Is Apple getting a bad rap from journalists, or is it just a conspiracy cooked up by Apple management? This week, Keith Brindley offers a journalist’s view on how Apple contributes to its own bad press. Also this week, Adam shares some techniques for enhancing the usability of Web browsers, Apple releases a fix for disabled Level 2 caches, the Info-Mac archive comes back online, we ask a favor of folks redistributing TidBITS issues, and we introduce MacWorks as a new TidBITS sponsor.
MacWorks Sponsoring TidBITS — We’d like to welcome our new sponsor, MacWorks. Self-billed as "Macintosh enthusiasts with a great sense of humor," MacWorks has a store in Lenexa, Kansas, and also sells products (primarily hardware) to Macintosh users near and far. We’ve been satisfied MacWorks customers on several occasions, and we have a good deal of experience with them because they essentially acted as an anchor for the DealBITS mailing list, which we ran in 1995 and 1996. We found them an all-around good company to work with: DealBITS readers liked them, they turned in well-written copy on time, and they paid their bills promptly. It’s a long way to Kansas for most of you, but anyone with a browser can visit them virtually on the Web. If you do stop by their Web site, check out "Hey, Stuff This!" a regularly updated "MacBiased" cartoon drawn by Pete Steinfeld, a MacWorks staff member. [TJE]
Apple’s Level 2 Cache Fix — Last week, Apple released the 54xx/64xx L2 Cache Reset extension, fixing a bug that disabled the Level 2 processor cache in machines using Apple’s "Alchemy" motherboard design. This includes Power Macintosh or Performa 6360, 5400-series, and 6400-series computers, Power Computing’s PowerBase series, and UMAX C500 and C600 models. In case you’re wondering, Level 2 cache is a bit of high-speed memory – usually 256K to 1 MB – that lives near the PowerPC processor. The CPU uses it to cache instructions and data for quick retrieval rather than returning to the (comparatively slow) RAM and disk systems to get the same information over and over again.
You need this update if you use one of the above machines and you’re running Mac OS 7.6.1, or System 7.5.3 and the 54xx/64xx Update 1.1 extension. The update re-enables Level 2 caches on the systems, producing speed gains of as much as 30 percent in some circumstances. Although this patch is a tiny disk image file (11K), you’ll need Apple’s DiskCopy 6.1 (about 500K) to mount the image and drag the extension to your System folder. [JLC]
Info-Mac Back Online — After a longer-than-expected hiatus, the Info-Mac archive is up and running at its new home. Unlike the old sumex-aim archive, the new Info-Mac location is not available for anonymous FTP; instead, Info-Mac users need to access the archive using one of the dozens of mirror sites around the world (including the Info-Mac HyperArchive at MIT, AOL’s Info-Mac mirror, the selective mirror of the Info-Mac comm directory maintained on TidBITS’ FTP site, among many others).
The Info-Mac Digest has resumed mailing and posts to the <comp.sys.mac.digest> newsgroup, and the Info-Mac moderators have worked their way through most of the backlog of new file submissions. If you need information about the Info-Mac archive or mailing list, check out their Web site (most of which has been updated to reflect Info-Mac’s new home). Special thanks go to the assiduous efforts of all-volunteer Info-Mac moderators for making this substantial transition as painless as possible. [GD]
Cyberdog 2.0 — Apple recently released version 2.0 of Cyberdog, its OpenDoc-based set of Internet tools. This is the version that’s expected to ship with Mac OS 8 this July, and it features improved HTML support and performance (especially with Web pages and email handling), the ability to handle multiple email accounts, and Cyberdog DocBuilder for making custom Internet front-ends. Cyberdog 2.0 continues to offer OpenDoc and Finder integration, support for Web browser plug-ins and Apple’s Macintosh Runtime for Java, plus strong (and often overlooked) AppleTalk network support. Cyberdog 2.0 requires a 68030 processor or better, System 7.5.3 or higher, a minimum of 8 MB of RAM, and the recently-released OpenDoc 1.2. [GD]
Do You Re-distribute TidBITS? Each week, a number of people receive TidBITS issues that are redistributed via private mailing lists or online forums, rather than via direct email subscriptions. Many of these services exist within companies, user groups, and other organizations where a single, central address for receiving TidBITS issues makes a lot of sense. This sort of thing is fine with us, but it can cause problems when mail errors are returned to us from addresses that aren’t directly subscribed to TidBITS. In those cases, we have little choice but to ferret out and unsubscribe the address of the entire mailing list in order to make the mail errors stop, and that can inconvenience a lot of people. Unfortunately, as the TidBITS list grows, that’s happening more and more often.
So, if you’re in charge of a mailing list, online forum, or other service that redistributes TidBITS each week, please contact Geoff Duncan <[email protected]> with the following information:
The email address of the redistribution service that’s subscribed to TidBITS
The name and email address of the person to contact if there are problems with the redistribution service
- The approximate number of people who use the service or receive messages from it
This information will be held in the strictest confidence (as is the entire TidBITS subscription list!); the idea is to let us gracefully handle any problems that might arise without interrupting anyone’s access to TidBITS. Thanks! [GD]
Like many of you, I spend a lot of time in my Web browser each day. In my case, I’m researching topics for TidBITS, following URLs sent to me in email, or perhaps working on a book project. I’ve been known to fill up Internet Explorer’s 500-site default history file in a few days (it’s now set to 2,000). In short, I stress Web browsers. I want them to be as fast and fluid as possible, within the constraints of my 56 Kbps dedicated Internet connection. Actually, I’d like them to read my mind, but that could get kind of creepy given the nature of the main Web browser companies. Over time, I’ve developed some ways of working that make using a Web browser easier and faster – perhaps some of them will be of use to you as well.
Shortcuts ‘R’ Us — I’m on a mission to tell people about a neat little shortcut in the latest versions of both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Most company Web sites have the domain name www.company.com, where "company" is the name of the company. In both of the main Web browsers, if you type just the name of the company in either the Address/Location field or the Open Location dialog box, the Web browser will guess at "www.company.com" for you. (And don’t forget that you don’t ever have to type in "http://" to go to a Web site.) Since I spend a lot of time hitting sites for companies like Apple, Microsoft, Netscape, Claris, Adobe, Symantec, and so on, I’ve found this to be a tremendous time-saver over trying to edit the existing URL showing in the Address/Location field or typing the full domain name. For some reason, it even feels faster to me than creating a bookmark. Netscape Navigator currently takes this feature one step further than Internet Explorer: using Navigator, you can use just a company name along with the remainder of a URL path, so just typing "tidbits/tb-issues" in Navigator’s Location field is equivalent to:
He Who Dies with the Most Buttons Wins — The left button on my venerable Kensington TurboMouse 4.0 stopped working recently, and I took the opportunity to buy a new TurboMouse 5.0, which has, count ’em, four buttons. With the associated MouseWorks software, you can define those buttons to do almost anything in any program. The programs I’ve concentrated on so far are my Web browsers, since I find that I tend to do the same things in almost all Web pages. I click the Back button a lot, and I scroll up and down in pages that don’t fit on screen. So, I’ve defined the top two buttons to Scroll Previous and Scroll Next, and the lower-right button to Back (it actually types the Command-[ keystroke). I can’t tell you how much smoother browsing the Web feels when you have single-button access to those functions. I’ve always liked Kensington’s input devices – if you spend a lot of time in a Web browser, that may be enough of an excuse for you to think about getting a multiple button mouse or trackball.
ShrinkWrap the Web — One technique I’ve started using recently to improve the speed of my Web browsers (this works for both Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer) relies on Aladdin’s ShrinkWrap 2.1, written by Chad Magendanz (watch for version 3.0 soon, with some neat new features). Web browsers all use cache folders to store Web pages you’ve visited and display them again quickly if you revisit the site. Reading files from the hard disk, though faster than bringing them in over the Internet, isn’t as fast as many of us would like. What if you could have the Web browser store the pages on a RAM disk instead? That would be significantly faster and would have the added advantage of keeping all those cache files off your hard disk, where they’re just clutter. Even better, since off-loading the cache files to a RAM disk reduces the number of writes to your hard disk, disk corruption is less likely to occur if you crash while a cache file is being written, for instance.
I first tried using the RAM disk capabilities available from the Memory control panel, but the standard RAM disk didn’t work well. It loses its contents if you shut down the Mac, and it can also forget its name, which screws everything up. So, and I don’t know who first suggested trying this, I turned to ShrinkWrap, which can mount a disk image in RAM, essentially creating a persistent RAM disk.
Although not difficult, the process isn’t inherently obvious. Launch ShrinkWrap and open the Preferences dialog. Make sure "Keep mounted images in RAM" and "Mount images unlocked by default" are checked, since you want to take advantage of the speed of RAM and the Web browser must be able to write to the image. Make sure that the "Save disk image files as" pop-up menus are set to "ShrinkWrap Image File" (or else ShrinkWrap won’t mount them automatically). Then, from the Image menu, choose New Image, name the disk image, click the Other button, and enter the size you want.
If you’ve got enough RAM, I recommend about 5 MB. The Web browsers won’t use all that space (since they know they shouldn’t fill up the hard disk). There’s not much advantage to using a larger cache folder setting unless you frequently visit Web sites that use Shockwave Director heavily. You want your Web browser to check pages once per session, because otherwise you’ll miss changes, so it’s unlikely that storing any more than a few megabytes of cache files will help performance.
When you click the OK button, ShrinkWrap creates an image file (on the desktop by default). If you double-click that image file, ShrinkWrap mounts it as a volume. Next, you must set your Web browser to use the ShrinkWrap volume for cache files.
In Microsoft Internet Explorer, open the Preferences dialog from the Edit menu, and click the Advanced tab. Make sure the Cache settings are set to a maximum of 5 MB, and click the Change button to locate your newly created ShrinkWrap volume. You may wish to click the Empty button to delete all the previously cached files before changing over to the ShrinkWrap volume, just to recover some space.
In Netscape Navigator, from the Options menu choose Network Preferences. Click the Cache tab, set the Cache Size to 5 MB or so, and click the Browse button to locate your new ShrinkWrap volume. Again, you may wish to click the Clear Disk Cache Now button before switching to recover the space that’s being used.
Once you’ve got your Web browser set to use the ShrinkWrap volume, you need to make sure that it will be present whenever you launch your Web browser. Otherwise, the Web browser will reset itself to use some other folder. (Internet Explorer is a bit messy about this, placing the Explorer Cache folder in a variety of places. Netscape Navigator always seems to go back to the Cache folder in the boot volume’s Netscape folder, located in the Preferences folder.) So, move the ShrinkWrap disk image file (not the mounted volume!) to your Startup Items folder so that ShrinkWrap mounts it on every restart.
One slight problem that I had is that you can’t put an alias to a Web browser in your Startup Items folder because it will launch before ShrinkWrap has finished mounting the volume. You might be able to get around this with creative naming to force certain load orders, depending on your specific situation, but another solution could be to use Exta Software’s $8 shareware Delayed Startup Items utility, which waits until your Mac is idle for a few moments and then launches items in a Delayed Startup Items folder.
If you ever launch your Web browser when the ShrinkWrap volume isn’t mounted (say, if you boot without extensions and then drop an HTML file on your Web browser to view it), be aware that the Web browser may reset its cache folder to another volume. It’s worth checking every now and then to make sure this hasn’t happened accidentally.
Once you do this, you can enjoy the added speed of reading cached Web pages from a RAM disk and the peace of mind of knowing that you’re keeping hundreds of unnecessary files off your hard disk.
When I read Ian Gregson’s piece about his experiences with Macintosh retail sales (see TidBITS-367), I was amazed at how much it mirrors the situation here in the U.K. I also anticipated Apple would begin complaining about the attitudes of retail stores rather than changing the way Macs are sold through these outlets. After all, Apple’s usual line of defence in such matters is to attack the attacker. I know about this stance – I’m a journalist and I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of Apple’s misfortune (not personally, but as part of my profession). To mix metaphors, Apple has long blamed the messenger for its own woes. Apple’s main stance is to blame bad press as the reason why sales are low at Christmas, or why the quarter’s loss is greater than expected (sound familiar?).
But blaming the press is only half of the story, and there is another half. What about us journalists; what do we feel? We’re a pretty apathetic bunch, after all (and, as you’ll see, that’s an inherent part of the problem), slothful in the extreme, drunkards in the main, quick to go with the mainstream, slow to try something new and potentially better, only looking for a free lunch and the pay cheque at the end of the month. At least that’s the common perception – never mind that it’s largely incorrect.
In journalism, time is the most important factor, as I hope to prove; yet, Apple doesn’t seem to appreciate that fact. Even when we try to tell Apple about the problem, do we get the message through? Of course not. Have you ever tried sending email to Apple’s management? Did you receive a response? I didn’t think so.
A Journalist’s Point of View — Ian Gregson’s piece made me think it might be a good idea to relate a journalist’s perspective. Although this is from a U.K. hack’s position, what I’ve heard from the other side of the pond seems similar. Perhaps someone in Apple has an ear on the pulse of the Internet (metaphors exist to be mixed – they grab the reader’s attention more than boldly split infinitives!) and perhaps something good will become of this article. (Come to think of it, maybe the person reading this article and checking the pulse will be Doctor Amelio himself… Nah, it’ll never happen.)
Let’s begin with four facts:
Good editorial coverage can be the most effective advertising a product can have – it’s certainly the most cost effective.
Bad editorial coverage can rarely be countered by any amount of advertising.
If a product is good (well, as good as a Mac, anyway) good editorial coverage is cheap – far cheaper than advertising.
- Time is of the essence.
To understand the fourth fact, we need a little background on the editorial process. As a journalist, it’s important that I receive the information I need quickly. If I’m commissioned by an editor to write a review or a feature, in most cases the editor wants it within a couple of days. Even when a feature is planned in advance, I generally have only a week or two for research. This is the case throughout U.K. journalism, irrespective of media (magazine, newspaper, broadcast) and I suspect it is the same in the U.S. Journalists need information fast. Put another way, fact four is that journalists can’t wait beyond the deadline for the information to come to them at Apple’s convenience.
It’s relatively easy for companies like Apple to make written or verbal information available. The various electronic means (email, HTML, PDF, even fax and telephone) can all help to ensure a journalist gets necessary information rapidly. Over the last few months, it has been nice to see Apple start to get its act together in providing factual information. Apple’s Web sites are increasingly becoming a joy to use as the information and links they hold become more and more coordinated. When I need rapid access to information, I frequently turn to them as one of the first sources. Apple’s improving in this respect, and I find little to criticise.
When a journalist writes about a particular product, on the other hand, that product must be available for a first-hand evaluation. I cannot review a product if I don’t have it. Here is where Apple lacks a coordinated and workable response to journalists.
Some Examples — To back this up I’m going to quote some real, live examples that I’ve had to contend with. These might be U.K.-specific, but vibes I get from reading U.S.-based magazines make me think the problem is endemic within Apple and all its subsidiaries.
First, how do other companies handle journalists? Take Microsoft in the U.K. They have a press agency (Text 100), which has a dedicated Microsoft helpline for journalists (no messing around with a switchboard, or holding to canned Muzak). When a journalist requires a product for review, Text 100 arranges for the product’s immediate courier delivery – no questions. The product is an NFR (not for resale), which becomes the journalist’s personal copy. This is a slick operation in the UK. Microsoft knows the value of good editorial copy. Other successful companies (software and hardware – Adobe, Macromedia, and Visioneer to name a few) have similar PR setups. For pity’s sake, even Quark has its act together with press relations.
How does Apple U.K. handle journalists? Its U.K. press agency takes your call, then must get the product from Apple. Most times, Apple only allocates two or three product items for use by the PR agency on a loan-only basis, so the product must be returned after the review. Typically, loaned items are in popular demand by journalists, and it may be weeks before everyone has a turn at borrowing them.
My crowning example of this problem occurred when I wrote a series of articles about various online and Internet services a year or so ago. I intended to look at Apple’s now-defunct eWorld as part of this series, but was told by the PR agency that only two accounts were allocated to U.K. journalists (only two for the whole of the U.K.?), but I could have an account for a couple of weeks if I could wait for six weeks before receiving it as I was fourth in the queue. As I was in the fortunate (and unusual) position of writing a multi-part series in a monthly magazine, I figured I’d fit in eWorld somewhere down the line and agreed. If I’d been writing a single feature (the norm for other journalists) I simply couldn’t have included eWorld. The account duly arrived after six weeks and I put it aside until I was to write that part of the series. Later, I tried to log on and was rejected because I’d overrun the two weeks by a day. Like most of the world’s journalists who suffered the same lack of PR, I didn’t write about eWorld at all, so undoubtedly I unwittingly became part of eWorld’s demise.
How does Microsoft ensure journalists remain Microsoft-friendly in the same circumstances? Every journalist who wants can have a free and permanent connection to the Microsoft Network. Other online services in the U.K. (AOL and CompuServe) do the same, as do most ISPs. In a nutshell, maybe that’s why Apple pulled the plug on eWorld! Not because it wasn’t a good service (I can’t comment – I never got access, remember), but because it never got decent press coverage due to Apple’s complacency.
This isn’t an isolated instance in my experience. I went through the same procedure to review the MessagePad 130, and found I could borrow one for only a week, some four weeks on down the line. Everyone knows (except Apple, presumably) that you must use a Newton for at least a month for it and you to become au fait with each other. A journalist playing with a MessagePad for a week can’t be expected to write about it with serious conviction.
To introduce a new technology like Newton, Apple should have given MessagePads to every high-tech journalist in the world, as a loss leader. I don’t think it would be unfair to say the technology would have been more widely adopted by now if that had happened. As it is, the much inferior Windows CE (which any interested journalist need only call the local Microsoft PR agency to try) has a good chance to succeed where the Newton probably won’t. It’s no good merely telling people how good your new technology is, you must prove it.
In a nutshell, there are maybe 400 journalists in the U.K. who influence the total computer purchasing powers of Joe Public here. To give them all a MessagePad 2000 and a 6500/300 might seem a lot to write off, but, for heaven’s sake, we’re talking of potential sales in the millions. Nobody, and I mean nobody, buys a computer without reading any of the multitude of magazines on the newsstands. As few of the non-Mac-specific magazines mention Apple at all, Joe Public will obviously think of the Mac as not worthy of consideration. Q.E.D.
This malaise is not restricted to the Apple mother company itself. A few months ago I was commissioned to write a roundup of email software for Internet Today magazine. Naturally, I wanted to include Claris Emailer, but neither the editor of the magazine nor myself could acquire a shrink-wrapped copy in time for the deadline (a fairly typical two weeks). I had to download a 30-day demo off the Claris Web site to see the product. To say this was unsatisfactory is merely being polite. [Perhaps the situation is improving – TidBITS received a shrink-wrapped copy of Claris Emailer 2.0 the day before it officially shipped, and two more inexplicably arrived a week later.-Adam]
It’s Not About Freebies — I realise many readers will think I’m being self-centered in my argument that myself and other journalists should receive freebies. That’s crap! Freebies are a fact of life in journalism – you should see my attic: it’s stuffed full of products I’ve reviewed or featured and, apart from writing about them and being paid for that, I receive no financial gain from any of them. Companies who issue freebies as part of the marketing process reap the rewards in editorial coverage. If the products being freebied are good, then the editorial coverage will be good. Journalism is a profession, and journalists are professionals, but they don’t have the time to chase companies like Apple for product. If product isn’t available journalists can’t see it and discover its value. Worse, they might (and do) create negative editorial coverage for lack of product. You only have to understand how journalism ticks to see where Apple is going wrong.
I’m a Mac user, I love the Mac, I love just about every product Apple produces. But I’m frustrated. I want everybody else to be a Mac user. I’m prepared to put up with problems like those I’ve given as examples because of my love.
On the other hand, journalists who don’t share my love for the Mac don’t need to and frankly won’t put up with these problems – hence the bad press Apple appears to suffer constantly. In reality, much of it is not bad press, it’s merely misinformed press. The problem is not just one of making sure journalists have the information they need instantly. It is a problem of making sure they have product instantly, too. Without product, there is no incentive to look for the information in the first place, so a chicken-and-egg situation evolves. Until Apple meets the problem head-on and starts helping journalists instead of blaming them, bad press will not change.
Please Gil and company, change it.