New Support Forums added

I have long been sitting on the fence when it comes to providing a discussion forum for supporting customers.

I like the direct personal contact of the one-on-one email exchanges and I hate the organized chaos of most discussion forums.

When you open one of those things, you suddenly become a moderator for community rather than just the guy sitting at home behind his monitor helping people sort out problems his software and trying to figure out what needs improving.

Sounds good, but what about the spammers, the trolls, the flaming wars and all of that? Oh, yes and what if you call “forum” and no one comes? Oh well, we’ll see..

I’ll be running the forums on a “wait and see what happens” basis until further notice.

Please feel free to use and abuse it and don’t hesitate to talk amongst yourselves. I’ll be trying to check in as often as possible and keep it as spam free as at all possible.

Hope you enjoy it!

Frank

MacBook Air on Holiday: Awesome

A little update on my MacBook Air comments. I did say that I thought it was a great “no hassles” machine for taking away with you for casual use (not running your video editing business on).

Well it is.

I took my MBA on holiday to Spain over the Easter break and it’s just awesome as a light travel companion.

It worked flawlessly, was no hassle lugging around the airport, worked fine on the Hotel’s free wireless network and best of all: it fits into a normal size room safe. No more chaining up your notebook to the radiators (of which they were of course none) or just worrying about it getting stolen.

The MacBook Air: the only way to travel.

MacBook Air – My 5 cents

Here we go again.. Apple brings out a new product and makes a controversial claim (“The world’s thinnest notebook”) and the entire gadget-loving internet is going bi-polar again. Oh well, I guess that was Apple’s marketing goal in making this claim anyway: get everybody talking about its new product.

Mission accomplished.

The Gadget sites all seem to be taking the wrong approach once more, by comparing the MacBook Air to other (sub-)notebooks based on:

  • features
  • price
  • weight
  • size

The usual arguments re-surface: “It’s too expensive because Acer does the same thing for 20% less”. “It’s missing connectivity (DVD, firewire, ethernet, ..)”. “For $XXXX, I’d expect it to be faster”, etc, etc.

In my personal opinion all this misses the point. The sentence below summarizes my take on the MacBook Air’s “unique selling proposition”:

The MacBook Air is the most portable Mac.

It’s perfect for taking down to Star Bucks (please open one around the corner, so I can take it there!), answering your mail, doing a spot of programming or just plain surfing. True it’s not as small as your iPhone, but it has got a bigger screen, and yes, it does run Mac OS X, which is nice.

How is it possible that almost all reviews of the MacBook Air forget to even mention, it’s main feature: It’s a Mac stupid!.

Is the Lenovo X300 a Mac? No? So why would Gizmodo let you vote on which is better? Surely if you want a Mac, you’re not going to buy a Lenovo?

I guess now that Macs can run Windows or Linux, the question that Gizmodo is asking is: “As a Windows user, is it worth buying the MacBook Air rather than the Lenovo X300 so that you can run Windows XP (not Vista!) on a box that looks nicer?”

The mere thought of buying a Mac, just to erase the Mac OS X partition and install Windows instead makes my skin crawl.. Arrgh.

Anyway, my MacBook Air arrived a week or so ago and it has kept everything it promised: It’s a Mac that I can slip next to my notepad (which happens to be thicker) in a bag and take out with me without breaking my back.

It’s not going to replace my Mac Pro and my triple monitor setup, which I’ve grown to love. Its tiny screen means that I need to switch between windows incessantly, its small disk means that I can’t just mirror my 600Gb Mac Pro installation via Apple’s Setup Assistant, but had to install things by hand.

Sure it would be great if it had a larger disk, a faster CPU or faster wireless networking, but you don’t really expect those things in this small a package. You just know it’s not going to be a tiny version of a full-blown Mac Pro and if you don’t well..

The MacBook Air is a Mac that you can take with you everywhere; without breaking your back. In this market segment it’s unique. Apple had to make some compromises, but I’m happy to live with them. The main thing is that I can just take it with me, in case I need it. It has already supplanted my MacBook Pro, which is a more capable machine, but simply doesn’t offer the same convenience.

The MacBook Pro won’t be anybody’s main machine.

It will be too expensive for teenagers to run facebook on, but it’s ideal for professionals who rely on their Macs and need to take it pretty much anywhere.

I can’t just close shop for a two week holiday. I need to keep on top of my email and I need to be able to fix my website should it decide to go down.

The MacBook Air will pay for itself, just by letting me go on holiday without having to lug my MacBook Pro around for a couple of hours while trying to reign in my 18 month old toddler.

Thank you Steve!

What’s ahead in 2008

It’s been a long time since I last wrote anything on this blog.. it’s been a busy few months and not all of it related to publicspace.net

I became a dad (hurray!) for the first time a very long 18 months ago. Since then everything has been a bit topsy-turvy. I quit my day job to be able to concentrate on my software business, but working from home with a little baby turns out not be the most productive environment to “get things done”..

Anyway, I did get quite a lot done over the past year or so, especially considering the many distractions and 2008 is going to be full of new improved goodness.

First in line will be the long awaited A Better Finder Rename v8.

Version numbering is always a problem. Whether you charge for upgrades or not, a “full digit” release is supposed to be an event. If you do charge for upgrades then it’d better be! If you don’t charge for upgrades then you’ll probably rather stay with version 1.1.2 anyway πŸ™‚

Version 8 thus needs to needs to be chock full of new features and improvements, e.g.

  • A new GUI?
  • File filtering?
  • Saveable presets?
  • A new industrial strength renaming engine that make short shrift of a million renames?
  • Automatic file name conflict resolution?
  • Pairing up jpeg thumbnails and RAW picture files?
  • Sparkle-support?

It’s all in the provisional feature set.

I bet you must have scratched your head when you saw version 7.9.6.1 recently? or 7.9.1 for that matter.

Well another problem with version numbering is that it is has an implicit message, e.g. version 7.9 means that 8.0 is just around the corner. Well it isn’t really.. my policy has always been to make lots of smaller updates. This gets lots of new features and improvements out to you guys quickly and makes sure that the program remains reliable over time (if something’s broken it must be the last thing you changed).

Now the temptation would be to take all these small improvements and instead of releasing them piecemeal, bundle them all up into major new release. I don’t want to name any particular company or product (“Apple”, “Mac OS X”). Looking at A Better Finder Rename’s version history, there’s 42 updates since version 7 came out. Now that would justify a whole new “full digit” upgrade, wouldn’t it?

Only of course, that’s not what I’ve chosen to do. So I basically start from version 7.9.9.9 (just joking) and everything that comes after that is “new in version 8”. Doing something heroic for each major release isn’t easy however. Last time over, I completely rewrote the program from scratch using Cocoa. Now that was a good effort!

This time over, I have lots of new features and improvements, all of which take a lot of effort to implement.. which means it takes a lot of time.. and I haven’t started properly yet. I really don’t want to do this, but I think I might have to go for Apple’s new trendy “7.9.10” numbering strategy.. I wonder whether versiontracker and macupdate can handle this?

There’s another major factor that affects the release date of version 8. When I initially started coding on version 8, I quickly realised that I can do a much better job if I leverage all the new Leopard features. Lots of stuff that I was going to hand-code are already in there and frankly they are better than what I could come up with on my own. Then I quickly realized that “it’s in there, but it doesn’t work (yet)”. In Mac OS X 10.5.1 things are already a lot better and I expect that by 10.5.2 most things will work without a hitch.

So here’s the bombsheel: A Better Finder Rename 8 is going to be Leopard-only. This pretty much means that it will only be released once a significant share of Mac users have made the migration. I wouldn’t want to release something that only a few people can actually use. Right now it looks like about 30% of Mac users have made the switch, but by the summer I suspect it will be most of the people who download software from the internet anyway. Besides, v7 is still perfectly functional.

You might have noticed the “file filtering” on the new feature list. Yes, it’s time to say bye, bye to A Better Finder Select.

This originally was the file filtering component of the A Better Finder Attributes. This is another product that has long lived in the shadow of the mighty A Better Finder Rename, but has recently found a new lease of life after I included the ability to adjust the EXIF timestamps of digital camera pictures. It turns out that lots of people have lots of photos with screwy shooting dates.. the more the merrier. I have also finally found a way of changing the timestamps on the majority of RAW formats including NEF and CR2. I might even include this before the 5.0 release.

Then of course there’s our latest bad boy application, “The Big Mean Folder Machine“. It’s initial releases went fairly well and there’s a lot more in the pipeline for 2008. On top of that, I learnt a lot about Core Data which comes in handy for that new renaming engine. It’s hard to tell with a 1.x release, but I think I might have another hit application on my hands. Now that would be nice!

Last but not least, MacBreakZ, after its 4.0 rejuvenation efforts is once again doing fairly well and I can thus justify spending time on it. Since its release in late 2006, it has been updated regularly on a bimonthly schedule and I have some new illustrations and artwork stacked up as well. The dreaded 4.9 release is going to come up far too quickly again.. oh no! another “full digit” release!

This brings me to another priority for this year: documentation. I keep getting the same emails about documentation: “Where is the PDF manual?”, “Where is the download-able documentation”, “Where is the e-book?”, “Where are the screencasts?”, “Where are the tutorials?”, “Where is the major feature movie?”. You get the idea..

The thing is that no two people can seem to agree on what kind of documentation they would like to have. “Just do everything” is a nice idea, but it just isn’t possible. I’ve spent a lot of time recently finding out how other people deal with the situation and my web logs show that few people actually ever use the documentation anyway. Plus of course, it’s a bore πŸ™

The Windoze guys all seem to solve this problem by using “Help & Manual“, the ueber-technical documenation tool. Unfortunately the only reference to the Mac that you can find on their site is an explanation of why it doesn’t work in Safari (it’s not made by Microsoft).

There are various tools available for the Mac, but they really aren’t any good.. I would plug my newly purchased Apple Help tool here, but it doesn’t do images (!) and I’ve been waiting for 6 week for a reply to my support request.. aarrgh.. at long last I have found something that’s better on Windows!

Nonetheless, 2008 is going to be the year of improved documentation on publicspace.net. Period.

I’m hoping to package an Apple Help documentation set with MacBreakZ soon and the other products will probably need to wait for their upcoming big releases. I’m also considering PDF versions of the manuals, which should satisfy most people..

Anyway, that’s all from me from now.

Take care,

Frank

Big Mean File Processing

What a couple of weeks it has been since the launch of Leopard..

I’m not sure whether I’m the only one to find this, but it does look like one of the buggiest Apple releases in recent history..

By in large, a new operating system release should have zero impact on existing programs. This time over, however, it looks like lots and lots of programs have been broken all over the place..

Of course, as a developer I spend most of my time in Apple’s development tools, namely XCode and the brand-new “Instruments”. I’m sad to say it, but the current XCode 3.0 is a no more than an alpha release. The editor hangs, the snapshot feature doesn’t work (force quit), half the time after running a program in debug mode, you need to quit XCode to “reset” it.. it will be great when it’s finished, but it has been released at least a year too early πŸ™

Time Machine is great, but lacks configurability and feedback. Every hour it will pretty much freeze the machine and backup 360Gb of data (build directories do not seem to be excluded from backups), the only indication that you have that it’s busy is that the external hard disk starts making a racket, there’s no easy way of delaying a backup, etc, etc.

My own applications have also been hit by Leopard problems despite having tested them on various beta builds of the new operating system.

For A Better Finder Rename, the migration problems were largely due to changes (and apparently new bugs) in the Finder and in AppleScript. For MacBreakZ there are some oddities to do with Spaces (which does behave in some fairly strange ways).

At the moment, however, it seems that it’s the Big Mean Folder Machine that has been the hardest hit. This is largely due to some very nice progress on Mac OS X’s built-in Core Data database engine. It’s much faster, but it also seems to leak memory fairly badly where it didn’t before. As a consequence, “The Big Mean Folder Machine” appears to be both a lot faster (great!) and lot memory hungrier (no!) on Leopard than it was on Tiger..

Unfortunately the vastly increased memory usage on Leopard makes the whole application crash when it runs out of memory. Luckily this doesn’t happen during your garden variety 6000 file re-organization, but can quickly become a problem when you’re dealing with tens or hundreds of thousands of files. Well using Core Data was supposed to provide “The Big Mean Folder Machine” with fantastic scalability rather than make memory a problem!

I have therefore spent much of the last week optimizing “The Big Mean Folder Machine” for Leopard by manually testing each bit of code for its memory usage.. this is very tedious work, but at least it seems to be working:

My current test version now deals gracefully with half a million files and has a very small memory foot print even when it’s working flat out..

I hope to have a new version of “The Big Mean Folder Machine” that will gracefully deal with over a million files out very soon, so expect “The Big Mean Folder Machine” 1.3 very soon.

This is also good news for the upcoming version 8 of A Better Finder Rename, which will inherit much of The Big Mean Folder Machine’s processing pipeline.

If anybody is stuck with the current version of “The Big Mean Folder Machine”, please just email me and I can send you a development copy via email.

Best regards,

Frank

A Better Finder Rename and Leopard

A while back the 7.7.6 release of A Better Finder Rename introduced the “ultra-fast, ultra-safe” renaming mode.

Renaming files on Mac OS 9/X has always been a tricky affair because of file comments. In earlier releases of Mac OS 9/X these were called “Finder comments” and starting with Mac OS X 10.4 “Spotlight comments”.

The thing about them has always been: they keep disappearing for no reason.

The reason is actually all too clear: they are not properly linked into the file system programming interfaces. Every time to you save a file under a new name, move it off a Mac HFS+ file system, send it via email, move or copy it under Unix, etc the file comment stays behind because the Finder doesn’t know about the operation.

Generations of Macintosh users have stored crucial data in those comments, only to find that when they need them, they have disappeared.

Now renaming files outside of the Finder is one of those things that make file comments disappear, precisely because the Finder doesn’t know anything about the renaming having happened.

A Better Finder Rename to my knowledge is the only file renaming utility for the Mac that actually preserve file comments. It does so by telling the Finder about each rename. Unfortunately this is hardly the fastest way of doing things. Usually this does not matter too much because renaming 500 files in under 5 seconds isn’t really all that slow.

Unfortunately, this method does not work on FileVault encrypted home folders. The reason for this is that AppleScript does not work on FileVault files. This is a problem that I (and many others) reported to Apple when 10.3 came out, but that has not been solved yet. Perhaps because it can’t be solved?

This is why A Better Finder Rename in the “Advanced Options” sections lets you choose your own renaming mechanism. A full description of the different mechanisms available is in the manual.

Which brings us back to the “ulta-fast, ultra-safe” renaming mode. For a short while Apple managed to fix their renaming programming interface in the Cocoa APIs, so that file comments did not disappear, as long as you used a brand-new system level call to do so. If memory serves this was between Mac OS X 10.4.7 and 10.4.8. In Mac OS X 10.4.9 they promptly broke this again and file comments started disappearing again..

So in between the implementation and the release of version 7.7.6 the new feature stopped working and then had to be “removed” from version 7.7.7 as a bug fix. I did report the problem to Apple again..

Now it seems that in Leopard things are fine again. The renaming mode was never actually removed, but simply renamed. It is still available as “ultra-fast move mode (potential file comment loss)” and appears to work flawlessly and very fast under Leopard. So if you are under Leopard, by all means use it!

Getting ready for Leopard

After yesterday’s release of “The Big Mean Folder Machine” 1.0, my attention is now shifting towards the imminent release of Mac OS X Leopard.

The rumor mill has it that it will be released the last weekend of October and as always we’ll be ready.. there are only minor visual glitches to take care of.

I’m not sure what your thoughts on the new and much darker “space” theme are, but I think it will take some getting used to. I’m still not convinced that the new “darker” Apple site looks anything as good as the old “aqua” one.. it’s the first time that I’m wondering whether Apple is actually taking a step backwards rather forwards at least in visual style..

As soon as Leopard is officially released, work on A Better Finder Rename v8 will start in earnest.. no rest for the wicked.

Big Mean Folder Machine nearing completion…

A5EA5026-68FB-4400-BFA7-B8DED2F18CEE.jpg

My latest project, “The Big Mean Folder Machine” after being put on hold while the new artwork was being finished is now back on track. The 1.0 beta 3 release should be ready for next wednesday (my traditional “release day”).

My policy has always been to “get it out early and see what people make of it”, so I’m thinking about going “golden master” with this third beta.

I could, of course, continue releasing new betas that add more features, but I’m not really a fan of the new “endless beta” strategy where your golden master is 1.0 beta 28891 build 65839-20a and comes after 3 years of saying “don’t blame me if it does not work”.

It’s only a 1.0 release, so somebody is going to knock it because it doesn’t do something scheduled for release 3.4, but that’s going to happen anyway.. so unless I find a show stopper that’s it as far as betas are concerned..

I would like to take his opportunity to thank those of you who have contributed their insights and suggestions to the project.. I know version 1.0 is still far from fulfilling all requirements, but it’s only the beginning of the journey.. expect a point update with new features and refinements every 4-8 weeks.. and don’t worry you have free upgrades up to (but not including!!) versions 3.0.

Funnily enough, I haven’t mentioned bug fixes yet. This is because nobody’s reported a bug yet.. this either means that I have finally managed to get a 1.0 beta 1 release out that is 100% bug free (in my dreams), or that you’re holding back your reports on the assumption that “somebody else is going to report this”. Well, nobody has so far, so please get emailing!

As a sweetener: anybody who reports a genuine bug (“it doesn’t make coffee” doesn’t count!) before the 1.0 final release gets a free single user license.

A Better Finder Launcher is set free

A long, long time ago, in another life time (the 6th of August 2003 to be precise), I released version 1.0 beta 1 of “A Better Finder Launcher”, my entry into the perfect Mac OS X application launcher contest. Back then I was full of plans for all the cool things I could do with that program..

There were already plenty of contenders our there, but I didn’t like any of them. My problem with them was that they did too much. All I wanted was a quick way of launching the applications that did not fit into the dock. Period.

I reasoned that I can’t possibly be the only person on the planet (or at least the Mac) who wanted something quick, simple and effective, rather than something bloated with features that nobody could possibly want, and so I set out to build a radically fast, radically simple and 100% effective application launcher.

As it happens, I was totally wrong about my market analysis. As it turns out, nobody wants a quick, simple and effective application launcher rather than a bloated “launch everything and the kitchen sink” launcher. And certainly the perceived value of a “simple” product is much less than that of a “complicated” product.

A Better Finder Launcher never took off: not even in a small way. Feedback on the product was never more than a trickle and most of the time was about “why does it not do more”, rather than “couldn’t it do this better”.

Development continued in a haphazard manner, driven more by individual user’s requests and my own whims than by market forces πŸ™‚

The fact that Mac OS X 10.4 introduced “Spotlight” and that the QuickSilver (“Less is more” can mean many different things) guys continued to do an impressive job and do it for free, didn’t help the product to flourish either. Still a hard core of loyal A Better Finder Launcher users continued to exist and I was probably the most hardcore of them.

I have long ago given up on making A Better Finder Launcher a commercial success and as a full time developer that means that I can’t really spend that much time on it (people keep sending me bills!). I was often tempted to acknowledge defeat (I have really) and discontinue the product (I will not) for good.

The thing that stopped me from cutting my losses and get out of the launcher market altogether was that hardcore of users. I didn’t want to let them down. Moreover, right from the start, A Better Finder Launcher was bundled with the A Better Finder series of tools and there are thus potentially tens of thousands of avid users out there that I know nothing about; my guess is that it’s more like a hundred or so, but still..

Unfortunately, I know for a fact that many A Better Finder users don’t like A Better Finder Launcher and that they would be much happier if I stopped bundling the program with the series installer. A Better Finder Launcher is a launcher and not a file utility per-se and it never really fitted in that well with A Better Finder Rename, A Better Finder Attributes and A Better Finder Select, which really are pure file utilities. For me, it was a way of adding a free goodie for the existing series owners.

How then do I get myself out of this predicament? Keeping the existing users happy while acknowledging defeat in the larger market?

My solution in the end is simple: As of today, A Better Finder Launcher is no longer part of the A Better Finder Series and it is no longer a paying product. Instead it becomes freeware (which may widen its appeal at least a little bit). I will continue to update the product in the same haphazard way as before and accept voluntary donations; existing users can now consider themselves early “donators” (thanks!) and customers who want the A Better Finder file utilities, but not the launcher, no longer need to “implicitly” pay for it.

I hope this will make the A Better Finder Series more focused, as well as giving A Better Finder Launcher a new lease of life. I’m currently considering changing its name and icon to reflect its new status, but this will need to wait until an icon can be procured, but a plan is already starting to take shape..

As a loyal user, I don’t want “my launcher” to go out on a low, however, which is why today’s 2.2 release features a number of much requested improvements:

  • two user interface modes: run as a normal application complete with menu bar and dock icon, or run as a hot key-only application (no dock icon, no menu bar)
  • improved responsiveness (always a goal)
  • all known bugs fixed

As Steve Jobs would put it “This is best A Better Finder Launcher we’ve ever done and it is really, really amazing.” … and one more thing … now it’s free.