Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Annotated Application Experiment

Since I spend a lot of time using my computer, searching for new applications, and evaluating competing software, I always enjoy hearing from friends of mine about applications they use that make their lives, digital or otherwise, a little better. Every once in a while, you have those shock-of-recognition moments, where you discover an app that you've never heard of before that does something exactly right, or find a friend who has the same enthusiasm for an underappreciated piece of software that you thought was yours alone (or virtually alone).

So what I'm proposing is an experiment of sorts, where friends and blog readers share either 1) a shortlist of their favorite applications, especially ones they would like to advertise or 2) a list of all of the applications they're running on their machine, along with a short description of what each app does.

The first, feel free to share in the comments on this weblog. If you're interested in the second, contact me and we'll swap software lists (just not where any old browser can see EVERYthing).

I'll get things rolling with a fistful of "reading" programs I've found recently that I'm trying and mostly like. I use OS X, so many of this might be less useful if you run Windows or Linux, but I'm AC/DC when it comes to OSes, so send your other-system-specific apps too.

NetNewsWire - an RSS reader with a built-in tabbed web browser; also has podcast support and tight integration with blogging applications like MarsEdit (which was spun off from the original NNW application). I use NetNewsWire more than anything else, even my team of all-star browsers (I have Firefox, Flock, Safari, Camino, and Mozilla's new Prism app on my system, and before that I had more).

Yep - a PDF reader/organizer/scanner. What's especially nice about Yep are the rich tagging functions and the quick search capabilities. Also it's just easier to view a lot of PDFs with the rest of your PDF library close by. It works very well with Leap, a OS X Finder replacement from the same company.

Papers - a really promising app that's similar to Yep (if not so slick) but also includes a web browser and inline access to search databases like Google Books, Google Scholar, PubMed, and a few others. This app is so promising, but there are three problems with it for my use.

First, it's expensive, over $40 for a single user license. I'm firmly of the belief that $10-25 is the most you should pay for an app that doesn't actually let you produce anything -- and it should preferably be free. (Yep has this problem as well.)

Second, the web support is handy, but is really an afterthought. You can't bookmark web sites (except through a ridiculously convoluted process where you treat a web site like a PDF and sort it into a folder, then re-edit it so you can find it again), there's no RSS support, and while you can handily use a proxy login to credential yourself to gain access to closed resources, that then cuts you off from open resources like Google's engines. Certainly needs some tweaking.

Third, because the app is geared towards scientific and medical researchers, besides Google, there isn't much to offer in the way of search plugins for other sites. It would be great if you could easily search Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or text databases like EEBO or ECCO, stores like Amazon, or more webby resources like Wikipedia, Technorati, etc. In other words, the software and concepts are there, but the sense of audience is so specialized that the functionality doesn't quite come together. It's a terrific way to access online information, but it's ironically quite phobic of the web itself.

But -- there is a plug-in SDK, which potentially makes it incredibly open. It would be marvelous if teams of reader/developers tackled specific zones of knowledge -- computer science, social sciences, humanities, blogs, etc., to try to make this app as versatile as possible.

In short, if you combine these three applications -- plus the versatility of a media player like VLC -- you would have my dream of an ideal electronic reader application -- an iTunes for books.

So tell me: what applications are on your mind (and on your screen) lately?

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