If your life revolves around new software, this week TidBITS takes you for a spin with information on the latest version of Netscape Navigator, Corel’s first update to the Mac version of WordPerfect, and an in-depth look at the WYSIWYG Web authoring tool Claris Home Page. Also, we bring you news about a beta test of a new daily Macintosh journal, and an essay from Adam on how your Mac could better relate to your data.
Assuming everything goes as it should, this is the first TidBITS issue distributed via our new ListSTAR setup. Let’s hope it works! [ACE]
Netscape 3.0 Ships
Netscape 3.0 Ships — In what might be the most anticlimactic product release of the summer, Netscape shipped the "final" version Netscape Navigator 3.0 today, after about five months of beta releases. The download package is 3.5 (binary) to 5 MB (binhexed), and naturally Netscape’s FTP sites are currently overloaded, so you might want to wait a few days before downloading the release. Navigator 3.0 includes Java capability, LiveAudio and QuickTime plug-ins, support for new Netscape-only HTML tags for multi-column text, and a host of other enhancements, partly at the cost of a 7 MB to 9 MB RAM allocation. Netscape is hyping its Live3D and CoolTalk Navigator plug-ins, but they don’t appear to be available for the Macintosh. Also, the final 3.0 version of Navigator Gold (with HTML authoring tools) isn’t out yet, but I expect Netscape will release it soon. [GD]
A Daily Fix
A Daily Fix — If you think the main problem with TidBITS is that it doesn’t arrive often enough, check out the free beta test of a new Internet publication, the Macintosh Daily Journal (MDJ). MDJ has no relationship to TidBITS, but it does have news, analysis, and commentary relating to the Macintosh world. Like TidBITS, MDJ is distributed by email and comes in setext format, although Adobe Acrobat format is also available. MDJ will not be free after the beta test period, but the publication is accepting up to 500 beta subscribers, so if you’re interested in more Mac news, take a look at the Web site below. [ACE]
Corel Updates WordPerfect
WordPerfect users have anxiously awaited concrete signs that Corel plans to update WordPerfect actively. On 08-Aug-96, Corel announced Corel WordPerfect 3.5, an updated version of Novell WordPerfect 3.5. Current Novell WordPerfect users can download the 1.7 MB Corel WP 3.5 Updater, which updates Novell WordPerfect 3.5 to Corel WordPerfect 3.5 (the Get Info dialog labels it Corel WordPerfect 3.5.1, though other version checks show version 3.5). A few foreign language dictionaries and thesaurus files are also available.
(Use the first URL from Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer, and the second one if you’re using an FTP client like Anarchie.)
Unfortunately, the updater cannot install over Novell WordPerfect 3.5 if the copy of Novell WordPerfect doesn’t precisely match what the updater expects. If you encounter this situation, you’ll get a message saying, "invalid file selected for updating." According to WordPerfect technical support, this is likely to occur if you’ve run disk utilities like Norton Utilities. To solve the problem, WordPerfect technical support recommends that you throw away your current WordPerfect folder (don’t trash any of your own documents, though), and then install a fresh copy of WordPerfect 3.5. The updater should be able to update the fresh copy.
The update improves performance and fixes a variety of bugs. To see the full list of changes, you must download and run the updater installer, and then you’ll see a list of changes within the installer window. In addition to fixing several crashing bugs, notable fixes include ruler bar display problems on PCI Power Macs, cleared tabs unexpectedly re-appearing, Font menus in Preferences and Print Envelopes not working on small monitors, and problems with envelope printing. The new version also improves table display and performance. New features include the ability to create HTML forms and to position a caption above a graphic or text box.
Corel is also shipping Corel WordPerfect 3.5 on CD-ROM, and this version comes with not only WordPerfect but also with MasterJuggler Pro (see TidBITS-334), Netscape 2.02, clip art images, background texture images, stock photography, sounds, 150 TrueType fonts, as well as spelling checkers and thesauruses for Spanish, French, and German. The CD-ROM lists for $249, and upgrades are $89. You can sidegrade for $89 if you own a competitive product. It’s pleasing to see Corel shipping WordPerfect on CD with a large complement of related files, but I think owners of Novell WordPerfect 3.5 should get the CD for $25 or less.
The Database Returns
I’ve noticed a trend worth watching recently. More and more products are putting databases under their hoods. Two Web servers, Web Server 4D and NetWings, are based on ACIUS’s 4th Dimension database. The just-released FireSite (see TidBITS-340) sits on top of a custom relational database, and EveryWare’s Bolero Web tracking tool uses their Butler SQL database. Lest you think this tendency is just related to Web software, a database also drives DiamondSoft’s new font management utility, FontReserve.
What’s causing this trend? Two things, I think. First, serious databases provide flexibility and performance not offered by the built-in pseudo-database functionality of the Mac OS – namely the HFS file system and the Resource Manager. The second, related reason is that database power enables additional transparency that would otherwise require significant manual effort. For instance, basing a Web server on a database simplifies the use of repeating elements within a Web site. Similarly, the way FireSite uses its relational database back-end enables it to monitor usage and predict which files would be best to replicate.
For those unfamiliar with databases, there are two common types: flat-file databases and relational databases. A flat-file database is like a stack of index cards, and each card contains the same fields of information. Flat-file databases are useful when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the data (Name to Telephone Number, for instance). In contrast, a relational database is more akin to several stacks of index cards. Each stack can have one or more different fields of information on it, and each stack can selectively "see" into the other stacks to access common information (like a name or telephone number) so information is only stored in one place. A relational database is useful for one-to-many or many-to-many relationships (Student to Classes, for example). In some ways, you can think of a relational database as a number of flat-file databases that share information.
It’s easy to see how a database can help a wide variety of programs. For instance, ListSTAR has great flexibility when it comes to processing incoming and outgoing email, but it stores mailing lists as simple unsorted text files. Locating an address within a large list like our 7,000-plus person DealBITS list can take several minutes. A similar search in a decent database should be essentially instantaneous. That’s one reason why we’re using a custom FileMaker Pro database to manage all our mailing lists. There’s a fairly significant overlap between the DealBITS list and the TidBITS list, so it’s silly to maintain two separate lists of subscribers when we can just note in a relational database that any given person subscribes to just DealBITS, just TidBITS, or both. Any future mailing lists benefit from the database as well.
I’ve heard rumblings of other mailing list management programs based on databases, and depending on how well they implement their database functionality, they could present serious competition to ListSTAR unless Quarterdeck is able to graft a database onto the program.
Assuming that a database back-end makes sense for a number of types of programs, I see several ways that a program could take advantage of database technology. A program’s developers could write a database, which would undoubtedly be a lot of work, but provides the most control. A more efficient method would be to license generalized database code from another company (I suspect this sort of thing already exists, although I don’t know the specifics).
Perhaps the most interesting way to get a database into a product is via a system-level database that any application could utilize. There have been a few starts in this direction, although nothing has gone all the way.
- HyperCard almost seems to fits this bill, especially a few years back when it was likely that any given Macintosh user had and used it. Unfortunately, HyperCard’s file format has never been public, which means data can only be accessed via the HyperCard application. More seriously, HyperCard was never designed to be used solely as a database; though it can sometimes perform capably in that fashion, it requires expertise, add-on tools, or both. But, HyperCard sports an accessible programming language and easy interface building tools, which ease prototyping if not implementation.
- UserLand Software’s Frontier includes an Object Database, and Frontier users have been doing some experiments with serving Web pages directly out of the database to avoid the performance overhead of the Mac file system. Other applications could take advantage of Frontier’s Object Database as well, although it currently isn’t at the system level.
- Peter Lewis and Quinn’s public domain Internet Config stores Internet-related preferences for any Internet Config-aware program to use. Internet Config isn’t really a database, though, but it’s a good example of the advantages of sharing information between programs at a system level.
I’d be fascinated to see what might happen if someone, perhaps even Apple, created a system-level general purpose database that any application could use for storing data. In fact, it might have already happened. Although I’ve been using the term "database" in a traditional manner, Apple has a technology coming called V-Twin that enables incredibly fast text indexing and searching. It might be conceivable that something like V-Twin, which is already used in Apple e.g. and to search email in Cyberdog, could stand in for a general purpose database engine.
Although Apple would seem to be the logical choice for defining what such a database could do, I frankly think that some small developers could get together, define some general functionality, and release something far more quickly than Apple could. I’m no database expert, but here are some of the things that I imagine the database needing.
- Speed. Performance is important, especially if multiple applications will be calling this database engine simultaneously.
- Data types. If this is a generalized database engine, it can’t discriminate in terms of data types – it must accept anything. Dealing with different data types would require it to know about the file system to handle aliases, despite the fact that bringing the file system into the mix might hurt performance.
- Relational. Despite the ease-of-use of flat-file databases, they don’t offer enough flexibility, and this database engine would have to be tremendously flexible for it to be useful for all the tasks dreamt up for it.
- Stable. Once lots of applications are using this engine, a single crash could cause incredible damage unless the database were solid and corruption-resistant. I’ve been distressed by the apparent ease with which I can destroy a FileMaker Pro database.
- Individual files. Each application should create its own file to reduce confusion or conflict over data, as well as to keep the individual files smaller.
Clearly, these requirements would require a tremendous amount of integration. However, there’s already a technology that Apple has released that deals with some of these same integration issues – OpenDoc. Maybe that means that the way to create a system-level database is to create it as a set of Live Objects (the new name for OpenDoc parts) and let anyone tap into its power.
OpenDoc or no, I won’t pretend that such a project would be simple, but I believe that providing such functionality to any application that wished to use it could result in significantly more powerful programs with more transparent interfaces. As an example, a look at the BeOS (used by Jean-Louis Gassee’s BeBox machine and possibly by Power Macintosh machines in the future) is instructive, since the BeOS file system is a relational database. You can use it as though it were a traditional file system or as a database, and an object in the database doesn’t have be a file, nor does it even have to be on disk. There’s no easy way the Mac OS could change in this fashion and maintain backward compatibility, but the fact that Be designed their file system in this way is telling. The question is, who will listen?
Homing In on Home Page
When a pre-release version of PageMill 1.0 appeared at last summer’s Macworld Expo, it was heralded as HTML software for the rest of us, software that let users work in a WYSIWYG environment and create Web pages without contending with the complexities and rigidity of HTML. When Adobe purchased and then shipped PageMill, they set the standard for WYSIWYG HTML software, and since then we’ve seen several PageMill wanna-be applications including gonet’s golive (and now golive Pro), Concept 1’s Tapestry, and Netscape’s Navigator Gold). The latest member of the PageMill wanna-be category is Claris Home Page, and – primarily by building on ideas in existing software – Home Page surpasses much of its competition in terms of overall feature mix and interface fluidity.
Home Page 1.0 is shipping for $99 in both Macintosh and Windows versions. Through 31-Oct-96, Claris is offering a $20 rebate to people who own a competing program, such as Adobe PageMill. To run Home Page on a Macintosh, you need at least a 68020-based Mac, System 7.1, and 2.5 to 5.5 MB of available application RAM (if you use a lot of graphics, you’ll need to allocate RAM near the high end of the spectrum; if you don’t have enough RAM allocated, Home Page will work, but graphics won’t display).
Getting Started — What would it be like to create a Web page in Home Page? Let’s take a look. We’ll begin in the Document Options dialog box, which provides one-stop shopping for page-centric options like a title, background color, and much more. If you consider yourself a savvy Web master, you’ll enjoy the many esoteric options for customizing the head section of your page; if you haven’t the foggiest idea what might go in the head section, you’ll find some of this dialog box inscrutable.
After setting up the document options, it’s time to create and format text. If you’ve used a Macintosh much, you’ll have no trouble using the formatting options on the toolbar and menus, though I’d prefer the toolbar buttons a bit larger and less bunched together. I’d also prefer more keyboard shortcuts. You can choose from formats initiated in HTML 2.0 as well as new options in HTML 3.2, such as superscripting, text size, and text colors. Regrettably, strong and emphasis are offered as almost an afterthought on a hierarchical menu, thus further removing users from the concept of HTML as a system for providing context-based clues as to how a browser should show content, not as a system for dictating the look of content.
This distance also shows in Home Page’s use of 12-point Times as a non-customizable body font. Although 12-point Times is the default in Netscape Navigator, many online mavens have changed to a font more appropriate to screen viewing. It’s a shame that Claris left out this simple customization option.
Making links of all sorts (within a page, within a site, within the Internet) works well. Home Page stores recently linked-to URLs so you can choose them from a menu without retyping or re-pasting them. You can also drag in links from Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator pages.
Graphics — Placing graphics on a Home Page document is as easy as dragging them in from the Finder, though you can also use a standard file dialog. Home Page imports GIFs, JPEGs, and PICTs (it converts PICTs into GIFs), and automatically creates height and width tags (so they’ll display online in a more polite fashion).
If you don’t want to roll your own graphics, you can use the sizable clip art collection that comes with Home Page. A perfectly respectable and useful set of images comes from Claris, but Home Page also comes with a wonderful set sample clip art files from Little Men Studio Library. In both cases, the images consist primarily of Web-related graphics: horizontal rules, arrows, background tiles, and the like.
Once you’ve imported a graphic, you can drag it around in your document. An object editor palette permits you to change some attributes of the image or turn it into an image map. Oddly, you’ll find the tools for making a graphic interlaced or changing a color to transparent in the image map editor.
You can keep tabs on the overall size of your graphics through the Statistics dialog, which shows (for both the entire document and just for selected portions) the total size of all images and gives estimated minimum download times for 14.4 and 28.8 connections. The dialog also tracks character and word counts. Expect to see this feature in most of the HTML authoring tools that ship in the coming weeks.
Easy Tables — Setting up tables in Home Page is far easier than making pie, and you can even press Tab to move from one cell to another as you do data entry. Unlike many other HTML editors, you’re unlikely to encounter problems with awkward redraws or unwieldy display glitches. Home Page uses a dark border to indicate the currently active cell. The border has selection handles for dragging the cell out to span more than one row or column. Watch out, though – expanding a cell deletes the contents of cells it expands over. You can configure a selected table cell inside the Table dialog box, but you may find yourself wishing for a way to select multiple cells at once.
Text — At this point, you may wish to check out the HTML created by Home Page, or even type some of your own. Text view is but a button click away, and although the journey is short, the view is poor. It seems as though Home Page’s creators tried to hammer home the validity of WYSIWYG HTML programs by making the text editor cumbersome. The editor doesn’t color tags, and it cannot wrap text. That is, if you type so much that text reaches the right edge of the window, the text disappears into the right edge and continues for quite a distance. Additionally, none of the formatting commands work in text view, so you must manually type tags.
On the plus side, the text editor does nicely indent HTML so that you can see its structure, especially table text. Changes made in the text editor do appear in the WYSIWYG view if the changes are understood by Home Page. In WYSIWYG view, Home Page shows misunderstood tags in red.
Frames — After creating a number of pages, you may wish to set them up so they can be browsed via a frame-style interface. If you choose to do this, I hope you’ve thought carefully about your design, because many frame-based sites look showy but trip all over themselves when it comes to functionality.
To make frames in Home Page, you create a mother frame page (also called a frame document), where you indicate how many frames you want on the page and how they should be positioned. The mother page then shows these frames, but it does not show the secondary pages inside the frames. In a frame, it can show the frame’s name and the URL to its initial page. To preview the mother page, you must view it in a browser, which you can do with a simple click on the Preview button. You may run into problems with this preview method – I had to be careful to always save my various frame-related Home Page files and to reload in the browser; normally, neither step is necessary. If you don’t understand the HTML that underlies frames, you’ll probably find this feature frustrating.
Forms — Forms let you query Web page viewers for names, opinions, t-shirt sizes, or whatever. Home Page enables you to insert form elements and set up the visual look of a form, but it doesn’t create a CGI for your Web server to collect or process form information. Home Page’s WYSIWYG interface becomes increasingly awkward as you attempt to set up names and values and add attributes to form elements. There’s nothing seriously wrong with Home Page’s forms, but there’s nothing special about them. You are limited to one form per page.
Finishing Up — If you remember the fuss over PageMill 1.0’s HTML, you’re probably wondering if Home Page puts out acceptable HTML. In my testing, Home Page’s HTML has been fine, and I haven’t heard of any major snafus. You can customize whether Home Page uses a <CENTER> tag or an ALIGN=CENTER attribute. You can also set whether Home Page inserts closing </P> tags. Home Page takes a Return to mean the end of a paragraph and Option-Return to mean the end of a line. For blank paragraphs, it uses a non-breaking space entity surrounded by paragraph tags
Now that you’ve checked out your HTML, it’s time to upload the page and its related files to your Web site, and you’ll find that Home Page does nothing to help, unless you know the secret key. It’s as though you arrived at the airport with your ticket and luggage and found that you couldn’t find your plane unless you’d known in advance to wear a special decoder ring.
In fact, if you press Option and look in Home Page’s File menu, a Remote hierarchical menu appears and offers options for opening and saving files located on a remote FTP server. Why the secrecy? According to Marianne at Claris Technical Support (who seemed quite knowledgeable about Web authoring and Home Page), the feature is undocumented and unsupported for two reasons. First, it’s not implemented at all in the Windows version. Second, the feature "just doesn’t work sometimes" in the Macintosh version. If the feature doesn’t work, you’ll know because the connection will fail. Marianne assured me that your Mac won’t crash and your document will remain intact.
If you don’t have a Web site of your own, Home Page comes with a three to six month free trial deal using HoloNet as a Web hosting service, and it’s easy to sign up after you guess at which unlabeled number on the flyer is your coupon number.
Working Smart — Home Page’s answer to folks looking for macros, templates, and quick insertion of esoteric HTML code is its Library feature. A Library file can store snippets of text or graphics, and you can edit any entry within its Library, using the full range of tools available in Home Page. Any Library entry can be dragged into a Home Page document, but there’s no way to assign keyboard shortcuts to Library entries. There’s also no way to speed up entry of HTML tags that Home Page doesn’t know about.
The clip art collection that comes with Home Page is available in a series of Libraries. You can drag clip art out of the library onto your page, but the links won’t work unless the computer you are working on is also the Web server.
In the End — Those who read Adam’s Milling Around On the Internet article in last week’s TidBITS-340 may remember Adam’s gripe that much Internet software fails to have a strong vision for what problem it solves. At its core, Home Page does have a vision and does solve a problem – it provides a useful WYSIWYG HTML editor that both beginners and experts will appreciate. But, around its periphery, Home Page has a vague feeling to it.
If Home Page is supposed to help beginners easily create Home Pages, then why doesn’t it assist in keeping relative links working correctly and come with a more detailed manual? Similarly, why aren’t harder features, like frames and form interfaces, more hidden so you can explore the program like an onion – revealing layers of sophistication as you go?
Conversely, if Home Page is a great tool for experts to use for layout and prototyping, why don’t the form elements have keyboard shortcuts for faster access? Why is the built-in text editor so ugly? Where are the multi-level undo and multi-file Find/Replace? Instead of offering a strong vision for what a Claris-style HTML authoring tool would be like, Claris has shipped a mishmash of distinctly useful but surprisingly unfocused features. Given Claris’s disastrous ClarisWorks to HTML converter (see TidBITS-295) and the fact that Claris waited until earlier this year to buy someone else’s HTML program, this lack of focus isn’t surprising. Home Page makes me wonder just how many people at Claris maintain Web sites of their own.
I expect that many people will enjoy using Home Page and think it’s worth $99; I also expect that novices will find Home Page frustrating if they don’t supplement it with help from a friendly local HTML guru. I hope that in Home Page 2.0 Claris will exhibit innovation and leadership with a more focused tool.
To chat about Home Page, join the official Home Page Talk list.
Home Page has a home page on the Claris site, but it doesn’t say anything that I haven’t already covered in detail. There’s also a Home Page Support Center that you may find interesting:
Claris — 800/331-6187, ext. 311 — 408/727-8227
800/800-8954 (fax answer line) — 408/987-3900 (fax answer line)