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November 7th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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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.

    
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August 12th, 2007

An Intimate Evening With Two Dozen iTunes Controllers

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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May 16th, 2007

My Passionate Fling With iWeb Is Wearing Me Out!

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

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

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

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

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

    
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May 1st, 2007

Window Tricks: Extending Your Power Over Mac Applications

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

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

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

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

    
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March 17th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

    
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March 7th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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January 8th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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December 31st, 2006

Getting Organized and Planning Projects: Another Rich Vein of Mac OS X Software

One of the problems I have had in picking a personal information management (PIM) application has been the large degree of overlap among various related categories. For example, where does a “To-Do List” application end and a “Project Management” application begin? Or how about daily journal software and applications that organize your notes? And let’s don’t forget “sticky notes” applications, “shoebox” software, “scheduling” applications, “file storage” tools, and so on.

Truth is, a lot of these categories are slowly merging, and that’s part of what holds me up: Surely the ultimate convergence will be upon us soon, so just wait a little while longer. Yeah, right. The problem with this kind of logic is that convergence is a trend that never stops, and if you never dive in and pick something to help you manage information and/or get organized, you never will. The reason convergence keeps going is that each new software idea sparks another one. Both users and developers participate in this amazing dance, and ultimately we all end up winners. This is why I stress the importance of avoiding lock-in. Whatever you choose, try to make it one that won’t let you switch to another one in a year or two, if the avatar horse you’ve chosen peters out before the finish line. With that brief intro, I’m going to start a new series looking at a category of software commonly known as “Personal Organizers.” These differ from PIMs mainly in their strict focus on project management, with the humble “to-do” list being the foundation for all of them. In 2006, there has been a rush to market by developers wooing converts to the “Getting Things Done” approach to personal organization. GTD, as everyone seems to call it, is the brainchild of David Allen, whose website and rapidly growing “flock” come across to the unenlightened as a serious religious movement. Obviously (I think), it’s not that, but just having arrived from Mars, it looks that way to me. GTD has numerous champions in the Mac world—in particular the popular 43 Folders website, which I first came to know as a champion of Quicksilver. It turns out that 43 Folders champions Quicksilver because it’s such a useful tool in adhering to the “GTD way.” Whatever you may think about David Allen and the specifics of his GTD prescription, most busy professionals today are definitely in need of help in Getting Things Done. Whatever tool or approach helps you with that worthy goal is worth adopting, and the arrival of so many helpful personal organizer tools will hopefully help more of us “get a grip” on all the “to-do” lists we’ve got floating around in our brain. What I’m referring to as Personal Information Managers (PIMs) are more “jack-of-all-trades” in their approach, recognizing that to-do lists are one kind of information we need to manage, but so are software serial numbers, online store receipts, web bookmarks, journal notes, blog entries, and so on. I’m starting the series with a software package that could almost be considered a PIM, and in fact I almost added it to that other list this evening. But ultimately, Process by Jumsoft is a Personal Organizer. Its focus is on helping you get things done, not on helping you organize all the information you have scattered around the house or office.
    
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December 23rd, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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December 9th, 2006

True Confessions of a Mac Software Addict

Hello, my name is LelandSoftware Addiction Can Enrapture! Scott, and I am a software addict. Put me in front of a cool-looking website with cool-looking software to download, and I’ll use my hefty Verizon FIOS bandwidth to have that sucker on my hard drive almost before Safari has a chance to warn me that the download might contain an application.

This didn’t used to be a serious problem… it was just a harmless pastime. But in recent years, Mac OS X software has been on a major growth spurt. Each year the problem gets worse. There’s a Windows user I know who has a similar problem, and I really don’t know how he copes. He developed a cool website to publish his thoughts and let the world know of his favorite Windows applications, called The Great Software List. He’s been doing this for years, and it shows: The site is well organized, and he clearly explains his standards for great software and why he’s chosen the ones he has. The author has 184 Windows applications on the list… these are the apps that have earned his highest 5-star rating.

When I think about how many mediocre Windows apps he has to wade through to find these gems, my head spins. Keeping up with the onslaught of Windows software releases has to be a more-than-full-time job. I’m assuming there are probably at least 5 Windows apps released for every Mac app these days… That’s purely a guess, and it’s designed to be on the low side of the assumed Mac-market-share-based hypothesis. I would go absolutely bonkers if I tried to download and demo any more software than I already do, which is simply overwhelming nowadays. I wonder if worries about viruses, spyware, and other malware keeps my Windows counterpart’s download addiction under some control? Maybe so…

    
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Posted in:Reviews, Software Musings, |
November 17th, 2006

Ten Ways To Make a Podcast, Plus One

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

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

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

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

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

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

    
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October 29th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Option to restore your last workspace, or any of the pages you had open, on launch.
  2. Add sidebar with thumbnail tabs.
  3. Customize search engines available in the standard Google search form.
  4. Automate "find" function without having to type Cmd-F.
  5. Add color labels to your bookmarks.
  6. Enable site alteration, customizing allowable plugins, images, JavaScript, style sheets, and more for any website.
  7. Colorize the HTML source window, and make it editable.
  8. Reorder tabs in a window (this is a native feature of Firefox and will be one in Safari 3.0).
  9. Use the "Stand Bar", a floating palette with searchable bookmarks and history, as well as customizable SafariStand folders and RSS feeds.
  10. Configure your "Bookmark Shelf," a floating palette that lets you build and access saved "workspaces," which are lists of sites you open up in a browser session and want to save for later use.
  11. Access one of the best "Page Info" stores now available for any browser.
  12. For any site you're visiting, easily see a list of all the cookies the site has set, examine their contents, and/or delete one or more of them.
    
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October 17th, 2006

What’s The Best Mac Database Tool for MySQL?

Although I’ve been MySQL Mac OS X Database Tools Shootoutdeveloping websites with MySQL for over 7 years now, until recently I had almost always used phpMyAdmin to manage my databases. phpMyAdmin is such an excellent web application and makes managing MySQL so easy that the only time I strayed was when it wasn’t available on the host server (which was very rare). When I needed a desktop MySQL client, I had turned to YourSQL, which I determined a couple of years ago was the best for me when connecting to MySQL from Mac OS X.

For various reasons that I won’t bore readers with here, I found myself needing a Mac desktop client for MySQL again recently, so I took the opportunity to review the market once again. What surprised me most, I suppose, is how many options there are for Mac OS X users who do a little light database work. (Caveat: I am by no means a database administrator, and my knowledge of SQL and MySQL is merely sufficient to develop web applications—meaning, I can build tables, relate tables, and build queries for those tables. The tools reviewed here are from this use case alone.) In the course of testing, I tried out nine different database apps:

    
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October 9th, 2006

Does Anybody Really Know What Their IP Address Is?

In our modern, interconnected, always-on age, knowing one’s IP address comes in real handy at times. Knowing your IP address isn’t quite as important as knowing what time it is, but it helps to have an IP clock handy when you need it.

I’ve dabbled with quite a few solutions to this problem over the last few years, and there are a large number of decent IP clocks available… most of them for free. In my IP ramblings, I’ve ruled out solutions that work only in the Dock and ones that put an IP address right in your menubar. I don’t use the Dock that much anymore (between Quicksilver, ClawMenu, Dashboard, and menubar widgets, I don’t need it), except in its application switcher form. And IP addresses printed directly in the menubar take up too much valuable space and are invariably ugly.

    
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September 28th, 2006

Writing on Your Screen: Digital Annotations Can Save Time, Trees

I’ve had an interest in Digital Annotation Rocks!the “paperless office” for years, ever since Adobe Acrobat came out and was pitched as a possible solution. However, despite the growing sophistication of personal computers over the years, people seem to cling to paper methods no matter what great digital idea comes along. There are reasons for this, of course. For example, I still much prefer to read paper documents instead of trying to read onscreen. My desk is littered with web articles I’ve printed out to read later, although I do take steps to minimize the amount of paper required… by printing duplex (those new Pixma printers from Canon finally make duplex practical in an affordable desktop printer), and by even sometimes printing two pages up, thereby fitting four pages on one sheet of paper.

My preference for reading paper has more to do with portability than readability nowadays. I simply prefer to read in a more relaxed position than one can muster at a desktop PC, and I also like reading in places where even laptops are uncomfortable to use. (I didn’t say the toilet, mind you.)

One small area where little progress seems to have been made in eliminating paper involves marking up comments and other notes on paper documents. If I see a web article or some other electronic document and want to pass it along to a colleague with a few comments, my digital options aren’t great. I can forward the URL in an email, but then it’s hard to focus attention on the particular passage I want to comment on. I can take a screenshot and somehow include that in an email or word processing document and send it along. Or I can print it out and mark it up, then stick it in interoffice mail… or simply walk it over to my colleague.

But what if I could simply mark up a few comments right on my computer screen and then transmit a snapshot of that? Wouldn’t that be easier all around, and save paper as well?

    
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August 8th, 2006

Web Inspector Gains New Eyes for Metrics, Properties

Web Inspector's New TabsLike many of you who develop on the Mac, I was amazed and very impressed by the WebKit team’s Web Inspector tool when it was unveiled in January. However, it was clearly not yet complete… two critical tabfulls of data were missing, which kept me turning to other tools—like the excellent Firebug for Firefox—when getting into a serious debugging session.

Well, tonight I was delighted to discover that the wait is over! On downloading a new build of WebKit today, I found that Web Inspector finally can provide those critical Metrics and Properties of each DOM element on my web pages. And boy, have they done a great job in the implementation! Every bit as cool and functional as the original bits, so I can now get all the details on any element of the page with a right-click of my mouse (control-click for some folks) and a simple selection of “Inspect Element.” Now come on Firebug fans, don’t you wish you could inspect an element that easily? Not that it’s hard with Firebug, but I always say, “Save a millisecond here and a millisecond there, and pretty soon you’ve saved a whole second!” (Just kidding… I never said that before.) :-)

    
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July 26th, 2006

Getting Ready for Screencasting: A Review of Video Screen Capture Software for Mac OS X

Video Screen Capture Software for Mac OS XI’ve been hooked on the idea of screencasting ever since Jon Udell started pushing it a couple of years ago.  He pointed out some very effective screencasts that others had made and posted several excellent screencasts himself, interspersed with articles on best practices, tools, and tips.  As Udell pointed out in “Movies of Software,” Apple has done a less-than-stellar job at making screencasting on the Mac as super-simple as other creative and educational tasks are.  He was also dismayed–well, at least, I was dismayed–to report that he was doing his screencasting on a Windows machine mainly because Microsoft had provided superior, free tools for doing so.  *Groan*  Let’s see… that was a year and a half ago!  I thought surely someone from Apple would have read his blog post and rushed an update to QuickTime Pro to make amends.  Not that it’s completely equivalent, because QuickTime Pro isn’t free, but at least Mac OS X users wouldn’t have to go hunting and pecking for a tool to do a basic job like screen-capturing.  The problem is, you see, that the world has moved on from Grab, and when I think “screen-capture” today, I don’t just think still pictures.  Heck, no.  I want to capture motion… I want to capture sound.  I want to capture software.

The sound part is easy, thanks to the truly superior tools Apple provides in iLife… in this case, GarageBand.  But the video… Like I said, *Groan*!  On a Mac, you can capture yourself making funny faces in both stills and videos… You can create little video miracles of your family at play… You can turn yourself into a budding American Idol with GarageBand and iMovie.  But you can’t do a simple thing like capturing the beautiful animations and user-interface delights that Mac users enjoy while working with their software.  In other words, you can’t capture videos of Mac OS X in action.

So, one of the categories of software I’ve been keeping an eye on–and cataloguing possible purchases in–has been video screen capture products.  I don’t think I’d ever have the time–or talent–to prepare true screencasts in the Jon Udell mold, but I have found myself wanting to capture small videos of Mac OS X software in action on many occasions.  In fact, little videos have been creeping into my software reviews and other blog posts for the last 6 months or so.

    
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July 18th, 2006

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

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

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

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

Yahoo Widget Main Menu

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

  • Run widgets like normal applications outside of Dashboard
  • Easily change a widget’s “window level”–meaning, where it resides starting from the desktop itself up to a window that floats persistently above all regular windows, with several layers in between.
  • Ability to lock a widget in place
  • Ability to set transparency for a widget.
  • Ability to access widgets–and their preferences–from a handy menubar item.
  • Ability to stop and start the widget layer as the need arises.
    
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June 29th, 2006

How’re We Doing Now? An Update on DHTML/Ajax Browser Compatibility

Ajax-DHTML Toolkits ReviewSince my original report on the browser and platform compatibility of some 50 Ajax JavaScript libraries in March, the market has continued to produce new toolkits at a rapid pace. I recently finished grading all (but one) of the 8 libraries added since March, and I’ve revisited the scores of another 8. With that, the time seemed right for a report on how Ajax library developers are doing at achieving cross-browser, cross-platform compatibility in the tools they’re giving us–tools which programmers around the world are using to hammer out their unique vision of Web 2.0.

I’m very pleased to report that the trend is moving strongly toward full compatibility. Of the eight new libraries, a full five of them achieve top grades of “A”. That’s a much higher percentage of the total than in March, and of the three non-A libraries, only one was a D (D+ actually). One was graded C+ and the other B. Of the revisited libraries, I was able to raise grades for three–Backbase, ICEfaces, and MochiKit. Only one library had a lower grade (Rico, down from A- to B), and the rest were unchanged.

Only two of the 8 new libraries have commercial licenses you’d have to pay for, and in one case you are really only paying for the IDE. Three of the new libraries require a java server architecture in order to be happy, one would prefer Cold Fusion, and the others are pure client libraries that are agnostic with respect to the application server. One library was added just a couple of days ago (Jitsu), and I haven’t had time to review it yet–but you’ll find it summarized here with the rest. Only one of these 16 libraries is DHTML with no Ajax controls–Uize. Even without Ajax, however, I think you’ll find Uize to be one of the most interesting here–especially in terms of visual richness.

    
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May 30th, 2006

All The Lovely Browsers!

All the Lovely BrowsersLately, I’ve been on a bit of a rampage on the subject of cross-browser compatibility, becoming especially incensed by prominent websites and web 2.0 applications that don’t work in Apple’s Safari browser. I know some of you are sympathetic, but think I should just be pleased that these sites work in Mozilla Firefox, which runs on all platforms known to man (or woman (or Martian)).

Yes, it’s definitely worth celebrating that Firefox has broken through the stranglehold with which Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had gripped the industry for so long, providing not just a viable alternative, but a demonstrably superior web browsing experience. Firefox is the descendent of Netscape Navigator that’s finally returned to beat off the IE interloper, and it has a huge following among developers as well as users.

But there are a number of other excellent web browsers that get shortchanged when a company is testing its site or application in only IE and Firefox. For as good as Firefox is, it’s not the best in all aspects of web browsing, either on Windows or the Mac. This article highlights a few facts about the browser market and points to some really useful features found in non-IE, non-Mozilla browsers that explain why users remain devoted to them and, like me, continue to raise a stink when they are ignored. The other two browsers I use pretty much every day, in addition to Firefox, are Opera and Safari.

    
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April 12th, 2006

Web-Based Collaborative Editing: Twiki, Tiddly, or TikiWiki?

Wiki ExplosionI spent a few weeks in December 2005 investigating the universe of wiki software, and confirmed what I already suspected: It’s a very big universe with many wikis! It would be impossible to explore them all, so I first tried to come up with a short list of wiki engines to focus on. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent sites that attempt to provide matrices of wiki software functions and abilities. Here are a few I used and recommend:

After studying these various resources, I was able to narrow the list of wikis down to the following:

MediaWiki was the default choice, since I assumed it was probably the best of the lot, given its starring role in powering Wikipedia and just about every other high-profile wiki you encounter on the web. After a painless default installation of MediaWiki, I had the usual MediaWiki shell and did a few quick walk-throughs of the structure just to make sure all the plumbing was in place. It seemed to be, so I proceeded to install a few of the others from my short list.

    
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October 3rd, 2005

Vinyl Record Lovers Rejoice! ClickRepair Is a Must-Have Audio Cleaner

Beatles 45 with DirtI’m diverging a bit from the usual topics to share my discovery of a small software miracle that will truly elicit “Oohs” and “Aahs!” from readers who spend time digitizing their old vinyl records. In the best shareware tradition, a mathematics professor in Australia named Brian Davies has applied his mathematical prowess and his knowledge of digital audio to produce a java application that succeeds in a spectacular way where many commercial packages have failed: With his ClickRepair application, music lovers everywhere can now clean up audio files transferred from old vinyl records without compromising the sound quality of the underlying music. And he makes this possible for an investment of only $25.

    
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Just Say No To Flash