Articles In Category Usability
Some variation of these text tools have been included in CrystalClear Interface, as well as Crystal Black, since those applications were first released. However, the tools have nothing to do with the theming of buttons and windows, or with the general appearance of Mac OS X. I added them because they address a real need of mine, which no other software could do.
As a writer, I need ready access to a range of text functions, and I need them in whatever application in which I happen to be writing. In most of the rich text editors I use, those functions are available somewhere in the app’s menus, but typically they're in different places within each app. Some apps don’t include one or two key functions at all.
Mac OS X has a rich text framework that provides just the set of editing tools I require, and it would be extremely handy to be able to access those tools consistently across apps. This is precisely what the MarsThemes Text Tools do: Grant easy access to the key Cocoa text tools that writers and editors need but can’t find.
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.
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.
So, 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.
To acknowledge the theme's heritage, I've dubbed the theme Crystal Black.
I've observed that one of the most intractable problems bedeviling computer users, which makers of operating system software never seem to solve, is that of "Window Clutter." The inability to …
- Stay focused on the window you're working in, while
- Keep auxiliary windows handy and visible when needed,
- Avoid confusing any of these windows with those of other running applications, and
- Maintain some reasonable level of aesthetic quality to your computer desktop.
… is a nettle that keeps on pricking. At least, judging from continued user grumbling about it and the continued, less-than-satisfactory, though often valiant, solutions that user-interface experts keep offering users as the final salvation from this longstanding hindrance to productivity, I conclude that the nettle is alive and well.
That Window Clutter should still be a topic of conversation among engineers at Apple (I don't think Microsoft has any high-level staff who really care about or understand the issues surrounding interface usability, and Linux developers don't have the time to do so) is testament to their failure to stamp out a problem that appears from Mars to have a fairly simple solution, namely:
- Make it so that only one application's windows are visible at any one time.
Affectionately referred to as Single Application Mode, or SAM, this is the default desktop environment on Mars. It's also widespread on Earth, though its human adherents often practice SAM quietly or even in secret because it's not an official, supported Mac OS X desktop environment.
Still, we find SAM the best way of dealing with today's large monitors, huge RAM capacity, and equally huge software options—all of which spell Window Clutter at a scale never before experienced.
A quiet revolution has taken place for Mac OS X Safari users, but I haven’t seen anyone celebrate it… and I’ve looked! There isn’t even a mention of this dramatic change in Safari’s powers on the Surfin’ Safari blog, where the open source team that’s evolving the WebKit rendering engine used in Safari announce new features and updates. Lately, this team has implemented a number of really amazing features from the CSS 3.0 specification, and each has been trumpeted with some eye-popping examples. But not a word about this.
Well, I for one am celebrating the upgrade with this article and proclaiming to the world that finally, at last, Safari is gaining parity with the other modern browsers in letting users perform WYSIWYG editing whenever the application calls for it. Mac users like me who have simply done without rich-text editing in their WordPress blogs and Gmails, bristling with an unfamiliar envy at the vast majority of users who take this functionality for granted by now, can finally save ourselves some typing and edit in our web browser with the same ease we do in a word processor.
I’ve been intrigued 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.
Apple’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.
You’ve heard about one or two of them, and you may even have seen a YouTube video of Safari 3.0’s tab tricks. But let me tell you, as part of my Building Leopard project, discovering Safari 3.0 has left me with an insatiable desire to work in Leopard full-time. There are three standout features that I really miss when I “degrade gracefully” to other modern web browsers on my Mac—and that includes Firefox 2.0x, Opera 9.x, and Safari 2.x as my regular web companions.
Even though Firefox has enough cool extensions to keep a software addict fed from now until next year, none of them match the upcoming features Apple has cooked up for Safari 3.0 in Mac OS X 10.5 (”Leopard”). Likewise, Opera and its talented development team is going to be left behind the curve for awhile, as are better-than-Safari wannabes like Shiira and OmniWeb on the Mac. (It took Microsoft 5 years to add tabs to its browser, and from the way they’ve implemented them, I still don’t think they quite get it. So, no, I’m not expecting any innovative new ideas in web browsing from Redmond any time soon.)
Ok, with a buildup like that, I can hear you Safari naysayers out there beginning to clear your throats in preparation for throwing out some canned dissults about Safari. Save ‘em.
I’m not sharing these in order to put down anybody else’s browser of choice (well, IE is so far down it’s hard to do anything else!), and I’m not suggesting they are going to revolutionize web browsing, even remotely. The ideas Apple has implemented are not so unique that the company should have taken out patents or anything. Rather, these are incremental innovations of the sort that keep the art of web browsing moving forward. It’s ideas like these that could potentially jog the minds of other creative programmers, who will then go off and imagine some other cool new enhancements for Firefox or Opera or Shiira or OmniWeb.
In the end, it’s all good for web surfers like you and me. (Hey! Are humans and martians who browse the web “web browsers”? If so, when do we get new features?)
I didn’t intend to write this article today… In fact, I’m right in the middle of three others that I want to finish. However, it just leaped at me from the front page of today’s Washington Post Business page, and I couldn’t resist. In an article called Access Denied, the writer bemoans the many passwords and PINs and such that the modern, web-connected human must juggle in daily life. People today have so many passwords to remember, they simply can’t, and this undermines the very security the passwords are set up to ensure, since companies will typically allow a shortcut to someone who claims to have forgotten a password—for a bank account, for example.
When I forget a password, I launch Keychain Access, which is a surprisingly sophisticated application that I use in a very simple way. Namely, I enter a search term in the search field, which invokes a live search on the Keychain database and displays matching results below. Each result shows the username associated with the website or application, so it’s easy to find which Key I’m looking for. Double-clicking on the Key brings up a dialog panel that gives me some management capability on the particular key. I’m sure this is cool and significant, but I go straight for the “Show password” checkbox.
I’ve been hooked on the idea of screencasting ever since Jon Udell started pushing it a couple of years ago.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â *Groan*Â Let’s see… that was a year and a half ago!Â I thought surely someone from Apple would have read his blog post and rushed an update to QuickTime Pro to make amends.Â 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.Â 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.Â Heck, no.Â I want to capture motion… I want to capture sound.Â I want to capture software.
The sound part is easy, thanks to the truly superior tools Apple provides in iLife… in this case, GarageBand.Â But the video… Like I said, *Groan*!Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â In fact, little videos have been creeping into my software reviews and other blog posts for the last 6 months or so.
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.
I 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:
- Good reviews of wiki software at onLamp.com, a site devoted to open-source LAMP products.
- This is a very thorough â€œchoice treeâ€ for wikis.
- Splitbrain, which makes Dokuwiki, has a good comparison page on wikis.
- Best of all, donâ€™t miss the new Wiki Matrix website, which evolved from a static HTML table matrix last fall.
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.
This is just a quick “thank you”? to Les Posen for his patient defense of iTunes in the face of an incomprehensible attack by RSS and scripting guru Dave Winer yesterday. First, in case you haven’t read it, here is Winer’s opinion of iTunes, excerpted from one of his blogs:
The user interface on iTunes is awful. It’s the worst piece of crap I’ve ever used. People would tell me when I was a Windows user that it was because the Windows version of iTunes is crap but the Mac version is easy. Well, both programs are head-up-butt impossible to figure out. The user model makes no sense. When is something on the iPod? How many copies of the music do I have? Where the fcuk are they? How do you delete something? Is it really gone? Why does it wipe out the contents of the iPod when I don’t say it’s okay to?
Now, I know that Dave Winer thinks he’s a god, and probably a lot of others do, too. However, it’s important to understand that here on earth, if you’re God of Scripting or God of Podcasting, that doesn’t make you God of Interface Design as well. You don’t get to rule in that space. It’s just like the ancient greek gods… each one specialized in a certain field, and didn’t try to tell the other gods how to run their special areas. Can you imagine Poseidon, who was god of of the sea, giving a critique of some musical composition to Apollo, who was god of music? Or, even if he did, would Apollo (or any of the other gods) take him seriously? Of course not.
2. A Freakin’ Awesome Dictionary
I’ll bet those of you who read my first article in this series last spring are either Windows fans who have been chuckling, “See, he could only think of one thing!” Or you’re Mac fans who are disappointed that I started in strong to give the other side “what for,” but then left the match just when it was getting interesting.
Although you’d both be wrong, you have to understand that here on Mars, time moves at a somewhat slower pace than it does on Earth. You see, here it’s only been a month since I wrote that first installment, and I thought I was doing pretty good to be getting a second one in already. Then I realized how it might look from down here, and, well… I’ll try to get the third article done in a time frame that will make more sense to you folks.
Now, you ask, “Exactly how could something as mundane as a dictionary possibly induce envy in a Windows user?” Ah, I see you’re one of those who still hasn’t fully appreciated the awesome Dictionary.app built into Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4). It’s already been highlighted in all the Mac news magazines, glorified in all the Mac blogs, and praised endlessly in the Mac discussion forums. Yet I still encounter good, hardworking Mac users who don’t know about it yet. How could that be?
Well, the Tiger Dictionary ain’t exactly a flashy product, for one thing. It doesn’t sit in your Dock, so it’s easy to not realize it’s there. I don’t think Steve included it in any of his Tiger demos. And, well, it’s just a Dictionary, after all.