This issue brings you news of new products being released in conjunction with this week’s Apple World Wide Developer Conference and an timely essay about software development phases and the meaning of the word "beta." We also cover recent Internet provider arrests in France; review Mail Drop, an IMAP email client; and note an upcoming live talk by Don Norman, and new versions of FreePPP, StuffIt Expander, DropStuff, MacDNS, and AOL’s client software.
FreePPP 2.5 Released
FreePPP 2.5 Released — On Sunday, the FreePPP Group released version 2.5 of their free PPP client. FreePPP 2.5 is a major step up from the previous 1.0.5 and contains more features than MacPPP 2.5, Apple’s version of the same code. Make sure to read FreePPP’s documentation for a list of bug fixes and known conflicts. [ACE]
StuffIt Expander 4.0.1, DropStuff 4.0
StuffIt Expander 4.0.1, DropStuff 4.0 — Last week, Aladdin Systems released new versions of their popular utilities StuffIt Expander and DropStuff with Expander Enhancer. StuffIt Expander 4.0.1 – which decodes and decompresses a variety of online file formats – continues to be free, and now offers much better performance on Power Macs and better handling of split and segmented files. DropStuff with Expander Enhancer enables users to compress and BinHex files and significantly augments StuffIt Expander’s decoding abilities (including handling most PC and Unix file formats). DropStuff 4.0 also offers improved performance on Power Macs and better handling of segmented files. DropStuff is $30 shareware, and (though the documentation doesn’t seem to say anything about it) registered users of previous versions of DropStuff can apparently continue to use their registration numbers. Aladdin’s sites have been hard to reach, but the following URLs should be accurate, and the software should appear on Info-Mac mirrors in the near future. [GD]
Don Norman Speaks Live on the Net
Don Norman Speaks Live on the Net — Don Norman, Apple Fellow, former Apple User Experience Architect, and expert in the field of human interface design, will give a talk via the Internet at the KMi Stadium on Wednesday, 15-May-96. The talk will take place at 5 PM British Summer Time (noon on the east coast in the United States; 9 AM on the west coast). To participate, I recommend dropping by the KMi Stadium Web site before the talk and trying out one of the previous presentations. The Web site has links for locating RealAudio (which you need) and for CU-SeeMe (which is optional). I assume you’ll also be able to play back the talk after Don’s live appearance, though you must attend the talk live in order to be one of the lucky few who get to ask Don a question. [TJE]
DNS on Macintosh Heats Up
DNS on Macintosh Heats Up — Apple has released version 1.0.2 of MacDNS (its DNS server software) for free. (DNS software maps the names of Internet machines to their IP addresses; before Macs had DNS capabilities, they were forced to rely on other platforms for DNS service.) MacDNS is included in Apple’s Internet Server Solution package, and while it seems to function relatively well, it has been criticized for not providing recursive or secondary name service.
Not to be out-done, Men & Mice of Reykjavik, Iceland, released the results of performance comparisons between MacDNS, Unix BIND, and their QuickDNS Pro product. Though QuickDNS Pro costs about $300, it does provide recursive and secondary name service, and appears to out-perform other DNS options significantly. Men & Mice has also made their test methodology available.
Glenn Anderson’s free DNS server for the Mac, MIND, has been useful for a number of Mac Internet sites, but it suffers from a set of known problems and, according to Ric Ford’s MacInTouch, no further development of MIND is currently planned. [GD]
AOL 2.7 — America Online released version 2.7 of its client software last week. The new version fixes a number of outstanding bugs and offers an improved Web browser, although Web performance through AOL’s network still seems quite slow (although that’s not the browser’s fault). [GD]
French Internet Providers Arrested
On 06-May-96, under orders of a judge investigating pedophile circles in France, French police seized computer equipment and arrested the heads of two Internet service providers for allegedly allowing their services to propagate Usenet newsgroups that the judge considered to contain elements such as "pornographic photographs of minors." The distribution of such material is illegal in France. [And in many other countries, including the U.S. -Tonya]
Two days later, during a professional Internet exposition held at La Defense [near Paris], the French Association of Internet Providers (AFPI) held a news conference to denounce the judicial act. Francois Benveniste, director of major Internet provider Calvacom and spokesman for the group – one of whose founding members was jailed – said, "We are all guilty."
Benveniste was referring to Usenet; a portion of the online world that contains as many as sixteen thousand discussion groups that carry information on a wide variety of topics. Mr. Benveniste said that, under current law, there was no way for a French operator to provide access to these groups, because the law assumed the provider was responsible for the content. However, given the volume of Usenet, no operator could possibly monitor the contents of more than 100,000 electronic documents daily. Benveniste called upon authorities to sit down with operators to formulate an legal statue that would permit them to operate legally – without fear of being jailed.
Together with two other heads of the AFPI – Patrick Robin of Imaginet and Jerome Lecat of Iway – Benveniste announced the immediate closure of all newsgroups until 15-May-96 as a symbolic gesture. National operator France Telecom, which provides the backbone service "Transpac" and has recently started its own "Wannadoo" service, is moving in concert with the private operators, since the same laws apply to all.
For this week, there will be only one newsgroup, <fr.netware.internet>, generally available to the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 private Internet subscribers in France.
What remains unanswered is why these two particular operators were chosen out of about 48 in all, when practically all of them (including state-owned France Telecom) carry the same newsgroups. These two providers are among the larger providers in France: Francenet was one of the first, and Worldnet was one of the first to have "popular" prices.
Another unanswered question is why this action has come at this time, when the operators’ association has been holding talks with the Minister of Telecoms Francois Fillon for some time, and was recently assured no access provider would be held responsible for content.
Meanwhile, after considerable confiscation of equipment, the two men jailed have been released, but remain under judicial authority.
[This ends the news portion of Richard’s report, which was originally published in "Metropole, Paris Online." Below, I’ve included some of Richard’s informal comments which further illustrate what’s happening in France. -Tonya]
Although the majority of subscribers are aware that Internet providers are not responsible for content, the same cannot be said of TV news. The 08-May-96 main 20:00 CET edition of state television France 2 news gave the distinct impression that Worldnet originated the illegal content. Statements made by a Francenet spokesman were largely buried under a cascade of images, from Playboy’s home page to outright porn (though no kiddie porn). I saw more flesh in news reports about the arrests than I have seen in 18 months of Internet use.
As a content provider myself, I have to think about covering a subject such as Paris, where much public art and many billboards include representations of the unclothed human body. My site could end up with an X rating even though it is part and parcel of the public (and even state-sponsored) atmosphere here.
Both at the press conference and in some TV news reports, there were mentions of software that users can use to filter suspect content. I think it is in our interest to promote such "monkey" software: hear no porn, see no porn, speak no porn. Well, maybe not the last one – pornography is a legitimate form of expression and has been since people were drawing in caves. Such "monkey" software would leave a virtual warning sign at the cave’s entrance.
Additional reports on this topic may be found at the Metropole Web site.
Each year, Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference in San Jose spawns a host of product releases and announcement and, as usual with any trade show or conference these days, the emphasis is on the Internet. This article highlights a few products that shipped "just in time" for WWDC.
Cyberdog 1.0 — Apple has released version 1.0 of Cyberdog, its currently free, integrated Internet client software based on OpenDoc. Interestingly, it appears Apple plans to continue calling the product Cyberdog – although having a product name with the word "dog" in it will no doubt ignite a flurry of quips from Apple nay-sayers, the name "Cyberdog" has been publicly associated with this product for a year and changing it now might lose points in the Macintosh community. (I wonder what this might bode for Copland.) Cyberdog requires a Power Mac, QuickTime, and OpenDoc.
Marionet 1.1 — Allegiant Technologies has announced version 1.1 of Marionet, its faceless background Internet protocol server for authoring environments including SuperCard, HyperCard, Director, and AppleScript. Version 1.1 includes a number of enhancements (especially to HTTP, email, and AppleScript support). Owners of Marionet 1.0 can get a free updater to 1.1 from Allegiant, and a trial version of Marionet 1.1 should appear on Allegiant’s sites shortly, along with revised demos and examples that highlight new features.
BBEdit 4.0 — Bare Bones Software announced BBEdit 4.0, which adds syntax coloring to its bag of tricks. BBEdit now automatically colors keywords for easier reading in any of its supported languages, including HTML, C, C++, Pascal, and even 68K assembler; BBEdit 4.0 also offers Java support and deeper Web serving and authoring integration with UserLand Frontier (see below). Existing users may update for $39 after 01-Jun-96, or for free if they purchased BBEdit 3.5 after 31-Mar-96. BBEdit’s suggested retail price is $119.
Frontier 4.0 — Almost a year ago, Dave Winer turned the high-end Macintosh scripting system UserLand Frontier loose on the net in the form of "Aretha," a codename for a net-savvy version of Frontier. (See TidBITS-279.) Last week, Dave did it again, with the "official" release of Frontier 4.0.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Dave lives for scripting, and once again Dave has re-purposed and re-targeted Frontier, this time squarely at Web publishers and service providers. Frontier 4.0 provides extensive hooks into WebSTAR, FileMaker, Netscape, Internet Explorer, and other applications to facilitate creation of custom content and Web publishing solutions. Moreover, Frontier 4.0 now offers Web site management capabilities – the basic idea is that your "source" files for a Web site reside within Frontier. When you want to change your site, Frontier "renders" and exports the HTML for you, even to the extent of uploading the files to your Web server. Frontier can make it easy to create and manage vast, consistent Web sites, and Frontier extensively ties in with BBEdit 4.0 for HTML processing and authoring. Moreover, for CGI developers, Frontier offers native, multi-threaded performance, and Frontier’s UserTalk is still an OSA language, so AppleScript developers could even think of Frontier as a giant set of OSAXen.
Frontier still isn’t for the faint of heart: Frontier scripts can be indecipherable to non-programmers, and even experienced developers have historically had problems diving into Frontier, even with the free Aretha releases. Frontier 4.0 goes some distance toward addressing these concerns, with an entire Frontier Users Guide now available online, along with various Frontier tutorials and walk-throughs contributed by users, covering CGI scripting and other topics. Also, the Frontier user community can be extremely helpful – check out the Frontier-Talk mailing list if you’re interested in learning what Frontier can do.
Mail Drop, the Eudora Alternative
Few people know about Mail Drop, a great freeware mail client for the Mac. Mail Drop is an IMAP email client being developed by Carl W. Bell as a Baylor University project. IMAP is a protocol for remote mailbox access, along the lines of the POP3 protocol used by Eudora. The IMAP protocol is different from POP3 though, and offers a significantly extended paradigm for remote mail retrieval. The POP3 protocol is a simple protocol with very limited options for managing mail on the server. When a POP3 client connects to a mail server, it can basically say two things: "give me all my mail" or "give me all my mail and then delete your copy". If you always read your mail using the same POP3 mail client on the same computer, this is fine, but if you have ever tried to access your mailbox from different client machines, you will be familiar with the synchronization problem that occurs.
An IMAP client, however, can request specific information about messages. With IMAP, mail is always stored on the server until you command the server to delete it. For people who check their mail from multiple computers or for access to a shared mailbox, IMAP is ideal. IMAP also enables you to transfer messages between mail boxes on the server, and save sent mail on the server. For more information about the IMAP protocol, please see:
Mail Drop, which enables you to access an email account on an IMAP server, is intuitive and easy to use. When you use Mail Drop to connect to your mail server, instead of retrieving messages in their entirety, Mail Drop downloads selected information about each mail message (the message’s date, subject, sender, size, and whether the message has attachments) and displays it in a list. To read a particular message, double-click the message’s listing, and then (and only then) will Mail Drop download the message’s body to your Macintosh. If the message has an attachment, it will be indicated in the message’s window. You can direct Mail Drop to download the attachment, or tell Mail Drop to delete the attachment from the server. (This feature is especially handy if you receive email via a modem connection.)
Mail Drop has been steadily gaining features, and the latest beta version supports such niceties as drag & drop from an address book to recipient fields, drag & drop of files from the Finder into the attachments list, and drag & drop files between folders on the mail server. Mail Drop supports AppleDouble, AppleSingle, BinHex, and true MIME. If you receive a particularly long message, Mail Drop can only show you the first 32K of the message, but you can immediately save the entire message for reading in another program. Mail Drop is also URL-aware: if you command-click on a URL in the message’s body, Mail Drop opens the URL with the appropriate helper application.
If you are interested in Mail Drop, you can download the latest beta version from the following URL. Please note that you must have access to an IMAP mail server to use Mail Drop; though many Internet providers only provide POP3 service, some sites support both POP3 and IMAP. If you aren’t sure about your situation, check with your Internet provider or system administrator.
Waiting with Beta’d Breath
It’s funny, but at TidBITS hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about some new piece of "beta" software. Maybe it’s a utility program, a Web browser, a plug-in, or a major commercial application. Whatever the product, it’s in "beta" and someone wants us to write about it – as a service to our readers, of course.
Before the widespread popularity of the Internet, "beta" software was a mysterious and fabled thing. If you knew the right people, got on the right lists, and went to the right trade shows, someone might quietly ask you to test some forthcoming software. More often than not, you had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and you certainly weren’t allowed to talk about the software until it was officially released. "Public betas" were virtually unheard of, and even long-standing power users had never head the term. "Beta?" they’d ask. "What’s that mean?"
With the advent of the Internet, however, the "beta" stage of software development is being redefined, and frankly, I’m not happy about it. What does "beta" mean, and why are so many software developers racing to distribute software they admit isn’t finished, and may be unstable and dangerous to use? What’s going on here?
What Beta (Really) Means — Although there’s no universal methodology for software development, serious software products generally go through a series of development phases. As you might expect, there are as many variations on these stages and terms as there are software development efforts. However, an average application goes through these basic stages:
- Design and prototyping: In this stage, the program’s designers decide upon the purpose, specification, functionality, and interface of a product, along with its basic feature set, interface, and technology. Will the product use Apple Guide? What Macs will it run on? Questions like these are addressed, and some "proof of concept" programming usually begins. This phrase can go on for months, or be essentially indistinguishable from the next stage.
- Development releases (or builds): In this, usually the longest portion of a product’s development, the major features are coded, assembled, tested, and fixed. Usually, these releases are numbered and may be referred to as development releases ("d7" or "dr7"), test releases ("tr7"), or simply builds ("build 7"). The numbers assist in tracking which release contains a particular problem, fix, or feature. Products usually have several – even hundreds- of development releases, depending on the product’s complexity.
- Code complete (or alpha): Definitions vary, but the "alpha" phase of software development usually indicates that all a program’s features have been coded and are testable. Although a button or menu item might move, appear, or disappear, no major features remain to be implemented. During alpha, developers focus on fixing bugs and making the product as stable as possible. A product may go through dozens of alpha releases, depending on its complexity and the nature of problems found.
- Beta: When a program reaches the beta stage, its developers have found and eliminated all known, severe bugs (note that it may well be impossible to fix – or even find – all severe bugs). Remaining bugs might be isolated – for instance, only occurring under System 7.0.1 on a PowerBook 100 running an ancient version of CopyDoubler. Remaining bugs may also be out of the developer’s control, possibly because they are caused by another program or the operating system. The goal of the beta phase is to see if the product runs in a stable and reliable fashion on a wide range of machines; to achieve this, the release is distributed to a wider audience than development or alpha releases. During beta, bug fixes or code changes should be carefully considered before being implemented in order to avoid accidently de-stabilizing the program. Theoretically, programmers should mostly sit on their hands during beta, while the software testers do everything conceivable to break the product. Also in theory, a product should have few beta releases.
- Release: The final phase of the development process varies widely. Some products enter a Final Candidate ("fc") phase after beta, where the product is frozen for a pre-determined period of time and continues to undergo rigorous testing. If any problems are found that must be fixed, the Final Candidate process begins all over again. Some products ship once a sufficiently stable beta has been achieved, and that beta becomes the shipping product. Some development teams use a combination, where the final beta becomes the "golden master," which is sent for manufacturing, but may be withdrawn if any must-fix problems turn up prior to actual distribution.
From this, it follows that a beta release theoretically has the following three properties:
1) The product’s technology requirements (both hardware and software) are fixed, and have been for some time.
2) The product is code and feature complete. No features remain to be implemented, and all features are present and testable.
3) The product has no known severe outstanding bugs the developers plan to fix or work around.
Take a moment to think about beta releases of products you may have used recently, and compare them to the three points above. Notice anything different?
What Beta Means Now — I’ll be the first to admit the development cycle outline above is idyllic, and doesn’t account for many complicated forces affecting software development. Competing products often force changes in feature sets, and marketing or distribution deadlines may cut short any of the phases above. Similarly, there are inherently unknowable factors: I once worked on a product whose lead programmer wasn’t able to work for nearly three months due to a case of pneumonia.
Nonetheless, in many cases – particularly with Mac Internet software – "beta" doesn’t mean anything close to what it used to. We’ve seen programs in public beta that not only contain innumerable known bugs the developers are aware of and plan to fix, but also accumulate major new features through subsequent releases. Similarly, we’ve seen products that change fundamental system and technology requirements during beta – details which should have been etched in stone long before. Beta often means what "alpha" or even "development build" used to mean.
The Race to Beta — The emergence of an Internet software industry (and the Internet itself) are changing the beta process in two fundamental ways First, Internet betas are fast, widespread, and (often) cheap. Conducting a beta using traditional media – floppy disks or CD-ROM – is comparatively expensive and (more importantly) time consuming. Master disks must be duplicated and physically delivered to a list of testers, who may not even be representative of the product’s potential users. In contrast, conducting a beta test via the Internet eliminates time delays as well as duplication and delivery costs, but more importantly reaches a wide range of users. In many cases, it also simplifies communication with beta testers (who all presumably can use email). Handled properly, a public Internet beta can significantly contribute to the quality of a product, even though it requires more person-hours to process the higher volume of bug reports and feedback. Done well, I think a public Internet beta is in the best interest of both software developers and end users who feel the need to explore the bleeding edge.
However, there’s a flip side. Public betas usually receive a lot of attention, particularly on mailing lists and newsgroups, as well as computer industry publications including Macworld, MacWEEK, Wired, and, yes, TidBITS (we often feel pressure to report on beta releases being talked about online before we consider the products worthy of real consideration). What’s more, beta releases are usually subject to less scrutiny than a shipping product: severe bugs in a beta are often played down or set aside, while new features and capabilities are hyped. Bugs – even flagrant, long-standing bugs – are excused because the product is "just a beta – what did you expect?"
This situation is a marketer’s dream come true. Marketers used to approach the Internet community with "I don’t care what you say about me, just get my URL right." Now, it’s "Here’s my URL, and it doesn’t matter what you say about me – it’s just a beta!" Not only do the products get publicity, but the company doesn’t have to take as much heat about bugs and incompatibilities.
Beta Backlash — The problem with using public beta testing for promotional and visibility purposes is that quality of the product is compromised. Many products labelled "beta" today are still in active, even furious development, with their programmers adding and removing features, changing the interface, and doing serious work to underlying, fundamental code.
I hate to say it, but that’s not beta. It’s not even alpha.
Careful readers will note this article hasn’t used the names of any specific products or companies. It certainly could have. The point here isn’t to criticize particular companies or products, or to praise others. The goal is to point out that the process of software development is undergoing a fundamental change, and users affected by this shift should be aware of the competing (and often conflicting) dynamics behind that change. In the next year, I expect the term "beta" will fade from usage, to be replaced by various phrases using the word "preview." My advice is to think seriously before using pre-release software for which developers and companies assume no responsibility, and to back up your data early and often.
And the next time someone says "It’s a beta, what did you expect?", tell them: "software that’s feature-complete and has no known serious bugs." That’s what beta means.