Time to pay for Things

Things from Cultured Code will be officially unveiled at Macworld Expo in one week. Today, Things 1.0 Release Candidate hit the streets.

I’ve been using this app for a long time now. It feels like it’s been in Beta forever. I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to use it for free for so long, and now I’m ready to plunk some money down.

That Things took so long to reach 1.0 (it was originally slated to come out last Spring) speaks volumes about the care and attention placed into creating this app. If you want to get a sense for how much care and attention we’re talking about, check out the blog entries chronicling the development process.

In short, if you’ve never used it, try it out. If you find it as useful as I do and also own an iPhone or Touch, consider getting the mobile version as well. The syncing is flawless.

Things is one of the most elegant and polished apps that I’ve used. It promises to be a well-deserved hit.

Killer Dropbox Services Add-on

Dropbox to ferry files around using the public folder, don’t miss this time-saving Services add-on.

Once installed, right-click on any file on your Mac, select the ‘Services’ menu, then choose either ‘Move’ or ‘Copy to Dropbox.’ That’s it. Your file is moved (or copied), and the public link to the file is copied to your clipboard, ready to send.

Many more useful services are available at Mac OSX Automation.

Learning How to Use It

So you decide to buy a copy of Things from Cultured Code. You’ve read great things about it (no pun intended), and you’re ready to graduate from chaotic analog scratchings on a notepad to an elegant digital management process using an award-winning application.

Impatient, you give the instructions a cursory glance, then begin madly entering tasks. A week later, you note that most of the items you dumped in the inbox during the first week are overdue. Your initial enthusiasm wanes. You want to use this app, but old habits die hard. With a tinge of guilt, you keep reverting to writing down your tasks on a notepad.

One day, you decide to give it another go. You paid for this app, after all. Months go by. In time, you learn just enough (largely through trial-and-error) to use Things as a basic task management tool. Habits are formed. You know how to add new task items, create projects, set due dates, and tag your items. But your list is still chaotic. Your tags are haphazard. You start a project, then abandon it. You tend to stick all of your tasks in the inbox and leave them there. While you’ve made the switch to digital task management, you know that you’re not taking advantage of the power under the hood. You know that—if you took the time to really grok this app—you’d be more productive.

Like many of the other Mac apps you’ve purchased, Things is a tool you want to learn how to use in the way it was intended to be used—but time is at a premium. And, let’s be honest, you just aren’t going to take the time to read the documentation.

Enter the screencast. For many people, it’s hard to really get how to use an app by reading written instructions. It’s much easier (and more enjoyable) to watch a video demonstration.

series of high-quality videos that teach you how to deploy your purchase. These videos are available at ScreenCastsOnline, a one-man show run out of the UK offering high-quality video productions that illustrate how to use the Mac OS and a variety of popular Mac software titles.

If you don’t want to or can’t afford to subscribe to this service, you’ll still find excellent free tutorials here. And if you’re willing to invest a modest amount of cash to learn how to better use your apps and operating system, now is the time to grab a membership. This month, ScreenCastsOnline is offering a 50 percent discount. At $57 for a six-month membership, this a good deal. You get a lot for your money.

Disclaimer: I don’t subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline, and I’m not sponsored by this operation in any way. But I’ve viewed many SCO videos and have found that they are uniformly outstanding. Take a look at some of the many free screencasts on offer and decide for yourself. I say that if you’re going to pay for a Mac application, it’s in your interest to learn how to use it well. I think this is one of the best ways to do this.

Another solid option is Lynda.com. The reason I don’t subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline is that I’m fortunate enough to enjoy unlimited access to Lynda through my employer, so my plate is full. This site offers a huge selection of tutorials, enough to keep me occupied for years. If you are in the business of web development, graphic design, video work, photography, audio production, or Flash development, you’ll get a lot out of these tutorials.

Here’s the difference between the two: SCO is consumer-focused and Mac-centric. Lynda.com is geared towards corporate users who have employees on a variety of platforms with specialized needs. SCO focuses on Mac-specific OS and app tutorials that meet the needs of most Mac users. Lynda.com focuses on professional development and training for higher-end applications/tools like the Adobe Creative Suite or Final Cut Studio. An advantage of SCO is that you can download tutorials and keep them forever. There’s no DRM. With Lynda.com, tutorials are online-only. For personal training on the Mac, SCO is the way to go. For professional training, steer to Lynda (and you may want to consider pitching Lynda to your employer. Compared to on-site training courses, it’s dirt cheap).

alternativeto.net and iusethis.com.

AlternativeTo is the newer of the two sites, and I really like the approach they’re taking. Pick a product (Mac, Windows, Linux, online) and see a user-generated lists of alternatives to that product. There are 15 alternatives to Photoshop for the Mac, for example. While all the alternatives are not necessarily equals to a given app, it at least provides a wide angle shot of what’s available. I use it as an exploratory tool to find out about applications I’ve never heard of before.

The other site, iusethis, is similar. You can look up an app (Mac, iPhone, Windows) to get an idea of how many people use it, to include viewing random user comments of varying merit. As with AlternativeTo, it’s easy to link to related apps to explore other solutions. This site is best for taking a quick snapshot of the relative popularity of a given app, what some people are saying about it, and for exploring the most popular apps (according to the self-selected user base of iusethis) in a given category. It’s the site I use to get a ballpark estimation of what users think of a given application.

VMWare 3: Good Product, Terrible Ordering Process

Here is an example of a confusing, muddled online purchasing experience.

It began well enough. I decided to upgrade to the latest version of VMWare Fusion 3 prior to installing Windows 7 on my Mac. I had heard that VMWare’s virtualization offered faster boot times, better integration with the Mac OS, and best-in-class support for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. I started my journey by reading up on the new features on the VMWare site. Then I read about what would be included with my purchase:

VMWare Fusion step 2

I hesitated. Did I really need to pay $20 more? Was this indicating that VMWare intends to release version 4.0 within the next 12 months? Are they saying that, with the basic $40 upgrade fee, I can expect to pay $40 again within a year for version 4? And that paying $20 now will save me $20 down the road? That might be worth it, but I didn’t have enough information to make the decision. Who knows? They aren’t telling. They just throw it out there that it may be a good idea to ‘protect your investment.’ Nothing explicit is stated. In the absence of clarity, I decided to go with the simple $40 upgrade. I reasoned that the last point upgrade occurred more than 12 months ago, so I’m probably OK with the basic upgrade. I imagine many a consumer will opt for the ‘protect your investment’ path. I hope it works out for them. VMWare should more explicitly state what this ‘protection’ offers. As is, it seems like a cheesy ploy to make some extra cash.

On to the next step. Next, I’m presented with options to ‘add functionality’ to my selection.

VMWare Fusion step 3

This step in the ordering process is particularly frustrating. It’s also devious. For $30 more, I could choose per-incident email support for one incident per year. By clicking on the link for this option, I received an explanatory pop-up message indicating that this would afford me email/phone support from a Technical Support Engineer. I would also get ‘documentation, Knowledge Base articles and discussion forums through the VMware web site.’

Do I need this? I don’t think so. I had just read on the previous page that my $40 upgrade fee comes with 18 months of free email support. And documentation, forums, and Knowledge Base articles are complimentary for all registered users of VMWare Fusion. So what does this ‘added functionality’ get you? Nothing that you probably couldn’t figure out from the forums. And if you do need to send an email to VMWare to get help, you can do so without spending extra money. They claim target response times within 24 hours for all severity of problems. That’s pretty good free support.

I say this step in the ordering process is devious because it’s poorly explained, and I think deliberately so. The explanatory pop-up window is vague, and there’s no link anywhere to the VMWare Support Options page, where all of this is explained in much greater detail (I tried to get there by choosing a ‘Support’ link located at the top of the ‘Customize Your Order’ page, but I was taken to a page entitled ‘Buy VMWare Support.’ Here, I was presented with yet another offer to purchase per-incident support).

Last point: the design of this page is such that the ‘Add to Cart’ button is clear and obvious, but the ‘No Thanks – Proceed to Checkout’ link is small and unobtrusive. I’ve seen this sort of thing in many places around the Web, as I’m sure you have. It’s a subtlety designed to get people to spend more money, simply because many people aren’t paying attention. This sort of thing is not customer friendly. It’s customer hostile.

At any rate, I moved on. After I made my purchase, I was directed to a download page. Here, I was presented with yet another confusing choice: do I want to download the full or the light version?

VMWare Fusion step 6

Aha. It turns out the the light version only comes with VMWare tools to support the Windows and Mac OS. The full version includes support for a wide variety of operating systems. Why wasn’t this important point mentioned in the first place?

I don’t want to sound like an Apple snob here, but I don’t have experiences like this when purchasing third-party software for the Mac. When I buy software, I expect high-quality software. And my expectations extend to the online presence of the developer: I expect the design and messages on the developer’s Web site to focus on generating a positive customer experience through the entire process (to include purchasing and upgrading). I don’t expect what I used to experience all the time when buying software online in my Windows days: vague descriptions, bundled ‘complimentary’ subscriptions, shifty designs to encourage click-through on money-making bits, and other clever marketing ploys that emphasize making money over concern for the customer.

Message to VMWare: this kind of nonsense does not inspire customer loyalty. I could pack up and move to Parallels. You should really treat me better.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m happy to report that the new version of VMWare works quite well. I’m happy with it.

If you do buy VMWare Fusion 3.0, be sure to download the free Take Control of VMWare 3 from TidBits. It’s free thanks to sponsorship from VMWare. The Take Control e-books are great, by the way — I’ve purchased several and find them to be excellent references. They usually cost between $10 to $12 bucks a pop, so this is an exceptional offer.