This week we’ve got more Microsoft corporate deal news, and it’s not even as strange as Apple and IBM. Tune in also for a new method of protecting all your data from harm and a new program that could eventually replace the Finder. Finally, for those of you with compact Macs, there may still be hope for keeping up with the Gateses and the Sculleys.
Ralph Amundesen wrote with some interesting information about IBM. Evidently, IBM is so worried about OS/2 that the company has expanded its battalion of salesbots by drafting the entire company. I don’t know if this will go as far as dark-suited IBM folks out pounding the pavement (“Excuse me, Ma’am, may I come in and demonstrate what OS/2 2.0 can do for you today?”), but all 344,000 employees are in it for fun and prizes. It’s a step up from grade school, but IBM employees could win medals, IBM software, IBM hardware, or even cold hard cash. I sure hope they don’t stop in here since I don’t have 30 MB free under SoftPC to test it. Sheesh, wouldn’t you think it would be easier to just buy a few TV spots like Microsoft is doing?
Ralph Amundesen — [email protected]
I’m beginning to like living in a metropolitan area – there’s so much more happening here in terms of computers. At a local computer fair put on by the University of Washington a few weeks ago, I came across a small local company with a product that could become extremely popular with anyone who doesn’t like losing data. All hands in favor? 🙂
This company, BackData, was formed when a couple of guys from some of the local computer companies were sitting around eating Thai food (or so they say – apparently Thai food is a big thing in the computer community here in Seattle). They were talking about losing data and how seldom people really backed up their entire hard disks, even when they understood the potential consequences. Lots of people don’t back up at all, and a significant number only backup up important files, thinking that it will be easy enough to rebuild a hard drive from original master disks.
People who work on the important file backup method are depending on two things to make the rebuild easy. First, they hope that they can find and successfully restore programs from all those floppy disks, some of which may have gone bad in the years since they were last used. Second and more importantly, they rely on their backups surviving the unlikely event of a fire or theft. Another problem is that people seldom realize how much time they spend customizing their systems, and it can take a number of hours to get a system back to the way it should be. This is often even the case when reformatting and restoring from a complete backup.
So the BackData guys realized that the best possible option is for all the data on your hard disk to be backed up automatically at night to another physical place. Short of hiring elves, the only way to do this is via modem, but with some of the current high-speed modems and sophisticated pieces of software out there, they figured that it would be possible with a bunch of Macs and a lot of storage devices.
The system as they have it currently set up runs on headless LCs and saves all the data to 2.6 GB DAT drives. Each of the LCs has a fast modem attached (they have several different types so you can call specific numbers depending on what modem you have). In terms of software, you just need AppleTalk Remote Access and Retrospect 1.3, which can back up any volume mounted on its desktop.
I haven’t tried this yet, but the theory is that at some point in the middle of the night one of their backup Macs calls your Mac (which had better be on). A simple macro ensures that all your volumes are mounted read-only on their systems, and then Retrospect goes to work, backing up only the files that have changed according to specific selectors that you set up previously. This allows you to avoid backing up your System file all the time, even though it will almost always be marked as modified whether or not you’ve added any fonts or sounds. Once the backup is done, another macro copies the catalog file to your hard disk (so you can see what was backed up), dismounts your volumes, and disconnects the modems to finish the process.
It doesn’t really matter how long this takes since it’s at night, or at least it wouldn’t matter if you weren’t being charged for all this. The BackData people have to make some money too. The full kit, which includes AppleTalk Remote Access, Retrospect 1.3, and a fast modem (I think they’re using the cheap new ones from Supra now, but that’s subject to change) will run about $800, although you can obviously buy the parts separately. Then there’s a connect time charge of $10/hour, which is fairly comparable to many online services. Depending on the amount of data that you modify each day and the speed of your modem, you could get away with spending fifty cents to a couple of dollars per call. It wouldn’t be economical at 2400 bps, but if you could keep it down to a six minute call each day, that’s only a dollar per day, or $365 per year, which isn’t all that expensive in comparison to buying your own hardware and software for backup. In addition, the various pieces of the setup are all useful for other things as well, so it’s an extremely worthwhile combination.
Retrieval is a slightly stickier issue. Essentially, the process works in reverse, with one important exception. You call them and make sure your DAT tape is in the drive of a Mac at a certain phone number. After your Mac calls the storage Mac, you then run Retrospect over the remote connection, since it won’t be able to see the DAT drive otherwise. BackData doesn’t expect everyone to want to do this, and if you have to restore the entire hard disk the phone charges may run pretty high. So for a standard consulting fee of $50/hour, BackData will send someone over to your office or home and will perform the restore there, helping to reformat the hard disk and do whatever else needs to be done to get you up and running.
I expressed some doubt about the reliability of cobbling together these off-the-shelf programs, and the BackData folks admitted that they’re in the process of writing several dedicated programs that will automate the process much more cleanly, one for DOS and one for the Mac. Their programs didn’t sound as though they’d be as flexible as Retrospect, but would work much more cleanly over the phone lines, especially with restoring data. Interesting concept this, and one which could eventually go national with an 800 number. It’s basically a form of insurance, but one which could save a lot of important data in the event of disaster.
BackData — [email protected]
BackData propaganda & representatives
Microsoft is just full of surprises these days. First Fox, what could be NeXT? The latest news from Redmond is that Mr. Bill has apparently overcome his dislike of Steve Jobs and the company will be porting its most popular applications to the NeXT. This move, which Microsoft and NeXT haven’t announced publicly yet, makes a fair amount of sense for both companies but is rather surprising given Mr. Bill’s words of several years ago linking the combination of Microsoft and NeXT with frost warnings in the nether worlds.
As I said, though, the announcement makes a good deal of sense if you look at it closely. It’s obviously positive from NeXT’s perspective. The technically-neat NeXT workstations have suffered not from a lack of decent software, but from a lack of decent software from big name companies. There’s Improv from Lotus as well as the ubiquitous word processor from WordPerfect, but not a lot else from the biggies. Jobs may be pushing the NeXT as the ideal custom application machine for business, but big business doesn’t like to buy extra special-purpose machines and would like to have Excel and Word running on those NeXTs as well. After all, no one was ever fired for buying Microsoft, but NeXT is still another story.
What’s in it for Microsoft, though? A good question, since Microsoft makes most of its money on operating systems and it certainly won’t sell so many versions of Excel and Word for the NeXT to really recoup the development costs, low as they may because of the ease of developing in NeXTstep.
I’ve heard rumors in and around the deal that Microsoft will gain some rights to the NeXTstep environment, which is the main incentive for them. It’s a known fact that the kernel in Windows NT is a close relative to the kernel in Mach, the Unix variant used by NeXT, so it could be rather easy to port NeXTstep to NT. It may simply be worthwhile for Microsoft to gain the several years of real world experience that NeXT’s developers have invested in NeXTstep. Heck, if it’s worth trying with Fox, it’s worth trying with NeXT and it’s probably cheaper too.
Let’s face it, Windows is by no means a penultimate graphical interface, and in fact, it’s poor in a lot of ways. The suit with Apple may not help in that regard. But, look, here’s NeXT which needs some credibility in the business world and has a snazzy graphical interface that leaves Windows in the dust. Microsoft can provide the first and needs the second.
Another factor we can’t overlook is the faltering ACE initiative, since there are so many members, each with an individual agenda. It’s hard to merge the interests of divergent but major players like Silicon Graphics (which I believe just bought MIPS), DEC, Compaq, and Microsoft, and Microsoft is certainly not one to put all its eggs in the same ACE basket. Apple and IBM ruled themselves out as allies by creating Taligent to compete directly with the future Microsoft, and Sun as usual is doing its own thing. The only semi-major player left is NeXT, and everyone admits that for all NeXT’s marketing mistakes, they’ve got a great combination of an excellent graphical interface and a good Unix implementation. Everyone was astonished by the Apple/IBM deal, and in many ways this proposed deal isn’t even as radical, although it could have even more far-reaching implications for the industry.
Are you happy with the Finder? Most people like it a fair amount, and there’s people who would die before using anything else like DOS. But let’s face it, the Finder is far from perfect, and even Apple knows it. Unfortunately for Apple, one of their original human interface gurus, Bruce Tognazzini (better known as TOG, and author of “TOG on Interface”) has reportedly just departed for Sun.
I don’t mean to imply that the Finder is dead or dying, but from some plans that I’ve heard, it will have some real competition in about a year. Keisuke Hara, the author of a slick Finder-replacement DA called MaxFiles, is hard at work on a new program that will truly replace the Finder, something no other program has ever successfully done. It’s not a trivial project, and Hara does not expect to finish any time soon, but here are some of the highlights from our discussions of his new Finder-replacement, currently called FileMax.
File database — Perhaps the main problem with the Finder is that it tries to be too many things to too many people. Whenever that happens, people become disappointed. At its base level, the Finder is a database, one that keeps track of the many files and folders on your hard disk and the various attributes that each of those files and folder have. On top of that database sits a graphical shell for working with database records (the files). That term, “working with” is intentionally general because so many of the Finder’s functions seem to be rather tacked on at the end without much thought for how they should really act. A classic example of this is the awkward method of dismounting a floppy by dragging it to the trash.
So the first thing that FileMax will have is an extremely fast database engine that will work with the current Desktop file(s) so you can always go back to the Finder if you wish. Most people will never mess with the database engine of FileMax simply because it doesn’t really do all that much different from the current Finder database engine. The main difference is that FileMax will be completely wired with AppleEvents so that other programmers can extend the functionality of the Finder quickly and easily by hooking into the various events.
New interface ideas — This is where we get into the more interesting proposals for FileMax. To solve the Finder problem with dragging floppies to the trash, FileMax will have a DiskBox that holds aliases to all your floppies. (Actually this DiskBox idea is in the process of being implemented for System 7 already by an enterprising shareware author – look for it soon.) When you want to dismount a floppy, you simply drag it to your DiskBox icon, which is actually a tiny program. That program ejects the disk and saves an alias of the contents of that disk so that you can find its files easily later on. Speaking of finding files, FileMax will have a more powerful Find command than currently exists in the Finder today, most notably in that you can create what are called “collections” of files with the results. So if you find all your MacWrite documents that haven’t changed in two years you can create a collection of them (which is optionally either the original files or a bunch of temporary aliases) and then do whatever you want with that collection.
Aliases will be much improved in FileMax. If you want to create one, merely hold down the command key and drag the appropriate icon where you want the alias to be, much like option-dragging copies a file now. FileMax will also be better about making the aliases work exactly like the originals, even in places they don’t right now. For instance, Get Info… on an alias now does not allow you to work on the original file, which is the main reason you would use Get Info on an alias in the first place.
Still, this stuff is interesting, but not that radical. There are a few radical concepts in FileMax which may become extremely popular. The first is what’s called a “super folder.” It’s a normal folder in which you put a set of files, then you set a “super folder” bit in the Get Info, and the folder no longer opens when you double-click on it. Instead, it runs all the applications contained inside and opens all the documents. Option-double-clicking would open the folder like a normal folder for editing of the contents. This feature could be especially handy for reducing the massive clutter that now comes with many applications. In addition, programs that are stupid about the locations of their support files like Word 5.0 (the Word Commands folder has to be at the same folder level as Word 5.0 itself) could simply be combined in a single super folder and ignored. Finally, it would be trivial to set up work sets of various applications and documents by storing aliases to the various files in different super folders.
Balloon help was a neat idea, but frankly, Apple implemented it badly. Most people who realize that it’s there turn it on briefly and then turn it off, and even if you want to use it on occasion, you’re still insulted with the balloon popping up as you select Hide Balloons. FileMax will have balloon help too, but will also have a Control Panel for setting the equivalent of a user level. So if I consider myself to be a level three user out of a possible five, I would only see the balloons that are coded for more advanced users. There is also an exception rule for the first time you see something, since a simple control might need explanation, but only once. Like some of the shareware and freeware utilities, FileMax’s balloon help will also be easy to toggle with a key. Perhaps most interesting though, will be the replacement of the Get Info dialog box with an editable balloon when you are pointing at a particular icon. This will let you view and edit comments and click the locked and stationery bits without having to select the file, choose a menu item, and then close the Get Info window when you’re done. That’s way too clumsy.
New SFDialog — I wrote above about the concept of the collection in terms of dealing with the set of found files. FileMax actually will take the concept of the collection further yet, patching the System in an area which isn’t generally handled by the Finder. One of the oldest and most outdated parts of the Macintosh interface is the Standard File Dialog because it was designed for 128K Macs running a single application on a small screen. FileMax uses a simple modeless (in contrast to modal, which means that you have to exit that mode, i.e. close the dialog, before you can do anything else) dialog displaying a collection of files and any application-specific features like file-type selection buttons. The collection is displayed in an outline mode reminiscent of the Finder’s outline mode in System 7, but much faster and with all the volumes as the top level. What differentiates this collection from a normal outline is that it respects the application’s wishes in terms of which files to display, and since it’s modeless, you can use FileMax’s Find function or any other function while in that collection. It also features two special folders at the top of the outline hierarchy, Recent and Permanent, which track recently-accessed and permanent files and folders, much as Super Boomerang and ShortCut do. Saving is slightly different, because you have to assign a name and location to your file. At the top of the outline is the name of the current folder (which is also indicated graphically in the outline list but you can shrink the whole thing so you don’t have to look at the outline) and a text entry box for the filename. Alongside is a Save button which is grey when no changes have been made. Since this Save dialog is modeless, it’s a single click to save your file at any time. Save As is simply a matter of changing the name or location and saving again. I’m drooling for this one, and I’m sure it will become even smoother before release.
Other tweaks — Because FileMax will be completely wired with AppleEvents and is totally modular, some obvious openings for products appear. Many of you miss the Finder Sounds hack that went away with Finder 6 because Apple removed the sound hooks in Finder 7. That, along with the custom icon family features of SunDesk which stopped working in Finder 7, will both be back in FileMax. The possibilities for additional customization, even with something like UserLand’s Frontier event scripting program, are endless.
Other little tweaks that will please the die-hard Mac user include much faster copying of files (done by another small application in the background if desired, as in DiskDoubler), stable file comments, iconization of open applications, drag & drop printing, and an outline list view that starts with the mounted volumes, which does not cut off long files names, and which allows you to customize the order of the fields, so if you want to have name followed immediately by label, date, then size, so be it. One thing that’s not in FileMax is a hierarchical Apple menu, or an Apple menu at all. Instead FileMax will have a resizable floating palette that will list whatever the user wants to put in it, including running applications. One interesting feature of this palette is that it can turn itself into a menu if the user drags it up to the menu bar, satisfying both the big screen and the small screen users.
I’ve talked a lot about what this program will do, based on various discussions, but to tell the truth, I don’t think this program will ever make it to market. I see no reason why Apple won’t just hire Hara and buy the rights because it’s easier than allowing a third-party shell like FileMax to become common in the marketplace, something Apple doesn’t really want to happen because it would hurt the Mac in terms of consistency. I also suspect that the Apple system software teams will realize that FileMax embodies a lot of good ideas, probably helped along by many people who have thought long and hard about what’s wrong with the current Macintosh system software. I would certainly hope that they would be able to accept external input into what’s right and wrong with the Finder and modify it to make it both easier and far more powerful at the same time.
Kiesuke Hara, MaxFiles author
As long as we’re trying to get people to raise their hands this issue, how many of you out there have a compact Mac and would like to upgrade it? I thought so. If you’ve got a Classic you can go to a Classic II, and if you’re the proud owner of an SE, you might be able to find an SE/30 upgrade lying around at some dealer’s back room. Otherwise you’re out of luck, or maybe not…
We’ve heard some rumors of a project at Apple called Phoenix that’s one of those labors of love carried out under the very noses of the Grinch-like bean counters. A group of Apple engineers decided that it was a shame that everyone with an older compact Mac was stuck with it, more or less, especially since Apple seems to be relegating the compact Macs to the low end of the product line. So they set to work designing an upgrade in their spare time (where do these people get that kind of spare time anyway?) and by the time the managers noticed and told them to cut it out and get some real work done, the Phoenix project was already pretty cool. It’s not definite yet, but some of the ideas the Phoenix team came up with are being considered seriously enough that we might live to see the day that an ex-128K Mac can run System 7.
The basic idea behind this upgrade is that the motherboards in these machines are old and relatively useless. However, since Apple has made such strides in miniaturizing the motherboard components, the Phoenix team was able to design a universal compact Mac motherboard and some extra hardware for each specific model to make sure it fits in correctly. The case too is a problem, so they came up with a universal compact case to replace the old ones, but most of the other components like the screen and power supply and internal supports are re-used. Needless to say, this is not the sort of thing you can install at home, and it probably won’t be incredibly cheap.
Since the Phoenix team never imagined that their work would ever see the light of day at Apple, they went all out in designing the new motherboard. Rather than cripple the machine with a narrow data path, they made sure it was a true 32-bit machine with a 25 MHz 68030, and even included a coprocessor. Along with all the standard ports, they added a video out port and some internal video RAM so the Phoenix Mac can run two monitors without an additional card. Like the rumored new monitor that includes speakers and microphones, the Phoenix Mac will have two internal microphones and a much better speaker than was in the original machines.
But what about slots? There was no obvious way to fit a card into the different internal superstructures of the various compact Macs. Rather than just give up on the idea of providing a PDS or NuBus slot, the Phoenix team took an idea from the now-defunct Jasmine. At one point, Jasmine marketed a drive called something like the Backpack, which attached to the back of the Mac and took up very little room. So the Phoenix team designed a slot adapter like the one in the IIsi and put a pop-out in the back of the case to access it, much as the SE and SE/30 have.
Like the IIsi, you don’t have to buy the backpack-style card case unless you want to add an extra PDS or NuBus card (both can be supported). If you do want to add one, you can just buy the card case and your card, open the card case, install the card, and then attach the whole thing to the Mac. It’s the same general idea as the NuBus extenders from Second Wave, but since it fits snugly on the back of the redesigned case, it’s easy to travel with or swap from machine to machine.
From what we’ve heard, the Apple honchos liked the concept of the card case for the compact Macs, but they were even more taken with the concept of using a card case with a PowerBook. The PowerBook would have to have a new connector to the motherboard, so it wouldn’t work with the existing ones, but such a solution would be cheaper and easier than the proposed (and now delayed, perhaps indefinitely) docking station. Since most people aren’t likely to want more than video out, which the new PowerBooks will have, and one card, perhaps an Ethernet card, the card case is ideal, not to mention quite easily transported along with the PowerBook.
There were apparently a few extra neat ideas in the original work the Phoenix team was doing (if it’s anything like Seattle, they probably did most of this stuff in a Thai restaurant). One of the best, though not one which received a lot of support at the management level was a stand-alone LCD screen based on the active-matrix display in the PowerBook 170. (Interestingly, Dolch Computer Systems just released a color LCD projection panel that can double as a stand-alone screen for a mere $8500.) They originally wanted to put it, or a color active-matrix display, into the upgraded compact Macs, but decided that it would be way too expensive. As a stand-alone though… How much would you pay for a nice 640 x 480 active matrix screen with backlighting? I’d certainly like one for my system and would consider it up to about $700. Just think, if you had a six-slot Mac and a spot of extra cash you could set up a grid of six active matrix panels side by side. Since they don’t interfere with each other like normal monitors do, it could be a single desk-sized desktop, say 1920 x 960 or more likely 1280 x 1440. That’s a lot of pickles, er, pixels.
I’m still surprised that the Phoenix team’s work wasn’t ignored at Apple. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Apple is going to be putting out these three operating systems for the Mac, the fancy new version of the current MacOS, the upgraded version of A/UX known as PowerOpen, and whatever Taligent makes of Pink. They claim that those operating systems will be scalable to all Macs, but I doubt a Mac Plus will be able to handle it. This Phoenix upgrade gets Apple out of a jam (or would that be a butter?) by ensuring that anyone can upgrade to a Mac capable of all the neat new voice and handwriting technologies and the operating systems behind them. Of course, as Murph Sewall says at the top of his Vaporware Digest, “These are rumors, folks. We reserve the right to be wrong.” Just because you read it in TidBITS doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen (but this upgrade has our vote!).
Dolch Computer Systems — 408/957-6575
MacWEEK — 30-Mar-92, Vol. 6, #13, pg. 1, 18