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First impressions of the Safari 4 beta

When Apple released the beta version of Safari 4 I thought, "whatever". While I like Safari and find it to be a perfectly capable browser I am hopelessly addicted to Firefox with its extensions and add-ons. Then I started to see some of the articles coming out about the new Safari and two things got me interested: speed improvements and a new UI for tab management.

I pulled down the Safari beta and installed it on my MacBook Pro, which has 4GB of RAM and is running the latest version of Leopard. By default it installed over my existing version of Safari which I wasn't too happy about. You can uninstall it and it will roll back to your previous version if you need it to but I would have liked to be able to run both concurrently. I'm sure there's a strong technical reason that's not an option. Quite a few users complained about problems with Mail.app, especially if they used Growl for notification support. In my limited time looking at it I didn't experience any problems with Mail. Your mileage may vary.

Top Sites
The first thing that hit me (after the cool animation introducing Safari) was the Top Sites page:


Typical of something from a Finder or iTunes Cover Flow view you can have nicely rendered mini web pages on a large black background that give you a menu of sorts for your most used web pages. While you can "pin" web pages into the view, move and remove those that you don't like, the current beta doesn't give you the ability to put a site in that you want. You have to hope it comes up for it to appear in the list and then pin it. Hopefully this is just a function of it being beta software. I was furiously removing sites and hoping Safari would give me one of my more recently visited sites but after a while it stopped offering suggestions (hence the gap where two web pages are missing in the image above).

There are small, medium and large views that hold 24, 12 and 6 web pages respectively. By default this is your home page so it will come up quite a bit, though you can of course set your home page to anything you like. There's also a little button on the left of the toolbar that gives you quick access to it.

If Apple puts in the ability to manually add my own pages this will be a very nice feature. It would be even cooler if I could create groups of these "top sites".

The New Tabs
My initial reaction to the new tabs was that they were really cool. By moving the tabs into the caption bar Apple has effectively regained roughly 20+ pixels of browser real estate. All the caption bar was good for in the past was as a drag surface and title area anyway. This does create a bit of a challenge though: how do you move the window?

Actually, the same way you did before. Simply single click on any of the tabs—even an inactive one—and you can drag the entire Safari window. As you move the mouse into a tabs area you will notice the close button appears as well as a small textured area to the right of the tab. That textured area allows you to drag the tab out of the browser window and open a new window with that tab as the content area.

The single biggest problem I have with all of this is that if you open a lot of tabs (I often have 10 or more open) then clicking in the caption bar means it's really easy to accidentally hit a close button on a tab. It's almost like a game of whack-a-mole except with browser tabs:


Dan Frakes at Macworld has a really good article about Safari's new tabs: Good or bad? He covers this topic in a lot more detail than I do.

I would love to see Apple add an option that would allow me to turn off the close button for non-selected tabs. That would mean less of a chance of hitting the mole, er, close box on accident. With screen real estate always such a premium I do like the way Apple is tackling this though; it just needs a little tuning. Since this is going to set the standard for OS X tab metaphors moving into the future I'm sure Apple appreciates the gravity of these kinds of decisions.

Performance
The Webkit folks did some major tuning on Safari beta 4; the speed is simply stunning. How much faster is it? If I load my primary blog page (www.davidalison.com), which generally has my last 7 blog posts on it with some fairly complex tables, DIVs, images and poorly designed HTML it takes nearly 4 seconds to completely render in Firefox. Safari 3.2 would complete the render in roughly 3 seconds. The beta handles it in roughly 2 seconds.

Web pages are noticeably snappier and pages that have some of the more complex DIVs for representing things like charts fly up on the page.

Breaking Points and Extras
There is one add-on I use in both Firefox and Safari religiously and that's 1Password. Unfortunately it needed to be updated once the beta was released; fortunately the Agile Web Solutions folks knocked out an update within days that fixed it. There are other plugins that have needed to be updated as well but most of the popular ones appear to have been patched already.

Macworld recently put together an article on some of the hidden preferences for Safari. There are a couple of items in there that can help you customize Safari a little more.

All in all I'm pretty pleased with this new version of Safari, especially when taking into account that it's a beta release. I don't know if I'll switch from Firefox being my default browser, though if Apple can tweak some of the UI issues and still maintain that incredible speed advantage I may just reconsider that.

What's your take? Do you like the new Safari?

SharedStatus.com - easy team management

Since starting this blog over a year ago I've been sharing my adventures about switching from Windows to Mac and thrown in a couple of stories about starting up a business. When I left the company I founded in late 2007 (after selling it in 2006) my intention was to take a little time off and then plunge into my next business venture, this blog quickly becoming a way for me to escape working 16 hours a day. Now that the new business is ready to go I would like to tell you about SharedStatus.

First Some Background
In virtually every company I have worked in I have had to conduct or contribute to status meetings. The problem with status meetings is that they can be very inefficient. Since most people manage their personal task lists in their own way they often wait until the last minute before the status meeting to quickly slam together what they have been working on.

In setting out to address this problem I discovered that there were other corollary problems that people experienced. Tasks that were assigned to people in some of those very status meetings were sometimes not being done because the person assigned didn’t realize it was being assigned to them. Other times a critical issue would be revealed in a status meeting that could have been more easily addressed earlier but the issue got lost in a tidal wave of e-mails. Collaboration between team members depended on a long thread of e-mails that sometimes didn’t include the very people that needed to be working on the issue.

The more I dug in to business process issues the more I saw that people tried addressing these challenges but that the tools were often not designed to solve such simple challenges. Project Management systems were plentiful but often were far to complex for basic needs. Other systems—like Lotus Notes and Sharepoint—went far down the path to helping solve these problems but required a large IT commitment and huge expense to make it all work.

I felt strongly that there was an opportunity to create a solution that was incredibly easy to use and focused on the core issue: tracking tasks, collaborating with others about those tasks and quickly generating status reports. I wanted to produce a product that was priced in such a way that small businesses could easily afford it and that as it scaled up within a company the costs didn’t get outrageous. Finally, I wanted to handle this as a web-based SaaS product, so it wouldn’t require a big IT involvement in order to get it up and running and anyone with a web browser would be able to use it.


The solution I came up with is called SharedStatus. The primary focus of this tool is to give managers, project leads and team members a simple, lightweight framework for capturing tasks that need to get done, collaborating with others on performing those tasks and quickly generating status reports for team and project meetings.

In SharedStatus most everything revolves around the concept of a task. You can create a task for yourself, view it in your dashboard or in a status report and mark it as complete when you are done. With multiple people in your account you can begin to see the advantage of SharedStatus because you can take any task you create and assign it to another member of your account. That person can either accept or decline the task; once accepted you can view and comment on the task—much like people can view and comment on a blog post—adding information or details that both people (task owner and assignee) can see.

A task can also be associated with a project, which opens other collaboration capabilities. Every member of a project can see all of the tasks that are associated with that project and make comments on them, providing an easy way for project members to help one another with tasks and eliminate the huge threads of e-mail that tend to get generated during the course of a project.

Finally, SharedStatus can optionally support the concept of a supervisor, allowing a manager to quickly see each of their direct reports and the tasks they have assigned to them. Their Dashboard is updated to show each of their direct reports and any critical tasks that they may be working on.

At the heart of SharedStatus is a notification system which each user can customize. They can be notified by e-mail or SMS message when a task they own is changed, accepted, commented on, etc. Users don’t have to keep SharedStatus up and running in a browser all day to have it help them.

Status reports are also a central theme to SharedStatus and can be accessed quickly from a user’s Dashboard, generating a list of the tasks that have been recently completed and a list of tasks that are due in the next time frame.

That in a nutshell is SharedStatus.

If you work in an environment where you need to manage a team of people and would like a simple, light-weight solution for keeping your team on the same page and quickly generating status reports I would appreciate you checking out SharedStatus or letting others in your network know about it. I have priced SharedStatus to be extremely affordable; it is only $2 / month per user ($20 / month minimum) and includes a 2 month unlimited user free trial.

You can get started with SharedStatus right now by going to www.sharedstatus.com.

My top 10 free Mac utilities

I personally love free software, especially when it adds real value to my work day. In the year since I made the switch from Windows to Mac I have examined hundreds of applications, many of them free or open source, and would like to give you a list of the applications that have made their way into my every day use.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, simply the top applications that I have found to be used nearly daily. In addition I'm not including utilities that ship with OS X. Without further adieu here is my take on them:

Firefox
Though I also use Safari, my default browser is Firefox. Why? Extensions and add-ons. Firefox is effectively a mini-platform for web browsing and as a developer that builds web based applications the number of add-ons to help with HTML/CSS/etc. is mind numbing. The only problem I have with Firefox is that it needs to be restarted occasionally because it will suck up and continue to hold memory, especially after visiting Flash intensive sites. Since I rarely shut down my Mac Pro (I'll put it to sleep instead), Firefox needs a restart every 3-4 days. Example: As I write this Firefox has been up and running for 5 days and is currently consuming 508MB of memory. Fortunately there is an extension called QuickRestart that will allow you to restart Firefox and maintain all of your existing tabs and session states. Oh, and that extension is free too!

Skitch
Though a relatively new addition to my collection of free utilities, Skitch has quickly risen on my list of must have, always handy utilities. As I wrote about it just last month, Skitch makes it so easy to capture, size, crop and annotate images that I don't feel at all compelled to fire up GIMP to edit my images. Add in the free storage and sharing capabilities from the Skitch online service and this is something you should have at the ready if you do ANY image editing or annotating.

Dropbox
Like Skitch, Dropbox is a relatively new addition to my collection of free utilities though I have found it an outstanding application and service. Why? If you have multiple computers you know that moving files between them can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are going across platforms (Mac -> Windows -> Linux) like I do. Dropbox uses the web as an intermediary, effectively eliminating that issue. In addition I can detach my MacBook Pro from all networks—jumping on a plane for example—and my key files are there with me. When I return from my trip and reconnect to my network my updated files magically appear on my various desktop machines and even the VM Ware instance running Windows XP.

iStat menu
Rarely does a day go by that I am not consulting iStat menus to see what is up with my Macs, especially when I see inordinate memory usage (see Firefox above) or the CPU is taking a hit. iStat menu lets me quickly see what is going on and presents it in a seamless integration with my OS X shell. I got on the iStat menu bandwagon early in my Mac adoption and have been extremely happy with it ever since.

Adium
I'm online for the majority of my day and since I work from home I can't easily chat with some of my friends. Instant Messaging (IM) provides me with a virtual water cooler. As I have contracted out some of my development activities over the last year I've found IM to be a great way to quickly work through revisions and issues rather than pushing e-mails back and forth. I like Adium for this over iChat because it has a very compact interface and allows me to consolidate all of the various IM accounts (Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, etc) into a single place. Just a great all around application and one that I use throughout the day.

NetNewsWire
As an internet entrepreneur keeping up on the latest technology news is a bit of a challenge because of the sheer quantity. Though I've found sites like TechMeme very helpful for keeping abreast of what's going on I still like to rip through RSS feeds of my favorite sites to see what's up. NetNewsWire is great for this with a snappy interface and a built in browser that makes it easy to queue up stories to read while scanning the headlines.

TweetDeck
I am a bit addicted to Twitter and have found the best way to manage my Twitter feeds is through TweetDeck, a wonderful little Adobe Air based application that presents multiple panes for each of my different views. Though I would prefer that TweetDeck was a native OS X application the developer for it has been pushing out updates pretty regularly and seems to be very attentive to requests from his increasing user base. In case you are interested you can follow me on Twitter by visiting twitter.com/dalison.

Cyberduck
I haven't looked around too much for FTP clients because once I found Cyberduck I didn't see a need. My FTP requirements are generally very simple; push a few files up to one of my servers, grab a log file here or there, etc. For tasks like that it's hard to beat Cyberduck since I just fire it up and away I go, dragging and dropping files between Finder and Cyberduck windows as I need to.

Google Notifier
I love Gmail; it's been very reliable, has plenty of storage, an excellent web interface and an IMAP connection that I can access nicely with Mail.app. The best way I've found to stay on top of incoming e-mails when I don't have Mail.app loaded is through Google Notifier. Sometimes the IMAP interface to Gmail can be a bit slow so Notifier gives me a quicker update when new mail comes in. An added bonus is that it also monitors your Google Calendars and can push out reminders for that as well.

MPlayer OSX
Though I generally can watch video through QuickTime there are file formats that it can struggle with, even with some of the add-ons for it. If QuickTime can't play it I grab MPlayer OSX and it hasn't failed me yet. It's displaced VLC for me because the video quality seems to be a bit smoother.

So there you have it, my top 10 free Mac utilities. There are others that I use, just not as regularly as those listed above, including Handbrake, MySQL Tools, TrueCrypt, Audacity and GIMP. I would also mention QuickSilver, though that has been replaced by LaunchBar (a paid application) for me.

One of the reasons I love writing these types of lists up is that I always get some fantastic recommendations for an application I wasn't aware of. Got a free application or utility that you really love and use all the time? Drop a note in the comments and share!

Update (3 Dec, 2016): I had listed TrueCrypt as a good free utility for encrypting data on your Mac. In the 7 years since this was posted TrueCrypt ceased to be in active development and has been found to have security issues. Several alternatives have surfaced that are worthy of considering, including VeraCrypt, which is based on the TrueCrypt code base but remains in active development. I have not used it yet so I cannot vouch for its capability.

I recommend checking out Paul Bischoff's post about free TrueCrypt alternatives. I rarely update older posts like this however anything where I was recommending products for personal security that have since been compromised will be updated.

My new favorite free utility: Dropbox

Lately I've been playing with Dropbox, a free utility for Macs, Windows and Linux based machines. It's a pretty simple concept; an internet drive that allows you to sync your files between multiple machines. There is really not too much to using it; a small application is installed that monitors a folder on your hard drive (normally placed in the user's home directory but you can put it anywhere). Dropbox monitors changes to that folder and if a file is updated it is pushed up to your virtual drive on the interwebs. If you have multiple machines with Dropbox installed and pointing to the same account then they will automatically pick up the changes.

While this sound like something that can just as easily be accomplished with a network share, the nice thing about Dropbox is that the files are automatically copied to the machine's local drive. In my case I have three physical machines: a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro and an HP Slimline that serves as an Ubuntu workstation. In addition I usually have a Windows XP instance running on my Mac Pro using VMware Fusion. As I am currently working on some file importing routines for my product I am jumping between machines frequently; now if I make a change to files I need globally I see this little notice pop-up on each machine:

Mac (Growl notification)


Windows XP


Linux (Ubuntu)


So if I make a change anywhere it is auto-reflected wherever I need it. If I then grab my MacBook Pro for a meeting and the place I'm going doesn't have internet access I still have a locally updated copy of the files that will be updated as soon as I get back to a live connection.

If you are away from your machine and need access to those synchronized files you can log in from anywhere and download the files from your account. You can also place your files into a public folder that will allow you to share them with others, though I haven't tried that feature yet.

Dropbox comes with 2GB of storage for free; you can upgrade to a 50GB version for $9.99 / month or $99 / year. I've had it running on all of my machines for about a week now and have been impressed with how easy it is to use.

Got a great solution for keeping files synchronized on multiple machines? Drop a note in the comments, I'd love to hear about it.