I'm inclined to yawn at the prospect of yet another weather service/app, but Forecast is making me giddy. It's a new offering from The Dark Sky Company, makers of the eponymous app that I rely upon to get 'hyperlocal' weather (i.e. to-the-minute notifications that it's about to rain over my house).

Like the Dark Sky app, Forecast is smooth, attractive, and a pleasure to use. It differs in that it builds and expands upon Dark Sky in profound ways: it promises seven-day global forecasts; offers historical weather conditions; delivers even slicker fluid animations; and adds multiple layers of weather information. There's also an API for developers. You have to check it out for yourself.

Forecast demonstrates just how polished and pleasant a web app can be. Add it to your home screen on your iOS device, and you'll swear it's a native app that you downloaded from the App Store.

I currently use Dark Sky and Garmin's My-Cast to get my weather on my iOS devices. On the Mac, I often geek out with WeatherSpark (which offers an amazing depth of information, but is lamentably Flash-based). Forecast may displace all of these services.

Aviary Now Free

Aviary, a slick collection of browser-based design and editing tools that I wrote about last February, is now free.

From the Aviary blog:

We have long felt that to better serve our core mission our complete feature set needed to be in the hands of everyone - not just those who could afford it. Fortunately, our recent round of funding (by Spark Capital, Bezos Expeditions & others) enables us to finally achieve this goal...

Aviary remains a socially-focused suite of applications, meaning that sharing and derivative works are encouraged. 'Free' means that all users may now save private files, add custom watermarks or go watermark-free for creative works, and access all Aviary tutorials. As opposed to the free online version of Photoshop, there are also no storage limitations (Adobe charges you if you go over 2GB).

This is an amazing collection of free tools. For those who are following the current Flash debate, note that these tools are Adobe Flex/Air-based. For artists, note that you own full rights to all works you create with these tools. For those who can't afford the pricey Adobe Creative Suite apps, note that this suite is a surprisingly powerful alternative.

I like to think of Aviary as a creative playground. Even if you own the Adobe Creative Suite, you may still find that the Aviary tools are a lot of fun to play around with, especially Peacock (the Effects Editor).

SpaceTime3D Public Beta

SpaceTime3D. I was intrigued, and E-mailed the developer to ask if a Mac version was on the way.

Well, a browser version of SpaceTime3D is now in public Beta. It works on any platform and in any modern browser (with Flash plug-in installed). The browser version of SpaceTime3D is not as feature-rich as the stand-alone Windows desktop application, but it offers the main feature: visual 3D representation of search results. I tested out SpaceTime3D using FireFox 3.

My take? It has potential. While it's not going to supplant Google search, I view it as more of a complement to traditional text-based searching. Unlike text-based search results, SpaceTime gives you results and full-page previews at the same time, so you don't have to toggle back and forth between pages and search results. This can be time-saving in some instances. However, it would be nice to be able to toggle back and forth between visual and text views of search results on the fly. I say that because I don't feel like I get the same at-a-glance feedback that I do with a text search page. I don't get a good sense of where I am or how well my search term returned what I was seeking. Perhaps it's just a matter of getting used to a new way of searching.

There are some nice touches in the SpaceTime3D Beta. For instance, the search field presents 'autosuggestions' of words or phrases as you type. And you can switch between search engines while retaining your search term so you don't have to type it in again. It also looks great. For a Mac user, the eye candy of the 3D presentation of Web pages will not be too surprising (we're accustomed to reflective-surface eye candy). Windows users may be more impressed. The glaring exception to the nice presentation are the Google Ads, which are distracting and not well integrated. They look like an afterthought.

While there are many features that would make SpaceTime3D more useful as a powerful search tool, I'm not going to go into that in any detail. And that's because it's not really a powerful search tool. If I'm in serious search mode, I'll use Google. But what if I'm in casual-browse mode? I think that's where SpaceTime3D has most to offer, and there's a lot of room within this space. I found that it was quite enjoyable to browse through images with this tool, for instance. And I could imagine it might be a fun way to navigate through social media sites. For example, it would be a nice way to browse through Flickr photos tagged with a given search term. Or to surf random sites within a topic or set of topics via StumbleUpon. It would be interesting to see tighter integration in this realm. The main point here is that I see SpaceTime3D as a tool for discovery, not for focused searching.

Here are the main shortcomings. First, it can be pokey. I find that it's fairly responsive on my broadband connection and Intel iMac, but I often have to wait a bit for all the image previews to load. That's not unexpected and it's not meant as a criticism. It's an observation that some people may be disappointed by the speed relative to the nearly-instantaneous search results that we've come to enjoy from Google. Second, the search results you get are screenshots of Web pages, not the pages. This means you can't click on a link on a page in the 3D browsing environment. You can only click on the image of the page, which then opens up that page in a new window. Third, there is no easy way to refine a search without starting all over again.

Still, I see SpaceTime3D as an interesting foray into the world of 3D visualization on the desktop and in the browser, something that will likely become commonplace within a few years. I'll be interested to see how the tool develops over time. I've sent in some ideas to the developer about adding more filtering options to refine search results, and I've found them to be very responsive and open to ideas. And, I should add, they have a lot ideas in the queue to make this a better tool. Give it a try and see what you think.

Aviary: Worth a Test Flight

Aviary, a collection of online design and editing tools, is an amazing technical feat.

A couple of weeks ago, Aviary brought their online vector editor out of Beta. It's called Raven, and it joins, well, an aviary of other online applications: Phoenix (image editor), Peacock (dubbed a 'visual laboratory'), Toucan (color manager), and Phoenix (an image editor).

These tools are powerful, free to use, and tightly integrated (meaning you can pass your work of art seamlessly back and forth between the different applications). But what really intrigues me about Aviary is where it's heading.

In addition to the current flock of Aviary applications, there are many, many more interesting creative applications coming. We're talking everything from an audio editor to a terrain generator to a word processor. And the Aviary team plans to eventually offer offline versions of their tools via Adobe AIR at some point in the future (interesting to note that Adobe already has an online office suite, and I've read that they plan to bring many of their creative tools to the web, a la Photoshop Express).

The tools at Aviary are free to use, and are well worth your time to check out. No, Phoenix is not as powerful as Photoshop. And no, Raven is not as powerful as Illustrator. But how many users really need that much power? For casual creation, artistic exploration, and simple projects, Aviary is fun and easy to use. I especially like experimenting with Peacock. If the interface seems weird, it's only because we've become so use to Adobe's way of doing things.


Basic usage is free. The catch is that Aviary is, at heart, a social site. So free usage means you are prepared to share your work of art with the world. Also, while you own the full rights to all works you create, Aviary retains a license to display any works you make viewable to the public "within Aviary and in any external publication provided it's in a way that promotes Aviary." Also note that your work will be accessible by others, so someone else can mash up your image and repost it. In this case, your name will appear in the attribution in the new derivative work. It's a great model for encouraging social creativity and sharing.

If you want more control (and more privacy), a pro-level subscription is $10 a month. If you are interested in using these tools to create artwork for, say, a Web site, you'll want to pay the fee. Not a bad deal when you factor in the considerable capabilities of these applications and compare with the cost of Adobe applications. No, Aviary is not as powerful as an Adobe app, but if you can't afford or don't want to purchase an Adobe app or Suite, Aviary offers some powerful tools to create some great art.

I'm an Adobe CS owner and daily user for work and home tasks. I like my Adobe applications. But I hope that services like Aviary thrive. I'd hate to see Adobe completely own the design and editing tool space both on and offline (... and they already own the offline space).

Competition is good, and Aviary is one of many alternatives out there offering innovation and quality service.

OpenDNS + DynDNS + DNS-O-Matic

I finally got around to setting up a few services on my Mac related to dynamic DNS hosting. Having done so, I'm asking myself why I didn't do this long ago.

So, what is dynamic DNS? Here's a brief and imperfect overview. Let's start with DNS, or Domain Naming System. This, broadly speaking, is a service that translates hostnames into numbers that a computer can understand, and vice-versa. It's DNS that allows you to type '' instead of a hard-to-remember number like (an IP address). Your computer has an IP address. All the sites you visit have an IP address. Everything that accesses the internet has an IP address.

The thing about IP addresses is that, for a variety of reasons, there are only a finite number of them to go around.

This affects you directly. Because of this scarcity, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) only has a finite number of addresses to pass out to all the computers using that ISP that wish to access the internet.

The result of this shuffling act means that the address of your computer is changing all the time. That makes it hard to get back to your computer if you are remote and need to connect to, say, grab some important documents. Enter the dynamic DNS hosting service.

The folks at OpenDNS took a look at dynamic DNS hosting and asked 'What else could we do with this?' The result is a service that does a number of interesting things. OpenDNS does not provide you with an unchanging, easy-to-remember hostname (actually, it does track your ever-changing IP address, but only for its own purposes). What it does do is serve as your primary DNS server (instead of the DNS server used by your ISP). You don't need to install any software. You simply need to point your computer (or router) to the OpenDNS DNS servers. Read on if you're not sure why you should care.

This is a service owned by OpenDNS which basically does one thing: it transmits your current IP address to whatever services you are using. In my case, it ensures that both DynDNS and OpenDNS get my latest IP address from my ISP.

So what do I get out of this?

- With DynDNS, I can now use my user-created hostname to help me remotely access files on my Mac using SSH (Secure Shell). If I didn't have DynDNS, I would not know my current ISP-assigned IP address. With it, I always do.

- With OpenDNS, I get a big boost in speed and reliability when surfing the web. In my case (using Comcast), I would often type in a site address and it would take a bit of time for the page to load. Sometimes, nothing seemed to be happening at all. With OpenDNS, I've experienced a noticeable difference in speed, and I've experienced no delays in page look-ups.

- OpenDNS also offers several other added features that make it very worthwhile. Essentially, they've taken a basic service (dynamic DNS) and built in a bunch of extra useful stuff built around it. With this service, I can block access to certain types of sites. I get an added layer of built-in phishing protection. I also get sophisticated error-checking (for those times when I type in 'cmo' instead of 'com,' for instance). For those times that OpenDNS can't quite figure out what I'm looking for, the service offers helpful suggestions. I can also create shortcuts (e.g., I created one for this site that enables me to enter 'vfd' in the browser instead of the full web address). Finally, I can view stats related to all of the visited domains and IP addresses accessed through my router.

- DNS-O-Matic, finally, is a simple service that ensures that DynDNS and OpenDNS always have my latest IP address. If you don't use these services, you may choose to sync your IP address with a whole slew of other similar applications as well. I opted to use this service in lieu of installing the DynDNS client software on my Mac.

All three of these services are currently free. It takes a little effort to set it all up, but it's worth it. If you have no need for a consistent hostname for remotely accessing your Mac, then you may not need a service like DynDNS. However, OpenDNS is worth the effort for the speed and reliability boost alone.

One final note: OpenDNS collects information about your surfing habits, so be sure to check out their privacy policy.

Ubiquitous Data

I’m on the road this week in Washington, DC. Away from my desktop Mac, I’ve been thinking about data synchronization and the cost we should expect to pay for it.

It seems that everyone is coming out with syncing solutions, and most of these solutions include web-based access to data. And soon, we can expect a flood of iPhone/Touch applications — many of which will be modified versions of traditional desktop Mac apps. We’re on the verge of a significant evolution in data synching and universal data presence.

On that note, I want to point out that NetNewsWire, the popular RSS reader, now offers online syncing. This update came out last month, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to test it out on the road. It works well. It allows me to easily access my RSS feeds, whether on my iPod Touch or on the PC laptop I’m using (under protest) for work. While there are many RSS solutions out there, the free NetNewsWire is one of the best. The addition of syncing means that I can manage and maintain my RSS feeds from any location.

It’s no stretch of imagination to see that seamless synced data is the future, and that this future is coming fast. What I’m talking about is ubiquitous information — the ability to access all of one’s important data anywhere, anytime, from any platform.

While many services are heading in this direction, few yet do it with real style. NetNewsWire offers a good start. It will be better when there the NNW developers come up with a customized iPhone/Touch app in addition to a web-based solution. I’m confident it’s coming.

My suspicion is that we’ll soon look back at this period in personal computing within a couple of years and smile at what we used to put up with: the now-defunct .Mac, Google apps, and the plethora of other syncing services we now enjoy will soon seem quite primitive.

Evernote is a good example of where we’re heading. It’s a great app and offers very good cross-platform access to your data, but a year from now I venture that the only thing that will make Evernote stand out from the crowd will be stellar Optical Character Recognition (Evernote’s OCR is quite remarkable. Take a snapshot of some text, and it is quickly transformed into fully-searchable text). However, Evernote’s ability to sync data in the ‘cloud’ and serve it up on the web or on multiple installations of the app across platforms will be old hat.

Soon we’ll enjoy the ability to access our data everywhere, anywhere, on any platform, whether on or offline — that’s the promise, and it’s coming very soon. A year from now, we will demand it.

But what exactly should we expect? Web-based access is nice, but dedicated sister apps for our iPhone/Touch is even better. This is surely in our future, but at what cost?

I’ve been closely following the development of Cultured Code’s Things, an excellent task manager coming soon for the Mac. Concurrently with the creation of this app, the creators of Things are developing an iPhone/iPod Touch application dubbed ‘Things touch.’ It’s going to be good. Things for the Mac is due out in the Summer; Things touch for the iPhone/Touch will hopefully come out at the same time.

But what I’m wondering is this: will we be charged for different versions of the same application? In other words, if I buy Things 1.0 for the Mac, will I also have to buy Things for the iPhone/Touch for $9.99 (which seems to be a magic price point at this time). I’m guessing we will, and I say we shouldn’t complain too much.

Developing for the iPhone/Touch isn’t a matter of a simple port of a Mac app, or it shouldn’t be. It is about developing a unique user interface customized to this extraordinary mobile platform. It’s about minimalism. It’s about elegance. These considerations entail many design decisions and a lot of extra coding. Cultured Code’s blog for Things development is an excellent place to view a behind-the-scenes view of how difficult this can be for a well-thought out app. Check it out.

I initially thought that I would prefer to pay one price for an application, and that price would include a license for the mobile version of the app for the web and for the iPhone/Touch. However, I now see that this really wouldn’t work. If you don’t have a Touch or an iPhone, you clearly wouldn’t want to pay a higher cost for a version of the app you don’t intend to use.

But what about web-based access to your data in a given app? Should that be a free addition or an additional cost? NetNewsWire offers their reader and web-based access/syncing for free. Yojimbo, on the other hand, offers no web-based access. You need to buy Yojimbo for $39. You can get web-based access to your data only if you buy Webjimbo for an additional $30 (an application which is made by a different company). Should I pay a lump sum of $70 for a desktop app with web access for a product like Yojimbo? I don’t think many will choose this option. I will not. In the case of Yojimbo, I’d like to see them either buy out Webjimbo and roll out their own solution. I’d also like to see them make their own iPhone/Touch app to access Yojimbo data on-the-go. I hope this is in the works.

This example hints at what I’d like to see. In short, my preferred future looks like this: Desktop data-centric apps (e.g., Personal Info Managers , Task Managers) offer desktop and web-access version of their apps for one price. I think we should start to expect web-based access for many of the applications we buy and use on the Mac as part of a standard license fee. For the custom app designed for the iPhone/Touch, $9.99 is a good price point that I’d be willing to pay.

What’s clear is that ubiquitous data access is on the way. Pricing schemes for multi-point, ‘anywhere access’ apps continue to develop and mature. It will be interesting to see what model works best.

We’ll soon see. My hope is that the iPhone (and perhaps the newly-launched MobileMe — the .Mac replacement) will drive a new revolution towards elegant data ubiquity.

Post Script: I’m posting these comments in a hotel room using Wordpress’ web access on a PC laptop. As I’m pressed for time, I’m not adding links. I don’t have the time. It’s a testament to MarsEdit, TextMate and TextExpander — three stellar Mac applications — that I would add links if I had a Mac laptop on-hand. On my PC, it would be too painful and time-intensive.

P.P.S. Look for the next installment in the long-delayed PIM review sometime next week once I get back to Hawaii. I’ll next look at DevonThink Personal. I’ll also be commenting on the minor controversies surrounding my inclusion of VooDooPad in my review series. The sneak-peek: I’m keeping VooDooPad, but I’m adding an extra Personal Information Manager to the series. I’ll explain my decision soon, as well.

Random Bits

If you've been following the PIM series here, you know that I recently delayed my reviews because the Worldwide Developers Conference is just around the corner (a time of year when many Mac apps are updated). But I have a confession to make. This delay is also a convenient excuse! I haven't had time to devote my energies to the PIM review series over the past couple of weeks, and this offered a valid reason to postpone. With the recent update of two of the five apps in this review series (Together and EagleFiler), I plan to be back with the next review soon. I may change the order of the reviews and start with the recently-updated apps as a precaution.

Speaking of the PIM reviews, there has been an interesting development regarding this series: Alan Schmitt of Metadata posted a very well-thought out argument that VooDooPad shouldn't be part of this review series since it's a fundamentally different sort of application. Alan makes a distinction between PIMs as data organizers and PIMs as data creation tools: while the former is focused on manipulation of metadata, the latter is focused on manipulation of data. I think this is an excellent point. What I'm thinking about now is how the various Mac info managers fit on the creation vs. organization spectrum. I'll post my thoughts soon.

Meanwhile, here's a short round up of odds and ends that recently caught my interest around the Macosphere.


1. Get Satisfaction

Get Satisfaction
Get Satisfaction is a community-driven customer service site with an aim to create new and better connections between companies and users. It's a place to get tech support, a place to gripe about a product or service, a place to interact with employees from a company, and a place to share ideas. For companies, it's a great way to manage tech support and directly engage with customers (and it's free). For customers like you and me, it's a very interactive and interesting way to get help with an app or service (or just to monitor what people are saying). I also like the newly-added 'Overheard' feature on Get Satisfaction, which allows companies to track what people are saying about them in the Twittersphere. It's an interesting way to view a narrow segment of Twitter posts. It's also a novel way to generate tips and ideas for posts for bloggers (for instance, I can monitor the worldwide Twitter stream of all posts that mention Apple). I have the sense that Get Satisfaction is a harbinger of things to come as social networking/microblogging evolves and matures. It's a great tool that is worth your time to check out. Let's count down the days until it's bought by Google.


2. Alternative Twitter Views

I'm still adjusting to the Twitter phenomenon. The best description of it I've heard so far comes from Adam Christianson of the MacCast, who noted it's like iChat without the commitment. I like that. At any rate, here are a couple of interesting sites that provide alternative views of the Twitter stream. The first, twittervision, is a mash-up of Google Maps and Twitter. As you might expect, it displays Twitter posts in realtime on a world map. The second, Firehose, presents a realtime Twitter timeline. These sites aren't particularly useful, but they are interesting. The Firehose stream is particularly mesmerizing.


3. Delicious Library 2 Nears Release

Delicious Library
The developer of Delicious Library, the barcode-friendly media cataloguing tool, announced the availability of a Beta download of version 2.0 yesterday via a Twitter post. If you buy the current version of DL (1.6.6), you will get the 2.0 upgrade for free. If you've never tried DL, download the trial and check it out. It's the slickest use of the built-in iSight camera that I've seen. Note that the 2.0 Beta is optimized for OS X Leopard 10.5.3, which has not yet been released.


4. Ready-Set-Do! GTD App Updated

Ready-Set-Do!, a Getting Things Done workflow app, updated to 1.3 recently. This isn't as much an application as it is a cleverly packaged set of Applescripts that allow you to manage the files on your Mac using GTD methodology. From what I've read, this app is for people who really grok the GTD process. It appears to be most similar to Midnight Inbox, in that it aims to serve as a GTD command post to manages all the files on your Mac by creating alias links (in other words, files are not actually moved around, they are only referenced and managed through the Ready-Set-Do! interface). Interesting idea.


5. Links for web developers

blogwell's Top 100 Resources for Web Developers
I'm kind of tired of 'top ten' style lists, but's 100+ Resources for Web Developers is a good reference and summary.


6. Graffletopia

If you use OmniGraffle, you must check out Graffletopia. Here, you can choose from over 300,000 free stencils to use in your OmniGraffle project. GraffletopiaIf you're unfamiliar with OmniGraffle, it's a tool with which you can create diagrams. If you peruse through some of the Graffletopia styles, you will quickly get a sense of just how useful this tool can be. invitation

I received an invitation to beta test Aviary today, a new web-based creative suite from a company called Worth1000. I received access to Phoenix (an online image editor) and Peacock (an online pattern generator).

From the Aviary site:

Aviary is a suite of rich internet applications geared for artists of all genres. From image editing to typography to music to 3D to video, we have a tool for everything. At Worth1000, we are creating a complex ecosystem for artists and providing the world with free, capable collaborative tools and an approach to collaboration and rights management that will turn the marketplace for online art on its head.

I haven’t done much with it yet, but I tried it long enough to determine the image editor is responsive and fairly feature-rich. If you want to give it a try, shoot me an email. I have five two invitations to pass on.

Microsoft Launches WorldWide Telescope

I just spent an hour playing with Microsoft’s just-released WorldWide Telescope. At first glance, you may dismiss this is as just another space simulator like Starry Night, Stellarium, Celestia, or Google Earth. However, I think it will stand on its own as a unique and extraordinary offering. 

WWT allows you to surf around the galaxy, seamlessly viewing stitched images from our civilization’s best telescopes. Panning and zooming around the galaxy is exceptionally fluid — faster and more immersive than other offerings I’ve seen. The technology behind this is Microsoft’s new high-performance “Visual Experience Engine.”

As one not ordinarily impressed by Microsoft products, I have to say that I really like WWT. The navigation controls are easy to use. The imagery is incredible. As you’re sailing along, the thumbnails along the bottom of the screen instantly update to show you what’s in the neighborhood. You can change views on the fly to look at galaxies, constellations, and other formations at different wavelengths. Overall, you get a sense of where you are in the universe better than other tools I’ve used. One other feature that stands out: slick multimedia guided tours from experts and enthusiasts — and you can create your own tour, too.

I’m always happy to see a new, free astronomy tool for the public. This is certainly a great addition. The only bad news is that it’s Windows-only.

I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to test this package out given the minimum system requirements to run WWT on your Mac:

- Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista® (recommended) with BootCamp - Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.2 GHz or faster) processor recommended - 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended - NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-MB SDRAM or recommended - HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS® Extended or HFS Plus) and 10 GB of available hard disk space - 1440 x 900 or higher-resolution monitor
I don't have Windows on BootCamp, but I do have VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta. My Mac isn't quite 2.2 GHz. But I decided to try it out anyway. After some wrangling, I got it to work. Here's what I'm running:
- MS XP Home Edition SP2 on VMWare Fusion - 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz/2MB RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.2 - VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta (Settings: 2 virtual processors, 1120 MB RAM, Accelerated 3D graphics enabled)
This worked well for me, with a few caveats: I experienced video and audio stutters when clicking on an object for 'more information' or when starting up a tour. I also found the tours played back much more smoothly (with better image quality) after I let them play through once, and then played them again. I also had to reboot after I was finished running the application through VMWare — my Mac was quite sluggish afterwards. Not bad trade-offs, all things considered. One note: I tried cranking up the alloted RAM for my virtual Windows installation all the way up to 1830MB (VMWare's recommended max for 2GB RAM), but this did not work. I experienced severe sluggishness, probably due to memory swapping. It worked fine once I turned the RAM back to 1120MB.

I would run BootCamp, but the version of Windows I own (Home Edition) is not compatible…and I don’t want to buy a newer version of Windows. If you’re in this camp (and your Mac is as good or better than mine), this is a working alternative if you want to try out WWT. It’s worth a look. If you run Windows on BootCamp, definitely give it a try.