Talking about Leap

Tagamac is launching a new section of the site! Called “Mac tagging”, this section will house articles and more focused on tagging specifically in Mac OS X with desktop software (as opposed to the articles about general tagging principles in the General section or newsbites about software updates).

Leap To kick things off, I’ve got a special treat for you: an interview with Tom Andersen, one of the two developers of Leap, a new application for tagging your file system. I don’t generally go in for interviews, but the recently released Leap public beta made me pretty curious and I decided to head to the source. Tom reveals where Leap is heading before the final 1.0 release, explains why you need to ditch your complex Finder hierarchies, and describes why Cover Flow in Leopard is not actually your friend.

Tagamac: First off, can you say a bit about who you are and what you do? Who are those men behind all that Ironic Software?

Tom: Ted Leckie, Tom Andersen (that’s me), and – that’s it! Just two people. We are a little on the technical side, since we both like to program full time. Our programming pasts have been largely linked together, since we wrote Starry Night from 1995 to about 2003. Then we went off to try and start another company, and then in mid 2006, we started working on our PDF manager, Yep. Ted and I won a couple of Apple Design awards for Starry Night. Ted handles most of the UI coding and layout, etc, while I tend to do the ‘under the hood’ stuff.

Tagamac: Few software developers have turned out even one solid tagging application, and you’re right on the cusp of releasing your second. What draws you to tagging?

Tom: I think that the big thing is that sinking feeling that you get when you have to navigate to a file using the Finder. Tagging gives you many paths to get to the same file. By paths here I mean it like this: with a document tagged ‘green, environment, idea, and boston’, you can get to the document by using a path in any order: green/idea/environment/boston will give you the same set of documents as /boston/green/idea/environment.

Tagamac: Okay, enough with the chit-chat; let’s talk Leap. In thirty seconds or less, how is Leap going to change the world (or my computer, which is the same thing, really)?

Tom: We want to free you from the file hierarchy.
The thing that you are actually working on, be it an email, word document, ad layout, etc, gets relegated to 2nd place in your head while you concentrate on the mundane task of descending a file hierarchy. People don’t remember /Users/tandersen/Documents/Ironic/business plan/ideas/plan template.pdf; instead, they remember the ‘blue PDF in ironic’. With the Finder you have to navigate the whole hierarchy, only to find out you went to the wrong path. Then you do a search (how do you search for blue?) and end up with 100 PDFs that mention template in them. Not good. With Leap it’s two clicks – clicks without thinking.

We want to help you manage thousands of files.
The hierarchical system for storing documents was created when 1000 documents was a lot, and people managed only a few per day. Now we have a hundred (more or less) files a day coming at us (if you include emails). With Leap, click on Images, and you can see where on your computer your 17,068 images are located. Just poking around a bit, I found folders with tens of thousands of files that I have no interest in clogging up my laptop.

We help you find files using Spotlight with more than a content search.
The Spotlight find commands in Leap allow you to search for file name only, file type, then filter more on contents, etc. Apple’s Finder allows you to do some of these things, but the interface is so slow and clumsy that most of the time people don’t bother. How many saved searches do you use on your computer?

Tagamac: Honestly, I’ve created two but I never use either of them. Point taken.

As far as I know, Leap is the only tagging software that bills itself as a Finder replacement. How has Leap replaced or substituted for the Finder in your own lives?

Tom: I use Leap to manage our web site. When I click on the website, I immediately see all files in the web site, without having to dig into all the ‘images’ folders. It is easy to spot the HTML I want to edit as it is fully rendered. The hierarchy of files that you need to develop a web site hides the files from you. As a programmer, I use it when looking at large software projects. Drop a project folder that you have never seen on Leap, and you can see that there are 25 .cpp files, 10 .c files, and 100 images all at a glance. It really speeds up the ‘getting up to speed process’. It also works well when you decide to look at a project that you yourself worked on a few years ago.

We are not even sure about the ‘Finder replacement’ label – there are lots of jobs that the Finder does that we have no interest in duplicating.

Tagamac: What inspired Leap’s creation?

Tom: We decided to build a iPhoto for PDFs application (Yep), learned about the power of tags, some of our users wanted more file types, and so we started to work on Leap.

Tagamac: Leap and its older cousin Yep share a certain amount of visual similarity. What good points from Yep did you craft into Leap? What Yep features didn’t make the cut?

Tom: Yep uses a tag cloud and an iPhoto-like view to show you all the PDFs. That was the core we wanted to keep. Yep, being a PDF manager has a lot of PDF-only tools in it, like our reader and the scanner interface. These two things did not make it into Leap – Leap is not a file viewer. We show you thumbnails, and on Leopard we will show you the Quick Look for a document.

Tagamac: Do you see Leap replacing Yep as people’s primary tag-based PDF manager? Or have you tried to leave space for more specific tagging solutions?

Tom: I see people using Yep to manage and track their PDFs, just like iPhoto works for photos. Some people deal with a lot of paper – be it downloaded scientific papers or scanned-in PDFs of actual paper. A dedicated tool that does not make you scan into a dreary OS 9 like application will always have a place. We want Yep to grow. Scanning on the Mac is a complete disaster. There are no good driver models, no support for many scanners, and no good OCR solution. Also, we think that our PDF viewer can be improved.

Tagamac: Do Leap and Yep recognize one another’s tags?

Tom: The beta of Leap imports tags from Yep on startup. We don’t let our beta application write into the tags of Yep. It will all work together when, or very shortly after, Leap ships 1.0.

Tagamac: So how well does Leap play with the other kids? Are Leap tags and so forth searchable via Spotlight?

Tom: We are working on this in a big way for the next beta. Many of popular tagging solutions use Spotlight comments to store tags. There are lots of issues with this system, but we have found some great ways to get it working well with Leap. With Spotlight, if you do a Spotlight search outside of Leap for a tag that you have entered into Leap, you get a result back showing how many documents have that tag within Leap. Also with the next beta, your tags will usually be up-to-date in the Spotlight comments, so individual results will also show up there.

Tagamac: Does Leap support or import tags from other popular tagging programs, such as Punakea, TagBot, or EagleFiler?

Tom: TagBot and other Spotlight tagging programs will be supported really well in Leap 1.0. Also, we are all for what the people who work on Punakea are trying to do – we want a stable, fast, simple tagging system that all applications can use. Spotlight comments will not work for the long haul.

Tagamac: I have to admit, that there’s a few nerds out there who like tagging (like me). Can you tell us a bit about how Leap stores tags? Is it xattr attributes? A specialized database? Magic?

Tom: Leap 1.0 stores tags in up to two places. One will be the Spotlight comments for the files, and the other is in an XML datafile that is not laid out like rocket science. What this means is that if your hard drive gets wiped but you can find a copy of the XML file that you backed up, you can restore all your tags to all your Spotlight comments, etc. This XML file is what we want to get out of managing. Apple needs to create a tagging database. They did it for Address Book a long time ago. I can’t figure out the resistance…

Tagamac: I know from my own use of the Leap beta that the Loupe tool is one of Leap’s most interesting graphical tools. Care to brag a bit? Maybe tell explain why the loupe is preferable to, say, fancy-schmancy Cover Flow?

Tom: When you watch an old crime show on TV, they never pull out a flip book with one picture per page, and then have the witness flip through it. Flip books do not work on a computer either (for search). With our system, your brain can pick out the candidates from our thumbnail view, and then the Loupe can be used to see that you have the correct document.

Tagamac: Care to share any pie-in-the-sky ideas that you have for Leaps of the future?

Tom: With Leopard, it is really neat how fast results come in over the network, since Leopard supports Spotlight queries over the LAN. I think that it will be easy to set Leap up in an office environment and a shared server. All the clients can then be set up to ‘see and search’ the files on the server, with a minimum of network bandwidth.

Tagamac: And finally, what didn’t I ask about that you’re dying to tell us?

Tom: I guess it would be Leopard again. The other reason that we got into developing Leap was that we were very unimpressed when we saw the Leopard Finder. Knowing what the technology could do, and where things were going, we really expected more. When you run the Leopard Finder, you can really tell it is the same old Finder, with Cover Flow and some more Spotlight bolted on. We know that the computer can do more. All those billions of cycles and bits are supposed to be there to help you.

Tagamac: Thank you for the interview, and good luck with Leap!