Many applications that do few things or a few applications doing everything?

To follow up on my previous post about the differences between browser plugins, web interfaces and desktop applications, here is another post about my current rethinking of computer habits.

In fact, I started writing this post a couple of months ago, when I decided to move back to using Apple Mail as my main e-mail application again. I had used Mail for a few years when I decided to test out Thunderbird last year. The most important reason for the change was the poor search functionality in Mail. True, the search function is fast, but it is very limited if you are looking for specific things. Thunderbird 3 has an improved search function with a very nice calendar view, so this seemed very tempting. Besides functionality, choosing Thunderbird over Mail was also an ideological one, since I wanted to try out using free software for all my main desktop application needs. More about that another time.

Unfortunately, Thunderbird just didn’t feel snappy enough. I am not sure if the application really is that much slower to work with than Mail, but at least it felt like that. And while I love the search functionality, it also feels too slow to work with. But rather than moving straight back to Mail, I decided to make a detour around Opera. Luckily, switching back and forth between e-mail clients is no hazzle at all when using IMAP, as compared to POP.

I used to use Opera for e-mails back in the days when MS Windows was my main OS, but hadn’t tried it in many years. The really nice thing about Opera is how they manage to put all sorts of things into one single application: browser, e-mail client, RSS reader, web server, ftp, bittorrent, widgets, presentations, etc. Even with all that stuff packed in it feels like a fast application to work with.

But, doing everything with Opera for a few weeks led me to the techno-philosophical question: is it better to use many applications that do few things or few applications that do many things?

In one way I really want to like Opera. But after working with it for a few weeks I am not fully satisfied. While it is certainly compelling to have one program that can do it all, and even sync it all between multiple computers, it is also dangerous.

For example, for a while I have tried to not open my e-mail application before lunch. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to set aside some quality research time in the mornings. For this I often need a web browser, but not an e-mail client. Using Opera for both just doesn’t work.

Another thing that I always think could be very useful, is to read RSS-feeds within the same program that I read e-mails. However, even though this is possible in Opera (and in Mail and Thunderbird), I have never really been comfortable with the combination. I guess it is because reading RSS-feeds is like reading a newspaper or magazine. It is “passive” in the sense that I am only receiving information. Checking e-mail, on the other hand, is an active process where I delete, reply, forward etc. Again, I realize that it is actually quite nice to have separate applications handling these quite different activities. Another reason for this is that I have grown so used to NetNewsWire (which also syncs nicely with the iPhone), a dedicated application that is functionality-rich, yet super-snappy to work with.

The same goes for many other things I am doing during the day, e.g. taking notes (Journler), handling to-do lists (Things), etc.

So my conclusion is that I prefer having separate, dedicated applications for each of the different tasks I am doing.  While, it is possible to get it all in one (e.g. Opera or Firefox loaded up with add-ons), I really prefer my many small programs doing their little things really well.

What to choose: Browser plugin, web interface, desktop application?

Nowadays I have a hard time deciding on what type of application to use. Only a few years back I would use desktop applications for most things, but with the growing amount of decent web 2.0 “applications” I notice that I have slowly moved towards doing more and more online.

Let me use this blog as an example. It is based on WordPress, which now offers a good and efficient web interface. However, it just doesn’t feel as snappy as a desktop application. A few years back I used MarsEdit for all my blog writing, but for some reason (I can’t remember exactly when) I decided to use the WordPress web interface for blog writing instead.

Last year I discovered ScribeFire, a browser plugin available for FireFox, Chrome and Safari. I have been quite happy with ScribeFire, as it is readily available in the browser. The fact that it also allows for editing the static pages, as well as handling image uploads makes it into a really powerful solution.

However, today I opened my old version of MarsEdit by accident, and I actually realized that I have missed having a decent blog editor for the last couple of years. Even though the WordPress web interface, and the ScribeFire plugins both behave well and do (almost) all I want, they still can’t compete with a native desktop application when it comes to snappiness and functionality. So now I am back to MarsEdit, and happy to see that it finally has support for rich text editing in the latest version. I will probably use the other alternatives to, but I realize that desktop applications still have their mission.

Multiple USB webcams working at the same time

After working happily with FW-products for many years, the recent trend of disappearing FW-ports have made me look for USB-based solutions. For hard drives the switch has been easy, and I also recently got my first USB-based sound card. The hardest part has been to figure out how to handle video cameras.

I have been using various Unibrain cameras for years, and have gotten used to the simplicity of being able to hook up multiple cameras to one computer. Last year when I tried hooking up multiple USB-based webcams to a computer (Windows, since they didn’t work on OSX at all), only one could work at a time. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found that Logitech’s QuickCam Vision Pro for Mac actually works well on OSX, and you can even have several of them running at the same time (see screenshot)! Now the only problem is the auto-focus and auto-contrast which tend to cause problems in video analysis (particularly when doing background subtraction).

Skype gives access to wireless networks

The latest beta version of Skype (for OSX only, apparently) offers something called “Skype Access”, which makes it possible to pay for access to commercial WiFi networks through a per minute basis using your SkypeOut account.

I recall reading this when I downloaded the latest beta a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t think much about it before I opened my MacBook at the Brussels airport last week and saw a “do you want to pay using SkypeOut” message on screen. I often check to see if there are any available networks around airports, but most of the time you have to pay some ridiculous amount of money for connecting in a few hours (in Europe that is, in the US I have come across many airports that provide WiFi for free). However, most of the time I only need to access the internet for a few minutes to send and receive e-mails and check a few things online. Well, now I was connected to the WiFi in Brussels airport for 1 minute and 50 seconds, and paid only NOK 1,25 per minute. Great!