More details on Macintosh TV, Sculley’s rough ride ahead, and the Expanded Book version of The Digital Nomad’s Guide grace this week’s MailBITS. Jeff Needleman reports on the rates for the Prodigy Internet gateway (no Mac software yet), Charlie Stross reviews a Newton competitor from Britain, Mark Anbinder goes On The Road, Tonya reviews the Bucky, and I cover Hypertext ’93 with a look at a course called Designing Electronic Publications.
Recently, we’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of electronic publications available, and we welcome them to the nets. We recommend that electronic publishers take full advantage of the electronic environment. Don’t devote yourself to imitating the look and feel of a paper publication – what works on paper often fails miserably on screen, and vice versa. Electronic publishing is a new medium, and it has new rules. As space permits in the future, we plan to investigate issues surrounding electronic publishing and what they mean for the future of publishing.
Macintosh TV Redux — Pythaeus comments that the major feature I forgot to mention in last week’s article on Macintosh TV is that the entire unit is completely black, other than the Apple Platinum dust door on the CD player. The infrared remote can boot and shut down the Mac as well as control the TV and the CD, but you must change TV image settings from the keyboard. The 8 MB RAM barrier, as with the 10 MB barrier on the LC and LC II, is due to an el-cheapo memory controller. We also hear from Pythaeus that Macintosh TV is a one-shot deal, although future Macs may include a new "video slot" that accommodates a TV tuner for Macintosh TV-type capabilities or a card for video I/O.
Martin Fenner <[email protected]> writes:
I have both the book and disk versions of PowerBook: The Digital Nomad’s Guide (discussed in TidBITS #201). The disk version is based on Voyager’s Expanded Book concept, about which many people have mixed feelings. The Expanded Book idea is useful for a technical Macintosh book in comparison to a novel, because here the hypertext links make more sense (you can click on most everything, especially the index). I also like the idea of having a reference book online. The big drawback is that these books are based on HyperCard, so The Digital Nomad’s Guide consumes close to 2 MB of disk space and needs a lot of RAM. Even worse, the hard disk spins constantly, drawing battery power and making noise. [Some might argue with the statement about hypertext links not making as much sense in fiction; it’s nice to see mass-market technical books joining the increasing number of hypertext fictions from Eastgate Systems. -Adam]
Dieter Hirschmann <[email protected]> writes:
Spectrum Information Technologies, John Sculley’s new company, might have some rough times ahead of it (see TidBITS #199 for more information). Some people think that the U.S. will eventually adopt the GSM system, a cellular radio-telephony network with digital transmission of speech, computer data, and signaling information. GSM was designed in France, is based on ISDN architecture, and has been in use for a year and a half in a dozen European countries.
Within the next few years, approximately 50 other countries – including Russia – will introduce GSM. Also, Motorola’s satellite-telephony system, which is based on GSM, will be operational by the end of the decade. Thus, it seems likely that U.S. telephone companies will move in this direction soon, replacing their old analog cellular phone networks with digital technology. The latter allows 100 percent error-free data communications like faxing, file transfer, and Internet communications by transmitting digital, quadrature-modulated signals. In GSM, Spectrum’s error-correction products are as unnecessary as white out with MacWrite Pro.
Prodigy released the Mail Manager DOS software to all its members last week. It costs $4.95 to download the software. There are no versions as yet for Mac or Windows. To send Prodigy messages or to send or RECEIVE Internet messages, the fee is 10 cents ($0.10) for each 6,000 character block, with a maximum length per message of 60,000 characters. (In the beta testing, fees were 15 cents per block of 3,000 characters, so prices were lowered considerably for the public release.) All Mail Manager fees apply per recipient, so a message distributed to a dozen people would be charged a dozen times.
Binary file transfer fees within Prodigy are charged at the same rate, with a maximum length of one megabyte per file. That’s much better than the 250K limit of the beta test. Prodigy says, "File transfer via the Internet is not available at this time." You can also send faxes ($1.25 per page of about 3,000 characters, maximum length 20 pages) or USPS letters ($1.50 each letter, with a maximum length of four pages [about 12,000 characters]).
What about Macs? The information Prodigy supplies about Macs is incorrect in a few ways. The online info says, for example, the following: "Mac users can receive files sent to them with Mail Manager. These files will be received as text files and may require some conversion." Not true – binary files are received fine at Macs; they just arrive without the resource fork; the MacBinary format was developed years ago to handle such foreign transfers. I told the software developers months ago that Mac files could be converted to files without resource forks (like text files or MacBinary files) and transferred fine with their software; apparently, only part of that message was understood.
I’m now talking to the developers and have had some success in getting things straightened out. They really seemed to like it when I recommended ZipIt 1.2 as a $10 shareware utility for handling Mac to MacBinary and vice versa manipulations. "It’s compatible with PKUNZIP 2.04G!" I said. They were suitably impressed.
A few months ago, I had the good fortune to acquire a Bucky to use in my daily computing. "What’s a Bucky?" you may ask. A Bucky replaces your antiseptic neoprene keyboard wrist pad with a soft, sweet-smelling, bean bag wrist pad. Actually, the Bucky is filled with buckwheat hulls, which for those of us who grew up in a rural area, make the Bucky smell like a summer field. (Evidently, the hulls are commonly used for filling Japanese pillows, and the company does sell similarly-manufactured travel pillows.) The outside is polar fleece, a colorful, soft material often used to make lightweight jackets. The Bucky ends up a refreshing cross between a business-like wrist pad and a comforting teddy bear. My Bucky came a bit over-stuffed, but its makers, Bucky Products, anticipated that and provided a zipper for the somewhat messy removal of extra hulls.
I use the Bucky at work where I help an average of thirty callers per day with their computer dilemmas. In other words, I have one of those stressful jobs where people occasionally lose their data and I can’t do anything about it except mutter sympathetically. I also have tendonitis problems that flare up now and again. So, when I’m helping a person with a difficult problem, I can rest my wrists on that soft, cushy pad, pick it up and squish it around, or inhale a reassuring sniff of country. We’re definitely talking warm and fuzzy here.
I rotate the Bucky with my Silicon Sports Puzzle Pad (see TidBITS #134) about every two weeks. I can’t say that the Bucky fixes tendonitis problems, cures cancer, or prevents global warming, but it definitely reduces stress and makes the day more fun, which is an admirable achievement in its own right. The Bucky sells for about $23 (plus $2.50 shipping in the U.S.; overseas costs vary by location) and is available in some stores or directly from Bucky Products. Bucky also sells a shorter version of the wrist pad for use with a mouse, and given the difficulty of keeping one’s wrist straight while using a mouse, I imagine the mouse wrist pad ($16) would be equally as useful. Highly recommended, especially if you don’t already use a good wrist pad.
Bucky Products — 800/MY-BUCKY — 206/545-8790
Technical Support Coordinator, BAKA Computers
With the demise of Norton Essentials for PowerBook, CPU clearly owns the title for the most full-featured PowerBook utilities package. Not content with that knowledge, Connectix has significantly enhanced CPU’s already hefty feature set with the addition of On The Road, a separate but complementary package.
Released this past January by Palomar Software, On The Road is an innovative package that automatically determines a PowerBook’s location on wakeup or startup, and accordingly, automatically selects a printer at that location, mounts file server volumes, and enables or disables faxing. When a printer isn’t available, it defers new print jobs until one is available (and the jobs are then printed), and it similarly puts off faxes until you attach a phone line. For owners of the PowerBook 100, 140, 145, and 170, On The Road provides the features (and then some) of Apple’s AutoRemounter Control Panel, which works only on the newer PowerBooks.
As a result, you can print documents regardless of whether a printer is nearby, and send faxes with no phone line in sight. The actual printing and faxing happen later, again automatically; the software remembers a preferred printer for each location and selects it for you when you hook up, without the usual trip to the Chooser.
All this is nifty, but now that the program has been linked with CPU (and the product has been acquired by Connectix) it really shines.
CPU allows several different sets of configuration options. One good approach is to have one set for the office, another for home, and another for when you’re at neither location. On The Road now sports the ability to change sets for you, an operation which previously could only be performed manually. Duo owners who have significantly different environments when on the road and when docked will appreciate this feature.
A single program combining all the features of both On The Road and CPU would be wonderful, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see such an application in the future. For now, though, the combination works marvelously. Have one? Buy the other. Have neither? Buy both! Each costs $99, but owners of either may now purchase the other from Connectix for $29.95.
You can also buy On The Road online for $39. Add $4 for shipping in North America, $10 for international orders (for one or more), and if you’re in California, add 8.5 percent sales tax. To order, send your name, organization, street address, city, state, zip, and phone number; email address, credit card type (Visa, MasterCard, or American Express), number, and expiration date to Connectix at an electronic address below.
Joel West, president of Palomar, explained that the company decided to focus on printing technologies (the core of their business), and "When we evaluated all alternatives, we felt that On The Road and its customers would be best served by Connectix, the clear leader in PowerBook utilities."
— Information from:
Now the smoke’s settling and the mirrors have been removed, many people are disappointed with the Newton. Sure it’s a great idea and the start of something important, but the killer applications have yet to appear. It’s also too expensive to fit the pocket-book budget – at least if you live in the U.K.
However, there’s at least one alternative that might be worth a look if you’re not afraid of a palmtop that looks like a computer. I’m talking about the Psion Series 3a palmtop. Psion is a British company that has been making small palmtops and portables since about 1984. Their earlier machines were frequently non-standard, over-engineered, and tended to sell to niche markets (like VARs in the retail data capture area) – until Psion introduced the Series 3 in 1991. This was Psion’s palmtop for the rest of us. Weighing in at six ounces and sized to fit a hip pocket, the Series 3 was no larger than a pocket calculator but boasted a built-in suite of applications, a multi-tasking operating system, connectivity to PC and Macintosh, and a graphical interface. The new Series 3a machines look the same from the outside – but are twice as fast, have twice the memory, boast twice the screen resolution of the Series 3. Finally, they cost half as much as a Newton. The Series 3 has sold more than a million worldwide, and the 3a’s sales figures are over 100,000 and climbing faster than the Newtons in the U.K.
What does it look like? And what does it do? — If you haven’t seen one, think of a make-up compact. Now stretch it until it’s just under six inches long, half an inch thick, and two inches deep. There’s a whizzy articulated hinge at the back that serves as a combination keyboard rest (when it’s open) and battery holder (it runs for 30 hours from two alkaline AA cells). The whole unit is finished in an unusual mottled grey finish. When you open it up, it looks like a toy laptop – screen in the top half, keyboard in the bottom half – except that nobody makes laptops six inches wide. The keyboard is a QWERTY-style unit with raised buttons; these are smaller than normal keys, but spaced out sufficiently that even a clumsy typist (like me) can manage two-fingered typing. Other people have reported being able to touch-type on the keyboard using all their fingers, although I remain skeptical. Above the keyboard, fronting the battery compartment, is a row of printed icons. These are touch-sensitive keys that invoke the built-in applications. The upper half of the case is given over almost entirely to the display.
The display is a bit-mapped, grayscale, 240 x 600 pixel LCD. It’s quite legible, even in full daylight, and is one of the best non-backlit displays I’ve ever seen. It’s sufficiently clear that it’s readable in all modes. You can work with it in 30-column mode, with clear, large letters; but it can also display text (for example, in the word processor) in smaller sizes, down to 23 lines by 78 columns. Even the smallest text is perfectly legible in daylight; but if you’re not happy, there’s a "zoom" key that enables you to zoom in (or out) in any application.
Speaking of which, there are several applications built in. Indeed, Psion seems to have tried to kill the third-party software market by giving the built-in applications so much functionality that they do everything a portable user could reasonably demand. There’s a WYSIWYG word processor that supports a range of features including style sheets, and that can export to RTF (Rich Text Format – if you have the link kit described below). There’s a spreadsheet with excellent built-in graphing. There’s an amazingly comprehensive Personal Information Manager, a fairly usable flat-file database, a calculator, speech recorder, alarm clock, and all the other stuff you’d expect. There’s also an interpreter for OPL (Organizer Programming Language), a BASIC-like language that Psion palmtops have used for years.
Now for some technical stuff. — The Series 3 and 3a are based on the NEC V30 microprocessor (a low-power CMOS implementation). The Series 3 runs at 4.7 MHz; the Series 3a at 9 MHz. The V30 is an enhanced 8086 clone that typically works about 30 percent more efficiently than the Intel chip it’s based on; it also includes hardware support for the full Z-80 instruction set. Running on top of this, Psion has written a multi-tasking icon-based operating system that is amazingly economical in the amount of memory it demands. It dynamically allocates memory between the running applications and the built-in RAM disk (from the common pool of 256K or 512K that the Series 3a comes with). The OS doesn’t look quite like anything else – but is certainly far easier to use than DOS, and far better suited to life in the pocket.
The expansion capabilities are interesting. Psion for some reason refuses to provide PCMCIA support – probably the major failing of this machine. Instead, they use proprietary cards; either FLASH or battery-backed RAM. These are configured as secondary RAM disks, leaving more of the machine’s main memory available for software. The cards come in a variety of sizes, up to 1 MB (with a 4 MB card due to ship early next year), and the machine has room for two. As it is, 512K is plenty to work with (although the 256K machine should be seen as a minimum usable system).
The serial interface is external, and an optional extra that in my opinion ought to be internal and standard. It consists of a cable that fits the Psion’s tiny adapter port, and a pod containing (among other things) some software in ROM. This consists of a terminal emulator, a scripting language, and the Psion MC Link protocol. Using the Mac or IBM connectivity kit, MC Link enables you to mount the Macintosh’s – or PC’s – hard disk on the Psion, so you can run applications from a directory on the desktop machine, or copy files back and forth. The desktop machine’s hard disk behaves just like a huge, slow RAM disk on the Psion. There’s also a LapLink-like program for the Mac or PC that enables the computer to get and put files on the Psion’s RAM disks. Transfer speed is limited (9,600 bps on the Series 3, 19,200 bps on the Series 3a), but is sufficient (given that the machine only has 512K to transfer in the first place). The point is, the Series 3a can read and write files that are interchangeable with Microsoft Word (RTF), can transparently put and get files and folders when linked to the desktop machine, and generally behaves well indeed in conjunction with a Mac.
In summary, the Series 3a acts like a miniature laptop. It’s not quite as friendly to computerphobes as the Newton, but it’s the latest branch of a ten-year-old series, and the bugs and glitches have been pretty much shaken out of it. It’s extremely good at talking to Macs, to the point where it’s compatible at the file format level. But its main advantages are its size and weight. I have a PowerBook. It seems to weigh a ton after I’ve been carrying it for a couple of hours, and it takes up a lot of room in my shoulder bag. In contrast, the Series 3a isn’t even noticeable; it sits in a pocket and it’s there when I need it. Finally, there’s the price issue. In the U.K., Newtons sell for U.K. pounds 750 (including tax; about U.S. $1,100). Even in the States you’ll find it hard to buy one for less than $700. The Series 3a with 512K, in contrast, sells for U.K. pounds 330 (inclusive of tax at 17.5 percent), and a complete kit with MC Link for the Mac costs 400 pounds (including tax, or U.S. $600). The Newton may be the future of portable computing – but the Series 3a is here today, half the price, and well worth a look.
You may also want to check out the newsgroup comp.sys.psion for more information. Not all sites may have this group yet, but there’s also a mailing list at <[email protected]>. And, finally if you search in Gopher’s Veronica on "psion" you should find a bunch more information, including pointers to FTP sites and FAQs.
[I couldn’t easily find a source for the Psion Series 3a in the U.S., but I’m sure if you check out the newsgroup or mailing list someone will point you to one. -Adam]
Hypertext. It’s a term that causes eyes to glaze over and heads to nod dumbly. Most people have heard the term, coined in 1965 by Ted Nelson, but few who haven’t used it could define it. And there’s the question if the term is at all accurate any more, or if hypertext applications that are not, shall I say, data-format challenged (that is, they work with multiple data types), should be termed hypermedia.
Academic and semantic quibbling aside, the basic idea behind hypertext is non-linear text, or more commonly, chunks of text linked in numerous ways (feel free, as I said, to substitute graphics or sounds or video for "text"). The widening range of the hypertext field came clear at last week’s fifth annual Hypertext ’93 conference, put on by the Association for Computing Machinery. Topics ranged from hypertext help systems to hypertext fiction to massive corporate infobases and all the way up to something termed a "massively-parallel, immense-scale, widely-distributed, international digital library." These people don’t think small.
Perhaps the most interesting meta-conversation of the conference came when I was hanging out in the lobby area waiting for a session. Several of the conference organizers were talking, and mentioned that the courses, for which participants paid fairly big bucks, were crammed. In contrast, the "pure" research parts of the conference had poorer registration levels. Because of this, future conferences will probably better mix the courses and the research presentations to encourage users to stick around after the courses (this year the courses were all held Sunday and Monday, and a significant number of attendees left after Monday’s sessions). So it goes.
Designing Electronic Publications — The first interesting course was "Designing Electronic Publications: How We Do It," given by Paul Kahn and Krzysztof Lenk of Dynamic Designs. Kahn and Lenk discussed the evolution of visual methods of presenting information in context to how these methods are used in today’s graphical environments, concentrating of course on hypertext systems. They posited that everything is communicated visually by some combination of symbol and representation; that is, you must have a symbol, and for the communication to be successful, that symbol must represent something in the real world, or at least an abstraction the user can mentally grasp. With that basis, they went on to discuss methods of dealing with limited space – despite 21" monitors, the computer screen is always a window to a larger world. Think of it as the tyranny of the desktop. Like so many things, however, it turns out that the methods we use to present information in that limited space reflect traditional methods handling the same problems in art. Such methods include using multiple points of view (SimEarth, or any multiple window environment with updates in each window), raising the physical point of view to look down on a larger area (SimCity), using relative size of element to indicate relative importance (think of the different sizes of icons available in FirstClass), and merely the brute force method of cramming information together (compare less-spacious art museums of old with a thumbnail view in Aldus Fetch).
Interestingly, techniques like the vanishing point perspective common in the Western tradition are often ineffective in the electronic environment. In contrast, Chinese perspective is generally flat, and although perhaps less realistic, better conveys the same amount of information in limited space. Compare SimCity with A-Train for an example of this.
One of the most intriguing points Kahn made is that the concept of multiple windows is by no means new, and has been used in the art of various cultures for hundreds of years. With that in mind, the current legal wrangling over who owns what sort of graphical look and feel seems even more stupid than normal. The parallel with art goes a long way, even as far as using the image of a hand as a spatial indicator. The hand cursor in HyperCard was probably not coincidental.
Kahn also focused in on the use of text on screen. Although many paper-based designs and concepts translate badly to the electronic environment, typographical rules about white space, line length, and text color (the overall blackness of a text chunk) still apply. Kahn found that relatively short (60 characters or so, no more than 80, just as on paper) lines work best, with plenty of white space on either side of the text and with slightly larger than standard leading, say 12 point text on 17 point leading. Being unable to control those variables can hurt the visual display of on-screen text, and this might contribute to the impression that electronic text is somehow less professional than printed text.
After looking at text, Kahn discussed the role of color and icons in interface. Colors are often overdone, and he said that he usually stuck to no more than two colors, or four when dealing with the inherent colors in Windows, for instance. Colors have different psychological weights, so using lots of different colors constantly distracts the eye. That’s undoubtedly one reason Apple chose to use subtle spot color in the Macintosh interface, rather than the garish full-color look of Windows. Speaking of Windows, Kahn went on to condemn the overuse of 3-D in icons and controls. Careful use can enhance the interface by visually distinguishing elements, but after a point, which Microsoft hit about a year ago, 3-D controls merely confuse even further. These points apply especially to icons, which are also often overused in today’s graphical interfaces since it’s difficult to create icons that novices will understand quickly and that experts will be able to use effectively every day. A friend once proposed writing an article (that he’s never written) entitled "The Icon as Haiku." Given the proliferation of utterly incomprehensible toolbars (what do these people think a menu is for?), I’d love to see more thought on when icons are appropriate and ways of creating more useful ones.
Turning finally to hypertext presentation, Kahn looked at various different ways of portraying the space – global maps, local maps, or hierarchical trees. None of these methods are entirely satisfactory, and most current hypertext systems use a combination of them. The manner of specifying links, either by color, style, or font also seems not entirely satisfactory, and although he wouldn’t commit to it, Kahn seemed to prefer the use of background color to indicate links. When looking at the overall presentation of the onscreen information, he reiterated the point I made at the beginning of this issue – that paper presentation and electronic presentation are two completely different beasts, and must be treated as such.
I obviously cannot hope to completely represent the three-plus hours of the talk, but for those who design electronic interfaces, and for those who, like me, merely use them, these points are well worth considering at length before foisting an ugly and useless interface on the world.