Widgets and Apps

By Anita Fuoss, Jason Beahm, and Aaron J. Rittmaster

On the road and armed with nothing but your iPhone? Or at your computer and need to get something done quickly? Macs shine in the availability, efficiency, and power harnessed by widgets and apps. But which apps or widgets to use? There are hundreds of them on the Apple website alone. To help you separate the wheat from the chaff, we put together a list of some of the best. We start with the desktop.

Desktop Widgets and Apps

What’s that you say? You’ve got a presentation to give next week, and you’re dreading the process of putting it together, let alone presenting it? Here is a group of free Mac apps that can make the process easier and less stressful. Whether you’re using Mac iWork Keynote, Microsoft Power-Point, or Open-Office.org Impress, these tools can help.

First, as you’re getting started, there’s Google Quick Search Box (or simply “Google QSB”; http://code.google.com/p/qsb-mac). QSB is Google’s version of the Mac power user’s secret weapon (but sometimes maddeningly buggy) Quicksilver. Quicksilver’s developer is now a Google employee and is a key developer on the open-source Google QSB project, which appears to have gained stability in the process. QSB is all about streamlining work flow and allowing you to keep your hands on the keyboard, ready to work.

Once installed, Google QSB can be invoked by a user-chosen keyboard combination (the default is to tap the Apple key twice). When invoked, Google QSB opens a small dialogue box on your desktop. As you enter text in that dialogue box, Google QSB searches applications in your Applications folder, files on your hard drive, and websites in your web history. But QSB does more than just search and find.

How does QSB make your job easier? Let’s say you’re using Keynote to build your presentation. Start typing “keyn” in the dialogue box, and by the time you reach that fourth letter, Keynote will be highlighted. Hit enter, and the program is launched. Later, while building the presentation, use the dialogue box to launch image-editing apps and search for previously visited web pages and other documents on your hard drive containing information you need to include in the presentation.

QSB can also extend the power of your clipboard. Need to access several different text snippets to plug them into your presentation (perhaps several different statute citations)? Type “clipboard” in QSB and hit the Tab key—you’ll be presented with the last 25 items that have been copied to your clipboard. Use the arrow keys to navigate and select the text you want to use. Want to search for information to include from within a particular website? Enter the website address and hit Tab. Now the search that you enter after the Tab key will be run against only the specified website. Need to check the weather at the location where you’ll be giving your presentation? Just enter the ZIP code. More detailed weather information can be accessed by typing “weather” first, choosing to use www.weather.com or www.wunderground.com results, and then entering the ZIP code. Google QSB is an application that does require you to be open-minded about adjusting your work flow, but spend some time playing with it and you will quickly find yourself addicted to its simplicity and power.

Now that you’ve started actually building the presentation, Skitch ( http://plasq.com/skitch) from Plasq can be an invaluable tool for annotating images and screen shots. Although still technically in public beta (and therefore a free download), Skitch is remarkably robust and stable. The unique interface can take a little getting used to—it’s so simple and intuitive that it’s easy to overthink what you’re trying to do—but no other application makes image annotation so easy. Just launch the application, either take a screen shot or load an existing image, and use the tools on either side of the image window to resize and crop your image and add text, lines, arrows, and shapes. Then drag the eponymous “Drag Me” tab to a destination folder, and the fully annotated image is saved as either a .png or .jpg file (your choice). Skitch annotations can be used to draw attention to particular elements in a trial exhibit, explain the use of a dialogue box, identify individuals in a group photo—the possibilities are endless.

Once you’ve finished creating your spellbinding slide show, it’s time for presentation. Have you ever had that embarrassing moment in the middle of a presentation when your screen goes to sleep while you’re answering a question? An easy, elegant, and free solution is Caffeine ( http://lightheadsw.com/caffeine) from Lighthead Software. Caffeine installs what amounts to a toggle-switch menulet—a coffee cup icon in your menu bar. Click on the icon (the coffee cup will look full), and your screen will stay bright. Click the icon again (the coffee cup will look empty), and your screen will go to sleep at the interval already set. Caffeine works not only during presentations, but also when watching web videos or screen-casts—any event during which your computer is otherwise idle.

All of these applications are free and can assist you in creating meaningful, memorable presentations more efficiently than ever before. Presentations are not the only place where desktop widgets and apps can help your Mac shine, though.

Easy-Envelopes ( www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/easyenvelopes) is integrated with Address-Book, so that a simple name lookup will paste the name and address onto an envelope form for printing. If you don’t use Address-Book, or if the recipient is not listed in Address-Book, one click will open a window to type or paste an address from scratch. Modifying the envelope, label, or paper size (including an option for creating custom sizes), selecting fonts for the addressee and return address, and printing a return address or printing it on the back of the envelope are easily done on the flip side of the widget. Clicking the stamp graphic on the envelope opens the print dialogue. Easy-Envelopes is an elegant, fast, and free option for getting out the mail.

Anyone who uses iCal will appreciate Quick-Cal ( http://smellypuppy.com/wp/?page_id=29). It has a small window that allows a user to type in a calendar event or task in plain language. For example: “meet Client A next wed at 3pm.” The widget will show the proposed date and entry immediately below the input window. Pressing the Enter key creates that entry in iCal, whether iCal is actually open at the time or not. To add a To Do item, just type “todo” somewhere in your description, and the widget will recognize the distinction from an event.

Conversion of various weights and measures is a popular aim of many widgets. For lawyers in particular, real estate work can often involve puzzling out the conversions and calculations in metes-and-bounds legal descriptions, and the metric system still remains almost a mystery for many U.S. lawyers. Unit Converter is a standard widget that comes with Leopard. If you are looking for something a little quicker, however, qwik-CONVERT ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/calculate_convert/qwikconvert.html) is very straightforward and streamlined. Simply type in the measure you want to convert, either by abbreviation or the whole word (for example, 1ac or 1 acre), and the widget shows the most common converted measures. If you are looking for something more powerful, check out Unit-Converter Pro ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/calculate_convert/unitconverterpro.html). Its creators claim it covers more than 300 units from 40 categories. Even so, Unit-Converter Pro remains simple to use.

Minutes ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/calculate_convert/minutes.html) is a timer that shines in its simplicity and ease of use. You can set it to open a file or play an alarm or an iTunes playlist when the timer runs out. It is ideal for keeping track of small periods of time. Anyone who has ever ruined a cup of tea or missed an obligation after losing track of the time would appreciate this timer.

For simple fun, the Sports Fan widget ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/sports/sportsfanwidget.html) provides a consolidated report on any team and division standings, including current scores, along with upcoming schedules, in supported hockey, basketball, football, and baseball leagues. It includes minor league baseball teams and college football and men’s NCAA basketball leagues, although women’s NCAA basketball is inexplicably not included.

So now you have all these great apps and widgets. And you want to use one without blocking off your entire screen by hitting the Dashboard. Amnesty Widget Browser ( www.amnestywidgets.com/widgetbrowser.html) is a useful shareware program that liberates widgets from the Dashboard. The program adds an icon on the menu bar that accesses a drop-down list of all available widgets. You can select one or more widgets to run on your desktop without making all your other programs inaccessible. Although any widgets that you run as stand-alones remain visible on top of your other programs, you can adjust the opacity of the widgets so the entire desktop remains visible underneath the widget.

The idea behind many widgets is that they are self-updating by regularly accessing the web to get their data. That does not mean, however, that the widget itself is necessarily the most recent version, and not all widgets update themselves. Enter Widget Update ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/status/widgetupdate.html), which canvases your widgets, compares them to the latest online versions, and gives you a report on which are outdated and the option of updating them. App Update ( www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard/status/appupdate.html) does the same for supported applications.

These apps and widgets are great for the desktop user, but iPhone users are not out of luck.

iPhone Apps

Every lawyer should have quick access to the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps you rarely need to consult it, but it serves as an attorney’s professional bible. In fact, several members of Congress proclaim that they always carry a paper copy in their pocket. A paper copy? Seems rather passé, no? Instead, download an organized, digital copy of the U.S. Constitution to your iPhone ( www.apple.com/webapps/productivity/usconstitution.html). Stay lightweight, look sharp, and finally know what the 11th Amendment is about.

Why does it seems that at every cocktail party a potential client asks an intriguing legal question just as you are about to take the first sip of your drink? You are confident that with a little bit of time, you could educate yourself properly to do the work. The more pressing concern is to avoid making a fool of yourself. So, sneak off to a phone booth like Clark Kent and access Wikipanion ( www.wikipanion.net), the mobile Wikipedia application. Wikipedia is the go-to place when you are trying to gain a basic understanding of nearly any topic. After a quick read, you can rejoin the party feeling informed and ready to carry on a competent conversation. No cape required.

Whether contracts form the bulk of your practice or not, nearly every attorney frequently encounters situations where documents must be signed. And really, there is only one way to do it—pen and paper—right? Not at all. There is a significant movement toward signing legal documents electronically. You can sign legally binding contracts online and even from your phone. With RightSignature ( www.appstorehq.com/rightsignature-iphone-16431/app) you can upload contracts and have them signed in a faster, cheaper, and more secure way than paper documents. An e-mail is sent to the recipients, which gives them access to the document that they can sign in less than a minute. Will that fancy pen you received for your birthday go to waste? Of course not; you can always re-gift it. Questions regarding the ethics of re-gifting will have to be saved for another day.

Twitter offers the ability to gather information in real time. With an application such as Tweetdeck ( http://tweetdeck.com/iphone), you can sync your phone with Twitter and use it on the go. Ask questions to the crowd and get answers from experts in minutes. Inform your followers as to what you are working on and where you will be speaking. Notify followers of your blog updates, or alert them of significant changes in the law. It’s easy to stay current and visible. Just please avoid telling the world about your trip to the dry cleaners to pick up your suit. Seriously, no one needs to know about that. Some of life’s treasures are best kept to oneself.

Anita Fuoss is a lawyer and real estate abstracter and title insurance agent with a solo practice in Murdo, South Dakota; she may be reached at alfuoss@gmail.com. Jason Beahm operates a solo practice in San Francisco, California, focusing on business, consumer, and media law, as well as coaching bar examinees; he may be reached at jasonbeahm@gmail.com. Aaron J. Rittmaster is an attorney and technology geek in Overland Park, Kansas; he may be reached at ajritz@gmail.com.

Copyright 2009

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