Creating graphics for the Web is often less fun than pulling teeth and twice as painful. In this issue, guest writer Cynthia Baron takes a detailed look at BoxTop Software’s ImageVice and explores how to make images both look great and download quickly. Also this week, we report on rumors of the Newton’s demise, Emailer 2.0v3, the final 56K modem standard, and reader responses to Apple’s most recent upheavals.
Newton Rumored Dead and Gone — Information from a reliable source indicates most of the engineers working on the Newton are gone, other than those fitting a PowerPC chip into the eMate shell in place of the existing StrongARM processor. With the addition of a color screen and a stripped-down version of Mac OS reportedly under development, you end up with an inexpensive Mac OS-based network computer (combined with Rhapsody servers for a complete solution) that can potentially work off the network with decent battery life. The practical upshot is that the MessagePad 2100 will be the final Newton, and inventory is expected to run dry in the next few months. What makes this situation so confusing is that Apple only recently reabsorbed Newton, Inc. If all Apple wanted was the eMate plastics and some engineers, why not let the Newton group continue on its own or at least release the important Newton source code to the large and active Newton development community? [ACE]
ITU Delivers 56K Modem Accord — After months of watching manufacturers fight for dominance in the 56K modem arena, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has established a standard for 56K modem technologies. (See "Speed Jockeys on the Internet: Flying at 56K" in NetBITS-008 for a discussion of how 56K modems work.) Designated V.90, the standard incorporates aspects of the two principal 56K technologies (K56Flex and X2), and will hopefully reduce confusion surrounding 56K technology. Most major modem manufacturers will offer V.90 upgrades for current 56K modems; check out the 56K.com Web site for specific information.
Microsoft Expresses Explorer 4.0a — Microsoft has quietly released Internet Explorer 4.0a, which will also be available on the Microsoft Office 98 CD-ROM (currently in manufacturing). If you already use Explorer 4.0 there’s no need to rush off to download this release, because the only changes are for compatibility with Office 98 and new installers which include Outlook Express 4.0c. If you plan to use Office 98, you’ll probably find it more efficient to install Explorer 4.0a from CD-ROM than to download anywhere from 4 MB (minimum 68K install) to 24 MB (full fat binary install) via the Internet. The 128-bit security patch for Internet Explorer 4.0 works with Explorer 4.0a.
Conversely, Outlook Express 4.0c is an important update correcting a serious problem whereby email addresses stored in the address book without an associated first or last name would be cc’d on any email message. If you use Outlook Express, it’s probably faster to download version 4.0c (3.3 MB) separately, rather than as part of a larger package containing Explorer 4.0a. [GD]
Netscape Increments Browsers — Netscape Communications has released version 4.04.1 of both Netscape Communicator and the stand-alone version of Netscape Navigator, both of which are now available for free (see "Free Netscape" in TidBITS-414). The release eliminates a possible crash when loading preferences, does a better job of retaining MIME handlers between sessions, fixes a problem with Communicator’s spelling checker truncating messages, and includes other cosmetic improvements and bug fixes. Versions with strong (128-bit) encryption are available to users in the U.S. and Canada. [GD]
Now that Apple has refocussed its Claris subsidiary on FileMaker and Home Page (see "Claris to Restructure as FileMaker, Inc." in TidBITS-415), the fates of other Claris products are in Apple’s unpredictable hands. Nonetheless, last week Apple released the Emailer 2.0v3 updater (a 3.6 MB download) which introduces new features and makes Emailer a more compelling email application.
Foremost among Emailer’s new features is the ability to redirect messages (forwarding a message while keeping the original From address intact). When you redirect a message to someone, that person can reply to the original sender without having to copy and paste email addresses. Since the TidBITS staff receives quite a bit of email, redirecting messages is invaluable to me; as a longtime Emailer user, I had considered switching to Eudora just for this feature.
Another welcome improvement is a rewrite of the Address Book, which now dynamically tracks addresses included in groups, and can hide entries from Emailer’s auto-completion feature when typing recipient names. Emailer 2.0v3 also adds Contextual Menu support under Mac OS 8, and folders can now be reorganized by dragging (rather than copying a folder’s files to a new folder, then deleting the original).
Emailer 2.0 users should also update to 2.0v3 to take advantage of a few bug fixes (for instance, an account’s password can no longer be accessed by dragging it to the desktop and opening the resultant text clipping). Emailer 2.0v3 doesn’t support HTML-formatted email, which (though arguably a blessing) might be a shortcoming for people trying to use Emailer in an environment where HTML email is common.
Emailer may face rough handling by Apple, who will be under pressure not to compete with third-party products – many of which are free. It would be a shame for Apple to view Emailer as "just another email program" since it is a mature product with unique capabilities (such as accessing AOL and CompuServe mailboxes and running scripts as automatic message actions) and strong features for managing multiple email accounts.
Many TidBITS readers responded to Adam’s article "Apple in 1998: Retreat or Focus?" that appeared last week in TidBITS-416 and covered some of Apple’s recent business decisions and restructuring actions. Although comments varied, most letters focussed on three things: Apple’s presence in retail stores, the price of a Macintosh, and Apple’s latest television ad campaign.
Scott Coats <[email protected]> offers some background on how Apple hired people to maintain Macs in at least some major retail stores:
Apple for years subcontracted responsibility for maintaining the Performa line (Sears, CompUSA, etc.) to AAPRs (Apple Authorized Product Reps) who were hired and trained by ADIA, a temp agency. Hiring was done over the phone by asking such minimal questions as "How do you check to see how much RAM a Mac has?" The training consisted of a three-ring binder of outdated sales materials and a subscription to the Apple MailBox program. With absolutely no incentive to keep up to date, there was little reason to believe the field reps were doing so. As a participant in the program, I can assure you the training received and level of supervision were dismal at best. AAPRs were paid a flat $15 per stop, regardless of the time spent at the store. For Apple to farm out the representation of their product was negligent and no doubt contributed to the hard feelings between retailers and Apple.
Price, Price, Price — Though Apple has been taking steps to reduce the cost of Macintosh models (I recently helped an acquaintence on a tight budget get a respectable PowerPC-based system with a monitor and color printer for about $1,200), the price of a new Mac still makes Apple uncompetitive in the eyes of some TidBITS readers. Mark Kessler <[email protected]> writes:
Go to your local dealer or the online Apple Store and see what $1,800 will buy. Look at power, storage capacity, monitor size, software bundle, modem, warranty, printer, and anything else they offer. Then go to your local Best Buy and see what $1,800 will buy. Compare point by point.
Now pretend you’re not a computer professional: you just want a machine that does your word processing and spreadsheets, plays games, and surfs the Internet. Best Buy offers dozens of PCs at all price points with all sorts of configurations, plus there are four or five aisles of accessories and another six or eight aisles of software. Say an earnest young salesperson steers you toward a Macintosh (this is hypothetical, so bear with me): you’re intrigued until you see the price, and that’s only for the CPU! When you add an Apple monitor and an Apple printer, a new Macintosh is a price gouge. With the PC you can select from a variety of products from a variety of vendors. With a Macintosh, you essentially get Apple or you get nothing. If you’re willing to pay for all that, good luck to you. I will never spend another penny on Apple merchandise. It’s literally not worth it.
Similarly, David Howe <[email protected]> notes price is also a consideration for Mac users internationally:
In my part of the world, owning a Mac is considered quaint. Canberra is Australia’s capital and houses the head office for every government department. Without exception all of these departments (some of whom spend a lot of money on information technology) are PC-based. The daily reality here is that the cheapest Intel-based machine costs about half as much as the cheapest new Mac, and though the Intel boxes are clunky, ugly machines, they can be made to work.
Although I still see Macs predominate in the print and advertising worlds, Windows NT is making its mark there too. My own profession – TV production – could have been an Apple domain, but pricing is a factor and the variety of non-Mac systems available is undermining Apple’s advantages. Frankly, I believe Apple is guilty of being too greedy.
Snail Mail — Apple’s advertisements comparing Pentium II systems to Power Mac G3s continue to produce positive responses, with some readers even indicating the ads are generating interest from Windows users. Rick Holzgrafe <[email protected]> wrote about possible tactics behind Apple’s new ad campaign:
In discussing Apple’s new "snail" ad, Adam wondered whether speed is what the average consumer really wants. It probably isn’t, but that’s not the point. John Sculley (remember him?) raised Pepsi from obscurity to equal standing with Coca-Cola by means of "taste test" ads. The real purpose of those ads was not to convince America that Pepsi was better than Coke; it was to establish Pepsi and Coke as peers – and it worked. The "snail" ad probably has the same hidden agenda. The main purpose is to get people to think of both Intel-based machines and Macs when they think "PC," and break the stranglehold on mindshare the Windows world currently enjoys. The message "Macs are better" is secondary; the message "Macs are okay" is primary. I expect more ads along these lines, each pointing out one simple, clear reason why Macs are better but mainly driving home the point that you don’t have to buy a Windows machine; there’s a choice.
I’m a compression junkie. Late at night, when all good graphics geeks are fast asleep, I’m still looking to score one last kilo. Kilobyte that is, so my animation will download two seconds faster. While I’m flirting with full disclosure, I also admit addiction to Equilibrium’s DeBabelizer, the ultimate image manipulator’s toolbox. Alas, no software package is perfect. DeBabelizer requires the user to think long and hard – something that is progressively more difficult to do when you’re under a deadline and half asleep. Like normal people, I long for a program that will make intelligent choices for me.
BoxTop Software first came to my attention when I was working on the book Web Animation for Dummies. They’re developing a portfolio of utilities that would make Cecil B. DeMille cast them as David to Equilibrium’s Goliath. Instead of trying to take DeBabelizer head-on, they search for chinks in the armor, deconstructing the many individual things DeBabelizer does and transforming each into an inexpensive stand-alone utility. These tools aren’t just DeBabelizer knock-offs: each one approaches its task in a new and distinctly different way.
ImageVice isn’t an application – it’s a filter plug-in for applications supporting the Photoshop 3.0 filter plug-in API. It continues BoxTop’s tradition by charting a new way to minimize an image’s color palette. Contrary to what the name implies, however, ImageVice doesn’t compress images. It optimizes the images so they compress better when saved as GIF, PICT, BMP, or PNG formats via your image editing program.
Image Compression Compressed — To understand how this magic takes place, you have to tolerate a little background on image compression. If it’s done well, image compression is like substituting milk for heavy cream in a recipe. Most people will never notice the difference, and the picture will painlessly lose unwanted fat. [For a more detailed explanation of graphic file formats on the Web, see "A Closer View of Web Graphics" in NetBITS-007. -Jeff]
The two most prevalent image compression formats for Web and multimedia use are JPEG (created by photographers – the Joint Photographic Experts Group – for continuous tone images) and GIF (Graphic Interchange Format, created by CompuServe and most effective for flat color art).
JPEG is "lossy," which means it reads and then permanently forgets some image information it determines we mortal viewers will never miss. Less information means smaller files but lower quality. JPEG shrinks photos so effectively that, even at its lowest quality settings, the result is usually acceptable. So why not compress all our photos this way? Because JPEG has two important drawbacks.
First, there is no way to assign transparency to a JPEG image. So forget about irregular shapes, cool buttons, and most animations. Second, because JPEG was developed for continuous tone images, it’s optimized for 24-bit color. You can’t override JPEG’s decisions about what visual information is important (well, you can, but only through sneaky and devious ways beyond the limits of this article!). Trying to influence the compression algorithm by lowering the number of colors in your image won’t work, because the JPEG algorithm will stubbornly put them back, and not even in the right RGB combination or in the right places. That’s why flat color images look terrible as JPEGs: the algorithm adds noise into flat areas and fuzzes crisp edges.
This brings us to GIFs, which depend on LZW (Lempel-Ziv Welch) compression. If compression schemes were professions, LZW would be a demographer, surveying an image in horizontal bands looking for information to put into neat digital boxes. If it finds a band of solid color or a pattern, it labels it and re-uses the label to describe identical colors and patterns elsewhere. GIF images each contain a custom palette; the fewer the colors in this palette, the smaller the image files end up, causing them to load quicker.
Like JPEG, GIF has its dark side. Its image palette can store only 256 colors. The more times a color appears, the more likely it will find a place in the palette. If the image is primarily made up of large areas of solid colors with clear definitions, this process will create remarkably small images that are often indistinguishable from their originals.
Unfortunately, GIF color polling bites on continuous tone images with no patterns and thousands of colors that are almost, but not quite, the same. Programs that create GIF files will try to mask this by dithering, a technique that attempts to fool the viewer into seeing a color that doesn’t exist by creating a tiny pixel pattern of two or more palette colors. Photographs converted to GIF format look textured and grainy at best, noisy and splotchy at worst.
Obviously, it’s in your own best interest to save photos as JPEG, not GIF, but we do not live in a perfect world. Users who rely on older Web browsers [We know several. -Jeff] can’t even display JPEG files, no matter what the quality. If you must save a photo as a GIF image, how can you keep it from looking like something you wouldn’t want to step in?
Enter ImageVice — Dithering can be a quick fix for mismatched color palettes, but overall the results aren’t stellar – and some people (and clients) demand stellar work. ImageVice helps produce compressed images without dithering them. Dithering can be unattractive and a real file fattener. ImageVice analyzes changes in color and value, replacing separate pixels with horizontal bands of color and tone. This allows files to reach new benchmarks of shrinkage – up to 70 percent smaller in some cases.
Sounds great, but I was born suspicious. Benchmarks can be deceiving, and don’t add up to much if the image quality suffers for the sake of compression.
Working from this assumption, I concentrated on what I think really matters: the relationship between small and good. Because taste is an individual thing, when I tested ImageVice I created a series of images (see the URL below), which are numerically keyed in brackets in this review. To enhance your reading pleasure, open a browser window and follow along with the visuals.
Putting the Squeeze on Images — I began by scanning a photo with a background of rock formations and a brightly painted metal sculpture containing a linear color blend in the foreground. This is a nasty combination, and I admit to pangs of guilt when I chose it. I set myself the goal of bringing it down to a maximum of 32 colors (5-bit color), while retaining acceptable image quality. Most importantly, the file, which measured 300 by 215 pixels and took up 189K, had to end up smaller than 30K for Web site use.
I saved a high-quality JPEG of the image  to use as a visual reality check. Then I created a baseline image  with Photoshop’s own tools to make a dithered 5-bit GIF, using an adaptive palette (a palette whose colors are chosen from those available in the image). The file was a chunky 51K, and ugly as sin.
With my worst case version in hand, it was time to apply ImageVice. Using this plug-in at its default settings is a complete no-brainer. You set your target number of colors and click OK. Good thing, because tweaking before you’ve tried a first pass is not really possible. The preview is so small that it’s one step above pointless; adding zoom settings to the preview image in next version of ImageVice would be a great improvement.
I ran the default settings at three color levels: 128, 64, and 32 colors. I then made the files into GIFs with BoxTop’s PhotoGIF Filter in Photoshop. It includes the invaluable feature of displaying the data fork size (the portion of the file that contains the image, not the resource file information used by the Mac), then saving the file without this additional fat.
The 128-color version looked almost as good as the original. The 64-color version was only slightly larger than the Photoshop 32-color one, and of course looked much better. Only at the 32-color level, when the file had shrunk to only 29.3K , did I decide I should begin tweaking ImageVice’s default settings.
I headed first for ImageVice’s Convergence sliders, which control how much averaging takes place from pixel to pixel. Using the lowest Convergence settings and saved with PhotoGIF, the file was 32K and is much better looking than the Photoshop default GIF. At the highest Convergence settings, the test image develops horizontal racing stripes. These are barely noticeable in areas where the image is textured and irregular, but they’re distracting in the foreground with the color blend. On the other hand, the result is a mere 28K in size. Images with multi-colored or rough-textured subject matter can tolerate high Convergence settings, but I decided that the default settings worked best in this case. 
ImageVice has several options besides Convergence. Smoothing works with Convergence to determine how similar adjacent colors are merged. A high Smoothing setting makes for tiny files, since it’s essentially posterizing the image (merging similar colors and reducing the color palette) in horizontal scan lines. Although this worked nicely for the background, it caused the colors in the shiny metal sculpture to band (develop hard-edged color breaks). By slightly decreasing the default Smoothing settings, I was able to reduce the color break-up.
It’s hard to preserve detail equally throughout. Unless your image is very dark or light, or contains a critical object at one of those two ends, it’s better to preserve color details in the midtones. ImageVice’s default settings are set with this in mind. However, the two Clipping sliders give you some control over where color variation is lost or conserved. One Clipping slider controls the threshhold for omitting darker colors (leaving more palette space for mid-range values); the other slider does the same thing by reducing the number of lighter colors.
In my image, I needed much more variation in the light colors than the default settings provided, so I moved the Clipping slider controlling light values down to 8 from the default 15. I also edged the dark value Clipping slider down to 7 from 16, because I discovered the default settings merged a critical foreground detail – the metal sculpture’s "hair" – into one black glob. I was able to add back in some of the light aqua shades that had disappeared. Unfortunately, nothing I tried returned detail to the dark areas, because hair hangs vertically, not horizontally. All the subtle variation that tells you that strands of hair are not one solid object are edited out by the horizontal smoothing process.  I found this to be one of the few drawbacks in BoxTop’s strategy, and the only place in which I missed dithering.
There are often major economies of scale in reducing an image’s colors by one or two, even if you can’t decrease the image’s bit depth. ImageVice enables you to set exactly how many colors your palette will hold; however, it decides which colors to delete for you. This is not necessarily good. By the time you get down to 32 colors, every additional color deleted needs to be chosen carefully, according to the unique needs of the image. If you decide to try shaving a few colors off, at least do the deletion in a utility like PhotoGIF, where you can see the results as you work and can include dithering as part of your solution.
BoxTop Software is up-front about ImageVice’s incompatibility with fixed palettes. ImageVice is geared to create adaptive palettes, which are optimized to the individual image. However, the 216-color Web palette is fixed, so I had to know what the files would look like to the average color-deprived Windows user. [The 216-color Web palette contains colors reasonably guaranteed not to be substituted or dithered when viewed via Web browsers on various operating systems. The NetBITS article noted earlier has more information. -Geoff] I took three adaptive color versions – the Photoshop GIF, the optimized ImageVice file, and an optimized DeBabelizer version – and applied the Web-safe palette to them. The word uglification applies here. In all cases, colors shifted to accommodate the highly saturated Web palette. The dark areas in the ImageVice version, already a problem, posterized as black horizontal lines. This is worse than the standard maiming dithered images receive. 
Fortunately, several programs enable you to create "optical" colors (essentially boutique dithering) to visually match non-Web-safe colors from an original image. ImageVice images lend themselves to this strategy better than most adaptive images, because ImageVice creates large areas of color which are easy to replace with a dithered pattern.
Color Obsession — For any place you can use adaptive palette images, ImageVice is now the way to go. It offers the average user the first predictable, inexpensive, and simple way to balance image quality with image compression. But be cautious. If you get into image compression and palette reduction only because you need to create images for a Web site, there’s still no magic bullet. Either develop your images with the Web-safe palette in mind (and then use ImageVice, because it will give you the best results in practically no time), warn your audience to come appropriately prepared, or accept those late nights spent obsessing over every colored pixel.
ImageVice is $49.95 and available at BoxTop Software’s Web site, along with a 275K fat binary demo version.
[Cynthia Baron is the author of Creating a Digital Portfolio, and co-author of Web Animation for Dummies. She has contributed to a wide range of publications, from Computer Graphics World to Critique Magazine. She teaches design courses and is Technical Director for the Graphic Design program at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.]