“Ideas are practically free. They run like flood-water through every conceivable channel of the internet.”
In the month since I wrote that article, those words have been the most controversial. It seems most people still think ideas are golden. Ideas are important, yes. Necessary, yes! But they’re nothing special. Like water, they’re critical to life but at easy reach for most of us.
They’re mainly significant to the person who thought of them, because they represent an “inspiration bookmark” for that person. They are reminders of something that satisfies you. In the same way that you might make a note of a brand of wine you particularly enjoyed, or a movie you want to rent, or a museum you want to visit. Ideas are personal. Somebody else’s idea is only valuable if it happens to be something you were inevitably going to be passionate about, yourself.
“No one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them. Don’t let that stop you. Tell them anyway.” — Built to Spill (iTunes Song Link)
So I’ll tell you about my dreams. Here are ten ideas from my years-old idea file, in no particular order.
Most of this ideas won’t inspire you, because they’re mine. You’ll know them because they’ll sound like a bad idea to you. But if you like an idea you read here, if it really fires you up, then pursue it! No permission necessary. No credit necessary. I won’t sue you. You’ve got a right to be inspired, too. Just pick your own app’s name. Maybe I’ll even buy the product. Also, let me know if any of these ideas already exist. I’ve summarized what my take is on the “state of the market” for each idea is, but I might be missing some awesome product that I just haven’t heard about.
To make it even easier for you to steal my ideas, I’m including a proposed “next action” for each idea (this approach comes from GTD and is also consistent with my Easy Programming philosophy). What simple step can you take to come closer to realizing the dream?
- Privacy Guard is an elegant, simple UI wrapper on some private web-browsing technology. Probably Tor, the powerful and popular solution from the EFF. Privacy Guard runs in the background and offers a menu bar icon to easily reflect your privacy status, and allow you to flip between protected and unprotected modes.
State of the market: Vidalia is an open source UI wrapper available from EFF itself. It’s a good first step but has cross-platform clunkiness. It needs a Mac overhaul, but could prove to be a good arena in which to realize this “product.”
Next action: Look into adding a menu bar icon to Vidalia.
- Snapshots examines any folder or disk on your Mac and produce a reference description against which future “snapshots” can be compared. This is particularly useful for “before and after” tests, for example when installing software. Taking a snapshot of your disk before and after a Software Update would show you in precise detail every file that the update has changed on your disk. No contents of files are actually saved, just a checksum or something to show you whether something is the same or different.
State of the market: I don’t know of any product like this, but I haven’t looked too hard.
Next action: Write a shell-tool proof of concept that accumulates checksums for a directory of files.
- Google Book Reader is a desktop application aimed at leveraging the growing availability of public domain books via Google. The UI consists of a stylish window designed as a “book metaphor.” The front cover consists of a search box that allows the user to easily bring up Google book results. When a result is clicked, the window animates as if opening a book, and presents the contents of the PDF file. The current page of this book is saved between launches so a user can always easily resume reading whichever “books they have open.”
State of the market: specialized PDF readers seem like a ripe market to me, yet everybody still reads with Acrobat or Preview. With the PDF capabilities in OS X, there should be many more specialized reading apps. This would just be one of many.
Next action: Investigate viability of searching Google’s public domain offerings programatically.
- Font Spy makes it easy for users to instantaneously examine attributes of any font displayed on the screen. Similarly to the Cmd-Ctrl-D “dictionary lookup” feature in Tiger, Font Spy offers a global hotkey that, when pressed, pops up a handy reference window including the text’s font name, color, and other style considerations.
State of the market: Nothing like this exists, that I know of. It might be appealing to designers, though it’s possible that most designers are familiar enough with fonts that the information provided by Font Spy would be useless.
Next action: Come up with a reliable way of detecting font information for whatever is pointed to on screen. This is not so easy, even with the Accessibility API.
- Focus is a productivity aid that embraces the concept of “work modes.” The user defines any number of modes which instruct Focus to performing an arbitrary list of instructions as appropriate. Focus understands a number of common instructions such as hiding or launching applications, and can also run arbitrary scripts. Focus triggers these actions when a mode is entered or left. For example if the user switches to “play mode,” Focus could open the web browser, start iTunes, etc. When the user switches to “writing mode” Focus could quit or hide distracting apps like Mail, iChat, and Safari, and open up something like WriteRoom.
In addition to one-time actions upon mode switch, Focus enforces certain policies of the mode. For instance a user can configure “writing mode” such that Safari cannot be used at all, or such that it can only be used 5% of the time. Focus would strongly encourage the user to stick to their mode policies, by presenting dialogs that inform them of the violation and offer to return them to a “mode compliant” application.
State of the market: There are a number of “sort of like that” utilities out there, but they tend to, ahem, focus on a specific method of focusing. Whatever the author in particular thought would be most useful. Focus unleashes the power of variable work modes for the user to describe as they see fit.
Next action: Maybe a proof-of-concept based on AppleScripts alone, triggered by FastScripts or another launcher.
- Figure Bot is a graphic-generation application that streamlines the production of consistently styled “annotation figures” for graphics production. Designers use Figure Bot instead of tediously composing in PhotoShop or Illustrator stylistically repetitive figures such as numerals or letters in circles:
With Figure Bot, the user selects an enclosing shape, font, colors, etc., and a starting number or letter. A global hotkey then copies the next figure onto the clipboard where it can be easily pasted into whatever graphics application the user is working in.
State of the market: I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m curious to know whether the field of “generated graphics” is larger than I know. I expect lots of stuff like this is achieved through scripting of a particular application.
Next action: Write a command-line tool to prove concept of copying a generated graphic to the clipboard.
- Hancock is the world’s simplest “PDF signature applicator.” It’s a million times simpler than PDFPen, and strives only to be a signing agent, not a utility for general PDF manipulation. Hancock provides a simple “signature capture” UI, using a similar motif to what you see on ATM checkouts at the supermarket. Any number of these captured signatures can be stored, optionally in the keychain to preserve the illusion of signatures being secure. The signature can then be overlaid on any PDF or other graphical document, nudging and scaling the graphic to fit appropriately into the designated space. The resulting document can then be printed or saved as a separate PDF for further transmission.
State of the market: PDFPen probably does this fairly well, but it’s too complicated and too expensive. But there might not really be that many people who want or need to apply signatures to PDF documents on a regular basis.
Next action: Develop a simple signature capturing subclass of NSView.
- Sign Shop leverages the graphical powers of Mac OS X to provide users with a number styled “beyond fonts” graphic generation modules. The user types in whatever text they desire and sees a live preview of their text in a given preset style. For instance, I select “Wavy Ripples” and type “Red Sweater Blog”:
Other built-in styles include “Engraved Wood” and “Stitched Embroidery,” producing textual graphics that are impossible with plain fonts. A published plugin format allows 3rd parties to provide modules
State of the market: Don’t know of anything like this. Could be a hit especially if some of the effects are really fun to play with, as in Apple’s Photo Booth.
Next action: Build a few example plugins and work towards a standardized format.
- Be My Guest establishes a “shared files zone” between computers on a LAN, without requiring any special configuration. Users who are interested in sharing files each run a copy of the application, whereupon they each see a shared Finder-like window onto which any files or clippings they drag are visible to all other users on the LAN. Files remain visible and available as long as the providing user is running Be My Guest.
State of the market: There are some “simple file transfer” apps out there, Drop Copy being perhaps the closest in simplicity and functionality to my vision. But they all require a “target” which adds mental noise to the equation. The idea of a shared zone makes it easy to pop things “into the commons” where all users on the LAN can be assured of having access to it.
Next action: Develop a Bonjour-enabled server/client that pays attention to the comings and goings of peers on the LAN.
- Page Flipper uses a built-in or external iSight camera to detect user gestures (head nods and shakes) as instructions to turn pages of a PDF document forward or backward. Page Flipper is especially useful for pianists and other musicians who store sheet music in digital form on their Mac. With Page Flipper and a laptop, users can practice pieces all the way through without pausing to turn the pages.
State of the market: This could be a lifestyle-changing product for technically adept musicians who are considering “going digital.” Current solutions involve printing longer pieces and taping them up in a long strip of sheets, or having an assistant on hand to turn the pages for you. After evaluating response in the music market, other uses might be considered. Hands-free page turning could be handy for the kitchen, auto shops, etc, where other triggers such as voice recognition might be suitable alternatives to head gestures.
Next action: Research the viability of detecting head movements reliably.
There you have it, ideas are not golden. And I put my ideas where my mouth is. So rip me off!
Incidentally, while combing this file, I found these notes: