Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue

TidBITS Logo


Confused by the lessened differences between the new iBook models and the aging PowerBook G3 line? Follow along with Contributing Editor Mark Anbinder as he explores the differences for a buying decision. Kirk McElhearn explains how language translation works, when machine translation services are ideal, and why those services won't replace humans any time soon. In the news, Apple releases a preview of QuickTime 5 and offers PowerBook and G4 Cube rebates.


Copyright 2000 TidBITS Electronic Publishing. All rights reserved.
Information: <> Comments: <>

This issue of TidBITS sponsored in part by:


Apple Offers Rebates on PowerBooks and G4 Cubes -- Less than two weeks after warning of lower-than-expected earnings for its fourth fiscal quarter and a dramatic downturn in its share price, Apple Computer has rolled out rebate programs for new PowerBooks and G4 Cubes purchased through dealers or the online Apple Store. From 13-Oct-00 through 31-Dec-00, purchasers of new PowerBooks (but not iBooks) are eligible for a $200 mail-in rebate, and purchasers of G4 Cubes are eligible for a $300 mail-in rebate, but only if purchased with a matching 15-inch or 17-inch Studio Display or the high-end 22-inch Apple Cinema Display. The rebates are plainly intended to help Apple's sales figures through the important end-of-year buying season, and thereby regain (or at least retain) confidence of investors and analysts. The rebates do not extend to purchases made before 13-Oct-00 and do not apply to Apple's educational sales channels. [GD]


QuickTime 5 Preview Available -- Apple unveiled a public preview release of QuickTime 5 for the Mac OS at the QuickTime Live conference in Los Angeles - although the preview is usable only by folks who upgraded to QuickTime Pro. QuickTime 5 features a player with a revamped interface; although not much seems to commend it over the little-loved QuickTime Player which debuted with QuickTime 4, the QuickTime 5 Player does offer developer support for alternative interface "skins," so perhaps a usable player interface isn't a lost cause. The QuickTime 5 Player does have new audio controls plus a QuickTime TV channel organizer, and "Hot Picks" designed to highlight specific online QuickTime content. QuickTime 5 now supports Flash 4 and Shoutcast, along with new Apple-developed "skip protection" techniques which (when coupled with Apple's streaming media servers) are designed to reduce or eliminate the gaps and stutters associated with streaming media - we'll believe it when we see it. QuickTime 5 includes an enhanced built-in synthesizer which supports DLS and SoundFonts, and supports both Sorensen Video 3 and immersive 360 degree virtual environments via Cubic VR. QuickTime 5 also rolls in improved video editing and playback support for applications like iMovie and Final Cut Pro, and includes a new component download feature so developers can have QuickTime download any add-ins needed to play back their custom content. The QuickTime 5 public preview is a 10 MB download and requires a PowerPC-based system with at least System 7.5.5 and 32 MB of RAM. The preview is currently available only for U.S. system software and requires a valid QuickTime Pro registration. Apple says a preview release for Windows should be available by the end of the year; QuickTime 5 is currently expected to ship in early 2001. As always, using pre-release software may carry significant risks, so back up early and often.


Apple also introduced a public preview of QuickTime Streaming Server 3 that runs on the Mac OS X Public Beta; the open source Darwin Streaming Server 3 runs on Linux, Solaris, FreeBSD, and Windows NT/2000. [GD]


Poll Results: Running for Office? If the response to last week's poll asking if people planned to upgrade to Microsoft Office 2001 (and if so, why) is any indication, the Microsoft folks have their marketing work cut out for them. A full 51 percent of respondents said they didn't plan to upgrade. Of the people who do plan to upgrade, the reasons were relatively varied, with the simple "Want latest version" leading the pack. Office 2001's new features attracted other people, followed by the desire for a better interface, better document sharing, and bug fixes. Least important was company policy, interestingly enough, and a similar number of people voted for other, unspecified reasons. [ACE]


Quiz Preview: I Nix, We Nix, Unix -- Much is being made of Mac OS X's Unix underpinnings. But is Unix really all that new a thing for Apple? This week's quiz tests your knowledge of Apple's dalliance with Unix - just how many Unix-derived operating systems has Apple released over the years? Test your knowledge today on our home page! [ACE]


To iBook or PowerBook?

by Mark H. Anbinder <>

Apple's September introduction of new iBook models brought the iBook's capabilities so much closer to those of the more-expensive PowerBook G3 that it became a difficult choice when I recently decided to replace my aging PowerBook 1400. The 1400 has been useful as long as it has partly thanks to a Newer Technologies NuPowr G3 accelerator. (Newer no longer sells these, but Sonnet Technologies now offers a similar product.)


Unfortunately, even with a new battery purchased this April, the 1400 no longer runs from battery for long and has trouble waking up from sleep. (I gather the latter problem is a common deterioration in aging 1400s, exacerbated, though not caused, by the Newer accelerator.) I've been continually tempted to wait for the next generation of PowerBook, but I've reached the point where the inconvenience of a desk-bound laptop outweighs my hope that Apple will soon offer a PowerBook G4 or a thinner, lighter notebook. I know the G4 laptop can't be too far off, but I believe in buying what you need, when you need it, rather than playing the wait-for-what's-next game.

Fear not, my souped-up 1400 won't go to waste. In line with Ron Risley's solution of turning an old PowerBook into an Internet server, the 1400 is slated to take over a small local company's Web and mail server tasks, both currently running on a five-year-old Performa 6115 (see "Serving the Internet from a PowerBook 5300" in TidBITS-536).


iThink an iBook -- Due to my belief that changes in Apple's portable lineup were likely and Apple's historical predilection toward releasing new machines at large public events, I managed to hold off to see what would be introduced at the recent Seybold Seminars or Apple Expo Paris. Apple Expo brought word of both significantly revised iBooks and an increase in hard disk size for the PowerBook models.


There have been a few factors that have kept the iBook line out of contention for my personal machine. (I've happily recommended it to others, depending on their needs.) One biggie was the lack of a DVD-ROM drive, useful not only for viewing movies but also for the increasing selection of software available on DVD, such as art collections like Nova Development's Art Explosion and multimedia titles like the inexplicably Windows-only Complete National Geographic. Would you rather have your clip art library on 48 CD-ROMs or 5 DVD-ROMs?


The iBook is thicker and heavier than the latest PowerBook G3s, and as a one-time user of a PowerBook 100 and a Duo 230, I like thin and light. The iBook's size and heft aren't so great as to disqualify it, but they do weigh against it. Another non-disqualifying factor is looks. Call me stodgy, but delighted though I may be at Apple's success with fruit colors (and its recent foray into subtler hues), I just can't see myself with a garish-and-white laptop. The graphite iBook could be an option, but its large white area, which I instinctively suspect would create glare issues in well-lit situations, still turns me off.

In any event, I prefer to make my decisions based mostly on technology and usability. The addition of the DVD-ROM drive to the iBook Special Edition tips the iBook into the "possible" category for me, and both iBook and PowerBook now have the excellent AirPort wireless networking capability. With those items covered, I had to look at other factors.

The iBook's lack of video output has proven problematic for many people. Some like to hook up a monitor to a laptop for desktop use, but others, especially in academic or corporate environments, just want to project the occasional presentation. Again, the new iBook models lean toward "possible" with the addition of their new AV port. The composite video output (suitable for connecting to a TV, VCR, or video projector) may not offer sufficient resolution for serious software demonstrations or for prolonged desktop use, but it should be fine for casual presentations.

Meanwhile, the iBook has a single built-in mono speaker, and no built-in sound input (such as a microphone) at all. It supports external USB microphones, and stereo speakers or headphones through the AV port.

In contrast, the PowerBook sports a VGA-style video port for hooking up an external monitor or high-resolution video projector, and includes an S-video output port that supports a high resolution signal to do justice to DVD movies. It also has a built-in microphone and stereo speakers, along with a stereo output jack for connecting headphones or external speakers.

Another obvious way of comparing iBook and PowerBook is via their built-in LCD screens. Both have active-matrix TFT displays, with the 12.1-inch iBook display (up to 800 by 600 resolution) roughly matching my PowerBook 1400's screen, and the 14.1-inch PowerBook display (up to 1024 by 768) dwarfing both. The extra display space on the PowerBook is crucial to some, but I still feel comfortable working in 800 by 600. Moreover, I blame the 14.1-inch display (however unfairly) for what I consider the excessive size of the PowerBook. If I could have a PowerBook G3 shrunk in two dimensions to handle a 12.1-inch screen instead of its 14.1-inch screen, I'd grab it.

That said, I have indeed become used to the 17-inch display on my desk at work, and I do occasionally find the 800 by 600 PowerBook 1400 display limiting, such as when switching back and forth between Windows and the Mac OS in Virtual PC. So, for me, the 14.1-inch PowerBook display isn't a clear win, but it is a positive.

The iBook now boasts a single FireWire port to complement its single USB port. FireWire lets the iBook work directly with digital video from DV camcorders and opens up a whole new (and rapidly expanding) world of peripherals. I don't know how well daisy-chaining FireWire peripherals works, but many USB peripherals work better when plugged directly into the computer, rather than chained through a keyboard or other external device. Having the PowerBook's two USB ports therefore seems like a good idea, even if there's generally no need to occupy one with a keyboard or mouse.

Book 'em, Danno -- Since, so far, both machines have stayed in the running based on my needs, it's time to look at some of the key advantages each has over the other.

For the iBook, price wins in the advantage category. Apple has done an excellent job of making the consumer laptop affordable, with a $1,500 entry-level model and the $1,800 Special Edition that does everything I need. The PowerBook costs quite a bit more, with its two models coming in at $2,500 and $3,500. Though it's hard to ignore lower prices, my instinct is to buy as much computer as I can afford, since I know I won't be replacing it any time soon.

The PowerBook's advantages include slightly faster CPUs, with 400 and 500 MHz PowerPC G3 models next to the 366 and 466 MHz iBook options. In reality, though, two factors make the PowerBook significantly faster than the iBook. First is the PowerBook's 1 MB of Level 2 cache memory, compared to the iBook's 256K. Just as setting aside a little of the computer's memory as a disk cache can improve hard disk performance, setting aside a little very-fast memory as a processor cache allows the processor to move less data back and forth between the processor and the computer's slower main memory. More Level 2 cache can make a substantial difference in a computer's performance. Further, the PowerBook offers a 100 MHz system bus and 100 MHz memory bus compared to the iBook's 66 MHz system bus and memory bus.

Battery flexibility is one key area of advantage for the PowerBook, which supports two batteries installed simultaneously (the second going in the versatile expansion bay, which also houses the hot-swappable DVD-ROM drive or third party devices such as Zip or floppy drives) rated for up to ten hours of continuous use (with a pair of batteries installed). By comparison, the iBook's integrated battery is rated for six hours, and the machine only supports one battery. You can swap the iBook's battery for a spare fully charged one, but this requires a complete shutdown rather than sleep and isn't as simple a task as it has been in the PowerBook line for several years.

I'm not sure just now what I might need it for, but I like the idea of having the PowerBook's PC Card (PCMCIA) expansion slot. (The iBook lacks one.) So far I've mostly used my 1400's PC Card slots for Ethernet or modem cards, both of which are rendered irrelevant by the features built into both iBook and PowerBook. I've also used my PC Card slot for a Lucent wireless networking card, but the AirPort capability in both iBook and PowerBook eliminate that need, as well.

Closing the Book -- The PowerBook's additional battery capacity, heightened performance, and better expandability have convinced me that's the way to go. With that decision made, the next difficult choice was between the 400 MHz or 500 MHz PowerBook. $1,000 is a hefty premium (considering it's nearly half the purchase price of the entry-level PowerBook) for an extra 25 percent boost in processor speed. It does, however, take the machine from 64 to 128 MB of RAM, and from a 10 to a 20 GB drive. (The PowerBook supports up to 512 MB of RAM to the iBook's 320 MB ceiling, and can be configured with a 30 GB drive through Apple's build-to-order program.) These days, 64 MB of memory obviously isn't enough, so I would need to spend money adding more. And, while 10 GB is probably enough storage, that's what my PowerBook 1400 currently sports, and however roomy my 30 MB hard disk felt in 1988, I've come to grips with the fact that you can never have too much disk space.

In the end, I decided the 500 MHz PowerBook, complete with optional AirPort wireless networking gear, was a worthwhile investment, especially thanks to Apple's amazing back-to-school bargains, for which I'm eligible thanks to my return this spring to academia. The iBook would seem better suited to those for whom a laptop is an occasional, or secondary machine, used mostly for travel rather than frequent presentations. Since I use my laptop daily and actively, the PowerBook seems the better bet for me.

Piercing the Babel: Online Translation for the Masses

by Kirk McElhearn <>

The Internet is global in reach, but most Web sites are in English. This is changing as other countries adopt the Internet with the same fervor as English-speaking nations, but it will take time to catch up. Unfortunately for some, fortunately for others, this means that you must understand English to get the most out of the Web. Or do you?

As businesses, particularly U.S. businesses, start working on a global scale, they're confronted with the daunting task of translating and localizing products and documentation. One of the biggest handicaps for Americans is their lack of familiarity with foreign languages - not only do most Americans study only two or three years of a foreign language in school, but they seldom need to use that language, since the U.S. tends to be quite insular with regard to international issues and communication.

Too few businesses are making the necessary efforts to communicate globally. It is certainly much easier for English-speaking businesses to work in English than to translate texts into the many languages of their customers, but it's worth recalling the old adage that you buy in your language, and sell in your customer's language.

(I should note that TidBITS is an exception to this generality, since teams of dedicated volunteers have long translated TidBITS into a variety of languages, currently including Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. Additional volunteers and translations are always welcome.)


Parlez-vous English? Many programs and Web sites now enable you to translate documents and Web pages from a foreign language into English, from English to another language, or between other language pairs. One such well-known service, AltaVista's Babel Fish, offers 12 language pairs, and others offer even more.


Yet, what are these translations really worth? Can they replace human translators? Can they be used for professional purposes? They claim to "translate anything," yet the real problem lies in the definition of the word "translate."

I work as a freelance translator, so you may think that my goal here is to denigrate these machine translation services so you would be more interested in paying for human translation services instead. But, no, it is not that simple. I will try to be as balanced and realistic as possible, so you can truly understand both the process of translation and the value of translation Web sites and software.

Machine translation ranks high among the holy grails of computing, starting in the early days of computing back in the 1950s. Predictions of efficient and accurate machine translation programs have been commonplace since. Yet, in spite of increased computing power, new natural language processing algorithms, and decades of experience, it's clear that we're still far from attaining this goal. (A recent feature article in Wired examines this question extensively.)


Why is this the case? Translation is a complex process that goes far beyond merely replacing one word with another. In short, translation is about changing texts from one mindset to another. The best translation programs (not the ones sold to consumers, but those used by international organizations such as the European Union) have huge databases and complex algorithms that work by examining phrases before words to ensure accurate collocations (words that go together, such as "jumbo shrimp" as opposed to "big shrimp"). These programs work best on very limited vocabularies, and, in some cases, they can be quite effective. I have seen the output from the European Union's translation software, and although it is quite good, it requires both a limited, controlled vocabulary and a translator to edit the output.

Although it is relatively easy to parse a sentence and find "standard" structures, computer programmers have tried desperately to account for the many exceptions in language, and the many multiple meanings of words that native speakers of a language resolve instantaneously. Unfortunately, no language (except perhaps an artificial language such as Esperanto) can be easily described, and every language's vocabulary is full of tricky words. Human languages are not designed to be structurally consistent, like computer languages or even markup languages like XML, and so many influences come into play during a language's evolution that the complexity becomes insurmountable.

In addition, the results depend greatly on the type of text you want to translate. Take three simple sentences:

  1. Apple introduced its new Power Mac G4 minitower computers, complete with built-in gigabit Ethernet.

    In this first sentence, you have a self-contained thought, in a relatively simple structure:

    [subject/noun] [verb] [object/noun phrase]

    While the noun phrase serving as the object is perhaps a bit difficult to parse, it's not impossible. What is important is that all the information is included in the sentence.

  2. The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation.
    (Neal Stephenson, "In the Beginning was the Command Line")

    Sentence 2, however, is much more complex (I won't bother to try and map out its structure). It is longer, it contains several clauses, and - making it especially difficult to translate - it contains intertextual elements that refer back to previous sentences. What are the tanks? Who are the volunteers? Why do they have bullhorns?

    Translation software can only translate the words it knows, in whole sentences, and cannot look at the fuller context of any bit of language. Now consider an even worse example.

  3. The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed category. He's got esprit up to here.
    (Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash)

    This third sentence raises the bar even higher. Here's an invented word, "Deliverator," and what is a "hallowed category?" Plus, what could this expression "He's got esprit up to here" possibly mean? Translation software usually just botches vernacular language. Slang and creative language are beyond the purview of such programs, and they spit out a mess of unrelated words when translating this type of text.

The net result is that translation software can work well with simple, technical texts. Even AltaVista's Babel Fish points out in its FAQ that, "Machine translation produces reasonable results in many cases. But you should not rely on it." It also stresses that it allows you to "grasp the general intent of the original, not to produce a polished translation."


Back and Forth -- Many people have written about translation Web sites, and most have used a method of translating a text and then back-translating it to compare with the original. This technique produces highly humorous results, but it's not really useful.


Let me give you an example of why this is so: when you translate from one language to another, you start by translating the words, but, if a cultural concept is more important than the words used to express it, you need to change the words. For instance, look at proverbs, since they are more culturally charged than most other texts. While I should avoid counting my chickens before they hatch in English, I shouldn't sell a bear's skin before killing it in French (vendre la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tue). This is an extreme example, but you can see the effect cultural baggage has on a translation. So back-translating proverbs like these may lead to a good guffaw but gives you no real sense of the translation program's value.

The Brighter Side -- This is not to imply that machine translation is worthless - nothing could be further from the truth. It's perfect when you find a potentially useful Web page in a language you don't understand. Or, what if you receive a message in another language and want to find out if it was really meant for you or if it's just foreign spam? No one would hire a professional translator for such informal needs, and these are ideal uses for Web-based translation services.

But many companies and public institutions are going well beyond these minimal needs. An initial machine translation pass can save a great deal of time if the terminology database used is specific enough to the application, and if the original text is well-written. Most importantly, though, these organizations realize that for machine translated documents to convey the information contained in the original as completely as possible, they must be post-edited by human translators.

As a result, the machine translation industry is thriving, as major corporations invest in large-scale machine translation solutions. R&D expenditures are rising fast, and the number of companies and research centers working on the subject is impressive. Linguists, long considered only slightly more employable than poets, can now pursue interesting career tracks.


The Other Side -- Unfortunately, while high-quality machine translation can work well in informal situations and for very specific uses, the advertising for machine translation software and sites is misleading many people into believing that machine translation can replace a human translator. These consumer-oriented programs can perform a find-and-replace for certain words and phrases, and they can spit out a text with some similarity to the original. But that's not really translation, it's a glorified find/replace feature, and in many ways these consumer-oriented translation programs are diminishing the realization that good translation is an incredibly complex task.

Machine translation cannot provide a well-written text, nor can it truly provide a translation that takes into account the cultural aspects of a text. Machine translation also can not do anything of any value with literary texts, where metaphor and style are essential. Only human translators can do these things, despite what many people are being led to believe.

So while the translation profession's importance is growing in leaps and bounds in this expanding global economy, the profession is simultaneously facing increasing questions as to its value. Personally, I have no fear of losing work, as more and more customers become aware that not only do they need translations, but they need high-quality translations by sensitive and experienced translators. But for many translators, particularly in certain languages and specialties, these programs are having a negative effect, at least in my opinion; for another point of view, see this article in Translation Journal.


This trend is by no means limited to translators. Many professionals who work primarily with words, including technical writers, editors, indexers, and librarians, are fighting to keep their professions from being demeaned by the periodic promises that increased CPU power will enable a computer to work with words as flexibly and fluently as an experienced and highly trained person. It's just not true, and believing that it is impoverishes us by undervaluing language itself, perhaps the highest achievement of our species.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]

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.

Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue