Need help organizing ideas? Check out Matt Neuburg’s review of Inspiration 5.0, a diagramming and outlining tool. Also in this final issue of 1997, Adam examines the numbers behind the Apple Store to see how it contributes to Apple’s bottom line, plus we bring news of a potential 56K modem standard, an update to last week’s digital camera article, and pointers to locating the MacPicasso video card noted in our holiday gifts issue. See you in 1998!
Last Issue for 1997 — We’re taking the next two weeks off for the holidays, so look for the next issue of TidBITS on 05-Jan-98. Since we will be spending time with family and friends, none of us will be checking email regularly. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your kind words and support in 1997, and wish you the best for 1998. This last year was a hard one for Macintosh users: here’s hoping that next year brings renewed cause for optimism and enjoyment of what we do with our Macs. [ACE]
Meet the TidBITS Editors — In my "Eudora Tips & Tricks" article in TidBITS-405, I promised to be at the Peachpit Press booth at Macworld Expo in San Francisco next month. The schedule has been set up, and I’ll be signing copies of my Eudora Visual QuickStart Guide on Thursday, 08-Jan-98 from 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM, so stop by and say hello! Tonya and Jeff Carlson will probably be around as well. [ACE]
Plug & Play Web Sites in NetBITS — If you missed the last two NetBITS issues, check them out for a two-part article by Peter Kent on how to add snazzy features like chat rooms, shopping carts, and CGIs to your Web site without a stitch of programming. Other topics in these issues include an overview of instant messaging utilities and phone numbers you can call to test a 56K modem, plus FAQtoids entries explain who pays for the Internet, the difference between the Internet and the Web, and the anatomy of Web search engines. To receive NetBITS automatically each week, send email to <[email protected]>. [ACE]
Rare MacPicasso Unearthed — After reading last week’s Holiday Gifts issue (TidBITS-409), several readers inquired about contact information for purchasing a MacPicasso 516 video card. We hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to locate a U.S. source for the card. Anne-Marie Concepcion <[email protected]> did the legwork to identify Software Hut as the U.S. distributor. She wrote, "Software Hut says the MacPicasso 516 has been discontinued, and they have none in stock. Software Hut will offer an updated version of the low-end board, the MacPicasso 523, for the same $119.95 price." Software Hut also told Anne-Marie the 523 wouldn’t be available until January, so she purchased an inexpensive card from MacConnection instead.
The plot thickened when I called Software Hut to confirm Anne-Marie’s information. The representative stated the 523 should be available on Thursday of this week, but could not confirm the pricing before this issue went to press. Also, Kai Niggemann <[email protected]>, who lives in Germany and originated the MacPicasso suggestion, said the Picasso 516 is "still being advertised in Germany." If you don’t live in the U.S. or Germany, you might have luck with either company, or you could just purchase a different video card. [TJE]
56K Standards Wars Waning? Last week, the companies embroiled in the war for 56 Kbps modem standards reached a tentative agreement on a 56K technology that may become the official standard. This agreement comes faster than we’d expected – in a recent NetBITS article, "Speed Jockeys on the Internet: Flying at 56K," we reported a standard wasn’t likely to show up until at least September 1998. However, it now appears the lack of an accepted technology has been hurting major combatants such as 3Com/USRobotics and Lucent Technologies/Rockwell Communications. Early reports suggest the final 56K technology will combine elements of current K56flex and X2 designs. It looks as though the ITU will use this agreement to draft a "determined" (preliminary) standard during its January meeting, which is when modems using the technology are likely to begin appearing. Chances are also good the ITU will ratify the final standard at its September 1998 meeting. [JLC]
Frontier 5.0 Alphas for Mac and Windows — UserLand Software has released the first public alphas of Frontier 5.0 for the Mac and, for the first time ever, Windows. Frontier is a free integrated outlining tool/scripting language/object-oriented database that has gathered a loyal following on the Mac for its capability to tie applications together via powerful scripting. Recent releases have focused on helping webmasters maintain complex and frequently updated Web sites (see "Spinning the Web Part 5: New Frontiers" in TidBITS-389). If you use Frontier to maintain a Web site, note that significant changes were made to Frontier’s Web site framework. Bear in mind that alpha releases aren’t guaranteed to be stable and may not be feature complete. [ACE]
COPSTalk 2.5 Connects Win95 and AppleShare IP — Apple’s AppleShare IP 5 and ShareWay IP from Open Door Networks enable Mac users to access AppleShare volumes over the Internet. Until now, Windows 95 users couldn’t access those AppleShare volumes over the Internet; with the release of the $159 COPSTalk 2.5 from COPS Inc., they can. COPSTalk is currently bundled with the AppleShare IP 5 Software Bundle CD, and upgrade discounts are available. You can also download a 10-day evaluation version. [ACE]
AutoShare 2.0 Released — Mikael Hansen has released AutoShare 2.0, the latest version of his free mailing list manager and email auto-responder. AutoShare is small, speedy, fully scriptable, and compatible with Eudora Internet Mail Server and Stalker Internet Mail Server. New to version 2.0 are completely revamped documentation, support for multiple preference sets for handling multiple domains, a filter process extender, and user interface refinements. [ACE]
Pixel Perfect — Following Arthur H. Bleich’s <[email protected]> articles about choosing a digital camera (see TidBITS-407 and TidBITS-408), several sharp-eyed readers called attention to the fact camera resolution specifications were stated in terms of pixels per inch (ppi), when in fact they should be stated just in pixels. A digital camera captures its image on a surface consisting of light-sensitive pixels, but that surface isn’t restricted to a certain measurement. When the resulting image shows onscreen, its resolution is then correctly described in pixels per inch, such as 640 by 480 ppi.
Also, Andrew Nielsen <[email protected]> wrote from Australia to say that outside the U.S., the Olympus series 200, 300, 500, and 600 cameras are designated 400, 800, 1,000, and 1,400 respectively. Also, we’ve learned that Arthur will be writing a twice-monthly column for ZoneZero beginning in January. [JLC]
Apple’s much-ballyhooed online Apple Store posted impressive-sounding results in its first month of operation. However, although there’s no question that the Apple Store has been an online success, how much of a difference can it make in Apple’s overall financial situation?
The day after the Apple Store opened, Apple claimed it did $500,000 of business in 12 hours, and last week Apple issued a press release trumpeting that the Apple Store did $12 million of business in its first month of operation. Those numbers sound impressive, but a big number doesn’t necessarily equal an impressive financial return. First though, let me say I’m not trying to denigrate what Apple has achieved with the Apple Store, just pointing out that the reported numbers paint a rosier picture than is perhaps warranted. That said, let’s look at those numbers.
Dollars Per Year? If the Apple Store had continued at its initial $500,000 per 12 hours rate, that would be $1 million per day, or $30 million in the first month. Even if you halve that amount, assuming that most people would order during a 12-hour window roughly corresponding to the business day in the U.S. (since the Apple Store doesn’t yet take international orders), you’re still talking $15 million, or $3 million more than Apple reported for that first month. (There was also some thought that the free camera promotion Apple ran in the Apple Store coincided neatly with the final week of the Apple Store’s first month, potentially bumping up the numbers.)
From these figures, it might seem as though the Apple Store hit the "splash" effect on the Internet: new resources get the most attention immediately after they appear, and attracting that much attention again is harder to do. For instance, a major new Web site will sometimes be overwhelmed immediately upon being announced, and after that, hits drop to a baseline level.
Let’s hope that hasn’t happened to the Apple Store. At $12 million per month, the Apple Store would pull in about $144 million per year; although that’s certainly not small change, it also wouldn’t even dent some of Apple’s more negative quarters. Of course, that $144 million is gross sales, not profit, and although Apple’s margin on direct sales is unknown, it’s unlikely to be more than 35 percent (gross margin has been hovering around 20 percent, and distributors and dealers may add another 15 percent before users see a price). If those figures are reasonably accurate, the Apple Store would contribute about $50 million a year to Apple’s bottom line. Or would it?
The Apple Store receives orders that – in many cases – would otherwise be handled by other Macintosh resellers. If we assume Apple makes 15 percent more on a Mac sold through the Apple Store than one sold through another channel, 85 percent of that $50 million would have come in anyway, leaving the true yearly advantage of the Apple Store at about $7.5 million (assuming the Apple Store sustains $12 million per month in business).
Is it worth it? Overall, I’d say yes, but Apple’s playing a balancing act, because unlike direct sales poster child Dell Computer, Apple has always relied on resellers and will continue to do so, because local resellers enable customers to try a Mac before buying. Dell doesn’t suffer from this problem, because you can try any PC at a store and assume that it will work much the same as a Dell you buy direct.
For the reseller view of the Apple Store, I spoke with Michael Koidahl, president of Westwind Computing, my favorite dealer in the Seattle area. He felt that the Apple Store is currently harming dealers because dealers aren’t allowed to sell built-to-order Macs. Michael said Apple has promised dealers build-to-order capabilities in the first quarter of 1998. Setting up such a system undoubtedly takes time (since dealers must stock the necessary parts) but Michael suggested Apple could leverage the existing repair infrastructure to enable dealers to order and stock parts, then use them either for building custom Macs or for repair jobs (with the added benefit of speeding up repair service that would otherwise have to wait for parts to arrive from Apple).
Number of Customers & Macs? It’s worth noting another confusion that could result from looking purely at the sales figures for the Apple Store. For instance, Apple reported that the Apple Store had $500,000 in orders in its first 12 hours. If you assume an average order of $2,500, that only equates to about 200 customers. That’s not too bad for 12 hours, but it’s a bit less impressive when you consider the Apple Store took 4.4 million hits (at perhaps 20 to 50 hits per person?) in those 12 hours. In essence, many people browsed the site, but relatively few bought products.
If you do the math for the month in which the Apple Store brought in $12 million, using the same $2,500 average order, you end up with about 4,800 customers, or 160 per day, down somewhat from that initial rush in the first 12 hours. Again, 160 customers per day is nothing to sneeze at, but if you assume each is buying a single Mac (necessary, given our $2,500 average order assumption), you end up with 58,400 Macs sold online per year. When you consider the fact that, in its heyday, Apple sold more than a million Macs per quarter (and even now Apple sells about 650,000 Macs per quarter), 58,400 machine sales in a year doesn’t seem all that high.
Third Largest? Apple’s press release also claimed that the Apple Store is the third largest electronic commerce site on the Internet. No details were given to back up this claim and Apple’s PR department didn’t respond to my queries, but ironically, some numbers came out of Dell the same day as the Apple press release. In a keynote at Internet World, Dell CEO Michael Dell said that Dell sells more than $3 million per day via its Web site with several days during this holiday season reaching $6 million. That’s about $1 billion in yearly sales. Dell expects half of its business to come from online sales by the year 2000.
In short, then, clearly the Apple Store is an unqualified online success, but at the same time, it won’t do much for Apple’s bottom line at the current sales rates. It’s also clear people are patronizing the Apple Store in large part because they can order custom Mac configurations; Apple’s inability to offer custom configurations has long been a source of frustration. The Apple Store faces challenges in the upcoming year as dealers are given the right to sell built-to-order Macs, but on the positive side, opening the Apple Store up to international sales may cause a significant upturn in sales from parts of the world where Apple dealers are few and far between. Ideally, the Apple Store will end up making real contributions to Apple’s financial results without cannibalizing sales from those dealers that Apple relies on for sales, support, and repairs.
Being hopelessly addicted to the use of powerful, interesting structures to store and manipulate text, I’ve had a gloomy time of it lately, watching support dwindle for some of my favorite applications. To be sure, a computer program does not, for the most part, grind to a rusty halt or cease to exist because its manufacturer ceases to sell or upgrade it, but I find it sad that users can no longer obtain such fascinating, powerful programs as In Control (TidBITS-191), Info Depot, and MORE (TidBITS-198).
That’s why I found it heartening to hear, in September, that Inspiration Software, Inc., had upgraded to version 5.0 its flagship product, the diagrammer and outliner from which the company takes its name: Inspiration. My last look at the program was in 1993 (TidBITS-180), and it’s great to see Inspiration return with a vengeance after all these years. The company has positioned Inspiration for success by producing it for Windows as well as Macintosh, and by targeting both K-12 and higher education markets with special editions.
Draw Me a Picture — You can work with an Inspiration document either as an outline or as a diagram. Although diagrams are not usually my cup of tea, Inspiration’s diagramming facilities are quick, easy, and fun, while at the same time powerful and flexible enough to satisfy most imaginable needs; so it isn’t hard to see why the company’s Web site stresses this aspect of the program.
An Inspiration diagram consists of "ideas" connected by "links" – an idea is a piece of text, usually within or next to a graphic; a link is a line, perhaps with an arrow, perhaps with a text label. Imagine, for instance, a flowchart, or an organization chart, or a process flow diagram – these are the sorts of things you might diagram with Inspiration.
Inspiration provides lots of power to customize the diagram. You can alter the default features of new ideas or those of selected ideas. You can position and resize an idea, change its fill color, line color, or text color, its line and fill pattern, its line thickness, and the character styling of any part of its text. You can do the same for links (of course they have no fill), plus alter the arrow at either end, reposition the text label, set the precise point at which the link leaves or arrives at an idea graphic, and give it various shapes, including custom zigzags and curves.
Inspiration comes with a large library of graphics, or you can supply your own; in fact, you can just paste a picture onto an idea to make it that idea’s graphic, though it won’t have the same "intelligent" features as certain supplied graphics, such as a demarcated interior text region. Also, you can add graphic elements to the diagram background by drawing them with tools provided – though, curiously, you can’t import a background graphic.
Thoughtful features make it easy to modify a diagram. You can zoom your view of the diagram in or out. When you insert or delete ideas within an existing link, the link rearranges itself intelligently. You can change which idea is the main idea. You can align ideas, and neaten them en masse into various schematic structures.
Subordination and Insubordination — The diagram is also a hierarchy. There is a main idea (to which all others are subordinate), and links have directionality, so that if a link leads from idea A to idea B, idea B is a sub-idea of idea A. This hierarchy is what ties together the diagram view of an Inspiration documentand its outline view, which is why a diagram can also be viewed as an outline.
Certain clever features of diagram manipulation take advantage of this hierarchy. A particular idea’s sub-ideas (or all its sub-ideas deeper than a given level) can be hidden; or, everything except a particular idea and its sub-ideas can be hidden.
However, there’s a problem: you can do things with a diagram that you couldn’t possibly do with a simple outline-type hierarchical structure. For instance, in a diagram, you can link A to C and also link B to C and also link B to A and also link C to B – whatever helps to express the notions and relationships you’re trying to convey. But such multiple and reverse relationships can’t appear in an outline.
I find Inspiration’s solution to this paradox a bit confusing. There is always a basic, underlying outline hierarchy, which you see when you switch to outline view. Unfortunately, it might not be what you expect (I think it depends somehow on the order in which ideas were originally created, but I honestly can’t determine the algorithm). Also, ideas need not be linked to the main diagram at all; such "loose" ideas appear in the outline as subtopics of a special "Miscellaneous Thoughts" topic. Finally, if a diagram becomes so complex that the outline view becomes irrelevant, you can always just give up on the latter altogether: Inspiration supplies a special "text view" which lets you read and edit idea texts without a hierarchy.
Inside Outline — The outliner, which enables you to view and manipulate documents in outline view, is full-featured, and thus is greatly improved from the version 4.0 outliner, which was on the whole so crude and lacking in basic navigational shortcuts as to be downright impractical for serious use. In 4.0, there was no reason why one would ever make Inspiration one’s outliner of choice; in 5.0, there are very few reasons not to do so. Inspiration now has all the keyboard shortcuts and facilities you expect for navigation and reorganization of an outline, such as navigating to the parent topic, moving a line, demoting and promoting of subtopics, hiding all but a particular topic and its subtopics, and so forth. (Oddly, there is a command for splitting a topic into two, but none for joining two topics into one.)
There are facilities for setting the default text styling of various levels, which I would describe as good but not great (particularly in comparison to MORE). You can alter and customize the outline prefix that precedes each topic. A topic can have an attached note, which can even contain a graphic, and may be displayed or hidden (notes can be displayed in diagram view also), and a topic can include carriage returns (remarkable for an outliner). You can consolidate multiple non-contiguous topics under a single topic. A "summation" feature inserts a number into a topic which is the total of all numbers in its subtopics having a certain format; I have found a similar feature in MORE useful for maintaining categorized inventories.
Inspiration 5.0 retains an intriguing organizational feature with which I was much impressed in 4.0: each outline topic (or, in diagram view, each idea) can have a second, almost hypertextual dimension of hierarchy by means of an attached "child" window, which can be made to open at any time. These windows look like separate Inspiration documents, though in fact they are part of the same document. Of course, any topic in a "child" outline can have a "child" of its own. An Inspiration document thus can contain a swarm of sub-documents, each of which is summoned through a particular topic (or idea) of the main document or of a sub-document. That’s what I call a powerful, interesting structure to store and manipulate text!
Balance of Trade — Inspiration’s export and import features are remarkably good. A diagram can be exported as a PICT or a GIF. As for outlines, Inspiration opens MORE outlines directly (flawlessly, as far as I can tell). It also opens text files, interpreting tabs as topic levels and untabbed lines as notes. And it opens Microsoft Word files saved in RTF (Rich Text Format), using Word’s built-in Heading styles as indications of topic level and maintaining character styling pretty well. An outline can be exported in these formats and a number of others. (Alas, Inspiration still lacks the ability to export just the notes.)
It is de rigueur these days to tout one’s product as Internet-savvy, and Inspiration is no exception: outlines can be exported as HTML. I like this feature, since an outliner can be a convenient milieu for constructing and maintaining certain kinds of Web pages. Inspiration provides four choices: a single Web page that uses lists to imitate the look of the original outline; a single Web page where the outline without notes appears before the outline with notes (the former functioning as a live-link index to the latter); two Web pages (one is an index to the other); and multiple Web pages, one for each Level One topic, tied together by an index page linking to the others.
Unfortunately, the implementation lacks options for formatting the resulting HTML pages – all topics end up in boldface, and all notes end up as plain text (though you can include your own manual HTML if you like). Also, international characters are incorrectly handled.
Ingenuities, Oddities, Uglifications, and Conclusions — The overall interface of Inspiration 5.0 is admirable, a well-conceived and notable improvement from the clunky, confusing 4.0 interface. Various commands and modes make it easy to "brainstorm" or construct a diagram or outline rapidly, without using the mouse. Frequently used commands are available through modifier-clicks and double-clicks, and through well-implemented palettes (they are part of the window, and can be hidden); yet you can still do everything with just menu items and a few navigational keyboard shortcuts.
On the other hand, a few rough edges remain. Here are some Inspiration weaknesses that I have not mentioned already:
In my review of 4.0 I complained that the interface for manipulating text was faulty, and although most of my criticisms no longer apply, some surprises remain. For instance, given the phrase "hello there", if you double-click just after the "o", Inspiration selects the word "there".
If you switch from diagram view to outline view and then back to diagram view, the diagram has scrolled to a different position from where you left it, which is confusing.
If text in a diagram is truncated or too small to read, positioning the cursor over it shows the text legibly in a "status bar" at the bottom of the window, which is good; but, if the text is too long for the status bar it is truncated again, which is silly. (The status bar should expand to show the whole text).
The Undo command doesn’t undo a number of actions.
Inspiration is not scriptable. Imagine the power, if only it were!
On the whole, however, my impression of Inspiration 5.0 is highly positive. Inspiration 5.0 is a quantum leap up from the weak 4.0 I reviewed four years ago; it is now, at last, a serious and valuable program for diagramming or outlining, and deserves consideration on both counts.
Inspiration 5.0 is priced at about $100, and a free demo is available online.