The best way to create screencast demo videos

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After working for years on Final Cut Studio, I've always turned to Final Cut and Motion when I need to produce demo videos, using Snapz Pro X to capture the screen. I needed to do some Windows capturing this week, so those weren't an option. Instead Nick Napp recommended I check out Camtasia, and I've been very impressed. It's got extremely limited functionality and flexibility compared to a professional editing suite, but its laser-sharp focus on a single workflow makes it a dream to use if you're producing screen-casts. Here's how it works.

Start by loading the program, and clicking on the New Screen Recording button in the welcome panel:

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That brings up the Camtasia Recorder program. After you select an area, you can start the capture process by clicking the Record button that appears at the bottom right. Even running through Parallels on my MacBook Pro, the capture process didn't noticeably affect application performance.

Once you've run through the steps you want to demonstrate, press F10 to stop the recording. As soon as it's done, a preview of what you've just captured will play back. That's a great chance to do a sanity check on your material, to make sure you've captured the right area and everything seems roughly correct. If you're happy with what you've got, click on the Save button to store the video.

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Choose Edit my recording from the options dialog, and click OK to begin a new project based around that movie. Leave the options at their defaults, except for SmartFocus, which I prefer to turn off and rescale, rather than having it automatically crop based on the area you're working with.

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You'll then see a timeline and canvas layout appear, that will seem very familiar to anyone who's used a video editor. The actual tools you get for editing are a bit primitive, with cut, trim and split and not much else. What really makes the app is their task-based UI:

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They've created custom UI for the dozen most common tasks you'd need to do when editing a screencast demo. Each of these is a modal interface that guides you through the process, offering a small set of targeted options specifically for the job at hand. For example the Voice narration section will extend a hold frame of the current clip to match the length of your audio.

Probably my single favorite feature is the Zoom-n-Pan control panel. It's surprisingly hard to handle scaling and cropping to a specific area of a video even with the slick UI of Motion, though using a camera with the new 3D helps. To move to a small area of the screen in Camtopia, all you need to do is select the region, choose how fast to move to it, and the program handles figuring out the animation needed to get that result.

Once you're satisfied with the look of your piece, you can move on to producing the final output. I was again very impressed by the targeted options. Being able to render directly to a self-contained flash video for the web was a lot easier than my previous hand-tweaking of codecs in QuickTime Player. Even better, the options it used resulted in a file that only took up a few MB for a minute of video, with no noticeable artifacts.

Overall, I really liked the thought that had obviously gone into designing Camtasia. It's no competition for a professional editor if you're producing a general feature, but it's perfect for the job it's designed for, producing screencast demos.

How to read Outlook data from Java

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Photo by Tom Anthony

I recently came across MoyoSoft's Java Outlook Connector. I haven't tried it myself, but if you've got a Java project that could benefit from accessing all that lovely data held in Outlook, it looks like a perfect fit. It lets you read messages, calendar entries, contacts and send mails, pretty much everything that's exposed by Outlook's native OOM API.

They offer a free evaluation version, code examples and a demo application if you want to check it out for yourself. Even if you've got a web-based service, this looks like a great way to create a downloadable app to import contact information from Outlook.

10 tools definining the future of email

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Photo by Don Solo

Email's the dominant way of communicating on the internet, but our tools for dealing with it have barely changed in a decade. Here's the services I think will define whole new ways of working with email over the next few years, let me know any I missed in the comments:

One of the pioneers of email productivity, ClearContext's Outlook add-in offers dozens of targeted tools to help you get the information you need faster. It's progressing towards a whole new interface to email, one that's several steps beyond a plain list of subject lines.

I only recently came across Sherman Dickman and his team, but the mail client they're developing hits my buttons. Being able to search, sort and categorize your email through a modern interface makes it possible to do more in less time, and uncover hidden information. I'm looking forward to trying it once they open up the beta.

Unlike a lot of the other tools here, IWantSandy isn't a new way of reading your emails. Instead, you can control a lot of scheduling, appointments and tasks by emailing requests to their service. In geek terms, it's like a command-line interface through email to the system. Email's a great interface if you want quick and easy access to an application. Like Twitter, the minimalism it enforces keeps everything very simple. I'm hoping to see a lot more applications take this approach.

The team have been making great strides trying to do something different inside Outlook, with lots of innovative features like their contact ranks. Recently they've narrowed in on search as their primary focus, based on user feedback. That definitely makes sense, being able to search effectively is almost always the first killer app for any massive data set whether it's the web or email.

I recently covered the great features that OtherInbox offers for organizing your non-human email. Our inboxes have become the entry point for a lot of information other than personal messages, the only way to keep them useful is to have some sort of organizer like this. I wonder if there will ever be a standard for identifying and classifying these auto-mails, like the list-serv id?

Google's initial implementation of web mail was stunning, with their conversation sorting and search all spot on. I've been worried that they haven't built on that, but recently their Google Labs has shown some promising initiatives, bringing out new and useful services like canned responses.

A beta which garnered rave reviews from testers, but then disappeared into the vaults of Redmond never to be seen again, Knowledge Network analyzed email to identify experts. I'm hoping that the technology will resurface as part of Exchange or Outlook, it seems like a big step forward.

Similar to Knowledge Network, Tacit mine a company's email to identify experts, and connect them with people in need of help. I've heard very good things from users of their system, but it still seems little-known.

Focused on Enterprise Relationship Discovery, essentially building a LinkedIn style network automatically for an organization from their email patterns. Contact Networks were recently bought by Thompson, I'm hoping that those new resources will help them press forward building out their system. Like expertise, relationships between people are reflected in email content, and at the moment that useful information is being ignored by most organizations.

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I have my own startup building new email tools for the enterprise, since I'm convinced there's a lot of new ground to cover. If you're at Defrag, come on over and I'll show you more.

OtherInbox eats bacn

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OtherInbox is a slick new service for handling all the email that isn't quite spam, but isn't from a real person either. Bacn is the cute term for all those Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn notifications that you did sign up for, but you also don't care about as much as hand-written emails from your friends. OtherInbox aims to separate the wheat from the chaff by diverting all those automatic messages into their service, where they're organized into a simple interface with rules that understand most of the major senders. For example, you'll see that you have 3 new Twitter followers and 2 LinkedIn requests, rather than seeing them appear as mails scattered through your inbox.

For each organization sending you bacn, you change your email address to <company name>@<your name>.otherinbox.com. Then, instead of checking your email, you can log into OtherInbox and see all your updates at a glance. This should be a real time-saver, since only human emails will pop up in your mail program and grab your attention, and you can just check OtherInbox once a day.

Joshua Baer's been hacking on email for the last 10 years, so it's not surprising he's implementing a lot of cunning ideas through the service. More than just organizing bacn, he's also opening up a geeky practice to the masses; using unique user names to identify mail from different sources. They're scanning list-serv ids to automatically sort mailing lists, and providing RSS feeds of your notifications. There's a few glitches with the beta version, it files mails from my friends at Apple as bacn, but nothing that's more than a inconvenience. Overall, using it has been a very pleasant experience. It's still in private beta, but invite codes are possible to track down. [Update, they've passed along 25 to me here]

The ancient world of email has been drafted for all web services' communications, and that extra load has made it less useful. OtherInbox is a glimpse into a better future, where we have a smarter interface than a raw list of subject lines to help us deal with our messages.

When public relations defeated the Bubonic Plague

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Photo by Hukuzatuna

Last night I finished Plague Ports, a history of the third Bubonic Plague epidemic as it swept the globe a hundred years ago. It was a fascinating story, but one thing that really struck me was the role of public relations in saving lives. Geek culture has a negative view of marketing, something that was shared with the 'progressive' technocrats in charge of medicine at the turn of the century.

Medical officers in places like Cape Town, Honolulu, San Francisco and Rio were given sweeping emergency powers to do whatever they considered necessary to stop the plague. They had firm ideas based on the science of the time, some solid, like the use of vaccines, and others that have been proven false, such as the use of quarantine to prevent person-to-person contagion. With good intentions, they used their authority to impose these ideas on the local population, drafting squads to keep people from leaving their neighborhoods, forcibly disinfecting their belongings and demolishing houses.

Predictably the racist views that were common meant that much of the blame was heaped on low-status groups like the blacks in Brazil and South Africa, and the Chinese in the US. In Honolulu this culminated in the burning of the entire Chinatown district, and in South Africa it was the impetus behind the first formal apartheid segregation of groups into different residential areas.

Equally predictably, all the policies provoked resistance from the general population, especially those most affected by the measures. In Brazil, the Vaccination Revolt grew out of the popular resistance to enforced vaccination, and almost toppled the government. Less spectacular but more deadly was the widespread concealment of plague cases from the authorities, for fear of the imprisonment of anybody who knew them, and the defilement of their corpses by autopsies and quicklime burials. In San Francisco, 100% of the nearly 400 cases were fatal, a strong indication that many more were concealed by the Chinese community, and only the dead were revealed.

This all meant the plague's spread was effectively unchecked, and spread to far more victims than it would have if the best procedures known at the time had been followed. The big exception to this pattern of failure was in Sydney, Australia. J. Ashburton Thompson was in charge, and despite relying on almost exactly the same tactics as the other cities, was able to successfully implement them and so save hundreds of lives. What was his secret? He effectively communicated with everyone involved!

For example, when he'd implemented a quarantine, he went into the area, heard that people were clamoring for food, and arranged for the restaurants to serve everyone. He then hired the people from within the affected district for a good wage to disinfect their own neighborhood, rather than trucking in squads from outside. He organized a rat eradication program, explaining why it was necessary. His vaccination clinic was over-subscribed, to the extent that there was a near-riot by enthusiastic would-be patients. Unlike most of the other efforts, his was voluntary, but he sold people on it being a good idea. When some politicians balked at the price of his rat program, he organized a media campaign through the newspapers, and successfully pressured the government into agreeing.

I think as a community, we engineers are a lot like those technocrats, with deep knowledge in niches which most people don't understand at all. That makes impatience with their ignorance extremely tempting. It's obvious to us what needs doing, why should we have to spend precious time explaining it to those dolts? Let's just implement it!

User-adoption failure is the inevitable result. The users will sabotage any plan they don't buy into, guaranteed. A well-communicated message on how your product helps them is the first and most vital part of your user interface. Thompson shows us how rare and powerful having that real dialog with your stakeholders is.

Share your company’s expertise with SAVO

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Mark Dascoli recently introduced me to SAVO, a system that aims to super-charge your salesforce by putting them in touch with the smart people and helpful documents you've already got hidden in your business. After my time at Apple, I'm obsessed with the potential for getting more done just by connecting the right individuals, so it's cheering to see a company based on that premise doing so well.

Their software is aimed at front-line sales reps, and works a bit like a traditional sales portal, offering example presentations, marketing material and tips. Most wikis and other user-curated systems like this rapidly degenerate into a tangled mess, requiring 'archaeological skills' to dig down and uncover anything useful. SAVO try to avoid this by letting users rank and comment on content, and with a tagging system to keep things organized.

What really seems intriguing is their insight that what makes a great sales rep is a deep network within the company, letting them reach out to the right experts at each point in the sales process. For example, being able to answer a customer's technical question might be the key to closing a deal, but that could mean knowing who to contact about an obscure aspect of product knowledge. They give reps a directory of expertise they can search, with is a huge step forward from relying on years of water-cooler osmosis to figure out who's who.

They also have some smart interface ideas, like being able to cc the system on any email exchange to add it as content. Savoscreenshot2

This seems exactly the right way to go. A lot of my email exchanges were about technical points that would be useful as searchable resources within the company, but weren't worth the effort to tidy up and create as a web page.

My work with Mailana is based on taking that approach a step further, by automating the creation of an expertise directory by analyzing the company's email, and using the same process to make external contacts outside the company a sharable resource.

We're all aware of the potential of web technologies within companies, but there haven't been a lot of solid success stories. I'm very pleased to see SAVO out there validating us by making money!

Screen sharing with no installation

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Sharing your screen is better than a 1000 words of explanation, and I do it constantly both for demos and track down problems remotely. The problem is that screen-sharing software has traditionally been a nightmare to use. Apple has refined its remote desktop functionality, but it's still definitely a geek application, with a space-shuttle control panel of options. What I want is something that just works, with no messing around and zero configuration.

I've long been a fan of CrossLoop, and know Mrinal Desai, one of their founders, very well. Crossloop lets you run the app on two machines, using a simple PIN to identify your session and connect. It's still my favorite for doing one-to-one debugging sessions between two Windows machines, but I recently came across Yuuguu, and I'll now be using it any time I need to demo. What's so great about it?

Flash-based viewing. The host needs to install the application, but then any viewers just need to visit the sharing page, enter their PIN and name, and they'll see your screen in the browser. This opens the door to friction-free demos, no longer do I have to ask busy people to download and install anything before I can show them what I'm doing.

Cross-platform. Viewing is inherently cross-platform, since it's using Flash, but they've also gone to a lot of trouble to port the host to OS X and Linux as well as Windows.

Multiple viewers. You can have several people logged in as viewers, and I haven't noticed any slowdown, unlike some traditional VNCs where extra connections increase the load on your outbound traffic. This makes it perfect for doing demos or training.

Built-in IM. They've got a chat window integrated into the host and the viewer, making it simple to communicate with the attendees.

British. Ok, so I'm biased, but I remember how hard it could be to get noticed in the tech world from the UK. It's great to see them producing such an innovative product, I want to see them succeed.

I do have a few niggles of course. I wish the share URL had the PIN included, eg http://share.yuuguu.com/?pin=12345678, rather than having to cut and paste twice. The UI is aimed at a pro audience, so I found it confusing initially, CrossLoop is a lot more approachable for non-techies. The presence of two 'Show' buttons (one when a person joins, and a master one) stopped me until I realized I had to press the second one too. And the 'Person X has left' notifications seemed to appear many minutes after they'd actually closed their browsers. It would be nice to get a faster refresh speed too.

These are all just rough edges though. I'll be using this a lot for demos and meetings going forward, it's a wonderful piece of software. They'll have a booth at Defrag if you want to see it in person.