As attention turns to Mac applications with Apple’s upcoming launch of the Mac App Store, it’s worth highlighting the work of three small, independent teams that I use regularly: Helvetireader, Alfred and Hibari. All have the hallmarks of what makes the indie Mac software scene so great, namely focused functionality, minimalist design and excellent value for the money (two of the three apps are free.)
The three I’m highlighting today cover high trafficked areas of many users’ workflow: Quick app launching and web browsing, RSS feeds (in the form of Google Reader) and staying abrest of the latest on Twitter.
On a Mac, Google Reader is a dominant RSS/news platform with its ease of use and integration with many mobile RSS readers. Nevertheless, the options I’ve explored that hook in with Google Reader leave much to be desired: Full blown apps (e.g. NetNewsWire) tend to have more complexity than I need and offer little improvement over Google Reader’s default feature set. On the flip side, popular browser plugins and extensions (e.g Sage, Better Google Reader) offer too little; their placement inside the browser often feels a bit clumsy or tacked on.
In contrast to other options, Helvetireader’s manifesto is simple: If Google Reader’s web UI is pretty decent, why change it? Basically the app is a well designed, CSS based makeover that wraps around Google Reader’s core tech. It’s standard Google Reader yet something noticeably easier to read and traverse by improving the typography (naturally Helvetica is the font choice) and removing clutter.
Helvetireader is a free download that can be utilized directly within certain browsers like Opera or Firefox, but I find it instead works best as its own separate app via the useful Fluid framework. You can find the full set of installation instructions over at Helvetireader’s web site.
As a web developer and designer, I’m busy splitting my time between many different apps at once, not to mention often running the occasional quick Google search on the fly. The new productivity app Alfred meets said needs cleanly and easily; it’s effectively a very quick global search window for your entire computer. Alfred sits in the background and pops up with a quick keyboard shortcut. After bringing the app to foreground, with a few letters I can quickly open any application on my Mac, run a Google search in a new tab, find a file, run some quick arithmetic, and more. Right after I execute my command, Alfred disappears just as fast as it came, letting me get on with my work.
Admittedly more casual Mac users may shrug their shoulders at this application and wonder what takes so long about loading applications or running Google searches in the first place; Alfred is decidedly not for them. However for more demanding Mac users, especially those that juggle many web tabs and apps open at once, Alfred is worth a try, especially considering the basic app is free.
Even with Twitter.com’s recent redesign I still find a dedicated Mac client to keep up with the latest on Twitter indispensable. However, many clients cram too much into their respective UI. Some power users heavily retweet, check lists, run many searches and so on, but many others including myself primarily just want to see content simply and clearly.
Hibari, one of the newest desktop Twitter clients, understands this idea well. The layout and spacing between tweets is among the best I’ve found, and common individual tweet data (e.g. time stamps, favorite status) is only shown on demand. The organization is very straightforward, reminiscent of the tabbed interface behind the very popular Tweetie application. Almost all focus stays in a single window; conversations and image links are displayed directly inline. For those looking for a bit more depth, Hibari has a common set of more advanced functionality as well: Reply to all retweets, filter searches, Growl notifications, and more.
One notable downside is the price, $14 in a market where almost all the competition (e.g. Tweetie, Tweetdeck) is free. Nevertheless, it’s a small price that goes to support the indie Mac community, and the development team has been very responsive to questions I’ve had about the product in the past.