Sexy Software [SFW]

If only the rest of the software world were as competitive and exciting as the 3D software market. Off the top of my head, there are three outstandingly functional free (as in source and beer) 3d programs available (Wings3D, Blender, and PoVRay), and an absolute horde of cheap ones (e.g. Cheetah 3D, Silo 3D, Hash Animation Master).

Furthermore, the big guns have taken to reducing their prices (e.g. Lightwave can be obtained for $495 as a crossgrade from Photoshop, SideFX’s Apprentice HD, which is essentially a non-commercial Houdini, is selling for $99, and Softimage is selling XSI Essentials for $495) or giving away free learner editions (Maya, Houdini).

A large number of independent developers are successfully introducing niche products, such as high-end modelers (modo, Rhino), sculpting tools (zBrush, Mudbox), terrain renderers (Vue 3D), rendering engines, and so forth. And then there’s the interactive 3D tool market, which is also an embarrassment of riches, ranging from Microsoft’s free XNA, to the impressive but expensive Quest 3D, to the astounding Unity 3D, and Blender’s free game engine.

It’s amazing that all this activity is occurring in a consumer space with a relatively tiny number of users while we struggle with a single dominant player in the word-processing market which can’t properly handle something as simple as copying a paragraph from point A to point B without screwing up styles. (Guess what triggered this rant?) Part of the problem is that writing word-processors is not glamorous, but a bigger problem is dealing with legacy documents from the installed base. The problem is that if you want to sell a word-processor that can’t seamlessly deal with Word documents, you might as well give up, and Word documents are infamously opaque and complex.

So far, I’ve only found two word-processors that make more than a half-hearted attempt to import from Word, and they are OpenOffice.org and Pages. The former is one of those gigantic corporate-backed commercial projects that crashed, burned, played the open source card, and is once again backed by a multi-billion dollar company with an axe to grind. It’s a program written by a committee of committees. The latter is a brilliant, attractive, and highly usable program, albeit infuriatingly incomplete.

Aside: oddly enough, a different example of a gigantic corporate-backed commercial project that crashed, burned, played the open source card, but turned into something wonderful, is NetScape. What saved NetScape was a little project called Camino, which took the good bit of NetScape (the Gecko rendering engine) and wrapped it in a lean interface to make a small, fast, platform-friendly web-browser. (FireFox grew up as the cross-platform version of Camino.) Perhaps what OO.o needs is some maverick developers to rip components of it out and turn them into lean, well-implemented programs with just a subset of OO.o’s kitchen sink functionality.

Excel is even more unchallenged. Apple’s Numbers isn’t a credible replacement (but it’s still only version 1.0) and neither is OO.o’s spreadsheet module. And then there’s that blight on society: PowerPoint.

It astonishes me that even today there isn’t a simple PHP + MySQL tool that does everything Filemaker does, only for free. And by “everything” I mean define forms and tables interactively.) It seems like this would make Ruby on Rails redundant for a large number of applications (it would certainly make the typical “gosh wow” RoR demos look like sad jokes, since you wouldn’t need to type magic command sequences to make the important stuff happen. I can build a blog or guestbook a heck of a lot quicker in FileMaker than anyone can in Ruby, but of course it would be in FileMaker, making it kind of useless. For that matter, if RoR is so great, why isn’t there an RoR-based web IDE available that hides the magic command line stuff? (If there is, please let me know!)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the free / open source / alternative software movement is an economy of sexiness. I.e. since money isn’t the driving factor, what attracts people to work for free on a project is its sexiness. Game development is the ultimate example of this — game development is the geek equivalent of starting your own rock band. (Of course people who think game development is sexy already have social limitations.) 3D stuff is way sexier than word-processors, spreadsheets, presentations, or databases, so there’s a huge number of programmers willing to work for free or cheap on it, while there’s money just lying around waiting to be made addressing the myriad problems with unsexy, boring stuff, like why Word can’t copy and paste text without screwing up the styles every time.

FireFox 3.0b5

I’m not the bleeding edge software junkie I once was, and so I used FireFox 3.0b5 for the first time a couple of days ago when I was playing with Ubuntu 8.04. Under Ubuntu, FireFox 3 was nothing much to write home about, and aside from some slight redesign of toolbar icons I didn’t really notice much difference.

FireFox 2.0.0.14 has been crashing on me a lot lately, and I’m getting sick of it, so I thought I’d take FireFox 3.0b5 for a spin on my main dev machine. (I might add that a lot of software these days, especially open source software, tends to just get better with each release, whether it’s “alpha”, “beta”, or “release” quality.)

If, like me, you’re a Mac user who uses FireFox as your primary browser and you haven’t upgraded to 3.0 already, do so now. It’s so spectacularly better than 2.x, not just in speed and stability but, finally, in Mac-likeness, that you won’t look back (or be quite so tempted to switch back to Safari).

Putting Metal where it belongs

So the rumor sites are abuzz, of course, on this the most important day of the Apple calendar year (at least in terms of interesting announcements). Steve’s WWDC keynote (apparently leaked here) has generally contained far more substantive information than all the other major announcements of the year, and this year is — I can safely say — going to be no exception.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the Metal interface (first seen in iTunes and QuickTime way back when), much derided by Mac users and much imitated elsewhere (just to prove that Microsoft is not alone in not getting it) is finally being taken to a room with plastic on the floor. Let’s hope that everyone is right, unlike back when everyone was sure there’d be a new, improved Finder in 10.3, and then again in 10.4.

The German leak certainly looks very plausible, or it may simply be a very well done hoax (having a bunch of crap about new Apple Stores at the beginning is a nice touch, but one thing that’s starkly missing is hard numbers — Jobs loves to quote simple, big numbers such as 2.5 billion songs sold through iTunes or, say, 500,000 iPhones sold to Fortune 500 companies by AT&T before the launch or whatever). I guarantee a few choice numbers will be stated in the keynote and there are none in the leak (e.g. iMac Core 2 Duos sold). Still, the leak may be completely accurate, it’s certainly extremely plausible, in which case someone is going to get fired.

So, assuming that the leak is true, iWork will be integrated with Google Documents via .mac, as will the iPhone. This is a no-brainer, since it leverages Safari (in the iPhone) to provide Word and Excel integration (which makes it more than competitive with the atrocious mini-Office-apps on “Smart” phones) and also makes iWork and .mac and Google documents suddenly a lot more compelling. The real question is whether this points to Apple becoming as intextricably tied to Google as it currently and foreseeably is to Microsoft. Perhaps neither of these is such a bad thing. Also, er, where do the ads fit in?

It’s worth noting that, assuming Safari on the iPhone really works (which I think is safe to assume) Apple was getting all the functionality of Google documents for free anyway. BTW here’s a clue for all the people — I was going to say “retards” but there are some very bright people in the group — screaming for an iPhone SDK: you have one, it’s called a web server. Someone even pointed to a WWDC session about designing websites for the iPhone and interpreted this as “the iPhone’s web browser doesn’t really work properly”. Duh, no. The iPhone isn’t 1280×1024, so you need to design for that. Also, presumably, you’ll be able to detect the iPhone, target it with CSS, and do a bunch of other things (like hint article flows) to optimize your site to work seamlessly on an iPhone. This is not the same as saying Safari can’t browse real web pages.

The really bold item in the leak is iPhone@home since it hasn’t been rumored anywhere (beyond stuff like MacBook Thin), is very specific, and makes a lot of sense. Here’s the nutshell version — why bother with a network carrier if you don’t have to? In some cities, it will completely obviate the need for a phone at all… Assuming the leak is accurate.

Anyway, writing this has chewed up 15 minutes of the interminable wait for the keynote to begin.