How to Create an ‘App of the Year’

When I made my selections for apps of the year for 2004, my only criterion was to choose the apps released last year that I liked best. But after making my selections, it was obvious that the apps I chose shared some general characteristics.

The apps I chose were:

  1. Interarchy 7
  2. Affrus 1.0
  3. SpamSieve 2.2
  4. BBEdit 8.0

And my honorable mentions:

Documentation

My first observation is that all of these apps, with the exception of Quicksilver, have good documentation. In fact, most of them have excellent documentation.

  • In my write-up for the ‘Apps of the Year’ article, I devoted an entire section to Affrus’s outstanding help book and “Getting Started With Affrus” PDF file.

  • Interarchy has a user manual documenting all of its features, available both as a help book and on their web site.

  • SpamSieve contains a complete and well-written user manual, available both as a PDF and in HTML help book format (also available on the web).

  • BBEdit ships with a 352-page indexed PDF user manual, and an HTML help book containing a subset of the user manual emphasizing frequently-referenced topics such as the syntax for grep and glossary files. (Full-disclosure: When I worked at Bare Bones I contributed somewhat significantly to the user manual.)

  • OmniWeb has a complete HTML user manual which displays within OmniWeb itself.

  • NetNewsWire has a complete HTML help book.

And even Quicksilver is at least trying; it’s under-documented, not undocumented. But in my judgment, wikis seldom produce complete documentation; they’re a good way to aggregate user-contributed tips and tricks, but they’re a poor way to completely document a complex app.

Scripting and Extensibility

All of these apps are scriptable and/or extensible.

  • Interarchy, Affrus, and BBEdit offer some of the best AppleScript support of any apps ever built. All three are recordable, for example, which, unfortunately, is quite rare. BBEdit also lets you manipulate the contents of text windows using Unix filter scripts (Perl, Python, Ruby, shell scripts, etc.).

  • SpamSieve pretty much does its whole thing by way of AppleScript (or at a lower level, Apple events). This is how SpamSieve works so well with so many different email clients: Apple Mail, Mailsmith, Entourage, Eudora, PowerMail, GyazMail. It even works with classic apps like Claris Emailer and Outlook Express, because Apple events can pass between classic and native Mac OS X apps.

  • NetNewsWire offers pretty good scriptability. For example, version 2 adds Web Kit-powered built-in web browsing, complete with tabs. NetNewsWire offers scripting access to the titles and URLs of those tabs; thus, NetNewsWire, which offers web browsing as a secondary feature, provides better AppleScript access to tabs than does Safari. Plus, NetNewsWire allows you to “subscribe” to a script (AppleScript or Unix script), which it will execute and read the output from as an RSS or Atom feed.

  • OmniWeb 5 offers the best AppleScript support of any web browser.

  • Quicksilver has its own scripting dictionary, but not key. Quicksilver is not the sort of app that you want to control via AppleScript; rather, it’s the sort of app you use to do things that control other apps. You can use it to launch scripts, and using its Triggers feature, you can assign keyboard shortcuts that execute arbitrary scripts. Plus, Quicksilver is very much extensible via plug-ins, which allow you to customize the actions the app is capable of performing.

Customization is what it’s all about. Making an app scriptable isn’t just a check-off feature — it’s about allowing users to check-off their own individual customized features. I’ve written scripts for my own use with these apps that I would never ask for as built-in functions in the apps themselves, but which save me significant amounts of time.

Most users don’t write their own scripts, even with apps which are recordable, like Interarchy, BBEdit, and Affrus. But users who do write scripts are almost always willing to share, posting scripts to forums, mailings lists, and weblogs. It helps build a loyal community of users around an app — even if most of them don’t write their own scripts and plug-ins.

Tabs

Interarchy, BBEdit, OmniWeb, and NetNewsWire all offer multiple-documents-in-a-single-window tabbed interfaces. Affrus doesn’t, but I don’t think it would be a good fit for Affrus. And it’s not even applicable to SpamSieve, which doesn’t have (or need) a document-window interface at all, let alone a tabbed one.

Two things are interesting here. One is that tabbed document-window interfaces are new to the Mac, but are taking hold quickly. It started with web browsers, but it has quickly spread to other app categories. (E.g. TextMate offers tabs in its project windows, and Transmit 3 just shipped with support for tabs.)

The second is that implementations vary widely. Interarchy uses a very Safari-ish tab implementation. NetNewsWire’s tabs work pretty much just like Safari’s, but they look quite different, using a slightly larger size and a subtle gradient texture. Plus, unlike Safari (and Interarchy), NetNewsWire’s tabs appear above the URL location field, and attach from the bottom of the tab:

Screenshot of NetNewsWire 2.0's browser tabs.

OmniWeb and BBEdit go a wholly separate route, using sidebar drawers. Thus, they’re not really tabs at all, in the literal sense. Bare Bones doesn’t even call them tabs, but simply refers to the feature as the “documents drawer”. The Omni Group does call them tabs, and theirs is by far the most thoughtful implementation of the bunch. (I’m calling all of these features “tabs” here — even BBEdit’s — simply because it’s easier to use one term, and even in the cases where they’re not literal tabs, it’s pretty obvious what’s meant by the term.)

Both BBEdit and OmniWeb allow you to drag tabs between windows. Interarchy and NetNewsWire don’t (and neither does Safari, unfortunately; tabs didn’t originate with Safari, but it’s by far the highest-profile and most-used tabbed app, which makes it a de facto reference implementation). OmniWeb goes further, and allows you to drag URLs into the list to create a new tab for that URL, and it allows you to use drag-and-drop to reorder tabs within the list. None of these other apps allow you to reorder tabs, but it’s something I love about OmniWeb, and I wish all these other apps supported it.

Tabs are quite obviously here to stay, so it’d be nice to see Apple take a leadership position here and provide developers with a standardized set of widgets and interface guidelines on the matter. Only Apple can prevent this from turning into a permanent free-for-all of disparate and inconsistent appearances and behaviors.

(Worth noting: I’m well aware that this is far from an exhaustive list of tabbed Mac apps, and some of the other implementation are really quite nice (e.g. Adium has draggable Safari-style tabs). This isn’t a comprehensive look at multi-document tab implementations, it’s just a cursory examination of the implementations in these particular apps.)

How to Create an ‘App of the Year’

So what’s the lesson? Looking at this bunch of apps, it would seem to be:

  • Produce great documentation
  • Take scripting and extensibility seriously
  • Allow for a tabbed interface

One last thing worth noting about these apps, by the way: none of them came from Apple.

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