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It's time once again for the TidBITS Gift Guide, offering community-driven suggestions for the Mac and iPhone users on your gift list. Also in this issue, Glenn Fleishman reports on the acquisition of the collaborative writing tool EtherPad by Google, and guest contributor Robyn Weisman explores how third-party SDKs are being used to add useful features to iPhone apps when Apple hasn't provided the functionality. Notable software releases this week include Dialectic 1.5, HandBrake 0.9.4, Labels and Addresses 1.5, Electric Sheep 2.7b21, Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 1, Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 6, Rumpus 6.2, TweetDeck v0.32.0, MarsEdit 2.4, and Mailplane 2.1.1.
Our favorite tool for simultaneous collaborative writing and editing was slated to disappear, as its programmers become members of the Google Wave team. Within a day of this bad news, Google and the developers did a 180.Show full article
EtherPad is a Web-based tool for simultaneous writing and editing, in which multiple people can see keystrokes as other people type them. It was slated to disappear after the acquisition by Google of AppJet, the firm that developed EtherPad. After a day of feedback, however, the former AppJet developers changed the path entirely. EtherPad will stay alive, and its code will eventually be released under an open-source license.
On 4 December 2009, AppJet said EtherPad would continue to operate until 31 March 2010 for free and paid users, although AppJet would stop charging fees to paid users. Free public pads would no longer be available, nor could new accounts be registered for a fee.
On 5 December, the former head of AppJet (or is he the head of the former company AppJet?) wrote on the EtherPad blog that the developers had worked with Google to change what would happen to EtherPad based on extensive feedback.
Public free pad creation was re-enabled, so you can create editable documents without an account. The site will still not allow new professional accounts to be set up, however.
The EtherPad code base and the underlying framework used to create it will be moved into an open-source project and released under open-source licensing terms. While the open-source transition is underway, and until there's a viable new home - at least that's implied - the EtherPad site will remain available.
Nonetheless, paid users can download all their current documents via the account page. Public pads can be downloaded from their individual URLs. Freestanding versions of the software will be supported through current contracts.
The AppJet programmers are joining the group behind Google Wave, the invitation-only service in testing by Google for simultaneous and sequential writing, discussion, and interaction. I've been using it for some weeks, and still find it baffling, whereas the much-simpler EtherPad was instantly explicable and useful (perhaps because it was so similar to SubEthaEdit, which pioneered simultaneous collaborative editing). I hope the AppJet team brings its approach with them. (Two of the three AppJet developers were previously Google employees, reports GigaOm, which notes the deal was worth "less than $20 million.")
I wrote about EtherPad early this year (see "EtherPad Brings Simultaneous Writing to the Web," 16 February 2009) after we at TidBITS started using it extensively. While SubEthaEdit has some advantages, EtherPad allowed ad hoc and program-free collaboration and had become our tool of choice for simultaneous collaborative work.
AppJet, EtherPad's creator, started up to develop a Web applications platform - a simplified way for companies to build rich browser-based programs. EtherPad was a bit of a proof of concept that turned into a separate line of business.
Although Apple doesn't allow iPhone apps to communicate with one another, as software on the Mac can, watch for apps to start gaining additional functionality by integrating licensed code from other developers. Robyn Weisman talks to SmileOnMyMac and Occipital about how their text-expansion and barcode-scanning SDKs are being integrated into various iPhone apps.Show full article
Despite my childlike attraction to most Apple technologies, I didn't get an iPhone until last summer. Initially I was going to wait until about a year ago when my T-Mobile family plan contract ended, but after that deadline passed, I still balked at purchasing one primarily because the iPhone OS lacked copy and paste. In early 2008 I switched my home network over to the 802.11n protocol because my 802.11g network quit working in my overpopulated Hollywood, California neighborhood (I spent hours with Apple support trying to figure out the problem to no avail). Given that I couldn't transfer files between my Mac and an iPhone over my wireless network, I wanted to at least be able to paste in a Dropbox URL from an email. The thought of typing that URL by hand made less sense than tapping long texts with the 10-digit keypad on my Motorola RAZR.
I'm glad I waited both for the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone OS 3.0. I won't bore you with the many reasons why I'm thrilled with the former (passable camera, video capabilities, and GPS are among them), but I needed copy and paste for my iPhone to be more than an expensive toy. So thank you Apple, for making this available across multiple apps.
However, the iPhone OS still lacks text expansion capabilities, something that is almost as important as copy and paste in my work as a freelance technology reporter and writer. On my Mac I use a combination of Rainmaker's Spell Catcher for short expansions like "ffct" for "functionality" and SmileOnMyMac's TextExpander for boilerplates, signatures and HTML tags. As a freelance writer who writes primarily about data centers (or "dctr") and other IT (or "iit" so that I don't need to use the Shift key) topics, text expansion has reduced my RSI symptoms and saved my sanity, especially when transcribing interviews.
When SmileOnMyMac released the iPhone version of TextExpander in August 2009 at the sale price of $1.99 (vs. $4.99), I bought it immediately even though initially you could access its capabilities only by typing your text in a composer window and then by copying and pasting the text into your notes, text, or tweet. SmileOnMyMac had released the SDK of its app at around the same time, so I was optimistic that other developers would eventually integrate TextExpander's iPhone SDK into their apps, and I would experience even greater joy with this pocket-sized computer that also happened to make phone calls.
Within a month, two iPhone apps, Tweetie 2 and the iPhone version of Hog Bay Software's minimalist word processor WriteRoom, offered direct integration with TextExpander touch. This capability to access my snippets from within the latter two apps ultimately led me to buy both apps and to email the developers of my favorite note-taking app, Codality's Simplenote, urging them to incorporate TextExpander touch in a future upgrade.
Continuing, and Flipping, Mac Application Conventions -- Given the lack of inter-app communication in the current iPhone OS, the capability to use TextExpander touch seamlessly via its SDK within at least some apps makes obvious sense from SmileOnMyMac's perspective. After all, its Mac version of TextExpander has a devoted following because it works with nearly any application that accepts text entry. Greg Scown, co-founder of SmileOnMyMac, says that providing a free SDK of its iPhone app will have a similar effect. "Each iPhone app that includes TextExpander touch support makes TextExpander a bit more useful, and thus more valuable, and will hopefully drive sales," Scown says.
At the same time, TextExpander touch's impact on the iPhone app ecosystem is much greater than the impact its Mac counterpart has had. Not only does the average Mac have a real keyboard that makes typing less cumbersome (to state the obvious), but users also have a choice of half a dozen different text expansion programs, including Spell Catcher, Ergonis's Typinator, Ettore Software's TypeIt4Me, and even Microsoft Word's AutoCorrect feature. A Macintosh word-processing application like WriteRoom doesn't need to push TextExpander functionality as a selling point.
However, WriteRoom for iPhone is competing against hundreds of other note taking and word-processing apps, many of which have similar features and "good enough" interfaces to forestall potential buyers from seeking out a superior option. Moreover, WriteRoom regularly sells for $4.99 in the App Store, which is more expensive than many of its competitors, including Simplenote. So when Hog Bay founder and WriteRoom developer Jesse Grosjean discovered the TextExpander touch SDK during the middle of an app development cycle, he jumped at the opportunity to test it out. "There was no NDA to sign, the code was simple to integrate, and I was looking for ways to differentiate WriteRoom [from all the other apps in its category]," Grosjean says.
Adding TextExpander touch support has proven to be good strategy on Grosjean's part. According to Grosjean, the news of WriteRoom's TextExpander touch integration generated press for his app and caused an uptick in sales. "It's a nice feature for my app because it adds useful functionality without making my app harder to use," Grosjean says. "I've received lots of positive feedback. Typing is relatively slow on the iPhone, and text expansion can really help."
For his part, SmileOnMyMac's Scown says the company's primary goal in providing its SDK for other developers is to extend TextExpander functionality to other apps on the iPhone. "Given the environment on the iPhone, we figured that in addition to being able to compose within TextExpander, our users would want TextExpander functionality in other apps as well," Scown says. In doing so, he hopes TextExpander's SDK will become a standard component other developers will add when making iPhone apps that involve significant text entry. "We're noticing that once one app in a given product category adds TextExpander support, it's a competitive advantage for that app, [which] helps drive other apps in the category to add TextExpander support," he says.
Developing an SDK Licensing Model -- SmileOnMyMac makes its TextExpander touch iPhone SDK freely available to other developers. "We're frequently asked if we charge for royalties for the SDK. We don't. We believe this is a win-win for both TextExpander touch and for iPhone app developers," Scown says.
Mobile app developer Occipital developed its barcode-scanning SDK before building its popular barcode-scanning app RedLaser on top of it. "We planned the SDK all along, so we had started it with that in mind. We deployed RedLaser first before we made the SDK formally available," says Jeffrey Powers, who cofounded Occipital in 2008 with fellow University of Michigan graduate Vikas Reddy.
Unlike SmileOnMyMac, Occipital developed the RedLaser SDK as a revenue generator, making it a central part of the company's business plan. "The whole way along we intended to build one or two apps at most and then make the SDK technology available to other companies because we're not your typical app developers. We're a technology company first, building enabling technologies like barcode scanning that will facilitate other consumer applications on other things besides just the iPhone," says Powers.
In September 2009, the first app licensing RedLaser's SDK calorie-counting app, FoodScanner by Daily Burn, debuted in the App Store, and Occipital has a dozen or so additional licensing agreements in place with other developers. According to Reddy, the apps being developed using the RedLaser SDK include a wine information application that tells users via barcode the best food to serve with a given wine and an app that can scan, say, a bottle of shampoo and tell the user if the manufacturer tests on animals.
According to Reddy and Powers, Occipital has set up a 10 percent revenue share that includes an initial upfront payment that later counts against what the developer owes the company on that revenue share. "We're trying to generate as much from licensing as from applications, and if you run the numbers, we need 10 applications powered by our technology that are on average as successful as anything we've launched to break even, as far as having those two revenue sources equal each other," Powers says. "We're giving much more out than we're getting back and are crossing our fingers that it'll change as our numbers get bigger."
But with licensing comes responsibility, including technical support for developers who license Occipital's SDK. "We want to help small developers succeed because that's what it's all about, but at the same time it can be cumbersome to manage and help a lot of developers," Powers says. "One thing we're trying to figure out is how we reduce the overhead that has to go into helping this guy who wants to use our stuff. It can be a real challenge because if you think about it, not a lot of these apps are going to be very successful. It's just the nature of the iPhone."
Occipital is currently experimenting with a revenue sharing model that allows small developers to integrate RedLaser's controls without having to pay upfront costs. Between this incentive and the SDK itself, Occipital's framework empowers would-be developers to build their apps more quickly and efficiently than if they had to develop every feature on their own. "If the developer succeeds, we get some kickback. If he or she doesn't, at least he or she didn't spend a lot of money up front," Powers says.
Regardless of Occipital's level of success with its current revenue model, Powers expects to see more developers with viable technologies licensing their SDKs to other app developers. "With 100,000-plus applications in the App Store, if yours doesn't have all the bells and whistles, it'll quickly get panned in the ratings or dismissed, and so you need to have more rich apps. One way to do this is by licensing chunks from different companies," Powers says. "We'll see how successful we are getting lots of applications in the store. It might serve as an example for other developers to follow, particularly if they are trying to make their companies sustainable. But even if our technology isn't successful, it's going to almost have to happen out of necessity because Apple isn't providing huge massive development blocks on their own, and you're going to have to continue working to build those, so companies are going to try to generate some profit by reselling and packing those controls and shipping them out."
Everything That Rises Will (I Hope) Converge -- Occipital and SmileOnMyMac have taken different approaches in releasing their SDKs, but their decisions to make them available point the way toward more modular methods in building future apps for the iPhone and for apps on other smartphone platforms as well. "TextExpander and RedLaser demonstrate that the iPhone developer community offers opportunity to those wishing to offer tightly focused functionality to extend broad classes of iPhone apps," SmileOnMyMac's Scown says.
In the short term this strategy seems potentially lucrative, both for the developers releasing the SDKs and for the developers leveraging them, because these SDKs could ultimately standardize processes like barcode scanning or text expansion much in the way Apple's SDKs do for iPhone developers in general.
But in the long term I see these SDKs enabling the sort of interconnectivity that has defined so much of the Internet age, from the early days of Netscape 1.0 to Web 3.0 and beyond. I can't wait to see what other features third-party SDKs will offer to make the iPhone even more valuable to its users.
For the most part, the SDKs I would most like to see will offer inter-app communication capabilities that the iPhone OS doesn't currently provide for third-party apps. For instance, I'd love a way to access my dictionary app from within Simplenote or WriteRoom. It would also be great if the Internet radio streaming service Pandora could be integrated into various apps, so it would be possible to use the apps while still listening to Pandora, something that's not possible now.
What third-party SDKs would you like to see developed? Unfortunately SDKs can't work around Apple's enforced limitations, like the lack of background processing, but any feature where data can be moved via copy-and-paste, or where one app's functionality can be added to another, is fair game. Let us know in the comments, and don't hold back because the more suggestions, the better the chance that a savvy developer will act on one and make our iPhone experience that much better!
[Despite a relentlessly liberal arts background, Robyn Weisman has always harbored geek tendencies, and her introduction to the Mac finally gave her a path to explore her inner nerd while passing as a garden-variety humanist. She currently writes case studies and profiles for various IT concerns and publications, and covers stereoscopic TV and video for Daily Variety. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her work on her Web site.]
TidBITS readers have spoken, TidBITS readers have voted, and we have the results for you in this year's TidBITS Gift Guide. Forget the stuff that jaded editors think you might want - these are the real items that people really do desire (or plan to give).Show full article
The results of our annual call for gift ideas and subsequent reader ratings of those ideas are in! We have once again analyzed the data gathered from the Gift Guide survey so we can offer you a list of gifts that TidBITS readers really care about, either to give or to receive. Where possible, we've let our submitters describe why they think a particular item would make a good gift.
After you've read this year's top picks as chosen in the survey, be sure to check out the full TidBITS Talk threads: Hardware, Software, Games, Computer Miscellaneous, and For the Macintosh-minded. The discussions are still active, so be sure to read them to find more details about items that didn't quite make the cut in the survey, along with a few more gift ideas that came in too late to be included.
Macs -- Let's face it, who among TidBITS readers wouldn't want a Mac as a gift? And we're certain that many out there are also considering giving a Mac to a deserving child or relative. But which Mac model is right? Well, in our survey, the MacBook Pro (which now includes the 13-inch model, remember), was the most popular, followed by the iMac, which just saw a refresh not long ago (see "New iMac Models Receive Larger Screens, SD Card Slot," 20 October 2009). Surprisingly, the Mac Pro outranked not only the unibody white MacBook (see "MacBook Gains Plastic Unibody with Updated Specs," 20 October 2009) and the updated Mac mini (see "Mac mini Updated and Given Server Configuration," 20 October 2009), but even the sleek MacBook Air. And apparently, readers can't really imagine an Xserve under the Christmas tree any more than we can - here's the full listing.
- MacBook Pro
- Mac Pro
- Mac mini
- MacBook Air
Other Apple Hardware -- In case you hadn't heard, Apple sells more than just Macs - a lot more, if you're looking at numbers of units sold. This year the iPhone took the top spot over the iPod touch (just barely) in this category, which we attribute to the aggressive pricing of the iPhone 3GS and, we suspect, to the likelihood that more TidBITS readers now own iPhones than in the past. Regardless of which device edges (or EDGEs, depending on your cell coverage) to the front, what's noteworthy is the popularity of the iPhone OS and the App Store. In fact, what we found most interesting about the entire process of assembling this year's Gift Guide is that there was almost nothing new on the Mac side at all - people made the same suggestions, voted for the same products, and generally lacked zestful jolliness. In contrast, the iPhone/iPod touch and associated apps got a lot more attention.
Back at the Apple Hardware category, the number three vote-getter was a bit surprising: the AirPort Extreme wireless base station, which ranked higher than the popular iPod nano and even the new Magic Mouse. Could it be due to the increased popularity of the iPhone and iPod touch, which come into their own when given Wi-Fi access to the Internet? We'd speculate that the reason could be Apple's smooth implementation; yes, you can buy a less expensive 802.11n base station, but none are as easy to configure and maintain as Apple's AirPort models. To no one's surprise, the Apple TV and iPod shuffle anchored the bottom of the list; the iPod shuffle seems to have limited appeal, and the Apple TV remains a partial reply to a half-heard question; it's one of the few Apple products that seems more focused on making Apple happy than the customer.
iPhone Apps -- The breadth of suggestions in the iPhone Apps category was staggering, but the top item in the survey by far was surprising: 1Password touch or Pro (the Pro version offers support for copy-and-paste and additional integration with Mobile Safari), which let you sync your passwords with the Mac and more easily enter them on the iPhone.
After 1Password, the popular vote-getters in the survey varied widely, including:
- Tweetie 2, from Atebits, is a full-featured Twitter client for the iPhone. It outpolled Twitterrific, another popular and full-featured Twitter client (also available in an ad-supported free version).
- iBird Explorer (available in various editions), from Mitch Waite Group, and Audubon Birds, from Green Mountain Digital. Michael Logue suggested these initially, and Marilyn Matty chimed in with a recommendation of iBird Explorer, noting that "iBird Explorer enables quick identification of winged creatures based on characteristics such as song, beak size, behavior, etc. In addition to having links to photos and drawings, it features appropriate links to Wikipedia and Flickr." We had no idea that so many TidBITS readers were birders, but these apps look great for anyone interested in bird identification.
- Things, from Cultured Code, is the iPhone version of the well-received Macintosh task management utility.
- NetNewsWire Premium, from NewsGator Technologies, is a good RSS reader for the iPhone; note that there's also a free version that you can try out first.
- WeatherBug Elite, from WeatherBug, is an excellent weather app for the iPhone, providing full-text forecasts rather than ambiguous icons, zoomable animated radar maps, and concise current conditions. As with others, there's a free version available you can try first; however, WeatherBug Elite is the best weather app we've seen, and paying for it eliminates annoying ads.
- Epicurious, from Condé Nast Digital, and WhatTheFont, from MyFonts, are notable for being the only free apps suggested, both by Marilyn Matty. About Epicurious she wrote, "You can search tens of thousands of recipes from decades of issues of Bon Appétit, the late, lamented Gourmet, Self, House Beautiful and other Condé Nast magazines. You can search for a dish by ingredient, by category (easy, party snacks, kids' favorites, etc.) It also creates shopping lists, though this feature took me some time to figure out." WhatTheFont enables you to identify fonts you see on the fly; Marilyn notes that you can also learn the font's history, buy the font, and explore other fonts from the foundry as well. Perhaps these free apps aren't great gifts, but they're certainly something to encourage cooks or type snobs on your list to download.
iPhone/iPod touch Games -- Given Apple's lackluster support for gaming on the Mac over the years, it's noteworthy that the iPhone, and especially the iPod touch, have become true gaming machines. These devices' quality graphics hardware (for a portable device) has enabled developers to offer thousands of ways to pass the time.
Perennial favorite Bejeweled 2, a puzzle game where you align jewels to clear them from the board, appears to be cutting into readers' idle time the most. Bejeweled has been around for years - Jeff Carlson remembers playing it on a Palm OS-based Sony Clié - and is just as entertaining as ever. The game from PopCap Games also includes Bejeweled Blitz, which Andy Affleck described as a "1 minute highest-score-possible game linked to my Facebook account. The smack talk never ends among my so-called friends (all of whom will be crushed). Not that it makes me at all competitive."
Online play against others also drove Scrabble, by Electronic Arts, into the top five recommendations. You can match your wordsmithing abilities against the computer, against friends on the same Wi-Fi network, or through Facebook.
Other suggestions included Bookworm and Peggle from PopCap ("because it's Peggle!" said Andy Affleck), Tap Tap Revenge from Gogo Apps, and United Soft Media Verlag's Catan, an iPhone variation of the spectacularly successful Settlers of Catan board game. Surprisingly, few arcade-style games such as Star Wars: Trench Run made the list.
iPod/iPhone Accessories -- The ecosystem for iPhone cases, docks, and speakers has grown so huge that most of the specific suggestions in our survey fared relatively poorly; the lone standout being the Mophie Juice Pack Air. Tomoharu Nishino commented, "It just about doubles the iPhone's battery life, though of course it also just about doubles the thickness and weight of the iPhone, but it sure beats those battery-on-a-dongle solutions. It's ideal for intensive iPhone users who are always concerned about running out of juice before the day is up - it has saved me on more than one occasion. Finally, you can actually use the iPhone to watch video on a cross-country flight, and not have to worry about running the battery all the way down!"
When we asked those who voted for the general idea of an iPhone case to recommend specifics, cases from three companies stood out: Incase, OtterBox, and iFrogz. Even just these three companies make more than 20 case designs, so you'll still have some selecting to do, but at least we've helped narrow it down a bit.
Apple Software -- Although last year's two top picks, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and iLife '08, saw their successors, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and iLife '09, retaining those top slots, Apple will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iLife, and iWork, took over the third spot from the standalone version of iWork '09. We suspect that may indicate not so much that people think ill of iWork, but that they see the Mac Box Set as the most economical way to get it, given that it's slightly cheaper than buying all three separately.
The most surprising change was that a MobileMe subscription, which ranked dead last in this category in the past two years, moved up to be solidly in the middle of the pack. It could be that MobileMe has redeemed itself somewhat in the eyes of the Mac community with improved reliability after its botched launch, or it could be that its role in offering synchronization and location services (Find My iPhone) to iPhone and iPod touch users has caused people to look at it in a different light.
Mac Game and Entertainment Software -- Wow, talk about a sea change. Although it's safe to say that TidBITS readers aren't major gamers, this category has always seen an entirely reasonable number of ideas and votes in the past. This year, however, just filling up the ten spots in the survey question was like pulling teeth, and when I ran the numbers, only perennial favorite Solitaire Till Dawn X stood out, with World of Goo and World of Warcraft tickling our fancy with their similar names and close rankings. As has become a tradition here at TidBITS, Andy Affleck nominated Semicolon Software's Solitaire Till Dawn X, and although another solitaire game was suggested (Goodsol Development's Pretty Good Solitaire), Solitaire Till Dawn X garnered a far higher ranking in the survey.
We've not encountered World of Goo before, but it appears to be a "physics-based puzzle-construction game" in which you use Goo Balls to build structures that enable you to rescue the remaining Goo Balls from some sort of horrible fate. If you're interested in it, check out the videos on YouTube that show how it's played (start with the trailer). And, of course, if you have vast amounts of time that you need to fill, you can't go wrong with a massively multiplayer role-playing game like the hugely popular World of Warcraft. It might also be a good gift for someone whose productivity you're hoping to destroy.
Utility and Enhancement Software -- We've always thought utility software made for great gifts, but perhaps that stems from lusting after Swiss Army knives as children. Replicating its top spot again this year was 1Password, with LaunchBar, Default Folder X, and MacSpeech Dictate filling out the top four.
1Password, from Agile Web Solutions: Agile Web Solutions was caught by surprise by the early ship date of Snow Leopard but managed to get 1Password working shortly thereafter anyway; the company has now shipped 1Password 3.0 with full Snow Leopard compatibility, making it easy for Mac users to use secure passwords anywhere on the Web. Tomoharu Nishino also noted that 1Password has expanded its focus: "1PasswordAnywhere allows you to view your secure passwords from a Web browser in case you have to work cross-platform. And there is an iPhone app that syncs with the desktop." It warms our hearts to see so much interest in maintaining secure passwords.
LaunchBar, from Objective Development: Sometimes we feel like a broken analogy that people under 30 won't understand when it comes to praising LaunchBar, which enables you to launch applications (and do many other things) via a simple hot key and keyed-in abbreviations. But then we think, "Tough cookies, LaunchBar is great and we're not afraid of saying so." It appears TidBITS readers agree with us, with Ron Risley commenting, "If any Macintosh user you know is still using a Mac without LaunchBar, change their lives and give them a copy. And if you're not using it, it's time to treat yourself."
Default Folder X from St. Clair Software: As with LaunchBar, Default Folder X falls into that category of essential utilities you forget are there until you use someone else's computer and wonder why it doesn't work as you expect. Put simply, it makes using standard Open and Save dialogs faster and more efficient, so if you spend a lot of time in those dialogs, give Default Folder X a look.
MacSpeech Dictate from MacSpeech: Although the program has had some usability-based teething pains, its inclusion of the engine from Dragon NaturallySpeaking makes it not just the only speech-recognition system for the Mac, but one that can offer accuracy equivalent to Windows-based solutions. It could be a great gift for someone who might appreciate speech-recognition and dictation capabilities, but who would be hesitant to buy it for themselves.
Productivity Software -- As much as it can be gratifying to see how utility software enables you to navigate both your Mac and the Internet ever more fluidly, sometimes you just need to get some work done. The top two picks in this category - virtualization software VMware Fusion and Hamrick Software's VueScan scanning software - have nothing in common other than their utility in helping users accomplish difficult tasks. As in the past, organizational products took up the next few slots: iCal replacement BusyCal joined Bare Bones Software's Yojimbo and NoteBook from Circus Ponies.
VMware Fusion from VMware: Recently updated to version 3.0, VMware Fusion has become for many the virtualization software of choice for those who need to run Windows XP, Windows 7, Linux, the Chrome OS, and many other PC-based operating systems. Whether your need for Windows is for compatibility with your employer's custom software, or revolves around running the latest Windows-only game, VMware Fusion will extend your Mac's functionality beyond Mac OS X.
VueScan from Hamrick Software: Faster processors and advanced software continue to justify refreshing your Macs every few years, but that old flatbed scanner with its years-old technology continues to work just fine. Or rather, it would if only the manufacturer hadn't stopped updating the scanner's software. Even with improved scanner support built into Snow Leopard (check the Print & Fax preference pane), VueScan remains a popular recommendation for providing a hassle-free way to scan.
Miscellaneous Hardware Products -- With another year's worth of digital photos, videos, and music occupying our Macs, it's no surprise that the number one miscellaneous hardware recommendation this season is an external hard drive; a Toshiba 500 GB USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive was cited by readers, but any reliable drive would fit the bill. We rely on hard drives for data backups, and this portable model makes it easier to maintain backups while traveling, especially since it draws its power from your Mac's USB port - no bulky power adapter to carry along. For desktop use, we prefer drives that offer data transfer speeds that are faster than USB 2.0, such as FireWire or, if you've added it to your machine, eSATA. Another product recommendation along the same lines was the NewerTech Voyager Q hard drive docking station, which lets you mount bare internal hard drives temporarily; it's a great solution for making bootable duplicates that you later move offsite.
The rest of the list was more varied, including the well-reviewed Novatel Wireless MiFi, a portable wireless hotspot (with 3G wireless service offered by Sprint or Verizon), landing in second place. Kevin van Haaren wrote, "I use the MiFi every day at work to stream music to my iPod touch (most streaming sites are blocked at work). I've also used it to make VOIP and Skype calls from my iPod. I carry it with me around town as well. It's my preferred email access method now, over my Blackberry Tour. I wouldn't use it continuously with a laptop because it has a 5 GB cap on the data. But a day or two to avoid an onerous hotel Internet fee is certainly acceptable."
Clever little iHome Rechargeable Mini Speakers were the next most popular item, also suggested by Kevin, who noted that the only downsides were very bright LEDs and a cable that tangles easily. Wacom's multi-touch Bamboo pressure-sensitive tablets also ranked high, though the reader who suggested them, William Seligman, said, "Don't get this for a serious graphics professional; it's a cheap toy to them. But for someone who'd enjoy playing around with beginner's art projects, or who might benefit from an extra-large trackpad, it's a nice gift."
For the Macintosh-minded -- Every year, people suggest gift ideas that have nothing to do with the Mac or the iPhone, or indeed with the entire computer industry. These are the ideas we most enjoy, since they're so wonderfully random, and we especially encourage you to read the full set in TidBITS Talk.
The Beatles Box Set, from EMI: Conrad Hirano made this suggestion, and the fact that it quickly leapt to the top of this category probably indicates the age of the average TidBITS reader. He wrote "The mono box set is a limited edition set and is targeted for the hard-core fan. The mono mixes are considered the real version of many of the albums as the Beatles themselves and George Martin were involved with the final mixes. Stereo was still a bit of a novelty, so the stereo mixes were left as an afterthought. The mono box set doesn't include "Yellow Submarine," "Abbey Road," and "Let It Be" as these albums were released only in stereo. The stereo box set includes all of the albums. These are the mixes more familiar to listeners in the United States, so it's probably a better choice of the two sets for the casual fan."
Donation to Heifer International: Although charitable donations haven't been suggested much in recent years, for a few years in the early 2000s they were popular recommendations, and the organization that showed up every year was Heifer International, which gives animals to needy third-world people. The animals provide income, food, and offspring, and Heifer International asks that recipients pass on one of the their animal's offspring to another needy family. It's a good approach, and although you're not actually donating a specific goose or cow, the effect is the same and the results are real.
"The Prisoner," from A&E Television on iTunes: David McMurray first found this on iTunes, noting "In case you hadn't noticed, Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner" is now available from the iTunes Store. It's standard definition but an absolute steal nevertheless - $30 for the classic 17-episode series." David's message to TidBITS Talk prompted quite a few replies; it sounds like "The Prisoner" has more than a few fans among our readers.
That's it for this year, but as we mentioned earlier, be sure to check out the ongoing TidBITS Talk threads for more gift ideas from readers. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the lists and voted for your favorites!
Notable software releases this week include Dialectic 1.5, HandBrake 0.9.4, Labels and Addresses 1.5, Electric Sheep 2.7b21, Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 1, Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 6, Rumpus 6.2, TweetDeck v0.32.0, MarsEdit 2.4, and Mailplane 2.1.1.Show full article
Dialectic 1.5 -- JNSoftware has released a significant maintenance update to the phone dialing utility Dialectic. The latest version adds incoming call detection for the iPhone, a Services workflow item to enable contextual menu dialing for Snow Leopard users, a Google Quick Search plug-in, preferences for the Call Timer, and a separate Call Timer status window. The update also improves formatting of Address Book phone numbers, detection of different call types, accuracy of the caller ID feature, and reliability of Internet-based calling methods such as Google Voice and Vonage. For more info, see "Dialectic Simplifies Dialing Any Type of Phone," 10 April 2008. ($25 new, free update, 7 MB)
HandBrake 0.9.4 -- A year after its last significant update, version 0.9.4 of the open-source video conversion program HandBrake has been released. The update incorporates the latest version of the x264 video encoder, offers 64-bit builds with 10 percent greater performance for most Intel-based Macs, adds soft subtitles which users can turn on or off, and includes a new live preview window. Also, input support has been improved for DVD and non-DVD sources, encoding now shifts to maintain a set quality rather than maintaining a constant bit rate, and unnecessary encoding presets have been eliminated. (Free, 4.9 MB)
Labels and Addresses 1.5 -- Just in time for the holidays, BeLight Software has released the latest version of Labels and Addresses, their tool for printing labels and envelopes. In addition to adding 22 new holiday design sets and 30 new templates, version 1.5 brings support for Aperture, the capability to design and print double-sided envelopes and postcards, and Spanish and French localizations. Also new is integration with Google Maps, enabling users to indicate their location on a card or envelope (perfect for hosts of holiday parties). Finally, several minor bugs have been fixed, including one that would lead to an application freeze when working with certain printers in the Print dialog. Full release notes are available on BeLight Software's Web site. ($49.95 new, free update, 34.5/14.8 MB application/update)
Electric Sheep 2.7b21 -- If you use the Electric Sheep screensaver, please download this important update, which fixes a bug that caused the previous version to hammer the sheep download server. The update also adds a count of how many times a particular sheep has appeared when you press F4, timestamps log entries, and makes it possible for you to tweak how many sheep are shown based on how often they are played. To learn more about Electric Sheep, see "Top 10 Screensavers for the 21st Century," 23 February 2009. (Free, 16.5 MB)
Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 1 -- Apple has released the latest version of Java SE 6 (1.6.0_17) for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, improving its reliability and security. The update supersedes all prior Java for Mac OS X updates.
The update addresses multiple security vulnerabilities that could enable an untrusted Java applet on a maliciously crafted Web site to obtain elevated user privileges and execute arbitrary code. A vulnerability that caused expired Java applet certificates to be treated as valid has also been addressed. Details regarding the security aspects of this update are available on Apple's Web site.
The update requires Mac OS X 10.6.2 and is available via Software Update or the Apple Support Downloads page. (Free, 78 MB)
Java for Mac OS X 10.5 Update 6 -- Apple has released the latest versions of J2SE 5.0 (1.5.0_22) and Java SE 6 (1.6.0_17) for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, improving their reliability and security. The update supersedes all prior Java for Mac OS X updates.
The update addresses multiple security vulnerabilities that could enable an untrusted Java applet on a maliciously crafted Web site to obtain elevated user privileges and execute arbitrary code. A vulnerability that caused expired Java applet certificates to be treated as valid has also been addressed. Details regarding the security aspects of this update are available on Apple's Web site.
Java 1.4.2_22, which is no longer being updated, is also vulnerable to these issues and has thus been disabled by default in this update.
The update requires Mac OS X 10.5.8, supports both Intel-based and PowerPC-based Macs (though Java SE 6 is available only on 64-bit Intel-based Macs), and is available via Software Update or the Apple Support Downloads page. (Free, 122 MB)
Rumpus 6.2 -- For those who want to control their own file transfer servers, Maxum Development has released the latest version of its FTP and Web file transfer server Rumpus. The update adds support for Growl, the capability to search files by name and content, an optimized interface for viewing files on the iPhone, a new set of Web interface options, and automatic drop shipping for transferring large files securely. Also, email encryption is now supported, restrictions on file types specified for Web File Manager (WFM) settings now apply to FTP transfers, FileWatch now enables users to send outbound messages via Apple Mail, and Chinese WFM translations have been added. ($269 new, free update for purchases after 1 January 2008, paid upgrade otherwise, 10.7 MB)
TweetDeck v0.32.0 -- Iain Dodsworth has released the latest version of his Adobe AIR-based Twitter client, TweetDeck. Changes included integration with LinkedIn accounts, the capability to geotag tweets with your location, the option to choose between Twitter's new style for retweets and the old style, and an improved interface featuring a new Add Column screen. Also, support for Twitter's new list feature (see "Twitter Adds Lists, Finally," 30 October 2009) has been added, ensuring full compatibility with Twitter while maintaining the functionality of TweetDeck groups. Old groups will still be available to you, but you won't be able to add any more new ones. A full list of changes and bug fixes is available on Dodsworth's Web site. (Free, 2.4 MB)
MarsEdit 2.4 -- Red Sweater Software has released several updates to its popular blog posting software MarsEdit since we last checked in, the most recent being version 2.4 (for more info, see "MarsEdit 2.0 Blasts Off," 10 September 2007). Changes since MarsEdit 2.0 include the capability to search drafts and entries, the capability to save drafts to a server, support for native tags, and an improved Web preview. Also, AtomPub support has been added, MarsEdit's markup macros can now be used in the media window, and performance speeds of the program launch, weblog entry sort, and the Media Manager have been enhanced. Finally, support has been added for Tumblr and Squarespace, and Technorati Tags are now easier to edit. ($29.95 new, free update from 2.x or $9.95 from 1.0, 3.7 MB)
Mailplane 2.1.1 -- Uncomplex has released a minor maintenance update to Mailplane, its WebKit wrapper for Gmail that maintains Gmail's interface while adding standard Mac OS X features like drag-and-drop attachments, Growl notifications, and screenshot capabilities. The latest version adds support for Flash 10.1 beta, further improves offline capabilities, and enhances the Auto-BCC feature. Also, several bugs have been fixed, including one that prevented Auto-BCC from working when replying, one that led to notification problems when spaces were included in an email address, one that prevented Mailplane from starting if it was housed in a folder that contained a forward slash in its name, and one that caused the program to crash on first launch. ($24.95 new, free update, 6.5 MB)
Interesting articles we found this week look at Apple's acquisition of the Lala digital music service, the Kindle 2's new PDF functionality, fallacies of cloud computing, and a new mobile payment processing service, plus a fun discussion between Adam and Your Mac Life host Shawn King.Show full article
Interesting articles we found this week look at Apple's acquisition of the Lala digital music service, the Kindle 2's new PDF functionality, fallacies of cloud computing, and a new mobile payment processing service, plus a fun discussion between Adam and Your Mac Life host Shawn King.
Apple to Buy Lala Music Service -- Brad Stone of The New York Times reveals that Apple has agreed to buy the digital music company Lala. In contrast with iTunes, from which users must download purchased music before playing, Lala lets users play their music directly from the Web on a computer or smartphone with Internet access. Lala's streaming music licenses are not transferable, making engineering skills and knowledge the most likely reason for the acquisition.
Kindle 2 Gains PDF Reading -- Ars Technica reports that Amazon's Kindle 2 is automatically receiving a firmware update (as long as you have its wireless service on) that enables native PDF viewing, complete with rotation for a wide-screen viewing option. It's still not a good PDF reader (no bookmarks or links honored), but it's a step in the right direction.
Five Fallacies of Cloud Computing -- At SearchDataCenter.com, our friend Chuck Goolsbee has an insightful article looking into five common fallacies of what's called "cloud computing." (One of the fallacies is that it's something new.) Chuck knows what he's talking about, so if you're interested in or worried about cloud computing, read his article. (Apologies in advance for SearchDataCenter.com's annoying policies.)
Adam Discusses Holiday Gift Ideas on Your Mac Life -- As voting continued in the 2009 TidBITS Gift Guide Survey, Adam joined Your Mac Life host Shawn King to go over some of the cooler ideas in the survey, ranging from the coffee cup power inverter for your car to a slew of fun iPhone games. The conversation was a hoot, as always, and should be a fun listen.
Square Aims to Democratize Mobile Payment Processing -- TechCrunch covers the unveiling of Square, a new mobile phone payment service created by one of the co-founders of Twitter. A small device that plugs into a mobile phone's headset/microphone jack lets you swipe credit cards, with the information being transferred first to the Square software and then to the Square service for processing. Square could be popular with farmers market vendors or anyone who needs to take payments and has an iPhone or Android-based smartphone. But would you really want to keep handing your iPhone to customers for signatures?
by Jeff Carlson
It's advice week on TidBITS Talk! Readers are looking for advice on a number of topics, including: finding software to get an old scanner to work, troubleshooting problems with Disk Utility and a crashing Mac Pro, locating a Leopard install disc for an iBook G4, using Logitech software with a Trackman Wheel, pre-configuring an AirPort Express for a vacation devoid of Macs, choosing locator software in the event a laptop is stolen, whether a Chinese TrueType font will work on the Mac, and removing the annoying toolbar that is installed with Vuze.Show full article
It's advice week on TidBITS Talk! Readers are looking for advice on a number of topics, including: finding software to get an old scanner to work, troubleshooting problems with Disk Utility and a crashing Mac Pro, locating a Leopard install disc for an iBook G4, using Logitech software with a Trackman Wheel, pre-configuring an AirPort Express for a vacation devoid of Macs, choosing locator software in the event a laptop is stolen, whether a Chinese TrueType font will work on the Mac, and removing the annoying toolbar that is installed with Vuze.
Scanner software -- Reader suggest several options for getting an old scanner working under Mac OS X 10.5.8 and 10.6.2. (14 messages)
Problem with Disk Utility -- A reader discovers he's running the Leopard version of Disk Utility instead of the Snow Leopard version. Could the fact that he keeps the application in a non-default location on his disk be the culprit? (8 messages)
Mac Pro locking up -- Normally one would be concerned when a Mac would spontaneously freeze, but in this case, some of the operating system sticks around unexpectedly. (1 message)
Pre-configuring AirPort Express -- In anticipation for an upcoming trip, a reader wants to bring only an AirPort Express and an iPhone. What's the best way to set up the AirPort Express so it will work with various hotel network connections? (6 messages)
MacPhoneHome -- Three stolen laptops convinces a reader to look into software that can remotely "phone home" if the computer is nabbed. Which one to buy, or do you choose several? (9 messages)
Help finding 10.5 Leopard for my iBook G4 -- It's possible to still buy Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, but it's not obvious where to get it until you read this thread. (13 messages)
Strange doings at Vuze -- The BitTorrent app Vuze installs an annoying toolbar in your browser. Other torrent download software doesn't try to be so forward. (5 messages)
Problems with Logitech Trackman Wheel with Snow Leopard -- Does Logitech's mouse software interfere with Snow Leopard, or is some other problem afoot? (4 messages)
Chinese TrueType Font -- Will a font designed for Windows work on the Mac? (8 messages)