Ubiquitous Data

I’m on the road this week in Washington, DC. Away from my desktop Mac, I’ve been thinking about data synchronization and the cost we should expect to pay for it.

It seems that everyone is coming out with syncing solutions, and most of these solutions include web-based access to data. And soon, we can expect a flood of iPhone/Touch applications — many of which will be modified versions of traditional desktop Mac apps. We’re on the verge of a significant evolution in data synching and universal data presence.

On that note, I want to point out that NetNewsWire, the popular RSS reader, now offers online syncing. This update came out last month, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to test it out on the road. It works well. It allows me to easily access my RSS feeds, whether on my iPod Touch or on the PC laptop I’m using (under protest) for work. While there are many RSS solutions out there, the free NetNewsWire is one of the best. The addition of syncing means that I can manage and maintain my RSS feeds from any location.

It’s no stretch of imagination to see that seamless synced data is the future, and that this future is coming fast. What I’m talking about is ubiquitous information — the ability to access all of one’s important data anywhere, anytime, from any platform.

While many services are heading in this direction, few yet do it with real style. NetNewsWire offers a good start. It will be better when there the NNW developers come up with a customized iPhone/Touch app in addition to a web-based solution. I’m confident it’s coming.

My suspicion is that we’ll soon look back at this period in personal computing within a couple of years and smile at what we used to put up with: the now-defunct .Mac, Google apps, and the plethora of other syncing services we now enjoy will soon seem quite primitive.

Evernote is a good example of where we’re heading. It’s a great app and offers very good cross-platform access to your data, but a year from now I venture that the only thing that will make Evernote stand out from the crowd will be stellar Optical Character Recognition (Evernote’s OCR is quite remarkable. Take a snapshot of some text, and it is quickly transformed into fully-searchable text). However, Evernote’s ability to sync data in the ‘cloud’ and serve it up on the web or on multiple installations of the app across platforms will be old hat.

Soon we’ll enjoy the ability to access our data everywhere, anywhere, on any platform, whether on or offline — that’s the promise, and it’s coming very soon. A year from now, we will demand it.

But what exactly should we expect? Web-based access is nice, but dedicated sister apps for our iPhone/Touch is even better. This is surely in our future, but at what cost?

I’ve been closely following the development of Cultured Code’s Things, an excellent task manager coming soon for the Mac. Concurrently with the creation of this app, the creators of Things are developing an iPhone/iPod Touch application dubbed ‘Things touch.’ It’s going to be good. Things for the Mac is due out in the Summer; Things touch for the iPhone/Touch will hopefully come out at the same time.

But what I’m wondering is this: will we be charged for different versions of the same application? In other words, if I buy Things 1.0 for the Mac, will I also have to buy Things for the iPhone/Touch for $9.99 (which seems to be a magic price point at this time). I’m guessing we will, and I say we shouldn’t complain too much.

Developing for the iPhone/Touch isn’t a matter of a simple port of a Mac app, or it shouldn’t be. It is about developing a unique user interface customized to this extraordinary mobile platform. It’s about minimalism. It’s about elegance. These considerations entail many design decisions and a lot of extra coding. Cultured Code’s blog for Things development is an excellent place to view a behind-the-scenes view of how difficult this can be for a well-thought out app. Check it out.

I initially thought that I would prefer to pay one price for an application, and that price would include a license for the mobile version of the app for the web and for the iPhone/Touch. However, I now see that this really wouldn’t work. If you don’t have a Touch or an iPhone, you clearly wouldn’t want to pay a higher cost for a version of the app you don’t intend to use.

But what about web-based access to your data in a given app? Should that be a free addition or an additional cost? NetNewsWire offers their reader and web-based access/syncing for free. Yojimbo, on the other hand, offers no web-based access. You need to buy Yojimbo for $39. You can get web-based access to your data only if you buy Webjimbo for an additional $30 (an application which is made by a different company). Should I pay a lump sum of $70 for a desktop app with web access for a product like Yojimbo? I don’t think many will choose this option. I will not. In the case of Yojimbo, I’d like to see them either buy out Webjimbo and roll out their own solution. I’d also like to see them make their own iPhone/Touch app to access Yojimbo data on-the-go. I hope this is in the works.

This example hints at what I’d like to see. In short, my preferred future looks like this: Desktop data-centric apps (e.g., Personal Info Managers , Task Managers) offer desktop and web-access version of their apps for one price. I think we should start to expect web-based access for many of the applications we buy and use on the Mac as part of a standard license fee. For the custom app designed for the iPhone/Touch, $9.99 is a good price point that I’d be willing to pay.

What’s clear is that ubiquitous data access is on the way. Pricing schemes for multi-point, ‘anywhere access’ apps continue to develop and mature. It will be interesting to see what model works best.

We’ll soon see. My hope is that the iPhone (and perhaps the newly-launched MobileMe — the .Mac replacement) will drive a new revolution towards elegant data ubiquity.

Post Script: I’m posting these comments in a hotel room using WordPress’ web access on a PC laptop. As I’m pressed for time, I’m not adding links. I don’t have the time. It’s a testament to MarsEdit, TextMate and TextExpander — three stellar Mac applications — that I would add links if I had a Mac laptop on-hand. On my PC, it would be too painful and time-intensive.

P.P.S. Look for the next installment in the long-delayed PIM review sometime next week once I get back to Hawaii. I’ll next look at DevonThink Personal. I’ll also be commenting on the minor controversies surrounding my inclusion of VooDooPad in my review series. The sneak-peek: I’m keeping VooDooPad, but I’m adding an extra Personal Information Manager to the series. I’ll explain my decision soon, as well.

N: the way of the ninja

I accidentally discovered a great Mac-compatible game today, and ended up losing a whole afternoon of productivity.

Here’s what happened. I use LaunchBar to quickly access programs on my Mac. This afternoon, I typed the keyboard shortcut for LaunchBar (-space bar), typed ‘n,’ and then hit return. This is my two-second method to launch NetNewsWire. But I must have misfired, because LaunchBar never opened.

Instead, I inadvertently typed ‘n’ in the address bar of FireFox and hit return. This accident loaded an intriguing page for something called ‘N‘ from a company called ‘metanet software.’ There was little on this page, save for a link that said ‘Come and check out N’s new home, at The Way of the Ninja!’

Unable to resist a link with the word ‘Ninja’ in it, I clicked. What I found there was a free Flash game for Mac and PC. Of course, I downloaded it and fired it up. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the coolest lightweight free game I’ve seen in a long time. The graphics are simple, but the physics simulation is really something to see. This game is beyond addictive. N may be old news to gamers out there, but it was news to me.

Give it a try, if only to watch how smoothly and elegantly the little stick-figure ninja moves around the game space (and explodes spectacularly, employing what the developer’s accurately label ‘bitchin’ ragdoll physics‘).

I had intended to restart work on my PIM review series this afternoon…sigh.

Firefox 3 Nears Release, Delicious Add-on

Firefox 3 Firefox Release Candidate 3 is now out. It’s not a big update. In fact, there’s only one change. The nice thing is that one more of my favorite Firefox Extensions is now available for the new version of Firefox.

Delicious Bookmarks is a cool little add-on that allows you to quickly and effortlessly add new bookmarks direct to your Del.icio.us account. It works great.

I’ve been using the Beta of Firefox 3 for about one month now. I made the switch to see what it looked like, then decided to stay with the Beta.

The downside is that some of my favorite add-ons are not yet ready for this new version. Still, I’ve stuck with it, primarily because it is vastly faster than Firefox 2.

Of my favorite add-ons, 1Password, Adblock Plus, Delicious Bookmarks, NoScript, StumbleUpon, and WebDeveloper all work with the current Firefox Beta. Those that do not yet work include Fasterfox, Firebug, Google Browser Sync, Stealther, and YSlow. Bear in mind this list includes only those add-ons I particularly like. If you’ve never checked out the hundreds of add-ons for Firefox, it’s worth your time and effort. There are some truly useful tools out there, and they are all free for you to install.

Out of all Firefox of the Firefox extensions out there, Delicious Bookmarks is surely one of the best. If you use Delicious, give it a try.

Now for the really important news: you can help Mozilla break the Guinness World Record for the most software downloaded in a 24-hour period. Why not? Join the cause by pledging your intention to download Firefox 3 next Tuesday, June 17th — official launch day.

Free (as in beer) PhotoShop book: 3 days only

Free PhotoShop Book

Get your copy of The PhotoShop Anthology: 101 Web Design Tips, Tricks, Techniques by Corrie Hafley, offered for free by 99Designs for the next three days only. This 278-page book promotion is available until June 12, 2008 via sitepoint.com.

From sitepoint:

It’s brimming with tried and tested real-world Photoshop solutions that will add impact to your next web design project. If you’ve ever been stuck for inspiration, have puzzled over just how to create a shiny aqua-style button, or wanted to create that seamlessly tiling background image you saw on a site recently, you need download this book.

My opinion: I’ve downloaded the book and have perused the contents. This primer contains some good tips and time savers, especially for the beginner. Hey, it’s free. Check it out.

Avery offers full-featured, free DesignPro

Avery DesignPro

Avery, the office product and label-making company, now offers a free Mac application called DesignPro to help customers design everything from labels to T-shirts to CD art. This is the classic ‘give away the razor and charge a premium for the razor blades‘ marketing model: you get the free software, but to use it you will need to buy custom Avery packages to cram into your inkjet printer.

Of course, I had to try it.

First, some discussion about the software package is warranted. To get it, you must register. I always find this a bit off-putting, but I dove right it. Hey, it’s free. Then I proceeded to the download, which is a jarringly-large 232 MB file. This worried me somewhat. Why on earth was it so large? Proceeding to the installation, my worries grew apace. You put this package on your system via an installer that requires your admin password, which is indication that it’s (at a minimum) going to put stuff in your main Library folder. Ok, but what’s going to go there? I proceeded with the install, expecting some sort of indicator of what it installed and where it put it. I got nothing of the sort.

In an attempt to figure out where all those megabytes went (the app itself is only 8 MB!), I used AppZapper, a great little uninstaller program that gets rid of all the odds and ends a program typically leaves behind. This is a lazy method I sometime use to see what is installed where for a given package. When you drop a program into the AppZapper target window, it lists all of the program components it will uninstall (including the path of the files).

When I did this for DesignPro, however, it only found about 8MB of data to uninstall: a preference file and the main application from the app folder. Ok…so where were the hundreds of megabytes of data I just installed? I suspect that this is not the fault of AppZapper; my guess is that it’s tied to the unique installation process of Avery DesignPro.

I then completely deleted the program and reinstalled it, hoping to get some clues from the DesignPro installer by paying closer attention this time around. Alas, it was to no avail. The only noteworthy option I could find in the installation process was a ‘customize‘ prompt within the installer. This option presented me with three choices (meaning I could choose to install or not install three different components by checking a box). The choices: the DesignPro application, a QuickLook plug in, and ‘resource files.’ No path information was presented. Oddly, each selection displayed as 0 bytes in size regardless of whether the box was checked or not. And there was no indication of what the ‘resource files’ were and if I really needed them. Not too helpful.

Finally, after the reinstall, I decided to manually search through my Library folders to discover where the application installed its bits and peices (Spotlight, in case you’re wondering, did not offer up any clues about the locations of the mystery files…although, in retrospect, I suspect it would have if I had refreshed the index).

Turns out that this app installs in a few locations: your main Library in a folder called DesignPro (which contains about 318 MB of data) and in your user account Library in a folder called DesignPro (which is about 7 MB). The user account library contains a sqlite database, by the way. I’m not sure what the app is storing there, though. I created a few labels and saved them, and the sqlite database remained the exact same size.

When you create a project and save it, it is placed by default in your documents folder. And if you open up your projects, it opens up in the app as expected. I tried out QuickLook on one of these documents, and it does present a preview of the project as advertised.

The moral of the story is this: if you want to delete this application completely, there is an entry in your main Library and your user account Library labeled ‘DesignPro.’ There is a preference (plist) file located in your user account Preferences folder, as expected. And there is the main application in your Applications folder. I thought this would be handy to pass on since the data that AppZapper missed was over 300 MB in size).

Most of that data is nothing more than templates and clip art. It would be nice to have a choice to NOT install this ‘extra’ stuff. I suspect this alone would decrease this very large package down to a much more reasonable 20 MB or so. I would also prefer the option to install this app in one user account only. I don’t want to install it system-wide.

One thing is certain: if I start to experience weird system behavior and bugginess, at least I know where to start. My first step will be to delete this app.

At any rate, DesignPro seems to work just fine so far.

So what does it do? It helps you create labels of every imaginable shape and size, business cards, name badges, cards, T-shirts, CD/DVD labels, photo badges and more. You can choose from what appears to be about million Avery templates and create a quick design from a template (or create your own design). There are, in fact, over 1,300 template designs and over 2,000 clip art files from which you may choose.

DesignPro handily allows for data merging from Apple Mail and Address Book. It allows you to import images from iPhoto and import playlist data from iTunes for media projects. My initial take is that this is a full-featured product that may come in very handy for designing and printing simple projects using Avery standard labels. As someone who does not use MS Word (I use Pages), it’s a welcome addition to quickly create mailing labels, badges, or other sticky-backed print jobs with ease.

Having said that, I would not say that this is the easy-to-use and intuitive Mac user experience claimed by Avery. It will take some getting used to. The user interface is odd. It has the weird feel of a ported Windows application haphazardly mixed with only a few familiar Mac OS elements and controls. It is confusing. It is also packed to the rafters will gratuitous clip art, templates and special effect options which are hauntingly reminiscent of low-cost commercial print packages I recall from my Windows days. But, hey, it is free and it does do the job. It’s worth a look.