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Xtras for System 7

[Editor's note: This is the first in an informal series of articles exploring different methods of software distribution. It's clear, I think, that the current commercial channels prevent much good software from coming to market, and even when a program does make it, often the programmer(s) reap few rewards in comparison to the distributors and resellers in the middle, each with a markup and a profit margin. I don't know that we'll solve the problems with these articles, but we hope to start some people thinking about the issues. -Adam]

Xtras for System 7 is a curious package. A collection of thirteen extensions, Control Panels, and applications by various programmers, it resembles a set of shareware utilities in many ways, but it is sold in a commercial fashion with a manual by longtime Macintosh author Sharon Zardetto Aker.

As with most everything, there are parts of Xtras that I like a lot, parts I don't like much, parts I am indifferent to, and parts that intrigue me. We can get most of that out of the way with a simple rundown of the software, so why don't we? In the same order as it's listed on the back:

  1. Xtras Menu: An extension that slaps an Xtras menu into your Finder. The menu provides access to Accordion, below, as well as configuration settings for most of the other features. Personally, I'm not fond of things that put menus in my Finder. Sometimes it makes sense, but I'm not sure it does in this case. Yes, it allows access to all the Xtras features, but, apart from the fact that they all came from the Xtras disk, only a few have anything in common with the others. Does it make more sense to access Publishist, a scrapbook-like utility, from the Xtras menu because it came with the Xtras disk, or to access it from the same place you would access your normal scrapbook, because they're both scrapbooks? And it's not as though all the Xtras menu items work on selections in the Finder, as do the menus in things like DiskDoubler and StuffIt's Magic Menu.

  2. Accordion: A set of menu commands in the Xtras menu for collapsing and expanding some or all levels of folders in text views. If this is the sort of thing you do a lot (I don't), you might find it handy.

  3. The Big Apple: The coolest item. You've seen something like it before, probably; it gives you a hierarchical Apple menu and allows you to re-order the items in the menu in any way you like, even adding little lines to separate sections as they make the most sense to you. It's been done before, and I can't think of any reason why this implementation is any better or worse than any other. I happen to like it a lot.

  4. Publishist: Essentially a scrapbook that allows you to publish its contents for subscription by other documents.

  5. Icon Editor: What it says. A good one.

  6. IntoApple: A drag & drop utility to create an alias in your Apple menu. You can also configure IntoApple to allow you to select a location if you'd rather do things that way.

  7. EmptyTrash: When installed, it automatically empties your trash when you start your machine. If only it worked on my kitchen.

  8. Incinerate: For those with great faith in themselves, this antisocial little critter instantly deletes anything dragged onto it. Definitely of the "shoot first, ask questions later" school of thought.

  9. Shred*It: For the paranoid, er, security-conscious, this program totally annihilates files so that you can't get them back, ever, no matter what. There will be no questions later if you use Shred*It.

  10. Compost: The ecologically-conscious version of Incinerate. Leave stuff in the trash can and forget about it. After a set amount of time, it'll decay and disappear, returning useful disk space instead of rich soil.

  11. LabelMaker: Allows you to apply a label to a file right from Save dialogs.

  12. PopApp: Hold down a modifier key or four (you choose) and click anywhere on your screen, and your application menu - you know, the one in the upper right hand corner - pops up right under your mouse, wherever it may be. I never felt that my 14" monitor was dinky, but the thought that somebody needs this extension gave me a brief case of screen envy.

  13. SpeedName: If you get bored waiting for the Finder to allow you to rename your files, this Control Panel will allow you to adjust the delay.

That covers it. Overall, these utilities are great, if you like that sort of thing. They all seem to do what they're supposed to, and they do it reasonably well. The question is whether you need (or want, for you hedonists out there) to do what they do. Do you want to clutter your desktop with icons to modify the way your trash works? I don't, but then I have a dinky little 14" monitor. Do you use Finder labels frequently enough to justify LabelMaker? I don't at home, but I've found myself wanting it at work sometimes.

Pretty much everybody can probably find at least one, and quite possibly several utilities in this package that they will use, if they haven't already found a freeware or shareware solution for the same problem. And at a shareware-like price of $25, if you find two items you use, or one you love, you're doing well. If you find three, consider yourself ahead of the game.

There is one exceptional thing about this package - the distribution method. It is distributed as a paperback book with a disk inside, and in response to my inquiry, Sharon told me that it was being sold through book outlets, not software outlets.

There are some advantages to this distribution method. The manual is... well, there's a manual, something that can't be said about most shareware. And it's a good one, written by a veteran of the Macintosh documentation business. It's unlikely you'll need to read more than 25 percent of the book, but if you ever do have a question about one of the items, the answer is almost certainly there.

I also like the lack of the dreaded Shareware Guilt Factor. I'm sure you've done it. You stare at a utility, and suddenly find yourself wondering, "did I ever pay for that?" Maybe you keep records about such things, but if you're like me, they probably are hiding somewhere in the kitchen or were washed in the laundry. (The records, not the shareware.) Eventually you relegate the program to a corner of your hard disk, unwilling to delete it because maybe you paid for it, but afraid to use it in case the author will crawl under your bed at night and whisper horrible stories about starving programmers slaving over their keyboards in unheated garrets. Guilt city.

The optimal solution to this dilemma, of course, is to pay for your shareware and then remember that you did so. But if you're a total dunderhead, like me, you might feel more comfortable shelling out your $25 in advance and hoping that what you wind up with is worth it. In the case of Xtras for System 7, I think it's a safe investment for most people. The Big Apple alone is worth the price for me.

This distribution method has problems as well. The book can be almost impossible to find. It's not large, and it's crammed in with a huge pile of other brightly-colored books. Maybe it will help if I tell you the spine is purple with white lettering. I hope so, because I'd be willing to bet that if you walked up to a B. Dalton clerk and asked for something called Xtras for System 7, he or she would stare blankly at you. This also means few people will find it while browsing. If you find it, it's because you were looking, and that doesn't bode well for sales. I wouldn't be surprised if Xtras for System 7 (IBN# (not ISBN#, oddly): 0-201-60853-7) takes a different marketing tack soon. It will have to in order to survive.

Sharon Aker calls it "bookware." You won't get any phone support or fancy one-button installer, but it's a decent piece of work. It should be easy enough to figure out whether anything in the package is useful to you or not, and if it is, the price is right at $24.95.

(Disclaimer: The author does not mean to disparage B. Dalton clerks, dinky 14" monitors, or dunderheads, or to indicate that the three might in any way be related. He does, however, mean to disparage, in the strongest possible terms, people who don't pay for the shareware they use regularly. He's not going to tell you what he calls them, because he gets spitting mad just thinking about it. In fact, he's going to go lie down now.)

Addison-Wesley Publishing -- 617/944-3700


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