Adam Engst is a man of many talents, including convincing others to do his dirty work! Read how he maneuvered Technical Editor Geoff Duncan into creating a knockout Web archive for TidBITS Talk. Also this week, Adam continues his review of crash detection devices and notes Adobe’s real plans for PageMill 3.0 for the Mac. Plus, we have news about HyperCard 2.4.1, a new version of Default Folder, and Dartmouth College’s recommending the iMac to students.
Dartmouth Picks iMac — Dartmouth College, home of one of the largest academic, mostly Mac networks in the world, recently sent a letter to incoming freshmen recommending they purchase Apple’s new iMac to fulfill the college’s computer ownership requirement. Dartmouth supports Windows 95 and 98 (and offers discounted Dell systems to students, alongside a variety of Macintoshes) but strongly recommends Mac systems for use on its campus network. Dartmouth, home of the popular Fetch FTP client, feels that the 10/100Base-T Ethernet-equipped iMac is perfect for student use on campus. [MHA]
HyperCard 2.4.1 Update — Apple has released HyperCard 2.4.1, a minor update to its long-lived authoring tool. HyperCard 2.4.1 fixes problems when using HyperCard with disks larger than 2 GB, and removes the persistent display of the Get QuickTime Pro movie when using HyperCard 2.4 with QuickTime 3.0. (HyperCard 2.4 was released under Apple’s original, poorly received QuickTime 3.0 licensing terms; see "Apple Releases HyperCard 2.4" in TidBITS-427 and "Apple Revises QuickTime 3 Licensing" in TidBITS-430.) HyperCard 2.4.1 is available for $99 via the Apple Store; owners of HyperCard 2.3, 2.3.5, and 2.4 can download a free 5.2 MB update. The free HyperCard Player 2.4.1 (1.6 MB) is also available. [GD]
File Organization by Default — St. Clair Software has released Default Folder 2.9, a utility for navigating and organizing files and folders from within Open and Save dialog boxes. Default Folder enables you to jump to a user-configurable list of frequently used folders, rename and delete files and folders, as well as edit file attributes such as Type and Creator. (Default Folder has features in common with Now Super Boomerang and ACTION Files; see "Get a Piece of the ACTION Files" in TidBITS-434). Version 2.9 adds the ability to store recent and favorite folders in the Apple menu for quick-jumping within the Finder; a Control Strip module also performs the same function. Default Folder costs $25 shareware, and is a 475K download. [JLC]
In "Closing the Book on Visual Page" in TidBITS-439, I commented that Adobe seemed to be ignoring the Mac version of PageMill, given that Adobe made no mention of future Mac development in the PageMill 3.0 for Windows press materials. It turns out Adobe is working on PageMill 3.0 for the Mac, and according to Rick Brown of Adobe, it should ship before the end of the year. PageMill users can look for a public beta about a month before it ships.
I’m pleased that Adobe is continuing development on PageMill for the Mac, even if it lags behind the Windows version. One reason why the Mac has had such good HTML authoring products – including GoLive CyberStudio, Terry Morse Myrmidon, and BBEdit from Bare Bones Software – is that the competition has provided incentive to improve. When competition disappears, incentive to improve must rely on a company wanting to do the right thing for users. As much as I’d like to believe companies want to do well by users, my experience indicates that this type of behavior often happens thanks only to the efforts of a few dedicated and under-appreciated individuals. In short, most large companies become myopic looking at the balance sheet and miss the larger picture of maintaining a loyal customer base.
We also received rumors from independent sources about the possible acquisition of GoLive Systems by Adobe. Rick Brown of Adobe would only say that Adobe is a large company with a lot of cash and is in discussions with many companies about many issues. A GoLive representative echoed Rick’s comments about GoLive talking to lots of companies about many things, but said with regard to the Adobe rumor, "There’s nothing there."
From Adobe’s perspective, an acquisition might make sense; together PageMill and CyberStudio could give Adobe consumer-level and professional-level products. Plus, Adobe’s sales, marketing, and distribution clout could undoubtedly help sell more copies of CyberStudio. From the perspective of the Macintosh software industry, though, I think the merger would be a loss. One industry insider summed it up well, saying, "It would be a pity to lose a dynamic, aggressive Mac developer like GoLive to the Adobe dinosaur." We’ve lost too many small companies already.
In the first part of this article in TidBITS-439, I looked at how three crash detection devices – the PowerKey Pro, Rebound, and Lazarus – compare in terms of hardware, restart method, and crash detection capabilities. This week, I’ll look at each product’s documentation, interface, logging features, and pricing.
Since last week’s article appeared, I’ve received a MacCoach unit from Neuron Data Systems (who are located in the Netherlands, not Belgium). I’ll include more about MacCoach in this part, but since I haven’t had time to test the device, I’ll leave full evaluation for the future.
Interface — The PowerKey Pro’s interface, available via the PowerKey Editor application, is by far the most convoluted of the devices, mostly because restarting crashed servers is only one of its many capabilities. Other actions include toggling different power outlets; starting up, shutting down, and restarting Macs; executing AppleScripts; typing keystrokes; opening files; quitting applications; mounting SCSI devices; and logging actions. Each event can have multiple actions, plus a trigger. Triggers can activate once, on a repeating basis, on days of week or month, when the Power key is pressed, when a hot key is pressed, when the phone rings, when the system is idle, when power returns, and at shut down. The Server Restart Option adds triggers that kick in when the system crashes and when a timer expires. Triggers have qualifiers, so you can limit them to particular times and dates, or have them activate based on how the system was started, whether the system was idle, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless. To restart a server, you just need an event using the When System Crashes trigger and a Restart action (I always throw in an Add to Log action as well). It’s also a good idea to create an event that restarts the computer when power returns after a power failure.
I don’t want to imply that the PowerKey Editor application is hard to use. It’s not, but you must think about how you want to use it. Ideally, Sophisticated Circuits would add a menu listing common events like restarting after a crash or restarting after a power failure, so you could start with those options and customize them later.
Rebound’s simple control panel enables you to toggle system and application crash detection, and set three variables: length of time before restarting, time allowed for the system to restart, and number of restart attempts. Keep the restart events set to one in most cases, but resist the temptation to set the times too low. I was once running Norton Disk Doctor, and the file check took more than five minutes, causing Rebound to restart the system during the check. Worse, I pressed Shift to boot without extensions, and that combined with fact that the Mac had restarted ungracefully meant Rebound’s timer hadn’t been reset. Five minutes later, it restarted the Mac again. I’ve eliminated this problem by increasing time before restarting to ten minutes and setting the number of restart attempts to one, so Rebound won’t repeatedly restart the Mac again in this situation.
Lazarus provides a small status window that tells you it’s enabled and lists the time and date of the next scheduled restart, if any. I like the status window, but it should also provide the date, time, and details of the last crash.
Lazarus also offers several settings. You can set it to restart the Mac automatically every few days at a specific time (but there’s no way of isolating particular days). You can have Lazarus monitor applications, and a Choose button brings up a dialog where you can add all open applications, add a specific application, or delete an application from the list. Overall, Lazarus’s software is functional and easy to use, but lacks the polish and professional feel of the Sophisticated Circuits interfaces.
Logging — It’s important for these devices to log their actions because logs are often the only indication of trouble. Otherwise, you may never realize the server is being restarted every few hours.
The PowerKey Pro offers basic logging capabilities via an Add to Log action that writes a user-specified message to a text file (called PowerKey Log in the PowerKey Folder in the Preferences folder), along with the date and time. You must view the log in another program, such as SimpleText (the PowerKey Pro keeps the log under 32K), which requires setting up aliases for quick access. You can create an action that automatically opens the log file after a crash, but that’s best done with a low-volume local server, not a high-volume remote server.
Rebound provides minimal logging. In its control panel’s About box, it counts the number of system and application crashes, and gives you the time and date of the last restart. I’d like to see significantly more logging information in Rebound, since I’d want to know if the Mac has crashed ten times in the last three hours.
Lazarus’s logging is the best of the lot, but it’s still mediocre. You can display Lazarus’s log from within the application, but it’s a small window that can’t be resized and lacks a scroll bar. You can also save its log as an HTML file. Within the log, Lazarus lists the date and time of each event (a crash or scheduled restart), and identifies crashes either as global or as caused by a specific application.
According to the Neuron Data Systems Web site, MacCoach 2.0 now includes comprehensive logging, including a report of when the Mac starts up and shuts down, when applications launch and quit, and when the system or applications crash. The MacCoach control panel displays the log, plus it can save as an HTML file automatically.
Documentation — The PowerKey Pro comes with an extensive manual explaining its triggers, qualifiers, and actions, and provides examples of how one might use these features. If anything, I’d like even more examples, since the hardest part about using the PowerKey Pro is figuring out what you can do with it.
For example, one useful setup would be to plug the server’s monitor into a controlled outlet. When the system is idle, power down the monitor if it’s not capable of entering a sleep mode (my favorite 12-inch monochrome monitors can’t do this). However, if you restart a server with the monitor off, Timbuktu Pro can refuse to connect, since it doesn’t know how large a screen to simulate. The PowerKey Pro could turn the monitor on after a crash so the Mac sees a monitor at startup, then turn the monitor off again at idle time to save electricity.
Rebound provides an 11-page manual in PDF format that covers the bases well, providing installation and setup help, along with details of Rebound’s AppleScript support. Rebound also includes Apple Guide-based help that answers "how to" questions but ignores most "why" questions.
Lazarus comes with only a sheet of paper that details installation (which is easy) and briefly explains basic operation. At the very least, I’d like to see Kernel Productions create detailed online documents that explain how Lazarus works, plus provide real-world troubleshooting.
MacCoach’s paper documentation is a sheet of paper containing essential information, though with little expansion of complex topics. More information is on Neuron Data System’s Web site.
Price — The PowerKey Pro 200 costs $140 with the necessary Server Restart Option; the PowerKey 600, which currently includes the SRO, is $200. The PowerKey Pro is available directly from Sophisticated Circuits and a variety of vendors, including TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost.
Rebound costs $99 directly from Sophisticated Circuits and should be widely available soon. It debuted for $50 for those who purchased WebSTAR 3.0 directly from StarNine Technologies, and that deal remains in place as long as supplies last.
Lazarus costs $100 directly from Kernel Productions.
MacCoach costs $100 and is available from TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost. For a limited time, it’s also available for $55 from Tenon Intersystems for those who own or buy Tenon’s WebTen Web server.
Picking & Choosing — All the devices I tested were similar in terms of efficacy, restarting Macs when necessary (which wasn’t all that often). The two PowerKey Pro models cost the most, but are more flexible and support all desktop Macs. If you started to cogitate about possible things to automate as I reeled off the PowerKey Pro’s list of features, you definitely want one. Rebound and Lazarus have similar price points, but differ in technique. Lazarus works with all desktop Macs, has a display and better logging, can watch all applications, and can restart the Mac on a schedule. However, Rebound’s software is more polished and less prone to user error, and Rebound is physically better assembled and will be easier on hardware thanks to its keyboard restart method. MacCoach is probably comparable to Rebound, but not having tested it yet, I can’t recommend it either way.
It’s hard to make product recommendations in this category. My feeling is that Rebound is the best option if you want something simple to install and forget. Sophisticated Circuits is very experienced in this field, so I trust their hardware and software. As a newcomer, Lazarus is less tested and less polished, but it offers a different approach plus a few more features than Rebound. And finally, the PowerKey Pro offers an unparalleled level of control and flexibility, especially if you need to automate physical devices beyond restarting crashed servers.
What follows is a true story. You’d never know it looking at him, but Adam Engst can be a manipulative individual.
The Experiment — Last April, Adam launched an experiment by starting the TidBITS Talk mailing list. TidBITS Talk was intended to provide a forum for public discussion of topics appearing in or related to TidBITS articles. He hoped TidBITS Talk would become a useful public channel for TidBITS staff and interested readers to discuss TidBITS itself, article ideas, or to respond to current events in the Macintosh and Internet communities.
Although it may not be obvious, the TidBITS Talk list is essentially a solo effort from Adam. He discussed the idea with the rest of us, and we said it sounded great, but the last thing we needed was more work. But Adam, appropriately enough, was adamant: he took the task upon himself and set off to make it happen.
Adam’s little project had many unknowns, including total readership, message volume per day, and administration time. Plus, he volunteered to moderate TidBITS Talk so it would remain focused, and he agreed to handle bounces and subscription problems. Since I maintain the TidBITS mailing list database and handle those subscriptions and mail problems, Adam’s plan sounded great to me, and I happily let him be fully responsible for TidBITS Talk. I didn’t feel manipulated at all.
The Results — Happily, Adam’s efforts paid off. TidBITS Talk has carried about 800 messages, or just over 8 per day. It quickly exploded to about 1000 subscribers, almost half of whom elect to receive messages as a daily digest. As moderator, Adam has kept discussion focused and within discrete threads, while keeping several hundred redundant and off-topic messages off the list. The list has attracted a particularly knowledgeable and articulate audience: messages have been surprisingly informative, complete, and well-reasoned. It has also made an outstanding sounding board: if we have an idea about something related to TidBITS or a question about a particular topic, TidBITS Talk subscribers have responded with sensible, diverse opinions. To join the list, visit the page below for details.
Things have also gone well technically. Adam’s nearly decade-old SE/30 and Fog City’s LetterRip Pro 3.0 are handling the load with aplomb. And, in the first 100 days of TidBITS Talk I’ve only dealt with one subscription problem, while Adam was at Macworld. I still didn’t feel manipulated!
Hook, Line, & Sinker — Shortly after TidBITS Talk debuted, Adam and I were talking on the phone. "You know," he said, with no trace of chicanery in his voice, "at some point we should vaguely think about an archive for TidBITS Talk. Something Web-based and maybe tied into our article database." "Yeah," I said. "Something for you to think about." After all, Adam was responsible for TidBITS Talk.
A week later, we were on the phone again, and (as we often do) surfing the Web simultaneously. "Say," Adam said, without even a hint of duplicity, "do you know of any good mailing list archives on the Web?" "Not really," I replied. "Most are pretty bad." Perhaps the best I’d seen was a now-defunct Frontier-Talk archive hosted by Acorn Software. Still on the phone, Adam began looking for Web-based mailing list archives. He didn’t care what the mailing lists were about; he just wanted to see how their archives worked. Before I knew it, I was surfing too, but for technical mailing lists, reasoning that geeks were more likely to create a good mailing list archive.
An hour later, we gave up, disappointed. Most mailing list archives are terrible, providing simple lists of messages, usually with no searching capability. We found only a few that were even usable. Ironically, even archives hosted by companies promoting their own products were awful or non-responsive. In a nutshell, the state of mailing list archives seemed abysmal. "It wouldn’t be hard to do better than this," Adam declared. "Damn tootin’!" I replied.
That’s right. I had played straight into Adam’s hands.
The Tools — Before long, I had designed a FileMaker Pro database to serve as a mailing list archive, intending to connect it to the Web using Lasso from Blue World Communications, just like our article database. Creating the database was easy – the persnickety work lay in finding an intelligent way to convert messages for display in a Web browser. Most other mailing list archives fell down in this area. Special characters must be converted to HTML entities, URLs and email addresses must be converted to links, all manner of bizarre characters and glitches must be removed, long lines must be re-wrapped, date stamps must be converted to Greenwich Mean Time… all while preserving as much of the original ASCII formatting as possible so quotes, signatures, and other specially formatted text remained intelligible.
All this is well beyond FileMaker, so I turned to the trusty workhorse HyperCard, in part because I had code to convert ASCII to HTML and create links, along with other code that would let a HyperCard stack serve as a POP mail client using Chuck Shotton’s scriptable TCP application NetEvents. POP capabilities were important, because the HyperCard stack would automatically retrieve and import new messages into the FileMaker database.
Adam watched all this with mild detachment. "Don’t kill yourself over this," he said. "Just do what you can – I’m sure whatever you come up with will be fine." What technique! What finesse! I dove even deeper.
The HTML — Once the basics of importing and processing messages were established, I turned to the truly exasperating work: an HTML interface. The thing I’d liked most about Acorn’s Frontier-Talk archive was its use of frames. Many Web sites use frames for the wrong reasons, often as a substitute for well thought-out site navigation. But frames can be a good way to provide non-linear access to large bodies of information. A mailing list might seem linear, but the Frontier-Talk archive challenged that assumption by keeping a search form constantly available in an upper pane, while displaying search results and individual messages in a lower pane. Instead of executing a search and then groping linearly through the archive for the information you wanted – or bouncing back and forth between a search form and a results page – the Frontier-Talk archive encouraged users to refine queries until they found what they wanted. Instead of treating the messages as the archive’s primary resource, it treated the information in the messages as the primary resource. I thought this was a fabulous idea, so I stole it.
I also thought messages in a mailing list archive should be "smart." Messages should know to which discussion thread they belong, and provide complete access to that thread regardless of the current search results. Messages should be able to call up any other messages from the same author or from the same date. And, since TidBITS Talk is in part about topics covered in TidBITS issues, a message should link directly to any TidBITS articles referred to in it.
Designing the HTML for the TidBITS Talk archive has been one of the most frustrating publishing experiences in my life. The HTML is the most convoluted I’ve produced – and the most tortuous sections exist only to work around shortcomings and quirks in popular Web browsers. Every Web browser – and even minor revisions of the same browser – interprets HTML differently. Form elements get different amounts of white space (or none at all), and properly formatted tables work in some browsers but not others. Alignment and sizing specifications are whimsical at best: frames and tables can be wildly different sizes in various browsers, or even in the same browser after reloading! And the behaviors change yet again with browsers on other platforms.
I struggled and compromised, and in June we unveiled the Web archive to the TidBITS Talk list, where it was well received. Despite the utility of the Web archive, the HTML design was a monkey on my back. It didn’t work as well across browsers as I’d have liked, and the interface violated almost every rule of onscreen presentation I’d learned from years working in computing, multimedia, and online publishing.
Here’s where Adam exhibited perfect mastery of his craft. The archive was "by far the most capable searchable discussion archive we’ve seen" and he proudly showed it off to anyone and everyone. Clearly, I thought with increasing panic, something had to be done. I went back to the HTML, removing clutter, improving the look and feel, and trying to make each element as smart as possible.
The TidBITS Talk Archive — So, today I’d like to introduce you to the TidBITS Talk archive.
The archive provides searchable, threaded access to all messages distributed to the TidBITS Talk mailing list. New messages are automatically added once per day and integrated into existing discussion threads appropriately. Archive features include:
A persistent search form that enables searching on subject, author, date, and the text of all messages.
Persistent navigation with single-click access to common queries, help, searching tips, and feature descriptions.
Common queries that enable easy access to currently active message threads, as well as messages recently added to the archive.
Message listings that differentiate discussion threads and provide immediate access to all messages by a particular author, in a particular thread, or contributed on a particular date.
Individual messages that provide immediate menu-based access to all messages in the same thread, as well as messages from that author or sent on that date.
TidBITS articles that are referenced within a message (via GetBITS URLs), available by name under the message introduction.
Fast-loading, understated design with minimal graphics.
Take a look at the recent discussions in the TidBITS Talk archive – it’s a great way to stay current even without subscribing to the list. We often discuss topics that don’t make it into TidBITS issues, and Adam has even posted bonus content to TidBITS Talk that wouldn’t fit into a regular issue. There are still some quirks to work out (such as MIME encoding in messages), but now I’m finally starting to think TidBITS Talk is a great example of a Web-based discussion archive.
You’re a sly one, Mr. Engst.