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3/1/2007
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Best Apple Mac OS X Software: Part One

Our Apple expert John C. Welch picks 22 lesser-known applications that can make your Mac experience more productive and more fun. Part 1 of 2.

16
iChat AV
from Apple


Yes, I know, chat is supposedly the realm of kids and teens, and if IT does deign to use it, then you have to use MSN/Windows Messenger/Windows Live Messenger/Whatever Microsoft is calling it this week. Well, nuts to that. For any number of reasons, I run my network from a Macbook, and while I know the Mac BU puts a lot of work into the Mac version of Microsoft Messenger, it's really quite useless for me. For one, there's no A/V, (and yes, they did publish the reason for it up on Mac Mojo, and I think their logic for waiting on the AV features is sound. However, that doesn't change the fact that those are features I need, and none of them are in Microsoft Messenger. Secondly, and more important, everyone I need to IM with work-related matters isn't on Microsoft Messenger, they're all on iChat/AIM. So I could use Microsoft Messenger, but it would be of no use. (OK, yes, LCS, but I'm not going to pay that kind of tax just to get Microsoft Messenger to talk to AIM. Please.)

iChat also is scriptable, in a useful way. Microsoft Messenger has a scripting dictionary, but it's useless. Scripting is important to my work needs, because I eventually script, well, everything I use in some way or another.

The heart of it is, iChat is dead simple to use, and it just works. It talks to Sync Services, so keeping my buddy list straight is easy. It's dead simple to move files with it. It supports Jabber, so I can use it with Google Chat, or any one of dozens of services based on Jabber. The Bonjour abilities make using it in ad-hoc situations to shoot files around far easier than e-mail, and without the restrictions of 99% of e-mail servers. iChat has had no spam problems for me. None. Zero. Zip. So right there, it's automatically got a better S/N ratio than any e-mail service. Thanks to AIM's "forward to cell" service, I can respond to IM's on my phone if I wish as text messages.

The ease of chat/voice/video conferencing makes it a much nicer tool than e-mail or phones for getting multiple people to talk to each other, which makes for rather nice, low-overhead conference calls. My work-related chat usage has been climbing steadily for years, and iChat's just made that process easier. I could use something else, but why?

15
AppleScript
from Apple


AppleScript
(click image for larger view)


The AppleScript scripting language gives you access not just to Mac OS X, but also to applications on the Mac.

view the image gallery
Long considered a hidden jewel in Apple's crown, AppleScript is enjoying yet another renaissance thanks to Automator, a rather nice GUI drag and drop UI for automation languages. While you can create Automator actions in many languages, AppleScript is the one that gives you the most access to not just Mac OS X, but also the applications on the Mac. AppleScript also is, as you delve into the community, kind of a schizophrenic issue for Apple. It has yet to ever give AppleScript the same kind of public support it's given Cocoa or other technologies, yet it's no lie or even exaggeration that the workflows created in AppleScript have saved Apple's bacon in many companies on multiple occasions.

I've seen, and helped write, serious, real-world scripts and applications in AppleScript that do serious, real-world work, along with thousands of others, yet AppleScript is truly the Rodney Dangerfield of programming. It gets no respect, probably because it breaks so many rules. It doesn't have a C-like syntax. It doesn't even have a BASIC-like syntax. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find many languages that AppleScript does represent. It's not consistent. Keywords and constants can change depending on what you're doing. You can have AppleScript additions, aka OSAX, that add different features and change the language even more. (Lots of languages have add-ons, but they tend not to change the language itself.)

Part of the problem is that, as a standalone programming language, AppleScript just isn't that powerful. Where it shines is as a glue between applications. The idea of AppleScript is to take all these different applications you have on your Mac and tie them all together. If you have BBEdit, why would you need to have an extensive text handling library? If you have a scriptable e-mail client, why does AppleScript need to give you e-mail support?

I dislike language wars intensely, mostly because I have the opinion, shared by few, that any language that still requires typing shows the essential failure of the computer industry to pry programming out of the hands of geeks. However, that prejudice aside, I love AppleScript. It is one of the tools I use so often that I cannot imagine working on a platform without it. I've used it to script almost every task I have to do more than once in a while, for everything from translating e-mails to blog posts, to software updates via Apple Remote Desktop, to configuration changes to creating structured PDFs from Microsoft Entourage e-mails to...well, it's just my problem-solving tool of choice, because it lets me use all the tools at my disposal, not just the ones it happens to provide me.

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