mac.column.ted: Serendipity rules [Plus: A Grab Bag of items]

mac.column.ted: Serendipity rules [Plus: A Grab Bag of items]

Ted Landau
November 2004

Serendipity. The dictionary defines it as "making useful discoveries by accident." Serendipity was in full bloom for me when I attended O'Reilly's Mac OS X Conference in Santa Clara, CA last month -- where I happily and "accidentally" discovered several outstanding new software programs.

But before I get into that, for those of you not familiar with the O'Reilly conference, I highly recommend that you check it out when next year's event rolls around. The conference solidly hits a very appealing sweet spot: While obviously geared toward the developer end of the spectrum, many of the sessions do not tilt so far in that direction as to leave non-coders (such as myself!) in their wake. Sessions that I found especially worthwhile included Sal Soghoian's introduction to Automator in Tiger, Chris Bourdon's general overview of what's new in Tiger, and Xander Soren's session on GarageBand loops and plug-ins. I am sure I would have also gotten a kick from Andy Ihnatko's evening session, but I had to miss it.

In contrast, almost all sessions at similar "developer" conferences, such as ADHOC (formerly MacHack) and Apple's WWDC, tend to be completely over my head. In one case, an ADHOC session I attended (selected because of its intriguing title) was so laden with programming jargon that I didn't even get the jokes. Although the speaker seemed to be speaking English, I would have had an easier time decoding the chirps from R2-D2.

OK. Getting back to the serendipity business: I was getting ready to head home for the day, but changed my mind at the last minute. I was seduced by the promise of an Apple-sponsored reception; I am a sucker for free food and drink. Unfortunately, the food event was still 90 minutes away. What to do in the meantime? The schedule listed a session showcasing the winner's of O'Reilly's Mac OS X Innovators awards. Potentially interesting, I thought. So off I went.

Of all the award winners, the one that blew me away (and made me glad I had changed my plans!) was: Delicious Library. Essentially, it is a database program for your books, movies, music, and video games. But that dry summary hardly does it justice. Here's what makes it special:

  • It features a graphic (Covers) view. In this view, all items appear on a virtual wooden bookshelf, with their covers visible, just as they might look on a bookstore display.

    You can drag and drop an item to put it on a different shelf, such as one you create just for mystery books. You can even drag an item to a name on a list of potential borrowers (it draws the list from your Address Book database) to lend the book out. Delicious Library automatically links with iCal to set up a due date -- which you can modify.

  • By far, the best aspect of Delicious Library is that you can add new items without having to press even a single key in the keyboard! You have multiple choices here.

    One option is to drag an item's Amazon.com URL to the Delicious Library window. This adds the item to your list, including its cover and most of the descriptive information you would otherwise need to go to Amazon.com to see. Even cooler, if you have an iSight camera, Delicious Library lets you use it as a bar code reader. Scan the item's bar code with the camera and Delicious Library automatically goes to Amazon.com and again grabs all the info it needs to create a new library entry. I am already using this to create a library of all of my DVDs! And if you can't bring items to your Mac, you can opt for the optional bar code scanner. In addition to being wireless, so that you can roam beyond the wired limits of the Mac, the scanner can store data, allowing you to scan items anywhere for transferring to your Mac later.

Simply put, Delicious Library is one of the most innovative programs I have seen in years. But my day of surprises was not over yet.

After the Innovators session, while at last enjoying Apple's appetizers and drinks, I picked up a copy of the December issue of Macworld magazine from a stack being given away. Skimming the magazine, I reached Dan Frakes' Mac Gems column and zeroed in on his mention of Booxter. Here was yet another library program with a set of features almost identical to Delicious Library (even down to using the iSight camera as a bar code reader)! If I had not just learned about Delicious Library, I would have likely overlooked Booxter.

I have since had a chance to play with both programs. To me, the main differences are more in how the programs work than in what they are capable of doing. And it is in this area that I give a nod to Delicious Library. Its unique Covers view, the drag-and-drop design of its lending library, and its overall look-and-feel make it more fun to use than Booxter. (Dan said his review of Booxter was written before Delicious Library was even announced, so he's pretty excited to give the latter a try.)

Indeed, during the Innovators session, the creators of Delicious Library emphasized the importance they placed on the user interface: the entire design was completed before even one line of code was written. Further, their guiding philosophy is "If you can't do it cool; don't do it at all" -- at least not until version 2.0. That is, they would rather leave a feature out altogether than put in a poorly implemented one.

But don't worry, Delicious Library 1.0 has more than enough features to impress even the most jaded Mac user. One missing feature: Delicious Library cannot synch with the iTunes Music Store. But the developers told me that this was the #1 item on their list for features to be added in 2.0.

In one final bit of O'Reilly serendipity, during a Conference lunch, I wound up at the same table as Bruce Gee, the CEO of Gee Three (the people who make the Slick series of titles, transitions and effects for iMovie). Bruce was all enthused about his just-released Slick Volume 8. So I got a copy and tried it out. It was very impressive. It gives you the power to create effects that you probably did not think were possible to do in iMovie -- or even Final Cut. Three highlights: Lower Thirds Tiles creates a crawl of animated text in the lower third of your screen; Motion Wall breaks a clip up into segments, each of which appear sequentially in small mini-screens on the overall screen; Slick Stabilizer can eliminate most of the shakes from a shaky hand-held video. Effects can be configured and combined in a seemingly endless assortment of ways -- for even more creative control.

All in all, the Mac OS X Conference was a welcome combination of informative sessions and happy "accidental" discoveries.

Grab Bag

Finally, here are my comments on a quartet of products that either made their debut or came to my attention in the last month.

iPod Photo. Apple's iPod Photo was the big announcement of the last month. My first reaction was to curse for having just bought a 4th generation iPod a couple of months ago. I started estimating how much I could get for my "old" iPod on eBay -- hopefully enough to justify selling it and getting one of these new color screen Photo-pods. Then I calmed down. Hmmm...it's $100 more than my current iPod, photo quality is limited by the small 2 inch screen, and you can't download photos except through iTunes (which means, for example, you can't download pictures from your digital camera directly to the iPod). On reflection, I decided I can wait till the next generation of iPod Photo comes along. In the meantime, I can continue to enjoy music on my iPod and -- if I really want to have a portable device to show off photos -- I can get a Palm.

Virtual PC 7. I have used Virtual PC since version 1.0. Virtual PC 7 is the first major revision to be released since Microsoft took it over from Connectix. For those of you concerned that Microsoft would not give this Windows emulator the attention it deserved, you can relax. Virtual PC 7 is a solid improvement from previous versions. There is not much in the way of new features, but it is noticeably faster. True, it is still far slower than running Windows on an actual PC. But on the plus side, some operations that ground to a halt when I used VPC 6.x, now actually move along at a usable pace. Second, the setup is simpler than ever. After installing the program, I was up and running Windows almost immediately. I could get on the Internet or print out a document without having to access or modify even one setting! It just "borrowed" the settings already entered for the Mac. VPC 6.x was already pretty good in this regard; VPC 7 is even better. If you need to run Windows only occasionally, Virtual PC can be an effective -- and much less expensive -- alternative to buying a PC.

Zinio Reader. As a contributing editor for Macworld, I have a free subscription to the Zinio Reader digital version of the magazine. If not for this freebie, I might have never discovered this nifty program. With Zinio Reader, you view a magazine in a manner as close as you can get to a physical printed copy. Pages turn with an animation that mimics the turning of printed pages. It even handles fold-outs. And, unlike Web-based versions of magazines or even most PDF versions, the layout is exactly what the print version looks like, down to the placement of the advertisements. My only gripe is that you cannot "tear out" pages, such as to save an article you especially like.

Star Wars Episode III trailer. Want to see the just released Star Wars teaser trailer on your Mac? No problem. It'll cost you $40 dollars at www.starwars.com. Although you can see virtually every other trailer in existence for free, LucasFilm Ltd. apparently fears bankruptcy unless it can squeeze every last discretionary dollar from its fans. The one bit of good news: If you are an America Online user, you can see it for free. Hint: Want to save the trailer to your hard drive after viewing it on AOL? After loading the trailer, check your Cache folder buried in ~/Library/Preferences/America Online. Make a copy of the large file that was just added there and put a .mov extension at the end of its name.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

Resources
  • O'Reilly's Mac OS X Conference
  • ADHOC
  • Apple's WWDC
  • Mac OS X Innovators awards
  • Delicious Library
  • Booxter
  • Gee Three
  • Slick Volume 8
  • iPod Photo
  • Virtual PC 7
  • Zinio Reader
  • www.starwars.com
  • click here
  • click here
  • click here
  • More from Mac Musings
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