Skip to main content

Software swap

Just a note that like several other Mac developers, I'd like to extend the offer of a free license for Pukka (as well as one for Meerkat when it's released) to any Apple employee. Just mail me from an or email address and I'll set you up. It's the least I can do for all the great tools that you make, free or paid, that let me do my work.

And if you're a Mac developer yourself, feel free to contact me as well and we can setup a license trade. I love trying new software and I'm not afraid to talk about tools that I love!

Feature requests versus the "right way" to do it

One of the challenges of developing Mac software, particularly for an audience that is generally more technical than the average user, is that your users compare your application to others that are out there on the basis of how they utilize the rich set of technologies available on Mac OS X. And I'm not just talking competitors here, but any Mac application. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as it can inform you of and inspire you to add great new features, but can also cast a seemingly bad light on your own product if you are unable or unwilling to implement certain functionality. Users often don't care why you might not want to or can't implement features which are, in your own estimation, not the "right" way of doing something -- at least not right now. Other apps are doing it, why can't you?

I'm hoping to provide some insight into my thought process on making these judgement calls and talk about a specific issue that I've been working on in this department. I'll get a bit technical, but I'll try to explain along the way for the non-programmers in the room. And I'll mention a couple of other apps by name that handle the same issue in different ways. I don't mean to call out or embarrass anyone, and all the apps that I mention are ones that I use (and love) on a daily basis, but I want to show what other developers are doing. Lastly, I have an overriding goal here to be a somewhat exhaustive resource for this particular issue for other programmers to find, too.

What's up, dock?

A big feature request that's been hanging around for some time for Pukka is the ability to run without a dock icon. For a utility with a small footprint like Pukka, this makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons:

  • As of Pukka 1.6, a status bar menu provides omnipresence for all of the app's "background features" -- looking up bookmarks and visiting your links online.
  • Pukka is not visible when you are not using its "foreground features" -- posting bookmarks -- anyway. Some users would like to not have to think about it by seeing it in the dock and task switcher.
  • Pukka has long supported a "quit after posting" feature which quits the app entirely after a post is made. Since you can call Pukka via your RSS reader or the browser bookmarklet and since it's lightweight and starts quickly, Pukka can come and go only when you need it. People who like an uncluttered dock really appreciate this, though some people would rather have Pukka running all of the time, but still not in the dock. After all, lingering invisibly in the background is faster than starting up on demand.
  • "All the other apps are doing it!" :-) Apps that I use that have a user-configurable dockless mode include Twitterrific, MenuCalendarClock, Knox, BluePhoneElite, SSHKeychain, and iShowU. There are many more that do as well.

I should make a distinction here between applications like Lighthouse, Macaroni, and Growl (which I also use) which always run dockless, since these apps have alternate interfaces -- typically robust status bar menus or preference panes -- that allow use of the application. I'm talking about applications that let you choose on a whim whether you'd like to run without a dock icon or not -- defaulting, of course, like normal applications, to running with a dock icon.

Users who are used to dockless apps know the downsides -- no application switching, the app doesn't show up in the Force Quit menu, and sometimes there are window focus issues -- and are willing to accept them as limitations in Mac OS X. But there are some issues on the developer side that make this feature more difficult than one might think at first pass.

How do you work this thing?

The only real way* to make an application run dockless is to change a setting in a file inside of its application bundle -- though a variation on this exists, as I'll describe in a little bit.

* I do know about TransformProcessType, a Carbon call, which can go from dockless mode to having a dock icon, but this has to happen too early in the launch process to read a user's preference setting, plus it's only a one-way transition.

A Mac application is actually a folder named <application name>.app containing a number of files and folders, one of which is called Info.plist. This property list file contains entries such as the application's name, version, copyright info, and other info used by the system to query what the application is all about.

If you add an entry to an application's Info.plist called LSUIElement and set its value to a string containing the number one, relaunching the application will make it go dockless. There are even applications like Dockless and Dock Dodger that will do this for you for a given application. Most of the applications that I mention above use this method to go dockless.

However, I've long preferred not to do this for a couple reasons:

  • It's bad form for an application to modify itself -- though I realize it's not the end of the world.
  • If the user is not an admin or if the application is located someplace like a network-mounted share, the user will not be able to -- and shouldn't be able to -- modify the app bundle that is shared by other users or even other computers.
  • Lastly -- and this is the big one -- Apple introduced code signing in Leopard and, according to the documentation, it's only a matter of time before this method of altering the Info.plist will render the application unusable.

With code signing and Info.plist modification on the fly, the writing is on the wall:

A seal, which is a collection of checksums or hashes of the various parts of the program, such as the identifier, the Info.plist, the main executable, the resource files, and so on. The seal can be used to detect alterations to the code and to the program identifier. #

Various components of the application bundle (such as the Info.plist file, if there is one) are also signed. #

Your code must be immutable once signed. After signing, do not attempt to change executable code (including symbol tables), the Info.plist, or your program’s resource files. Do all that before signing. If you make modifications after signing, the signature may be invalid. #

And according to Apple, you should be signing code now. Not doing so can interfere with the keychain user experience, Parental Controls, firewall, and other integrated systems in Leopard that rely on code signing.

So, where does that leave us?

When I talked to Marko Karppinen, whose company makes the excellent Knox security application, at last summer's C4 in Chicago, he let me in on how he accomplished a user-specified dockless setting in that application.

If you look at the application bundle, it contains another copy of the application within a subfolder of the app bundle itself -- sort of a Russian Doll. But if you look closer, you'll see that all of the components of this "inside" application are actually symbolic links to the parent application's version, except for the Info.plist file. And -- you guessed it -- the internal Info.plist has the LSUIElement set. For the curious, here is a shell script that I came up with to be used as an Xcode build phase to accomplish this.

I'm actually using this method successfully with Meerkat, my next application (which is currently in private beta) and it's working ok for now. On launch, the application checks to see if if the user's preference setting matches the setting of the version being launched and if not, it launches the other one. Pretty sweet, right?

It is, except for one thing in Pukka's case -- Apple Event targeting. Besides being launched normally, Pukka can be launched by a number of external forces, including:

  • AppleScripts that interact with Pukka
  • Posted information from RSS readers like NetNewsWire using its author's External Weblog Editor Interface
  • Pukka's bookmarklet, which actually uses a custom pukka:// protocol to pass information
  • Opening http:// and https:// URLs with Pukka like you would with an alternate web browser
  • Opening a supported file, such as a .webloc on the desktop, a Pukka license file, or one of the Spotlight files that Pukka generates for easy access to your bookmarks via system searching

On launch, not only do I have to figure out if the right version is running, but if not, I have to pass whatever information actually launched the application to a new process. I've actually managed to accomplish this for everything but AppleScript, but it's still non-ideal. It comes down to the fact that it's just generally bad practice to have more than one copy of the same application on the same hard drive because Mac OS X's Launch Services can get confused as to which one it should be targeting.

On top of that, since Pukka uses Sparkle for auto-updating, some issues needed to be resolved in order to update the outer, docked application and not the internal, dockless one, even if the internal one is the one running the update. Overwhelmed yet?

Now what?

So right now, I'm at a loss as to how to proceed. Apple doesn't provide a tried-and-true way to let the user toggle an application's dock mode and although many applications implement this, it seems to me that no way is fool-proof nor future-proof. The last thing I'd want is to release the feature but have to revoke it later from paying customers because it's untenable.

Cocoa developers, anything obvious that I'm missing? Have you tackled these challenges? Are you thinking about adding the same feature to your application?

C4 videos now available!

Posted in

Jonathan "Wolf" Rentzsch has begun posting free videos of last August's C4 indie Mac developer conference in Chicago. I was fortunate enough to attend this conference, as well as the first C4 in 2006, and I'm very happy to see these online, let alone available for free!

C4 was a big motivator in me striking out on my own and having these videos available free to the community is a huge boon to the Mac platform. Wolf says it best:

[O]nline videos like TED and Google Tech Talks have really driven home how great frictionless sharing of high-quality presentations can be. So spread these videos far and wide, all these are great speakers talking about subjects dear to their heart.

Hear hear! Enjoy these videos and spread the word!

Meet me at South By Southwest!

Posted in

Just a note that I've officially (and finally) confirmed my registration for this year's South By Southwest Interactive conference March 7-11 in Austin, Texas. This will be my third year straight at SXSW and I'm again very much looking forward to it. Two years ago I added Bonjour functionality to Pukka while I was at the conference and last year was my first conference after striking out on my own. I'm looking forward to meeting more great people, visiting with old friends, attending great panels, and having some tasty, tasty barbeque.

See you in Austin -- and don't be afraid to say hi!

Twitter in review

Posted in

One service that I've absolutely come to love in the past year is Twitter. I was a bit skeptical of it at first when I was introduced to it at South By Southwest in March. I met Alex, formerly of DC and now one of Twitter's engineers, and chatted about it a bit, plus lots of my friends were using it, but it just didn't seem like it was worth any time that I would put in. I mean, I get blogs and other expressions of day-to-day happenings that get put online, but I really didn't think anyone would care that I was "heading out to get a coffee" or "having trouble getting this thing to work" while working throughout the day.

However, later in the year, Twitter gradually became an indispensable part of my workday. I now use it as a sounding board with my colleagues, many of whom also work at home, and it's as near as I can come to having them as officemates. While things like chatrooms and IRC have existed, I found that I would have to go into a sort of conversation "mode" in order to use them, making them my primary task, so I didn't bother since this was very distracting. Whereas with Twitter (and the wonderful Twitterrific combined with Growl) on the desktop, I see snippets of conversation go by and I can either tune them out for a period while concentrating or take a moment to catch up and maybe reply. I've found innumerable answers to questions, met new people, discovered interesting places to go, and I've been able to help others in the same ways over the past months. I very much agree with the Iconfactory's Gedeon:

Twitter has allowed me to stay in touch with dear friends from college that have long since moved away. Twitter gives me a sounding board to bounce ideas off peers, is a reliable source for general knowledge, and lets me stay on top of the latest breaking news from around the world. But perhaps more than anything, it allows me to connect with like-minded individuals.

Naturally when I saw this Twitter stats script, I was intrigued to see what my numbers looked like. Call it internet naval-gazing, but I find it interesting to see who I had conversations with and how useful Twitter was to me over time.

See below for the stats and a couple comments on them.

My top Twitter conversation partners

My top Twitter conversation partners
Mostly other Mac developers (click for larger screenshot)

My top Twitter conversation partners

My top Twitter reply recipients
Again, mostly other Mac developers (click for larger screenshot)

My Twitter usage by weekday

My Twitter usage by weekday
Not much unexplained data here (click for larger screenshot)

My hourly Twitter usage

My hourly Twitter usage
Looks like I start on Twitter after catching up in the morning, plus occasionally have some late nights (click for larger screenshot)

My Twitter monthly usage

My Twitter monthly usage
You can see how my Twitter use really took off around this year's C4 conference, slowed while I travelled three weeks of September for work & vacation, and then continued to grow through the end of the year (click for larger screenshot)

If you'd like to find out more about Twitter, you can start with their FAQ or follow their blog.

Thanks, Twitter! Here's to more great conversations in 2008.

Meerkat use case: iTunes at home, music anywhere

Posted in

I thought I'd take a moment to outline a sample use case for Meerkat, one that goes outside the normal scenarios that most people think of when (or if) they think of SSH tunneling. Since Meerkat supports app triggers and Bonjour, it goes above and beyond plain old SSH and can really be used in some innovative ways.

Suppose that you have a large iTunes music collection on your home Mac that you either don't want or can't fit on your work Mac or your laptop because of its size. If you enable iTunes sharing on this home Mac, as well as SSH (under System Preferences -> Sharing -> Remote Login), you can use Meerkat to connect to this music collection from any other Mac running Meerkat and iTunes.

Just setup a tunnel in Meerkat using an account with the IP address, username, and password of your home Mac.

Meerkat-based iTunes sharing thumbnail

Meerkat-based iTunes sharing (click for larger screenshot)

You would pick port 3689, since this is what iTunes uses for music sharing, and an arbitrary port on the local Mac (doesn't matter what). It only takes a few seconds to setup a tunnel like this.

Because of the app trigger, whenever you start iTunes on the Mac running Meerkat, Meerkat will automatically connect to your home Mac securely and, because of Bonjour, your home iTunes collection will show up right in iTunes' source list, just like a Mac on the local network. You just select the collection and stream the music, just like if your home Mac was with you at work or next to your laptop at the coffee shop. It couldn't be easier!

Plus, Meerkat responds automatically to sleep and wake of your Mac as well as network change events such as outages or a change of location. Just set it and forget it!

After Meerkat is released, I hope to maintain a list of scenarios like these. If you have any further ideas, feel free to post them below, and if you're interested in being considered for the upcoming private beta, just leave a comment!

Meerkat preview: Setup Assistant

Posted in

Continuing in my set of blog posts previewing my upcoming application, Meerkat, I'd like to take a moment to show off another handy feature of this SSH tunneling utility.

I often find that when I'm setting up an SSH tunnel, even though I know my way around the tool pretty well, I have to consult the man page to figure out what flags to use and which direction to setup the hosts. It can get confusing.

That's why in Meerkat, I've created a setup assistant which helps guide you through quickly setting up a tunnel. While you can use the normal interface, particularly when you're editing an existing tunnel or are very used to the process, the setup assistant walks you through the basics quickly.

Meerkat Setup Assistant thumbnail

I'm hoping that this feature will help people more easily setup SSH tunnels with Meerkat. Stay tuned for more preview details soon!

Bait and switch? No, it's called software development

Yesterday I stumbled across a month old blog post advocating a hack to the excellent Twitterrific application, a client for the free Twitter service. The hack (Update: supposedly, but the point remains) removes the rather unobtrusive ads that the software developers introduced as a way to offset free use of the application. If you didn't want to see them, you could just register the application and they go away. The app didn't start out having them, but after it took off in popularity, the authors (you know, the people who put their time into the application's development and support) decided that this was a better model.

I should take a moment to point out here that as a whole, advertising in general strikes me in a negative light, but I didn't mind the ads in Twitterrific as it was great software and a fair tradeoff for my fifteen bucks.

Anyway, this hack and its associated "arguments" interested me particularly because my application Pukka is also a lightweight client for a free online service, so I left a comment. My initial argument was:

Just like a web browser, RSS reader, email client, FTP program, Aperture, iChat, blog editor… man, the nerve of those people trying to charge for a tool for receiving and delivering content created by others!

Also, I’m a Twitterrific user and I like the ads. Eventually I may pay for the app, but for now, they’re alright.

Try writing a program for which you charge little or nothing, getting a couple thousand users, then see what you do.

Since then, the discussion has gotten rather heated, as well as ludicrous in some cases, as acknowledgement and support of both software piracy and website attacking has been discussed. Seth Dillingham, whom I first got to know (at least virtually) last summer when I supported his bike ride for charity, posted a response and a challenge to users of Twitterrific: put your money where your mouth is. So I took him up and I registered Twitterrific. Money well spent!

If for no other reason (and there are plenty of other reasons), software piracy hurts developers from the support angle. Many users running an app means more support, particularly when a chunk of them are running a cracked version that could develop unforeseen problems. Users report stability issues on the popular software sites or, in the case of larger companies, call the support lines and demand resolution to their issues. I think John Gruber said it best when he wrote about the jailbroken iPhone phenomenon:

The mindset manifests in many forms, but what it boils down to is this: a sense of entitlement that users should be able to do unsupported things and yet still be supported. That it makes no sense to expect support after taking unsupported actions is why I’ve found it baffling.

Phooey. Get your copy of Twitterrific right here. And support software developers if you enjoy their products, but don't feel that you have the right to rip them off if you don't like how they do things. In fact, grab Apple's free development tools and write your own and let's see how it stands up.

Update: Craig at Iconfactory, the author of Twitterrific, weighs in with his take on the whole matter.

And for my next app... Meerkat!

Posted in

I'm happy to announce that I'm very near the beta stages of my next application -- introducing Meerkat! In this post, I'll cover a couple of the major features of this new utility, but stay tuned for more info in future posts!

Meerkat is an SSH tunnel manager designed for the developer or systems administrator with the need for multiple tunnels and advanced, automated management.

Meerkat thumbnail

Meerkat (click for larger screenshot)

Meerkat allows you to easily set up SSH accounts and associated tunnels and activate and deactivate them via the main window, the dock, or the status bar.

Meerkat's dock menu

Meerkat dock menu

Meerkat integrates with Growl to notify you of background tunnel management.

Meerkat's Growl notifications

Meerkat Growl notification

One of Meerkat's signature features is application triggers. Meerkat can automatically bring up or tear down tunnels in response to applications that you launch and quit.

Meerkat application trigger thumbnail

Meerkat application trigger (click for larger screenshot)

On top of this, Meerkat can optionally advertise your tunnel endpoints over the LAN via Bonjour, Mac OS X's convenient networking protocol. A great, practical use of this is connecting to your home computer's iTunes collection and having it show up in your local iTunes, no matter what kind of firewall you may be behind (providing it allows SSH, a secure, encrypted protocol).

Another use for Meerkat's Bonjour feature is to securely provide access to a remote database server to a local office for development purposes. The possibilities are endless -- Leopard's Finder uses Bonjour to see VNC servers, Safari recognizes web servers on the LAN using Bonjour, and Terminal uses Bonjour to find SFTP servers. And you can define custom Bonjour protocols to meet your own needs.

Meerkat Bonjour customization

Meerkat Bonjour customization

That's all for the Meerkat preview for now! If you'd like to be considered for the Meerkat beta, just leave a comment below. (Unless you put it in the body of the comment, your email address is only viewable to me.)

Happy holidays everyone!

Pukka 1.6.6 is out!

Posted in

Just a note that Pukka 1.6.6 final is out! Grab it here. For more details on the changes involved, see the last post. This release should iron out any remaining crash problems that users have been seeing on Leopard.

Syndicate content