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Big news this week warrants a special issue of TidBITS! Read on for details of a settlement in the landmark Microsoft antitrust case, word of a new Y2K-related security problem, and an exclusive look at a new Apple media translation engine technology codenamed Sullivan. We also announce Apple’s limited Star Wars DVD bundle, a new location for the January Macworld Expo, and Adam’s role in a new Internet television special.

Geoff Duncan No comments

Star Wars Episode I for Macintosh Only!

Star Wars Episode I for Macintosh Only! In an exclusive arrangement with Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm, Ltd., Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs announced today that 10,000 certificates for a special limited-edition DVD version of the upcoming movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace will be bundled with DVD-equipped Power Macintosh G3 and PowerBook G3 computers purchased through the Apple online store. In addition to the complete theatrical release of the film, the commemorative DVD will include interviews with Episode I cast members and Star Wars creator George Lucas, the complete Episode I screenplay, QuickDraw 3D models of vehicles and aliens featured in the movie, Episode I trailers, and a 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Episode 1. The actual DVD disks will begin shipping to customers on 01-Aug-99, a scant ten weeks after the premiere of the film. Given the enormous box-office revenue likely to be generated by Star Wars Episode I, commercial DVD releases of the movie may not be available for a year or more. [GD]


Adam Engst No comments

Macworld Expo SF Moving to Austin

Macworld Expo SF Moving to Austin — IDG Expo Management announced today that the January Macworld Expo, long a fixture in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, will be moving to an as-yet-undisclosed location in Austin, Texas. As with the recent controversial move of Macworld Expo Boston to New York, IDG Expo Management pointed to the increasing popularity of the Macintosh industry and said that while Moscone Center was expected to be too small for the next Macworld Expo, “everything is bigger in Texas.” Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs, while noting that the move brings Macintosh industry executives closer to sources of cheap Mexican labor, commented in an offhand way that “San Francisco is not a big Macintosh town.” [ACE]

Adam Engst No comments

Adam to Host Internet TV Show

Adam to Host Internet TV Show — Although I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I’ll be hosting a live prime time television special for FOX called “World’s Worst Internet Hoaxes,” airing tonight at 8 PM Eastern and Pacific, 7 PM Central (we hope to have an online version available in QuickTime Streaming format shortly). Preparing for the show has been a good time, much more so than the brief stints I’ve done on local TV news shows. And unlike the PBS show “Life on the Internet,” I’m serving as co-producer this time around. We’re working with the same people who brought you “I Survived a Disaster,” “America’s Dumbest Criminals,” and so on, and I think we’ve done a great job with the show. I managed to talk them out of “When Routing Tables Are Lost,” and “America’s Wildest Unix Hacks,” and it looks like we’ll be able to integrate Mac-specific content. Also, new TidBITS sponsor Sony-TV is considering picking up the show as a series, and good ratings tonight may enable us to keep TidBITS a free publication. Please tune in! [ACE]


Adam Engst No comments

Settle Down! Microsoft & DOJ Reach Agreement

In a surprise ending to the long-running Microsoft antitrust trial (see Matt Deatherage’s “Who Do You Antitrust” articles in TidBITS-455 and TidBITS-456), the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Microsoft jointly announced a settlement today.


Although the full terms of the settlement have not yet been made available, the main strokes of the agreement are clear. In exchange for the DOJ and the 19 states dropping their antitrust suits, Microsoft has agreed to “perform 2.1 billion hours of community service.” The terms were initially confusing, since Microsoft headquarters are located in the upscale Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington, but it turns out that both “community” and “service” have innovative definitions.

The DOJ’s definition of community for the purposes of the settlement is “the worldwide community of individuals and corporations using Microsoft operating systems released since 23-Aug-95.” That the DOJ would identify such a large and amorphous group as a community is stunning, but the implications of the definition of service is equally amazing. According to the DOJ, service is “technical support for any computer software product that operates under eligible operating systems.” In short, Microsoft must now provide free (and toll-free!) technical support for any Windows application. It’s not yet clear if Windows CE and Windows NT are included in the settlement.

Representatives of the 19 states involved in the antitrust suit also pushed for specific wording that would address additional problems. The terms of the settlement call for Microsoft to hire and train existing welfare recipients in those states to make up at least 65 percent of the total technical support staff necessary to handle the increased call volume. Plus, Microsoft has the choice of either installing satellite campuses around the country or helping to beef up the existing telecommunications infrastructure so these people can telecommute.

Microsoft Assistance — Microsoft’s vaunted public relations team quickly moved to put the best possible face on the settlement, dubbing it “Microsoft Assistance,” and suggesting that the idea originated with Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates. “The proposal surfaced only after Bill went to Washington,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. “We’ve always said that we want to provide the best possible experience for our users, and the research that led to Microsoft Bob also suggested that people learn best when interacting with other people.”


In a ceremony in Seattle, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer dedicated the new Microsoft Assistance program to the memory of the late industry writer Cary Lu. Ballmer recalled a meeting at which he’d announced the hiring of 1,500 additional technical support representatives and Cary had asked if Microsoft anticipated a time those positions would be unnecessary because Microsoft’s software didn’t require as much support. Ballmer noted, “I finally have an answer for Mr. Lu. In my role as president of Microsoft – and Bill agrees with me on this – I can categorically state that every product team at Microsoft now has the goal of totally eliminating the need for technical support.”


Implications — The implications of the agreement reverberated around the computer world. Quick-witted companies developing Windows products immediately announced plans to release their beta software for sale. On a more human note, many tech support departments will apparently be laid off, although support technicians we spoke with felt they could get jobs with Microsoft, whose stock options are preferable anyway.

The big loser in the settlement would seem to be Apple Computer, which has long made much of the fact that Macs require less support than PCs running Windows. With technical support being free for all Windows users, there’s less incentive to buy a Macintosh based on lower support requirements. Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs, looking uncharacteristically stunned, tried to make light of the situation, joking that at least when you called Apple for technical support, you won’t have to listen to screaming kids in the background.

Wall Street had feared more significant damage to Microsoft based on the company’s surprisingly inept defense during the antitrust trial. So when the settlement was announced, investors reacted predictably, driving Microsoft stock to a new high and thus officially increasing Bill Gates’s net worth to over $100 billion. Charles Schwab analyst Makim Richer commented, “What we have here is in many ways a joint project between the U.S. federal government, 19 state governments, and the most successful software company ever. No matter how you look at it, it’s a win-win deal for Microsoft, the American people, and the world.”

Enter Winux — Also today, Microsoft said that it plans to release its Microsoft Office suite of applications for Linux, the popular open-source Unix variant that has offered significant competition for Windows NT. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company is committed to serving its users, particularly those for whom it doesn’t have to perform free support. And in a speech from Washington, D.C., where Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was personally negotiating the terms of the settlement, Gates also noted that although Windows 2000 remains on schedule for release in the second quarter of 2001, Microsoft plans a new operating system, called Winux. According to Gates, Winux “gives our users the stability and performance we all admire in Linux, along with the friendly interface of Microsoft Windows.” After showing a videotaped demonstration of icons moving around on a reputed Winux desktop and a wizard that helped users recompile their kernels, Gates was careful to point out that Winux is not Windows and thus won’t fall under the terms of the settlement.

Adam Engst No comments

GIF2K Problem Affects PC Security

Everyone knows that the Macintosh is Y2K-compliant – that the Mac OS knows about dates well into the next century, right? But we’ve learned of a Y2K-related problem that, although it doesn’t affect Macs, could be serious for numerous Internet users who work with Intel-based PCs.

Graphic utility developer BoxTop Software has isolated a problem with certain GIF files that results in GIF viewers (including the GIF viewing code in Web browsers) either being incapable of displaying certain images or suffering from a buffer overflow error. Travis Anton of BoxTop Software said that the “GIF2K problem,” as they’re calling it, results from “a core failing of LZW compression which initialized code tables with information based on the date. After January 1st, 2000, displaying GIF images on affected systems can result in a buffer overflow during decompression.”


Although the inability to display a specific GIF image is the most common result of the GIF2K problem, the buffer overflow errors are more concerning because they open a door for malicious programmers to create non-Y2K-compliant GIFs. In “Security Issue with Email Attachments” in TidBITS-441, Geoff Duncan described buffer overflows like this: “the way to take advantage of a buffer overflow is to craft the precise binary data that will get past the target program’s bounds checking, then somehow cause that data to be executed as if it were code. … To execute malicious code, the extraneous data must be designed to target a particular email program running on a particular operating system.”


In this case, we’re not talking about email programs, but instead GIF viewing code. A malevolent developer could create a specific GIF containing a small viral code stub that would cause a buffer overflow error in one of the popular PC Web browsers. Even if the GIF2K-based buffer overflow was used only as the initial infection vector (since many PCs aren’t susceptible – see below), a virus could replicate using other means once it had established itself.

Worse yet, other forms of attack could help spread such viruses. For instance, a cracker could break into a popular Web site, replace the main logo GIF with one designed to take advantage of the GIF2K problem, and rest assured that no one could track the real point of origin, even if someone were to identify the source GIF.

What’s Affected — From BoxTop’s testing, the GIF2K problem seems to affect a variety of Intel-based PCs that use several popular BIOSes (Basic Input/Output Systems – the core code that gets the system running and acts as a basic interface to the hardware). BIOSes from AMI and Award are the most susceptible, though some versions of the popular Phoenix BIOS are also affected. GIF2K hasn’t been detected previously because it requires both a susceptible BIOS and a specific video adapter. In essence, the BIOS screws up when handing the GIF data off to the video display subsystem.

It’s worth noting that although many older PC BIOSes have more significant troubles with Y2K date issues, the GIF2K problem is essentially a separate concern. It’s a three-way problem, requiring specific BIOSes in combination with specific video adapters and a not-uncommon organization of bytes that result from the decompression of particular GIF files. Thus, a susceptible PC is difficult to identify based on its hardware or manufacturer.

Unfortunately, the possible combinations are too multifarious to list, and although someone will no doubt write a utility that you can run on a PC to see if it’s affected, that hasn’t yet happened. Even if it does, what good does the information do? It’s not worth swapping a motherboard or buying a new video adapter to avoid this problem; it makes more sense to focus on the problematic GIFs themselves.

GIF2K Checker — That’s precisely what BoxTop Software has done, with a simple Mac application called GIF2K Checker. Drop a GIF file or a folder containing GIFs on GIF2K Checker, and it scans all the files. After noting problematic files, GIF2K Checker recompresses them in such a way as to eliminate the problem with the way the GIF format uses LZW compression. These changes do not change the file size or modify the appearance of images in any way. GIF2K Checker requires System 7.5.5 or higher on a PowerPC-based Mac, supports Navigation Services, and is performance-optimized for today’s high-end G3-based machines.


Although it’s still unclear what percentage of GIFs are affected, the number is significant, and everyone who publishes a Web site containing GIF graphics should run their GIFs through GIF2K Checker. It’s ironic that a Macintosh-based tool will help prevent PCs from experiencing the GIF2K problem, but since most Web sites, and especially most Web graphics, continue to be developed on Macs, it makes sense.

Of course, GIF2K Checker is a stopgap measure, and other solutions will no doubt appear in the months before 01-Jan-00. For instance, Web-based solutions will no doubt appear for those few webmasters who don’t already use Macs. Web search engine companies may even start traversing the Web looking for affected GIFs and notifying webmasters.

Geeks Bearing GIFs — We’ll be covering the GIF2K problem in future issues of TidBITS, but for the latest up-to-the-minute information, pay attention to TidBITS Talk, where we’ll note which mainstream applications take steps to correct the problem on their own, as well as any compatibility checkers and useful utilities that become available.


Geoff Duncan No comments

Apple Ups the AMTE

For the last few years, the Macintosh community has watched helplessly as the Mac has fallen painfully behind in a field it helped pioneer on personal computers: speech recognition. Apple introduced PlainTalk in 1993 with the original AV Macs, and not long afterwards speech dictation products like Articulate Systems’ Power Secretary appeared for the Macintosh. But the situation turned bleak: Dragon Systems (the parent company of Articulate Systems) went on to develop Naturally Speaking, a successful continuous speech recognition product for Windows, while ignoring the Mac. At Apple, PlainTalk stagnated and was updated recently only so it would continue to function with current system software. Further, Dragon Systems ceased Mac development and discontinued Power Secretary after a long period of neglect (although a company called One Stop Direct is re-packaging Power Secretary for Power Macs as VoicePower Pro, at least for the U.K. market).

< vpowerp.html>

There have been a few glimmers of hope. Andrew Taylor and other engineers who produced Power Secretary are working on a new speech dictation product for the Macintosh. They seem to have nailed down some funding and hope to have something to show by this July’s Macworld Expo in New York City.


More interesting have been persistent rumors claiming that Apple has been working on speech recognition software. Apple has always faced a difficult situation with regard to speech recognition (and many other fundamental technologies). If Apple develops, or publicly considers developing, its own solution, it eliminates opportunities for third-party products, just as PlainTalk essentially destroyed the market for Articulate Systems’ Voice Navigator and AppleScript delivered a serious blow to UserLand’s Frontier. If, on the other hand, Apple stays out of a market to allow room for third-party development, the Macintosh platform suffers if no third parties step into the arena.

We’ve learned that Apple is playing both sides of the coin by staying out of the speech recognition field to allow for third-party development while focusing on developing its own ambitious technology that developers can integrate into future products.

The results are stunning.

Sullivan — The bad news is that Apple is not developing a continuous speech recognition technology. Although the sheer processing power of G3-based systems is more than sufficient, Apple considers development of speech software for the Mac OS beyond PlainTalk’s current capabilities and strictly a third-party opportunity. In fact, Apple employees have privately confided hopes that the MacSpeech development effort succeeds – it would provide a viable speech solution for customers Apple can’t help directly.

The good news is that Apple has been working quietly on the Apple Media Translation Engine (AMTE), an all-new technology for Mac OS X mostly known by the codename Sullivan (after Ann Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher and long-time friend). Sullivan is more than a speech engine; it’s best described as a “data translation matrix,” in that it can accept input in a variety of formats (audio, video, text, MIDI, etc.), interpret the data using specially developed Media Description Templates (MDTs), and output the results to similarly compiled Media Output Streams (MOSs). Both MDTs and MOSs are extensible; support dynamic inheritance and scaling; arbitrary data types and framing; and offer special copy protection, encryption, and registration schemes that let developers to protect proprietary data formats while permitting interoperability with other applications and media types.

If all this sounds abstract, it is – and that’s precisely the power of Sullivan. By divorcing itself from the specifics of a particular application space – like speech recognition – Sullivan can focus on the fundamentals of a data engine: wicked fast transformation algorithms, support for multiple processors (as well as the PowerPC G4’s AltiVec vector processing), optimized memory usage, rapid data transfer, and a modular multithreaded translation engine.

You Can Quote Me — In short, you can feed Sullivan data and it translates the data into another format, contingent upon the translation modules you have installed. A contact at DWIS, Inc., (Do What I Say), a small San Jose-based company made up of former Apple, Radius, and Silicon Graphics employees showed us what Sullivan can do using Court Reporter, a server-side module DWIS is working on for the Apache Web server. Court Reporter currently translates QuickTime movies into text, essentially providing real-time transcription. It’s quite accurate. Note the one error – “jed eye” – in the sample transcript from the Apple-promoted Star Wars movie trailer below.

[Low noise]
[Quiet music]
Female voice 1: I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war.
Male voice 1: A communications disruption can mean only one thing. Invasion.
[Loud music]
Deep male voice 1: At last we will reveal ourselves to the jed eye. [pause] At last we will have revenge.
Deep male voice 2: Begin landing your troops.
[Loud explosions]
Male voice 3: We haven’t much time.
[Explosions, loud music]
Female voice 1: The federation has gone too far!
[Noise, music]
Male voice 1 [distant]: The death toll is catastrophic!
Female voice 1: Our people are dying, senator. We must do something quickly!
Male voice 1 [distant]: You must contact me!
Male voice 4: There is something else behind all this, your highness. They will kill you if you stay.
Male voice 4: I can only protect you. [Noise] I can’t fight a war for you.
Male voice 5: I think we’re going to have to accept federation control for the time being.
Male voice 6: This is a battle I do not think that we can win.
Female voice 1: I will sign no treaty, senator.

Court Reporter’s MDTs provide for content profiles, thus enabling the administrator to assign specific descriptions to media element descriptors. For instance, “[Humming]” could be transcribed as “[Light sabers]”, and sounds falling within a user-definable range of similarity would be identically labeled. Along those lines, Court Reporter can track specific speakers within an audio stream, using matching techniques to identify them throughout. Once a speaker has been identified, Court Reporter enables users or administrators to assign names and other information to them. So, “Female voice 1” would become “Queen Amidala” and “Male voice 3” would become “Obi-wan Kenobi.” Court Reporter is often able to distinguish music (which typically has distinctive pitch relationships and ranges) from percussive sounds and other noises (like explosions). Although transcribing a movie in this fashion would be a lot of work, imagine a live transcription of a keynote address, with only a few speakers and no scene changes. One DWIS developer noted, “Court Reporter could deliver 90 percent of a webcast keynote’s content in about one one-thousandth of the bandwidth. Plus you could copy and paste quotes into an article without retyping.”

DWIS also revealed that it is developing a series of related modules for Sullivan, including ones that translate RealVideo and RealAudio, MP3 (for fun, they ran “Louie Louie” through it), and Windows Media to text.

Mum’s the Word — Neither Apple nor DWIS would comment on when the Sullivan foundation technologies might be available to consumers, but Sullivan isn’t likely to appear until a year or more after Mac OS X ships. However, derivative applications – up to and including continuous speech recognition – could be available sooner in stand-alone form. Other companies working with Apple on Sullivan are reported to be developing real-time language translation, high-end media servers, file format converters, and music education software.

The burden of Sullivan’s effectiveness in a particular application comes down to the quality and sophistication of the MDTs and MOSs. MTDs and MOSs can function like plug-ins for the core Sullivan engine (drop them in the correct folder and Sullivan immediately becomes aware of the newly added media “flavors”) or as part of a specific application designed to run on top of the Sullivan engine. So, support for translating to or from HTML or XML would be best implemented as a plug-in intended for wide use by Sullivan-savvy applications, while MDTs that handle a proprietary data format might be available only within the context of a single program.

Sullivan seems like a breakthrough technology for Apple, both providing a solid foundation for the Macintosh platform and ample opportunity for third party development.

Jeff Carlson No comments

Taking a Step Back from Technology

Technology can be addictive. Many of us use devices like computers, cellular phones, and handheld organizers on a daily basis; many of us require them to make our livings. Taken in moderation, technology use can be exciting, interesting, and mentally stimulating. But like any addiction, too much can be destructive. That’s why we at TidBITS believe it’s essential to take a step back every now and again. If your life seems overwhelmed by the technology around you, try this simple 12-step program to help you regain that sense of balance that’s no doubt been missing for some time.

Step 1: Sell or donate all of your computer hardware and software; unsubscribe from mailing lists, including TidBITS.

Step 2: Relocate to a monastery, convent, or other religious sanctuary, as appropriate.

Step 3: Cleanse soul, reinvigorate personal karma, eat healthy food.

Step 4: Stop making typing motions with your fingers when you talk; stop using the word “bandwidth” as a metaphor for consciousness.

Step 5: Replace six-colored robe with standard-issue orange, brown, grey, white, or other color indicated by the order of your choosing.

Step 6: Spend evenings walking in the sanctuary grounds; gaze at the heavens in contemplation of the serenity of space.

Step 7: Locate planets and constellations among the stars; count satellites as they drift by.

Step 8: Calculate the line of sight angles from refectory rooftop to arc of passing satellites.

Step 9: Evaluate the electrical power supply generated by the waterwheel attached to the mill.

Step 10: Convince sanctuary elders of the value of preserving timeless documents in digital format; compare Ethernet to the traveling scribes of yore; raise donations by appearing in a New York Times article about modern anthropological miracles.

Step 11: Order PowerBook G3, DAT backup system, and hardware for a satellite Internet hookup.

Step 12: Resubscribe to TidBITS.