Author Archives: Andy Brice

A Windows Developer in Mac Land

This is a guest post from fellow software developer, Simon Kravis.

Few developers would choose their development platform on the merits of their respective Integrated Development Environments (IDEs)  but it happens that applications developed in Windows need to be made available on the Mac platform.

There are many environments offering cross-platform (Mac, Windows and sometimes Android) functionality, but close inspection shows that they all have limitations.  Visual Studio (the native Windows IDE) can produce apps which will run on a Mac using .Net Core – but only if they are command line apps on Windows. Other environments (like Xamarin) do support interfaces, but only involving simple controls like text boxes or drop-downs. There are other cross-platform IDEs (such as Qt)  which offer better graphics support, but they are not cheap and the extent of their support is not evident. If you need functionality such as computer vision, there seems to be no alternative to creating a separate code base for the Mac. Once you start on this path it becomes obvious that Macs handle graphics (and interfaces) very differently from Windows.

Macs have evolved rather more than PCs over the decades: they abandoned their proprietary Mac operating system in favour of UNIX in 1999, adopting the NeXTSTEP platform created by NeXT. Apple originally used PowerPC chips, replacing them with Intel Core processors in 2006, and they are currently transitioning to RISC chips. The Mac NeXTSTEP programming language was Objective C, developed in the 1980s and this is still supported, although the modern Swift language was introduced in 2014, and the Xcode IDE appeared in 2003. Xcode is free, even for teams. It uses the Cocoa API, which is accessible from other environments. The current release (MacOS  13.0) supports both Objective-C and Swift and is also used for developing iPhone and iPad apps. Mac operating systems since Catalina (released in 2019) are 64-bit only.  Xcode can only develop apps for Apple operating systems, notably iOS, which powers the iPhone. Most of the web questions and examples relate to iOS rather than MacOS. MacOS uses different frameworks from iOS, so some functions used in iOS are not available in MacOS, or have different parameters.

The Windows IDE (Visual Studio) dates from 1997, when it bundled together Visual Basic, Visual Fox Pro and Visual Source Safe and Visual C++.  It has an open architecture based on plug-ins and supports 36 different programming languages, but the major ones are C#, VB.Net and C++. Visual Studio can develop apps for any platform via the .NetCore framework, but capability for non-Windows platforms is limited. The Community edition is free, and has almost all the functionality of paid versions.

Both Visual Studio and Xcode are highly complex applications. They both have graphical interface builders where controls are dragged from a library onto a form.  Each application has a vocal supporters and detractors. My experience comes from about 5 years with Visual Studio developing C# applications. Before this I worked with Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Access, so I am well-versed in the Microsoft way of doing things.

Like most complex applications, Visual Studio and Xcode each have plenty of bugs, often producing completely unhelpful error messages. Reporting an Xcode bug through standard channels resulted in … nothing. Not even an automated message saying “Thank you for feedback. It will be used to improve future versions”. I haven’t even tried to report a Visual Studio bug, but I suspect that the much larger user base for Visual Studio will mean that workarounds are more readily available, even if the giant ship of Microsoft takes years to respond.

Moving to the Mac and Xcode for development was a shock as I found I didn’t know how to do the most basic things. String manipulation (used in most applications) in Objective C is highly verbose compared to C#. Google was invaluable for finding answers – mostly they were from Stack Overflow, but often from 10 or more years ago, sometimes from Apple Developer Forums. As Xcode has changed considerably since then, answers often had to be adjusted before they could be used.  Another problem is that functionality once provided externally has since been incorporated into Cocoa, so attempts to find a current version of a component (or framework as they called in Cocoa) are often unsuccessful.

MacOS provides more native functionality than Windows. Features such as computer vision and PDF generation are included in MacOS, rather than requiring the use of 3rd party components, which may not as robust as desired, and may require a license for commercial use. However, documentation of MacOS functionality, if present at all, was rarely useful. A few times I asked questions on Stack Overflow which attracted the ire of the Mac gurus for either through having obvious (to them) answers or through not conforming to the forum guidelines (in their opinion). However, the integration of NuGet with Visual Studio provides easy access to the massive number of 3rd party  libraries available for .Net on Windows.

The model-view-controller paradigm used on the Mac took some getting used to, as did the design of the main Xcode screen. Sometimes a useful display would disappear and I had difficulty in finding it how to bring it back. I often had to resort to retrieving earlier versions from the excellent Time Machine backup.  Form design is similar on both platforms – dragging and dropping components from a library. Both Xcode and Visual Studio have bugs, as would be expected for such complex apps. Events from components are generated automatically in Windows, but have to be defined on the Mac (as Actions). References to the component you’ve added also need to be defined on the Mac (as Outlets) and are not a property of the component, whereas on Windows they are.

The Xcode environment provides only basic facilities from scratch: if you need to do something more sophisticated you’ll have to Google around to find out how. Once you know – it’s easy, but the learning curve for Xcode is much higher than for Visual Studio.   

Rather than starting from scratch with the Mac version of my Caption Pro  app, which uses local computer vision functionality to detect multiple photos, changes image dimensions and adds text to images,  I found an existing open-source project on GitHub with similar basic functionality. This dated from 7 years ago and used Objective-C, so that was the language I opted for. An immediate handicap was that many of the answers I found to my questions used Swift in their example code, which is not interconvertible with Objective-C  in the way that C# and VB.Net are. iOS applications for the iPhone (which are most common) use different frameworks from Mac apps, and routines in them sometimes have completely different syntax.

The user interfaces for the Mac and Windows versions look quite different, as shown below. There are some basic differences – menus appear separately to the application window on the Mac and are locked to the top of the screen, whereas Windows menus are part of the application screen. Toolbars offer access to common functionality on the Mac. Differences also arise from the fact the Mac application was adapted from existing code rather than created from scratch.

Figure 1 Windows App main screen
Figure 2 Mac App main screen

Open-source examples (often from GitHub) are useful, but rarely work out-of-the- box. Sometimes the modifications need are minor – like defining the development team-  but sometimes it’s not possible to get them to build in a current version of Xcode.

Debugging on Xcode is frustrating – the call stack frequently contains assembler (which is perhaps why app performance tends to be better on Macs), and the debug variables window does not list all relevant variable values. Variable types may not be correct – Boolean values may appear as dates, and sometimes variables cannot even be evaluated by po (print out) statements. Printing out structure variables may show nothing.  Despite the generally superior performance of Mac apps, building apps in Xcode appears to be much slower than in Visual Studio on similar vintage machines, and after code stops at a breakpoint, it may take a long time before the variables window is filled. Deployment of Mac apps can still be done on an ad-hoc basis, but you have to register as an Apple Developer to avoid blockages in installation arising from being an ‘untrusted source’. Bypassing these blockages is more than a matter of clicking “Install anyway” so it’s hard to avoid forking out US$100 per year for registration. Windows has similar blockages, which can be bypassed with a code-signing certificate. These certificates are available from many vendors, and are slightly cheaper than Apple developer registration, but the process of obtaining one may be very involved.

Ad-hoc deployment is somewhat easier on the Mac than on Windows, but the method of doing it via Archive generation is anything but obvious. Mac applications are actually disk images and applications keep all of relevant files in a folder. This makes uninstallation a matter of dragging the application icon into the recycle bin, a far simpler process than on Windows. dmg files are not recognized by IIS web servers (and may not be by Apache either), so unless the file type is registered, download from a web site will not be possible.

Apple pioneered the App Store for iPhones (it is the only way in which iPhone apps can be installed) and Mac apps can also be put there. Apple takes a commission of 30% (or 15% if you are a small company) and they review all apps before adding them. Passing the review process may be a lngthy process, as not all problems are detected in a review cycle. Fixing these issues and resubmitting may result in further problems coming to light.  The review process may also be somewhat arbitrary. One App Store app presented an interface in German by default. English was available as Preferences option, but only after guessing where the Preferences option was located. App Store apps operate within a sandbox, which places restrictions on filesystem operations. Whether App Store deployment makes economic sense depends on the nature of the app, its market and price structure. Its advantages are that it targets the 16% of desktop users who use Macs, and streamlines installation (and payment, if applicable). The App Store supports ‘freemium’ pricing, where additional features are made available to paying users, but apps with free trial periods are shown as being free but with ‘in-app purchases’, which annoys some users.

Windows deployment can use .msi files, which have been around for decades, but are not easily installed by non-admin users. Self-extracting executables are more tractable, but 3rd party tools have to be used to create them. Windows 10 introduced Universal Windows Programs, which are easier to install and can be placed in the Microsoft Store, which operates in a similar way to the Apple App store, but for Windows desktops and tablets.

A key question which is very difficult to answer is “How long will it take me to convert my Windows app to run on a Mac?” Factors affecting this are app complexity, functionality and programmer skill.  The time between starting work on the Mac app and first deploying it on the company web site was about 3 months, but the amount of time spent on the project each day varied between zero and 3 or 4 hours. If you are a paid resource, then the cost of a cross-platform IDE may be justified, but the requirement for local computer vision functionality added a great deal of complexity to my requirements, which is one reason why I opted for a separate code base. Substantial evaluation would be required before deciding if a cross-platform environment could support any required  functionality.

Simon Kravis runs Aleka Consulting, a small software and consultancy company in Canberra, Australia specializing in information management and offering a number of software products. He has mainly developed scientific and engineering programs, starting in the era of paper tape.

Battlesnake

I have been doing some recreational programming at play.battlesnake.com. It is a series of online leagues where you enter a program to play competitive ‘snake’.

The rules are pretty simple:

  • eat food to grow
  • die of starvation if you go too long without eating
  • die if you collide with a wall or the body of another snake
  • die if you collide head-on with another snake that if of equal size or bigger
  • last snake standing wins the match

There are also some variants, such as ‘royale’ where hazards move in from the walls.

You can program your snake in pretty much any language and host it where you like. When a match starts your program recieves JSON data with the board state and has 500 milliseconds to return either “left”, “right”, “up” or “down” for each move. You can write something super-simple (move to the nearest food, avoid other snakes) or you can get as complex as you like (machine learning or full game tree with alpha-pruning).

I have written my snake in Python (which seems appropriate) and host it on a free replit.com account. It uses a series of heuristics to decide it’s next action. It uses flood fill to assess how much space is available and A* for path finding.

You can see my snake (‘RhinoCrocoPede’) in action below, it is the purple one:

You can also see it more clearly here.

At the time of writing RhinoCrocoPede is 132nd in the global league (out of 450) and steadily rising.

The Battlesnake documentation is good and I was able to get the starter Python/Replit snake up and running in 15 minutes or so. I then just built on that. Replit is a nice online IDE. I did have issues with the free Replit account timing out. But I fixed this with a 90 day free upgrade code I found on the Battlesnake discord. This allowed me to set my REPL as ‘always’ on and ‘boosted’. I still have a fairly long ping time to the server (which is in California). This eats into my 500 milliseconds. But the time remaining is plenty for my current heuristic approach, even in Python.

If I wanted to get really serious I would rewrite my snake in C++, use a full game tree or Monte Carlo approach and host it on a fast server near the battlesnake server (to reduce ping time). But it is just a bit of fun and I don’t think I’ll get that serious.

My son has also written his own snake, which has been useful programming experience for him.

Battlesnake is really slick and well done. If you feel like doing some recreational programming, I recommend you give it a try.

SummerFest 2021

Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan Professional edition are both on sale for 25% off at Summer Festival 2021. There is also some other great products from other small vendors on sale, including Tinderbox, Scrivener and Devonthink. Most of the software is Mac only, but Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan are also available for Mac and Windows (one license covers both). Sale ends tomorrow (13-Jul-2021)!

WTF Google Ads?

Google Ads has emailed me to tell me that one of my ads has been disapproved for ‘shocking content’.

Yep, an ad for seating planning software that has been running continuously since 2011. You can see the full text of the ad above. I am at a loss to know what is shocking about it.

The following are covered under Google’s shocking content policy:

  • Promotions containing violent language, gruesome or disgusting imagery, or graphic images or accounts of physical trauma
  • Promotions containing gratuitous portrayals of bodily fluids or waste
  • Promotions containing obscene or profane language
  • Promotions that are likely to shock or scare

Er, no idea how any of those apply to my software. I don’t even see how it can even be falling foul of the Scunthorpe problem. Perhaps they are shocked how cheap it is?

This is far from my first brush with this sort of thing from Google Ads. Back in 2015 I was told that hyperlinking from my domain to any another domain was a breach of Adwords policy. Since 2005 I have paid Google tens of thousands of pounds to run ads on their system. In return they have wasted loads of my time with endless changes to the platform and arbitary and erroneous enforcement of their own policies. They feel less like a partner and more like an enemy.

I’m not too bothered about one ad being dissaproved. Especially during COVID, where almost no face-to-face events are happening anywhere in the world. But experience shows they will probably start disapproving many more over the next few weeks. I have clicked the link to appeal the disapproval. Hopefully, sometime in the next few weeks some under-paid, under-trained contractor, who might not speak great English, will re-approve the ad. But maybe not. Who can say in this opaque, Kafkaeaque, ‘computer says no’, outsourced world that we have collectively built for ourselves.

** Update 04-May-21 **

I appealed the dissaproval and the appeal failed. No reason given for why it is shocking. A second ad has been dissaproved for ‘shocking content’. I suspect many more will follow.

How to add a dark theme to your Qt application

Dark themes are now available for Windows 10 and Mac and it is increasingly expected that desktop applications will offer a dark theme. Previously Qt support for dark themes was patchy. But I am happy to say that it now seems to work fine with Qt 5.12.2, and I have added dark themes to both Windows and Mac versions of my Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan applications.

Easy Data Transform for Mac with a dark theme:

Easy Data Transform for Windows with a dark theme:

Hyper Plan for Mac with a dark theme:

Hyper Plan for Windows with a dark theme:

I haven’t decided yet whether to add a dark theme to PerfectTablePlan.

Adding dark themes was a fair amount of work. But a lot of that was scouring forums to work out how to integrate with macOS and Windows. Hopefully this article will mean you don’t have to duplicate that work.

Dark themes work a bit differently on Windows and Mac. On Windows changing the UI theme to dark won’t directly affect your Qt application. But you can use an application stylesheet to set the appearance. On Mac changing the UI theme to dark will automatically change your application palette, unless you explicitly block this in your Info.plist file (see below). On both platforms you will need to change any icons you have set to the appropriate light/dark version when the theme changes. Some of this may change in future as dark themes are more closely integrated into Qt on Windows and Mac.

macOS

You can add the following helper functions to a .mm (Objective-C) file:

#include "Mac.h"
#import <Cocoa/Cocoa.h>

bool macDarkThemeAvailable()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        return true;
    }
    else
    {
        return false;
    }
}

bool macIsInDarkTheme()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        auto appearance = [NSApp.effectiveAppearance bestMatchFromAppearancesWithNames:
                @[ NSAppearanceNameAqua, NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua ]];
        return [appearance isEqualToString:NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua];
    }
    return false;
}

void macSetToDarkTheme()
{
   // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/55925862/how-can-i-set-my-os-x-application-theme-in-code
   if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
   {
        [NSApp setAppearance:[NSAppearance appearanceNamed:NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua]];
   }
}

void macSetToLightTheme()
{
    // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/55925862/how-can-i-set-my-os-x-application-theme-in-code
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        [NSApp setAppearance:[NSAppearance appearanceNamed:NSAppearanceNameAqua]];
    }
}

void macSetToAutoTheme()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        [NSApp setAppearance:nil];
    }
}

The macSetToLightTheme() and macSetToDarkTheme() are useful if you want to give the user the option to ignore the OS theme. Call macSetToAutoTheme() to set it back to the default.

Corresponding header file:

#ifndef MAC_H
#define MAC_H

bool macDarkThemeAvailable();
bool macIsInDarkTheme();
void macSetToDarkTheme();
void macSetToLightTheme();
void macSetToAutoTheme();

#endif // MAC_H

You then need to add these files into your .pro file:

macx {
   ...
   HEADERS += Mac.h
   OBJECTIVE_SOURCES += Mac.mm
}

You can detect a change of theme by overriding changeEvent():

void MainWindow::changeEvent( QEvent* e )
{
#ifdef Q_OS_MACX
    if ( e->type() == QEvent::PaletteChange )
    {
        // update icons to appropriate theme
        ...
    }
#endif
    QMainWindow::changeEvent( e );
}

If you decide you *don’t* want to add a dark theme to your Mac app, the you should add the bold entry below to your Info.plist file:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd">
<plist version="1.0">
<dict>
    ...
    <key>NSRequiresAquaSystemAppearance</key>
    <true/>
</dict>
</plist>

This will then force it to be shown in a light theme, regardless of the theme the operating system is in.

Windows

To set a dark theme palette you can use a stylesheet:

QFile f( ":qdarkstyle/style.qss" );
if ( !f.exists() )
{
   qWarning() << "Unable to set dark stylesheet, file not found";
}
else
{
   f.open( QFile::ReadOnly | QFile::Text );
   QTextStream ts( &f );
   getApp()->setStyleSheet( ts.readAll() );
}

The stylesheet I used was a modified version of qdarkstyle from a few years ago.

To unset the stylesheet and return to a light theme just call:

getApp()->setStyleSheet( "" );

Alternatively you can do it by changing the application palette.

Windows helper functions:

bool windowsDarkThemeAvailable()
{
    // dark mode supported Windows 10 1809 10.0.17763 onward
    // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/53501268/win10-dark-theme-how-to-use-in-winapi
    if ( QOperatingSystemVersion::current().majorVersion() == 10 )
    {
        return QOperatingSystemVersion::current().microVersion() >= 17763;
    }
    else if ( QOperatingSystemVersion::current().majorVersion() > 10 )
    {
        return true;
    }
    else
    {
        return false;
    }
}

bool windowsIsInDarkTheme()
{
    QSettings settings( "HKEY_CURRENT_USER\\Software\\Microsoft\\Windows\\CurrentVersion\\Themes\\Personalize", QSettings::NativeFormat );
    return settings.value( "AppsUseLightTheme", 1 ).toInt() == 0;
}

Currently there seems to be no way to conect to a signal or event that shows the theme has changed in Windows. So I connected to a signal from a QTimer that fires every 5 seconds to check windowsIsInDarkTheme().

Icons

When the theme changes you potentially need to update any icons you have set, e.g. for the toolbar.

In a light theme you can usually set the active icons and let Qt calculate the corresponding disabled icons. This doesn’t work for a dark theme as you want the disabled icons to be darker than the enabled icons, rather than lighter. So you can either calculate the disabled icons programmatically or you can provide a set of disabled icons as well. I opted for the former.

Assuming your icons are set up as resources under :/icons/dark and :/icons/light you can do something like this:

QString getResourceName( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    return QString( ":/icons/%1/%2" ).arg( dark ? "dark" : "light" ).arg( iconName );
}

QPixmap getPixmapResource( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    QString resourceName = getResourceName( iconName, dark );
    QPixmap pixmap = QPixmap( resourceName );
    Q_ASSERT( !pixmap.isNull() );
    return pixmap;
}

QIcon getIconResource( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    QIcon icon;
    QPixmap pixmap = getPixmapResource( iconName, dark );
    icon.addPixmap( pixmap );
    if ( dark )
    {
        // automatic disabled icon is no good for dark
        // paint transparent black to get disabled look
        QPainter p( &pixmap );
        p.fillRect( pixmap.rect(), QColor( 48, 47, 47, 128 ) );
        icon.addPixmap( pixmap, QIcon::Disabled );
    }
    return icon;
}

Then you can reset the icon for the appropriate theme with:

bool isDark()
{
#ifdef Q_OS_MACX
   return macIsInDarkTheme();
#else
   return windowsIsInDarkTheme();
#endif
}
...
myButton->setIcon( getIconResource( "my_icon.png", isDark() ) );
...

You may also be able to update icons through QIcon::setThemeName(). But I didn’t explore this in any detail.

Note that you probably don’t want the enabled icons to be pure white, as it is a bit too visually jarring against a dark theme.

Creating a forum for your product

I started selling software online 16 years ago. Until this year I never had a forum for any of my products. I handled customer support for PerfectTablePlan and Hyper Plan by email and kept customers up-to-date with an opt-in email newsletter. But I rethought this position with my latest product, Easy Data Transform and started a forum at forum.easydatatransform.com in December 2020.

My ISP offered various forum software packages, but I really wanted Discourse, as I consider it head and shoulders above all the other forum software I have interacted with as a user (even if I find the badge system a bit patronising). I didn’t want the hassle of setting up and patching a Discourse server, so created the forum through www.communiteq.com (previously discoursehosting.com). It was suprisingly easy to set-up. And it gives the option to export everything, in case I want to part ways with them. The sheer number of options in Discourse are quite daunting, but I stuck with the defaults for the most part.

Some people use Facebook Groups for their product forums. Ugh. You have almost no control of such a forum. Facebook could even be showing ads for your competitors on your forums. Or they could just decide to shut you down and delete all the content. That is before we get on to the fact that Facebook make their money monetising hatred and abusing our privacy at an industrial scale. No thanks.

The advantages of a forum are:

  • Letting customers talk to each other, and post content helps to create a community around the product. Which, in turn, can add a lot of value to your product.
  • Customers can help each other with support questions. Sometimes they will answer before you are able to or will give a different perspective. Or even give a better answer.
  • If a customer asks a question that has already been asked, you can send them a link to the appropriate forum page.
  • It is a quick and easy channel to communicate with customers. I can post a link to a new snapshot release in a few minutes. This is much quicker than sending out an email newsletter. It is also more interactive as customers can respond on the forum and see each other’s responses.
  • A lively forum is ‘social proof’ that your product is worth buying.
  • A forum with lots of content should have a large SEO footprint.

The disadvantages of a forum are:

  • The time to maintain it. A forum that is broken or full of spam and unanswered questions is worse than no forum.
  • Disgruntled customers potentially airing their grievances in public.
  • The cost of the forum.
  • An empty forum looks bad.
  • Bad actors can be a pain. For example, people posting links to spam or competing products.

It probably only takes me 1-2 hours per week to post on the forum at present. Some of that is time I would have spent answering support emails. If that rises substantially then I may have to delegate it.

I try very hard to provide a good product, with good support and haven’t had any issues with negativity, so far. But I know from my experiences moderating Joel Spolsky’s Business of Software forum that moderating a busy forum can be tricky, time-consuming and emotionally draining.

The cost of the forum is currently around $20 per month, so pretty low. That may climb, but hopefully sales will be climbing as well.

I was a bit worried about whether the forum was going to look empty. I warned customers that the forum was an experiment and would be closed if there wasn’t enough activity, to manage their expectations. I also created a ‘sock puppet’ account and ‘seeded’ the forum with a few support questions that I had been previously asked by email (with the permission of those that asked) and then posted answers. But I only did this a handful of times and then the forum started to take off.

I have heard stories of people getting 1000+ spam posts a day on their forum. But I haven’t had any issues with bad actors, so far. I’m not sure how much of that is down to Discourse and how much of it is down to luck. But, no doubt issues will occur at some point.

I still have my product newsletter, which I send out every few weeks when there is a new production release.

Overall I am pretty happy with how the forum is going. Should you have a forum for your product? As always, it depends. I think you should consider it if:

  • Your customer base isn’t tiny.
  • You want to interact with your customers and get feedback. This might be less the case with mature products.
  • You have the time and energy to police and maintain it.
  • Your product is relatively open ended or complex. For example, if your product just checks whether website are up or down, there is probably a very limited amount you can discuss.

Adding colour schemes to Easy Data Transform

Easy Data Transform user interface.

The colours used in Easy Data Transform make no difference to the output. But the colours are an important part of a user interface, especially when you using a tool for significant amounts of time. First impressions of the user interface are also important from a commercial point of view.

But colour is a very personal thing. Some people are colour-blind. Some people prefer light palettes and others dark palettes. Some people like lots of contrast and other don’t. So I am going to allow the user to fully customize the Center pane colours in Easy Data Transform.

I also want to include some standard colour schemes, to get people started. Looking around at other software it seems that the ‘modern’ trend is for pastel colours, invisible borders and subtle shadows. This looks lovely, but it is a bit low contrast for my tired old eyes. So I have tried to create a range of designs in that hope that everyone will like at least one. Below are the standard schemes I have come up with so far. They all stick with the convention pink=input, blue=transform, green=output.

Which is your favourite (click the images to enlarge).

Is there a tool that you use day to day that has particular nice colour scheme?

I hope to also add an optional dark theme for the rest of the UI in due course (Qt allowing).

Stalking website visitors with Microsoft Clarity

Microsoft Clarity is a new service that allows you to see, in detail, how visitors are interacting with your website. It includes:

  • heat maps, showing where visitors are clicking or touching or how far they are scrolling
  • recordings of visitor sessions, including mouse movement, clicks, touches and scrolling

You just need to get a Javascript snippet from clarity.microsoft.com (for which you need a Microsoft login) and paste it into the header of each page. You can then login to clarity.microsoft.com at a later time to see your results. The service is free.

I tried it on my www.easydatatransform.com website. Here you can see a click heatmap for the buy page:

People are clicking all over non-hyperlinked text. Hmm. Perhaps they somehow couldn’t the see the effing enormous blue button next to it? Notice that numbers are starred out to avoid personal information, such as credit card numbers.

You can also see how far visitors scroll down the page with scroll heatmaps:

So I can see that the buy button is appearing well above the fold.

You can also watch recodings of people interacting with the website, showing their mouse movements, clicks, touches and scrolling. This is where things start to feel a bit stalkerish. You don’t get any identifiable information on the visitor beyond their country, browser and their operating system and I’m ok with people watching me interact with their websites like this. But it still feels a bit voyeuristic. The results are also a bit strange. Some people just click all over the place and highlight random text (touches are tracked separately from clicks). There is a distinct danger that you could watch hours of sessions and come away without much actionable information.

You can filter the information in various ways, including by country or referring website. You can even filter to see sessions with ‘Rage clicks’ (where the user has clicked or tapped repeatedly in the same area).

Watching a few sessions with ‘rage clicks’ I could see that some people indeed seem completely unable to see the effing enormous blue ‘buy now’ button on the buy page. So I have also added a text hyperlink where most people are clicking in the text and will probably try changing the button colour. Perhaps to shocking pink!

Running Pingdom Website Speed Test on the Easy Data Transform home page, both with and without Clarity a few minutes apart, I can see that it had some effect on speed, but not too much.

Without Clarity script: 175.2kb of scripts, 7 script requests.

With Clarity script: 194.3kb of scripts, 9 script requests.

The load time was actually 0.1s faster with Clarity. That is probably just an anomaly.

I have disabled Clarity for now. But may reenable it after I have made some changes to the website, to see the effect of the changes. Overall I was quite impressed with the service and it was surprisingly easy to set-up. But the cynic in me does wonder what exactly Microsoft is getting out of it.

Running Qt apps on M1 ARM Macs

Apple is switching the processor architecture of it’s Macs. Again (I transitioned PerfectTablePlan from PowerPC to Intel some hears ago). This time to their own M1 ARM chips. Reports so far have been very positive about speed and battery life of the new processors. Obviously most current Mac software has been written for Intel Macs, so they are using the Rosetta2 emulation layer to run apps compiled for Intel Macs on the ARM chips. I’m not sure how much of a performance hit this causes, but clearly it would be better to run native ARM binaries on an ARM machine. Also Apple, being Apple, want to move everyone to ARM as quickly as possible. Tough luck if you just spent big bucks on a shiny new Intel Mac.

One of my customers emailed me that the latest version of my Hyper Plan visual planner, built with Qt 5.13.1, didn’t run on an new M1 Mac. I don’t currently have an M1 Mac to test it on. But my Easy Data Transform software , built with Qt 5.15.2, apparently works fine on an M1 Mac. So I recompiled Hyper Plan using Qt 5.15.2, and was told it now works. I have found a couple of minor differences in behaviour between Qt 5.13.1 and 5.15.2, but they are too obscure to go into here. Some Qt apps may still have issues on ARM.

Currently Qt is only available as Intel binaries. Efforts are in progress to be able to build Qt as M1 (ARM) binaries. When that is complete it should be possible to ship Qt applications as a ‘fat binary’ with both Intel and ARM executables, as I did with the PowerPC to Intel transition. I’m not sure if this is going to be supported on Qt 5 and 6 or just Qt 6.