Sunday, September 07, 2008

Love Buxfer. Use Twitter. So why not Twixfer?

Today I sat down to find out a different use for Javascript. Browsed through my everyday task list, found out a couple of candidates, and targeted Buxfer transaction creation. I'm also growing fond of Ubiquity, for the Firefox browser (and is now the most important reason I'm not moving to Google's Chrome, but I digress). This post, despite being about a Buxfer contribution, will be more about the Ubiquity development process I underwent.

So let me explain what I aimed for. Ubiquity allows to enter text controls, with auto completion in a HUD over the Firefox window. So I wanted to do something similar to what Bruno Lopes did with his BuxferSubmit Dashboard widget (for Mac OSX) - plain simple addition of a Buxfer transaction, with a description and an amount. All I have to do is (after having Ubiquity installed and running) to setup a Javascript file with a piece of code I'll explain hereafter.

The heart of a Ubiquity command is defined with the commandfunction CmdUtils.CreateCommand(argument-object). This is, in fact, the only call you have to make in that file to set things up. So what's in an argument literal object? the basic attributes, like the name of the command, it's description or the icon to identify it (quite useful!). But there are a few arguments that deserve special attention

  • execute. This must be a function with no arguments that is responsible for doing whatever the command is supposed to do after <return> is pressed.
  • preview. This is the function that is called at each key press on the Ubiquity HUD, to compute the string that appears to help the user find out what the command is going to do.
  • takes. A description of the words the command receives, and a type for them. Each type can be specified by hand, but several are already provided, like noun_arb_text for arbitrary text or noun_type_date for a date string.
  • modifiers. These are words that offer secondary semantics to the command, and are specified just like the “takes” argument elements. Think of examples like “list-birthdays” for today's birthdays and “list-birthdays for next week”. The modifier “for” would be assigned to “next week”, and a special type can be setup to parse the string and compute the date from today.

To find examples about how to use the CreateCommand, load the following URI in Firefox: chrome://ubiquity/content/builtincmds.js (obviously only after having ubiquity up and running).

That's about it. What I found out was that the presence of a preview functionality can often be more useful than the execution of the command! Think about a currency conversion, or an algebraic expression calculation. I don't want to perform anything upon a <return>, except perhaps have the result copied to the clipboard. What I really want is to have the result appear in the HUD and change dynamically as I keep filling in the command text.

Let's move on to the implementation itself. One thing I found out quickly was that the Buxfer's APi needed a username and password to be able to post a transaction. That would be the case in most web applications I know about. But this API doesn't offer, for now, any means to open a page to ask for credentials - nor would I desire that, since I'm typing a textual command to keep the input at a minimum! Ubiquity doesn't have a thorough documentation, yet, and browsing the javascript XUL files within the chrome “filesystem” of a Firefox add-on is not something I like to call user-friendly. Why is this important? I thought the command could take a peek into the Firefox's secured passwords and use the Buxfer, without the user having to care a bit about it. But then again, an exception would have to be made in order for first timers be able to use the command… I was about to set up a proxy web service in Google's App Engine when I remembered two happy coincidences:

  • Buxfer allows Twitter messages to be sent with the same syntax as those we can send from an API (or from a cell phone).
  • Twitter has a nice API, that does exactly what I was aiming for: it points it's requests to they're site, and if you're not logged in, it asks for your credentials using HTTP Basic Authentication. This way, Firefox aks you if it may remember the password, and actually does it :)

The result: I ended up with two commands, one using the Buxfer API, and another using Twitter's. But since Twitter's the most user friendly (easier and faster to use), I'm switching my transaction input to the brand new Twixfer (It's weekend, my imagination needs some more rest to come up with a better name!). Feel free to take a peak into the homepage. The source consists of a couple of files, so I thought a Google Code project would be over-killing it… But if this thing starts to get any sort of user input/contributions, I'll gladly move it there. For now, leave comments at the Twixfer site. As usual, feel free to leave feedback about anything.

[EDIT: Today I had a tip from a gentle soul about retrieving password from Firefox's session. So Buxfer API is usable by itself, now. Check the same link and update your command, if needed. It has lots of cleaning up and code re-factoring done. Nevertheless, it was fun to toy around with the Twixfer concept!]

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Getting Things Done - the flow-chart

Here's David Allen's graph for Getting Things Done (GTD). Though to use, but has nice results!