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This Site Will Self Destruct in Five Seconds

At an earlier stage in my life, I thought it would be great to be a film critic. I’d attend press screenings of new movies, then publish my opinion about them. I gave up on the idea: I don’t actually know very much about movies, and as I got older I came to appreciate the difference between informed and uninformed opinion.

Then, a little over two weeks ago, I received mail about Apple’s Web site tie-in with the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, Mission: Impossible. I didn’t pay attention until I saw Apple television commercials promoting the site, liberally sprinkled with bits of movie trailer, Apple hardware, and URLs. "After you see the movie, you’ll want to buy the book." A PowerBook, get it? I looked at that mail again. Then I looked at the Web site.


Normally, I resist the temptation to use TidBITS as a soapbox , but in this case I’m going to make an exception. I might not be able to give an informed opinion about movies, but I think I can say a word or two about Web sites.

Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’ — One of the most egregious sins a movie reviewer can commit is revealing too much of the plot. For many readers, this spoils the film. I’m going to take that chance here and tell you exactly what happens.

When you connect to Apple’s Mission: Impossible Web site, you’re greeted by typical promotional graphics. At this point, the Web site seems to turn into a choose-your-own-adventure arcade game. I followed the following plot threads.

  • I load the site in Netscape 2.02. The graphics load, then the RealAudio plug-in crashes my machine. Strike one.

  • I load the site using Internet Explorer 2.01. The site tells me it works best in Netscape, but I must obtain a MIDI plug-in from LiveUpdate called Crescendo PLUS, along with Macromedia’s Shockwave. I download and install Shockwave (20 minutes), but can’t access to Crescendo. I try again two hours later and still can’t get through. Strike two.

  • I uninstall the RealAudio plug in, then try again with Netscape 2.02. There’s no audio, but Netscape doesn’t crash. I get a special message: "You’ve proven yourself to be an advanced agent by equipping yourself with Netscape Navigator. Your mission will be substantially enhanced compared to other agents." Neat – I always knew I was special! But now I need four plug-ins: the new ones are RealAudio and QuickTime VR. But QuickTime VR isn’t a plug-in, it’s a helper application. And I had RealAudio, but it crashed. I don’t feel substantially enhanced, but click the "Start Mission" button. Netscape crashes; game over.

Crying U.N.C.L.E. — At this point I think I’m beginning to understand where the name "Mission: Impossible" came from. But I’m still inspired by memories of the long-running television series. When I was a kid, Mission: Impossible was one of two television shows I wasn’t allowed to watch. (The other was Space: 1999; ironically, both starred Martin Landau). I’d sneak over to a friend’s house to watch syndicated episodes of Mission: Impossible. Although I’m sure most of the Cold War plots were beyond my comprehension, I soaked up the gadgets and the gallant teamwork of the show’s secret agents. Now, even though I don’t have the most modern Mac available (a Quadra 650), it’s system is current and clean and my plug-ins are up-to-date. There’s no reason this shouldn’t work, so I figured I’d give Apple another try.

So the next day I downloaded Netscape’s Atlas 3.0b4 release, installed all the plug-ins (even Crescendo PLUS, which I was able to download this time), gave Netscape 16 MB of RAM and tried again.

  • I connect to the site and get a RealAudio error saying that the site is not responding, but Netscape doesn’t crash. I connect to another RealAudio site to verify the RealAudio plug-in is working (it is), then I re-connect to Apple’s site. I get the same error, but I press on.

  • I’m allowed to sign into the site. Apple is collecting contact information to sign users up for a contest; apparently the top prize is a PowerBook 5300 actually used by Tom Cruise in the movie. The site will not let me proceed unless I provide contact information. I use an alias; if Clark Kent wins a PowerBook 5300, I will be upset.

  • Netscape begins downloading a 387K file, presumably a Shockwave presentation. I wait three minutes while the file downloads, and I’m presented with a blinking graphic: "Proceed with Mission Briefing." I click it, and the 387K file begins downloading again. I wait three more minutes. A dialog appears: "Error loading Director movie (10000)." I click the OK button, (since there’s no other choice) and Netscape crashes, taking my Macintosh out with it.

Disavowing Any Knowledge — I’m sure Apple spent a lot of money setting up and promoting this site – the television commercials alone attest to that. It doesn’t appear to be something Apple (or a contractor) whipped up overnight and forgot to test. I have to assume the site is being presented as intended.

If this site represents Apple, then someone at Apple is clearly missing the point of the Internet, and the Web in particular. Building and promoting a site based on unstable tools is more than chancy: it’s irresponsible. Online publishing is about providing scalable content, and the point is to get that content to users in whatever form is most appropriate. By setting a threshold higher than many Apple customers (and potential customers) can reach, Apple not only limits its message but looks incompetent in a very public way.

It’s ironic that the most representative portion of Apple’s Mission: Impossible Web site is in its section on prizes and rules, which says, in part, "Apple Computer, Inc. does not assume the responsibility for phone, technical, network, electronic, computer, hardware or software failures of any kind." Fans of Mission: Impossible will note that language sounds remarkably like a mission briefing, wherein "the Secretary" will deny all knowledge of an agent’s actions in the event the agent is killed or captured.

Apple tells us to expect the impossible; clearly, someone at Apple did.

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