It’s coming down to crunch time if you’re celebrating Christmas. Nothing’s better for last-minute gifts than software — you can just download it, buy a license, burn the installer to a CD, and slip that in the ol’ stocking. You don’t even need to leave the house and brave the parking garage (unless you need to go to Best Buy to grab some blank CDs, that is!). But the question is: what do you get the geek who has everything? Or, worse, what do you get the ordinary person who doesn’t care what they run on their computer? Well, everything below is cool in the way that getting things you do everyday done easier and quicker is cool.
h3. Password Manager
How do you remember all of your logins for everything you use? For most people, it’s either use the one password for almost everything, or use the password reset function over and over again for all of the passwords you’ve forgotten. You can save your passwords using your browser’s built-in “remember” functions but, unfortunately, there are security exploits that attack these.
The best solution is to use a password manager. The gold standard for the Mac is “1Password”:http://agilewebsolutions.com/products/1Password, which also offers a great iPhone companion; I’ve heard a lot about “RoboForm”:http://www.roboform.com/ on the PC. “KeePass”:http://keepass.info/index.html is an open-source alternative.
The best thing about all three of these guys is that they don’t just store passwords, they store things that you use all the time like your contact info for forms and your credit cards for purchases.
h3. A Launcher
If you use more than just the 3 or 4 programs, you probably spend a ton of time digging around in the Mac Application folder or in the Start menu for just what it is that you want to launch and use.
A specialized launcher makes things more convenient. I personally like the keyboard-activated launchers; with these, you hit a key combination, start typing the name of the program you’d like to launch, and hit return when the right one shows up. On the Mac, you have “Quicksilver”:http://docs.blacktree.com/quicksilver/what_is_quicksilver or “Launchbar”:http://www.obdev.at/products/launchbar/index.html; on the PC, I used “Launchy.”:http://www.launchy.net/
If you prefer a visual approach using the mouse, try a visual dock, which allows you to organize icons of programs into categories on one or more docks that you can show and hide. I used to swear by “DragThing”:http://www.dragthing.com/english/about.html on the Mac back in the OS 8 and 9 days, and “CoolTabs”:http://www.alerma.com/cooltabs.html appears to be a pretty equivalent knock-off for the PC.
h3. A “Site-Specific Browser” or Browser Just for Web Apps
These days, we do more online all the time — check our mail in GMail or Hotmail, calendars at Google or Yahoo, Salesforce or SugarCRM to manage our business, Mint to track the finances, and more. But it sure sucks when that site you found in Twitter crashes your browser and knocks out real work in Google Docs or, heck, shuts your music from Pandora off.
That’s what the Site-Specific Browser, or SSB is about: it’s a simple Web browser that just runs the one site. It sounds banal, but just try it out: set up one site that you use every day in one, and see how nice it is to have it as a separate application, rather than a tab in Firefox or IE or Safari. On the Mac, “Fluid”:http://fluidapp.com/ lets you create a specific instance of Safari for a specific site; on the PC, “Prism”:https://mozillalabs.com/blog/2007/10/prism/ lets you make an instance of Firefox.
An added bonus: if you use a launcher, then create an SSB for a site you use often, then you can get to that site in that SSB just by typing the name of that site into the launcher. That’s one step to get to Yahoo! Mail, not the three of open the browser, type it in, and hit enter.
Speaking of Web apps, “Hootsuite”:http://hootsuite.com is a great Twitter Web app that I’ve been using for a while. It plays well with multiple accounts in Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and more, and even with Facebook Pages; it makes great use of Twitter’s new Lists; and it makes scheduling tweets for the future easy as pie. Plus, it’s got an adorable owl as its logo.
h3. Mac Users: Expel Winmail.dat
If you use a Mac, you’re probably used to getting the inscrutable winmail.dat attachment from a Windows-using sender. Rather than pleading with them to “send it again!”, solve the problem yourself with “Tnef’s Enough”:http://www.joshjacob.com/mac-development/tnef.php, which lets you browse inside that winmail.dat that you just got.
There’s few thing that I use as often as my note-taking program, “Yojimbo”:http://barebones.com/products/yojimbo/. Sure, it lets me organize notes with categories, tags, and colored labels. Better, it takes not just text but images, PDFs, Web pages, and even (I love this one) serial numbers. But best of all, it’s just one keystroke away — hit that key combo, and up pops an input window that takes in any kind of input you could want, without having to step out of whatever it was I was doing. That means that it’s easy for me to capture an idea or an important piece of information anytime, anywhere, which means that I *do* capture that, rather than letting the friction of my tools prevent that.
So, geeky, yes, but a good new program can be something your giftee uses every day. Try out some of these programs this holiday season.
fn1. I realize it’s WebKit, not Safari, but that’s not a useful distinction for most of my readers.