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Brilliant Code

Cool Tech

November 30, 2004 12:38 AM PST

I was thinking about some of the software that I've been using lately, and I wanted to see what it had in common in case there was something so obvious that I should be doing... you know, career changing like. Brilliant code, where it changes the way you do things and you say, "I can't live without this".

Here is my list so far:

Firefox
GMail
iTunes + iPod
Mac OS X
Xbox Live
GarageBand
Google Desktop Search

Firefox: I just don't feel secure using IE at any level of patching. It's at the point where I will not do ANY online banking or purchasing with IE. Firefox, on the other hand, has tabbed browsing, pop up blocking, about:config, simple configuration... the list of coolness is endless. In addition, it is very fast and extensible (see http://www.mozdev.org for loads of cool extensions). Can't live without it! (http://www.mozilla.org)

GMail: I've had an internet email address since 1990, and I've primarily used command line UNIX mail tools (elm, mutt) for years in university, then Microsoft Outlook at work and Hotmail. Until I got on Gmail. 14 years of email habits die hard, but GMail converted me in a "Road to Damascus" style epiphany. Most people think about the storage space, but you need strong search and conversation threading to make all that email useful. This is why Hotmail is clueless. So what if I have 250 MB (1/4 of what GMail gives you)? Hotmail still shoves soft core porn ads at every mouse click, no search, no threading. Ugh. No thanks. Gmail also has labels, which you can think of as virtual folders, except that an email can have multiple labels. In programs like Outlook, email is either in one folder or another, even if it makes sense to be in both. Try it out for yourself though: if you need an invite, send me an email at paulgod@gmail.com. I will never go back to client applications after using the brilliant UI of GMail. I'm currently using 29 MB of space after 8 months and not deleting anything. At that rate I have 23 years before I hit the 1 GB max. I'm sure I'll delete all the Netflix, Apple and music venue emails that make up the bulk of that (html mail messages), so I won't run out of email space in this lifetime. I'm already archiving important documents there, like a mini file system... Can't live without it! (http://www.gmail.com)

iTunes + iPod: iTunes is simply the nicest music playing application I've used. Back in the day I've usd Winamp, XMMS (horrible clone of the horrible Winamp) and Sonique. These can only deal with one playlist at a time, and their UIs leave much to be desired. Sonique visualizations could be pretty, but the controls were pretty useless. I stay away from Windows Media Player, which does have good streaming technology... but it has a terrible UI. For music tools, it really does come down to the UI. I don't understand how the WMP designers can get it wrong so often when they could just copy from iTunes. The iTunes UI is pleasant to look at, the menus are in sensible places and you can search on multiple fields (I often browse by genre when I want a certain type of music). It handles multiple playlists really well, does streaming decently. It, at least, includes the option to encode to MP3. The iTunes Music Store is really quite nice and easy to use. Music purchases are fast and painless and the DRM isn't truly horrendous although DRM is my personal devil and deserves its own rant. Which leads to the iPod. Ordinarily, I'd want one device to do everything: cell phone, camera, PDA, music storage, etc. But the iPod is perfection. The weight and feel of the device is absolutely perfect. I feel like I'm in the future when I'm using it. So simple, so convenient. I use my iPod for an alarm clock every morning (hooked up to JBL Creature Speakers) and on my ~2 hour commute by shuttle everyday. I use it as my music player at work instead of copying music files to my workstation and playing them there. Bottom line: I listen to much, much more music now. Hours per day more! That is a huge accomplishment... can't live without it! (http://www.apple.com/itunes)

Mac OS X: I bought a G4 laptop a few months back so that I could do Unixy stuff at work and home without the sucktastic nature of the linux UI (my extreme pickiness about UI is becoming more apparent). Mac OS X is a thing of beauty. The graphic animations are slick, the colors are perfect, and so easy to use. I can get a Bash shell and crank on stuff like subversion, python, gcc and all the usual UNIX suspects and then use the finder. The attention to detail is amazing, and it feels like a perfectly tuned machine, or a fitted suit... the laptop has a backlit keyboard for low light conditions, it has a small light which pulses like a breathing animal when it goes into sleep mode. The keys themselves are the best I've used on a laptop. It gets onto wireless networks perfectly, mounts SMB drives with no problem, and of course, I can run Firefox and iTunes on it. The only reason I haven't completely gone Mac yet is that I need to run Embedded Visual Studio to do Windows CE programming. Can't live without it! (http://www.apple.com/macosx)

XBox Live: I get excited about new games often, and let down often. Most of them have good graphics these days, but the game play tends to not rise above the level of "open the door, shoot the monster, take the stuff". But online play is something else... there's nothing quite like chasing your friends around with a (virtual) rocket launcher and sending them to the great respawn point in the sky. We've played Half Life at LAN parties, and during lunch at work, but there was NEVER voice involved. That changes everything. Taunting, strategizing, and just general chatting make this completely emersive. Even the brain-dead mayhem sessions are more compelling because of voice. Microsoft really scored a huge one with XBox Live... I don't want to play games any other way now (although my projector and surround sound speakers also contribute). Can't game without it! (http://www.xbox.com/live)

GarageBand: Another Apple product that changes things for me. Another example of perfect UI polish and craftsmanship. Without being insanely complicated like many music production apps, or being too limited (you can hook up MIDI or regular audio instruments), GarageBand had made it easy for me to just plug in my guitar and record, apply effects, add loops and more. It takes a few minutes to learn the basic concepts and soon your music projects are automatically part of iTunes. Anything which can make music production simpler is going to get high ratings from me... this is something I've always wanted to do, but never got past the phase of looking through myriad of options out there. Since it comes free with the awesome Mac OS X, I'm able to figure out if I really need a more advanced package without spending all the cash. But GarageBand is extensible and already has expansion packs so I'll plenty of room to grow before I need something like Logic Pro (also an Apple product). Can't live without it! (http://www.apple.com/ilife/garageband)

Google Desktop Search: Comes in a 400 kB download (yes, less than 1/2 megabyte) and does very fast searches on your local disk. It avoids the trap of building a complicated Win32 UI (and all the associated bugs) by displaying the results in a browser window (with clickable thumbnails). When you search the web normally, it automatically does its search in parallel with a regular Google query and merges the results into a coherent results page. It is currently in beta and is missing PDF and Mozilla support, but hopefully soon it won't... One really nice thing is that it displays email from Outlook / Outlook Express in a threaded manner in the results page, so you don't get a disconnected set of emails and files in the results page, you get them in a threaded view. It is completely unobtrusive while running, and only uses idle time when first building its index. As my document collection grows, Google Desktop Search is the only way I'm going to be able to manage it all (just like GMail is with a lifetime's email). Can't live without it! (http://desktop.google.com)

Honorable mention: Picasa. I'm not really a photo person yet. I'd like to be, but that means hauling around yet another digital device on the off chance that I might take a picture, then deal with the horrible way that Windows XP detects my camera (i.e. in my experience, it often doesn't). iPhoto is good for syncing, but it doesn't organize the photos in a natural way on disk. I've heard (though not verified) that it doesn't really scale well. From the minimal playing around with Picasa that I've done, it is really quite good. Very fast, brilliant UI, doesn't try to move all the photos around and good importing (what are they doing that isn't built in to Windows?). My only problem is that it is Windows only. Alas. (Free download: http://www.picasa.com/picasa)

I really wanted to include some form of PocketPC / SmartPhone software, but there's nothing there yet that has made me step back and be amazed. This is different from feeling that the platform has a lot of potential, which I think it has. But I've yet to find an application that changes the way I do things. The mobile future is bright though.

So bright, I will have to wear shades.


Comments (6)
Paul, November 30, 2004 01:05 PM:

Sort of update re:Picasa and photo apps: my understanding is that iPhoto doesn't scale well and that Picasa was built to scale to tens of thousands of pictures. I played with the Photo iPod on the weekend, and it was very cool. The screen seemed a little small to display the pictures in significant detail, but it was still interesting. The real test will be how usable the software for managing the transfer of photos from camera to iTunes to iPod is. I still like my iPod for just music, but anything that can get me to do something new (i.e. take digital pictures) is brilliant code. We'll see.

John, November 30, 2004 03:01 PM:

Gmail: Well I may give it another go as hotmail has really beed acting up for me lately. Also they still have not given me my 250Mb of space. I really do hate changing email addresses though.

I can't really spec for Itunes, but you should give MediaPlayer 10 a try. It is much better than 9. The interface is nicer, it rips to MP3 (very fast) and it handles multiple playlists easily. Just my two cents here.

As for Picasa, I loaded it up about a week ago and I was impressed with the interface and polish. My problem was stability and 'discoverablility'. It crashed on me many times just doing stupid stuff. It was polite about it, but crashed all the same. The 'discoverable' issue is harder to nail down. Here is an example, All I wanted to do was resize and crop a couple of pictures. For starters you can't just open a pic, it has to be 'added' to the library. Once there it was hard to get to the 'edit' mode, but I found it and cropped the image easy enough. I had a hard time with the resize though. But when I was done, I opened the original pic in another app and the crop wasn't there. It seems that Picasa keeps this information separately somewhere else, as it looks cropped in Picasa, but not in the orignal file. This left me a bit frustrated. Also it seems a bit dumbed down. For image editing they have an 'enhance' button. That's it, no idea what enhance does, but it does something. As a power user, I'm used to having a bit more control than this.

Paul, November 30, 2004 04:07 PM:

I was talking about WMP 10... I really don't like the UI, plus it doesn't speak iPod, so it's automatically out of the running.

Picasa doesn't seem to be for power users just like GarageBand isn't for professional musicians, but it meets my minimal needs. I actually like the idea of Photo apps having an "enhance" button, cause I have no idea what needs to be done. I want a button to choose a transform (like "black and white" or "sepia tone"), and a button that means "do whatever you photo wizards think will make this picture better and don't talk to me about colour palettes or gamma values and stuff because I really don't care".

Picasa hasn't crashed on me, though I haven't pushed it too hard. Maybe you should check for viruses if things aren't working?

J, December 23, 2004 12:18 AM:

I agree about Firefox, and have to add in Thunderbird. A great alternative to Outlook Express.

GMail is cool, but doesn't work with Safari or IE for the Mac. Also, I can't get the email name I want, so I'm bitter. I can see how it is the best webmail out there though.

iTunes + iPod are cool. It's frustrating there are no real competitors. Real and MusicMatch suck. I don't like how files are not officially supposed to be moved off the iPod to other machines though. And without a ton of ram, iTunes is pretty slow.

OS X is nice. The best unix UI out there. Still a toy for me though. XP remains rock solid and has the edge because you don't have to wait months for the latest divx codec, video driver, P2P app or game to come out. I'd like to go OS X for a laptop, but there is no way I can leave XP alltogether. And XP-64 will kick ass.

I need to try google desktop search (now that the security issue is fixed ;) and also Lookout for Outlook.

I tried Picasa, and it crashed all the time, similar to John. I honestly don't think it should have been released in its current state.

Paul, December 23, 2004 12:24 AM:

GMail works with Safari... that's how I use it on my OS X laptop (all updates, version 10.3). Picassa hasn't crashed on me at all, though I don't use it heavily. I think they were past their 1.0 release when they were acquired, so that is strange. What is going on when it crashes?

J, December 23, 2004 01:18 AM:

It must have been an older Safari then, it was 10.2. I guess I could try Picasa again, it happened right away. Thumbnail view and the picture resizer power toy from XP works fine for me so far, but I'll look at Picasa again.






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