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It’s our final email issue of 2009, and we’re going out with a bang: a 50%-off sale on all Take Control ebooks. We also have lots of great articles, including news of the Google Chrome for Mac beta, problems with 27-inch iMac screens, details of Apple’s new Mac Pro and Xserve configurations, and a look at training for MacSpeech Dictate that’s offered by experts with disabilities. Rich Mogull returns this week to calm fears about the last issue of TidBITS triggering badly written anti-spam filters and to worry that his continued reliance on the still-broken iCal Server is evidence of a mental disorder. Oh, and you simply must watch this YouTube video Adam found; it’s a mashup of Internet documentary talking heads sounding utterly absurd. Equally odd are some of the examples of dual-display devices he researched recently. Notable software releases this week include VMware Fusion 3.0.1, Things 1.2.6, Keyboard Maestro 4.0, BusyCal 1.1, MacBook/MacBook Pro Optical Drive Firmware Updates, Camino 2.0.1, and AirPort Client Update 2009-002. See you in 2010!

Adam Engst No comments

TidBITS 2009 Holiday Hiatus

The end of 2009 approaches, but with a rather different feel. For once, we managed to schedule our ebook releases so we weren’t quite so crazed over the last few weeks (but don’t miss our 50-percent-off sale!). Plus, for the first time in memory, early January won’t be taken up by Macworld Expo (now taking place in the middle of February).

But one thing that is the same is that I’m reminded as always of how lucky Tonya and I are to have the highly capable and amiable assistance of Glenn, Jeff, Joe, Matt, Mark, Rich, and Doug, along with the many Take Control authors and editors. We’re also indebted to digital.forest for hosting our Internet servers, and to our TidBITS corporate sponsors for helping us keep the lights on. And, of course, we owe huge thanks to the writers who have contributed articles to TidBITS throughout the year, to the volunteer translators who make TidBITS available in other languages, to the individuals who leave comments on articles and participate in TidBITS Talk, and to everyone who carves out precious time to read what we write.

Thank you, one and all, and may all your holiday wishes come true.

We’re taking the final two weeks of the year off from the email issue, so we and the rest of the TidBITS staff can spend time with our families, reflect on the past year, rest up a bit for 2010, and, in my case, recuperate from my second hernia surgery of the year last week (the first one in January didn’t take, apparently, but recovery so far from this one has been much easier).

Be sure to stop by the TidBITS Web site or subscribe to our RSS or Twitter feeds for news, ExtraBITS links, Watchlist items, and other articles we can’t resist posting. We’ll continue to moderate TidBITS Talk discussions as well, though undoubtedly at a more relaxed pace. The next email issue of TidBITS will come out on 4 January 2010.

Adam Engst No comments

Take Control Holiday Sale: 50% Off All Ebooks

To celebrate the holiday season and the end of another year, we’re having a 50-percent-off sale on all the ebooks we sell – Take Control titles and the Macworld Superguides, along with the ebook version of my “iPhoto ’09: Visual QuickStart Guide.” This is a great opportunity to try your first Take Control title, stock up on tech reading for the new year, or update your collection of Take Control ebooks quickly and efficiently with a single trip through the cart, starting from any link in this article. (The sale is only for ebooks, not our at-cost print-on-demand versions. Bits are easy, atoms are hard.)

Want to give one of our ebooks as a gift? Since we don’t use DRM of any sort, you can buy the ebook just as you would buy it for yourself and then give the PDF file to your recipient using the technology of your choice, such as a funky USB thumb drive or nicely labeled CD-R if you need something physical to wrap. For last minute gift-giving, you can just attach one of our PDFs to an email message or drop it in an iChat window while you’re wishing the recipient many happy regards.

Not sure what titles might be most useful to you? Here’s a guide:

Or, if you aren’t quite sure what you might be interested in, check out our catalog page, which you can view by topic or as a big list of ebooks, sorted alphabetically.

The sale lasts until the end of December, so please tell your friends!

Doug McLean No comments

Google Chrome for Mac Beta Released

Google has finally released a beta Mac OS X version of its WebKit-based Internet browser, Google Chrome. Chrome is notable for launching each tab as a separate process, which isolates security breaches, reduces waits from JavaScript hangups, and, in the event of a crash, takes down only that process instead of all open pages in a browser.

To better understand how Chrome differs from other browsers, consider taking a gander at artist Scott McCloud’s comic which explains the browser’s technical ins-and-outs in everyday language. (To learn more about the comic itself see “Google Explains Its Forthcoming Web Browser with Comics,” 1 September 2008).

Since Chrome was first announced, Apple and the Mozilla Foundation have both released significant improvements to the JavaScript engines that power Safari and Firefox. The speed of JavaScript was lauded at Chrome’s launch, because faster JavaScript means smoother interactions with Web-based applications that rely on huge libraries of code that run in the browser.

In the press notes for its browser’s launch, Google notes the Chrome development process comprised “73,804 lines of Mac-specific code written; 29 developer builds; 1,177 Mac-specific bugs fixed; 12 external committers and bug editors to the Google Chrome for Mac code base; 48 external code contributors; 64 Mac minis doing continuous builds and tests; 8,760 cups of soft drinks and coffee consumed; and 4,380 frosted mini-wheats eaten.” Thank goodness for sugar and caffeine!

Google Chrome for Mac Beta is free and requires Mac OS X 10.5 on an Intel-based Mac. It’s available as a 17.6 MB download.

Doug McLean 5 comments

New iMac Screens Cracking and Flickering

Almost two months ago Apple announced a series of updates to the iMac line (see “New iMac Models Receive Larger Screens, SD Card Slot,” 20 October 2009). Changes included larger screens (21.5-inch and 27-inch displays), SD card slots, and overall upgraded specs – most surprising of which were the first quad-core processors to be made available in a Mac outside of the Mac Pro and Xserve. At the time of the announcement, Apple noted that the i5 and i7 quad-core models would be shipping later than the rest, in November 2009.

As eagerly awaiting customers have begun to receive their shipments, a disconcerting trend of cracked screens and problematic displays has emerged. A thread on the Apple Support Discussion forums discussing the problems has received over 32,500 views and nearly 200 responses – significant numbers that indicate widespread affliction. Yet, user forums are often difficult places to synthesize information regarding problems like this, as specifics are generally muddled within anecdotal paragraphs. Thankfully, the Apple iMac (Fall 2009) Issues site (hosted on the anonymously run has
brought clarity and analysis to the cases presented in the Apple discussion forums.

The iMac Issues site disclaims that “The data presented here is based on information submitted by people on this Web site or taken from comments posted in Apple’s Discussion boards (this is an ‘unscientific’ survey and as such should not be considered representative of all iMacs sold).” Be that as it may, it does help clarify the available data.

Looking at the Numbers — While a cracked screen is a more startling problem and makes for a more arresting story (and, fortunately, an easy replacement), most users complaining about their displays are in fact affected by poor video output. Of the 482 cases logged by the iMac Issues site, 71 were related to cracked screens while 225 revolved around flickering displays. Other symptoms listed include a yellow-tinted screen (often appearing as a band on the bottom portion of the screen), dead pixels, and an inability to boot. Descriptions of display issues also include the appearance of the display tearing or splitting, or of its image becoming offset and distorted. 78 users are counted as having absolutely no

Affected systems are far more likely to be one of the 27-inch models, especially when concerning instances of broken glass. Of the 405 cases identifying some kind of problem, 374 involved a 27-inch iMac, while only 31 involved a 21.5-inch iMac. When the problem identified is broken glass, all of the cases involve a 27-inch iMac. While it makes some sense that the larger model’s glass is disproportionately affected because its extra screen space makes it that much more vulnerable during shipping, it’s harder to explain the discrepancy between the video output issues, unless the numbers simply reflect the 27-inch model’s popularity relative to the 21.5-inch model.

Examining Causes — No definitive conclusions have been reached regarding the causes of these problems. Especially mysterious is that in the majority of cases with broken glass, the packaging appeared unscathed. We assume the computers are going into their boxes in good condition, which leaves either excessive fragility or issues with transport and packaging to blame. With the packaging itself usually showing no signs of distress, figuring out exactly what’s happening inside the boxes en route becomes a puzzle.

As for the flickering and problematic displays (videos of which can be found on YouTube), suggested causes, or at least avenues for further investigation, include high computer temperatures, defective power supplies, incompatibility with AirPort base stations, and an issue related to brightness settings – dimming the monitor appears to reduce the symptoms. Yet for all the speculation, consensus on the issue has yet to be reached.

What You Can Do — If you are affected by the screen flickering issues, be sure to contact Apple, either online or by working with an Apple Genius at a retail store, to ensure your problem is logged. Also consider adding your experiences to the ongoing Apple discussion forum thread linked earlier or submitting your data to the iMac Issues site’s survey.

For those with broken screens, Apple has been replacing these iMacs without hesitation – though a few unfortunate customers have received replacements that were themselves broken. If you have an Apple retail store nearby, consider seeking your replacement there until this issue is resolved.

We hope to see Apple address what are clearly serious and widespread problems quickly and fully.

Doug McLean 3 comments

Apple Updates Mac Pro and Xserve Configuration Options

Apple has quietly updated its Mac Pro and Xserve lines with new configurations. The Mac Pro quad-core model now includes the option to replace the base configuration’s 2.66 GHz Intel Xeon processor with a 3.33 GHz Intel Xeon. Price? $1,200 for the processor swap.

Newly available in both the quad-core Mac Pro and the eight-core model is the option to replace each of the base configuration’s hard drives with 2 TB 7200 rpm drives. This brings the maximum capacity of the Mac Pro up to 8 TB, from 4 TB, and does so at the price of $350 for the first drive, and $550 for each subsequent drive.

Apple’s Xserve lineup sees the same 2 TB hard drive upgrade option, at the price of $450 for the first drive and $550 for each subsequent drive. (Xserve drives are more expensive than Mac Pro drives due to the drive carriers and other reasons; see “Going Deep Inside Xserve Apple Drive Modules,” 27 March 2009.) The new option brings the Xserve’s maximum capacity to 6 TB, up from 3 TB.

Also, new to the Xserve quad-core model is the option to configure the machine with 24 GB of RAM, or 4 GB per slot, at the hefty price of $2,850. (The eight-core Xserve model features 12 RAM slots instead of the quad-core’s 6 slots.)

Now that the iMac boasts substantial specs (see “New iMac Models Receive Larger Screens, SD Card Slot,” 20 October 2009), upgrade options such as these help further define the Mac Pro and Xserve as the powerhouses of Apple’s product line.

Adam Engst 2 comments

Hilarious Mashup Video from Internet Documentary

By now, you’ve certainly seen at least one earnest documentary talking about the profound effects the Internet is having on society. That’s why Cassetteboy’s “The Web for Beginners” mashup video of uncut footage from a forthcoming four-part BBC documentary about the Internet is so funny – it takes all the usual talking heads and cuts their interviews into wonderfully absurdist statements like, “It turns out that the Internet is just fax machines that think the thoughts of somebody who lived 8,000 years ago.”

The BBC is actually encouraging this use as part of their Digital Revolution Short Film Competition, which provides the uncut footage to anyone to download and edit; the BBC commissioned Cassetteboy (a self-described “double act who edit footage they’ve nicked off the telly to make celebrities swear”) to create this piece as an example of what can be done.

Adam Engst No comments

Follow Important Software Updates in the TidBITS Watchlist

Often, when I use the Macs of friends or relatives, I notice that a lot of their software is out of date. It’s not surprising. Although Sparkle and other automatic update mechanisms (see “Sparkle Improves Application Update Experience,” 20 August 2007) have made the act of downloading and installing updates easier, many people are leery of installing updates until they’ve heard from a trusted source that the update is worthwhile. That’s true even of updates from Apple; nearly every time I visit my parents, I install all the Apple updates that Software Update has been recommending since my last visit.

That’s one of the reasons that we write about software updates in TidBITS – to give you a head start on determining whether an update is worthwhile before you’re prompted to update. The other reason is to alert you to updated software that you may have dismissed in the past due to bugs or missing features, or that you may simply not have known about.

Obviously, we don’t always have time to explore the software in detail – the announcement of an update should not be considered a review – but we do put thought into covering only updates to the software we think is most interesting. (We generally post no more than a couple of items per day, whereas VersionTracker shows 64 updates for just the day before I wrote this.) Even for software we consider interesting, if the update in question is too minor, we won’t clutter your head with additional information about it. (To give credit where credit is due, staff writer Doug McLean is handling the vast majority of these updates.)

For a long time, we treated updates like any other article, but even with our editorial filtering there were too many releases to cover in any significant depth. So, we created a TidBITS Watchlist article that we would update throughout the week with new updates. That worked fine for publishing in the email issue the following week, but worked badly for helping our Web- and RSS-based readers learn about updates as we posted them. The single TidBITS Watchlist article also integrated poorly with our highly successful TidBITS Commenting System.

However, we didn’t want to post each Watchlist item as a normal article, since they’d totally take over our home page, pushing other articles off quickly. So Glenn and Jeff and I put our heads together and came up with what we think is a much better approach.

We are now writing Watchlist items as independent articles, which enables them to collect comments and be dealt with individually. However, we’ve tweaked the TidBITS Publishing System to keep Watchlist items off the headline list on our home page; that prevents other articles from disappearing too quickly.

To simplify finding the Watchlist items, we’ve created a TidBITS Watchlist widget in the upper right corner of every page on our site, listing the last 10 items we’ve posted. Click an item’s name to read its full writeup and leave any comments you may have about that program.

Though they don’t appear on our normal home page headline list, Watchlist items do show up in the headline lists for the various sections of our site, available from the left-side navigation bar. They also appear in our RSS feed as independent items.

Our email issues required a different approach. Although many independent articles work well on the Web and in RSS, they become overwhelming in email. So there we’ve maintained the single TidBITS Watchlist collection article; those of you who only read TidBITS in email probably haven’t noticed anything different. This week brings one small but important change: each Watchlist item in the collection has a link that makes it easy for you to comment on what you think about the update on our Web site. Your comments really do help extend the depth of our coverage, so keep them coming!

The magic of the TidBITS Publishing System enables us to keep this TidBITS Watchlist collection article, along with the ExtraBITS collection article that collects individual ExtraBITS links from the site, exclusive to the email issue, where the collections make sense, and off of our Web site, where individual items are more appropriate.

So take a few minutes and check out how the TidBITS Watchlist widget works, and let us know in the comments if this approach to alerting you to software updates is effective, or if there’s something we could be doing even better.

Doug McLean No comments

MacSpeech and TEI Offer One-On-One Training

MacSpeech, Inc., maker of the popular speech recognition utility MacSpeech Dictate ($199), has partnered with The Emergent Institute (TEI) to offer specialized one-on-one software training. But in a twist from the usual training scenarios, TEI employs people with disabilities who are also experts in accessibility technologies, including MacSpeech Dictate.

While TEI, founded in 2006, was originally a customer of MacSpeech (having purchased a copy of the now-retired iListen), the current partnership comes out of requests from MacSpeech customers for training that goes beyond the basic technical support. Andrew Taylor, founder and CEO of MacSpeech, Inc., says, “People seem interested in being taught, one-on-one, how to use MacSpeech Dictate to its fullest. Our video tutorials have been helpful in covering the basics, but a lot of people want their own individual training sessions.”

Although one would assume that anyone offering training would be an expert in the product in question, TEI’s trainers themselves rely on MacSpeech Dictate and can thus offer a higher level of insight and empathy about using the product in real-world situations.

Don Whittecar, founder of The Emergent Institute, described the project’s origins. “Some of us tried speech recognition on the PC platform and found it very difficult to use. Our use of the MacSpeech family of speech recognition software is centered on MacSpeech Dictate, which is significantly easier to learn and develop depth of use with. The company and I had discussed several ways that TEI and MacSpeech could network over the past two years, so when Andrew Taylor became involved and the discussion turned to the training aspect, it was a natural fit.”

TEI’s training covers any aspect of the program with which you might need assistance: creating a profile, controlling your Mac via commands, better utilizing the Cache Selection feature, developing optimum recognition, working with specialized vocabularies, and more. Training is user-directed, so you can get help with the precise aspects of the program you want, without wasting time on parts you already understand. Additionally, with trainers using a combination of screen sharing and phone support to run the virtual sessions, you can receive training whenever and wherever it’s convenient for you.

MacSpeech Dictate One-on-One Training is available for the entire MacSpeech Dictate product lineup, including MacSpeech Dictate Legal, Medical, and International. Training sessions cost $69.95 per 50-minute session, though an introductory price of $49.95 is being offered for the first session until the end of 2009 (use the coupon code “TRAINING” at checkout to access the discount). Training sessions are currently available only to registered users in the United States and Canada, and can be scheduled by calling 888-712-7074.

Rich Mogull 5 comments

The Great TidBITS Malware False Alarm of 2009

On December 8th I woke up, went through my usual morning routine, grabbed my coffee, and sat down at my Mac to start the work day. As it was a Tuesday, I scanned my email for TidBITS #1006 and was slightly surprised that it wasn’t in my Inbox. Since I had recently added another spam filter, I assumed the issue had been blocked, so I planned on pulling it out of quarantine later.

But the mystery deepened when a reader sent me an email message saying that his copy of the issue had been flagged as containing malicious software. Since I had been engaged in an intense Twitter debate a few days earlier claiming that Mac-based malware was rarely encountered by the average user, I immediately went into panic mode and started investigating.

I checked my frontline spam and virus filter (Google’s Postini service), and the TidBITS issue wasn’t flagged for anything there. However, when I checked my second filter, a special appliance on my network, I found the issue had been flagged as containing malware.

According to my anti-spam appliance, TidBITS #1006 contained “Email.Faketube”, and when I reported this to Adam and the other TidBITS staffers, it came out that we were all receiving sporadic reports of this particular issue triggering a similar alert for readers.

I quickly searched on the Internet for details about Email.Faketube and found that it’s a link that pretends to be from YouTube, but in fact redirects a browser to a Web site that attempts to download a Trojan horse (for Windows, not Mac OS X).

When I viewed the raw text of the TidBITS issue, I discovered that there was indeed a YouTube link in it, pointing at the trailer for the World of Goo game (see “TidBITS Gift Guide 2009,” 7 December 2009).

By checking the link manually using one of the systems I have for security research of risky sites, it became clear immediately that the link was fine and did not redirect users to malware. Not that I expected it would; we check all links that go into TidBITS articles, so a link would have to change between the time we checked and when the issue was published for something untoward to happen. But then why the false alarm?

TidBITS Contributing Editor Mark Anbinder noticed that the string “www” appears at the end of the YouTube-generated link. The YouTube engine probably generates its links randomly, and the virus filters triggered upon seeing the “www” at the end of the YouTube link, thinking it was indicative of an attempt to redirect users. Attackers use a variety of techniques to mangle Internet addresses, one of which is adding characters to the end of a seemingly legitimate address to cause the redirection.

As a result, it’s clear that I, and our readers who saw the alert, are all running a malware filter with a badly written rule set. It’s likely that the rule is “flag any message containing a YouTube link with “www” after the ‘watch?’ portion of the address.” Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily indicative of malware and is thus a poor choice for a malware signature. (If nothing else, there’s no requirement to redirect to a page whose domain includes “www” – such a filter is guaranteed to fail on any other domain.)

So the good news is that TidBITS #1006 wasn’t infected in any way, and our apologies for any worry the false alarm may have caused. The bad news is that I now have to wonder about the quality of the company providing my email filter rules.

Adam Engst 1 comment

8 Innovative Dual-Display Devices

I’m a huge proponent of secondary displays to increase productivity – the more you can see, the easier it is to move from task to task and to complete tasks that require referencing one resource while working in another application. But laptops and ebook reading devices have historically had trouble providing particularly large screens; after all, the larger the screen, the less portable the device.

One way to increase screen real estate without relying on a single large display is to build in a second display, something that a number of companies have been trying to do recently, with varying levels of success. Honestly, I can’t see Apple adopting any of these approaches without some significant improvements in the industrial design and overall user experience, but the ideas are interesting nonetheless.

Here’s a roundup of eight dual-display devices that I found – let me know in the comments if you’ve seen others. It’s worth noting that all of these are real, at least in terms of being a prototype, unlike purely graphical concepts like Mac|Life’s triBook, which imagines two hinged outrigger screens on either side of the main display.

Integrated Secondary Display — I’ve actually seen Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700ds in person, and let me tell you, it’s a beast. The ThinkPad W700ds features a large 17-inch main display, and a vertically oriented 10.6-inch secondary display that optionally slides out from the right side of the 17-inch display. The rest of the machine’s specs are equally over the top, with an option for a Core 2 Quad Core Q9100 processor, 64 GB solid-state drive, built-in webcam, two hard disks in a RAID configuration, WiMAX networking, and even
a Wacom onboard palm rest digitizer. It’s not light, needless to say, weighing in at 10.9 pounds (4.96 kg). Frankly, this workhorse computer is big, ugly, and expensive ($3,133 list price), and it barely counts as a laptop. But it does have two screens and can be purchased today, unlike anything else here.

Sliding Screen Netbook — DigInfo has posted a video from the 2009 CEATEC trade show that offers possibilities. In it, a company called Kohjinsha shows off the DZ Dual-Display Netbook, which offers two 10.1-inch displays. In the standard position, one screen is hidden behind the other. By pulling on either side of the case, you can expose the second screen, and when fully extended, it appears that the two are hinged so they can be angled toward you. The DX Dual-Display Netbook is apparently available for pre-order now, though possibly only in Japan.

Full-size Sliding Screen Laptop — I can’t quite tell how the 15.4-inch screens on the gScreen Spacebook slide, but I’m guessing the mechanism is similar to Kohjinsha’s DZ Dual-Display Netbook, since the screen real estate expands horizontally. The Spacebook isn’t yet available, although the company’s site makes it sound like it should be real soon now. It will be a bit more svelte than Lenovo’s ThinkPad W700ds, weighing in at only 8.7 pounds (3.95 kg), but that’s still heavy, likely due to doubling the display glass. I can’t quite imagine Apple using an approach like this, simply due to the weight involved.

Small Auxiliary Screen — DigInfo also has another video, seemingly from 2007, of a prototype tablet PC that offers a small secondary display that swivels up from behind the main screen to sit above it. Both are touch screens. I couldn’t find any recent mention of this device, apparently called the e-detail and made by a company called Hub Tech. Overall, this approach looks and feels clumsy; I’m not surprised it didn’t make it into production.

Dual Clamshell Laptop, Take 1 — At CeBIT 2009, computer maker Asus demoed a concept laptop that eschews a keyboard entirely, instead offering a pair of touch screens that can change functionality based on the task at hand. Held vertically, the screens could offer a book-like reading experience, and held horizontally like a normal laptop, the bottom screen could offer a glass keyboard along the lines of the iPhone keyboard. The laptop, inspired from user comments on Asus’s Web site, could also be interesting for use with
requiring complex multi-touch controls. This strikes me as the most likely direction for Apple to go, should Apple decide to extend the iPhone/iPod touch concept up into the size of a MacBook.

Dual Clamshell Laptop, Take 2 — Much like the Asus concept laptop, the Estari Canova eliminates a keyboard entirely in favor of a pair of touch screens. Where the Estari Canova goes further though, is with a truly fascinating hinge that allows the Canova to assume a wide variety of positions (pretty much all the Estari site offers is screenshots of the many possible orientations). Although the Virginia-based company claims to be bringing the Canova to market, it’s hard to tell if that’s likely to happen. Apart from the clever hinge, the rest of the industrial design is relatively pedestrian.

Screen Underneath Keyboard — Where the Estari Canova would use only a glass keyboard and the gScreen Spacebook has screens that slide out, the Ergonomic Dual Screen Split Keyboard Notebook Computer combines these approaches by hiding a second screen underneath the keyboard, which splits apart to provide access (scroll down on the linked page to find it). The company appears to be licensing the patented technology to OEMs, although it’s unclear if anyone has taken them up on it yet. Supposedly the split keyboard is more ergonomic, but honestly, it just looks funky, although the grey plastic case doesn’t help.

Dual-Screen Ebook Reader — By now, most people are familiar with what ebook reading devices generally look like, with Amazon’s Kindle offering the most well-known example. But ebook readers always settle for a single screen (though the Nook, from Barnes & Noble, offers a small touch screen for navigation and control), despite the fact that books always have two pages visible at all times. A research project that Nicholas Chen, François Guimbretière, Cassandra Lewis, and Maneesh Agrawala presented at the CHI 2008 conference offers an alternative – a dual-display ebook reader. You can
watch a video presentation of the prototype, or read more about it at Nicholas Chen’s site. Although the dual-display ebook reader is a research project and I haven’t seen any indication of it being commercialized, the demo is pretty compelling. The device can be opened like a normal book, but the hinge allows the screens to be folded back-to-back, or even separated and used independently, just as though you were working with multiple sheets of paper. Of all the ideas surrounding multiple displays, this one feels the most like something Apple would do.

Rich Mogull 31 comments

Banging My Head Against iCal Server’s Limitations

I know a lot of people hate iCal, but I’ve always been a fan. As a longtime Microsoft Outlook user, I appreciate iCal’s simplicity and clean display. It isn’t that Outlook does anything wrong – I think it’s vastly superior to competing enterprise messaging and calendaring solutions – but if you don’t need all those additional features, iCal is a great substitute. (I briefly tried Microsoft Entourage, Outlook’s nearest Mac equivalent, but found it lacking in multiple ways). As someone who has bounced around dozens of different mobile devices, I also appreciate the general consistency of iCal on the iPhone and Mac, and how current versions synchronize the calendar colors.

iCal, in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and on the iPhone, even offers extensive Exchange support for Mac users in enterprise environments – which makes it all the more maddening that Apple’s support for iCal Server on Macs and iPhones is absolutely horrific. It’s as if Apple is deliberately driving users away from Mac OS X Server and into the waiting arms of Microsoft.

A Voyage of a Thousand Miles — My journey of iCal and iCal Server despair began almost two years ago when I purchased an Apple Xserve running Mac OS X Server 10.5 Leopard to run my security consulting business. Leopard Server seemed like a near-ideal solution for a Mac-based small business, for three key reasons.

  • It enabled us to manage our email internally, which was important to us for security reasons.
  • It includes a well-designed wiki server that is directly tied to user groups, mailing lists, and a shared calendar. Since I run a research-based business, the wiki helped with internal collaboration and enabled us to build and share an easily organized library of content. Aside from normal wiki functions, the server indexes and displays Web page tabs for all email messages sent to the wiki’s group mailing list, the group’s calendar, and group blogs.
  • It included iCal Server for individual and group calendaring.

Obviously, Leopard Server has many additional features, but these three were what we needed to support our operations without having to install and manage an Exchange server.

While Leopard Server’s mail and wiki servers performed exactly as expected (actually, the wiki exceeded our expectations), iCal Server quickly failed to meet our needs. Although we could set up and access the group calendars through the wiki’s Web interface, there was no official way to access these directly from iCal on our computers (I’ve since found an unofficial method over at Mac OS X Hints). In other words, although the group calendars were configured and managed from iCal Server like user calendars, access was available only through the wiki Web interface.

Also, I hoped the Web-based group calendar in the wiki would allow us to view each others’ appointments via the Web interface, but it supported only the single, Web-only group calendar. Additionally, at that time the iPhone didn’t support Apple’s own CalDAV calendars (CalDAV is the protocol iCal Server uses), something that’s absolutely essential to me due to my heavy travel schedule. Starting with iPhone OS 2.0, the iPhone could completely support Exchange calendars, but not Apple’s CalDAV calendars.

Detour to MobileMe — Since I couldn’t access CalDAV calendars from my iPhone, set up shared calendars, or offer iCal access for group calendars, I decided to stick with an alternate Apple service: MobileMe. With MobileMe, at least my calendars would synchronize with my iPhone wirelessly, although I still couldn’t create the mythical shared calendar so that, for example, my wife and I could coordinate family events (never mind any shared/group calendars for work).

Going with MobileMe unfortunately restricted me from using one essential business calendaring feature: meeting invitations. For reasons only Steve Jobs can fathom, you cannot accept meeting invitations on an iPhone unless you are using a Microsoft Exchange account. When a meeting invitation arrives in an email message in the iPhone’s Mail app, you see the standard iCal icon, but double tapping only makes it a little bigger or smaller, as if you’re trying to zoom the icon. It’s almost as if Apple is trying to taunt you.

I could, of course, have switched to an Exchange server, but I assumed these were minor glitches Apple would work out quickly, or at least by the time Snow Leopard was released. Microsoft’s Small Business Server would meet all our needs completely, but Mac OS X Server is more lightweight, and more closely matched our goals.

Light at the End of the Tunnel? With the release of iPhone OS 3.0 in June 2009 (see “Apple Previews iPhone 3.0 Software,” 17 March 2009, and “iPhone OS 3.0 Ships 17-Jun-09,” 8 June 2009), Apple slowly narrowed the feature gap. iPhone OS 3.0 finally supported calendar subscriptions, including connections to iCal Server’s CalDAV calendars, but I decided to hold off on changing anything until the release of Snow Leopard because we’d already adapted our workflow for our current infrastructure. The public information on Snow Leopard hinted at greater iPhone support, better calendar sharing, and even free/busy information to help
coordinate meetings among a group of individuals. Exactly what we were looking for.

Or not. Three weeks ago I made the transition to Mac OS X Server 10.6 Snow Leopard, only to experience new levels of frustration. Overall, Snow Leopard Server is an excellent upgrade. It removes some of the management inconsistencies of Leopard Server, while adding valuable new features. With improved iPhone access, push notifications, a better mail system, centralized address books, an enhanced wiki, and even the long-awaited iCal Server 2, it’s nearly everything I hoped for.

Except for the blasted iCal/calendar support.

The first thing I noticed was that the Web-based wiki calendar integration no longer worked. I mean, I think it’s supposed to work, and even though we weren’t using it, the feature worked before our upgrade, but now all we get are errors when we turn it on. I’ve walked through every option in Server Admin (Apple’s tool for managing Mac OS X Server), and still can’t get the Web calendars to display, only a permissions error.

Okay, we can live without that, but what about iPhone support?

Connecting to the CalDAV calendars published by iCal Server 2 was straightforward, and the calendars display just like any other calendar on the iPhone. Technically, push notifications could keep the iPhone up to date just like MobileMe, although we aren’t using those for security reasons (this is more due to the security we have in front of our server than any problems with push notifications).

But how about those meeting invitations? Nope; despite running all Apple software, there’s still no way to accept standard meeting invitations (from iCal, Exchange, or any other source) on an iPhone unless you’re running an Exchange server.

Okay, we can also live without that, but what about iCal client support?

As with Leopard Server, connecting iCal to Snow Leopard Server’s iCal Server 2 is fairly straightforward. I even found the secret path to connect to group calendars, not that we can set them up properly due to the broken wiki functionality.

But a CalDAV calendar in iCal is pretty much worthless. For whatever reason, if you use both local and CalDAV calendars, you cannot accept meeting invitations onto your server calendars! When a meeting invitation arrives in Apple Mail, it’s sent over to iCal as expected, but you can accept the invitation only on a local calendar.

This made no sense, and I assumed I was doing something wrong, but a little searching on the Web validated that some bug (or feature) in iCal won’t let you accept meeting invitations and assign them to your server-based calendar. Your only option is to duplicate the entry, which makes you the meeting organizer, and assign that duplicate to the server calendar. You can create your own entries on the server calendars, you just can’t accept meeting invitations… even from other users on the same server. If you Command-click an event made locally, you can assign it to any calendar in iCal, whether it’s local or on a server. Command-click a meeting invitation, and only local calendars show as options.

It’s just broken, unless, that is, you switch to a Microsoft Exchange server. Snow Leopard and iCal 4.0 include excellent support for Exchange servers, just like the iPhone.

I’m really starting to wonder if my ongoing dedication to iCal Server is indicative of a serious mental disorder. Despite running an all-Apple infrastructure with the Xserve, the Mac, and the iPhone, I’m unable to carry out the most basic of business calendaring tasks. I can’t accept meeting invitations with iCal or my iPhone and assign them to my business calendar, nor use the built-in Web calendar that used to work before our upgrade. All of these features are fully supported if I switch to a Microsoft Exchange server, but after two major version releases of Mac OS X, Mac OS X Server, and the iPhone OS, Apple still can’t produce a functional calendaring system.

And as I travel down path after frustrating path, a shadowy voice keeps whispering in my ear. “Microsoft Exchange”, it says. “Exchange…”

TidBITS Staff No comments

TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 14 December 2009

VMware Fusion 3.0.1 — VMware has released a significant maintenance update to the company’s virtualization software for the Mac, VMware Fusion. Version 3.0.1 improves video and 3D performance, adds support for Ubuntu 9.10, upgrades the networking subsystem to 64-bit native, and decreases load times when resuming a suspended virtual machine. Also, over 50 bugs have been fixed, including several that reduced performance, such as a bug that made it difficult to upgrade to the latest version of VMware Tools and another that triggered excessive Spotlight searches when the Virtual Machine Library was left running in the background. Also, the update addresses
incompatibilities with Zone Alarms AV and Outlook 2007 Preview mode. Full release notes are available on VMware’s Web site. Note that you can still download our “Take Control of VMware Fusion 3” ebook for free. ($79.99 new, free update from 3.0, 186 MB)

Read/post comments about VMware Fusion 3.0.1.

Things 1.2.6 — Cultured Code has released a minor maintenance update to the Getting Things Done-inspired task manager Things. Changes include improved performance when working with multiple to-dos in the Today list, added support for Quick Entry autofill for Microsoft Entourage, and an added background application that collects changes to system-wide to-dos and effectively fixes a compatibility issue with Apple Mail iCal syncing. Also, several bugs have been fixed, including one that caused the File dialog to freeze occasionally, one that caused the program to crash when invoking Quick Entry, and one that sometimes caused the program to crash when emptying its
trash. A full list of changes is available on Cultured Code’s Web site. ($49.95 new, free update, 8.3 MB)

Read/post comments about Things 1.2.6.

Keyboard Maestro 4.0 — Stairways Software has released a significant update to the popular macro utility Keyboard Maestro. Version 4.0 overhauls the user interface, adds 64-bit support, and adds support for Growl notifications. Macros can now be executed when hot keys are pressed, held down, or released. Also, Command-Tab can now be used as a hot key, the program switcher can optionally hide all other programs when switching, and the clipboard switcher now offers both a search feature and display of images and rich text. Version 4.0 requires Mac OS X 10.5 or later. ($36 new, $18 upgrade, 7.6 MB)

Read/post comments about Keyboard Maestro 4.0.

BusyCal 1.1 — BusyMac has released a maintenance update to BusyCal, their iCal-inspired desktop calendar with built-in sharing capabilities. The latest version adds 64-bit support in Snow Leopard, three-finger scrolling, and a mini-month calendar to the source list. Also, a Duration column has been added to List View, “at start” has been added as an optional alarm interval, and both Shift-Return and Option-Return are now supported for line feeds. Various bugs have also been addressed, including some related to Google Calendar syncing, along with two crashing bugs, one triggered by corrupt system fonts and another by Unicode non-breaking space characters. A full list of changes is available on BusyMac’s Web site. ($40 new, free update, 6 MB)

Read/post comments about BusyCal 1.1.

MacBook/MacBook Pro Optical Drive Firmware Updates — Apple has released three firmware updates, all of which claim to “eliminate the noise made by the optical disk drive during system startup and wake from sleep on your Mac.” EFI firmware updates are available for recent releases of the MacBook (MacBook EFI Firmware Update 1.4) and MacBook Pro (MacBook Pro EFI Firmware Update 1.8), and once the Mac’s firmware has been updated, you must install the SuperDrive Firmware Update 3.0.

More information on EFI firmware updates, including installation instructions, is available on Apple’s Web site. Updates are available via Software Update or the Apple Support Downloads page. (Free, 18.35/3.14/3.36 MB)

Read/post comments about MacBook/MacBook Pro Optical Drive Firmware Updates.

Camino 2.0.1 — The Camino Project has released a minor update to the Mac-focused, Gecko-based Web browser Camino that addresses several security and stability issues by upgrading the program to version of the Mozilla Gecko rendering engine. Also, ad-blocking has been improved, the search field has been restored to the Help menu in non-English versions running on Snow Leopard, the crash reporter now enables you to add your email address to a report (for followup questions), and clicked error and warning text in certificates no longer changes color. (Free, 15.8 MB)

Read/post comments about Camino 2.0.1.

AirPort Client Update 2009-002 — Some Snow Leopard users have suffered from AirPort problems since 10.6 was released. In this client update, which requires 10.6.2, Apple says it has fixed three major bugs. First, it repairs some systems that, when upgraded from Leopard to Snow Leopard, could not turn AirPort on or off. Second, the update eliminates what Apple calls an “occasional” problem when using Wake on Demand, where network access would be unavailable. (Wake on Demand, new in Snow Leopard, lets a computer connected to an AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule base station be woken over either Ethernet or Wi-Fi for network access to advertised Bonjour services.)
Finally, this update restores the capability to create software base station (look in the Sharing preference pane) or computer-to-computer networks to some MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini systems that previously had trouble.

Read/post comments about AirPort Client Update 2009-002.

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ExtraBITS for 14 December 2009

Our reading was nearly all about mobile devices this week, with pointers to iPhone apps reviewing the events of the decade and allowing AT&T customers to report poor service, plus articles about the Barnes & Noble Nook ebook reader and AT&T’s plans to curtail heavy use of the iPhone data plan. Adam talked about iPhone GPS apps with Andy Ihnatko and Chuck Joiner on MacNotables, and Andy also has a hilarious blog post revealing the Dragon Dictation app’s prudishness. Finally, we note the fast approaching deadlines for iPhoto print products and explain how recent AirPort base stations have theoretically higher speeds.

Decade Review App from — As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, has created an unusual iPhone app that provides a visual overview of 75 key world events from the last ten years. Bush v. Gore, the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Southeast Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the French student protests of 2006 and Burmese monk protests of 2007, Barack Obama’s election, and many others are presented via full-screen photos from news sites, organized by date or subject, and bolstered by Wikipedia-derived details.

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iPhoto Print Product Order Deadlines Approaching — We’re big fans of iPhoto’s print products – prints, books, cards, and especially the calendars – as holiday gifts, but keep in mind that to receive your order by December 24th, you’ll need to place orders by December 18th with regular shipping or December 19th with express shipping. Although iPhoto makes the mechanics of building books and calendars easy, it can take some time to select and tweak photos as desired, so we recommend getting started soon!

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Pogue Finds B&N Nook a Weak Digital Reader — David Pogue reviews the Barnes & Noble Nook electronic reader at the New York Times, and finds it a poor competitor to the Kindle for identical features, while its unique features don’t measure up to a real difference.

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AT&T Plans To Curtail Heavy iPhone Data Users — Expanding vaguely on previous threats, AT&T’s head says that the firm will offer “incentives” to have heavy users reduce their usage. Incentives is 1984-speak for penalties.

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Adam Chats about iPhone GPS Apps on MacNotables — In this most recent MacNotables podcast, Adam and Andy Ihnatko talked with host Chuck Joiner about the demise of the CrunchPad tablet briefly before focusing on iPhone GPS apps and what they do right and wrong. (Don’t miss the outtakes!)

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Andy Ihnatko Discovers Dragon Dictatation’s Prudishness — The inimitable Andy Ihnatko writes on his Celestial Waste of Bandwith blog about testing Dragon Dictation, the free iPhone version of Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software. Andy accidentally discovers that Dragon Dictation censors naughty words, which practically forces him to read it George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words” routine, with predictably amusing results. Why censor? Perhaps to get it through the App Store approval process?

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Frustrated by iPhone Cell Trouble? Tap to Tell AT&T — AT&T has released a free iPhone app called AT&T Mark the Spot to let you report network trouble directly to the firm. The app uses GPS data to report your location when you tell the company of a failed call, no coverage, data failure, or poor voice quality. This is a superb idea on AT&T’s part; let’s see if it results in noticeable network improvement.

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AirPort Base Stations Update Includes Higher Future Speed — Editor Glenn Fleishman discovered that Apple boosted the highest possible speed of its AirPort Extreme Base Station and Time Capsule in the October 2009 hardware refresh. The top raw rate is now 450 Mbps – but new adapters will be required to use those speeds.

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Jeff Carlson No comments

Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk for 14 December 2009

Old Mac technology continues to be a focus for TidBITS Talk readers, as this week we discuss ways to use an aging HP scanner under Snow Leopard, installing Rosetta for Eudora, networking an old printer, and erasing a 1 GB SCSI hard disk (we like the hammer idea). Also this week, a look at iPhoto ’09, comparing BusyCal and BusySync for synchronizing calendars, and a surprising discount on MobileMe in an Apple retail store.

MobileMe Renewal–Apple Retail Store matches Amazon — Amazon has in recent years offered a worthwhile discount on MobileMe service (which can be used to renew an existing account). One reader discovered that Apple would match the online price when he brought it to a representative’s attention at an Apple retail store. (1 message)

BusyCal vs. BusySync — Both of these BusyMac programs improve on iCal’s functionality, but which one to choose? (11 messages)

AppleTalk missing in Snow Leopard? Readers discuss ways of using older printers now that AppleTalk is no longer supported. (4 messages)

Scanning capability in Preview vs. legal-size paper — The scanning support built into Snow Leopard is a welcome improvement, but VueScan may be a better alternative for some. (2 messages)

iPhoto ’09 — Dissatisfaction with iPhoto ’09 may be a result of not being aware of the program’s many ways to view one’s library and how its terminology has changed over time. (5 messages)

Running Eudora in Snow Leopard — Despite not having been updated in years, Eudora continues to work in Snow Leopard, but requires the optional installation of Rosetta, which is nothing to worry about. (11 messages)

Help erasing old SCSI disk — An old hard disk with a whopping 1 GB of storage faces destruction. Is there any way to access the disk’s data to erase it or is a hammer the best option? (4 messages)