Thinking about buying a $500 Internet appliance this year? Apple, IBM, Netscape, and others are looking for your business! Also this week, information on a new update to RAM Doubler and a virus-infected CD-ROM from MacUser UK, plus an overview of StuffIt Deluxe 4.0. We round out the issue with a look at Apple’s new impossible Web marketing, and Tonya re-examines something you’d think would be simple: ReadMe files.
RAM Doubler 1.6.2 Updater — Connectix has released RAM Doubler 1.62, which fixes problems that occur under System 7.5.3 with 68K-based PowerBooks, some 68040 systems, and PCI Power Macs running SoftWindows. RAM Doubler 1.6.2 also addresses problems with Iomega Jaz/Zip driver 4.3, Photoshop 3.0.5, and Retrospect 3.0. You can find the updater and more detailed information on Connectix’s Web site. Note that the RAM Doubler 1.6.2A updater is a maintenance release of the updater application, not RAM Doubler itself, which remains at verson 1.6.2. [GD]
MBDF Redux — The 24-May-96 issue of MacUser UK (distributed in the United Kingdom) was published with a CD-ROM containing a QuickTime VR demo infected with the MBDF A virus. According to OxCERT (Oxford University’s Computer Emergency Response Team), the virus is in a Director movie called "Blah Blah Blah, It’s QTVR" in a folder called "AMXDigital QTVR Folder." Anti-virus experts recommend that MacUser UK readers should refrain from opening or executing the movie. Copying the file to your hard disk may allow you to remove the virus with Disinfectant or another utility. If you’ve already accessed this movie or if you’re not sure whether you’ve accessed it, run Disinfectant or your favorite anti-virus tool. Editions of MacUser in the United States and other parts of the world are apparently unaffected. [MHA]
Death of MIND a NonSequitur — In TidBITS-328 I noted that development of the Mac-based DNS server MIND appeared to have been abandoned. That might be true, but the project has been reincarnated in the form of NonSequitur 0.8, a free Mac-based DNS server that runs on a 68020 or better and supports Open Transport. NonSequitur offers improvements over MIND, but doesn’t yet offer recursive or secondary name service. Still, it’s good to see the project continuing. [GD]
Last month, Aladdin Systems released version 4.0 of the venerable StuffIt Deluxe, increasing both functionality and ease-of-use. Most important for many of us, Aladdin has added features that help Internet users work with the compressed and encoded files that are so prevalent.
New Features — Most of StuffIt’s new features come from the True Finder Integration (TFI) control panel, which helps you manage the TFI extensions that do the work. TFI ships with three extensions: Magic Menu, Archive via Rename, and StuffIt Browser. Magic Menu works much like the Magic Menu control panel did in previous versions of StuffIt Deluxe, installing a menu in the Finder’s menubar that provides access to compression and expansion capabilities. New to Magic Menu in StuffIt Deluxe 4.0 is integration with Eudora so you can select a file in the Finder and choose Mail or Stuff and Mail from Magic Menu to create a new message in Eudora and attach the file to it.
Archive via Rename has been present in previous versions of StuffIt, but now works through TFI. Archive via Rename enables you to create a StuffIt archive or a self-extracting archive of a file by adding .sit or .sea to the end of the file’s name. Similarly, you can expand a file by removing the .sit or .sea extension from its name. I use this feature on StuffIt archives people send me in email, since Eudora debinhexes by default but doesn’t automatically expand compressed files. Deleting the filename extension is a good way of expanding the file and deleting the original archive. I’d like to see Archive via Rename work with BinHex files as well.
The final TFI extension is the most interesting. Called StuffIt Browser, it enables you to work with StuffIt archives directly in the Finder rather than waiting for the StuffIt Deluxe application to open. If you double-click a StuffIt archive while StuffIt Browser is loaded, the archive opens in a Finder-like window marked with a little StuffIt icon in the upper left corner. Dragging one or more files into the window stuffs them, and dragging files out of the window expands them. Make sure to read the Network Users Read Me file that talks about problems with multiple people working on the same archive at the same time.
The drawback to the True Finder Integration features of StuffIt Deluxe 4.0 is that they are extensions, so it’s more likely that run into a conflict with other extensions or control panels. If you’re bothered by extensions modifying your system, stick to DropStuff and StuffIt Expander, which are applications and less likely to conflict with anything.
The final new part of StuffIt Deluxe is a droplet application called DropSegment that works much like DropStuff and StuffIt Expander. Dropping a StuffIt archive on DropSegment enables you to make a multi-segment, self-joining, self-extracting archive, which is useful for copying huge archives to floppy disks. In the past, you had to work through the StuffIt Deluxe application to segment archives, which was more of a pain.
Enhanced Features — StuffIt SpaceSaver, which provides transparent compression by compressing files during idle time and then expanding them when you open them, now has a "tag icon" feature that places a small tag on icons of compressed files. This feature makes it easier to tell which files have been compressed. Transparent compression utilities, which were extremely popular when they first came out three years ago or so, have waned in popularity as the cost of large hard disks dropped. If you can afford the larger hard disk, it’s still a better solution than using a transparent compression utility.
The StuffIt Deluxe application hasn’t changed much outwardly, but Aladdin claims speed increases of up to 20 percent in stuffing files and up to 50 percent when expanding many compression formats. In addition, Aladdin has improved the scripting significantly and added a Scripts menu with a built-in recorder for OSA scripts.
Also included with the StuffIt Deluxe package is Aladdin’s StuffIt Expander for Windows, which is great for people who have to use PCs but work primarily with Macs and Macintosh files. StuffIt Expander for Windows can expand files in the following formats: StuffIt (.sit), ZIP (.zip), uuencoded (.uue), BinHex (.hqx), MacBinary (.bin), ARC (.arc), Arj (.arj), and gzip (.gz). It can also expand self-extracting archives created by StuffIt, ZIP, and Arj.
StuffIt Details — StuffIt Deluxe 4.0 retails for $129.95, and registered users can upgrade directly through Aladdin for $29.95 through 01-Jul-96. The shareware DropStuff 4.0 and the freeware StuffIt Expander 4.0.1 are also available at the Aladdin sites below and at Info-Mac mirrors.
InstallerMaker 3.0 — At WWDC, Aladdin also released version 3.0 of InstallerMaker, which makes it easy to create customized installers and relies on StuffIt compression technology. InstallerMaker 3.0 adds scripting support, better compression, an uninstall capability, resource compression, resource installation, unlimited custom destinations for files, support for moving, copying, or renaming any file, and finally support for up to 128 packages rather than the previous limit of 16. A demo is available at the URL below.
For years now, we’ve listened to pundits promising low-cost, intuitive "information appliances" designed and sold as consumer electronics devices. Dubbed "network computers" (NCs) rather than personal computers (PCs), these units would connect to the Internet, surf the Web, manage your email, and tie you to interactive television, shopping, and entertainment, with the price starting at less than $500. The machines would be scalable, from portable palmtop devices to high-end home Internet studios; underneath, the machine could run Mac OS, Windows, or something else entirely.
The important part would be that each machine would offer a certain standard of functionality, and models would be distinguished by cost or by extra features. Instead of the intimidating technical concerns of choosing a personal computer today, a user’s purchasing decision would be more like choosing a VCR, where every unit does more or less the same thing. The comparison to the VCR is also appropriate because vendors want these machines to be ubiquitous; they require massive sales volume in order to build businesses around this sort of product.
Last week, Apple, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, and Sun announced their first stab at defining a network computer, and their proposal is endorsed by a startlingly wide range of companies from Motorola and Hitachi to Canon and Toshiba. But is this proposal something to keep an eye on, or just another example of public relations brinksmanship?
The Basic Spec — The Network Computer Reference Profile 1 contains nothing that surprised me: the NC is built around Internet connectivity and Java. At a low level, NCs must support TCP, HTTP, HTML, the Java application environment, and a few low-level IP protocols such as UDP and SNMP. In addition, NCs would be required to support Internet email (including both POP and IMAP) and a few common sound and image formats (GIF, JPEG, Windows WAV, and Sun’s AU). The NC would have a pointing device, the ability to enter text (not necessarily via a keyboard – text entry could be done through handwriting or speech recognition), a minimum screen size of 640 by 480, and audio output. An NC might also support optional protocols, including FTP, Telnet, NFS (Network File System), and security implementations (Netscape’s SSL for secure connections, ISO 7816 (SmartCards), or the MasterCard/Visa specification for transactions). Optionally, an NC could handle printing.
This basic specification strikes me as common sense. What intrigues me is what’s not included in these requirements: a hard disk. These machines could be designed to boot off the network and store all their data on remote hosts. This is a potentially attractive option for vendors, since they can upgrade the device’s operating system and applications on the fly without the user’s involvement; it also opens up new business models for application licensing, data storage, and services.
The first draft of the NC specification should be available in July and finalized by August of this year. Companies are already jockeying for position, with Acorn Computer saying it will ship network computers by September of this year, and SunRiver has announced it will ship NC machines by July for less than $1,000. Apple CEO Gil Amelio has said Apple’s first NC’s, based on the Pippin, will ship this year.
In Absentia — Two things are missing from the first profile of the network computer, and both reflect the politics of the computer industry. The first is strong multimedia and video. Apple is pushing for QuickTime (and the newly announced QuickTime Media Layer) to be incorporated into the NC specification; meanwhile, Adobe is promoting its Bravo imaging system, and Macromedia is busily pushing Shockwave.
That none of these proposals (or any other) are included in the first NC profile is indicative of the maneuvering behind any industry standard: everyone wants their technology to be the standard. History tells us final decisions will not be made on technical merits, but rather by strategic and business considerations. By putting off a concrete definition of multimedia technology in the NC proposal, the companies behind the proposal gain a strong general show of support; however, they may pay for it later in back room deals and appeasements.
Also missing from the NC proposal is support from two key industry players, Microsoft and Intel. Microsoft apparently wasn’t interested in participating in the NC announcement, since it’s busily defining a network information appliance of its own (termed SIPC) and is apparently dislikes that the NC roposal fails to include Microsoft technologies like ActiveX. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison predicted Microsoft and Intel will eventually have no choice but to support the NC reference standards, but only time will tell if vendors and manufacturers agree.
In the meantime, the best $500 network computer is still a used Mac.
Almost exactly a year ago in TidBITS-279, I wrote an article about ReadMe files, those hopefully informative documents that come with most software. In that article, I pleaded with ReadMe file writers to consider their readers, and not to neglect certain information that users (and reviewers) might be seeking. Having recently completed several tasks that involved not much sleep and quite a bit of looking at ReadMe files, I’d like to revisit the topic, with some updated suggestions for ReadMe files authors. Some of these suggestions apply specifically to non-commercial programs, but many of them also apply to the new breed of public beta software.
Provide Administrative Details — If I go to the trouble of opening a ReadMe file, I hope to be rewarded by learning the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of a program, and it would be most helpful if that information appeared right at the beginning of the file.
Who? There’s nothing wrong with having a few benign mysterious strangers in one’s life, but I don’t extend that concept to software. For any non-commercial product, I prefer to know a first name, last name, and email address. If I send an author email, I want to address her properly; if I send an author a check, I want to fill it out fully; and if (with my reporter hat on) I write about software for publication, I must include this information or face my editor’s ire.
What? Be sure to explain what your program does. Consider including a bulleted list that points out five or ten major features. If your program is a one-trick pony, write about the trick. Don’t miss mentioning what types of Macintosh systems the program should work with.
Where? It’s usually to everyone’s advantage to have people use the latest version (and a clean version) of a program, so let your users know where they can download a fresh copy. If your program has a Web page, point users to it. Don’t make users poke around in a search engine in order to find your Web page.
When? Be sure to mention the date that you released the program version. Of course, this information is approximately available in the Get Info dialog, but if your ReadMe file is a few years old, that may tip users off they should check for a more recent version.
Why? Chances are, there are ten other programs available that kind of do what your program does. Chances are also good that you wrote your program to meet a need those other programs don’t quite fill. So, please, let your users know what’s special about your program.
After covering those basic administrative details, be sure to spell out whether your program is free or not, and if it’s not, be it emailware, smileware, chocolateware, beerware, or shareware, let people know not only how much to pay you, but how to go about paying you, especially if they don’t normally use your currency. I suspect many deserving shareware authors miss out on payments simply because users found it too complicated to pay. (This is, of course, not a good excuse for not paying, but why miss payments because people can’t find the time to convert their money and bundle it up into an appropriately addressed envelope?) I believe users find it too complicated to pay in part because I know a few shareware authors using the Kagi Software system for streamlining payments, and these authors have been happy with the results.
If you submit your program to the Info-Mac and UMich archives (and I recommend that you do; send it, along with a brief write-up to: <[email protected]>), make your brief write-up, which will be published as an abstract, also include the Who, What, Where, When, and Why, as well as the all-important payment details. (Users can search the Info-Mac archives by pointing their Web browsers at the incredibly helpful Info-Mac HyperArchive.)
The Importance of the How — Once you finish covering all the administrative details, do cover the How, and don’t just point people to balloon help or Apple Guide unless you are totally confident you’ve written awesome online help. Most people haven’t. Also, be sure to point out extra cool features of your application that might not be immediately obvious, like pressing the Shift key to reveal some amazing new function or setting up your application as a drag & drop icon. The sin of How-omission is particularly present in public betas, and perhaps even more frustrating because public betas are often released by large companies who could surely spare one employee for the few hours..
Consider HTML and Other Suggestions — A number of authors have begun releasing ReadMe files as HTML documents, or offer an easy way to read the files over the Web. I find these quite handy, because I have personalized my browser to show fonts in styles that I like. By following a link to a Web page either about the author or about the product in question, I can entertain myself by checking out the author’s personality, or I can educate myself by noting the latest information about a product. (Obviously, programmers cannot easily update all the versions of a ReadMe file that have been released out to the world, but they can keep a Web page up-to-date.)
That pretty much sums up my ReadMe file recommendations, but in digging through my email from a year ago, I found some additional, previously unpublished suggestions from TidBITS readers:
David Schwartz <[email protected]>, wrote in to say: "One more bone to pick about ReadMe files. Name them something more descriptive than simply ‘ReadMe’! How about ‘ReadMe – TidBITS’, or ‘ReadMe – MYOB’, or ‘ReadMeFirst – CCatcher’? Why must a newbie’s drive have a dozen files with the same name?"
Although I’d couple this suggestion from Frank Sydnor <[email protected]> with a dose of tolerance for authors writing ReadMe files in languages they don’t speak natively, Frank’s advice is still right on target: "When I see a poorly written ReadMe I (rightly or wrongly) assume the software is plagued with errors. When I see a well written ReadMe I assume this writer has an equivalently professionally written software program."
On a related note to making helpful ReadMe files, Kevin Lepard <[email protected]> passed on this suggestion: "Put your name, address, email, amount of shareware payment, and where it should be sent in the About box in the program itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tossed ReadMe files and then wondered where I was supposed to send payment, because the only place it was located was the ReadMe file."
And so, in final summary, the success of your ReadMe file can lead people to send you chocolates, thank you notes, money, and other goodies. It can also be all the difference for making it so time-pressed journalists and authors can write something intelligent about your software, be it for an obscure newsletter or for the front page of a major publication. And, of course, the more attention your product gets in the media, the more likely you are to receive more chocolate, money or whatever.
At an earlier stage in my life, I thought it would be great to be a film critic. I’d attend press screenings of new movies, then publish my opinion about them. I gave up on the idea: I don’t actually know very much about movies, and as I got older I came to appreciate the difference between informed and uninformed opinion.
Then, a little over two weeks ago, I received mail about Apple’s Web site tie-in with the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, Mission: Impossible. I didn’t pay attention until I saw Apple television commercials promoting the site, liberally sprinkled with bits of movie trailer, Apple hardware, and URLs. "After you see the movie, you’ll want to buy the book." A PowerBook, get it? I looked at that mail again. Then I looked at the Web site.
Normally, I resist the temptation to use TidBITS as a soapbox , but in this case I’m going to make an exception. I might not be able to give an informed opinion about movies, but I think I can say a word or two about Web sites.
Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’ — One of the most egregious sins a movie reviewer can commit is revealing too much of the plot. For many readers, this spoils the film. I’m going to take that chance here and tell you exactly what happens.
When you connect to Apple’s Mission: Impossible Web site, you’re greeted by typical promotional graphics. At this point, the Web site seems to turn into a choose-your-own-adventure arcade game. I followed the following plot threads.
- I load the site in Netscape 2.02. The graphics load, then the RealAudio plug-in crashes my machine. Strike one.
- I load the site using Internet Explorer 2.01. The site tells me it works best in Netscape, but I must obtain a MIDI plug-in from LiveUpdate called Crescendo PLUS, along with Macromedia’s Shockwave. I download and install Shockwave (20 minutes), but can’t access to Crescendo. I try again two hours later and still can’t get through. Strike two.
- I uninstall the RealAudio plug in, then try again with Netscape 2.02. There’s no audio, but Netscape doesn’t crash. I get a special message: "You’ve proven yourself to be an advanced agent by equipping yourself with Netscape Navigator. Your mission will be substantially enhanced compared to other agents." Neat – I always knew I was special! But now I need four plug-ins: the new ones are RealAudio and QuickTime VR. But QuickTime VR isn’t a plug-in, it’s a helper application. And I had RealAudio, but it crashed. I don’t feel substantially enhanced, but click the "Start Mission" button. Netscape crashes; game over.
Crying U.N.C.L.E. — At this point I think I’m beginning to understand where the name "Mission: Impossible" came from. But I’m still inspired by memories of the long-running television series. When I was a kid, Mission: Impossible was one of two television shows I wasn’t allowed to watch. (The other was Space: 1999; ironically, both starred Martin Landau). I’d sneak over to a friend’s house to watch syndicated episodes of Mission: Impossible. Although I’m sure most of the Cold War plots were beyond my comprehension, I soaked up the gadgets and the gallant teamwork of the show’s secret agents. Now, even though I don’t have the most modern Mac available (a Quadra 650), it’s system is current and clean and my plug-ins are up-to-date. There’s no reason this shouldn’t work, so I figured I’d give Apple another try.
So the next day I downloaded Netscape’s Atlas 3.0b4 release, installed all the plug-ins (even Crescendo PLUS, which I was able to download this time), gave Netscape 16 MB of RAM and tried again.
- I connect to the site and get a RealAudio error saying that the site is not responding, but Netscape doesn’t crash. I connect to another RealAudio site to verify the RealAudio plug-in is working (it is), then I re-connect to Apple’s site. I get the same error, but I press on.
- I’m allowed to sign into the site. Apple is collecting contact information to sign users up for a contest; apparently the top prize is a PowerBook 5300 actually used by Tom Cruise in the movie. The site will not let me proceed unless I provide contact information. I use an alias; if Clark Kent wins a PowerBook 5300, I will be upset.
- Netscape begins downloading a 387K file, presumably a Shockwave presentation. I wait three minutes while the file downloads, and I’m presented with a blinking graphic: "Proceed with Mission Briefing." I click it, and the 387K file begins downloading again. I wait three more minutes. A dialog appears: "Error loading Director movie (10000)." I click the OK button, (since there’s no other choice) and Netscape crashes, taking my Macintosh out with it.
Disavowing Any Knowledge — I’m sure Apple spent a lot of money setting up and promoting this site – the television commercials alone attest to that. It doesn’t appear to be something Apple (or a contractor) whipped up overnight and forgot to test. I have to assume the site is being presented as intended.
If this site represents Apple, then someone at Apple is clearly missing the point of the Internet, and the Web in particular. Building and promoting a site based on unstable tools is more than chancy: it’s irresponsible. Online publishing is about providing scalable content, and the point is to get that content to users in whatever form is most appropriate. By setting a threshold higher than many Apple customers (and potential customers) can reach, Apple not only limits its message but looks incompetent in a very public way.
It’s ironic that the most representative portion of Apple’s Mission: Impossible Web site is in its section on prizes and rules, which says, in part, "Apple Computer, Inc. does not assume the responsibility for phone, technical, network, electronic, computer, hardware or software failures of any kind." Fans of Mission: Impossible will note that language sounds remarkably like a mission briefing, wherein "the Secretary" will deny all knowledge of an agent’s actions in the event the agent is killed or captured.
Apple tells us to expect the impossible; clearly, someone at Apple did.