Apple rocks on this week, with announcements of network computers, new low-priced desktop Macs, and changes to QuickTime’s pricing structure. Also this week, TidBITS issues a security challenge, Peter N Lewis of Stairways Software ships a hot new utility, and BoxTop Software finally makes it possible to export HTML from Adobe Photoshop. We round out the issue with a look at VST’s EB-451 for PowerBooks with expansion bays.
ActiMates Barney Acting Out — In 1997, Microsoft’s hardware group introduced the ActiMates Interactive Barney, a plush, interactive version of everyone’s favorite purple dinosaur. ActiMates move, play games, sing songs, and – using optional wireless transmitters for VCRs or PCs with MIDI/game ports and Windows 95 – interact with compatible software, VHS video tapes, broadcast television programs, and even Web sites. However, children’s advocacy groups are now warning parents about software programs dubbed “Barney Trojan Horses” appearing on the Internet. These programs, usually labelled as “Barney shareware,” typically simulate a system problem when they run and appear to exit, but actually remain in memory and continuously send commands via the wireless PC transmitter. According to Chris Hedges of the Barney Advice and Research Foundation, the Barney character will misbehave when it comes into range of the transmitter and speak phrases such as “Let’s go draw on the walls,” “I hate sharing,” “It’s fun to throw vegetables,” or “We can go pee-pee right here!” Hedges notes these programs deliberately don’t attack the Arthur and D.W. ActiMates characters, but warns parents that Barney and the Internet are a volatile mix. [GD]
Investing in Office — Microsoft today announced a new promotion designed to win over more Mac users to Microsoft Office 98 for the Macintosh. Starting 01-Apr-98, Microsoft will place a single share of Microsoft stock, currently valued at about $90, in 100,000 boxes of Office 98 destined for individual purchase in the retail and academic channels. A Microsoft spokesperson explained the promotion saying, “Our extensive customer research showed that customers who owned Microsoft stock were 17 percent happier with their Microsoft products and in fact, 29 percent more likely to continue purchasing Microsoft products. Those are numbers that we, as a customer-driven company, can’t afford to ignore.” [ACE]
Robin Williams Writes Another One — When Macintosh users hear about Robin Williams, chances are good that they think of the author, not the comedian. Over the years, Robin has written many successful books about the Macintosh and design. I recently had a chance to preview her latest book, a follow-up to her long-standing The Macintosh Is Not a Typewriter. In the new book, titled The Macintosh Is Not a Toaster, Robin teams up with humor writer Dave Barry to examine the Mac’s utility as a toaster and concludes that although you can stick bread in a floppy drive, the toasting action is less than ideal. Testing with Twinkies, pop-tarts, and other foodstuffs yielded equally poor results, even when using CD-ROM
and cartridge drives. A chapter at the end of the lavishly illustrated book suggests other uses for Macintoshes, such as database work, desktop publishing, image rendering, and software development. The book costs $41.98 and should be available from Peachpit Press, your local bookstore, or your favorite Internet bookseller shortly. [TJE]
Much speculation has emerged about Apple’s forthcoming foray into the nascent network computer (NC) market. Although NCs from Sun, Network Computer, Inc., and even IBM haven’t exactly sold like hotcakes, Apple’s entry promises to be the result of different thinking. Based on the eMate plastics and featuring a lean version of the Mac OS codenamed Cantata, Apple’s NC should offer the best of the Macintosh along with the network savvy of the other Java-based network computers.
But that’s not news, or rather, it’s only rumor and won’t be news until it ships. What’s more interesting is the rumor we’ve heard about how Apple plans to market and sell these new NCs. Current NCs have suffered from two problems – they’re just too expensive in comparison to the sub-$1,000 PCs on the market now, and they’re not functional enough thanks to their reliance on Java, which isn’t sufficiently mature to have an entire platform based on it. Apple plans to solve the functionality problem by using the Mac OS, which has years of testing and experience under the hood. Apple has ideas on how to address the price issue as well.
Apple has never managed to compete on price with the PC vendors because Macs aren’t made in sufficient quantities to provide the necessary volume pricing discounts. But what if Apple found a way to make a reasonable profit while selling NCs at prices people couldn’t ignore?
The model is right in front of us: the classic cellular phone pricing scheme. How else can the average consumer own a several-hundred-dollar piece of high-tech electronic equipment for free, or at least a mere fraction of the price? Apple’s looking to copy that scheme with the network computers, because after all, a network computer must be hooked to a network, and that network would be Apple’s revenue source.
Apple apparently plans to offer two basic pricing models, one aimed at individuals and the other at organizations. Although there’s been little talk of NCs for individuals so far, the fact that these NCs are based on the Mac OS and will have local storage means that an individual could easily purchase an Apple NC (which, remember, is based on the ultra-light eMate case) as a portable computing device with most, if not all, of the functionality of the Macintosh. Pricing might be as low as $199, provided the user commits to a year-long contract for network access at maybe $60 per month, which would include both full Internet access and access to applications via the network. Multiple forms of connectivity will be available, but Apple expects that ADSL-based connections will be the most useful for the necessarily high bandwidth communications; Apple would combine that with a new technology that allows Macintosh applications to transfer the image of an already-running program to the network computer, which should significantly reduce bandwidth demands.
I’ve also heard some talk of a deal with Metricom – producers of the wireless Ricochet modems. This deal would provide Apple NC users with a wireless modem that attaches smoothly to the eMate case and works transparently when the user disconnects from the primary wired network. Cellular modem access would also be available, though with hefty roaming charges.
What about businesses and schools? They won’t want to pay for individual connections to a service associated with Apple, so for them Apple has worked out a pricing plan founded on the fact that these NCs would need a Rhapsody-based server to function on the network. That server would supply applications (with a requisite number of licenses being purchased from the appropriate vendors, of course). The organization would have to purchase a sufficient number of licenses for the number of users the server must support, but in return, the NCs would be truly cheap, or even free.
Apple’s plan is a bold move. No other computer manufacturer has had the guts – or perhaps the desperation – to try such a tactic, but I think Apple realizes that it must build market share quickly and offer a machine that at least appears to have a low entry price. If a Mac was $200 but cost $60 per month and provided full Internet access, I’ll bet that Apple would have sold millions more to people who were curious but couldn’t justify the up-front cost of a full-fledged machine. Now Apple has the chance to put the Mac OS in front of millions more people with these NCs, and at the same time create a regular income stream that won’t suffer as much from the vagaries of the buying seasons.
These days, every program must have a “Save As HTML” feature to be competitive: the last major product missing this capability is Adobe’s venerable image editing program, Photoshop. Now, BoxTop Software, makers of PhotoGIF and other utilities for multimedia professionals, fills the gap with the recently released PhotoHTML 1.0. This clever plug-in (which will work in any program that supports Photoshop plug-ins, such as MetaTools’s Painter) analyzes images on a pixel-by-pixel basis and converts them into text-based HTML tables, with each colored table cell mapping to one pixel in the original image. The plug-in also creates a 43 byte transparent spacer GIF, used to fill each cell for browsers (such as Navigator 3.x) that don’t allow empty cells.
In addition to the obvious compression advantages (this plug-in currently outputs the smallest graphics files of any on the market by far), PhotoHTML’s tables will display in browsers with the “auto-load images” option turned off. Further, graphics displayed by way of PhotoHTML’s tables are difficult to copy, a boon to artists concerned with image theft and copyright issues – sure, anyone can copy the HTML, but it would take quite a bit of effort for the average designer to convert the HTML back into a format where it could be modified or viewed in graphics software.
Industry analyst Glenn Fleishman proposed a high-end use for PhotoHTML: “If you couple PhotoHTML with an image analysis program and a huge number of images, you could create those great photo-mosaics that appear occasionally on the cover of Wired and Time. Instead of background colors in each cell, an image with the closest overall color characteristics would be inserted instead.”
Although no formal development plans have been made public, BoxTop and Bare Bones Software are allegedly collaborating on BBEdit integration, which would add a PhotoHTML button to BBEdit’s HTML toolbar and facilitate setting custom height and width tags for the spacer GIF. According to Box Top’s Web site, however, such functionality may not appear until 01-Apr-99. PhotoHTML is a 100K download, and is freeware; be sure to read the attached ReadMe file for specific information on using the plug-in.
In the last few years, Internet security challenges have been a growing phenomenon. The basic idea is that a solution provider sets up an Internet service or site that it feels is secure, then offers a substantial reward – cash prizes, computer equipment, or other inducements – to the first person who follows the contest’s rules and breaches the security of the site or service.
Often, Internet security challenges amount to little more than publicity stunts – since the knowledge of how to break into a particular system can be more valuable than the cash or prizes offered – but they can also go a long way toward legitimizing a new or fledgling system. Although recent Macintosh security challenges have had little technical merit or were over-burdened by complex setups, the first Macintosh Web Security Challenge in late 1995 (see TidBITS-317) and the original Crack-A-Mac contest (see TidBITS-378) firmly established the Mac as a reliable, secure, and simple-to-administer Internet server platform right out of the box.
Therefore, in the spirit that the Macintosh is still the most reliable and secure Internet platform, TidBITS is kicking off not one, but two year-long, security challenges. Since TidBITS’s livelihood is completely dependent on the Internet, we think it’s only fair that we put our money where our mouths are, and state unequivocally that we use Macs for everything we do, and we not only trust our sensitive information to them today, but have been doing so for TidBITS’s entire publishing history.
TidBITS Server Security Challenge — We’ve set up a special challenge server – server.challenge.tidbits.com – running a standard installation of Mac OS 8.1 and connected to the Internet via a dedicated frame relay connection. The server is a Power Macintosh 4100 and is not password-protected or running any special security software. By special arrangement with Apple Computer, the root level of the server contains the following information:
- Five Acrobat PDF files which, when printed and presented to the Apple Company Store in Cupertino, California, entitle the bearer to one complete, new Power Macintosh system of their choosing, with monitor(s) and other peripheral devices, up to a total retail value of $20,000. All coupons may be redeemed by the same individual or group.
- A text document with the home phone numbers of Apple’s current Board of Directors and executive team.
The total value of this challenge is $100,000, although the personal contact information for Apple’s executive team is potentially invaluable and could be a collectors’ item one day. Each of these files contains a unique passphrase which any winner must present to us as confirmation they successfully broke into the computer. These files are simply sitting in a folder on the challenge server’s hard disk; they are not compressed or encrypted in any way.
Complete contest rules and eligibility requirements are available upon request; in brief, this contest will run until all prizes have been claimed or until 01-Apr-99 (one full year), whichever comes first; contestants who engage in denial of service attacks against any Internet device other than the challenge server will be immediately disqualified, and contestants who try to access the server physically will be disqualified and reported immediately to law enforcement agencies. (The server is monitored continuously by a Connectix QuickCam running DigitalRadar.)
TidBITS Setext Challenge — Here’s where TidBITS really puts itself on the line. We’re not only willing to say our challenge server is immune to any Internet-based security breach, we’re willing to bet that documents we’ve created with our Macs are also immune to security problems.
As long-time readers know, since TidBITS-100 the email version of TidBITS has been distributed using setext, a “structurally enhanced” text-only format that can be easily parsed into digests by programs such as Easy View. We produce TidBITS issues using the Nisus Writer word processing program.
What you don’t know is that setext also stands for “security enhanced” text. Encoded within the format of every TidBITS setext issue since TidBITS-100 are the credit card and checking account numbers of each member of the TidBITS staff who participated in that issue. Earlier issues of TidBITS only include account information for Adam and Tonya, but later issues include information for Mark Anbinder, Matt Neuburg, Jeff Carlson, and (of course) myself. Although none of us are fabulously wealthy, we do have enough resources that, collectively, it’s probably worth someone’s time to attempt to extract this sensitive information from TidBITS issues. Please note that this contest does not involve the Internet in any way: you don’t have to break into a server, you don’t have to know technical details about Macintosh software, TCP/IP packets, or Internet routing. All you need is a couple of TidBITS back issues in setext format, and all our back issues are available online.
Because we created these issues on Macs, we’re confident our account information is secure. So confident, in fact, we’ll even publish a hint. To find the first three digits of my personal credit card number hidden in TidBITS-256, do the following:
- Multiply the issue number by the number of characters in the text of the issue:
29,889 * 256 = 7,651,584
- Divide the number of seconds that have elapsed between the issue’s publication date and 01-Jan-1904 by the number above, dropping any remainder:
2,870,035,200 / 7,651,584 = 375
- Add the number of MailBITS or articles I wrote in that issue, and subtract the total number of articles and MailBITS in the entire issue:
375 + 4 – 13 = 366
Those are the first three digits of my personal credit card number; do with them what you will. As above, complete contest rules and eligibility requirements are available upon request, and this contest runs until all TidBITS staff members are insolvent or 01-Apr-99 (one full year), whichever comes first. Please note that credit card information for guest writers and other non-staff members is not encoded into TidBITS issues. Happy hunting!
Apple yesterday released version 3.0 of its QuickTime media software for the Mac OS plus Windows 95 and Windows NT, adding support for many new media formats (including PNG and the DV digital video format), plus QuickTime VR and QuickDraw 3D.
QuickTime 3.0 can be downloaded for free from Apple (6.4 MB in MacBinary format). However, in an attempt to increase cash flow and return to stable profitability, Apple has devised a series of optional payment levels, each of which enables successive features of the software. For instance, with QuickTime 3 Usable ($20), the MoviePlayer application has a Quit item in its File menu. With QuickTime 3 Surfer ($30), the QuickTime Plug-In is enabled, so that movies can be viewed from within a Web browser. With QuickTime 3 Musician ($40), the new MIDI instrument package from Roland Corporation is enabled. The scale continues on up to QuickTime 3 Super-Professional ($200), at which point the user gets the full range of capabilities that QuickTime 2.5.1 provided for free.
Credit card payment and registration to unlock the various QuickTime features can be conveniently performed directly over the Web.
Inside sources say that Apple will almost certainly extend this payment model to other system components in the future. For instance, in the next system release, the Extensions Manager will not be capable of multiple sets unless the user pays an extra $20, and monitors will not be capable of resolutions greater than 640 by 480 unless the user pays $10 for each additional higher resolution.
One of the highlights of our recent trip to Australia was the time we spent with Peter N Lewis, one of the best-known Macintosh Internet developers, who has branched out recently into the game market with Greebles, an addictive block-pushing game. As shareware registrations for programs like Anarchie have slowly trailed off (have you registered your copy?), Peter has been thinking about new products to pick up the slack.
The best programs are those that the programmer needs personally, and Peter’s come up with a new one that we think will be a great success. To understand the genesis of this program, you must know two facts about Peter. First, he’s a programmer, not a writer, and his spelling is rather less accurate than his coding. Second, Peter doesn’t like unnecessary work.
When you combine these two facts, you can probably guess that Peter likes spell checkers but hates checking out words that aren’t in the dictionary. While we were visiting, he spent some time trying to figure out whether or not “Mac OS” should have a space (it should). No spell checker knows all the words you use, and those of us who write about fast-moving industries where new words appear all the time continually add words to our user dictionaries.
Enter SpellPoacher, which can scan any Internet-accessible Mac running SpellPoacher Server (a faceless background application loaded from your Extensions folder) and poach words from other people’s user dictionaries. It then inserts poached words into your user dictionary, taking care not to duplicate words. SpellPoacher’s client/server design intentionally restricts access to idle time and uses an extremely efficient transfer mechanism to ensure minimal impact. That’s good, since every copy of SpellPoacher comes with a built-in list of “spellmarks” – custom bookmarks pointing at the user dictionaries of well-known journalists and other people for whom correct spelling is paramount (and yes, we at TidBITS will be participating).
SpellPoacher currently supports the user dictionaries of most common word processors, page layout programs, and HTML authoring tools, and you can choose which user dictionaries to publish and which to populate with new words. SpellPoacher is available for public beta testing as of today – check the Stairways Software Web site for additional information and downloads.
Once available, SpellPoacher will be $10 shareware, with significant site license discounts. We expect SpellPoacher to be popular in large organizations because people are likely to use the same unusual words in memos, letters, and reports.
Peter’s plans for future versions of SpellPoacher include a centralized SpellPoacher repository that new copies of SpellPoacher can contact for a large list of unusual words. Every copy of SpellPoacher would check in on a random schedule, uploading new words and downloading any that had appeared in the repository in the meantime. One of the major stumbling blocks with the SpellPoacher repository is the logic necessary to handle multiple languages. Obviously, the first version of SpellPoacher will work fine for multiple languages, but once the SpellPoacher repository becomes active, there must be some way of tagging words as belonging to a certain language and allowing SpellPoacher users to select the languages to which they want to subscribe.
SpellPoacher is the first of what we think will be many applications that enable people to share specific types of information with one another. Another example of this would be a generic points system in which client software downloads rule sets (“Mail from Adam Engst is worth two points”; “Mail from Tonya Engst is worth three points”) and then watches actions on your Mac to determine how many points you rack up. Scores would be automatically uploaded to a centralized Web site so you could see how you compared to others in specific competitions (forever answering the question of who has the most extensions or the most pixels). Or, imagine an application that woke up the first time you used your Mac every day and asked you a couple of survey questions (such as the classic “What is your favorite color?”), uploading the results to a Web site for tallying and display. Of course, security and privacy are extremely important in these sorts of applications, but it’s also important to provide ways that individuals can share specific types of information that isn’t in any way confidential.
In tandem with yesterday’s announcement of the Power Mac G3 All-in-one, Apple today announced a new line of affordable desktop computers, designed to demonstrate Apple’s commitment to everyday users of everyday Macintoshes.
An Apple executive commented, “We realized that in our rush to reassure important niche markets like desktop publishing and education we’d neglected our base of home users and small business, people who keep Macs on their desks and keep buying more of them.” A recent Apple marketing group survey learned of an “incredible ground swell” of people who have used desktop computers from Apple throughout Apple’s history, typically purchasing a new model every few years while passing older models to relatives and non-profit organizations.
The study revealed that the typical person who purchased his first Apple between 1980 and 1988 has since then purchased an average of 7.3 Apple desktop computers and passed 5.2 of these computers to others. Further, of those who had an older Mac passed on to them, 63 percent went on to become primary purchasers, buying new Macs and passing on old ones on a regular basis. The statistics for businesses of ten or fewer people that use Apple computers are even more impressive – a ten-person business that started using Macs in 1990 has typically purchased some 34.6 new Macintoshes and passed on 21.2 older Macs to employees for use at home. Employees of such companies have a 72 percent likelihood of becoming primary Macintosh purchasers. “It’s practically a multi-level marketing scheme, like Amway,” noted an Apple executive when speaking informally to reporters yesterday.
The new line of Macintoshes, dubbed the EveryDay Apples, are targeted at these everyday Macintosh users and offer a G3 processor running at 200, 233, or 266 MHz; a 1, 2, or 4 GB SCSI internal hard disk; and 48 MB RAM (expandable to 256 MB). Prices for a CPU range from a budget-friendly $700 all the way to $2,100 for a model dripping with features like a Zip drive, second video card, and six-color “racing stripes.” One particular option, the cup holder, is being pioneered by Apple and represents a major design breakthrough. The cup holder, a tray that pops out from the front of the machine, provides a convenient location for beverages. A control panel offers temperature settings and enables users to route extra heat from the processor to the holder. (Unfortunately for international users, initial versions of the control panel report temperatures only in Fahrenheit.) A special icon above the cup holder should prevent the past confusion between the cup holder and the CD-ROM drive, which also is located in the front of the machine.
Kudos to Apple for finally locating its core user base and creating the perfect Mac for those people.
VST Technologies today announced a long-rumored PowerBook add-on, the VST Easy-Bake Expansion Bay Drive. The company expects to start shipping in early May, but notes that supplies will be initially “constrained.”
Officially designated as the EB-451 Easy-Bake Expansion Bay, the device fits existing PowerBook models 190, 5300, 3400, and G3. (A pre-release product shot is available at the URL below.) Versions for the 1400 series and upcoming “Wall Street” line will be available shortly after the initial batch has cooled.
Unlike traditional expansion bay products, which run to storage solutions such as Zip and magneto-optical (MO) disks, hard disks, and PC Card-holders, the Easy-Bake Expansion Bay Drive enables users to bake small versions of their favorite snacks while working on time sensitive, enterprise-driven projects.
The unit takes advantage of the high temperatures generated by the processor, hard disk, and battery in modern PowerBooks. The heat flows into a special heat-conducting material (called “metal”), and is then distributed evenly throughout the bay.
Each unit comes with two double-use cooking trays, allowing the user to bake mini-brownies, mini-cookies, and mini-muffins. A six-ounce package of baking mixture is also included (just add water and stir). The model built for the PowerBook 1400 will reportedly also include a mini-pizza attachment, taking advantage of that machine’s extra-wide expansion bay; VST hopes third-party vendors will produce serving platters that fit in place of the 1400’s removable BookCover lid attachment.
VST, producer of PowerBook peripherals such as the Zip 100 expansion bay Zip drive, says that the initial idea for the “EBEB” came during a late-night coding session. “I had to get away from my desktop machine,” says one programmer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I had been sitting there for about 40 hours in my boxers. So I got up, grabbed my PowerBook, and headed for the couch. But my legs got scorched by heat from the ‘Book, so I went back to the desk. That’s when I realized I was hungry.” Although initial tests with a spinning Zip drive head were messy, the technology proved promising enough to warrant development.
VST plans to also ship a version of the EBEB for Pentium-based laptops; however, the extreme heat generated continues to burn all recipes in the lab.