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TidBITS#873/02-Apr-07

It's a big week for news, with Apple and EMI announcing DRM-free music to be sold in the iTunes Store and Adobe announcing the final details surrounding the upcoming release of Creative Suite 3. Of course, we can't resist passing along other, less-serious developments, such as Gmail Paper and other examples of April Foolishness. Returning to real news, Glenn worries about the acquisition of the national ISP Speakeasy by retail chain Best Buy, Adam ponders the recent uproar around death threats made against a prominent woman blogger, Jeff examines the new Complete My Album option in iTunes, and Robert Movin returns with the story of how he switched his mother to the Mac.
 
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April Foolishness 2007

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Whew! We want to thank everyone who came together yesterday for what was truly our most inspired April Fools issue ever. Joe Kissell's remote-controlled, animatronic monkey was definitely the highlight, and we hope that his landlord will be understanding about all the damage - who would have suspected that the folks at MacUser.com were so adept at remote AppleScript programming?

What?

Oh.

Right.

So, we didn't actually create an April Fools issue this year. With April 1st landing on a Sunday, we figured it would be confusing for readers who pick up their email at work on Monday to be treated to tomfoolery on the wrong day. And, to be honest, we're all crazy busy right now with other projects.

Therefore, we decided to skip April Fools this year and store up our ideas and energy for next year, when April 1st falls on a weekday.

However, don't think that we weren't keeping our eyes out for other April Foolishness online. The date may have passed, but you can still enjoy some of the efforts of others that we found to be exemplary.


Fools Abound -- Because electrocuting yourself is just so darned hard, we're glad that the folks at Art.Lebedev Studio have come up with the Vilcus Plug Dactyloadapter, available with adapters for both U.S. and European plug types. Shocking!


Google Underground -- Google announced their solution for bringing broadband Internet access to any home. Google TiSP (Toilet Internet Service Provider) is free in-home wireless broadband that connects through city sewer lines. It's not as funny as some previous Google efforts, but it plays off the fact that fiber optic lines are, in fact, often run through old sewer pipes.

Going back to the future, Google also announced Gmail Paper, a service that prints and delivers your email for free, thanks to "relevant, targeted, unobtrusive advertisements, which will appear on the back of your Gmail Paper prints in red, bold, 36 pt Helvetica. No pop-ups, no flashy animations - these are physically impossible in the paper medium."


ThinkGeek -- In addition to reselling the Vilcus Plug Dactyloadaper, the folks behind ThinkGeek offered up a bounty of geeky gifts. The ThinkGeek 8-Bit Tie is sure to take you back to those early Nintendo days, but we particularly liked the idea of the SnuzNLuz WiFi Donation Alarm Clock: every time you hit the snooze button to sleep in for just a few more minutes, the clock makes an electronic direct-deposit donation to a charity or organization you despise.


Windows Security Advisory -- In this age of heightened security, it's beneficial to examine every aspect of our surroundings, especially the things we see so often that we no longer register them as threats. The Computer Academic Underground released a white paper detailing the problems inherent in non-opaque structural materials ("Window Transparency Information Disclosure") that states, "An information disclosure attack can be launched against buildings that make use of windows made of glass or other transparent materials by observing externally-facing information through the window."


Toddler Settlement Rate and the NSA in Second Life -- The April Fools edition of the EFF's EFFector newsletter was particularly biting this year, with a piece about how the National Security Agency (NSA) will be opening an office - a large black box in an undisclosed location - in the virtual world of Second Life. Also hilarious was the bit about how the RIAA has sent a "settlement letter" to all parents of children under 3 years old, offering a discounted settlement rate if they pay in advance for their children's inevitable future copyright infringements.


Wait Until Next Year -- Although April 1st fell on a Sunday, there was clearly a lot of effort online put forth to fool or amuse us. If you have some time to kill, be sure to check out Urgo's 2007 list of April Fools' Day jokes on Web sites. In the meantime, we'll be storing up ideas for next year!


Apple Sends Vista to Boot Camp

  by Joe Kissell <joe@tidbits.com>

Apple last week released Boot Camp 1.2 beta, the latest version of its software for enabling Intel-based Macs to boot into Microsoft Windows. This is likely to be the final update to Boot Camp before the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which according to Apple will include a release version of Boot Camp (though there's still much speculation about what form Boot Camp will take in Leopard). Boot Camp 1.2's most prominent new feature is support for Windows Vista (but only 32-bit versions for now), which previously required awkward hacks. Also new in this beta are updated drivers for numerous Apple devices including trackpads and iSight cameras, support within Windows for the Apple Remote, the inclusion of Apple Software Update (to update Apple software within Windows), and numerous other improvements. It's a 138 MB download.


iTunes, You Complete Me

  by Jeff Carlson <jeffc@tidbits.com>

One of the great things about the iTunes Store has been the way it lets you buy single songs without having to purchase an entire album. I own too many CDs that contain only one or two songs I like; the rest of the selections just don't hold my interest. I'm especially bad about this if I go into a store (such as the excellent local Sonic Boom Records), listen to a couple of tracks or parts of tracks, buy the album thinking I've stumbled on some cutting edge band, and then discover later that the disc wasn't so hot (and that my radar for new music is still subpar, darn it).

Occasionally, though, I'll buy a single song and then realize that the rest of the album is worth buying. Purchasing the album from the iTunes Store would result in a duplicate of that single, and if there were more than nine songs on the album, it wouldn't be worth buying them individually to avoid duplicating the one I already own.

Apple has now introduced Complete My Album, a new feature that gets around the problem. When you click the iTunes Store link for a song (the arrow to the right of the song title in your iTunes library), a Complete My Album option appears, listing the cost of the rest of the album and a Buy button. So, for example, if you've purchased one $0.99 track, it will cost you $9.00 (plus tax) to purchase the rest of the album's tracks.

Apple says that the Complete My Album feature applies to qualifying tracks for up to 180 days after you've purchased the singles. However, I've noticed that the feature currently applies to singles I purchased when the iTunes Store first opened, too.


Blogosphere Uproar

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

There's a line between abusive comments and criminal speech.

I read very few blogs on a regular basis, and I've never become enmeshed in the "blogosphere," the entire collection of blogs and bloggers that link to and quote one another. But among those sites I do glance at regularly is Kathy Sierra's "Creating Passionate Users" blog, where she posts thoughtfully about code, interface design, marketing, t-shirts, and a host of other technology-related issues. Although we have friends in common (long-time Mac writers Tom Negrino and Dori Smith, who work with us on Take Control), I've never met or even corresponded with Kathy before.

Being familiar with Kathy's writing, I was shocked to read her reports of receiving death threats on her blog and sexually abusive posts on several other blogs operated in part by a variety of apparently well-known names in the blogosphere. Especially disgusting is that none of this abuse seems to be directed against anything Kathy wrote, and frankly, nothing she writes could possibly engender such a response from any sane person. All the vitriol is purely personal, and graphically misogynistic beyond belief.

The famous New Yorker cartoon said that on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. But making death threats is a criminal offense in many parts of the world, and since Kathy has properly informed law enforcement, I sincerely hope that the dogs in question are unmasked, charged, and convicted like the criminals they are.

This appalling situation illustrates how the Internet is no longer separate from reality; what happens on the Internet nowadays is as real as any other event in your home town. Unlike equivalently unpleasant plot lines played out in both fictional and "reality-based" entertainment media, this is happening to a real person, in the real world.

Much is said in the journalistic world these days about how the Internet enables public conversation (with the implication that the conversation is about important topics), but we all need to realize that with the ability to say whatever we want comes the responsibility to participate in a meaningful way. To paraphrase my mother, "If you don't have anything useful to say, don't say anything at all."

Thanks to you all for participating in the extremely civil community of TidBITS readers. And Kathy, all I can say is that I'm sorry this happened, but perhaps the outrage we're seeing will help rein in future unpleasantness.

[02-Apr-07 Update: Since I wrote the original piece above on 27-Mar-07, there have been hundreds of comments on Kathy's blog (most, but not quite all, highly supportive), an update from Kathy, a variety of news stories, and - happily - productive communication between Kathy and several of the people who were associated with the sites in question. The identity of the perpetrator remains unknown, but it seems that there has at least been progress to my concluding hope above - that out of this terrible event can come more effective and civil communication online.]


DealBITS Winners: BeLight Software's Art Text

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

Congratulations to Dan Kerkman of appns.com, John Allan of mac.com, Neal Pann of mac.com, and Ron Gillmore of victoria.tc.ca, whose entries were chosen randomly in last week's DealBITS drawing and who received a copy of BeLight Software's Art Text, worth $29.95. But don't fret if you didn't win, since BeLight is offering everyone who entered this DealBITS drawing a 15-percent discount on Art Text through 11-Apr-07, dropping the price to $25.45. Thanks to the 714 people who entered this DealBITS drawing, and we hope you'll continue to participate in the future!


Apple and EMI Offer DRM-Free Music via iTunes

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

In a press conference today in London, Apple and EMI Music announced that starting in May 2007, EMI Music's entire digital catalog of music will be available for purchase in DRM-free versions from the iTunes Store worldwide. Removing Apple's FairPlay digital rights management system from the tracks comes with a price, though. DRM-free tracks will cost $1.29 rather than $0.99, although they will also feature higher quality 256 Kbps AAC encoding, which Apple claims makes them indistinguishable from the original recording. 128 Kbps versions with Apple's FairPlay DRM will remain available for $0.99, giving users the choice of which track to purchase.

All EMI music videos will also be available without DRM, with no change in price. iTunes will provide a one-click option for customers to upgrade previously purchased EMI songs for 30 cents per song.

Commenting on the announcement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, "We are going to give iTunes customers a choice - the current versions of our songs for the same 99 cent price, or new DRM-free versions of the same songs with even higher audio quality and the security of interoperability for just 30 cents more." The move comes a mere two months after Jobs posted his widely read open letter about the ills of DRM and Apple's opinions about it (see "Steve Jobs Blasts DRM," 2007-02-12).

The removal of DRM from EMI's content sold through the iTunes Store is a significant event in the short history of online music sales, given the iTunes Store's leading position in the market. Customers purchasing DRM-free songs will be able to play them on any digital music player that supports unprotected AAC (and you can bet that the capability will be added soon to any that currently don't), thus eliminating much of the complaint about how Apple required the use of the iPod to play iTunes Store purchases. Other usage restrictions that disappear for EMI songs include the capability to play purchased songs on more than five computers and to burn playlists containing purchased songs more than seven times. Needless to say, the removal of DRM does not mean that it's legitimate to copy music in ways that violate copyright law, but that's not new.

The increased price presumably helps EMI feel better about the possibility of increased copying, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Apple and EMI will be tracking the number of songs from the iTunes Store that appear on the peer-to-peer file sharing services. More important, increasing the price to $1.29 while keeping the DRM-protected versions available for $0.99 creates additional revenue, which the music labels had been pushing for, while letting Apple hold fast to $0.99 as the base price.

From the research perspective of determining consumer attitudes to DRM, it's a little unfortunate that Apple increased the encoding rate for the DRM-free versions of EMI's songs. Had DRM removal been the only change, it would have provided a clear-cut answer to the question of how customers value the legally granted rights that DRM restricts. Of course, since quality has never been a significantly limiting factor in working with digital music for most people, the popularity of DRM-free music will still offer worthwhile insight into consumer attitudes. Personally, I plan to pony up the additional 30 cents per track for all the EMI music I've purchased from the iTunes Store.

It's unsurprising that the first chink in the iTunes DRM armor comes from EMI, since EMI has been dabbling with DRM-free music since late 2006, selling a few songs without DRM via Yahoo Music. The question is, will EMI's move to the anti-DRM camp convince other major labels to follow? Jobs said that Apple expects to have more than half of the five million songs on iTunes available in DRM-free versions by the end of 2007, so the implication is that Apple is negotiating with the other major labels as well. Even so, the terms - FairPlay DRM or an additional 30 cents per track - seem quite set now, since I can't see Apple offering music from different labels for different prices.

Despite the removal of DRM from EMI's music videos, Jobs made no comment on whether Apple would be negotiating with the TV and movie studios to remove DRM from other music videos, the 350 TV shows, and the 400 movies currently available through the iTunes Store. (And for anyone following the numbers, Apple says it has sold over 2 billion songs, 50 million TV shows, and 1.3 million movies from the iTunes Store so far.)


Staff Roundtable -- [Glenn Fleishman] Adam's research curiosity aside, I'm especially happy Apple and EMI coupled an increase in audio quality with the increase in price and removal of DRM. For me, this makes the decision to upgrade my EMI content even easier. At 256 Kbps, according to several audiophile sites I checked, an AAC should be indistinguishable from the data encoded in a typical audio CD. I suspect the quality will be even higher, though, because preprocessing - optimizing audio or video quality for a particular compression algorithm - from the original digital masters could produce even better results. Apple and EMI haven't said anything on this front.

The other question for me is whether EMI and Apple will digitally watermark the non-DRM audio files. Digital watermarking subtly modifies the media data to overlay encrypted or in-the-clear information that can be retrieved. The idea is that the watermark can't be removed without also affecting the overall quality of the music encoded in the file. One attempt by the record industry at watermarking was definitively defeated by Princeton professor Ed Felten, a notable critic of DRM and other schemes.

[Jeff Carlson] Glenn points to the potential for dramatically higher-quality recordings, but so far we don't know whether Apple or EMI are using masters to create the files. It wouldn't surprise me if there are three interns grabbing CDs from the archives and ripping them in iTunes (I doubt that's the case, but it wouldn't surprise me). The first movie I purchased from the iTunes Store when video became available, Grosse Pointe Blank, didn't look like it was encoded from any sort of master print, even taking into account video compression.

Frequent TidBITS contributor Andrew Laurence noted that this shift to non-DRM music makes it possible to play back music purchased from the iTunes Store on hardware devices such as the Slim Devices Squeezebox or the Sonos Digital Music System.

I also wonder (without any information to back it up) whether other music companies or services are planning to announce DRM-free offerings soon. The Apple/EMI event wasn't announced until the day before it happened, and the new tracks won't be available on the iTunes Store until May. To me, it sounds like Steve Jobs hopped a quick flight to England to make sure Apple and iTunes garnered the first headlines.


Adobe Announces Creative Suite 3 Plans, Pricing, Dates

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

Ladies and gentleman, start your rendering engines! Adobe has at last announced shipping dates, product details, and pricing for its massive collection of updates to existing products under the rubric Creative Suite 3 (CS3).

If you think this is just another software update, take a look at the top-level page about CS3 that Apple is featuring on its site. Photoshop and the Creative Suite are powerhouse applications for Apple's demanding (and traditionally deep-pocketed) design customers, who have been waiting for Intel-native versions of the applications before purchasing new hardware. As John Gruber at Daring Fireball put it, "Translation: 'Please buy a new Mac Pro.'" Apple should see a huge spike in Mac sales as corporate purchase orders are cut, and individuals start tapping their credit cards.

CS3 now encompasses 6 separate Design Editions and 13 major applications, each edition carving out a slightly different piece of the graphics, production, design, Web, video, and animation markets, with soupÁons of scientific, medical, and other unique professional needs thrown in. Several additional support programs are also included in most editions.


Web and Design Coming Very Soon -- Adobe's first batch of revised programs will be available in Design and Web editions, which each appear in premium and standard flavors. Design Premium combines print, Web, interactive, and mobile device design tools, for instance, while Design Standard targets just production and design for print. There are a host of matrices on Adobe's site to help you figure out just what you might need. All these editions are available for Mac OS X as universal binaries, or for Windows XP and Vista.

The collective ship date for the Web and Design products is sometime in April 2007, bringing new versions of Contribute, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. (Acrobat was updated last year to version 8.) Photoshop CS3 comes in two editions: a regular version that's an upgrade of previous releases, and an Extended release that has analysis and manipulation tools for particular professions (see "Universal Binary Adobe Create Suite 3 Moves Closer," 2007-03-12).

Adobe continues to follow its path for better integration and more efficient workflow in this release. The set of programs and their connective tissue try to leverage the best capabilities of one program to let you work natively on a piece of media in that program, and then move it to another application without the loss of information or structure that happens when you import or export. This sort of inter-application communication may not be sexy, but it's what working stiffs need.

The support programs connect muscle to bone, and include Bridge (browsing and linking), Version Cue (workgroup storage and version tracking), Central (mobile device emulation), and Connect (rich conferencing). These tools facilitate and manage all this movement of media for individuals and large workgroups.


Audio and Video Appear Later in 2007 -- Two additional CS3 editions won't appear until the third quarter of 2007: Production Premium and Master Collection. Production Premium is a video and audio post-production package that comprises After Effects, Premiere Pro, Soundbooth, and Encore in addition to Flash, Illustrator, and Photoshop. Only After Effects will ship as a universal binary; Premiere Pro, Encore (part of the Premiere Pro package), and Soundbooth are Intel-only Mac products.

Two support programs for video production will be available only under Windows: Ultra (keying and compositing), part of Production Premium, and OnLocation (direct-to-disk recording and monitoring), part of Premiere Pro. Adobe notes that OnLocation will work under Boot Camp, however, as the idea is to dedicate the computer to the program while you're shooting.

The Master Collection includes every last Adobe CS3 product plus Acrobat in one box the size of the Lusitania and the weight of a cubic foot of neutron star. In reality, it's just a whole lotta software, necessary only for someone who outputs every possible mode of digital expression. Like David Byrne, perhaps.

You can see a full matrix of which products appear in which edition on Adobe's site by following this link and then clicking Compare Editions. (Is it a good sign of information architecture that there's no apparent way to link directly to this chart?)

The packages have a huge variety of upgrade options ranging from $240 to $1,400 for existing users of Adobe software, and when purchased new will retail for between $1,200 and $2,500 depending on the edition.

I'm exhausted just writing about this array of software; we'll look into the programs in more detail as they come available.

I should also note that while the release of these products might trigger your Apple Store finger to click a Buy button next to the image of a Mac Pro, the Mac Pro line hasn't been refreshed in months, while Intel has eight-core processors just sitting there, staring at us, waiting to go into some unsuspecting computer. I'm holding tight, myself.


Best Buy Buys Speakeasy: Doom, Despair?

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

My Internet service provider (ISP) Speakeasy Networks was just purchased by Best Buy. I was hoping the press release carried an April 1st dateline, but no such luck.

I've been a customer of Speakeasy for home and business for several years. While they charge 10 to 30 percent more than Qwest, the incumbent phone company in Washington State, Speakeasy has earned the difference by being generally responsive: they have great technical support, they go the extra mile, and they live up to their promises.

In one case, when moving our connection from one office to another - the office I share with TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson and others - Speakeasy was willing to help me get both DSL connections live at the same time and flip a switch to move our Internet protocol (IP) network from the one connection to the other on command. That's above and beyond what almost any ISP will do.

A year or so ago, I added their Internet telephony service that combines voice over IP (VoIP) with unlimited long-distance calling in North America, later extended to landlines and some cell systems in a total of 22 countries worldwide. Because Speakeasy provisions the VoIP connection on my end (through a device common to all VoIP providers) and their end (at the DSL termination point, something unique to DSL and cable providers), the VoIP lines' quality was just as good as my landlines.

Speakeasy is also the only ISP of any scale in the United States that permits its subscribers to share their broadband connections for free or for a fee with guests, neighbors, or customers. Most ISPs either outright disallow any form of sharing, or require an expensive business offering. Speakeasy also doesn't limit bandwidth use or charge for "excess" use. (They do reserve the right to cut off customers engaged in activities that violate their use policies, but those tend to involve illegal software trading or massive file exchanging.)

A Speakeasy spokesperson confirmed via email that the sharing policy would remain unchanged with the acquisition, and said that Speakeasy would remain Speakeasy.

But I'm worried nonetheless. Best Buy is a massive corporation; Speakeasy, while national, was local to me in Seattle. Best Buy is publicly held; Speakeasy was private. Best Buy is an aggressive, profit-driven firm that squeezes pennies and has a scenario-based store strategy that lets them size up customers and upsell to them; Speakeasy, while trying to be profitable, always seemed to be aiming for high-end customer support and service to stand out in the broadband industry, an industry that's not just dominated but biased in favor of the incumbent phone and cable firms.

Interestingly, the deal isn't so much about broadband - Speakeasy works closely with Covad to handle its DSL lines - but about VoIP. The press release goes on and on about VoIP, especially for small businesses, which often fall into the cracks between small customers and big businesses. Broadband is a marginal business relative to VoIP, in which there are much bigger dollars to be made. By combining broadband and VoIP into a single offering sold over naked DSL - no dial tone from the local telco required - Speakeasy can bypass the incumbent providers over whose wires Speakeasy's service runs.

I'm still having palpitations, but we'll see where the business goes. I liked my mom-and-pop ISP, the only national firm I know of that still retained that feeling. I'm nervous about their new corporate overlords.


Switching My Mother to the Mac

  by Robert Movin <rmovin@gmail.com>

It was the call we all dread.

"Hi Mom."

"Hi," she replied tersely.

"Is something wrong?"

"It's my email. It won't work. And the Internet is really slow."

"Crud."

I may be an executive in the world of information technology, one who works with some of the largest technology companies in the business, but to my extended family I just "work in computers." Which means, of course, that I, like many of you, am expected to keep their email running and figure out where those pesky digital photos are hiding after being deleted accidentally. It didn't take long to realize my mother's current woes might be a symptom of only 128 MB of RAM in an aging PC. And some spyware.

Crud, indeed.

I'm a geek, and I've been supporting everyone in my family for most of my life, but enough is enough. When I realized the local big box retailer was on her like a used car salesman on a trust-funder, I knew what I had to do. She needed to switch to a Mac, as I had done not that long ago (see my story in "From iPod to MacBook Pro: A Switcher's Tale," 2006-03-13). Soon. And I knew she couldn't afford it.

After some discussion with my wife I realized I could kill two birds with one stone. I'd buy my mother a refurbished Intel-based iMac, and I'd have it cover all holiday and birthday gifts for the next few years. She's not a very demanding user (at least in terms of processing power) so odds are any new system can last up to 5 years. I bit the bullet, logged onto store.apple.com, and placed the order.


Setting It Up -- I knew that just sending my mother a blank iMac wouldn't be the best idea in the world. It's taken me many years to get her comfortable on Windows and I've learned that her way of navigating around a system is pure memorization. This is a trend I've seen in a lot of people who weren't raised on technology - while most of us understand the contextual information of modern graphical operating systems, many people still don't understand the little boxes, symbols, and other hints we use to get around. Like my mother they rely on nearly rote memorization of exactly where to click and when. By buying her a Mac I was removing both what little context she relied on, and all of the process paths she used from day to day.

Instead I had the system shipped to me so I could prepare it to minimize the impact on her and to give myself support access. My first step was to run through all the initial configuration steps and apply all patches. I created a user account for her, and a second administrative account for myself. I went into System Preferences and locked down the security (turned on the firewall, made sure any unneeded services were disabled, locked all accounts, verified it would run Software Update automatically, and so on).

Next I went through all the major applications and pre-configured them. I set up her mail accounts (including a special one we'll get to later), and linked to an iPhoto photocast that publishes from my system (so we can send her pictures of the cats; sorry Mom, no kids yet). By setting her screen saver to iPhoto, I probably increased the value of the Mac to her by making it do double duty as a digital picture frame. Since she's a fairly recent grandmother (thanks to my sister) I figured she might like constantly updating photos of my nephew.

The next step, a little harder, was to set up an AOL Instant Messenger account and configure iChat. We ran through a bunch of potential screen names, and I now know my mother is really slow to pick up on double entendres. Let's just say some of her proposed names would have made her more popular online than a good son would be comfortable with. After installing Firefox (for those few sites that don't work with Safari) and a version of Microsoft Office I had also purchased for her, the iMac was pretty much ready. She mostly uses the computer for email, Web, photos, some work documents, and greeting cards (she was on her own to buy software for that, though iPhoto might work). I polished the basic configuration off by setting up her Dock.


Taking It Over -- The next phase was more complicated and involved tinkering under the hood in as unobtrusive a manner as possible. I've always struggled to support her remotely (we live on opposite sides of the country), and I wanted to configure secure remote access so I could both teach her how to use the Mac, and help troubleshoot any problems that arose. The next steps are complex and, based on the skills they required, a positive sign that my own journey of switching to the Mac is fairly complete.

I've had good success using VNC (Virtual Network Computing) as a remote control tool. VNC enables a remote user to see and control another computer over a local network or the Internet, and it works across most operating systems. Since my mother would never need to control my Mac, I just installed the server software on her iMac. Redstone Software's Vine Server (OSXvnc) is a great open source VNC server for the Mac. I configured it to launch at startup, always run in the background, require a password, and accept connections only from the local computer.

"What?" you ask, "how can you connect to it remotely if it accepts connections only from the Mac it's running on?"

As great as VNC is, it's pretty insecure - basically an unencrypted pipe running over (usually) port 5900. But there's another tool in our arsenal to lock it down - the SSH network protocol. One of the great features of SSH (Secure SHell) is that it isn't limited to giving you just a remote terminal session (the shell), it can also map entire ports across an encrypted network connection. Thus I can connect from my Mac to my mother's iMac over SSH and forward any traffic to port 5900 through that encrypted connection, where it's unpacked and dropped onto my mother's iMac as local traffic which Vine Server will then accept. I'm simplifying, but you get the idea. (The necessary command is below.)

An even better feature of SSH is that you can configure it to use only certificate-based authentication. With a little tweaking you can have SSH require digital certificates instead of passwords, and really lock down the certificates that are authorized. I set my mother's iMac to accept only a digital certificate over SSH (and to reject password-based authentication attempts), and to use only my personal certificate. Take that, you password-guessing crackers!

With all of that set up, I can now connect to my mother's computer using a simple command in Terminal to establish the encrypted SSH tunnel (listed below, for the curious).

ssh -L 5900:127.0.0.1:5900 <my username>@<Mom's IP>

Then I launch my VNC client (Chicken of the VNC) and configure it to connect to 127.0.0.1. All traffic is routed to my mother's iMac, giving me full control over her desktop.

"But Robert," you ask, "does that mean she has a static IP address?"

Excellent question - but nope, life isn't that easy.


Of Cable Modems and IP Addresses -- My mother connects to the Internet via a cable modem, and while her IP address doesn't change all that often, it's definitely not permanent. The solution to this problem involved a little AppleScript. Remember that "extra" mail account I set up? It's on a server I control and is relatively immune from spam. I created a mail trigger to run a small AppleScript script that looks up my mother's current public IP address, puts it into an email message, and sends it to one of my private accounts. All I have to do is send that special account a message with "GetIP" in the Subject, and her Mac sends me her current IP address. Another option would be to use a "reverse tunnel," sometimes called a "meet in the middle." Chris Pepper has a great tutorial for this (it's an excerpt from a potential "Take Control of SSH" ebook, so if you'd like to encourage Chris to finish it and Adam and Tonya to publish it, be sure to vote for it). I know some people use tools like dynamic DNS for this purpose, but I wanted something a bit more private, and I want to eliminate any need for interaction from my mother, thus my choice not to use the reverse tunnel.

The next step was harder, and required a trip (already scheduled) to set everything up. At this point her Mac was totally secured, configured, and set up for remote access. The problem was that, while I could get her public IP address whenever I needed it, I had no way to route traffic behind the home router connected to her firewall. The only way to solve this was on-site, so I packed up the iMac, checked it as baggage with much trepidation, and flew out there. After setting it up, I connected to her home router and configured it to forward all SSH traffic to the Mac, and while that sounds simple, it wasn't the easiest task in the world, considering the limits of the router the cable company gave her.

Of course, once Leopard is released it looks like remote control capabilities will be integrated into iChat and none of this cleverness will be necessary, but when I finished this project, Leopard was still at least 9 months away.


Mom, Meet Your Mac -- I actually had to leave before my mother had a chance to try out the iMac - so with everything set I hopped back on a plane for home. Her first response was exactly what I expected.

"It's beautiful!"

"Great!" I replied.

"How do I turn it on?"

After telling her where the power switch was, our first lesson started. To be honest, she adapted much better than I expected. Perhaps it's a bit of a testament to Apple's focus on simple design. That said, it wasn't perfect. By losing all of her memorized paths to get things done and what contextual clues she managed to pick up, the learning curve was steep and long. That's where VNC came in handy - over the next few weeks I'd connect to her system and walk her through any task while she watched and took notes.

My mother may not be a technophile, but she's no technophobe. One of her nicknames is "buttons" because someone once told her to start clicking anything she could see on the screen to see what happens. When I wasn't looking she ran off and grabbed a basic Mac book to learn on her own. Since I'd locked most of the system down, I figured the odds of any serious damage were limited, and she slowly learned her way around. She still can't do much, but she can do everything she needs.


The "Wow" Factor, and Bringing a Family Together -- Aside from reducing my overall support costs, another reason I bought the Mac was to spend more time with my 2-year-old nephew. My sister lives near my mother and, as it happens, the little one spends a lot of time with Grandma. I thought video iChats would help me get to know my nephew better, and (better yet) let him know who the heck the strange guy who visits once a year is. The response was even better than I expected.

My mother now prefers I make my weekly calls over iChat, and my nephew always wants to talk online and see our pets. Last visit, for the first time, he remembered who I was. Sure, you can do all this with a PC, but the simplicity and reliability can't be beat and the Mac helps bridge the thousands of miles between us.

Then something even better happened - my sister bought a MacBook.

To make a long story short, I helped my sister configure her new toy and now that entire side of the family is virtually connected. We regularly hold three-way video iChats to play with the nephew. My sister subscribed to .Mac and we now all photocast the latest family pictures (to be honest, photocasting could be a bit more reliable). My nephew struggles to figure out why his uncle can't talk anytime he wants during the day (the whole work thing) and I get all sorts of Photo Booth pictures.

We really can't ask for much more - we can video chat with better quality than I imagined, share photos, trade email messages, and even share calendars (not that we've needed to yet). Yes, I can do all of this on a PC - I spent years honing my Windows geek skills - but not nearly with such ease and reliability. Apple has helped bring our family closer even though I'm the only geek of the litter.

Not everything is perfect. "Buttons" managed to turn on her iMac's AirPort Extreme card and connect to the Internet through her neighbor's access point. That broke my remote access system, and reduced iChat video quality for the few months until my next visit. She also wishes the system fonts were bigger, and I haven't figured out how to fix that yet. View > Show View Options in the Finder can adjust some font sizes in the Finder, and TinkerTool seems to do this for Safari, but she wants to increase all the system fonts.

But overall the switch went far better than I expected, especially with my sister joining in, and now we're a family of Macs. No more cleaning spyware off Mom's PC, no more struggling to walk her through registry hacks over the phone (just kidding), and a level of connectivity I could only imagine a few years ago.

If you decide to take the risk with your own family members, I think it's worth the jump. Just make sure you prepare them, and the Mac, for the transition. With the remote control features in Leopard you should be able to avoid some of the hoops I had to jump through, but I still highly recommend you pay the extra shipping (or plane ticket) costs to configure the computer with everything they might need before they need it.

And, I hate to say it, but it's kind of nice to just send cards for all those holidays and birthdays. I'm really bad at picking out gifts.


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  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>


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