Compilation CD-ROMs face a difficult dilemma: given that resources are available for free over the Internet, what benefits can a compilation of some of those resources offer that are of sufficient value to justify the price?
There are, I think, four such benefits. First is the archival value. The Internet is an ever-changing library; things move, mutate, or cease to exist. Pacific Hi-Tech’s old Info-Mac collections and its HyperStacks CD-ROM (all, alas, now out of print) are my favorite treasures in this regard. The former enable me to produce on demand copies of displaced versions and vanished freeware; the latter performed an invaluable service by preserving the best online collection of HyperCard stacks and XCMDs just before that collection disappeared into the ether.
Second is the matter of space. It’s more than a mere convenience to store large amounts of rarely used but occasionally invaluable material somewhere besides one’s hard drive. Personally, I’m always short of space, no matter how large my hard disk; also, while hard disks need to be backed up, a CD-ROM (according to popular mythology, anyway) is a backup. The argument is less compelling now that it is theoretically within one’s power to forge a CD-ROM in the comfort of one’s home; but so far few people are equipped for this. (I’m not.)
Third is speed. Unless your Internet connection is better than mine, it’s useful not to have to use the World Wide Wait as your library every time you need something.
And finally, there’s expertise. If a true expert in a field has collected the contents of a CD-ROM (and made them accessible through an interface more powerful than the Finder, perhaps with searchable keywords and explanations), the collector’s expertise is a tremendous boon, especially if you’re not an expert yourself. As I see it, this benefit adds enough value to a CD-ROM compilation to raise its fair asking price.
So, what’s the going rate for a compilation CD-ROM? The Pacific Hi-Tech CDs – and others comparable to theirs – sell for $40 or less, often much less if you buy a multi-pack.
ISO Productions’ "Everything CD for Macintosh Scripting" retails for $50. By the way, ISO stands for "Interactive Support Online" and ISO Productions publishes "Everything" CD-ROMs for FileMaker Pro and the 3Com PalmPilot, in addition to the well-regarded ISO FileMaker Magazine for FileMaker Pro developers.
A fifty-dollar price tag might seem a bit steep, but it could be quite fair if the CD-ROM justifies ISO’s claims that if you "would like to become proficient at scripting, this is a resource that will save you many hours of time… If you’re just beginning, [it] will help you with the languages and syntax; if you’re intermediate, [it] will help you rise to the next level; and if you’re advanced you’ll find hundreds of valuable resources that will save [you] time and money."
Fontier and User Script — Having just written a book about UserLand Frontier, I first examined the Frontier-related resources on the Everything Scripting CD-ROM. My confidence in ISO Productions as an expert collector of Macintosh scripting materials was, however, somewhat shaken when not only their Web site but the printed matter in the CD’s jewel case speak of Frontier’s "User Script" (the language is called UserTalk). The mistake is repeated on the CD-ROM, where the program is also once called "Fontier".
Indeed, to anyone familiar with Frontier’s online resources, it seems that the folks at ISO might be in a bit over their heads. Frontier 4.2.3 is on the CD-ROM, but online documentation and various tutorials (even mine) are missing. Archives of Frontier mailing lists aren’t included either. What a boon it would have been if ISO had indexed and described all the third-party scripts from the Low Tech Object Distribution Server! Instead, the CD-ROM is unaware of most of this material. With time and patience, even someone who knows nothing of Frontier could comb the Web better than this, just by pursuing links at UserLand’s own Web site.
The result, it is safe to say, is that no one is going to be "helped with the languages and syntax" or "rise to the next level" of Frontier via this CD-ROM – a beginner won’t even understand what Frontier is or how to get started.
No AppleScript for this Teacher — With regard to the AppleScript material, we are in a different world. It’s clear this is an area ISO knows something about, and to which some time has been devoted. The CD-ROM has plenty of third-party scripts and OSAXen (extensions to the AppleScript language that can be dropped into your Scripting Additions folder). After noting the CD-ROM’s treatment of Frontier, I spent quite a bit of time following links in Bill Cheeseman’s AppleScript pages, trying to find material the CD had failed to include, and was impressed by how difficult this turned out to be.
However, the CD-ROM is once again weak on documentation. It includes the AppleScript language guide in Acrobat PDF format, but not in HTML; it doesn’t include Apple’s Finder scripting guide or Scripting Extensions guide in either format, nor relevant Microsoft Knowledge Base articles, nor any of several other useful Web documents.
The Mac Scripting mailing list archives are included – all 120 MB – accessible (or perhaps I should say, inaccessible) through a clunky, slightly buggy FileMaker interface that makes finding what you want difficult and following a thread nearly impossible.
Another FileMaker database, the MacScripter’s Encyclopedia, provides three categories of AppleScript-related information: a collection of actual scripts; a list of OSAXen and common scriptable applications; and a page listing error messages. This is a clever idea, and powerfully demonstrates ISO’s FileMaker Pro interface. However, it suffers from three serious shortcomings:
The scripts are searchable by fields such as name, author, and text, but no useful categorization by keyword or subject has been performed.
A relational portal lists the commands implemented by each OSAX and application (which is good), but although each command has fields for describing its syntax and usage, those fields are mostly empty. (Of course, you can fill them in; but the notion of an encyclopedia which you must partly write yourself is curious.) There also isn’t a list view of commands – which is serious since installing two OSAXen implementing identically named commands is a major worry in AppleScript development.
The encyclopedia database is not an index to the CD-ROM; it’s a separate entity. To find out if you’ve got a certain script, you have to look in the Finder and the encyclopedia. Similarly, the encyclopedia may describe a certain OSAX, say "Copy File," but it doesn’t tell you that it’s part of the GTQ Scripting Library, included on the CD-ROM. Indeed, I had no difficulty discovering OSAXen on the CD-ROM that aren’t in the encyclopedia at all.
Although the AppleScript material on the CD-ROM is copious (even comprehensive) it is navigable only with difficulty. To all practical purposes, it’s a fine collection and no more.
Thin Icing on the Cake — The CD-ROM contains a sizeable collection of buttons, palettes, and other material for WestCode Software’s automation program OneClick, which should prove very welcome to OneClick users. [See "OneClick – A Super Utility" in TidBITS-350. -Geoff]
The CD-ROM also contains MacPerl (with a limited collection of standard resources and none of the wonderful online documentation) and the basic Tcl/Tk installer for Macintosh. Though these do save the user the trouble of some large downloads, they are neither hard to find nor, of themselves, educational. Finally, there is a demo version of FaceSpan, a miscellaneous collection of freeware and shareware (clip2gif, Tex-Edit, Decor), and some massive demos (Timbuktu Pro, FileMaker Pro, RagTime) that bring the size of the CD-ROM up to 438 MB. There is also a FileMaker database listing everything on the CD-ROM; although it does link to the Finder, since it lists the name of each item with no additional information, you might as well be in the Finder.
Conclusion — In my view, the value of this CD-ROM is just like an Info-Mac compilation: there’s nothing here you couldn’t find and download yourself, but you’re happy you didn’t have to. But the latest Info-Mac collection costs $40 for more than 1 GB of material on three CD-ROMs. So the question is: with the Everything CD for Macintosh Scripting, are you $50 happier? You’ll have to gauge that for yourself, based upon your needs and your equipment.
The claim that the Everything CD is "reducing your learning curve" seems rather extravagant to me. If anything, the beginner is going to be bewildered, and the claim that the CD contains "Everything Scripting" is also hyperbole. The AppleScript collection is good; the others are spotty, even superficial.
ISO Productions have assured me that they intend to create a "volume 2" (apparently a second edition) containing more extensive material and with more helpful indexing. That edition will be available at half price to purchasers of this one. That sounds splendid, and I look forward to that CD as being what this one ought to have been.