I called the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) today - just for some forms, thank goodness - and it brought some programs to the front of my mind. One of the IRS's more irritating habits is making you account for the percentages of computer time you spend on business activities compared to personal activities. You then use this ratio in figuring out how much of your Mac you can deduct or depreciate on your U.S. income taxes.
But how can you really tell? Short of recording what you do and for how long, it hasn't been easy, although we gather the publishers of MacInTax had or have a program called MacInUse specifically aimed at this problem. Now, however, several programs have appeared that not only help you determine the ratio of business to personal use, but also help track how long you spend working on any one document for billing or other purposes.
WindoWatch -- The first of these programs is the simpler. WindoWatch from ASD is an extension that watches window titles and records the amount of time you spend in each. This method has obvious flaws (you don't give a damn how much time you spend in PageMaker's Toolbar) but ASD eliminated most of them by providing filters that ignore bogus windows. Even still, you'd be surprised at how many programs have meaningless windows. For instance, SoftArc's FirstClass BBS software creates a window for every message. In such cases, you can set WindoWatch to track only the amount of time in the application.
WindoWatch includes an application that allows you to sort your list of windows by name or time used, and to purge or merge individual or multiple windows from the list. That allows you to remove entries under two minutes, say, and to lump together the time you spent working on a single project composed of several files. You can set up "auto selects" that select the same files each time and merge them, and you can also modify the font, size, and style of the list. That's about all the program does, which is an advantage in many cases, but don't expect WindoWatch to replace Timeslips III, a full-fledged, but manual, time tracking and billing program that can slice, dice, and otherwise massage the raw data in its data files. We reviewed Timeslips III in TidBITS #107.
Using a compression scheme (incidentally, you cannot let AutoDoubler compress WindoWatch's data file), WindoWatch keeps its data file incredibly small - about 15K for a few weeks of usage. This is great, but WindoWatch also has some real quirks and a few bugs that forced me to stop using it. The interface leaves much to be desired, what with multiple modal dialogs and the requirement that you type names exactly (if you want WindoWatch to ignore specific windows, for instance) instead of selecting them from an SFDialog. More serious for me is a bug that causes WindoWatch to drop into pause mode (which it does normally when there is no action for a user-specified amount of time) and pop up a dialog whenever I invoke a TypeEase QuicKey, which I use heavily for boilerplate text. The text comes out wrong and I get irritated fast. I reported the bug to ASD on AppleLink some time ago but received no word back.
Interestingly, and we didn't test this, WindoWatch works over a network, so you can gather information on what someone has done on another Mac over the network. I see the utility of this, but without additional reporting capabilities I don't know how many people will use this feature seriously.
TimeLog -- TimeLog from Coral Research uses a different approach. Instead of creating a single data file, TimeLog creates a file for each file used, duplicating the folder structure of the disk that your files live on. This duplicate folder structure sits in your System Folder, and even though each file is small, the overall size grows quickly. TimeLog's extension can warn you when the folder structure uses a user-specified amount of space, but I still don't want to use disk space in this way.
Even though TimeLog's tracking technique is clumsier than WindoWatch's method, you don't have extraneous information from windows unrelated to disk files, and TimeLog appears to have none of WindoWatch's interface quirks or odd bugs (in my testing). TimeLog's application provides more information about what you did than does WindoWatch's application, allowing four ways to display the information and providing a slightly odd interface akin to the System 7 Finder for choosing which files to view.
You can look at the History chart, which displays a chronological chart of when each application and file was used (down to the minute for the really retentive), a graph of the percentage each application was used, a chart of the actual percentages, and a chart of the total time each file was used for. (There's also a list of the most used files at any one time that you call up with a hot key set in TimeLog's Control panel.) You can select which files to display and choose how you sort the displays, but I still found the information confusing, in part because I didn't wish to modify the way I organize my work to ways TimeLog would better understand. If you create special folders for projects or clients, then TimeLog can more easily show you the information you want to see.
Conclusion -- Both programs perform as promised, but both have design faults and thoroughly mediocre documentation. WindoWatch grabs too much information and provides little help in viewing or massaging the data, whereas TimeLog displays the data well, but wastes too much space on your boot disk. People like me who partition their hard disks with a relatively small boot partition will find TimeLog's wasteful disk habits especially irritating.
For those thinking that these programs might help in tracking public computer lab usage, sorry. Neither program has any way of telling which user is on, just which programs are being used. You can tell how often each program on your public Mac's hard disk is used, but that's it.
I'm sure this suggestion is totally unthinkable, but these companies need to cooperate. TimeLog needs a small, compressed data file, and WindoWatch needs additional display options and TimeLog's more useful method of determining what to record. They both need better reporting options for someone to easily use either program to bill for time spent working on a project, especially one that might involve work away from the computer. In that area, Timeslips III destroys both. Nonetheless, both are unobtrusive and easy to use, and unlike Timeslips III, they do something for you that you shouldn't have to do manually. That's what computers are for, after all, and if you need to track time spent in windows or files automatically, one of these two programs will do it.
WindoWatch 1.53 - $149 list for one user, $85 discount
4650 Arrow Highway, Suite E-6
Montclair CA 91763
TimeLog - $97 list
P.O. Box 2055
Stateline NV 89449