Last week brought us "black Friday" as Apple announced employee layoffs and another restructuring; this week, Adam looks at what Apple’s keeping, setting aside, and putting into maintenance mode. We also bring you news on Java and Shockwave security problems and a PowerPC update to QuicKeys, plus a detailed review of Digital Chisel, an easy-to-use multimedia authoring and Web publishing tool aimed at kids.
Java and Shockwave Security — Although mainstream media has been saturated recently with news of security issues in the Windows version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, a different security problem in Sun’s Java received comparatively little attention. Basically, it’s possible for a Java applet to disable security safeguards and grant itself full access to the local machine. It’s important to note the problem is very difficult to exploit, but theoretically affects anyone licensing Java technology from Sun. Microsoft has released a 500K update to its Java implementations for the Mac version of Internet Explorer; Netscape 3.0 doesn’t use Sun’s Java, and isn’t impacted.
Another, more easily exploited security problem involves Macromedia’s Shockwave Director plug-in in conjunction with Web browsers (particularly Netscape Navigator). Essentially, it’s possible to author a Shockwave Director movie that can clandestinely read email or files on a user’s machine, along with documents residing on other Internet servers, even behind a corporate firewall. The relative simplicity of this particular oversight highlights the possibility other simple loopholes in a variety of products. A pre-release of Streaming Shockwave 6 reportedly does not exhibit these problems, but otherwise the only way to make sure you’re not vulnerable is to de-install Shockwave. [GD]
Quicker QuicKeys — CE Software has (finally) released a PowerPC native version of QuicKeys, their powerful tool for assigning keyboard shortcuts and automating tasks (see TidBITS-347). Also included with this update are pre-made toolbars for popular applications such as Photoshop, PageMaker, and Netscape Navigator, in addition to a Finder toolbar. QuicKeys 3.5 owners can download a 1.8 MB update from CE Software. [JLC]
Fetch 3.0.3 — Last week, we noted the release of Fetch 3.0.2, which added a Resume Download feature and enhanced Open Transport support. Shortly thereafter, Fetch 3.0.3 emerged, which fixes a View File bug that dropped the first character of the file being viewed. [JLC]
By now you’ve all heard about Apple’s cold turkey diet regime for cutting costs in an effort to return to profitability in 1997. Let’s take a quick look at what was cut, what’s on life support, and what survived. If you want to see the official word, check out these press releases, then come back for some analysis.
2,700 Employees — Apple announced plans to lay off 2,700 full-time employees out of a total of about 11,000. Also being terminated are 1,400 of 2,400 contractors and temporary employees. Many of those employees worked on technologies that are being cut, although Apple’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG) was reportedly hard hit. About 55 percent of the layoffs are in the U.S., with the rest coming from international groups. Interestingly, in response to a question during the analysts’ conference call on Friday, Apple executives said none of the layoffs were hitting Apple Japan.
There’s nothing good about laying off employees, other than the cold-blooded bottom line numbers, but I suspect these Apple employees will have relatively little trouble finding new jobs. I hear Microsoft’s popular MS Bay Macintosh development group (the folks responsible for Internet Explorer for the Mac) are hiring like crazy.
ATG — Speaking of ATG, a good deal of Apple’s basic research has been eliminated, which could prove problematic a few years down the road. Apple executives said that 90 percent of future R&D would be devoted to education, publishing, and human interface design. They claimed that they were aiming to make the ATG budget five percent of sales, down from about six percent last year. That doesn’t sound bad, but when you think about how sales have dropped, the cuts equal about a third of the ATG budget. The Apple executives noted that Compaq and other major PC vendors typically spend only one to two percent of sales on R&D.
Performa — In my opinion, the smartest cut Apple made was of the Performa brand name (although existing Performas will remain in the channel until sold out, when they’ll be replaced by Power Macs). I’ve never liked the Performa branding; when it first appeared, I commented back in TidBITS-142: "The name, which appeared soon after Compaq’s Prolinea line, doesn’t impress me, and I worry about the recycling of technology into a new product line… It shows that the Performa line is primarily a marketing move." I thought then that users would be confused by the name, since it wasn’t inherently clear that a Performa even was a Macintosh, and the rapid proliferation of model numbers made it impossible for even those of us who watch the Mac closely to track each model. On Friday, Apple finally admitted that confusing consumers who want Macs is a bad thing.
Videoconferencing — Apple has dropped its videoconferencing products and technologies in favor of solutions from other companies. Overall, this strikes me as a good move – videoconferencing hasn’t been a killer application because of the bandwidth needed, and other companies have more experience and more interest in the field. Apple can’t do everything, and videoconferencing must be completely cross-platform to succeed in a commercial way. Let someone else do it.
AIX and the Network Servers — Apple’s recently-introduced, high-end Network Servers run AIX, a version of Unix from IBM. Although the Network Servers have been well-received by the high-end publishing crowd, Apple has decided to pull AIX from future servers, which will instead run either the Mac OS or Rhapsody, the code name for the first version of the Mac OS based on NeXT technologies. Apple will support existing customers, and I suspect those machines will continue to work just fine. This doesn’t feel like a bad decision either – Apple can’t waste effort supporting too many operating systems.
Biannual System Updates — A while back, Apple promised major retail Mac OS updates every six months, with minor bug fixes every three months or so. It was a bold announcement, and I hope whoever made it enjoyed the taste of the words. After Tempo, now called Mac OS 8, which will debut in July, biannual System updates are a thing of the past. Apple executives admitted that the programmers simply couldn’t get software out the door that fast. The schedule now calls for the "premier" release of Rhapsody to appear at the end of 1997, and Apple will try for a yearly release schedule of major updates, with minor bug fixes coming every six months. I think this is all just posturing. Scheduling in the computer industry is known to be fantasy: there’s nothing wrong with Apple announcing schedules and trying to stick to them, but anyone who believes that Apple (or anyone else) can do so consistently is dreaming.
Maintenance Mode — The items mentioned above are now history. However, a number of other technologies have been placed in "maintenance mode." It’s still not quite clear what that means, although I suspect that bug fixes will be made and updates to support new hardware may happen, but there won’t be much more. Apple’s press release claims: "Most of the elements of Mac OS today are maintained in this sense today – yet customers and developers use them daily. Apple continues to improve the reliability and performance of the overall system including technologies that have not seen major updates in years. Furthermore, these technologies will reside in Rhapsody as part of the Mac OS layer (the ‘Blue Box’) that will run today’s software for years to come on a faster, more reliable foundation." Keep that in mind when I talk about the following items.
Open Transport — On the face of it, I think putting Open Transport in maintenance mode and switching to a Unix-derived Berkeley Standard Distribution (BSD) networking scheme on top of the Mach kernel is an idiotic move. Apple went through serious pain to transition AppleTalk and the aging MacTCP to Open Transport, and after an initial bad version (forced by the release of the Power Mac 9500) Open Transport has proved a solid, flexible performer that meets the many and varied needs of Macintosh users.
Questions surrounding this move abound for Rhapsody. For instance, how will Apple support AppleTalk in a BSD-based networking implementation? What about plug & play networking? What about security (you don’t see many $10,000 security challenges being hosted on Unix BSD-based systems)? And what about features already demonstrated for the now-cancelled Open Transport 1.5, including IPv6 and multi-homing? I’ll be writing more about this issue soon, because if interface is the heart of the Mac, networking is the soul.
OpenDoc — Apple seems to believe that OpenDoc and Java fill similar roles in the world of component software technologies. Although I’m not sufficiently technical to verify that (any programmers want to write an article about it?), the feeling was that it was wasteful to put effort into OpenDoc when so many developers consider Java to be the feline’s sleepwear, and OpenStep already offers a powerful model for component software development. OpenDoc will continue to be supported in the Blue Box, but I can’t see any reason why independent developers should continue OpenDoc development. Overall, I think it’s a shame, given that OpenDoc was just starting to turn the corner, as noted back in TidBITS-365. Apple put a lot of effort into developing OpenDoc and evangelizing developers; if I were one of those developers, I’d be utterly disillusioned right now.
Cyberdog — Speaking of disillusionment, I imagine Joe Kissell and David McKee, authors of a cool book called Cyberdog: Live Objects on the Internet, must be feeling pretty low. Cyberdog was OpenDoc’s killer application (if that term can apply to a document-centric technology), and Apple has put it in the same maintenance mode as OpenDoc. Cyberdog 2.0, which is currently in beta, and OpenDoc will ship with Mac OS 8 in July, so they’ll still be available for people to use, but it’s hard to recommend that people use Cyberdog in favor of competing technologies that have a future. I imagine the version of Netscape Navigator once promised for Cyberdog can be forgotten too.
Game Sprockets — Game Sprockets was a set of libraries and tools designed to make it easy to program games for the Macintosh. Like OpenDoc and Cyberdog, it will continue to live on in its existing form in the Blue Box. Ironically, that will mean that games written using Game Sprockets will only run in the Blue Box, just as there are PC games today that only run in DOS, not Windows. Although I don’t have any opinion about Game Sprockets in particular, I think the game market is an important one for a computer that’s aimed at the individual consumer, and Apple had better do something to ensure that game developers want to continue developing for the Mac.
Mac OS Development Tools — Apple has created numerous tools for programming the Mac OS over the years, and although those tools will remain available, Apple is concentrating instead on development tools for Rhapsody. Although a tremendous amount of code for current Macintosh applications was written using Apple tools like MPW and MacApp, programmers were already aware they’d have to use new tools to develop for Rhapsody, and many already rely on tools from independent developers such as Metrowerks and Symantec.
Alive and Well — All this doom and gloom shouldn’t give you the impression that Apple is closing up shop to become, as one joke press release suggested, a non-profit corporation. Apple still makes a lot of money (they’re estimating about $8 billion for 1997), and Amelio and company have given some products and technologies a respite, presumably for the cash flow they bring in.
Newton — I’m sure a collective sigh of relief went up from Newton owners and developers when Apple announced that the Newton division would emerge unscathed. The Newton MessagePad 2000 and eMate 300 are now shipping and have been well received, so they survive… for now. Apple’s press release notes: "Apple is exploring a wide range of options for future Newton business. We have no specifics regarding those discussions at this time." To my mind, this means one of three things, and I have to admit that I don’t much care which so long as the Newton technology survives and moves forward. Take your pick of:
- Apple continues to work on the Newton internally.
- Apple spins the Newton division off into its own company.
- Apple sells the Newton division to some other company.
Claris — I don’t believe that Claris was ever in much jeopardy, and the wholly owned subsidiary will continue earning money for Apple. Claris reported record revenues of $67 million for the first quarter of fiscal year 1997, and revenues of $236.2 million in 1996. Demand for Claris’s products has remained strong on both the Mac and Windows, with FileMaker Pro 3.0 for Windows becoming the second best-selling database in the PC desktop database market. The Mac version has long been the best-selling Macintosh database.
Mac OS Licences — Rumors have been flying that Apple hopes to increase revenues by charging the Mac OS licensees more for the right to make Mac clones. As explained during Friday’s conference call, nothing has changed in this situation. The fees will change at some point soon, but that’s because currently Mac OS licensees also license Apple’s hardware designs, the so-called "Tanzania" motherboard. Once it’s possible to make CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform) machines, clone makers won’t have to license the Tanzania motherboard, and Apple has always planned at that point to adjust the license fees to account for the new situation.
Loyal Customers? I’d like to close by noting that in the analysts’ conference Apple’s executives went on a bit about how the company’s greatest asset is its loyal customers. In the past that’s certainly been true, and it may still be true now that the company has lost so much money, laid off so many employees, and discontinued so many technologies. However, from talking to numerous users and developers, it seems to me that although loyalty to the Macintosh and all it embodies may remain, loyalty to Apple as a company is hitting an all-time low. There’s a big difference, and I’m not sure it’s one that Apple’s management realizes. One of the executives commented that Apple would reward loyal customers by continuing to build great products. I would question if that’s likely in the near future or, more important, it it’s sufficient to reward the years of loyalty so many people have shown in the face of continual derision and obstacles.
Digital Chisel HTML 2.1.3, affectionately known as "the Chisel," comes from Pierian Springs Software, and it’s used by teachers and students to devise snazzy multimedia presentations, tutorials, and even tests. Digital Chisel HTML recently added "HTML" to its name, and – intrigued by the HTML aspects – I decided to review the new version. I thought it would be eye-opening to try a totally different approach to creating Web sites than that offered by page-oriented software like PageMill or tag-focused software like BBEdit.
I found Digital Chisel to be a fun, elegant product whose presentations can run under the freely distributable Digital Chisel Player or be converted to Web sites. Digital Chisel projects resemble HyperCard stacks, with screens linked together by buttons. Developers needn’t worry about code at all, and the Digital Chisel Player takes care of behind-the-scenes operations like recording test scores.
Kids and teachers are making Chisel projects of all sorts: the life cycle of salmon, mock commercials about missions to Mars, and digital portfolios. In addition, students are making quizzes for other students to take, and teachers are producing serious tests.
Objects of Desire — When working in Digital Chisel, you work on one screen at a time, though it’s easy to switch screens. Screens contain text, graphics, animations, and sounds, which – as far as Digital Chisel is concerned – are "objects." You can drag objects anywhere you like, even overlapping other objects. Any object can be animated, either along a path or as part of a simple, flipbook-style movie. Objects can be created within Digital Chisel, imported from disk, or accessed from Chisel libraries, which provide a quick way to browse groups of objects.
Digital Chisel comes with 25 or so sounds, including the likes of Aooga and Dinosaur Growl. The package also includes a few QuickTime movies, a number of general clip-art images, and a library of 70-odd useful and attractive button images.
I started my first screen by drawing out a text object and typing inside it. Text can be formatted with a fairly normal array of styles, fonts, sizes, and colors. In some kids’ programs, I’ve seen special formats like big bubbles and sparkles, but the Chisel has no such novel formats. Text can also be turned into hot links leading to pop-up notes. For instance, a hot link might define a new vocabulary word.
After figuring out text, I moved on to graphics. Graphics can be drawn as vector-based images (where images consist of shapes that can be re-sized or re-colored) or painted as collections of pixels located in a user-defined paint object. I especially liked the ability to insert some pre-drawn objects like arrows and stars. One frustration was the color palette. The palette has plenty of colors, arranged in a 16 by 16 square. I had a hard time remembering exactly which colors I had used previously, and the Chisel has no eyedropper, custom palette, or other tool that might have refreshed my memory.
Not wanting to stop at simple text and graphics, I moved on to adding sounds. Digital Chisel can import sounds, but I used the simple recording interface to record my own. (Several teachers told me that their kids especially like this feature; apparently they like to play back their voices.) I made some sounds that played when users clicked buttons and others that played automatically when a screen first opened. Similarly, it’s possible to create or insert QuickTime movies. You make a QuickTime movie one frame at a time, and you’d better get it right, because there’s no way to go back and edit the frames. In addition, there’s no way to add sound to a movie.
Moving Target — Once you’ve set up a few objects, you can call it quits, or you can figure that the fun is just beginning. Double-click any object and a palette comes up that enables you to set which events happen when the mouse moves over the object, when the mouse button is pressed over the object, or when the button is released over the object. Objects can change color, animate along a path, play sounds, speak words, cause a portion of a CD or video disk to play, and more. Just one event can happen, or up to 24 events can happen. For instance, in my project (which was about how Adam and his father cut down a dead tree in our back yard [a technically tricky and heroic procedure involving chainsaws that resulted in minor damage to only two feet of our deck’s railing, rather than the total obliteration of the deck from the 100-foot tall dead hemlock. -Adam]), I made a person move to look at the dead tree, and then say, "oh no!" In effect, every object is potentially a button.
Buttons can also link to other screens, and you could easily design and implement your own navigation bar, or use buttons to jump users around in the project. (Those who don’t want to build their own navigational devices, however, can use the default navigation toolbar). If you’ll be exporting to HTML, you can also link buttons to URLs.
Change of Screen — In addition to customizing what happens when an object is moused, you can set things to happen as a new screen opens. Any screen can open with a transition effect, such as a zoom or a "venetian blind" open. In addition sounds and movies can play when a screen opens.
Quizzes — Any screen can be part of an online quiz, and Digital Chisel comes with optional templates to speed the quiz creation process. In the case of tests having fixed answers (like multiple choice or true/false), the screen can be told which answer is correct, and during testing respond based on whether a student chooses the correct answer. Students taking quizzes can indicate who they are, and any Chisel project can record quiz results in a simple database.
Stepping onto the Web — Digital Chisel has taken the big step of adding HTML export features. The export works on an entire project at once, or you can export individual pages. The HTML export turns each screen into a Web page and converts the navigation bar into appropriate buttons. Hot text links connect to anchors further down on the page. To place objects correctly, Digital Chisel utilizes tables and specifies cell widths by the pixel. To maintain some semblance of how the font looked in Digital Chisel, it employs the <FONT> tag with size and color attributes. Pages with test questions do not convert to HTML.
Although I normally disapprove of pixel-specific layouts (see TidBITS-362), to my surprise, I found myself not minding Chisel using a pixel-specific technique. Chisel authors are inherently designing for the screen and can set the assumed screen size. Digital Chisel calls its parts "screens," not "pages," and displays them in a landscape orientation (since most screens are wider than they are high). That assumption means Digital Chisel is coming at the Web from a completely different mindset than the shock-blink-and-frame crowd, and it’s great that Chisel presentations can be placed on the Web instead of living out their lives in the relative obscurity of the Digital Chisel Player.
I was not satisfied with the HTML export because objects tended to end up misaligned, and working with the table tags in the resulting HTML documents proved frustrating. I also thought that hot text links should open a new page or window instead of linking to the bottom of the page. And, as an HTML-savvy adult, I wanted more control over decisions like using the <FONT> tag. However, in this version of Digital Chisel, I think it’s important to consider the HTML export a possibly handy add-on, not a raison d’etre. Unlike many sub-par HTML editing tools whose marketers say that the tool may lack features but works wonderfully for kids and novice adults, this product is intended for kids. What features belong in an HTML product for kids remain to be seen, and I suspect that Pierian Springs is working hard on this issue, since their upcoming 3.0 version will offer more Web-related features.
Review Roundup — I have little first-hand appreciation for what a twelve-year-old might find lacking in the program, but features I missed were style sheets for text and a grid for lining up screen elements. (It’s possible to set a temporary grid on the background – each screen can have a background, and backgrounds can be shared, much like master pages in PageMaker). I’ve spent a lot of time working with the likes of Claris Home Page and Symantec Visual Page, so I missed the freedom of importing objects via drag & drop from the Finder. Additionally, there’s no way to see an overview of a project. A palette lists project screens, and you can use drag & drop to reorder the screens, but I’d like to see a thumbnail view of the project, complete with the ability to drag & drop objects onto screens in the thumbnail view.
Those complaints aside, the Chisel strikes me as a top-notch program. Teachers I spoke with backed up that impression, with comments like "student friendly," and "it takes you as far as your imagination will take you." The interface is easy to learn and appealing to look at, and I highly recommend it to anyone under the age of 16 who wants to have a blast making presentations. The arrangement of the menus, the palettes, the commands, the entire way that the program fits together has an easy, elegant feeling found rarely in software, and makes me like the program far more than I would if the interface were compromised to add more features.
I had an excellent experience with Pierian Spring technical support – the support person not only gave lots of suggestions for solving my problem, he also helped me avoid future problems. All the teachers I spoke with praised the support staff without being asked.
To run Digital Chisel, Pierian Springs says that ideally you’d have a 68040- or PowerPC-based Macintosh, with 5 MB available application RAM and a monitor that can display 256 colors. Minimally, the company recommends a 25 MHz 68030-based Mac, 3 MB available RAM, any version of System 7, and at least a 12-inch, 256-color monitor. You also need at least 5 MB free hard disk space. Pierian Springs is working on Digital Chisel 3.0 (it’s about to go into beta), and a Windows version is also in the works.
Digital Chisel costs $109 for a single user, school packs cost $149, and there are also various site license deals. Additionally, through 30-Apr-97, Strata and Pierian Spring are offering a joint bundle that includes Vision 3D 4.0, Media Paint 1.2, two copies of VideoShop 3.0, Digital Chisel 2.1.3, a Vision 3D tutorial, and a t-shirt. This bundle costs $379; $239 educational.
Pierian Springs Software — 800/472-8578 — 503/222-2044
503-222-0771 (fax) — <[email protected]>