Tagged with geeky

Announcing Trowl v0.1!

This may be the fastest an app idea of mine has gone from concept to reality.

What is Trowl?
Essentially, it is an app that outputs tweets to Growl for Windows.

Why? What does this buy me?
Honestly? If all you’re using this for is the Growl output, not much. It looks nice, and integrates with a service you may already be using, but that’s it. This version doesn’t even let you send a new tweet!

Then what’s the point?
Recently, Prowl was released on the iPhone App Store. Prowl links up with Growl on your PC so that when you get a notification, it gets pushed to your iPhone via the new Push Notification feature. In other words: you will get push notification of new tweets.

Awesome! But aren’t there already other Twitter clients that use Growl?
Yes. But:
a) Twitter clients that use Growl for Windows are limited — and buggy. If I’m going to use a full Twitter client, I’d like it to be fully functional. Alternatively I could wait until a more mature Twitter client implements GfW support, but I’m inpatient. And even then, it may not have the capabilities I’m looking for, which leads me to…
b) Most of the time, Growl support comes in the form of “friends timeline, @replies or DMs”. I don’t know about you, but if I got ALL my tweets Growled and pushed to my iPhone, my phone would never stop buzzing — which kind of defeats the purpose of push notifications. I only want to get notifications of tweets from my close friends — the people where it may be in my best interest to see their tweet(s) asap.

Sounds good. So what’s in Trowl?
This early version is a simple, proof-of-concept release that only serves to demonstrate the idea and get basic functionality working. This means:
* You can log in with your Twitter credentials, optionally saving your username & password for quick login in the future.
* System tray icon to access Settings and Exit the app.
* Ability to choose which users should have their tweets Growled.
* Ability to specify how often Trowl should check for new tweets from your chosen users.
And that’s it. I’m already working on these features:
* Setting to forward ALL @replies, regardless of who they’re from.
* Support for forwarding DMs.
* Ability to send a tweet from Trowl.
I’m open to suggestions for other features, but my goal is to keep this as lightweight as possible. Its purpose is to growl tweets, with the intent of having those growls push to your iPhone. If you want more than that, you will be better served by any of the other excellent Twitter clients out there.

Why did you name it Trowl?
Twitter + Growl = Trowl
Also, a trowel is a tool used to evenly spread mortar between bricks. You can think of Trowl as the tool that helps cement Twitter, Growl and Prowl. Yeah, I know, I’m the height of cheesery.

Does it cost anything?
Nope. However, Prowl costs $2.99 on the App Store. For me, this was a no brainer purchase, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Anything else I should know?
This app is useless without Growl for Windows, and will inform you of such if it has trouble communicating with Growl for Windows. (Although, it’s excellent at draining your Twitter API allowance, if you’re looking for that.)
This is an early version with limited error checking and an extra helping of bugs. Please let me know if you find any problems.
It is written in C#.NET and requires the .NET Framework 3.5. If you have Windows Vista or Windows 7, chances are you already have this. If not, please take a trip to your friendly neighborhood Windows Update.

I need Growl for Windows. Where can I get it? How do I set up Prowl to work with it?
Please visit growlforwindows.com. You will find both answers there.

Let me at it!
Thanks for your interest. Here is the download. Just extract the ZIP to an empty folder, and run trowl.exe. After logging in, you will see the Settings screen to configure your initial friends and update interval. Remember: any problems, please contact me. (I’m @mageuzi on Twitter.) And, if you like it, spread the word! Thanks!

[update] I just want to thank Wallace B. McClure for his C# Twitter example to get me off on the right foot, as well as DotNetThis for his simple string encryption example. I’m also adding a few screenshots after the break.
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A Few Good Apps

Having my phone for a couple of weeks now, and realizing how difficult it can be to find true gems on the App Store, I thought I would give a few thoughts on some apps I’ve downloaded, tried and enjoyed.

Whole Foods App: I’m still searching for a good recipe app, but this is a decent start.  You can browse, narrow down and search for recipes that Whole Foods hosts on their website.  And their recipes are actually pretty good, presented with a nice UI.  It also has a feature that lets you find nearby Whole Foods store, utilizing the GPS — nice, but not the most compelling part of this app.

Flight Control: This game is in the top ten, and the concept sounded interesting, so I was immediately curious.  After reading a couple of reviews, I decided to take a chance — and it is, in fact, a very fun game! The basic idea is that you have an aerial view of a landing strip, with planes flying in from all directions and speeds, which you have to safely land.  Doing so is just a matter of drawing a flight path from the plane to the runway.  There are different plane types that have to go to different runways, and as the game progresses there are more planes on screen at a time, and paths often cross.  It’s simple, but challenging — always an addictive combination.

Jungle Bloxx: Think of a cross between Boom Blox and Jenga, and you’ll get the idea.  I’ve really only played the demo so far, but the $2.99 price for the full version is tempting.  Again, the premise is simple: there is a jewel balanced amongst a pile of blocks, and so you have to destroy the blocks in such a way that the jewel lands safely in a pile of sand.  If it lands anywhere else, you risk breaking it.  More points are awarded if you "land" the jewel with fewer destroyed blocks.

Jukebox: I think this only came out recently, since the new 3.0 firmware lets apps read the iPod data on your iPhone.  Basically it is like the Music Quiz game that came on older iPods — but spruced up nicely.  Well worth the $.99, especially if you have a lot of music.

WordPress: Update your blog and manage comments on the go with the official WordPress app.  Fairly straightforward, but I get a kick out of being able to control the fundamental details of your blog on the go, and in such a simple way.

Finally, saving the best for last:

Shopper: Ever since I owned a Windows CE device, I’ve been wanting a way to digitize my shopping lists.  But I don’t just want a way to bring a list of items to the store.  I also want a way to make notes of them as I think of them (quickly!) and check them off as I shop.  For a while I was using Google Tasks.  Unfortunately, though, it is a rather new addition to Google’s repertoire and is not only sparse on features, but is difficult to maintain on the go.  Also, it is meant more as a task list (go figure) and is more tightly integrated with Gmail than a standalone tool.  So after getting my iPhone, I looked to see what apps had been developed for this purpose.

There are several, but the $.99 Shopper app caught my attention.  It looked to have a nice interface that was easy to use and manage.  Plus, it had a database of pre-loaded grocery items.  And, it lets you specify what aisle these items are at in the store.  From there, you can set up profiles for each of the stores you visit frequently.  You can specify where they are located, as well as the order of their aisles.  Why?  So that when the phone senses you are near to one of your stores (using its built-in GPS), it can switch to that layout and display your shopping list in the exact order things will be in the store!

You can also specify prices for your items (unfortunately not on a per-store basis), take photos and make templates for common weekly shopping trips, or for ingredients for certain recipes.  For such a cheap app, it is powerful yet simple to use — and may finally be the answer to my digital shopping list fantasies.

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Windows 7: Laptop Addendum

I knew it! I knew that as soon as I finished my last post on some of the things I like (and dislike) about Windows 7, that I would forget something. And I’m sure this won’t be the last of the follow-up posts.

But as I popped open my laptop’s lid, and Windows 7 sprung to life, I realized I had forgotten to mention my experiences with how it runs on a portable. The RC is the first time I’ve run it on a laptop, and I was curious to see how it would work, since there had been a lot of discussion about changes in the OS geared towards laptops.

Vista was no slouch when it came to laptops. Well, decently-powered laptops anyway. It would go to sleep relatively quickly, and it would come back from sleep in a decent amount of time as well. This is already markedly better than XP, where putting the laptop to sleep was like spinning a roulette wheel: would it come back afterwards? Your bet is as good as mine.

Windows 7 makes the sleep process even faster, though, without losing any of the stability. It always amazes me when I open the laptop lid, and in an instant the Windows 7 login screen is there waiting. Having said that, though, I was disappointed to find one minor Vista bug still hanging around: even though the login screen appears, you can’t actually type your password for a few seconds afterward. Even though the cursor is blinking in the password field as if it can accept input, it just ignores you. I’ve always felt that could have better feedback to the user.

Another thing that I’ve heard mentioned is that Windows 7 improves the most-sacred of laptop specs: battery life. I was especially interested in this, since my laptop got about 3 hours in power saver mode under Vista — good, but not great. In my very unscientific day-to-day use, Windows 7 might be getting me half an hour extra. Maybe. It’s a hard thing to measure, but that seems to be my experience so far. Not bad, but nothing really to get worked up over.

I tend not to put my laptop into hibernate mode, so I don’t have any comments on that.

Another minor thing that I was surprised about: the Dell laptop I use has built in media buttons on the front, such as volume control and media playback. Without having to install any drivers, or configure anything, these buttons worked right after setup. It was a nice surprise, as I had almost resigned myself to not being able to use these buttons until Dell released updated drivers. And, of course, all Fn controls, such as changing screen brightness, work without issue. Nice!

So overall, it does seem like Windows 7 is more laptop-friendly, keeping with the theme that Windows 7 builds atop of what already made Vista great.

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Windows 7

My original intention with this post was to write some in depth impressions of Windows 7. I’ve been using the RC for about a week now as the primary OS on my laptop.  But as I got to writing it, I realized it would be better to summarize — there are plenty of other places to get detailed info if you want it.

So let me start off with the good news: I like Windows 7.  But then, I liked Windows Vista too, so perhaps my impressions aren’t to be trusted.  Still, there is a lot to like here, and it definitely builds on top of what made Vista great.  But, it also works to correct what was wrong with Vista — which, in my opinion, was pretty much just sluggish performance.

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XP Mode in Windows 7

On a lighter note, I wanted to briefly comment about yesterday’s revelation of Windows XP Mode in Windows 7.

All in all, I think this is a pretty nifty idea. It is essentially the same as “Classic Mode” that Apple had in OS X for the first few versions. I question the decision to make this a business-only feature, but I will admit that consumers can more readily move to newer software than a business can. I will be curious to see how this behaves in practice, and whether it is as elegant and useful a solution as it appears on the surface.

In other news, I am eagerly chomping at the bit to get my paws on the Windows 7 RC. I stopped using the beta a while ago, as I didn’t want to use a beta OS as a full time system. But depending on how the RC looks, I may try to make it my primary OS. Mostly because I want to see how some of the new window management / organization features work in day to day usage. And also just to see if it is worth the cost to upgrade from Vista. I have a feeling it will be, but there’s nothing like getting a new toy and trying out all the bells and whistles. ^^

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Does Usability Come From The Users?

I’ve been watching the development of Windows 7 pretty closely, mostly because Microsoft has been relatively forthcoming on their development of it via their Engineering Windows 7 blog. It was particularly interesting in the few months before the beta dropped, because they talked about certain aspects of Windows in the abstract — how critical the taskbar is to the OS, how many windows a typical user has open, etc. It was sort of a smattering of theory which you could only assume was being used by Microsoft to mold the next iteration of the OS — but you weren’t really sure.

Now that the beta has arrived, and talk of the RC is rampant, it is all too clear that they were definitely molding the next iteration — almost to a fault.

And so the question I’ve come to ask myself recently is: what is the best way to create a new feature? In Steven Sinofsky’s very strangely worded post recently, he puts it like this:

A quick story from years ago working on Office, many years ago before the development of telemetry and the internet deciding what features to put in a release of Office could really be best described as a battle. The battle took place in conference rooms where people would basically debate until one or more parties gave up from fatigue (mental or otherwise)—essentially adrenaline-based product development. […] Fast forward to the development of Windows 7 and we’re focused on using data to help inform decisions we make. This data takes many forms and helps in many ways. I know a lot of folks have questions about the data – is it representative, how does it help fix things people should be using but don’t, what about doing new things, and so on. Data is an important element of making decisions, but not a substitute for clear product goals, meaningful customer engagement, and working across the ecosystem to bring Windows 7 to customers.

I think the first part is very telling about why Microsoft has a reputation of creating illogical and painful UIs. Putting a bunch of software engineers — who aren’t exactly UI experts to begin with — in a box to fight over features & design is stupid.

But the second part begs the question, is using telemetry data to shape your features and UI any better?
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Learning to Love Labels

Things aren’t perfect unless they’re organized. I thrive on knowing where everything is, and everything being in place. I have to know what is going on at all times, and become depressed for the rest of the day when things don’t go as originally planned.

It can be pretty damn annoying.

Especially when I don’t have time to sit down and get things organized. This was especially true of my e-mail. I don’t think I’ve ever had a real method of organizing my personal e-mail, and certainly not while I’ve been using GMail. In fact, my use of GMail sort of happened by accident. I started using it as a secondary e-mail, as I still wasn’t fond of the idea of web-based e-mail. Mostly because I had been scarred for life from the awfulness of Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. Needless to say, though, I came to see the light.

One thing I had never dabbled in much, though, was labels. I definitely understood their usefulness: instead of delegating one e-mail to one folder, tagging allows you to effectively put one e-mail in multiple folders, for different purposes. But, I never had time to sit down and create some useful labels — or create filters to automatically file them away as they are delivered. Plus, labels were only a very basic feature at first. Now, though, they’ve become pretty nice.

I’m not done configuring it yet, but since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is my current layout:

I think what I like most are the different colors you can assign to your labels to make them stand out. I’m especially loving the ING color scheme, since those colors match the colors of my debit card, and so are easily recognizable to me.

I also enabled the “Super Stars” Google Labs feature so that I can mark certain messages with a special star icon, for more meaning. Unfortunately, since this is a Labs feature, it isn’t tightly integrated into the rest of the interface. So, I can’t choose a specific star to assign automatically. But that’s not too big of a deal.

Overall, this is helping me get a lot more organized, and that makes me happy.

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