
      • Like Safari, IE 7 offers users the ability to email full page contents as well as page links.
      Bad Points Bookmark management Firefox Bookmarks Window Safari's Bookmarks Window
      • The "Favorites Center" is missing a couple of essential features:
      • There is no way to search your bookmarks (although you can search your history)
      • I couldn't figure out how to add folders to the list.
      • In addition, the process of changing URL's is cumbersome when compared with Safari or Firefox. For example, here is Firefox's excellent panel for managing history, tags, and bookmarks. It allows you to edit properties directly.
        Likewise, here is Safari's view for the same functions (screenshot below that for Firefox).
        By contrast, in IE you have to right-click and select a Properties window to change a URL.
      • Another shortcoming of IE's Bookmarks implementation is its inability to let users open an entire folder of links at once. This has become standard practice for awhile on modern browsers, by allowing users to quickly access a group of websites they use frequently as part of a single activity. Firefox, Safari, and Opera all offer this option.
      • IE has very basic import/export functions for bookmarks. Like Safari, it requires users to browse the hard drive for the HTML bookmarks file to import. IE offers no other import features.
      • IE is the only browser that provides no way for users to search their bookmarks.
      Developer tools
      • Only basic developer tools in the default configuration.
      Download management
      • I couldn't find a way in IE to set a folder for Download files other than the default folder.
      • IE is the only browser that provides no "Downloads" window, by which users can see the files they've downloaded and navigate to and/or open those files.
      History tools
      • I found it annoying that there is no way to view your page history without opening the Favorites window/sidebar. Firefox and Safari both have a top-level menu item called "History" that shows your visited-page history. The only tool provided is a pull-down menu adjacent to the URL address field--the same approach as Opera--but this isn't nearly as convenient or comprehensive. And unlike Opera's single-click access to history, IE 7 requires a multi-click approach, unless you keep its sidebar open all the time (which isn't as easy to do as in IE 6).
      Page information details
      • Unlike most other browsers, IE7's source code view merely launches Notepad (which it's done since IE 3) and has no method for viewing the CSS or Javascript sources or for making changes to those and viewing results in the browser window. (This feature is standard in Firefox and Safari.)
      Privacy settings
      • IE's cookie manager is buried in an "Advanced" panel within the Privacy options. Unlike the other browsers, IE offers no way to delete all cookies, delete individual cookies, search cookies, or even view stored cookies.
      Search-in-page tools
      • IE is the only browser that provides no way to identify all instances of search terms in the current web page.
      Security settings
      • Because of the very large number of malware exploits that have targeted Internet Explorer, especially since the release of IE 6 in 2001, the IE Security settings have become far too complicated for the ordinary user to comprehend. Even system administrators who wish to secure IE 7 would need to have some specialized training in order to do so.

        The biggest problem with IE, which has also been one of the main reasons for its high adoption by IT shops, is its strong support for Active X controls. Because IE is so tightly woven into the Windows operating system, Active X programs present a huge security risk, and it is largely through this channel that viruses, worms, spyware, and other malware has infected Windows PCs over the years. IE 7 has a plethora of settings designed to minimize the risk of Active X programs, but given the amount of work required both on developers--to secure their Active X programs in order to run in IE 7--and on administrators--to apply settings that strike the appropriate balance for users between usability and security, ensuring security for IE remains a negative aspect of this browser.
      Standards support
      • Visiting some web pages--for example, the home page of the National Science Foundation--I found that IE 7 could not display the Flash content, so the home page wouldn't load. Apparently, there is a problem using Flash with IE7 under Vista. I noticed the warning about IE 7's "old" Flash player when visiting a number of websites that use Flash. On Windows Vista, IE7 was the only one of the browsers tested that could not load the NSF home page in its default configuration. Though Opera, Safari, and Firefox likewise did not have the Flash plugin, they displayed the static alternative (see top screenshot) and the rest of that page instead. Since nsf.gov uses Flash for its navigation bar, this means IE 7 cannot access any page on the NSF website.
      • Broken Flash Content in IE7
      • IE is the only browser that does not fully support CSS 2.0 standards.
      • IE does not support any CSS 3.0 features.
      • IE is the only browser that supports neither SVG images nor the HTML Canvas tag.
      Tab management
      • IE 7's tab implementation is similar to the existing standard but doesn't offer as many options for managing tabs when you right-click on one of them. (For example, Safari offers the option of letting you bookmark or reload the current set of tabs.)
      Usability
      • Most Windows users--and Mac users as well--will be disoriented by the absence of a menubar in the default configuration. You can add a menubar, but it doesn't appear at the top of the window as user's will expect. In this regard, IE 7 works a lot like Opera has for awhile. As a Mac user, it's interesting to note that the IE 7 model of eliminating each window's menubar is the same as the Mac OS's traditional approach. However, unlike the Mac approach, Windows Vista has no persistent, system-wide menubar, which on the Mac changes contextually depending on the currently active application. Removing the menubar from IE 7's windows is merely reducing, not enhancing, usability.
      • IE 7 departs from the standard browser design by removing the home button from the toolbar and moving the reload and "stop loading" buttons to an unexpected location. As a result, the URL field is far longer than is necessary, and the design creates a subordinate toolbar that could just as well be served by the missing menubar.
      • More than once, I was asked if I wanted to turn on "Sticky Keys," a rather annoying intrusion.
      • Users of IE6 and earlier will find using the sidebar more difficult. For one thing, there is no link to open it within the set of menu items. The sidebar opens up only by interacting with a new drop-down window that appears when you click on the Star icon (Favorites Center) at the left-hand of the tab bar (which doubles as the second toolbar).
      • IE 7's Preferences
      • IE 7's Preferences (Internet Options) window remains the worst of any major browser. It's cluttered, has nonintuitive section titles, and features an "Advanced" set of preferences that are virtually impossible to use. Why? First, the type is too small for many users to read, second, the various options are all treated as if they have equivalent importance (but they don't), and third, the view provides no explanation for what each option means. This window is the same as that in IE 6.
      • Like Firefox, IE does not preserve information entered on a form if you use the back button and then forward again. Anything you've entered is wiped out, unlike Opera and Safari.
      • IE 7 is the only one of the browsers tested that is not available for Mac OS X or any other operating system besides Windows.
      Opera 9.5
      Special FeaturesOpera 9.5
      • Ability to apply "themes" to customize the browser's look and feel. Even better than Firefox, Opera can display and apply themes in the live browser without having to be restarted.
      • A built-in, full-featured email client that integrates well with the browser content.
      • Opera has the best and most useful sidebar of any browser, and with 9.5 they've integrated it much better than before into the interface.
      • Opera's toolbar
      • A built-in Notes tool for jotting down and storing notes. The tool lets you organize and search your notes.
      • Opera lets you tag RSS feeds with "labels."
      • Opera has a large inventory of available web widgets for various purposes, similar to those in Apple's Dashboard, Yahoo's widgets, and Microsoft's "gadgets," all of which run outside the browser. Unfortunately, Opera's widgets only work when Opera is running.
      • Opera's thumbnail tab previews
      • Opera is the only one of the tested browsers that displays page
      • thumbnails of the web pages in each tab, a very useful feature.
      • The most customizable interface of any reviewed browser. Nearly every component of the interface can be rearranged, and there are a wide variety of buttons that can be added to or subtracted from each component. Further, Opera has a large stock of preset "setups" that comprise theme, button, and toolbar settings in one package.
      • A "Small Screen" view that reformats the page to emulate what a user would see on a smartphone-type display.
      • A "Links" function that pulls a list of all page links into a panel in the sidebar.
      • Opera has easily accessible tools for customizing preferences for individual websites.
      • Other unique features such as
      • Trashcan history (for pages whose tabs you've deleted),
      • "Speed dial," which lets you organize top bookmarks and see them each time you open a new tab, and
      • A print preview feature that shows the print view immediately within the browser window.
      • Robust session management, allowing you to save multiple sessions and return to them at another date.
      Good Points Accessibility
      • Opera has the most advanced and easiest to use tools for testing accessibility of any reviewed browser.
      Bookmark management
      • Great tools for managing bookmarks... good sort and search options.
      • Great new UI features... much more organized and logical from the get-go. I like the toolbar icon in upper left, and the standard home/navigation buttons with the URL field. The new Opera standard skin is also great.
      • Folders in the bookmark bar can open all bookmarks at once in a single window.
      • Opera has the most options for exporting bookmarks… either all or selected, and either HTML or formatted ASCII.
      • Powerful and simple functions for importing bookmarks from other browsers--Firefox, IE, or Konqueror on Windows, and Firefox and IE on Mac OS X.
      Connection settings
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      Download management
      • Full-featured "Transfers" window allows you to find downloads on your hard drive, open downloads, and search them. The window also displays the time/date of the download.
      Developer tools
      • Excellent built-in tools for web developers, including a JavaScript debugger and DOM viewer.
      History management
      • Great tools for managing browsing history... good sort and search options.
      RSS feed management
      • Excellent built-in options for subscribing and viewing RSS feeds. Opera also lets you tag feeds with various "labels."
      Search engine support
      • Full customization options for the toolbar search field, although the options are not as simple as those for Firefox and IE.
      Security settings
      • Fine-grained tools for customizing security and connection settings.
      Standards support
      • Support for most non-basic web standards, including:
        • CSS 2.1
        • XHTML
        • PNG, SVG
        • HTML Canvas
        • DOM 1, DOM 2
        • Minimal CSS 3.0
      • Opera's Preferences Window Usability
      • Opera's Preferences window is well organized and reasonably simple.
      • Like Safari, Opera preserves form information you've typed in case you need to go back a page or two and return to the form again. You can use the back button to revisit earlier pages and then the forward button to return to the form, and your entered data will still be there.
      • Opera includes a feature called "Wand," which lets users store and reuse data for any of the forms they fill in on the web. This feature is similar to Safari's "Autofill," though it's more complicated to use.
      • Opera offers a synchronization feature that lets users sync their browser data across different PCs that they use. This service is similar to that offered by Safari through Apple's for-fee .Mac (soon to be renamed "MobileMe") service.
      • Like Firefox, Opera is available for a wide variety of platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and other Unix systems.
      Bad Points Bookmark management
      • No support for Safari bookmarks on Windows, and import function doesn't cover history, cookies, passwords, etc. as does Firefox.
      • Opera is the only browser that doesn't have an option to bookmark all currently open tabs, though it does have powerful session management features that offer similar capabilities.
      History management
      • I found it annoying that there is no way to view your page history without opening the History sidebar. Firefox and Safari both have a top-level menu item called "History" that shows your visited-page history. The only tool provided is a pull-down menu adjacent to the URL address field--the same approach as IE 7--but this isn't nearly as convenient or comprehensive. However, at least Opera provides a single-click tool in its sidebar to access history, unlike IE 7, which requires a multi-click approach unless you keep its sidebar open all the time (which isn't as easy to do as in IE 6).
      Page information
      • Opera has no Page Info panel like Shiira or others that show in detail the resources loaded by the page.
      Search in-page
      • Opera has no advanced, in-page search capability like that of Safari or Firefox. However, you can see all instances of search terms using a function hidden in the main search field on the toolbar.
      Security
      • Opera is overly zealous in identifying "insecure" websites in its default state. It expects all web pages to be encrypted, and doesn't honor standard SSL certificates.
      • Setting many security preferences require knowledge that most web users don't possess.
      Standards support
      • Little support for up-and-coming CSS 3.0 features.
      Tab management
      • You can't drag URLs to the tab bar to open them, as you can in Safari and Firefox. There's also no contextual menu item to open the URL. Thus, the only option is copy and paste into the URL field.
      Usability
      • Doesn't support drag and drop text from browser. This is a drag!
      • Dragging image from browser gave me the URL rather than an image.
      • Notes view has no formatting abilities.
      • Opera's mail client only supports ASCII text mail for formatting, though it can view HTML mail.
      • Opera cannot open PDF files natively in the browser window without requiring a plugin.
      • Some of Opera's "Advanced" preferences are not really that advanced, and I'd argue that individual tabs should be devoted to some of them rather than burying them here. For example, Opera devotes an entire tab to "Wand", which is their autofill implementation and another for "Search." Instead of these, most users would probably want to customize how the browser handles Tabs or Security more urgently. In addition, the tab labeled "Web Pages" is pretty meaningless and should probably be labeled "Appearance" or "Style" instead.
      • Opera's interface can be confusing at times… for example, if you have the "Manage bookmarks" page open and select "History" from the side panel, the "Manage bookmarks" page doesn't get replaced with the corresponding History page. This pattern recurs throughout the sidebar/full-page functions. To further confuse users, the access links/menus to full-page details for each sidebar item aren't located in equivalent places in the interface. Some are easy to find… others hard. They should all work the same way.
      Safari 3.1
      Special FeaturesSafari 3.1
      • Safari features excellent drag/drop and copy/paste to word processing documents. Such copies preserve links and formatting. To the standard RTF Mac editor, TextEdit, such drags also include images and other media. Paste or drag to Apple Mail preserves almost an identical HTML copy of the original page. By contrast, the same page copied from IE 7 to Windows Mail loses most formatting while preserving links and images, but Wordpad,Safari's Toolbar Microsoft's equivalent Rich Text editor, could only accept unformatted ASCII text. Neither Opera nor Firefox can copy and paste formatted HTML (with images) to word processing or RTF document editors. (See accompanying screenshots of the NSB home page. Shot on the left shows home page pasted into Apple Mail client. Shot on the right shows home page pasted into Windows mail.
      • Safari copy/paste web content
      • Unique features such as
        • Trackback, which makes it easy to get back to the web page that started a browsing session for a particular site (including Google searches),
        • Dragging a tab in Safari to make a new window
        • The ability to drag tabs from the tab bar to make new windows or to add them to other windows.
        • On the Mac, Safari also features "WebClip," which lets you create live "widgets" from any part of a web page. This lets you easily view a given snippet--live--at any time without loading the web page in Safari.
      • Best support of advanced CSS 3.0 features, including native support for resizable text fields. In addition, Safari adopts the following CSS 3.0 standards:
      • Border image, which lets web page designers use a single image (either tiled or stretched) to create borders around box text.
      • Box-shadow, a previously difficult--but very popular--design element that puts a drop shadow on page elements.
      • Safari supports CSS border imagesSafari supports CSS box drop shadows
      • Background-size, a technique that lets designers use a single background image for HTML page elements and resize the image as needed.
      • Multiple backgrounds, which lets designers specify multiple images to form a composite background for HTML page elements.
      • And many other advanced CSS techniques (some of which go beyond what's been drafted for CSS 3.0), including:
        • Text shadows
        • Transformations
        • Animations
        • Gradients
        • Reflections
        • Form styling
      • Support for "Private browsing," which makes it very easy to let someone else use your computer without compromising your personal information. When private browsing is turned on, webpages are not added to the history, items are automatically removed from the Downloads window, information isn't saved for AutoFill (including names and passwords), and searches are not added to the pop-up menu in the Google search box. Until you close the window, you can still click the Back and Forward buttons to return to webpages you have opened.
      • Good Points Bookmark management
      • Very easy to use, integrated window for searching and organizing bookmarks, history, and RSS feeds.
      • Folders in the bookmark bar can open all bookmarks at once in a single window.
      • Users can drag page links into folders on the bookmark bar directly, rather than having to visit the bookmark management page to do so. (Firefox also has this feature.)
      • Built-in synchronization of bookmarks through a .Mac ("MobileMe") account.
      Developer tools
      • Support for offline data storage, enabling more robust web applications by putting database info on the client rather than requiring a round-trip to the server.
      • Top-notch built-in tools for web developers, similar to the Firebug add-on that's available for Firefox and much more powerful than Opera's native JavaScript debugger.
      Download management
      • Full-featured Downloads window allows you to find downloads on your hard drive, open downloads, restart stalled downloads, and identify the download URL.
      History tools
      • Very easy to use, integrated window for searching and organizing bookmarks, history, and RSS feeds.
      Page information
        Safari's Page Inspector
      • Along with Safari's "Page Inspector," which developers can use for debugging and probing detailed information about a given page's or element's structure and metrics, you also get an amazing tool for inspecting the page's resources. Each script, CSS file, HTML component, and image is listed along with information on download times and size. Clicking on an item lets you see the file contents (images or source code). The Page Inspector also has a search feature by which you can search the entire set of data it includes. (Firefox has an add-on called Firebug that provides information very similar to Safari's Inspector… but it's not included as part of Firefox itself.)
      Privacy settings
      • Safari has the easiest, most accessible tool for emptying your browser cache. When you need to free up memory, make sure you're pulling a fresh copy of a web page, or remove the cached pages on your hard drive for privacy reasons, Safari's "Empty Cache" item in the main menu is very handy. Firefox's analogous function is called "Private Data," but without configuration in a sub-page of Firefox's preferences, this category includes a lot more data than simply the browser cache. Both Opera and IE 7 have this feature, but buried in various menus and preference panels and more obscurely named.
      RSS feed management
      • Safari pioneered integration of RSS subscriptions into the web browse, and it still has the easiest and best RSS feed manager. Some reviewers consider Safari's inability to set separate "fetch" schedules for each feed a negative attribute; however, I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this nowadays. After all, the update schedule is really determined by the publisher of the feed... not by the end user.
      • Browser Results on Acid 3 Test
      • Safari offers the option to view and subscribe to feeds through Apple Mail as well, but still use Safari when it's more convenient.
      Search in-page
      • Safari has an excellent implementation of this feature, which was pioneered by the Firefox browser.
      Standards support
      • Safari is the only browser that has passed the CSS "Acid 3" test developed by The Web Standards Project. Safari was also the first browser to pass the WSP's "Acid 2" test, which has now been conquered by all the browsers in this review except for IE 7. (See box "Acid 3 Test Results.")
      • As previously noted, Safari is far ahead of the other browsers in adopting upcoming w3c standards for CSS 3.0.
      • Safari supports the broadest range of image formats among the tested browsers. Besides the additional formats supported by Firefox and Opera, Safari also supports JPEG 2000 and TIFF images.
      Tab management
      • Safari is the only browser that lets you delete links from your bookmark bar simply by dragging them off. With the others, you can delete using a right-click action, but Safari's method is much faster since there's no menu to navigate with the mouse.
      • Supports dragging URLs to tab bar to open new pages.
      • Offers the option of saving currently open tabs for the next session.
      Usability
      • Opera and Firefox both have a feature that lets you email the URL of the current page, but Safari goes one better and lets you email the entire page contents as well. IE 7.0 has this ability as well.
      • Safari has the best support for form "autofill" of any of the browsers. Opera comes in second, only because it's a bit more work to enable this feature. With autofill, Safari can fill in data on most web forms you've used before. On the Mac, Safari data is protected by a master password using the Mac OS X "Keychain" feature.
      • Preserves form information you've typed in case you need to go back a page or two and return to the form again. You can use the back button to revisit earlier pages and then the forward button to return to the form, and your entered data will still be there.
      • Safari has a feature that lets you reopen all windows from your last session.
      • On Mac OS X, Safari opens PDF files natively in the browser window without requiring a plugin, or they can be opened in the full-featured Preview application. On Windows Vista, Safari could not open PDF files in the browser window. In fact, like Firefox, IE 7, and Opera on Windows Vista Ultimate, Safari couldn't open PDF files at all without installation of the Adobe Reader.
      • Safari's Preferences Window
      • Safari has a very simple set of Preferences with 8 clearly labeled sections: General, Appearance, Bookmarks, Tabs, RSS, Autofill, Security, and Advanced. Users of the other major browsers may find the settings provided by Safari to be too sparse; however, as a Mac user I would argue that in general Windows software provides customizable settings that are far more complex than necessary. Safari provides settings for all major user requirements, without the distraction of having to decide on settings you don't really care about.
      Other
      • Safari is built on the open-source WebKit project, so, like Firefox, browser improvements and security fixes come very quickly. (The Opera team also innovates rapidly, but Microsoft's browser development has proceeded very slowly over the years.)
      Bad Points Bookmark management
      • Safari has very basic import/export functions for bookmarks. Like IE, it requires users to browse the hard drive for the HTML bookmarks file to import. Safari offers no other import features.
      Privacy settings
      • Relatively weak features for customizing privacy settings. However, Safari includes a unique "Private Browsing" option, described earlier.
      Search engine support
      • Search form on toolbar only supports Google and Yahoo. (Of course, those are the top two search engines today.)
      Security settings
      • Relatively weak features for customizing security settings.
      • Safari is the only browser that does not allow users to customize its popup-ad blocker settings.
      Usability
      • On Windows Vista, I found that Safari 3.1 sometimes had issues with its window display… the window seemed to frequently require refreshing in order to display the toolbar components correctly.
      • Safari's feature set on Windows isn't quite the same as on Mac OS X. The main missing features I noticed were support for in-browser PDF files without a plugin, support for bookmark synchronization, and availability of the Webclip feature.
      • Safari is only available for Mac OS X and Windows and has no support for Linux or other Unix systems.
      Browser Performance

      Measuring the performance of web browsers is an evolving science, and it seems that new tools for this purpose come out each year. There are three main measurements that these tests concentrate on:

      • Speed of parsing JavaScript,
      • Speed of parsing CSS, and
      • Speed of loading HTML and graphics.
      ZDNet Browser Performance DataZDNet Browser Performance Data


      This section presents data from a few recent, representative studies that have analyzed these browser characteristics. Nearly all of them conclude that Safari is the fastest browser on both Windows and Mac OS X. Typically, Opera comes in second, followed by Firefox and IE 7.

      ZDNet (May 2008)

      This article, written by ZDNet staff in Germany, covers all four of the browsers reviewed in this report, looking at the performance characteristics listed above as well as measures of memory management. The article provides in-depth data on the testing equipment and methodologies used and displays numerous informative charts of the data results. The accompanying charts summarize ZDNet's data on JavaScript, CSS, and HTML page loads for each browser.

      Lifehacker Browser Performance Data
      Lifehacker (June 2008)

      Lifehacker, an award-winning technology-oriented blog, published a study of browser performance in June, looking at a variety of measurements. Its results, which are less ambiguous than those of ZDNet, are summarized in the accompanying chart.


      Web Performance Inc. Browser Performance Data
      Web Performance Inc. (October 2007)

      Web Performance, a company that produces for sale a variety of products designed to measure performance of web applications, conducted a study last October that--ironically enough--largely eschews the use of automated tools. Their tests were designed to measure performance as a typical user would perceive it. Web Performance's test concentrate exclusively on the speed with which the tested browsers load a set of predefined websites, and doesn't look specifically at JavaScript or CSS parsing. Further, its results are based on Firefox 2.0 (since 3.0 wasn't yet released) and on a beta version of Safari 3.0 (rather than 3.1). In addition, the study does not include Opera. The study's results cover load times using the browser cache as well as from the live servers, and it also presents data for load times when the browsers are pulling data from a LAN-based proxy server. The accompanying chart summarizes these results for the three tested browsers.

      Celtic Kane Browser Performance Data
      Celtic Kane (March 2008)

      From a respected web technology-related blog comes the latest in a series of tests looking at browser JavaScript speed. The author's previous tests have been widely cited and well documented. (The report page has a button that lets users run tests on their own browser to compare them to the report's benchmarks.) In the author's first test from August 2006 (before Apple had released Safari for Windows), the winner was Opera 9.0 (by a long shot), followed by IE 6 and Firefox 1.5. The previous test, from September 2007, found Opera 9.23 maintaining the lead, closely followed for the beta of Safari 3.0.3, IE 7, and--much further down the list--Firefox 2.0. The chart below summarizes results from the latest tests, conducted with the most recent browser releases in March 2008. He found that Safari 3.1 had taken the lead and was 1.5 times faster than Firefox 3.0 (a beta version), while finding that Firefox 3.0 had made an astounding performance leap over Firefox 2.0 in JavaScript parsing. The Opera 9.5 beta was nearly on a par with Firefox, while IE 7 was 3 times slower than Safari 3.1.

      Coding Horror (December 2007)

      JavaScript results from this widely-ready programmer's blog are based on the newly available SunSpider test, which by a wide consensus (based on its usage), is now considered to be the Rolls Royce of web browser JavaScript tests. One of the best things about this report is that the author takes some time to explain the meaning of the large range of individual metrics that the SunSpider test comprises. The chart below summarizes the results. A major finding that you can observe on the Coding Horror page but isn't reflected in the chart here, is that IE 7 is two times slower than Firefox 2.0 and four times slower than Opera, the front-runner in this test.

      Ars Technica (April 2008)

      In response to the recent swelling of interest in comparing the speed of Safari (and its open-source cousin, WebKit) with that of the newly released Firefox 3.0, Ars Technica used the SunSpider test to take a look recently. Their test only includes Firefox and Safari, leaving out Opera and, because it was run on an iMac, IE 7.0. Their test is one of the very few that also includes the nightly WebKit release, which typically runs several months ahead of Safari in its code base. Ars Technica found that WebKit was the fastest browser in parsing JavaScript, followed closely by Safari, and then--a good distance back--Firefox 3.0.

      Additional Test Results

      Zimbra.com: And The Winner of the Browser Wars is….

      Computerzen.com: Windows Browser Speed Shootout - IE7, Firefox2, Opera9, Safari for Windows Beta

      Summary

      In nearly all of these tests, Safari is currently leading the pack on both Windows and Mac OS X systems in overall measurements of speed for loading web pages and for parsing JavaScript and CSS. For second place, the results are a mixed bag, with some studies showing Opera ahead and others showing Firefox. However, overall it appears that Firefox 3.0 has been given a major speed boost, and it tops the latest Opera release on Windows Vista. However, Opera remains significantly faster than Firefox on Mac OS X "Leopard."

      Also not contested is the browser bringing up the rear in these tests. In virtually all of the recent browser tests, IE 7 measures significantly slower than the other modern browsers, especially in tests of JavaScript performance. That said, there are some tests of HTML-load performance that show IE 7 somewhat faster than Firefox 3.0.

      Conclusions

      From a purely objective standpoint, based on the performance characteristics and feature set of each browser in this study, I would make the following recommendations to organizations seeking to get beyond their reliance on the outdated Internet Explorer 6.0, or to offer their employees the best browsing experience today:

      1. Eliminate support for IE 6 as soon as possible, since it is a legacy browser with a dramatically inferior feature set as well as inferior performance. Originally, I had planned to include a section here that would go into detail to explain IE 6's shortcomings. However, the reader will infer from the fact that none of the recent industry studies even include IE 6 in their analyses, and from IE 6's rapidly dwindling market share, that IE 6 will be totally obsolete soon. I predict IE 6's market share will drop below 10% in 12 months.
      2. Add support for Firefox 3.0 as your organization's primary browser. Even though Firefox may not be the best browser in all categories, it is more familiar to those who have tried alternative web browsers, and its interface is not dramatically different from IE 6, so users can be migrated with minimal disruption. My only concern about Firefox is the many extensions that are available for that browser. Users will want to try these out, and it's not clear whether they will have the rights to do so in a tightly controlled network environment. Even if they do, users who have a large number of different extensions in their configuration could make support for that browser more difficult. Extensions can cause problems with the browser itself, and unknown extensions can make it more difficult for Help Desk personnel to determine the cause of problems that may arise. Extensions also increase the memory load required to support Firefox. My recommendation for this potential problem is that the organization's IT group canvas users and industry reports to determine a standard set of extensions that it will support. Beyond that, it may be wise to lock down Firefox so that users can only add further extensions with some sort of approval process.
      3. If you still run Windows XP on users' desktops, I'd strongly recommend that you make IE 7 available as a download and encourage everyone to upgrade from IE 6. However, IE 7's quirky interface will likely cause confusion among users who will already have questions about the use of tabs and RSS feeds, thereby increasing the resource cost of supporting them in such a transition. In addition, because IE 7 is so far behind the other browsers in adopting and adhering to current web standards, development of experimental web interfaces for your Intranet will be difficult. The Intranet is the best "sandbox" in which developers can try out new web technologies, adopting those that succeed in major internal web applications and rejecting those that do not. Therefore, it's very important that your primary web browser maintain parity with the state of the art in this regard.
      4. Make Safari 3.1 available as a download, both for Mac users and for Windows users who want to try it out. Safari 3.1 is, by a variety of measures, the best web browser now available, and IT organizations should make such a browser available to its employees. Safari's interface is extremely simple and easy to use, so training and help costs should be minimal. Further, Safari's inclusion in Apple's iPhone makes it an interesting platform for application development--not only for internal use but possibly for customers as well. There will be an explosion in the availability of iPhone applications this year and next, and your organization could certainly be part of that by providing tools useful to staff and customers.
      Bookmarks for Further Reading
          
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      April 14th, 2008

      WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0

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

      A lot has happened in the world of web browsers and CSS 3.0 since I wrote this article last summer at the time Safari 3.0 became available as a public beta. Besides WebKit/Safari, Opera, iCab, Konqueror, and Firefox have all made progress in adopting CSS 3.0 specifications, the next generation of the W3C's Cascading Style Sheets standard.

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

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

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

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

      And since then, WebKit and Safari 3.1 have adopted the following bleeding-edge CSS features:

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

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

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

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

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

      • CSS3 Borders
      • CSS3 Backgrounds
      • CSS3 Text Effects
      • CSS3 User Interface Methods
      • Other Cool CSS3 Techniques
          
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