Monday, September 28, 2009

AutoTweeter Pro

I haven't been on Twitter very long, but I'm a sort of scattered thinker, and I had been tweeting only a few days when I found that I would get on a roll, thinking of things I wanted to tweet, and tweet five or six times in rapid succession. I also discovered that whenever someone else did that, I hated it. Especially if they kept going... nine or ten tweets in a row and my whole Twitter home page was filled with one person's profile picture. I realized that what I really needed was a way to kind of queue up those tweets and let them out a little at a time. Enter AutoTweeter.

AutoTweeter is a tray application for Windows. The basics are very simple: you save your tweets into a plain old Notepad-friendly text file, tell AutoTweeter how often you want to tweet them, click on "start tweeting", and AutoTweeter does the busy-work for you. Very straightforward. And it works like a charm... I can queue up several tweets at a time and let them come out every 60 minutes, 45 minutes, 30 minutes... whatever I want. I even spent an entire Monday recently, just for fun, letting AutoTweeter tweet random Animaniacs quotes every fifteen minutes! And I instituted a new tradition for my Sundays... throwing a list of quotes from a VeggieTales episode at it and letting it tweet one every thirty minutes all day (get laughs! Annoy the living heck out of your friends! That tradition ended with some thinly-veiled hostility from those same friends this weekend... lesson learned. Not everyone loves VeggieTales.) Usually I use it at work during the day, queuing up tweets on the fly, so when I think of two or three things to say I can spread them out over time and keep adding to the list as I go. During the day I'm seldom without a fresh tweet for more than an hour at a time! And I never have to worry about "spamming" my friends and followers (at least, not since I cooled it with the VeggieTales thing).

Anyway, let me explain how AutoTweeter works, and then I'll tell you the good things (there are lots of them) and the bad things (there are a few) about the application. AutoTweeter has no installer (a plus in my book); you just unzip it to any location you like (I put mine in C:\Program Files\AutoTweeterPro), click the .exe file, and you're ready to go. An icon that looks like a bluebird's head will appear in your system tray; there's a little bit of fairly straightforward setup to do first, so you will have to double-click it to look at the dashboard. First you'll need to go to the "configure" tab and put in your Twitter username and password; there's no OAuth support in this release so it's old school authentication for now (I understand OAuth is in the plans for a future release). You also might want to change the default tweet interval from 1 minute to something longer unless you're going to have a tweet file that has a lot lines in it... and friends who will put up with you tweeting every sixty seconds!

The default tweet file, sample.txt, has one tweet in it already, but you will almost certainly want to set up your own file. You can set up your own .txt text files in the autotweeterservices directory (in my case, C:\Program Files\AutoTweeterPro\autotweeterservices) and even switch between them whenever you want. I set up a file called tweets.txt in that directory and then put tweets.txt next to "tweet file" in the "configure" tab. Make sure you click the "save" button or else your changes will be lost. (If you leave the default tweet file in place, the first tweet is an @-message to the software's creator... which is not a problem, but you probably don't want your permanent tweet file to be called "sample.txt"!)

Once you have everything configured, you're ready to add some tweets. You can use a text editor like Windows Notepad, but a much easier way to add tweets is the "auto tweet" tab. The auto-tweet tab has two boxes: the large box for the tweet itself, and a "shorten url" box. Type your tweet into the large box, and click "tweet later" and the tweet will be added to your tweet file. You can add as many tweets to the file as you like; however, the trial version will only send fifty tweets before it automatically stops tweeting (we'll talk more about the limitations of the unregistered version in a minute). The "shorten url" functionality is disabled in the trial version.

If you want to tweet right this minute, click over to the "quick tweet" box and add your tweet there. Once you click "tweet it," your tweet immediately goes to your Twitter account. I just used that function to tweet "Writing a blog post about #AutoTweeterPro!" It's very handy if you don't happen to have the Twitter Web site open but have something to say, and you don't want to queue it up in your AutoTweeter tweet file.

The "house keeping" tab helps you to keep track of your tweet files and how many tweets are left in each. If you did what I did (creating a tweets.txt file), when you click "load data" you will see that the sample.txt file has one tweet in it but zero have been sent, and the tweets.txt file has zero tweets in it (my "quick tweet" never went to the tweet file). There is also a "delete" button (which actually physically deletes a tweet file... you can use it to delete your sample.txt if you like), and a "reset" button which is disabled in the trial version.

Let's talk about the limitations of the unregistered version. Registration at the current time is $15, and it is well worth the price if you like the unregistered features. Once you register and your key is in place, the "reset" button becomes active, and you can reset the "tweets done" to any number... for example, if you had a 50-line tweet file and you had tweeted all of them, you could reset the "tweets done" to 26 and tweet the last 25 tweets again. The process for doing this is a little bit clunky (check the checkbox for the file you want to reset, click under "reset to", key in the new value, click under "tweets done", and click the "reset" button) but it gets the job done. You can manually change this value in the configuration file using your text editor, but it is certainly more convenient to make the change right in the "house keeping" tab. The "shorten url" boxes are another terrific convenience you get with registration; using those boxes, you can change any http://www. URL to a link without having to go to the Web site. Oddly, any URL that does not start with http://www. will be rejected by these boxes... https: URLs are not acceptable (even though handles them just fine) and any URL that doesn't start with a "www" will not work (for example, one of my blogs is no good for the "shorten url" boxes). It would be nice if this box would accept any URL... limiting it this way seems kind of odd.

Another (intentional) limitation of the unregistered version is that the "repeat tweets" and "windows startup" checkboxes are disabled. I can't imagine a situation when I personally would want to "repeat tweets" unless I decided to run a service of some kind where I had hundreds of tweets in my tweet file and wanted to recycle them every so often (quote of the day services or such). The checkbox is mostly there for Twitter marketers, so if that's your bag, definitely pony up the $15 for the registered version. When I checked the "windows startup" checkbox, AutoTweeterPro started up when windows started, but for some reason it couldn't read the configuration file... I had to exit AutoTweeter entirely and start it back up manually to get it to work. Your mileage may vary... I think I may have moved the executable file after the first time I used the software, so maybe that was the problem. For that reason, I'm not sure if a power outage would mess things up or not; if the computer came back up, the software would come back up, but I don't know if it would be tweeting without a manual click or not (in my case, until I logged into the computer, I would be out of luck anyway!) I also had a little trouble getting my registration key to "stick" when I first registered; the tech support people were very patient with me and we finally got that worked out. The registration process is fairly simple; you make payment via Paypal and a key file comes in your email. The key file just needs to be present in the folder where your executable is.

There are a few minor things about the software that bother me. When you click "start tweeting", no tweet is immediately sent; if you have your interval set to 60 minutes, it will be 60 minutes after you click "start tweeting" before any tweets go to Twitter. Not a bug, but something to be aware of. The presence of the "quick tweet" tab helps a little bit on this.

Also, sometimes I wonder if tweets added to the queue will happen without clicking "start tweeting" again, particularly if you've already tweeted the last line in your tweets file. If there are two or three tweets left in the queue I don't notice a problem, but if I'm on the last tweet already, it seems like the software loses its place. To make things worse, the "tweets done" number in the "house keeping" tab doesn't always update when tweets happen; it definitely updates when you exit the software, but the program doesn't update the configuration file on the fly, so re-loading the data while you're tweeting doesn't tell you anything new. And you're on your own if you try to manually update the tweet file or configuration file with a text editor while the program is running. It would be nice to have a way to view or even edit the tweets file on the fly; I keep an eye on the tweets file using a text editor, but I would certainly rather keep that within the program. And if the configuration file was physically updated after every tweet, it might provide some more useful information in the "house keeping" tab while you're tweeting.

A BIG update I would love to see is a deamon that could be run as a Windows service. That way, even if I was logged off of the computer I could be tweeting. For most people that might be overkill, but at work I log off when it's not business hours, and at home, each member of my family has his or her own login for the computer. If I'm logged off either one, no auto tweets. This would also solve the power outage problem I mentioned before. Maybe for version 3.0?

Overall, I really like the software! It is a tremendous step up from the previous version, which started out as just a sort of daemon for tweeting a text file; initially there was no gui at all. The dashboard is a much easier way to control the program. I know there are online options to queue up tweets, but for sheer immediacy of access and ease of use, AutoTweeterPro is a terrific option. Visit and try it out! And if you like the trial version, consider spending the small amount to register. It's worth it to remove the software's built-in limitations, and it never hurts to help support a developer who is making software you enjoy!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Google Sidewiki

A few days ago Google announced a new project of theirs: Google Sidewiki. Visit that link for details, but the gist is that if you have the Google Toolbar installed, you can browse the Web with a new sidekick on the edge of your browser. This sidekick will comment on the page you are looking at for you, and you can in turn comment on the page as well. The idea is that experts can add more information, say about a medical or science page. But any page can have a Sidewiki, and some of the information will apparently be generated automatically based on other pages, blog posts, etc. Here's Google's video about it:

This is not a particularly new idea. I remember years ago, someone introduced a browser plugin that you could use to comment directly on Web pages... almost like taking out your can of spray paint and tagging the page with your gang sign. The reason that didn't fly at the time was this: Web page owners don't WANT people adding content to their Web pages. If they did, they would add comment boxes at the bottom. By piggybacking other content onto an existing site, you're infringing on the page owner's right to control what comes up when their domain name is accessed. I don't know if there is a legal challenge there (I doubt it), but there is certainly a moral responsibility to not "walk on my lawn", so to speak. I don't remember what the name of that project was, but this post mentions a couple of other current similar

And what about pages that do already have a commenting mechanism? What about this page, for example? It looks like that's already happening... read to the bottom of this page and you'll find that the page's author wound up having to mess with two sets of comment threads, one on his page and one in the sidewiki. Kind of a pain in the neck for the page author, don't you think?

And what am I supposed to do when someone emails me and says they saw something specifically on one of my pages, but it wasn't actually there? It was in Sidewiki, and I don't know about it. Or it was in Sidewiki when they visited the page, but it has since been deleted, moved, demoted, or otherwise obscured, so now even if I look at Sidewiki, I still don't see it. Users are not always educated very well in the tools they're using; this adds a layer of complexity that I'm not interested in trying to deal with.

I can't imagine how Google will deal with exceptions to the standard "rules" in Web page design: dynamically-generated pages and pages that utilize frames, for example. I know frames are oh-so-1997, but I was just updating a framed site for a friend of mine. Does Sidewiki follow the frame on the left, or the frame on the right? I hope the one on the right, because that's where the content is. But do I as the Webmaster have any control over what page Sidewiki follows? I don't think so.

In order to see the Sidewiki, you apparently have to be using Google Toolbar in your browser (actually, it looks like it may have to be this special version of the toolbar). I am not interested in adding toolbars to my browsers. I use tons of Firefox add-ons, but not toolbars. Why? Because a toolbar is a jack-of-all-trades, and we know how many things a JOAT is a master of. I would MUCH rather pick and choose only the "tools" I want to use rather than have a whole "toolbar" foisted on me. As often as not, they are resource hogs, and the last thing I need is one more piece of software eating my CPU cycles and dragging down my performance. So I avoid toolbars, and unless Google comes out with a Firefox add-in to see their Sidewiki (and since they've created a public API, I'm sure someone will do it very soon), I probably won't ever see it... and even if I do eventually see it, it will be only to protect the content of my own pages, not as a willing participant.


My first post on my new tech blog. Nobody's going to read it... nobody knows the blog is here. What to say, what to say?

Well, I'm setting up this blog because there is generally no place on my other blogs for stuff about technology. Web sites, gadgets, even legislation and other offline stuff. And sometimes I hear about that stuff. Then I want to talk about it. But I haven't had anyplace to do so. Until now! I'm basically just a regular guy... never even been to Silicon Valley, never worked for a big technology company. Just been around the block a few times. Maybe someone cares what I have to say. Do you?

Add me to your RSS feeds, follow me in Google Reader or Google Friend Connect, follow my Twitter feed for updates, or just check in every once in a while. It should be fun!