How will books and seminars change as the two fields meet online? Adam tackles this topic with a look at his most recently completed project. In news this week, Apple posts a quarterly loss and cuts prices on some models, GoLive Systems releases a hot-looking HTML editor, and Jeremy Kezer updates his Control Strip Modules. Finishing off the issue, Tonya reviews Online Army Knife, a Macintosh spelling checker with a new attitude.
Apple Posts $708 Million Loss — As readers in the United States agonized over their tax forms last week, the folks at Apple found themselves staring at a $708 million quarterly loss, the second worst showing in Apple’s history. The bulk of the loss comes from Apple’s $375 million purchase of NeXT Software and a $155 million charge to cover "restructuring activities."
Although the numbers sound intimidating, especially since the company’s deep reserve pockets are now significantly shallower, the press hasn’t jumped back on the "Apple is dead" bandwagon that keeps rolling along Infinite Loop. This may be due to several elements that support a gradual success of the company’s restructuring plans: operating expenses were down $32 million from last quarter, and down $65 million from the same quarter last year; business sales climbed 35 percent over the first quarter; and PowerBook sales accounted for 22 percent of total revenue, up from 10 percent. [JLC]
Apple Price Cuts — Last week, Apple announced $200 price cuts on Performa 6360 and 6400-series computers, but (more significantly) cut some prices in the PowerBook 1400 line by more than 30 percent. A PowerBook 1400cs/117 system now starts at $1,700 ($300 more for one with a CD-ROM), with prices extending to $3,200 for a PowerBook 1400c/133. If you’ve been putting off buying a PowerBook and the 3400s are too expensive, it might be a good time to re-examine the PowerBook 1400. Meanwhile, rumors continue to circulate about the PowerBook 2400, a 4.2-pound subnotebook developed by Apple and IBM, but it still appears its availability in the U.S. will be quite limited. [GD]
CyberStudio retains the elegant look of its predecessor, GoLive Pro (see TidBITS-337), and adds many important features. The Layout Grid tool enables users to create pixel-specific layouts. On the HTML side of things, these layouts turn out to be complex, fixed-size tables, but the grid is optional and sizable, so it’s easy to create pages that don’t impose a particular browser window size. Site management options that I spotted on a quick tour of the program included viewing site structure and checking for bad links, plus the ability to export to Apple’s Meta-Content Format (see TidBITS-355). I’m particularly taken with the fact that although you can type HTML in the Source view, you can also create tags using the menus and toolbar, just as you would in Layout view, a seemingly obvious feature that other WYSIWYG HTML editors have failed to implement.
According to GoLive Systems, CyberStudio can simultaneously support multiple language sets. The company has near-term plans to ship localized international versions, including Japanese and German. To run the software, you’ll need to meet somewhat hefty system requirements – a PowerPC-based computer running System 7.5.5 or later and at least 8 MB free RAM, with 16 MB recommended. A thirty-day trial version is available; the download is about 4 MB. Upgrades from golive and golive pro cost $249. GoLive Systems — 415/463-1580 — 415/563-1598 — <[email protected]> [TJE]
Jeremy’s CSM Updated — Jeremy Kezer has released version 1.6.4 of Jeremy’s Control Strip Modules, a $10 shareware collection of tiny, helpful tools. These tools consist of both new and replacement control strip modules for Apple’s Control Strip, that ubiquitous utility that made its debut on PowerBooks a few years ago and is now available for desktop computers as well. Although many of Jeremy’s modules are useful only on PowerBooks (including a revised temperature module that better keeps track of the computer and battery temperatures, plus a module that predicts how much battery time remains) version 1.6.4 also offers a revised AppleTalk module that improves handling of File Sharing, an easy pop-up menu of Open Transport TCP/IP configurations, and an improved speaker volume control. [MHA]
As most of you probably know, along with TidBITS, I also earn a living writing books, the best known of which is Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. What’s ironic for me as an Internet book author is that the Internet I’ve helped to popularize has seriously altered the market for computer books. Books are sold online, books are advertised online, and some books are even published online in their entirety.
One of the reactions to these changes has been for people to rethink the purpose and marketing of books. Many computer books are essentially tutorials – they purport to teach a set of skills, ranging from how to achieve certain effects in Photoshop to how to find things on the Internet. Book-based tutorials go beyond the computer field though. What are most cookbooks or gardening books, if not tutorials on how to perform certain tasks? And, might there be better ways of publishing tutorials, perhaps using the Internet?
Some companies are taking the kind of tutorial content you’d find in a book and turning it into an interactive electronic course. Of these, I’m most familiar with a small San Francisco startup called DigitalThink, because they’ve adopted an interesting way of differentiating their content. They don’t have just anyone write a course – they specifically look for best-selling authors who have proven that they know the subject matter and how to explain it.
I recently spent a few months creating an interactive electronic course called "Living with the Internet" for DigitalThink. Obviously, since the course is delivered over the Internet, it assumes you’re already connected and have a basic grasp of using a Web browser. However, there’s a lot more to using the Internet than the essentials of a specific program, and that’s the focus of my course. I have high hopes for DigitalThink, because I think they’re on to something genuinely useful and new. If you’re interested in online learning and interactive courses, read on for details on how it all works.
Course Makeup — I said before that these courses were interactive, and I think that’s an important requirement for them to succeed. Just putting a set of steps to follow on a Web page has not only been done, it’s pretty much uninteresting. Instead, DigitalThink has come up with a number of systems for introducing interactivity into a course. Students are meant to interact not only with DigitalThink’s server, but also with others enrolled in the class and the instructors.
A DigitalThink course consists of five or six broad modules, each of which in turn holds between six and twenty lessons. Each lesson has a goal (DigitalThink’s research showed that people liked having goals). Lessons also contain the lesson text, which is generally short since people don’t like reading much online, and optional sidebars for related information, exercises, discussions, chats, and quizzes. These final elements provide the interactivity needed to give the online course some pizzazz.
Lesson Text — The most challenging part of writing the course was keeping the amount of text I wrote to a minimum. Tali Bray, my producer, initially recommended that I aim for about 400 words per lesson, but when that proved unworkable with the conceptual size of my topics, we worked on moving lesson portions into sidebars to include the information in a less imposing setting. Tali’s overall goal was help me to distill the necessary information into its most fundamental form, since that’s what online training has to deliver, especially in contrast to books.
DigitalThink addresses the issue of limiting online lesson text to fundamentals in other ways as well, by having required book-based reading for many of the courses and by encouraging interaction between students and between the instructor and the students.
Exercises — Another part of writing each lesson involved coming up with an exercise. Some exercises are as simple as asking students to visit a couple of Web pages, read their contents, and think about the implications. Others are more complex (for instance, requiring students to rate the Internet programs they currently use so the scores can be compared with overall ratings from other students.)
I had fun with some of the exercises – there’s nothing that says a course has to be boring. For the lesson that explains client/server computing, there’s an optional exercise that entails going out to dinner with a friend. And then, when I discuss how email actually works on the Internet, the exercise involves the use of small children, assuming you have access to any.
Quizzes — Courses generally need some form of testing. Students submit answers to some of the exercises, but the main way that DigitalThink’s electronic courses test knowledge is via quizzes. Most of them are multiple choice, although true/false questions also pop up from time to time. Once a student submits a quiz, DigitalThink’s server shows which questions were answered right or wrong, and explains the answers, sometimes providing additional information in the process. Whenever you’re in a course, you can click the Scores button to see a graph of your total quiz scores next to everyone else who has taken the class.
Discussions and Chats — Exercises and quizzes force you to interact with DigitalThink’s server, and although that’s a good first step in providing a compelling interactive experience, there’s no substitute for live people. Because of that, most lessons have a discussion, and each module has at least one live chat scheduled. The discussions work a bit like Usenet news, with messages posted one after another. Online chats use the iChat plug-in.
As the author, I show up for a few hours a month in the course, participating in the discussions and perhaps an occasional chat, although I generally avoid online chats because they’re hard on my hands. I seeded each discussion with an initial post, and each lesson also has questions for students to consider. Along with everything else, I’m trying to help people think about the Internet and the issues that surround it.
Whether in the discussion forum or the online chats, DigitalThink’s hope is that encouraging students to interact with one another and with the instructor will not only make the course more fun, but will also make it more instructive. Some recent research has shown that the interactivity involved in online instruction can make it even more successful than traditional classroom instruction.
The Overall System — DigitalThink’s technology for providing these courses goes well beyond basic HTML. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that they have developed a proprietary system that tracks all the parts of a course and all the students. That’s how it can grade quizzes instantly and update scores immediately. Students can also click the Classmates button whenever they’re in a course to see who else is taking it. As a nice touch, though, DigitalThink gives each student a special DigitalThink email address that forwards to the student’s real address. That way, students can contact each other, but still maintain a level of privacy.
Students’ personal information is maintained in their lockers, which contain information about their courses and any other information they wish to give out. For instance, my Bio field reads merely "Carbon-based." After you’ve enrolled in a course, you go to your locker every time you revisit the DigitalThink site to continue with the course.
As I understand it, DigitalThink is hoping to meet the needs of people and companies who can afford a one- or two-day seminar but don’t have several days to devote to full-time instruction. Courses are designed to take about 25 hours to complete, and students can spread that out over time, working as quickly or slowly as they want, within reason.
Courses — Currently, DigitalThink offers a number of courses in the three main categories of Internet, Computer Science, and Multimedia. Some titles include: Object-Oriented Programming with C++, Home Sweet Home Page, Advanced Perl for the Web (part of the Perl for Programmers Series), Building Graphical User Interfaces (part of the Java for Programmers Series), and Hands-On Photoshop.
DigitalThink has two new sections which should be available by the end of April, Finance and Lifestyles. As you’d expect, Finance covers personal finance software, investments, and so on. I’m looking forward to the Lifestyles section, which will have subjects that aren’t work-related, such as wine-tasting. That should prove interesting, although quizzes might become significantly more difficult if you don’t spit during the tasting exercises.
Course fees vary widely, depending on the type of course and its length. Introductory courses are only $45, but the range goes up to $275 for the full-length, advanced Computer Science courses.
If you like going to seminars and taking short classes, check out the DigitalThink Web site and the course offerings, especially Tali’s free course on searching on the Internet. I enjoyed creating the "Living with the Internet" course more than my major book projects thanks to the way it helped me rethink the way I explain the Internet. If that’s true of the other DigitalThink authors too, I can only assume that their courses will have benefited as well. Who knows, these sort of electronic courses may be the future of certain types of computer books.
Late last year, I reviewed Casady & Greene’s Spell Catcher, a handy utility that helps with spelling and other writing tasks (see TidBITS-353). I was particularly taken with the fact that I could set up its user dictionary and Interactive Checking glossary once, and then use them in any program – words I taught the user dictionary while in my word processor would also be understood when I spell checked an email message. At the time, I promised to review other, similar utilities, and the next one up is Online Army Knife 1.21 (OAK) by JEM Software.
OAK aims to provide spell checking and other services to Internet users, particularly in Internet-related programs like email clients or HTML editors that lack adequate spell checking features. Additionally, in Swiss-Army Knife-style, OAK piles on additional features: grammar checking, playing a QuickTime movie, opening GIF, PICT, or JPEG graphics (and optionally converting them to a variety of formats including EPS and TIFF), opening and converting among WAV, SND, and AIFF sounds (plus a basic sound recording feature), encrypting text (encrypted text can be decrypted by anyone owning OAK or the OAK decrypter), and removing high-ASCII characters like curly quotes that can be messed up when sent over the Internet.
I won’t deny the potential uses of any of these features, but OAK put itself on my list of must-have utilities after I experienced its most important feature – batch spell checking (a feature Adam suggested in part to JEM Software after he grew tired of linear-mode spell checkers).
OAK is a control panel and an application, so after installing it, I put an alias to the OAK application in my Startup Folder. OAK launches as a small window containing eight buttons. Press a button, and you’ll see a short list of options relating to the button. You can hide OAK just like any other application, so it’s easy to hide if screen real estate gets tight.
The Basic Batch Check — At a basic level, OAK performs its spell checking via the Spelling button. Press it, and you may choose to check the contents of the clipboard or a file. (You can also spur the spelling checker into action by selecting text in any program and issuing a configurable keyboard shortcut.) OAK responds by listing possible errors in the Batch Processing dialog box. If a mistake occurs more than once, OAK only lists it once.
I’ve found this list to be a great convenience. To process the list of possible errors, I first select words I want ignored, and then I click the Ignore button (the Ignore option can be set to work until you quit OAK). Second, I select words I want learned and click the Learn button. Finally, I select the remaining words and click the Correct in Context button. This button leads to a more traditional spell checking window, which can be driven completely from the keyboard. There’s also a button for starting a Grammar Check or checking for doubled words.
To measure speed, I batch-checked a recent TidBITS issue. It took OAK a hair more than a second to list 24 unknown words out of 4561 total on my Power Mac 7600 (120 MHz PowerPC 604) and almost ten seconds to complete the same task on my Duo 230 (25 MHz 68030). According to JEM Software, OAK can check as large a file as you have memory available.
The batch checking is great, so great that I intend to keep OAK installed just to use it with Eudora and other instances where I work with unformatted text. Unfortunately, OAK won’t replace Spell Catcher in my software collection. When OAK pastes text into a document after a spelling check, styles and formatting tend to disappear. In my testing, serious loss-of-formatting problems arose after an OAK spell check in Word 5.1, Nisus 4.1 and 5.0, WriteNow 3.0, and WordPerfect 3.5. However, OAK and Word 6.0 got along well for the styles and formats I tested. JEM Software may add Word Services support to a future OAK version, which might help avoid this problem.
The Interactive Zone — Beyond basic batch checking, OAK offers interactive checking features galore, including a real-time spelling checker that doesn’t suffer formatting problems, so you can use it with most programs. Turn on the Real-Time option and OAK puts up a tiny Unknowns & Suggestions windoid that floats over application windows. If you type a word OAK doesn’t understand, OAK (optionally) plays a sound or flashes the menubar. The sound or flash is your cue to look in the Unknowns & Suggestions windoid, which contains two lists. The left-hand list shows words you’ve typed that OAK considers misspelled. When you click an alleged error, OAK displays suggestions on the right. If you deal with the error right away, you can simply tell OAK to skip, ignore, or learn the word, or you can choose a suggested fix. You can even click the Glossary button so the next time you make that mistake, OAK automatically replaces it with the correction. You can also deal with errors later – OAK stores them in a list in the windoid. I don’t like dealing with errors later because all OAK can do is paste corrections into your document at the location of the cursor, not over the mistake.
If you turn on the appropriate options, OAK can instantly uppercase letters accidently left lowercased and instantly fix accidental character transpositions (i.e. incorrectly spelling "Apple" as "Appel").
Although the batch checker ignores email addresses and Web URLs, the real-time checker flags pieces of them that it doesn’t understand. (I had to teach it the likes of www and com.) This trait is particularly annoying in Web browsers. Future versions of OAK should feature an interface for turning OAK off in applications where it’s not wanted.
There’s also a glossary for storing commonly used blocks of text, and it’s easy to edit the glossary or add additional entries. For example, I used the glossary to make it so every time I typed "ti", OAK expanded my typing to "TidBITS." I also used it for my standard email signoff, long company or product names, and my snail mail address. The glossary does not come preconfigured with entries for common typos and their corrections, but it’s easy to generate a custom set of typos quickly if you pay attention and use the Glossary button in the Unknowns & Suggestions windoid. Also, the folks at JEM Software have pointed out that the transposition fixer eliminates many common typos.
A Kajillion More Features — OAK has additional features that you might expect, like one that stores keystrokes so you can rescue data in the event of a crash, and features that you might not expect, such as one that helps you complete crossword puzzles and another that enables you to launch programs with a keyboard shortcut and set up a schedule for your Mac to launch programs on its own automatically.
There’s also a grammar checker that will be mainly of use to people having trouble with common usage rules. Most grammar checkers offer a haystack of inappropriate suggestions, making it hard to focus on the few needles that point to important problems. OAK’s grammar checker flags words in a document that match its list of 25 commonly confused word pairs (pairs range from simple ones like "your" and "you’re" to the less common "stationery" and "stationary"). When OAK flags a word, it notes a possible error and gives information about proper usage for each word in the pair, often with a tip for remembering the information. You can keep your word choice or exchange it for the other word in the pair. You can easily remove pairs from the grammar checker or add your own.
Additionally, Online Army Knife comes with MemoEdit, a text editor intended to replace Simple Text for basic text editing needs. On top of SimpleText’s basic functionality, it has a simple Find and Replace command and a sleek color selector (for coloring text) where you wave your mouse around on a multi-colored field, and watch the RGB numbers posted beneath the field update correspondingly.
Spell Catcher Comparison — I used Spell Catcher for about three months before switching to OAK for this review. My main frustration with Spell Catcher was that it has no clue about URLs, a problem that OAK’s batch checker does not share. Another issue was that Spell Catcher’s Interactive Checking performance was noticeably slow in ClarisWorks 4.04 and NisusWriter 4.1; OAK is a snappy performer and did not experience slowdowns with those programs. Further, I found it hard to recommend Spell Catcher for use on machines slower than my Duo 230. OAK’s Real-Time spelling checker is a little slower to suggest replacements on the Duo, but overall performance is fine.
Spell Catcher has been tweaked over the years to focus on the needs of writers and match many different writing styles (and the latest release, version 1.5.7, includes a few additional tweaks). It curls straight quotes, eliminates double spaces, and comes with a glossary that automatically corrects 1,000+ typos. Unlike OAK’s all-or-nothing approach, these features start turned off and you turn them on as needed on a per-application basis. It comes with a thesaurus, but not a grammar checker. Spell Catcher’s Ghostwriter feature helpfully organizes saved keystrokes by day and application. Also, it comes with numerous dictionary options for different languages and professions; OAK only supports American-English speaking Internet users. Both programs have useful manuals that read as though real people wrote them; OAK’s is a bit more casual and personal.
OAK is a young, enthusiastic program with new ideas. Don’t try its batch checker unless you plan to keep OAK installed, because once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back to the clunky, linear method of spell checking. Another big difference between OAK and Spell Catcher is that OAK’s glossary accepts far longer entries than Spell Catcher’s somewhat grudging 255 characters. And, of course, OAK comes with tons of other frills and utilities that add to its overall value.
According to JEM Software OAK works with any Macintosh running System 7.1 or later and requires 1 MB of available RAM to run its core spelling and grammar checking features. A full installation takes about 4.5 MB of disk space. The suggested retail price is $128; direct orders placed before 01-Jul-97 cost $69.95. Spell Catcher/Thunder 7 owners can crossgrade for $49.95 (and the OAK glossary can import a Spell Catcher/Thunder 7 glossary), and owners of several other competitors can crossgrade for $59.95. A seven-day demo is available on JEM’s Web site; the download is sized at about 1 MB.
JEM Software — 800/335-0935 (orders through Ariel Publishing)
<[email protected]> — 303/422-4856 (fax)