Despite the fact that BeOS / ZETA has a small third-party developer community, there are some very high-quality applications available to end users. One thing that has always impressed me is the way that developers of BeOS / ZETA software have been able to take advantage of unique features in the OS and provide clever, simple approaches to common tasks. Read on for Part 1 of our overview of some of the more innovative, lesser-known pieces of BeOS software. Part 2 will follow next week.
In The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumously-published collection of essays and articles by Douglas Adams, there’s an essay about computers where he writes “There is no problem so complicated that you can’t find a very simple answer to it if you look at it the right way.” He was writing about Apple and the Macintosh, but I think this philosophy also describes much of the work done by Be. Inc and developers of third-party software for the OS.
I’m often frustrated by the way Windows software tends towards one of two extremes: complex, difficult to use programs that produce good output if you expend a lot of time and effort, or easy-to-use programs that produce mediocre output and offer little flexibility. I’ve found that BeOS software tends to fall somewhere in the middle, and that’s one of the big reasons I’ve continued to use the OS: software that’s simple to use while still having the utility/flexibility I need, and is capable of producing an acceptable end result.
Below are a few applictions which I think are parctiuarly good examples of those principles; I’ve decided to focus mainly on some less well-known pieces of software rather than obvious choices like the im_kit or the Mail Daemon Replacement.
While it’s common today for system-level search tools to also contain the ability to query online search engines, Fran??ois “mmu_man” Revol came up with a particularly clever way to integrate Google searching into BeOS. Google_fs, as the name implies, is a filesystem addon which allows you to mount a Google filesystem on your desktop just like a normal disk-based partition. You can then use the standard BeOS Query / Find tool to perform Google searches by running queries on the “partition.” Search results are displayed as standard Be bookmark files, you can double-click them to launch the site in Net+ or drag-and-drop a search result to another folder. The normal query features also work, E.g. you can save Google search results by saving the query.
A test version of google_fs was released near the end of 2004, but I haven’t come across any word since then. I don’t have a link to download it anymore, but I do still have the zip file – if anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll check with mmu_man to make sure it’s okay to post it.
Update: Fran??ois “mmu_man” Revol was kind enough to EMail me a download link where google_fs can be obtained. Thanks, Fran??ois!
Michael Pfeiffer’s FTP-FS is another piece of software that makes great use of existing BeOS features and functionality. It consists of a program to connect to FTP servers and a filesystem addon that allows you to mount remote FTP servers on your desktop. Once mounted, you can use the Tracker (or the Terminal) to copy files to and from the FTP server. Michael also came up with a clever solution for saving FTP connection settings: Be bookmark files, using standard FTP URLs (ftp://user:firstname.lastname@example.org).
OCR, for those who aren’t familiar with it, stands for Optical Character Recognition – in a nutshell, OCR software extracts text from image files (often scanned books or other printed material) and converts it to text files. Based on the BeOS version of gocr, GOCRTranslator is a piece of software released by 3dEyes** that implements OCR as a BeOS translator. With it installed, you can simply open an image in ShowImage, select a portion of it, drag the clipping to the Desktop or a Tracker window with the right mouse button, and select “Create GOCR Image to text translator clipping.” The translator will use gocr to attempt to extract any text from the clipping and will save it as a text file. While gocr certainly doesn’t produce perfect results, implementing it as a translator is by far the simplest approach to OCR that I’ve seen.
While BeOS has some handy UI methods for selecting a specific document/window belonging to an application, it can still get a bit undweildy when you have a dozen Tracker or BeMail windows open at once. Way back in 2000, Rayiner Hashem released a small utility called ActiveApp which takes a simple, elegant approach to the problem. While running, ActiveApp displays a list of all the windows/documents belonging to the application you’re currently working in. It also lets you select individual windows – clicking on a document in the list will give it focus, as with a tabbed interface.
One OS X feature which is often praised is the way it lets users easily mount and access the contents of ISO / CD image files. Thanks to the flexibility of BeOS and the ingenuity of deveoper Maurice Michalski, mounting images files can be just as easy in BeOS – no Terminal voodoo required. The most useful way to use ImageMounter is to set it as the default application to handle CD image files – then, when you double click a .iso file, it will be mounted by ImageMounter and it will appear as a volume on your Desktop.
XIcon / Zookeeper
These two applications are, in the words of Yogi Berra, the same – but different. Both applications let you create a drag-n-drop shortcut to Terminal commands, but they approach the task in different ways. XIcon (by Pete Goodeve) is best if you want to create a desktop icon which you can drop files onto, and automagically perform complex shell commands on them. For example, the handy antiword application includes some sample XIcon scripts onto which you can drop a Word document, and it will be converted to Ghostscript file, a plain text file, etc, depending on the commands in the script. With a little bit of modification, I was able to change the “GS-antiword” script so that it converts dropped word documents into PDF files.
Jonas Kirilla’s ZooKeeper, on the other hand, is best if you want to use a terminal application / command as the default application for a specific filetype. A good example is the short guide I posted in December, detailing how to open torrent files using the Transmission command-line application (quickly made obsolete by Bryan Varner’s excellent Transmission GUI). The main limitation is that ZooKeeper is can only store a single-line command, so XIcon is more appropriate for executing shell scripts via drag-n-drop.
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