Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blogging Nirvana

Ok, I have been officially blogging for 1 year, 2 months and 11 days and have written 25 articles. While it may not make me an expert in blogging, I can safely say I have some experience doing it.

Originally, I used Text Edit or BBEdit to write the articles, then I would cut and paste them into the New Post window on Blogger where I would tweak them, add links and upload pictures.

Then I graduated to using just the browser to write the posts. But, depending on the browser, I would get different results. Firefox gave me full set of editing controls, Safari gave me a more limited set.

Also, I was always afraid I would lose what I had written if the browser unexpectedly quit or if I decided to move to another provider for my blog. In addition, you always have to wait between some commands in order to be able to save a draft or preview or publish your post.

Then I stumbled upon offline blog editors. These programs allow you the convenience of an email or word processor interface in addition to being able to manage and upload your posts when you're done. Nice. In fact, I am writing this post using a program called MarsEdit. Let's hear it for another local software programmer!

Can you say "WOW"? Sure you can! I downloaded, installed and setup this program, retrieved all my past posts and setup my account and started writing. Total startup time: less than 5 minutes. Read the manual? Nah! I'm not even sure there is one.

MarsEdit supports multiple blogs, on multiple blogging systems, including Blogger, WordPress, TypePad and Movable Type. It uploads images along with your posts. Save drafts, preview posts, edit previous posts, spell-checking, add HTML tags, even build your own. You can even tag posts with category labels for quick sorts along with name, date and Weblog sorts.

Then there are the more esoteric features supported like automatic pinging of blog search engines, support for third-party text filters and bookmarklets. Also, MarsEdit can use an external edit like BBEdit and Textwrangler. In addition, it's fully Apple-Scriptable.

Anything missing? Well, it would be nice to have a count or statistics feature in the Edit window so you can tell how many posts either overall or by Weblog you have made and maybe how many have visited the site (maybe a tie-in to a stat-tracking page like Google Analytics). And currently, there is no image upload feature for Blogger (dang!) but that seems to be a Blogger issue more than MarsEdit, since Blogger doesn't support external image uploads – yet. But after reading some forum posts, that feature is on it's way. That's about it, other than the price.

At $24.95, it's an expensive alternative to the existing, free methods of posting. If you manage multiple blogs, it pays for itself with a single user interface and multiple blog access. Maybe a less expensive version for maintaining a single blog would lure more users. A regular and a Pro version, say. But overall, an excellent, well-designed application.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Licensed to Use

*** Insert James Bond Intro Here ***

While keeping track of your software may not be as exciting as watching a James Bond flick, it could be as challenging as watching Mr. Bond fight the forces of evil in defense of England and the world. Maybe you have dozens of little post-it notes or the original software boxes on shelves or you find you have made more shareware purchases over the years and no hard filing system for all those downloads and online purchases. I have a client who is looking for a way to track the software assets on individual systems for the purpose of determining how many licenses they own of each product. This led me to my latest tale of intrigue in tracking down chief software suspects.

For those on a budget, there are simple ways to do this. In any word processor, simply make a list or, even better, a table and add columns for software title, version number, serial number, maybe date purchased/upgraded, and the companies website and technical support number. If you own a spreadsheet program like Excel or even a database program like FileMaker, you can easily customize the layout, print reports and more.

There's a shareware application called Software & Hardware Tracker 4.2 that is based on FileMaker which I had purchased some years ago. I was actually able to find the website and download the most current copy. It now works using a run-time version of FileMaker, which is a good thing because it's the 5.x version and not the 7.x or 8.x that is available now. Probably the most comprehensive version of all the software I reviewed but suffers from an antiquated user interface and overly complex means of accessing and entering data. The cool thing about is that it allows companies to create users (called workstations) and then assign versions of applications to each. It also allows for historical recording, versions purchased, costs, etc. allowing you to track every upgrade. You also can build a product list by software company too, eventually easing data input since all the individual database files can be cross referenced. This is the only app in the review that has complete reporting capability as well. There are a lot of good things to say about this program, it's too bad that user experience (especially entering data) is so complicated. It would do well with tool tips and more meaningful icons. But if you want all the details, this one's for you. Cost is $15 for single workstation, $25 for unlimited workstations (for a company) and $50 for full layout and script access. Their website mentions a complete re-write of the application for FileMaker 7.x called Xware Tracker. They have an enticing screen shot (see final screen shot, left) of the proposed new interface and it looks promising, but it's still vaporware.

LicenseKeeper 1.0.1
Remember my mantra. If it looks cool and works cool, buy it. This is another one of those programs, this time by a local yokel. It truly evokes the Mac-ness of software interfaces – Drag and Drop, Spot Light, Toolbar, great use of icons, easy-to-use, etc. An awesome feature is the Attachments, which allows to add highlighted email (such as registrations and receipts) from Apple's Mail program and copies the email to the application, even parsing the serial number and automatically adding it to the field. How cool is that? I can't wait for future versions, which after having communicated with the author, will include categorizing of the list, and I sincerely hope, printing. I would suggest making tweaks using iTunes and iPhoto as guides, for creating software albums or playlists – essentially folders for organizing software under user or application type. Maybe a way of adding duplicates for multiple copies of software, too. But for the printing, a must-have. $19.95.

Licensed 1.0b1
Here's a freebie that is a great alternative to LicenseKeeper. Not as slick or as tricked-out, but it does the job. Nice that it automatically adds the version number to the listing (but I wish it did that with the company, too). Also uses Spotlight. Doesn't allow for attachments, nor does it use links to websites or emails, which the others feature. And there's no printing, which to me is a deal-killer. But hey, it works and it's free.

Software Tracker 1.3
YAFA (Yet Another FileMaker App). But all things considered, not a bad one. Works similarly to the Personal Serial Database mentioned below, lists important info first and can enter into a detail screen. The problem I have with this is similar to SHT 4.2, in that it seems very complicated to do a simple delete record. You have to find the record, edit the record and then delete. Three steps is too many for me. Allows you to add an image of the software, though it would be nice to do something automatic like LicenseKeeper (I mean, it's painful enough to do the input without having to worry about finding or scanning graphics). And the cost at $40 is simply outrageous, considering the less expensive and even free alternatives that do a better job. Wouldn't let me print from the demo, but since it's a database app, I'm willing to conjecture that it does a decent job of listing the information in a concise manner.

info.xhead 1.3
A nicely designed little app that uses Apple's Address Book as the basis for its design. At $15 it's a good deal, but you get what you pay for, which is not a lot of customization. No separate company and version fields, printing doesn't allow for line listings only, so reports would eat up too much paper.

Personal Serial Database 1.6
A FileMaker Pro 5.5 run-time database application that doesn't suffer as much from the interface issues of the Software & Hardware Tracker mentioned earlier. Has a nice, compact layout, and shows the important stuff in a list, while giving you the option to see the full detail. I couldn't find a link to the software on the developer's website, which makes me wonder if he has abandoned it, but you can get it from VersionTracker. And it blows the socks off of the other FileMaker contender Software Tracker, since it's free. Unfortunately, it seems to only print the layout screen. Weird. It's capable of so much more since it's built on FileMaker.

Well, yes, we want to maintain as much data electronically as possible, but it's still a necessity to be able to print reports for personal backup, security, insurance, etc. So while I'm crazy about LicenseKeeper, even a bad job at printing is better than none. So if reporting is a must, Software & Hardware Tracker, followed by info.xhead. Otherwise, it's LicenseKeeper all the way.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Where did all my drive space go?

Ok, there I was, deep in the Amazon jungle... No, wait... this is the wrong blog. Let me start again. Ok, there I was, cursor deep in the directory structure of my hard drive, slogging through documents and applications, not knowing which files were hogging space. There was no way out. When, suddenly, a friend put out his hand to drag me to the shores of sanity – OmniDiskSweeper (ODS). How can such a little application save me from the depths of madness? I'll tell you.

ODS from The Omni Group, bringers of programs such as OmniWeb, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner and more, has a nice little app here that does one thing – sizes all your files. All of them. Hidden files can run but they can't hide from the sweeper. After sweeping your drive, it presents you with a list, nicely organized by file size, that you can navigate, tracking down recreant files and eliminating them. Right off the bat, I found two StuffIt Expander temporary folders holding 5GB (yes, that's GB) worth of unneeded data. Whoo-hoo! It was also able to find ghost files in the /Volumes folder that saved me another 10GB.

Wow, what a cost saver. If we were to run out and purchase a extra drive every time we ran low on storage space, we' d be up to our CPUs in external drive cases and power bricks. For a measly $14.92, you simply can't go wrong. Anyone get the $14.92? Check here for details... You can get a one-day activation license at the website to try it out.

In the interest of fair reporting, there is another program available that does a similar thing called WhatSize? (WS?) by ID-Design, Inc. It's free and has some additional functionality including variable display modes (table, bar and pie chart), color-coded file ranges (files 0KB-.9MB are green, files 1MB-.9GB are purple, files 1GB and up are red), and alternating row colors for easier reading. It also sports a more typical OS X interface with a toolbar across the top, sporting most of the program's commands.

Oddly enough, neither program has a Move command, allowing you relocate large files to another location, should you wish to retain them. I ran a time test to see which app takes less time to scan a volume, here are the results. For an internal SATA 160GB drive that was 76.5GB full, WS? took 3:11 to scan, ODS took 2:42, about 29% faster. For an external 400GB drive, connected via FireWire 800, of which 259GB were used, WS? took 00:58 to complete and ODS took 00:48 to complete, about 21% faster.

Also, WS? rescans every time you click on a Volume (though you can stop it with a command), and ODS pops a new window up for each volume and doesn't rescan. I do like everything in one window in the WS? interface, but it is annoying to have the volumes rescanning. Both apps color code by file size, and although it's not a bad feature, it may be unneeded due to the file size column.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON: This type of application is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced user. Delete only files that you have created or installed. Stay out of the System folder and any other OS related location. You can seriously mess up your OS if you accidentally delete files you aren't supposed to.

It would be nice if the applications would caution you prior to deletion or had an index of files that shouldn't be deleted to cross-reference by. Even some kind of un-delete feature that pulls stuff out of the Trash for you or a pre-Trash directory that only goes into the Trash when you quit the program, would be nice. All of these functions should be able to be turned off in Preferences for power users.

All that being said, they are useful applications to have around.