Here at TidBITS, we seem to be creatures of tradition. We saw this issue approaching a few months back and thought, "Hmm, we should do something for such a milestone issue." Then we went back to doing what we do every week: writing and editing and responding to email. Luckily, Geoff, in his role as keeper of the database, was a bit more on top of things, and over the last few months, messages kept arriving from him with custom Lasso URLs pointing at updated database pages.
Where’s the tradition? Well, if you go back and read what we did to commemorate our 400th and 500th issues, in both cases we announced major changes to our online presence. For TidBITS-400, we introduced a new logo, changed the look of our Web site, and introduced the GetBITS CGI that provides permanent URLs to our thousands of articles. TidBITS-500 brought another home page redesign aimed at exposing more of our content, the addition of our poll/quiz functionality, and text banners. So what do you have to look forward to this time?
New Mailing Lists — Back in February of 2001, we asked in a poll what additional options you’d like for receiving TidBITS in email. As we expected, most people like the way we do it now, but 15 percent of respondents asked for an HTML-formatted version of our issues, and another 10 percent asked for announcements in either text or HTML format with links to our articles on the Web. The HTML issue was clearly a priority, and we definitely wanted to add an announcement version for those who prefer a reminder to read specific articles on the Web. After designing the text version of the announcement message, we tried an HTML version, and liked it enough to keep it as well. In the end, we decided to support all the options: full issues and announcements in both text and HTML format.
After some programming, Geoff finagled appropriate messages out of our databases, and I spent some time setting up ListSTAR and Eudora Internet Mail Server to handle subscriptions and distribute issues. The work was detailed and painstaking, and although we and some testers tried to catch everything, it’s possible we missed some minor details – if you run into any, let us know.
Before I tell you how to subscribe to these new mailing lists, let me offer a few thoughts about the two HTML-formatted versions. In keeping with our overall philosophy of elegant text-based publishing and broad compatibility, neither version includes graphics, and both use styles and horizontal rules sparingly. We’ve tested them in the current versions of Entourage, Eudora, Netscape, Outlook Express (both Mac and Windows), PowerMail, and, for Mac OS X users, Apple’s Mail. As you would expect with HTML, the display (and even functionality) varies between these programs, and we had to make some compromises to achieve the best overall results. (Our efforts include one useful trick gleaned from a friend at Microsoft – it turns out Entourage and Outlook Express use a fast internal text engine to render simple HTML, but if the HTML includes more complex tags like TABLE or FORM, these programs instead turn to the slower but more capable Internet Explorer rendering engine.)
Overall, I’m happy with how the HTML versions came out, and initial reports from our small band of testers have been positive as well. However, since there’s no telling exactly how the HTML will work for you, I recommend that if you want to subscribe to one of the two HTML lists, you refrain from unsubscribing from the main setext list for a few weeks until you’re sure you like the HTML version. All that said, here are the details:
To receive full HTML issues, send any message to <[email protected]>.
To receive brief announcements in text format, send any message to <[email protected]>.
To receive brief announcements in HTML format, send any message to <[email protected]>.
And of course, for anyone who for some reason isn’t receiving our issues in text format and would like to, send any message to <[email protected]>.
In keeping with our consistent naming approach for administrative addresses, replacing "on" in any of those addresses with "off" will unsubscribe you from that list. Plus, if you prefer a Web-based form for subscribing, we have one of those available as well.
No matter which list you subscribe to, you’ll receive two replies, one confirming receipt of your request from ListSTAR and another once we’ve processed your request in our subscription database. If you subscribe via the Web, you’ll also receive an additional request for confirmation to prevent people from subscribing or unsubscribing others.
Finally, if you subscribe to TidBITS and don’t care about any of these new formats, you don’t need to do anything! We’re still publishing the text version of TidBITS via email, and have absolutely no plans to discontinue it. The idea here is to provide new options for people who want them, not to take anything away from anybody.
New Web Database Services — Along with these new mailing lists, Geoff has made some welcome changes to our article database, which we anticipate will be used more heavily thanks to the announcement versions of TidBITS. The URL below will bring up last week’s big article on Mac OS X 10.1 – take a look at it to follow along.
Three new icons (and associated link text) can appear at the top of every article in the database: "Discussed in TidBITS Talk," "Send via Email," and "Print Version."
Clicking the Print Version link opens a new page with another copy of the article that’s specially formatted for printing. We don’t like wasting paper, ink, or toner any more than anyone else, and we know that lots of people like to print TidBITS for reading away from the computer. The print version of an article eliminates our graphics, navigation bar, links to related articles, and everything else that loses meaning on paper; it also turns the links black so printing on an inkjet printer won’t accidently use colored ink. We chose not to mess with the font or size of the article, preferring to stick instead to your browser defaults; you may wish to change those or use other tools like Internet Explorer’s Print Preview to reduce the amount of paper used. The print version is also designed to be easy to copy and paste into another program if you need to do more extensive reformatting.
The Send via Email link takes you to a form where you can enter the necessary information to send an article to yourself or another person via email. You can send either the entire article in HTML or a text-only message containing a link to the article. You can also add your own message – we encourage (but don’t require) it to make sure recipients understand why they’re receiving the article from you via email.
TidBITS Syndication — One of my favorite books of all time is Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (recommended for all ages, especially when you feel like you’re overwhelmed with troubles), which says, "Some times you are winners. Some times you’re losers. We can never win against so many Poozers." That’s a bit how I’ve felt for the last few years when trying to support new methods of publishing updates to TidBITS via the Web.
First we supported Intermind Communicator, one of the early "push" products, but that soon fell before the might of the industry goliaths, Microsoft and Netscape. Then we thought that if we couldn’t beat ’em, we’d join ’em, so we started publishing TidBITS in Microsoft’s Channel Definition Format (CDF). But it was poorly conceived and badly integrated into Internet Explorer, so it never took off and has been relegated to the dustbin of technology. We’re actually still publishing in CDF format since we automated the process years ago and there’s been no reason to shut it off – judging from our Web logs, a few people still read TidBITS via CDF in older versions of Internet Explorer.
Having been burned twice, I was shy to put any effort into what seems now to have become the winning format, RSS (Rich Site Summary), an XML-based language for describing the content of frequently updated Web publications. It’s actually a lot like CDF, but where CDF failed to catch on, RSS, with the backing and evangelism of UserLand and Netscape, has been adopted by many different sites. So, long after I should have jumped in, I built an RSS file and Geoff coaxed our database into automatically updating it.
For the most part, individuals don’t use RSS files directly. Instead, content aggregators like My.UserLand.Com, O’Reilly’s Meerkat, and NewsIsFree collect news headlines and (optionally) short article descriptions via RSS files and make them available to readers. You can even run your own content aggregator on your Mac – AmphetaDesk – and read selected RSS channels in a Web browser.
I’ve registered TidBITS with My.UserLand.Com and NewsIsFree, so you can go to either of those sites and see headlines from TidBITS along with innumerable others. (Meerkat claims to pick up new RSS feeds from UserLand and xmlTree, another collection of RSS feeds, though TidBITS hasn’t shown up in Meerkat just yet.)
I’m unsure if publishing an RSS file will drive significant traffic to our Web site. It will undoubtedly take some time for people who get their news via content aggregation sites to happen across TidBITS headlines. One thing that works against us is our relatively small number of articles each week; the headline listings are automatically biased toward publications with many articles. But as with other ways of reading TidBITS, such as our AvantGo channel, handheld edition, Palm DOC version maintained by Dave Charlesworth, and even the many translations put out by our worthy volunteer translators, what’s important is making the information available, not reaching some minimum number of readers.
Into the Next Century of TidBITS — What will TidBITS-700 bring? It’s about two years away, and I have no idea how things will change between then and now. It’s conceivable by then that we would have moved away from our legacy Mac OS systems (even as replacement hardware keeps getting cheaper), although we have a hard time replacing systems that aren’t broken. It’s also possible that some significant paradigm switch would have happened with content publication by then, but I personally suspect that the corner of the publishing world we inhabit will tend to remain roughly the same. But hey, as long as we’re having fun, doing good work, and publishing articles you want to read, there are far worse things than finding ourselves doing much the same thing two years hence.