When you sign up for a .Mac account, you get an iDisk: 100 MB of virtual hard disk storage, offsite, on Apple's servers in Cupertino. Obviously, it's a great location to store important information that you can't afford to lose if your Mac goes belly-up. As a consultant, I store my time and billing log there, as that is the one document that would be very difficult to reconstruct in the event of a hard disk crash (I'm speaking from experience).
But your iDisk also contains a Public folder to share and distribute files with other people. You can set up the folder to be read only or read-write, and you can password-protect the folder for access. I'd bet many people don't utilize the Public folder, or know how to utilize it well. In this article, I'm going to show you how to set the privileges for your iDisk to allow other people to access your public files (or prevent them from doing so), and also explain how to access someone's iDisk directly from the Finder.
You don't need a .Mac account to access someone else's iDisk Public Folder. In fact, you don't even need a Mac, as Windows XP users can also access iDisk Public Folders using Apple's free iDisk Utility for Windows.
On your Mac, you can set up your iDisk using either of two methods. Use the Mac version of iDisk Utility (a 316K download from the URL above, if it's not already located in the Utilities folder within your Applications folder), or turn to Mac OS X's System Preferences; in Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar and earlier, go to the Internet preference pane; in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, open the .Mac preference pane.
Set Your Public Folder's Privileges -- By default, your Public folder is set to allow others read-only access, which is the safest approach. This works if you don't plan to use the public folder at all, or if you plan only to "serve" files and documents to friends, colleagues (and unknown others) who take the time to browse your Public folder.
However, sometimes you may want other people to send files to you by copying them to your Public folder - for example, as an alternative to transmitting large files through email. In that case, give your folder read-write access and specify a password to restrict access.
To change these permissions in iDisk Utility, click the Public Folder Access icon and choose Read-Write under Access Privileges. In the iDisk tab of either the .Mac or Internet preference panes, choose Read & Write under Your Public Folder. Although it's optional in both locations, be sure to set a password if you're going to enable Read-Write access; even if you're sticking with read-only access, a password can still be a good idea to keep unknown people out of your files. As Glenn Fleishman wrote in his ebook "Take Control of Sharing Files in Panther," "The Internet is so large and so fast, and full of so many jokers, that it's become something like a large local network. If you purposely or accidentally expose more than you intended, it's likely that some automated evil - a scanning program that looks for open file server connections - will suck down your data. Less maliciously, however, search engines like Google follow all links from public Web pages, and many Word, PDF, and other documents entered Google's maw unintentionally merely by being left in an obscure but linked location of a Web site."
Accessing an iDisk from the Finder -- It often seems as if Apple loves to provide about 18 different ways to do a given task. Accessing your iDisk, or accessing someone else's iDisk Public Folder is no different. Using iDisk Utility, you can click the Open Public Folder icon or the Open iDisk icon to specify the name of a .Mac user to access his or her folders; in Mac OS X 10.3, these options appear in the iDisk submenu of the Go menu in the Finder.
However, if you're using Mac OS X 10.2 or earlier, it's faster to use the Finder's Connect To Server dialog. Apple uses WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) to host its iDisks, which means you can access them as you would a normal server on your network. (Using WebDAV also makes it possible to access iDisks from nearly any computer; a Windows XP version of iDisk Utility is available from the URL mentioned earlier, and Mac OS 9 users can download the Goliath utility, among others.)
From the Go menu, select Connect to Server. To connect to someone else's iDisk Public folder, type the following into the Address field: "http://idisk.mac.com/TheirMemberName/public", where "TheirMemberName" is replaced by their .Mac account.
What is useful about the Connect to Server dialog box is that you can add favorite servers, whether it's your other Mac upstairs, or the iDisk located across the country. Once you have entered the correct address, just press the plus sign (+) button in Mac OS X 10.3 or the Add to Favorites button in Mac OS X 10.2 and earlier.
Press the Connect button to open a connection. If the iDisk's Public folder is protected by a password, a WebDAV authentication dialog opens. "Authentication" is just a five-syllable fancy word for "login." You may be tempted to type in your friend's .Mac username, or even your own, but because you're accessing a Public folder, simply type "public" (all lowercase) in the Name field (the login name is always "public").
Type the password that your colleague assigned to her/his Public folder. If you're running Mac OS X 10.3 and you'll be visiting the Public folder often, check the Remember Password box to add it to your Keychain. Of course, you won't want to do that if you are using someone else's computer as a guest. In a moment, a new Finder window will open, showing you the contents of the Public folder that you just accessed.
If you plan to use this iDisk Public folder often, consider making an alias of it (or some of its contents) in the Finder. When you're done with it, dismount it by dragging its disk icon to the Trash, or by selecting it and choosing Eject from the File menu (Command-E), the contextual menu available when you Control-click it, or the Action pop-up menu in Finder windows in Panther.
I've found my iDisk Public folder to be an invaluable method of sending files to colleagues, or using it as a drop-box where other people can leave files for me. As you can see, it's easy - and important - to make sure you've secured public access to the folder.
[James J. Rogers is a self-described technocrat, helping medical device companies comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. Living in Cleveland, OH and a Mac evangelist since 1985, he credits the influences of David Byrne, Edward Tufte, Peter Gabriel, and Moby, along with Californian and Italian red table wines, though not necessarily in that order.]
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