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ATPM 9.08
August 2003



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by Matt Coates,

Mac OS X’s Quiet Little Killer Application

Ever so quietly, a little-known application has exploited a little-known feature of Mac OS X and solved one of the great problems of computing. At least for me, anyway.

The application is called Xnippets—it’s a play on the word snippets—and the OS X feature is services. The problem requires some history:

When I collect articles and other bits and pieces of text from Web sites, text files, and e-mail, I want to be able to grab the text quickly and easily and store it in a useful format. I want a minimum of screen clutter. I want some way to organize the stuff. And I don’t want to wade through a zillion features that I will never use.

Over the years, I’ve tried many potential solutions, but none has proved completely satisfactory. I’ve saved a few Web pages as archives—ads and all—but it’s an awkward solution. I’ve printed Web pages and e-mails, cluttering my office with stacks of paper I will never get around to filing.

I’ve dragged text onto the desktop to create clipping files, which are nifty for quick reference but not very useful otherwise. Clipping text isn’t selectable; you must drag the clipping document itself into an open text document, such as one created by Word or TextEdit. Too many steps.

The electronic Post-It-style notes created by Apple’s Stickies application had some promise. They are visually appealing—you can decorate them in a variety of colors and format the text, too. You can even make the notes translucent. But Stickies suffers a peculiar design flaw: you can’t selectively open notes—either all are open or none is. If you try to close a single sticky note by clicking its close box, you are offered the choice of saving the note as a text file or deleting it; closing it in the traditional sense is not an option. The more you use Stickies, the more a flock of notes obscures your screen. They can’t be organized, and getting a second monitor seems a rather ostentatious solution.

A program called StickyBrain looked like a keeper. It’s an oddball thing, this StickyBrain—Post-It-like notes paired with a browser-like search engine. Information is collected from documents or the Web via contextual menus or hot keys. StickyBrain works very well; it has potential to become my filing cabinet of choice because its search engine is smart enough to let you dump everything into loosely-defined piles.

But StickyBrain is weirdly intimidating: it has too many features to keep straight and the interface needs some polishing. Although its basics can be mastered quickly, StickyBrain requires a commitment that I’m apparently not ready to make. I either forget to use it or forget what I stored in it.

The End of the Quest?

And that brings us back to Xnippets from MacTelligence, a suburban Philadelphia software company specializing in OS X applications and WebObjects development. It’s the most useful text grabbing and organizing program I’ve found.


Xnippets has an iApps-like interface. There’s a resizable main window, a sliding tray displaying list of documents, and the minimum number of buttons and controls you need to get the job done.

Xnippets is the iTunes of text. It’s a collector, file cabinet, and “player” all in one. And, as with iTunes, the actual content files are tucked away out of view. When you grab text with Xnippets, a text file with a name all in numbers is created and stashed in a folder in the user’s Library. You see the file’s friendlier name in the sliding tray’s list. Click a document name and the text appears in the big window.

You can get text into Xnippets all of the usual ways including pasting, drag-and-drop, and by typing it in. But it’s Mac OS X services that makes Xnippets special.

At Your Services

Services are the forgotten feature of OS X. Although they have been around as long as the OS has, until recently there wasn’t much use for them. The arrival of Safari changed that by giving applications such as Xnippets something to do.

Services allow applications to work behind the scenes with minimal action by the user. You’ll find the Services menu under the first menu to the right of the Apple menu—the menu with the active application’s name. Click the Services menu item, and a submenu pops out to reveal services which come with OS X and any you have installed. (In Microsoft Word and some other programs, all the services are disabled. In these cases, the developer has not put in the extra effort required to support services.)

Although there are services to perform many different functions, from opening URLs, to searching the iTunes Music Store, to sending files via Bluetooth, they are most useful in manipulating text and that’s what most available services do.

Safari is not the only Web browser which can use services (OmniWeb can, although Internet Explorer cannot), but it is the services-compatible browser that almost all Mac OS X users have. Xnippets is one more reason to dump IE sooner rather than later.

Suppose while checking out a Mac news Web site you find an article you’d like to keep. Just select the text you want and choose Safari>Services>Xnippets>Save as Xnippet. The text instantly pops up in the Xnippets window, using the first few words of the text as the document name.

You take a break from gathering information to check your e-mail using OS X’s Mail. A pal has forwarded you a press release with information about a new sound card you’ve been waiting for. You select the text of the press release, visit the Services menu, and presto: the press release is added to your Xnippets collection. No copying, no pasting.

Xnippets’ clean, straightforward interface makes it a great tool for students, researchers, and writers because all the text is in one place when you start working with the saved documents. You can organize your documents in the sliding tray into folders and change the order in which the documents and folders are listed. At last, there’s no more need to wander through folders full of text files or screens full of Stickies.

Xnippets has a quality competitor called DEVONthink, a similar program with more bells and whistles that sells for $35 compared with $15 for Xnippets. And StickyBrain will no doubt at some point take advantage of services, too.

But I’ll stick with Xnippets. I owe it to the little program that brought my quest to an end. Give Xnippets a try. It’s terrific software and a great introduction to the hidden powers of Mac OS X services.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (14)

Horace · August 12, 2003 - 10:25 EST #1
MacJournal is a freeware application that is very similar. It has replaced the Scrapbook, Stickies, and Notepad for me. It never crashes, it backs up your data automatically, and you can use it for more than text. It even exports your entries into an HTML document. MacJournal has also always taken advantage of Services.
Drew Johnson · August 12, 2003 - 10:44 EST #2
Very cool program and article. Thanks for the great tip on this program. It will definitely come in handy.
Kirby · August 12, 2003 - 10:49 EST #3
I also use MacJournal as an organizer. It's simple to understand and easy to organize your information.
Marc · August 12, 2003 - 13:22 EST #4
I have been using NotePad Deluxe from Ibrium HB since System 7.5 days. It seems to function very similarly to Xnippets. It apparently does not use Services, but e-mail and URLs can be accessed directly from its text. It is at least as easy to use as Xnippets. It costs more ($25), but I have been very pleased with it for all these years, so it has been worth the money.
Brett Johnson · August 12, 2003 - 13:42 EST #5
Services are one of the most powerful concepts introduced in NextStep. Dead simple in concept and implementation, it is much more about understanding the philosophy and model of Services. Like your snippet example, some problems are rendered trivial by using the right model of implementation.

Although Services were leveraged heavily in NextStep and OpenStep, the concept was new and foreign to the Classic Mac developer (and, more importantly, the user). In fact, early versions of OS X did not support Services for Carbon apps.

I don't consider Safari the breakthrough for Services. In fact, it inadvertently clobbered the keyboard shortcut for the "Define in Dictionary" Service (Cmd =) with a redundant mapping for "Increase Font Size" (Cmd +).

I am disappointed with Apple's support of Services in its own iApps. For instance, AddressBook and iCal should supply Services to search and add contacts and calendar events. iPhoto should have a service to add an embedded image to a photo collection.
CanonRon · August 12, 2003 - 13:55 EST #6
"In Microsoft Word and some other programs, all the services are disabled. In these cases, the developer has not put in the extra effort required to support services."

I believe that the issue here is that these are Carbon apps which are not able to make use of Services. Cocoa apps are all ready to go. E.g., since even Appleworks 6.x is Carbon, it can't use Services. I wish more and more apps were Cocoa and used Services, which makes the same feature available throughout the system, regardless of an app or its features--speech, sending something as an e-mail, etc. I thrive on Services.

InTouchWith, which updates the System 7.x-era Apple Menu PIM InTouch, makes excellent use of Services and appears in the Services drop-down menu like Xnippets. As I read your description, it could function like Xnippets, but without the more elegant interface.
Michael Tsai (ATPM Staff) · August 12, 2003 - 14:05 EST #7
CanonRon: That is a common misconception. In fact, Carbon applications can use services.
anonymous · August 12, 2003 - 22:35 EST #8
When I downloaded and unstuffed the Xnippets software, the date in the Finder for Xnippets.dmg is 10/13/28. Decidedly forward thinking software...or backwards.
Matt Coates (ATPM Staff) · August 12, 2003 - 22:52 EST #9
Michael Tsai is right, Carbon applications can use services, but very few do. Appleworks COULD use services, Apple just hasn't given it that power.

I share Brett Johnson's annoyance that Apple hasn't done more with services; he makes some good suggestions on how they might be used in the iApps.

Still, as Brett notes, the concept of services is closely related to the philosophy of the user experience championed by both NeXT and Apple. The ability that services give the user (albeit currently somewhat limited) to pull bits of software know-how from multiple sources revives some of the faded promise of a great idea: document-centric computing.

Alas, it was yet another great idea done in by market realities. Services, with their more modest ambitions, should fare better.

And it's worth noting that Apple uses services quite a bit behind the scenes -- OS X's spell-check feature, for example, is a service.
Chris Oslo · August 13, 2003 - 09:31 EST #10
Thanks for the article! For the first time ever, an article about "handy tools" identified a real need I have (though I wasn't fully aware of it), and presented a tool I imediately wanted. MacJournal looked good too, so one or the other will be on my machine tomorrow.
LB · August 13, 2003 - 15:57 EST #11
AquaMinds NoteTaker and Circus Ponies NoteBook are two other contenders (both sharing the same NeXT origin, by the way). NoteTaker even provides some trickery to clip from Office apps.
Tony · August 29, 2003 - 17:51 EST #12
Hog Bay Notebook is another application that does what Xnippets does.
J.W. · September 1, 2003 - 11:11 EST #13
Although Xnippets is nice, MacJournal is the way to go. It's open source (i.e., free) and its author, Dan Schrimpf, is very responsive and friendly to questions. It can be found at his homepage.
Kate · October 6, 2003 - 14:41 EST #14
There's also iOrganize. Very nice!

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