Tag Archives: CAL

The Big Boys’ Mea Culpas

I find it interesting that companies can get things so wrong. News Corp just sold off Myspace for a fraction of its original price today, effectively admitting it didn’t get social media.

Microsoft famously came late to the table with the Internet, and then has been late to more or less every party since. It’s now come out with Microsoft 365, an awful name for a product that is basically an admission that Google Docs is good enough for most people, and that Microsoft Office is largely toast (an incorrect assumption, I reckon; I still can’t do without it.)

Then we have Google. Google has made a surprising number of missteps: Buzz, Wave (dumping it as much as hyping it, in my view.) Now, with the launch of Google+, they’re also acknowledging that they got the Web wrong: Instead of seeing it as a network, they saw it as a library. This from AllThingsD’s Liz Gannes, who asked Vic Gundotra why he and Bradley Horowitz had spent so much of the launch self-flagellating about why Google was so late to the social media dance:

Google Opens Up About Social Ambitions on Google+ Launch Day – Liz Gannes – Social – AllThingsD: “Gundotra: It’s just sincere. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. We do have a mission that we’ve been working on for a long time: organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and available. And when you look at the web today it’s obvious it’s not just about pages, it’s about people. It’s not just about information, it’s about what individuals are doing. So I think we have to do that in a coherent way. We think there’s just tremendous room to do great stuff.”

Well put: Google really didn’t get the the web. And probably still doesn’t; one might argue that the algorithms they use to rank pages are having to be constantly updated because they don’t really reflect the dynamic nature of most web pages these days. I am not sure what I mean by that so I’ll leave it for now.

Finally, what might one ask about Apple? Where have they gone wrong? MobileMe is a pretty small misstep. Quibbles with OSX are relatively small: I get the sense that a lot of the things wrong with the OS aren’t because they keep tweaking things (the usual complaint from Windows users) but that there’s a stubbornness about not changing things: A weak file explorer (Finder), an inability to resize windows except from one corner, a confusing division of function between dock icons, menu bar icons, menu bar menus, in-window menus etc etc…

But apart from those gripes with the Mac OS, you gotta hand it to Apple. No big mea culpas, at least in the past decade.

Keys to the Kingdom

In this week’s Loose Wire Service column (which runs in print publications, more here), I write about those unsung heroes of productivity: programs that store globs of text for you so you don’t have to keep typing the same thing.

Last time I talked about how the keyboard is often a quicker way to launch programs and open files than the mouse. It’s just a question of knowing how. This time around I’d like to take the idea a step further: using the keyboard to cut down your usage of the keyboard.

A lot of what we type is the same: Our name. Our address. Thank you letters to Aunt Gertrude. Disclaimers. These are all tasks we could outsource. But to whom?

Well, it depends a bit on what you’re doing. If you’re working in something like Microsoft Word, you’ll find that there are features that let you insert chunks of text just by hitting a couple of keys. While this used to be straightforward enough in earlier versions of Word but it’s gotten more complicated in the latest version.

In fact, the feature is not included; you need to add it to the toolbar at the top of the Microsoft Word window (the program’s help will tell you how.) Once that’s done, though, it’s straightforward enough. Just select the text (and any graphics) you want to reproduce, and then hit the autotext button. Give the selection a name, and next time you want to insert it, just click on the autotext button and then the name of the saved text.

Microsoft, however, clearly don’t consider this an important feature, since they’ve dropped the best bit: being able to recall — i.e., insert — the text by not leaving the keyboard. This used to be done by assigning the block of text a keystroke code — dc, for example, to insert a standard disclaimer text — and then typing it and hitting Enter. Word 2007 won’t let you do that. (OpenOffice’s free office suite will, but the feature is not particularly easy to figure out, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

The problem with doing this is that any text you save can only be retrieved inside the program itself. Which makes it less of a time-saver and more of a time-waster. So if you’re writing an email, for example, you can’t access the text you stored in Microsoft Word. A better solution is to use a program that will insert text wherever you are.

This is where I’d recommend something called Texter, a free program created by the website Lifehacker (itself well worth a visit). Once installed, the software sits in your system tray (the bottom right hand corner of the screen) until you either double click or right click on the icon.

Adding text is straightforward: Just select the text you want to save, add a “hotstring” the keystrokes you want to use to recall it (dc, for example), and then the “trigger” — the key you hit after the hotstring to insert the text (you have the choice of Enter, Tab, Space or, none — meaning your saved text will be inserted straightaway.

Texter works well — and has lots of extra features you can explore. It won’t handle large blocks of text, however: It’s best for small bits of oft-typed text, like a note to typesetters to convert text to italics, or a sign-off (Best regards, Humphrey”).

A more powerful, and commercially minded, alternative is something called ActiveWords ($50), which allows you to do a lot more. (Think of it as developing macros for the less techy of us. Macros are scripts which automate oft-repeated functions or series of functions, like opening an email and replying to it, or selecting a word and then having your browser automatically look up the word on Google.)

ActiveWords also lets you do what I was talking about in my last column — assigning shortcuts to launching programs or opening files. It’s a wonderful piece of software and, if used well, removes the need to ever force your fingers to leave the keyboard. But it’s not worth getting unless you plan to make major changes to the way you work.

I use it for loading files buried in distant folders and for template text I sent to PR companies (though never readers; you get only my full un-scripted attention. Promise.), for inserting phone numbers (I can never remember my phone numbers for some reason) and addresses, as well as for more ambitious tasks like moving text from one program to another.

I’d suggest you start out with Texter and start building a list of the words, sentences or other text that you find yourself typing a lot. If you’re really getting into it a tryout of ActiveWords might be on the cards (the trial is for 60 days, rather than the usual 30; a smart move, since it might take you that long to really appreciate its power.)

A word of warning: Don’t put anything sacred or secret in one of your text strings in any of these programs. It’s tempting to store passwords and bank account numbers and other hard-to-remember and sensitive data.

If you’re looking for something that does that, you might want to check out RoboForm ($30) that can memorize passwords, fill in registration forms quickly and will encrypt your data. RoboForm will work in Internet Explorer and Firefox (Opera, another browser I must have recommended in the past because my wife uses it religiously, isn’t mentioned.)

The trick with these programs is not to dedicate a day to inserting lots of text strings you may never use, but to look over your own shoulder as you work and notice what text you type a lot of. Then get into the habit of saving that in whichever program you decide to use, and assigning a keystroke combination that makes sense to you and will be easy to remember. I guarantee you’ll save yourself time. You may even write more letters to Aunt Gertrude. I know she’d like that.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

The New Windows And Organising Your Stuff

This month’s PCWorld gets hold of an early prototype of the next Windows, which, apart from the usual ‘interface enhancements’ illustrates what I think is going to be the most important change in how we store and retrieve files.

The magazine says that the new ‘Longhorn’ version Windows Explorer — the program which lists what files you have, and which folder there are in — “routinely displayed much more information about files and computer resources than it does in Windows XP”. There’s a panel in the program that “let users and/or applications associate search keywords, comments, and categories with files, data within files, or objects stored on other devices, computers, or networks.”

This basically means that, instead of lumping all your files in a specific directory, or folder, where they languish, you can give your files dynamic order depending on what keywords you assign them. Say you assign the keywords ‘home’ and ‘flubber’ to a file: you can then create ‘virtual folders’ using either, or both, those keywords which will turn up all files of whatever kind which contain those same keywords. This is called WinFS and in theory will allow you to find related resources regardless of their physical location or object type. If you’re interested, there’s more here on the Microsoft website.

I think this is a great innovation and one that is long overdue. The whole folder metaphor is tired and irrelevant to how we use data these days. However I have some worries: Given that most folk today still give their files less than helpful file names, and have yet to discover the joys of creating subfolders to give order to their hard drive, isn’t the ‘dynamic approach’ going to just make things messier? It will largely hinge, as far as I can see, on folk spending an extra few minutes entering keywords into each file’s properties box. Given we’re able to do that now in programs like Microsoft Word, but rarely actually do, what are the chances of that happening? Great in theory, I just worry about the implementation.

In the meantime, I use dtSearch to find stuff, and it works like a charm. It ain’t pretty but it’s sturdy and very configurable. Otherwise, check out X1, which is on the cusp of releasing a new version. Other good search programs: 80-20 Retriever and Enfish Find. Personally I couldn’t live without one of ’em.

Hardware: A Computer For the Price of a Pedicure

If you’re cheap, skint, or just like buying stuff that doesn’t cost very much, check out the $169 Lindows WebStation. The Lindows WebStation is “the first ultra-affordable, ‘unbreakable’ computer designed specifically for Web work.” Just plug it into a broadband connection and you’re off. Apparently it’s idiot proof too: “It’s literally impossible to destroy the system configuration or settings, making the WebStation the ideal computer for many situations.”

It includes a “complete, Microsoft-compatible Office Suite making it possible to open, edit, save, and email Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint files without additional software!” Needless to say, the gadget works on Lindows, a Linux version of Windows (and nothing to do with Microsoft despite the name). So don’t expect too much. it doesn’t have a hard drive, so boots from a CD. Oh, and bring your own monitor.

Column: search software

Loose Wire — Organize Me: Give us some software that really makes the information age meaningful

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 3 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Every time I visit a computer shop I get nostalgic for the dotcom boom. In those days people with money were throwing their cash at people with ideas, however silly, with interesting results. Sure, most of the ideas were so dumb they never saw the harsh light of day — or the harsh light of a business model — but at least some new stuff was appearing.

As I gaze over the software shelves nowadays, empty but for yet another minor update of word processors or system utilities and (admittedly rather cool) games, I wonder: What happened to software innovation? Where are all those great promises of what we could do with our computer beyond using it as a glorified typewriter or calculator?

Sure, folks can now do some interesting stuff with video, pictures and music, but is that what the information revolution was all about? I’ve got a tonne of stuff on my computer — letters, novels, memos, Chairman Mao-type thoughts, mortgage calculations — but what good is it if it just sits there, hidden behind arcane file names I’ll never remember, even under threat of torture? I fear the information revolution — at least on a personal level — has come and gone.

This is all very disappointing. I’d love to see our data made accessible for all sorts of imaginative things that make use of the power of our PCs. A program, say, that goes through all your e-mails and tells you, based on some fancy algorithm, how many Christmas cards you should send this year and to whom. A program that looks at your finances and, while you’re shopping for furniture, works out whether you need a second mortgage and finds the best one for you.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. That we still can find something more easily on the Internet — or in the attic — than we can on our computer is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go. Indeed, in 1999 a small California start-up called Enfish produced the most revolutionary piece of software I’d seen in years — a search program called Tracker that allowed you to search rapidly and easily through everything on your computer. It was magical in its simplicity, elegant in its design, and suddenly made having a hard disk full of all your stuff a sensible idea.

If you could check in a flash what and when you last wrote to Aunt Edith, all the previous litigious letters to your tenants, the last time your country declared war on another country, life really suddenly could get a lot easier. The index would update itself while you were asleep, so you didn’t have to do anything beyond installing it. You could save complex searches with simple names, so that you could exclude letters about Aunt Edith from nosy Cousin Connie, or include only those that referred to her pet poodle Alfie but not to Phoebe the cat. It was fab. And as with all things fab, it didn’t last (the software, not the cat).

Well, that’s not strictly true. Enfish is still going, doing its best to convince a sceptical public that this kind of thing is actually useful. But in the meantime their subsequent software has never approached the quality of Tracker, which sadly won’t work with Microsoft’s most recent version of Windows XP, and that effectively renders it useless. But at least Enfish is hanging in there: Version six of its software ($100 for the basic product, from www.enfish.com) is released this week and to me it’s the closest the company has got to its old Tracker.

I can only guess why such a great idea hasn’t caught on. There’s no great learning curve involved: Once you’ve explained to users that Enfish is essentially a Google search engine for your computer, there’s not much more to say. Sadly Enfish is not yet a household word. But Enfish does have competition, and perhaps they’ll be more lucky.

One is the Australian company 80-20 Software, which has this month released version 3.0 of its 80-20 Retriever software ($50 from www.80-20.com). While previous versions of 80-20 Retriever will do pretty much what Enfish does — index your documents, e-mails and whatnot, let you search quickly through them — only this version lets you view the documents without having to launch the program you created them in (say, launching Microsoft Word to view a Word document). This is a vital feature, since you can quickly scroll through documents retrieved by your search, all in one place.

In fact, Retriever does a fine job but falls down, in my view, by trying too hard to integrate itself into Outlook, Microsoft’s calendar, contact and e-mail behemoth. My advice to 80-20: You’re nearly there, but drop the Outlook interface and just be yourself. It should be a stand-alone program.

Both are worth trying (Enfish Find and 80-20 Retriever can be downloaded and used for a month free). For the heavy lifters, I’d recommend dtSearch Desktop. Although a pricey $200 from dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com), this is a super-fast, super-reliable program that tells you a lot about what’s on your computer. By launching your search from a viewable index of words, you can see how many misspelled words you are missing in normal searches. The interface isn’t particularly friendly, but it’s a workhorse for the serious searcher. Now if only it could help me on my Christmas-card list.