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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Deep, explorable usefulware

There is a class of software that is so rich in potentially useful features that even after years of use there is still more to be discovered. Perhaps it has features that you do not need now but may come to need in the future. And these aren't useless features that bloat the product--rather the software is so mature and has been worked on by so many for so long that there is so much in it to explore.

I love playing with these feature-rich tools and I'd be interested to hear of others. Here's an initial list of "deep, explorable usefulware":

  • jEdit. Lots in here, but I think I've seen most of it after a year of use. To do: write a plugin.

  • XEmacs. I've used maybe 20% of its power (the fundamental 20%). Was my main editor before jEdit.

  • AutoHotKey. Macro language/recorder for scripting most aspects of Windows, including key remapping. People have done some amazing things with it.

  • Cygwin. Many useful Unix tools ported to Windows. Includes lynx, the text tools, etc.

  • Gimp and Inkscape. Would like to explore these tools more; I simply don't find myself needing to use them often. I hear Gimp has scripting capability.

I'd like to check out more of that class of software known as Great Software--the kind of software that continues to surprise you with its usefulness and power, and is so deep that a browse through the documentation will always teach you a new trick or two. Trouble is, I *think* I've seen it all (at least for Windows). But that can't be true. What else is out there?

17 Comments:

  • Deep software. Usefulware. Good words!

    I'd add Photoshop to the list, though I suppose an unmentioned criterion is "free" too. And compared to these, it contains a wee bit much features that creep the interface or that find you, rather than you them, in a way that not always leaves you understanding what just happened.

    (That could of course be argued true about XEmacs too, though it has a somewhat more well defined set of keyboard shortcut behaviours that are safe, vs that may trigger its interesting deeper feature sets.)

    By Blogger Johan Sundström, at 7/23/2006 1:55 PM  

  • This is going to seem pretty strange, certainly the odd-one-out amongst all the others mentioned so far, but over the past few months I've become convinced that there were only two really revolutionary pieces of non-game software released in the 1990s that completely dictated what followed in their fields. One was NCSA Mosaic, and it doesn't really fit into your criteria. The other one almost certainly does, though you don't realise it until you really start exploring. Also, it's not "productivity" software in the same sense as the others, but I think it's inspired just as much creation.

    Okay, enough with the hyperbole. Have one guess, and then click here.

    By Blogger Yoz, at 7/23/2006 4:56 PM  

  • Johan--good one--I'll need to check out PhotoShop (although the price is a barrier). "Features that find you"--I'm intrigued!

    Yoz--lemme guess-Ning... Winamp? Interesting--I shall explore...

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 7/23/2006 7:50 PM  

  • While "features that find you" may, to the naked ear, sound right, it is just the kind of thing that spooks and/or annoys users.

    Like Microsoft Word's supposedly helpful "clip" icon that pops up in the middle of a document whenever I paste some text there with Ctrl+V, creating problems for me, at the expense of (perhaps!) making some feature available via that icon more discoverable for someone else. For me, it just serves to add great feelings of discomfort and "make it go away!", though not enough to have me attack documentation and googling and whatnot to find out how to do that, as I'm sure there is no end to the flow of such features in present and coming Microsoft Words, so I'm spending my time better reverting to emacs as quickly as I can again.

    It's very difficult getting those "features that find you" to work right, without causing more problems than they supposedly solve.

    By Blogger Johan Sundström, at 7/28/2006 2:50 AM  

  • Ah--in the annoying sense. Gotcha.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 7/28/2006 9:49 PM  

  • Photoshop should definitely be on the list; Winamp, of course (you couldn't be more right yoz). As for new nominees, to my constern, I can only venture with confidence Vim and Mathematica, but I'm sure I'm missing someone. QuickSilver looks like it may become deep software eventually but it's just a hunch, I don't even have a mac.

    Deep software is one great concept Jon. Too bad the web's still too young to have its own nominees but I'm sure ten years from now web-apps will make most of the list (and YubNub will be among them, I assure you). Let's redo the list then--Jul 23, 2016, that is.

    By Anonymous elzr, at 9/08/2006 7:40 AM  

  • Thanks elzr. I have marked Sunday, July 23 2016 on my calendar and we'll compare notes on that day!

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 9/08/2006 9:29 PM  

  • I think that software plugins are adding a new depth to software such as WordPress, WinAmp, and Firefox.

    Off the top of my head, some programs I'd consider deep software on their own are the clipboard extender ArsClip and the text editors NoteTab and PSPad.

    By Anonymous Matt Vance, at 10/04/2006 5:46 PM  

  • Thanks Matt--I'll check out ArsClip

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 10/04/2006 9:23 PM  

  • some softwares i find to be usefulware include :
    - AutoHotKey
    - TiddlyWiki
    - and last, but not least YubNub

    By Anonymous Yann, at 10/09/2006 4:07 PM  

  • Beauty--thanks Yann. I need to try TiddlyWiki again.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 10/10/2006 7:27 PM  

  • you should try slickrun. I just started using it last month, but wow it's really useful. It's a hotkeyed CLI, with keywords. I just found yubnub today, to combine them, I just set up a keyword called "http://yubnub.org/parser/parse?command=$W$"
    that way I can just type in "y gim tv" to use it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/27/2006 11:35 AM  

  • Hi Anon – I have been enjoying SlickRun for the past 6 months or so. It's great. I've assigned YubNub to "yu" - because there's also a YubNub command (for YubNub) called "yu", that means I can use the "yu" prefix both on and off YubNub and its various conduits (Firefox search plugin, etc.)

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 10/27/2006 9:08 PM  

  • Please check out 'Transfx' (freeware - Windows only).

    http://www.transfz.com/

    - Random surfer from Finland -

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/21/2007 1:26 AM  

  • Alas, that website seems to be down currently.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 7/21/2007 10:14 AM  

  • We should add the Directory Opus file manager to the list. It has a huge number of options, accreted since its early days on the Amiga platform.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 8/14/2007 12:40 PM  

  • Another one to add to the list: Far Manager.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 5/22/2009 6:19 PM  

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