Ten Free Ideas

September 23rd, 2006

I meant it when I downplayed the value of ideas in my critique of the My Dream App contest:

“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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

    (Click for full-size)

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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:

- Stretch Buddy
   - Simply utility to cue the recital of a timed
     series of actions, such as a stretching routine.
   - Features:
      - Manages any number of "routine" documents
         - An array of timed stages - sort of like 
           "Automator" in design
         - Plays a custom "start sound" when triggered
            - Built In Sounds
            - Text to Speech
            - Custom sound file
      - Supports the ability to export a "routine," 
        as an audio file to iTunes


- FAST Script Menu Implementation
   - keep scripts cached in memory for rapid execution!
   - Can be a faceless background app with NSStatusBar

Good to know that at least some of these ideas have become a reality!

24 Responses to “Ten Free Ideas”

  1. Bill Stevenson Says:

    2. Snapshots examines any folder or disk on your Mac and produce a reference description against which future “snapshots” can be compared.

    You might want to look at /usr/bin/mkbom and /usr/bin/lsbom on your Mac OS X system.

  2. Jakob Olesen Says:

    There is an ancient UNIX tool called tripwire.
    Also, all three BSDs come with an mtree utility. It is included in Mac OS X too.

  3. Jim Lindley Says:

    Number 10 may be more straightforward to accomplish with a foot pedal. I use a couple from Kinesis, they were only about $25 and super easy to program.

  4. Jan Says:

    9.) The common zone would pop up as finder volume. nothing fancy, could be done with WebDav as seen in iPodDisk


  5. Julian Grey Says:

    “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.”

    Hmm… ok I believe that these statements are a bit simplistic. There is an obvious aspect of ideas that is being ignored here: utility of the idea itself and/or the frame of reference through which the idea is being proposed.

    Ideas can be completely new, and can inspire without reminding. Inspiration comes through epiphany and not, in my opinion, through a gentle slide into a comfort zone.

    In addition the concept of gradations of the quality and impact of ideas seems to be ignored as well. Some ideas will appeal to different groups: a way to successfully farm Lungfish in poor areas of Africa or a utility that keeps track of browser bookmarks in a computer.

    The “how” and the “what” of an idea

    I am not arguing that the “how” is not important, it is after all the “art” of implementing that idea that will make the difference in its accessibility. It is the “what”, however, that sets the tone for the generation of ideas that will be crucial for the implementation of the main idea. The idea carries with it a frame of reference that is unique to its proponent. The communication of this frame of reference is what can inspire others to see things in a specific way.

    In short:

    Some ideas are new.
    Some ideas are rare.
    Some ideas dominate peoples lives.
    Some ideas change the people.
    Some ideas are special.
    Some ideas run like water.
    Some ideas can be found in blogs.
    No two ideas are the same.

    With all of the historical and philosophical precedents, these statements seems obvious.

  6. Arsen Says:

    I think idea 4 should be VERY useful for web designers. There is an app called Typeset from Waterfall software provide font identify function, however, it only shows the font name, not all attributes. I will be very glad to pay for sth like this!

  7. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Bill: good tip – thanks for that! It does seem to collect the same type of information that I envisioned “Snapshots” gathering. It also serves as a good conceptual test of how slow such information gathering might be … though perhaps on subsequent scans some optimization could be made based no mod dates to speed up comparison with a reference snapshot.

    Jakob: I hadn’t heard of either Tripwire or mtree, so I’m glad you mentioned them. I found this through a simple google search, which seems to suggest that tripwire is usable on OS X. Will have to check that out. Guess I need to brush up on my Stanard UNIX knowledge!

    Jim: D’oh! In my fascination with the “geek chic” of a gesture detector, I completely overlooked the facility of using something like a foot pedal for the same thing. I still think it would be fun to implement the gesture detector for novelty and to see if any new uses popped up – but your solution for piano in particular is clearly a lot more practical :)

    Jan: You mean serve a fake WebDAV server from localhost -> localhost? That’s a great idea, and I hadn’t thought of it. Hey – that idea might actually be golden ;)

    Julian: I think you’re on to something by identifying the class of knowledge we call “ideas” as too large to pigeonhole with any simplistic rules. I mean, obviously if I had an “idea” that made dollar bills erupt from out of my toilet, then I’d be a fool to share it with anybody. But mainly the point I’m trying to make is that ideas are excessively worshipped. It’s the rare idea indeed that, without tons of hard work, is of much value by itself.

    Arsen: I will have to look into Typeset, thanks for mentioning it. Maybe they’ll steal the idea and make their product even better.

    Thanks everybody for taking time to leave feedback. These responses are a great example of why most ideas should not be kept secret: you risk reinventing the wheel. Just imagine if I’d gone off and reimplemented Tripwire from scratch! Dumb!

  8. Bret Says:

    #8 – http://www.typestyler.com/ ????

    Not yet OS X, but they say they are close…

  9. Ryan Ballantyne Says:

    You’re right — your ideas suck. (Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding! I personally would buy 4 and 6. In fact, now that you mention it, I really want my computer to do those things. The only really bad idea on the list is #5. And for #8: you mean, like Microsoft Word Art? :P)

    I agree with you completely that ideas flow like water. Actually, they flow like the rapids of the Colorado: thick, rich, and too fast for you to do much with any of them.

    I have so many ideas for things I’d like to do or write or make, and I know that only a select few of them will see the light of day, because of that cruel 4th dimension we call time. Oh well.

  10. Jan Says:

    Re: “You mean serve a fake WebDAV server from localhost -> localhost?”

    Exactly. I had the Wooha!-moment you describe in the next post when I saw how iPodDisk works. It’s been a year or two and I never used the software, but the idea stuck. It’s just neat by every angle you look at it (‘cept for, probably, when you try to keep WebDAV usage low on your Mac…)


  11. Paul Suh Says:

    Snapshots: at least two tools in common use among sysadmins:

    1) logGen – free, command line.
    2) File Buddy – shareware, GUI

  12. John Says:

    Regarding idea #8 (Sign Shop). It’s a great idea, and probably a money maker, for the developer. So, in that regard, it’s a good idea.

    But, man, how I detested TypeStyler back in the day. Ugly, overstyled text all over the place at the touch of a button. (Fish text, ugh!) Can’t we leave people to more creative methods of punishing readers, such as using a cursive font in all caps, etc. :)

  13. Stripes Says:

    mtree, tripwite, and such all have one small problem in OS X. When you change a dylib applications linked to the dylib _might_ change. More accurately, when you update the prebindings on an application the file contents will change if the locations of the functions or globals in the dylibs it uses have changed since the last time it’s prebindings have changed.

    So if you use tripwire, install a system update, and look again you don’t really know if Safari changed, or if a Libsystem update moved the gettimeofday entry point by 8 bytes.

    For tripwire it is easy to argue that prebindings _must_ be treated as significant since an attacker could change the location of stuff in the prebindings as part of an attack…but it makes it a good deal less useful if you _know_ you haven’t been attacked, you just want to know what some update or other actually does.

  14. Jan Says:

    He did it again! Daniel always makes me write down my own stuff. So here’s my list of Stickies. Thank you Daniel for getting me to sit down and write. You are inspiring.


  15. William F. Adams Says:

    Even better than #8 would be a re-creation of Glenn Reid’s nifty NeXTstep app TouchType.app — unfortunately Adobe owns it now and they seem to’ve lost the source code. There’re lots of PhotoShop actions for accomplishing that sort of thing, but the closest thing to TouchType is an XTension for Quark. Page on it here:


    This could also be combined w/ #6, say as a plug-in for InDesign or Illustrator (or FreeHand). FWIW, things like that are usually handled as Library elements (create a custom library of repeated elements and drag in instances as necessary) — most graphic designers are visual people to whom scripting more than a PhotoShop batch action is pretty foreign.


  16. Geoff Says:

    While I agree with you that ideas are easy to come by, I think the “My Dream App” contest also proves that. What, they had 2700 entries?

    However, I think this misses the point.

    My Dream App is absolutely great marketing.

    I don’t think they’ve posted stats, but I bet they get a ton of pageviews, and I’m sure they’ve received lots of votes. That helps the developers, judges, etc. How many websites and Mac publications have linked to their page?

    If this gets people enthused about Mac software and maybe gets some of those entries to try developing their ideas, isn’t that a good thing?

    Who knows, maybe even a good app or two will come out of the process.

  17. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Geoff: I agree it’s brilliant marketing. I know my position probably comes off as pretty negative about the contest, but I do think it’s an interesting idea and generally well executed.

    I’m standing by my skepticism that it will work out well for the developers. I mean, if they end up getting stuck with a GTD app, Desktop Wars, and a Cookbook. Well, those are both huge undertakings and not particularly unique (yes, even the Desktop Wars idea is already being undertaken, by another crowdsourced software initiative, Cambrian House, one that doesn’t allow the crowd to inflict projects on pre-selected developers.)

  18. Chris Says:

    How close is Nodebox (http://nodebox.net/) to Figure Bot?

    About tripwire, aide and all those tools: yes, they fail on MacOS X binaries, BUT:
    1st) the binaries are changed when they are changed, so, you will notice a change anyways, though it can be a false positive
    2nd) I started a Mach-O fingerprinting tool that is half-done (it works…), then I found ctool. (should have finished my project earlier…)

  19. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Chris: NodeBox is the closest thing I’ve got to Figure Bot (I used it for the proof of concept image above). In fact, I think some hacking on NodeBox *could* produce something of a mutation that would serve well for the purpose.

    In case you’re curious, I used NodeBox to design this blog’s banner.

  20. bhauth Says:

    1. Too obvious, unlikely to improve things enough to be used much, and likely to be preempted by something open source.

    2. Basically what sort by date modified is for, also what Bill said.

    3. A UI design for a PDF reader that doesn’t seem to add anything useful.

    4. Copy to textedit and apple-T.

    5. Possibly useful rarely although a new, limited account does most of that.

    6. Can’t see how it improves on photoshop.

    7. Good, if I knew anyone that wanted lots of unique signatures on PDFs, which I don’t.

    8. Photoshop again, or Microsoft Word Art. =(

    9. OS X, at least, does this well enough by itself.

  21. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    bhauth: I don’t necessarily exclude open source projects from my list of ideas. I think the security idea, especially as a wrapper on Tor, would make a great open source project. Which is why I suggested Vidalia as a starting point.

    I’m proud of you for coming up with creative ways of shooting almost every idea down … but some of your alternatives are kind of a stretch. In my opinion, something doesn’t have to “improve on Photoshop” to be a useful product. You might want to look to iPhoto for realignment in your world view.

  22. Peter Says:

    For generated graphics and logos, see MetaFont and MetaPost for ideas. Then there’s Asymptote (a vector graphics language), which I haven’t looked at yet.


    One of the nice things about these programs is that they’re really fully capable programming languages with declarative syntax for equations. This means you don’t need to find the exact places to end and begin your lines, paths, &c. but just to describe the necessary relations among them. If you need to find the half-way point of a path, just tell the program to do it.

  23. Sea_Dragons Says:


    Implement XFS on MacOS X. Also, this will solve some enterprise storage issues Apple will be bumping into as its customers try to handle more numbers of increasingly larger multimedia projects and data stores.

  24. sjk Says:

    ZFS for OS X seems much more likely than XFS.

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