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FileMaker, Inc. has released FileMaker Pro 5, adding a few features and announcing a controversial $1,000 Unlimited version for Web publishers. Also this week, Adam tries using Priceline.com to buy airline tickets and examines the company's upcoming name-your-price grocery venture. In the news, we cover Virtual PC 3.0, MindExpander 1.0, and USB Overdrive 1.2, along with the merger of ISP giants EarthLink and MindSpring. Next week: our 500th issue!
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Faster Virtual PC 3.0 Shares Net Access -- Connectix is now shipping Virtual PC 3.0, an upgrade to its program for running Microsoft Windows or other PC operating systems by emulating a Pentium processor (see "Virtual PC 2.0: Not Just a Minor Upgrade" in TidBITS-433). The new version sports faster network and PC disk performance, USB support, the capability to share a single Internet connection between the Mac and the emulated PC, plus support for AppleScript and audio requiring SoundBlaster 16 hardware. To run Windows 98, Connectix recommends at least a PowerPC G3-based Macintosh running Mac OS 8.0 or later (Mac OS 9 needed for USB support under Windows 98) with 64 MB of RAM and 520 MB of hard disk space; the system requirements for running Windows 95 or PC DOS 2000 are less demanding. An upgrade to Virtual PC 3.0 for existing customers costs $44; otherwise, the program costs $180 with Windows 98 or $150 with Windows 95. Boxed upgrades should be available by the end of September; a 13 MB downloadable upgrade is available now. [JLC]
MindVision Offers Expansion Option with MindExpander -- Ten months after shipping a preview version of MindExpander, MindVision Software has released MindExpander 1.0, a free competitor to Aladdin Systems' ubiquitous StuffIt Expander. Like StuffIt Expander, MindExpander can expand the following formats: StuffIt 4.5, Zip, gzip, MacBinary, and BinHex. Although it doesn't support the common StuffIt 5.0 or uuencode formats (for those, it calls other applications, such as StuffIt Expander 5.1), MindExpander can convert DOS line breaks in text files to Macintosh line breaks. Other useful features in the petite and self-contained application include a slick automatic update capability, support for System 6.0 through Mac OS 9 and any Mac since the Mac Plus, and a contextual menu plug-in that's installed by the MindExpander application itself. MindExpander is a 234K download and, as with the free Aladdin Expander for Windows, a Windows version of MindExpander is available. [ACE]
USB Overdrive 1.2 Tracks Faster -- Alessandro Levi Montalcini has released USB Overdrive 1.2, a free update to his universal USB mouse and joystick driver (see "Maximizing the Mouse" in TidBITS-483). On the surface, USB Overdrive looks the same, but under the hood Alessandro replaced all the 68K code with faster PowerPC code for better performance, added mouse cursor movement for joysticks and gamepads, improved document scrolling in all applications, added a new Launch URL action, and implemented a new Auto Move option that moves the mouse cursor to the default button in dialog boxes. USB Overdrive now requires Mac OS 8.5 or later, with Mac OS 8.6 recommended and Mac OS 9 supported. USB Overdrive is $20 shareware and is a 294K download. [ACE]
EarthLink & MindSpring Merge -- EarthLink and MindSpring, two of the largest U.S. Internet service providers (ISPs), have agreed to merge, forming a new company to be called EarthLink and headed by a combination of the companies' management teams. EarthLink and MindSpring both started as small independent ISPs and grew through aggressive marketing and customer acquisition aided by purchasing smaller ISPs. With an estimated 3 million subscribers, the combined company will move past AT&T WorldNet and Microsoft's MSN to jump into second place in the ISP market, though still well behind America Online's estimated 20 million subscribers. The merger makes sense, since EarthLink and MindSpring competed for a similar customer base, and the companies can better focus on competition with AOL, MSN, and AT&T WorldNet by merging their operations. [ACE]
by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As much as I'm a great proponent of the Internet slowly infiltrating itself into our everyday lives, I sometimes need an excuse to try new Internet services. Such was the case with Priceline.com, a Web-based service that lets you name your price on airline tickets, hotel rooms, new cars, mortgages, and more. Priceline.com's reverse auction approach of matching buyers with set prices with sellers willing to meet those prices has been awarded a much-debated patent. Do note that it appears that Priceline.com is useful only for items in the United States; even international flights must originate in the U.S.
I've used and liked Priceline.com's service for finding cheap airline tickets, but their most recent foray into grocery shopping, another Internet commerce field that interests me, has me wondering what's in their drinking water.
Fly by Web -- A few months ago I had to attend the MacHack conference in June and Macworld Expo in July. I had a frequent flyer ticket to use and I'd come across a discount coupon from Northwest Airlines, so I used the discount coupon to attend MacHack, figuring I would use my frequent flyer miles for the Macworld ticket. However, in the hectic rush around MacHack, I failed to take into account that airlines often restrict the number of frequent flyer seats available on reasonable flights. By the time I got around to making my Macworld reservations, the only option was a multiple-hop red-eye from Seattle to New York City, arriving a few minutes before my presentation at the Macworld Town Meeting.
So, I decided to buy a ticket for a direct flight - it would be a business expense, and flights from Seattle to New York City normally cost about $350. Unfortunately, for reasons I still don't understand, I couldn't find a ticket for under $750. I started kicking myself for not acting sooner, reasoning that the problem was that I was booking a flight only 20 days away, rather than the 21 days that are often necessary to find the cheapest fares. Normally that might have been true, but just so I could torture myself appropriately, I looked for the same tickets 22 days out and came up with an only slightly reduced price of $650.
So I was faced with two lousy alternatives: blow a frequent flyer ticket on a poorly timed flight with stops coming and going, or spend more than twice what I thought was reasonable on direct flights at the times I wanted. Rather than settle for the lesser of two weevils (as the running joke goes in Patrick O'Brian's excellent Aubrey/Maturin novels), I decided instead to try Priceline.com. After all, I had little to lose.
Take a Deep Breath -- Priceline.com is scary. You ask them to find flights on an unknown airline, flying between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M., and potentially with a number of stops. Then you decide how much you want to pay for the ticket and give Priceline.com your credit card number. Within an hour after you submit your request, Priceline.com sends you email telling you if a major airline has agreed to sell you a ticket at your price, and informing you of the itinerary details.
I gulped and filled in all the information, then left the Web form open and went upstairs to ask Tonya what she thought a good price would be. First we agreed that $300 was reasonable, but then decided to play it a bit tighter and bid $250. I came back downstairs, submitted my request, and within a few minutes had email from Priceline.com. I opened it with some trepidation, since I couldn't figure out from their site what happened if they couldn't meet your price. To my great astonishment, Delta Airlines had agreed to sell me a round trip ticket for $250, and what's more, the times were totally reasonable and both flights were direct. I was ecstatic, since Priceline.com had just squished both of my previous weevils with a single blow.
The temptation is of course to lowball your bid, but Priceline.com can't work magic. When I tested Priceline.com to see if I could buy round-trip tickets from Seattle to San Diego for $20, Priceline.com regretfully informed me that no airline was quite that stupid and encouraged me to try a higher bid. I can't see any reason why you wouldn't start low and work your way up in an effort to find the lowest possible fare price for a trip.
Not everyone is as happy with Priceline.com as I was. A variety of Web pages detail complaints with Priceline.com's service, some of which seem justified, while others sound like whining. For instance, Priceline.com is up front about the fact that you won't collect frequent flyer miles, you can't change your tickets in any way, and the price doesn't include taxes. You also cannot determine your specific itinerary, which would bother me in other situations. If you're uncomfortable with these limitations, you shouldn't use Priceline.com. But as long as you understand the ground rules, Priceline.com can be a useful tool, especially for last-minute tickets.
But for Food? As much as I was satisfied with Priceline.com's airline ticket service, the company's most recent announcement is that they plan to offer the same technique for buying groceries. The program, called WebHouse Club, is due to open 01-Nov-99 in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut areas.
Priceline.com describes the service like this. First, you need to get a free WebHouse Club card, which provides you with a unique identification number. Next, using an interface which hasn't yet been made public, you name your price on grocery items that you want, giving Priceline.com the names of your two favorite brands to choose from for each item. Then enter your credit card number, and Priceline.com tells you whether or not it has found a store willing to meet your prices, supposedly within 60 seconds. Finally, you print out your Private Price List, take it and your WebHouse Club card to any local participating supermarket, and get your groceries. If you have coupons or some sort of frequent shopper card at that supermarket, those discounts will still apply.
This sounds simple on paper, but think about the logistics involved! You have to figure out all the brands for grocery items you buy (which leads me to suspect they won't let you name your price on produce). Tonya was once coerced into a market research study, during which she was asked what brand of pain killer we used. She didn't have the foggiest idea what brand we used, or even the type of pain killer, but she did know it was in the round bottle with a blue and red label in the medicine cabinet. The researcher had to keep shushing me, since I knew the answer but didn't fit their demographic. My point, roundabout as it might be, is that many people haven't the foggiest idea what brands they buy.
Once you get past the brand problem, you're faced with the price problem. Quick, how much do you pay for a half-gallon of milk? Although I can generally say whether a given price is reasonable, I couldn't pull an appropriate discount price out of my hat for most products. With sufficient research, I could figure out prices of items we buy regularly and decide on appropriate bids, but that's even more work than clipping coupons.
Work is the key item here. Services like HomeGrocer.com save time and effort, and even when we don't order the $75 worth of groceries to qualify for the free delivery, the $10 delivery charge is worthwhile to us for the time we've saved. I have no doubt you'll be able to save some money through Priceline.com's grocery shopping service, but it will be expensive in terms of time and energy, and you still have to go a store to get your groceries. The amount I saved with Priceline.com when buying a plane ticket was significant - about $500. For some people - particularly those with specialized purchasing needs or who already direct significant effort toward tracking prices and cutting coupons - Priceline.com's service might save some money. Otherwise, would you spend an extra hour shopping each week to save $10?
For many people, it simply doesn't add up. The amounts saved are by definition small (since grocery bills aren't that large and grocery retailers don't have huge margins on many products), and the service not only fails to save time, it actually requires more of your time to use it. I'll be surprised if the checkout process at the participating supermarkets is totally smooth as well: you'll have to present the cashier with your WebHouse Club card and price list, but what if you buy other items as well? I'm sure that Priceline.com will be making its money in related ways, such as using the demographic information garnered when you sign up for the card. The company already tries to get you to sign up for a credit card or magazine subscription when trying to reserve an airline ticket, with the attraction of automatically adding to your bid, and thus the likelihood you'll get the tickets you want.
Perhaps I'll be proven wrong, but I don't see Priceline.com's model working for grocery shopping the way it works for big ticket items like airline fares, hotel rooms, and new cars.
by Adam C. Engst and Geoff Duncan <email@example.com>
Upgrades are different things to different people, and how you'll view the FileMaker Pro 5 upgrade, available today, depends on how you use the popular desktop database program. If you use FileMaker as a small stand-alone database, you may be interested in upgrading, and small office users considering FileMaker Pro's built-in Web publishing features also have reason to investigate the $150 upgrade ($250 for new copies). However, many FileMaker Pro developers and existing Web publishers are dismayed at the new version, which reduces or eliminates capabilities present in previous versions of FileMaker Pro, adds few necessary new features, and fails to offer many features users have been requesting for years.
New Features -- Individual users accustomed to Microsoft Office may appreciate FileMaker Pro 5's reworked interface, which resembles that used by the Microsoft Office applications. Since many people end up using Microsoft Excel for tasks better done in a database because of the ease of viewing data in a spreadsheet, FileMaker Pro 5 adds a new spreadsheet-like view of records with resizable rows and columns. FileMaker, Inc. also enhanced the program's Web publishing support for those getting their feet wet putting databases on the Web. FileMaker Pro's enhanced Instant Web Publishing technology now supports Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), adds seven selectable "Web themes" to unify the presentation of databases published via the Web, and offers new security restrictions based on IP addresses. FileMaker Pro 5's Web Companion can also transfer data using XML (Extensible Markup Language), which could offer a wealth of new possibilities for XML-savvy Web browsers and other tools, although such tools are almost unheard-of outside Web developer circles at the moment.
In a move that presumably indicates the demise of FileMaker's Web page creation tool Home Page, FileMaker has also announced that Adobe GoLive, Macromedia's DreamWeaver, and Allaire's ColdFusion plan to integrate support for Web publishing with FileMaker databases.
FileMaker Pro 5 also enhances FileMaker Pro 4.1's ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) capabilities. ODBC, which is a database communication standard, enables database programs from different vendors to exchange information. FileMaker Pro 4.1 had ODBC client capabilities, so users could import data from ODBC data sources like Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft SQL Server, or Oracle. Now, FileMaker Pro 5 can act as an ODBC data source as well, so other programs can access information stored in FileMaker databases, although FileMaker Pro 5.0 does not offer full OBDC Level 2 support, restricting its utility in some environments. FileMaker's ODBC features, along with the program's new XML capabilities, also help provide integration with Web page creation tools.
FileMaker developers will appreciate a new database synchronization feature, the long awaited capability to import and export scripts, the capability to resize a few key dialogs like the ScriptMaker (finally!), and conditional value lists that let the developer dynamically customize choices in lists or menus appropriately to the situation.
FileMaker Pro 5 requires a PowerPC-based system with at least 16 MB of RAM running Mac OS 7.6.1 or later.
Looking to the High End -- With these ODBC and XML features, it's clear that FileMaker, Inc. is taking aim at corporate and enterprise database users, and FileMaker, Inc. is changing the product's pricing model to work more like those used by other large database companies, who charge by user or by feature. Previously, FileMaker Pro has essentially been a standalone database: when you bought the program, you got everything no matter how you intended to use it. However, FileMaker, Inc. has now also announced three higher-end products, FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, FileMaker Server 5, and FileMaker Developer 5.
FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, scheduled to ship later this year for $1,000, will allow an unlimited number of guests and Web users to connect to databases and will provide remote database management via the Internet. FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited's Web services are implemented via a Java servlet that hooks into popular Web servers (including WebSTAR, AppleShare IP, and Apache) plus supports Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) connections and arrays of computers sharing databases via additional copies of the Unlimited edition - this in turn enables FileMaker to offer load balancing, fault tolerance, and concurrent processing of database operations. FileMaker, Inc. claims the Unlimited edition will operate with third-party Web publishing and CGI solutions; the standard edition of FileMaker Pro 5 does not.
The problem is that many of these attractive-sounding features, such as access by an unrestricted number of guests and Web users and compatibility with third party Web publishing solutions already exist in previous versions of FileMaker Pro. Unlike previous versions, FileMaker Pro 5 only supports peer-to-peer networking with up to ten other users, or up to ten IP addresses in a given 12 hour period. In addition, although it's nice that FileMaker, Inc. added shared database support for arrays of computers, users can already use separate machines and third-party products to add features like load balancing, fault tolerance, and concurrent processing to an existing FileMaker Pro 4.1 setup - we've done just that for our full-text searches of TidBITS. These multiple machine setups are necessary for some sites because previous versions of FileMaker Pro lack multithreading, which would allow the program to process multiple actions simultaneously, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis. FileMaker Pro 5 and FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited continue to lack multithreading, although it has been perhaps the single most requested feature from Web publishers using FileMaker for nearly four years.
The end result is that the standard version of FileMaker Pro 5 is useless for anyone relying on Blueworld's Lasso or other third-party Web publishing solution. Since the FileMaker Pro 4.x built-in Web publishing features are limited in features and scalability, anyone who used FileMaker as part of a serious Web publishing system relied on a third-party product. FileMaker, Inc. is effectively telling those people they must use FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited - which doesn't offer multithreading, isn't yet available, and costs $1,000 - simply to retain capabilities they already have. Adding salt to the wound, FileMaker Pro 5 uses a different file format than FileMaker Pro 3.x or 4.x; therefore, Web publishers who persist in using previous versions of FileMaker will not be able to serve databases created with FileMaker Pro 5.
FileMaker, Inc. also plans to offer FileMaker Server 5 for $1,000 by the end of 1999. It will sport improved Open Transport performance under Mac OS 8.6 or later, automated database backups, and support for up to 250 concurrent database users. Although FileMaker Server 5 is a multithreaded application, previous versions of this high-end product have not offered Web publishing capabilities and have not worked with third-party Web publishing tools; nothing in FileMaker Server 5's product description indicates this situation has changed.
FileMaker Developer 5 will contain tools for distributing royalty-free runtime versions of FileMaker databases, documentation of FileMaker's XML capabilities, a new JDBC driver for Java-based integration with FileMaker solutions, and documentation of FileMaker's plug-in architecture. FileMaker Developer 5 includes a copy of FileMaker Pro 5 and should ship in early 2000 for $500.
Windows and a Hard Place -- It seems as though FileMaker, Inc. considers the Macintosh market essentially tapped out and is putting more emphasis on the Windows version of FileMaker Pro, with features designed to appeal to large organizations who might purchase volume product licenses. Aside from the Microsoft Office-inspired interface, the new spreadsheet-like data view, ODBC features, and direct import of Excel spreadsheets, FileMaker Pro 5 is taking direct aim at Microsoft's database product Access by offering tight integration with the Windows versions of Microsoft Office applications and support for application integration via ActiveX.
FileMaker's long-standing dominance of the Macintosh database market means there are relatively few alternatives for Macintosh users. Users with modest needs can still use the database module of AppleWorks or ProVUE's Panorama. Those looking for more database power or Web publishing capabilities might try Panorama, ACIUS's 4D, Paradigma's Valentina, or even UserLand's Frontier (see "Frontier Demystified" in TidBITS-476).
In the end, it's good to see FileMaker, Inc. enhancing its namesake product, although the directions the company has chosen seem to conflict with the ways FileMaker Pro has traditionally been used in the Macintosh market. The standard edition of FileMaker Pro 5 is not all things to all people, and the main question is whether or not users whose needs now fall into the $1,000 price range will find sufficient reason to upgrade.
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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