The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Mon. May 17, 2004

My Essential Software

Over the past month or two, I’ve seen several people post their personal list of “Essential Software.” Best I can tell, it started with Matthew Mullenweg, then spread to others. I found it quite interesting to read what programs others use, and why. Everyone’s needs vary, often simply by the nature of the computers they have to use, and the type of work they do. For example, Mark Pilgrim programs in a lot of different environments, and therefore he chooses tools that are “cross platform.” I’m the opposite. I don’t “program” in the strict sense of that word, and I work in one environment: mine. So I thought I’d make my own list of “Essential Tools,” chosen over the course of 8 years of computer ownership.

What, would you rather hear more about Iraq? I thought not…

Operating System: I guess I’m a fairly typical story in this regard. When I got my first computer, times were considerably different than today. Adding 256 MB of RAM to your computer would cost you $10,000, at $40 per MB. And the difference in price between comparable PC’s and Macs was far starker than today. So I went with a 100mhz Pentium (with a whopping 16 MB of RAM), with what was then a five month old operating system, Windows 95. Looking back, it sounds insane. But that was what $2500 would get you back then.

Windows 95 sucked, but I had no real frame of reference. I worked on Macs a bit back then, and they seemed to me to suck in their own ways as well (and today, my opinion has changed only slightly). Windows 98 sucked slightly less, and you eventually got used to rebooting the computer several times a day to accomplish your work. Eventually. But it wasn’t until I got Windows XP that I felt like I had something approaching a Real Operating System. One that understands ICC color profiles so I can create a closed digital loop, and will run for weeks without needing to be rebooted.

I’ve never really been a diehard partisan in the Mac vs. PC Wars. I consider it as much a subjective choice as an objective one, and for many people, Macs are the way to go. For some programmers, the underlying Unix core makes it a perfect choice. But for me, it somehow doesn’t hold the great appeal it does for many others. I’ve done a fair amount of scanning and Photoshop work on Macs, and I just find it counterintuitive in some ways. Of course, that’s likely due to my “PC upbringing,” but it goes right down to the standard issue Mac mouse and keyboard. I find working with them infuriating. It’s an interface issue for me. I’m just far more comfortable, efficient, and productive in Windows XP.

Text Editing: I probably open Microsoft Word perhaps once or twice a month, if I have to print out a letter, or get a Word.doc via e-mail. In fact (with one exception noted below), the entire Microsoft Office Suite gets very little usage on my system. I basically got it for the sake of client compatibility.

But when I got my last computer, the very first program I loaded was a plain text editor to replace Notepad, called NoteTab Pro. Why? Because it had my “buildout list” for the new computer, as well as all the log-in info for more than a dozen sites, and most every other scrap of saved info I needed. I’m a plain text nut, and I do all my drafts and weblog writing, XHTML/CSS hand coding, list making … heck, everything you can imagine that involves typing, I do in NoteTab. There’s usually a dozen documents open, half of them “outlines” that contain a dozen subpages (I often store reference material that way), plus custom Clip Libraries I made containing a wealth of “repeated typing” ... one click, and it’s inserted, whether it’s a string of text (like a signature line) or an XHTML tag.

Site Management/FTP: While I’ve always preferred handcoding to “WYSIWYG” style HTML editors, I’ve been a user of Dreamweaver since version 1.0. I use it for the “heavy lifting,” like quickly adding Javascript behaviors, managing the overall content and presentation with templates and library items, and for bulk uploads or site changes. However, I also still use the very first FTP program I ever encountered, WS_FTP95, if I just need to quickly upload a file or two.

Photo Editing: Rather than one program, when you’re talking about images taken with a digital camera, it quickly becomes a chain of programs. And while camera manufacturers give you a CD with software that adequately performs the functions you need, I don’t use anything that came with mine. Rather than directly connect the camera to the computer via some fragile flakey dedicated cable to download using the supplied software, I put the flash card into a Lexar Firewire card reader. This triggers the opening of a program called Downloader (it used to be a “free utility” with less features than the current Pro version), which downloads the images, and opens them Breeze Browser.

I use Breeze Browser just for image “file management” (though I once used its RAW converter, too ), to edit images that have just been downloaded, deleting the bad, flagging the best, and filing them in the appropriate folders. As much as I shoot, it’s a pretty critical task, and Breeze Browser is simply much faster, more flexible, and to me, more intuitive than Photoshop’s File Browser. But, of course, that’s always where I end up: in Photoshop. For me, there simply is no substitute. And if you shoot camera RAW files, the RAW converter in Photoshop CS is far superior to the ones offered by the camera manufacturers.

Web Graphics: While I use Photoshop for a lot of things, I find Macromedia’s Fireworks to be superior for creating web graphics of many kinds. People now view mixing vectors and bitmaps as no big deal, but Fireworks has been doing it since version 1.0, and has always been one of the most enjoyable programs I have on my computer. When I’m building something for the web, or even “sketching” a site design, you’ll find me doing it in Fireworks.

Weblog Publishing Tool: Gosh, which month? I’ve been totally around the horn on this one. I started with Blogger ... because in July, 2000, that was the only option I knew about. 6 months later, I switched to Greymatter, and about a year after that, I switched to Movable Type. Each time, I switched to gain new features and capabilities. But in April of this year, I switched again, to Textpattern. While Textpattern is a great program (especially to be a pre-release gamma), I didn’t switch for new features, I did it because one of my two MT installs gave up the ghost. Ceased to function, and could not be persuaded to resume. Being the second time I’d had such a problem, I opted to move on to something new.

Reasons I would switch … again: If Textpattern dies on me and cannot be resuscitated, or Dean changes his mind and decides he wants me to pay three figures to use his creation, or forces all users to add a dog picture to their page (although I’d at least consider that last one … Oliver is hardly objectionable)

Web Browser: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed sides in the Browser Wars. Let’s just say I started with Netscape 1.2, now I use Mozilla, and there was a whole lot of others in between.

Reasons I would switch: Well, I will switch. To Firefox. I still have a couple of very minor issues with the 0.8 release, so I’m not quite ready to fully convert over, but it will happen.

E-mail: The only part of Microsoft Office that I really use is Outlook. And I really rarely even see it. First of all, I use the free version of Mailwasher. I open it, it looks at the mail on my server, does a fine job of marking 90% of the spam (and viral attachments) for deletion (or bouncing), and does it all without downloading a byte of it to my system. That first pass wipes out most of the dreck and danger. I then open Nelson Email Organizer, which is a program that operates “on top” of Outlook. It provides far better ability to search messages, view all mail and replies from any correspondent, view just attachments, and others ways of organizing mail that are quite superior to Outlook.

Reasons I would switch: Obviously, Outlook is constantly targeted by virus writers and other hackers, and I can see myself switching for that reason alone. I think I’ll wait and see if Gmail develops as a real alternative, as they add more capabilities.

Instant Messaging: None. Emphatically. I’ve never liked IM, just as I’ve never liked IRC or chat. It’s just a “communications medium” I don’t enjoy. But I’m sure I will someday have a client who insists on using it, and I’ll probably opt for Trillian. I’ve just been lucky so far.

RSS/Atom/Feed Aggregator: I started out with AmphetaDesk, and then tried Newsmonster. Both were … adequate, but somehow not satisfying. So I signed up for an account at Bloglines a couple of months ago, and have been pleasantly surprised with it. My subscriptions are out of control, but that’s a user issue, not an application error.

Misc: There are several other small utilities that I find really handy. Cool Ruler is a nice free screen ruler. Color Cop is handy for reading the RGB or HTML color values for any color on your screen. Time Tracker is a pretty basic utility for tracking hours worked on a project, but it’s been sufficient for my needs. Cyberkit gets used occasionally to trace a flakey connection or abusive user. And rather than frequent one of the online dictionaries, I prefer having the Merriam Webster Dictionary/Thesaurus installed on my hard drive. It’s very fast, and therefore more frequently used.

And there you have it. Probably 98% of my computer time is spent using one of the above programs.

Peanut Gallery

1  Scott Chaffin wrote:

Pretty cool (and comprehensive.) Now I’ve got some stuff to go check out in my free time. I’m a humongous Outlook/Office guy, being a corporate drone and all. I’d really rather use just about anything else, but there is no escaping it if you deal with the Global 2000s.

What’s truly funny is your adoration for simplicity and speed…a program for a task, over and out. I bet that’s a holdover from the Windows95—$40/MB days.

I’m telling ya – kids these days with their half-gig systems.

2  Richard wrote:

“Emphatically. I’ve never liked IM, just as I’ve never liked IRC or chat. It’s just a “communications medium” I don’t enjoy.”

One group that has overwhelmingly taken to IM in a huge way are teenagers. (Another reason to avoid it, I know…) Hell, they even chat with their moms while she’s in the same house. It’s the only way they’ll talk. I can understand fully why IM can be unenjoyable. But it mimics an oral culture which the West may be rediscovering.

3  Harvey wrote:

I’ve tried using Word, and Works, and Notepad, and Wordpad for prepping blog entries & hate them all.

I just downloaded NoteTab. This looks promising.


4  Paul wrote:

Interesting and useful post. Thanks, Reid. As for the Windows/Mac/Unix Crusades participation bits, I think you especially, as a digital content creator, have to be sensitive to the copyright/copyleft issues inherent in your choice of software. With the continuing evolution of IP law and practice, I know that I’m going more and more to Stallman’s views. I wish it weren’t so, and that all serious men need be concerned with was choosing functional tools and using them wisely. I wish.

What’s important about “free” software isn’t the price, it’s that a user continues to own the products of his labors created through the use of such software. Think about it.

5  Reid wrote:

Scott: “kids these days with their half-gig systems

Hey, I’ve got a full gig system, so it’s not about resources (I’m still amazed that I have what would have been $40,000 of RAM a mere eight years ago). As you perceptively note, it’s an “adoration for simplicity and speed.” For example, I played around with ObjectDock, which emulates the Mac OSX dock on a PC. It’s coolo-neato, looks great, and works as advertised. It also sucked up display resources (most notably in programs with palettes, like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and damn near every other program I use), for the added benefit of showing me the weather and temperature. It’s gone.

Richard, you say IM “mimics an oral culture which the West may be rediscovering,” but I think that can be fixed with a strong course of antibiotics. I don’t want to catch anything from teenagers. At my age, it’s likely to kill me.

Paul: “What’s important about ‘free’ software isn’t the price, it’s that a user continues to own the products of his labors created through the use of such software.

An important, valid, and complex point. Who owns the software, and the computer on which the software is used? Most times, that’s the person who owns the “labors” created with that software. If you’re a full time employee using the company system, you don’t own your creations (unless you also own the company). For me, an additional concern is proprietary formats. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like plain text files. You can open them in any number of programs. Even a Photoshop *.PSD can be opened in Fireworks, Gimp, and other programs. But a long time ago, I used Ulead’s PhotoImpact for a lot of my web graphics, and it had a proprietary format, *.UFO. All the work I did in that program is now a pain in the patootie to access. Yeah, I still “own” it. But its proprietary nature keeps it pretty well locked up.

6  Matt wrote:

Something I’ve recently gotten into that has been incredibly useful to me is running a local webserver with a wiki installed. Think about moving all that notetabbed information into a relational system with versioning. It’s yummy. I’ve also found many other cool things I can do when I have Perl, PHP, MySQL, and Apache all installed locally.

7  Reid wrote:

Funny you should mention that, Matt. Not long ago, I installed XAMPP so that I could learn PHP/MySQL and make my mistakes “locally.” I’d thought about creating a categorized blog for info storage of various types, but the idea of a wiki … something else I need to learn more about … sounds like a better option.

However, so far it’s been a bit like installing an Olympic size swimming pool in your backyard, when you can’t even dogpaddle. It’s that first dive into the pool (and associated feeling of drowning) that I’ve got to get past.

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