What do you do with all the snippets of information you deal with every day? Toss them into a folder? Append them to a huge text file? Matt Neuburg has found a better way: Idea Keeper. Also in this issue, Kirk McElhearn replaces Emailer with PowerMail 3.0 as his email client of choice, and we note the releases of AppleShare IP 6.3.2, AppleWorks 6.0.3, and Netscape Communicator 4.73, plus announce another quiz to test your Macintosh knowledge.
AppleShare IP 6.3.2 Shuts Security Hole — Apple Computer has released AppleShare IP 6.3.2, a small but important update designed to fix a potential security problem in the Web server module of AppleShare IP 6.1 and later. The security problem works as follows: HTTP clients such as Web browsers can ask for either an entire page at a time or a range of data. If a client asks for an invalid range of data from a Web page, AppleShare IP’s Web server may return up to 32K of the contents of RAM (which could, of course, contain anything that’s being worked on at the time). The free update requires AppleShare IP 6.3.1 and Mac OS 9.0.4 (so make sure you upgrade to those versions before trying to install), and is a 1.1 MB download. [ACE]
AppleWorks 6.0.3 Update Released — Apple has released AppleWorks 6.0.3, a free maintenance update to the English versions of AppleWorks 6. The update improves stability to the latest version of Apple’s integrated suite of tools, updating the AppleWorks application, the Envelope Assistant, and the CarbonLib system extension. Apple has not revealed specific fixes in AppleWorks 6.0.3, but user reports indicate better USB compatibility plus faster file opening and saving. The update also adds RTF translation and several pages of help files. AppleWorks 6.0.3 is a 3.3 MB download. [JLC]
Quiz Preview: Port Authority — Over the years, the Macintosh has sported a wide variety of ports for connecting peripherals and extending the computer’s capabilities. But just because a port is present doesn’t mean you can plug or unplug a device from it without taking certain precautions. For this week’s quiz then, see if you can pick the correct answer to the question: "Into which of the following ports should never plug a device while the Macintosh is turned on?" Test your Macintosh knowledge on our home page today, and perhaps our explanation of the answers will save you a costly repair tomorrow! [ACE]
Poll Results: Collateral Spammage — About 1,200 people voted in last week’s poll that asked how many unsolicited commercial email messages you received per week on average. Although several people felt that we should have had options that offered higher ranges – up into the 150 to 200 spam messages per week – the distribution of votes was relatively even with the ranges we chose. The most common answers fell between receiving 1 and 30 spam messages per week, with a significant minority receiving 31 or more. Only eight percent of respondents said they didn’t receive any spam at all, although some of them admitted that this was because they had just switched ISPs to escape a heavily targeted email account. [ACE]
As a freelance translator, I rely heavily on email to stay in touch with my customers and to transfer files back and forth. For the more than five years I’ve been using the Internet, Claris Emailer has been my tool of choice. It’s one of the most user-friendly applications I have ever used, but I’ve found myself thinking along the lines that TidBITS managing editor Jeff Carlson expressed in his recent article about switching from Emailer to Eudora. Emailer won’t work forever, and I worry that the upcoming Mac OS X may break it for good. I’m seeing signs of fatigue even in Mac OS 9.0.4 – on my machine, Emailer crashes every time I try to rebuild its mail database.
Feel the PowerMail — So, I went in search of a new email client. Where Jeff settled on Eudora, in part to work more smoothly with the rest of the TidBITS editors, I’ve instead settled on PowerMail 3.0, the third version of a Macintosh-only email program by the Swiss company CTM Development. This program, although original in many ways, is intentionally similar to Emailer. Converting from Emailer to PowerMail is a simple process, and I managed to become accustomed to PowerMail quickly.
The actual migration process is easy: an assistant guides you through the procedure of importing your Emailer mail database and address book directly into PowerMail. This may take some time and is worth running when you’re away from your Mac if you have a large Emailer database. I had no difficulty importing 2,000 messages and more than 400 addresses in a few hours, though some users on the PowerMail mailing list have had trouble, possibly because of importing very large numbers of messages. If importing fails, there are other solutions, such as exporting your messages into text-only Eudora mailboxes, and then importing them from those mailboxes.
Rearranging Your Life — Switching from Emailer to PowerMail feels like moving house (something I did just two months ago) – many things are the same, but are in different places or work in slightly different ways. Becoming accustomed to the new aspects of a house may take months, but, surprisingly, it took me only a few days to feel at home with PowerMail.
In large part, that’s because PowerMail’s interface is very similar to Emailer’s look and feel, with supplemental display options. In addition to the two-pane display that Emailer provides, PowerMail offers two different three-pane displays. Folders line up on the left of the window, and you can choose between double-clicking a message to open it in a new window, or single-clicking to display it in the lower pane. You can view all messages in a folder, only unread messages, or only those containing a certain text string – you define this either through a menu command or by clicking a cute eyeball button at the bottom of the browser window.
I find PowerMail’s message list display nicer than Emailer’s for a couple of reasons. First, PowerMail displays messages against a gray background, much like in Finder list windows, and, second, the font and size used match those that you have selected in the Finder preferences. Although I prefer this approach, I can understand that many might see it as a problem. Beware – if you use some strange font in the Finder, your email message lists will use the same font! Unfortunately, PowerMail provides no way of selecting a font that’s different from your Finder settings, although it does provide full control over the font used in the messages themselves.
PowerMail, like Emailer, allows you to check multiple email accounts at the same time. [Unfortunately, unlike Emailer, PowerMail cannot connect to America Online email accounts due to AOL’s refusal to allow access to third party clients. -Adam] But it goes one step further: while Emailer checks different accounts sequentially, PowerMail checks them all simultaneously. This means that accounts with no mail don’t incur much, if any, additional connection time, since they are handled while mail is coming in from your other accounts. In another nice touch, PowerMail can send messages at the same time it’s receiving messages. This feature proves occasionally quite useful, since it lets me send out quick responses to incoming messages before all my mail has downloaded. PowerMail also makes incoming messages available as soon as they arrive, unlike Emailer, which unpacks them all at the end of the connection.
Features Galore — PowerMail has many other interesting features, of which I’ll mention the most useful here. One of my favorites, since I live in a cross-platform world, is being able to choose a default attachment encoding method for each contact in my address book. Thus, I can make sure attachments are encoded using Base64 for AOL users, uuencode for certain Windows users, and so on.
PowerMail is perhaps best known for its powerful search function, based on the same technology as Apple’s Sherlock. To test PowerMail’s searching speed on my iMac DV SE in comparison with Emailer, I searched for my first name in the 2,000 messages in my mail database. PowerMail took three seconds to display a list of the 1,000 messages containing my name. You can sort the list of found messages by sender, subject, date, or even relevance (which is itself only really relevant if you use more search terms). Emailer would have taken at least a minute to do the same. PowerMail’s searches actually take place in an index to your messages, which PowerMail creates either in the background or on demand. If you haven’t updated the index recently, PowerMail asks if you want to do so when doing a search. Although PowerMail’s relevance ranking is unusual among email programs and can be quite useful, PowerMail does not provide advanced search options that would let me, for example, search for messages containing "Kirk" sent between May 1999 and June 1999.
Another neat feature in PowerMail’s interface is the little increase and decrease font size boxes at the bottom of message windows. These enable you to adjust the font size used in the message at any time, one point per click. When you change the size, PowerMail changes it for all messages, which is useful if you change screen resolutions and want to read your email easily without changing the font setting in the preferences.
Other features include random signatures, many scheduling options, sorting by any column title field in the list views, and mail filters that can handle up to 16 variables each, with multiple variables in each filter. Any number of actions can occur when a filter is activated: file the message in a given folder, apply a label to the message, add the sender to your Address Book, run an AppleScript script, auto-reply, auto-forward, and more.
Limitations — PowerMail isn’t perfect, and although there aren’t many failings, one of them was enough for me to press Emailer back into service briefly. Emailer, like most other email programs, enables you to choose the maximum size of messages to download – if a message exceeds this size, Emailer downloads only the subject and headers and lets you choose whether to download the attachment or delete it. A customer sent me a 5 MB file that choked my mail server, preventing me from accessing the rest of my messages. I used Emailer to download the message without the attachment, and then deleted it, after which I asked the customer to resend it in several smaller bits. PowerMail definitely needs this feature, and CTM Development has said on the PowerMail mailing list that it is one of the company’s priorities.
Another annoyance with PowerMail is its manual, or, more correctly, the lack of a manual. Although most of PowerMail’s functions are obvious, at least for experienced users, some others are not. It’s a shame that the only manual available is one on the CTM Development Web site for the previous version, 2.4. I hope CTM Development will remedy this failing soon, since there are certainly features I haven’t yet discovered or figured out entirely. For example, when PowerMail receives an HTML message, it displays it with all of the HTML tags (it can’t parse HTML and display the results, as can Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator, and Eudora), but a small globe icon appears at the bottom of the window. Clicking this icon displays the message properly in your default Web browser. I hadn’t noticed the globe initially and only learned of its functionality from the PowerMail mailing list.
The PowerMail application does not take up much more hard disk space than Emailer, but it does need a bit more memory. The default is set to 8 MB of RAM, but it will work with less. Like Emailer, PowerMail stores all of its messages in a single file mail database, but it’s more efficient than Emailer’s approach, resulting in faster data backups (though not as fast as a program that stores mailboxes as separate files, like Eudora and Mailsmith). My 2,000 messages took up about 13 MB with Emailer, but only about 10 MB with PowerMail.
Was It Worth It? All in all, as a former Emailer user, I am more than satisfied. Migration was painless, most of the key features I am accustomed to are available, and many of the additional features make life notably easier. But above all, PowerMail is alive, and development will surely continue, at least for the immediate future. Compatibility with Mac OS X is assured.
PowerMail 3.0 requires a PowerPC-based Mac with Mac OS 8.5 or later. A 30-day demo is available as a 2.1 MB download. PowerMail 3.0 costs $49 new via download; users of previous versions purchased in 1998 or 1999 can upgrade for $29, and those who purchased PowerMail in 2000 can upgrade for free.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer who lives in a village in the French Alps.]
Computers are marvelous at storage and retrieval of information, so why are some things so hard to keep track of? You probably know where you put the draft of your novel, or that letter to your congressman. I’m talking here about bits of information, like the list of things to do before your kid’s birthday party, the patentable idea you thought of last week, or the questions you plan to ask your boss at tomorrow’s meeting. You may have hundreds, even thousands of miscellaneous "snippets" or "nuggets" like this; what you need is a virtual shoe box into which to toss them as they arise, and somehow retrieve them later in an orderly fashion.
As a fan of computer-based organizational devices, I’m often asked to recommend a "snippet keeper" of this sort. When the question arose recently on TidBITS Talk, a clamor of recommendations resulted, showing how great the need is. Apart from the obvious outliners and databases such as I’ve discussed here in the past, people use a vast range of solutions: text-based low-tech utilities, dedicated snippet organizers, and even programs intended for something else, such as email. My own current favorite is Idea Keeper, by Glenn Berntson of Plum Island Software.
What It Is — Idea Keeper rests upon a brilliantly simple framework. The basis of organization is a folder on your hard disk; you can have many such folders, and you can easily switch among them, but only one can be open in Idea Keeper at any moment. The current folder’s contents are displayed in Idea Keeper’s Organizer Window as a two-level list: a column of "topics" and a column showing the "ideas" within the currently selected topic. Double-click an idea listing, and you see a word-processing window corresponding to it. Thus, your granular data (your snippets) consist of individual text windows; the three-level hierarchy of folder, topic, and idea which categorizes them; this organization is sufficient to give every snippet a meaningful place, but shallow enough to ensure convenience.
What You Can Store — Ideas are text windows. But mere text isn’t the only thing these windows can contain. You can style the text, and you can also save common style settings such as "Palatino 12 blue underlined" as templates that you can instantly apply to any text. For each paragraph, you can adjust line spacing, margins, indent, and alignment, and these settings can be saved as templates too. The text can contain inline pictures, and even sounds (indicated by an icon that you click to play the sound).
An idea can contain checkboxes, which you click to toggle their state; and you can have "alarm objects" that cause an alert to appear at a given date and time if Idea Keeper is running. Thus, a text window can become a to-do list, possibly with live reminders.
An idea can contain Web, FTP, and mail URLs; clicking one does the expected thing in the expected helper program (as determined by your Internet Config settings), so Idea Keeper can work as a bookmark program as well.
An idea can contain file references (aliases): click the reference to open the file from the Finder. Thus, Idea Keeper can help organize files on disk, and (more important) it needn’t store something internally in order to contain it – a PDF, or a QuickTime movie file, can be a snippet, because an idea can hold a live reference to that file.
Finally, you can display any idea window as an outline. Idea Keeper’s notion of outlining is rather primitive, reminding me of the rhinoceros depicted by Dürer, who has obviously never seen a real one (for example, reorganizing is clumsy and navigation is nonexistent); but it’s improving and adds a valuable further level of hierarchical organization for the text, to-do items, URLs, or file references that the idea may contain.
How You Can Store It — Even the most capacious shoe box is useless if you can’t find it, or if you can’t get the lid off. Fortunately, you can enter information into Idea Keeper easily, and in many different ways.
Obviously, if an idea is open, you can type into it, or copy from another application, switch to Idea Keeper, and paste. Also, working within Idea Keeper, you can import a text file as an idea, or all the text files in a folder (each becomes an idea); you can also copy an entire topic from one folder into another. Idea Keeper can import Palm Database files as ideas, or as topics broken up into ideas according to their bookmarks. Pictures can be imported with automatic format conversion via QuickTime.
But you don’t have to switch to Idea Keeper to move information into it; as long as Idea Keeper is running, a key-combination lets you grab the clipboard contents, or you can drag or paste into a tiny floating palette, without leaving the application in which you’re working. Idea Keeper captures the material as a new idea. A dialog can appear asking what topic of the current folder to put the idea in, or you can just have the idea go into Idea Keeper’s Clippings Window, a sort of global topic belonging to no folder – the point being that you can move the clippings window’s ideas into actual topics later.
When text arrives into Idea Keeper, you may want some extra munging performed. You can strip extra spaces, extra return characters, linefeed characters, and email quote characters; Idea Keeper can perform any of these transformations automatically as the text arrives, or you can invoke them later to operate on selected text within an idea. Also, Idea Keeper can convert URLs to URL objects as the text arrives; this simplifies importing a browser bookmark file, or the results of a Sherlock search, as a series of live URLs.
How You Can Retrieve It — Once material is in your shoe box, you obviously want to be able to get it back out again. If you’re fairly conscientious in your organization, the folder/topic/idea hierarchy may well lead you directly to the desired snippet. But Idea Keeper also provides several ways of cutting through this hierarchy.
First, you can maintain a set of keywords, and apply one or more of them to any idea. Unfortunately, the entire keyword mechanism is disappointingly primitive: keywords are global, not specific to each folder; they are applied or inspected through a pop-up menu, which is a dreadful interface; and you can’t do a boolean search – you can open those ideas to which some one keyword is applied, and that’s all. Still, it’s better than nothing.
Second, you can do a text search. You can either do a successive find or a global search; the latter displays a single window listing all ideas and objects (such as URLs) whose text matches your search. Unfortunately, there is no whole-word matching, so the results usually include a lot of undesired matches.
Finally, there’s hypertext. This is one of Idea Keeper’s best features. Within Idea 1, to make a link to Idea 2, drag Idea 2’s listing from the organizer window into Idea 1. Or, to make a link to a specific locus within Idea 2, create an "anchor" at that point, and drag the anchor into Idea 1. Now you have a link in Idea 1 which, when clicked, jumps you to Idea 2. Furthermore, there is a "Back" command, so you can navigate via links and return, as in a Web browser. Thus, Idea Keeper encourages hypertextual organization and navigation. Unfortunately, these links work only within a folder. There is a device for linking between ideas in different folders: you can export an idea to the Finder as an alias file which you later drag into another idea. The result behaves like an idea link, but is actually a file link, and will break if the alias file is lost.
To share your snippets with others, you can export an idea as a text file, or a topic as a folder of text files, or multiple ideas as a single text file. For example, I wrote this review in Idea Keeper, then exported the whole folder as a single text file and opened it with Nisus Writer for final editing. (Unfortunately, some information was needlessly lost in this process; in particular, I had to go back and copy across the URLs individually.) Also, ideas or entire topics can be exported as Doc-formatted Palm files.
You can also export a document as a stand-alone application. What results is a folder of ideas embedded into a sort of read-only version of Idea Keeper; navigation by topic and by idea still works, as do hyperlinks and URLs. Thus, Idea Keeper becomes a tool for creating online documentation, rather like DOCMaker.
Finally, Idea Keeper is sufficiently scriptable that Apple events can query it and extract the text of ideas. This might be useful, for example, as a way to move Idea Keeper data directly into HyperCard or FileMaker while preserving the topic/idea structure.
Worth Trying — Idea Keeper is a tremendously original program – so original that its unusual interface and non-standard behavior may create a bad initial impression. My advice: persist! Interface and behavior can be heavily customized to suit your expectations and needs, and after you’ve used Idea Keeper for a while, and have absorbed its paradigm and its quirks, you may come to see it, as I do, as proof that the Macintosh interface, so far from being exhausted, is capable of something new, refreshing, and powerful.
There are many aspects of this originality that I haven’t even touched on in this review. There are brilliant toolbars, ingenious dialogs, extensive use of drag & drop, and immense online help (in the form of two Idea Keeper folders). This is a program that reflects deep concern for the needs of the user, and deep thought as to how best to meet them.
That’s not to say that Idea Keeper is perfect. It is clearly the work of an amateur – a gifted, dedicated amateur, but an amateur nonetheless. In the course of preparing this review, I experienced crashes, freezes, and numerous interface misbehaviors. However, Glenn Berntson is extremely responsive and was quick to fix problems as I reported them. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that I suggest you try Idea Keeper: the more users it finds, the more testing it receives, the more suggestions are sent to its author, the better it will become. But of course the main reason I recommend Idea Keeper is that you just might like it enough to make it your snippet keeper. I certainly do.
Idea Keeper is a 2.6 MB download and requires 7 MB for installation; it prefers 12 MB of RAM. The program costs $30 shareware; the download is not disabled in any way.