Apple is hard at work on Mac OS X, slated for an early 2000 release. But will Mac OS X provide the best of the Macintosh along with the best of the NeXT, or will it recast the Macintosh as a NeXT-like system? Read on for a number of concerns, as well as a look at utilities for enhancing your mouse. In the news, we look at the releases of Netopia’s Timbuktu 5.0 and HouseCall, Fog City’s LetterRip Pro 3.0.5, and Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit 5.1
Timbuktu Pro 5.0 & HouseCall — Netopia has released Timbuktu Pro 5.0 for the Mac OS, the latest version of its highly regarded remote control software, plus HouseCall, a new remote control product geared toward technical support. Timbuktu Pro 5.0 offers improved performance controlling remote computers via a modem, a TCP/IP browser for local networks, improved intercom and voice-over-IP capabilities, plus a new Tele/Modem toggle that enables users to switch between voice and remote control functions on an analog phone line without redialing. Timbuktu Pro 5.0 requires a PowerPC-based machine with at least Mac OS 8.1; single-user licenses start at $99 with discounts available for multi-user packs. Upgrades from previous versions of Timbuktu start at $30, with similar multi-user upgrade discounts.
Netopia’s new HouseCall is designed to enable Macintosh experts to provide technical assistance to other Mac users online. The expert runs a free Doctor version of HouseCall, which communicates with a licensed HouseCall Patient control panel on the remote system. Together, the Doctor and Patient software enable the expert to observe and control the screen of a remote Macintosh plus exchange files, just like Timbuktu. HouseCall also offers the same Tele/Modem toggle. In addition, Netopia runs a HouseCall Internet Locator service so HouseCall patients can be located by their doctor whenever they’re online, even over dynamic dialup connections. HouseCall requires at least Mac OS 8.1 and a Mac with a 68040 or PowerPC processor; client licenses start at $30 for a single user, going up to $200 for a ten-user pack. The HouseCall Doctor application is free; evaluation versions of HouseCall (and Timbuktu Pro 5.0) are available from Netopia’s Web site. [GD]
LetterRip Pro 3.0.5 Adds POP Features & Server Tweaks — Fog City Software has released LetterRip Pro 3.0.5, a maintenance release of its $395 mailing list software for the Mac OS. (See "Going Pro with LetterRip Pro" in TidBITS-473 for a review of LetterRip Pro 3) LetterRip Pro 3.0.5 adds the ability to handle automatic -on, -off, and -digest subscription accounts while using LetterRip with a single POP address, provides a way to change the incoming SMTP port, adds headers to non-MIME digests so email clients can better handle quoted-printable encoding, and fixes a handful of initialization issues. LetterRip Pro 3.0.5 is a free update to LetterRip Pro 3.x owners (the download ranges from 550K to 2.9 MB, depending whether you need the full installer or just the server application); owners of earlier versions of LetterRip Pro may be able to update for free, otherwise the update is $145. A fully functional 30-day demo from Fog City’s Web site. [GD]
Apple’s New Technology Gap — Apple Computer has appointed Millard "Mickey" Drexler to its board of directors. Drexler isn’t in the computer business; rather, he’s the chairman and CEO of Gap, Inc., a worldwide clothing and apparel retailer that’s also behind the well-known Banana Republic and Old Navy clothing brands. Apple apparently hopes to leverage Drexler’s consumer and retail marketing experience to expand Apple’s user base and product appeal. Anyone for a khaki iMac? [GD]
BBEdit 5.1 Rolls In Support for MacPerl — Bare Bones Software has released BBEdit 5.1, the latest version of its high-end text editor used by programmers and Web authors. BBEdit 5.1 offers integrated support for MacPerl, the Mac OS port of the programming language often used for text processing and CGI applications on Web servers. BBEdit 5.1 offers a special menu for MacPerl scripts and enables users to create custom "Perl filters" that operate on the contents of BBEdit document windows. Among other changes, BBEdit 5.1 integrates more fully with the Projector source control system used by Apple’s (now free) Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop (MPW), offers an improved multi-layout Web Color palette, rolls in improvements to its HTML verification utilities, and enhances tools designed to clean up after visual HTML editors. The BBEdit 5.1 update is a 2.4 MB download available for free to all BBEdit 5.x owners; owners of previous versions of BBEdit can upgrade for $39, and $79 upgrades are available for owners of competing programs or the freeware BBEdit Lite. [GD]
No, this article is not about squeezing profit from Disney stock. Our Macs all feature those unassuming rodents for clicking, dragging, and generally mousing around. Some Macintosh users, myself included, have moved on from rodentia macintosh to a more advanced species – in my case, a four-button Kensington TurboMouse trackball, which comes with the flexible Kensington MouseWorks software for assigning functionality to the four buttons, controlling acceleration, and so on. Other alternate pointing devices no doubt come with similar software.
But a few recent announcements turned my mind to the many people who are still using the garden variety Macintosh mouse and what options they have for saving the day with a mighty mouse. Keep in mind that I haven’t been able to test all of these utilities due to a lack of appropriate hardware, and mixing and matching these utilities may prove dangerous, since they tend to provide similar functions.
I’ve intentionally concentrated here on a few select programs that relate directly to the mouse hardware itself and actions you perform with the mouse, since any attempt to navigate the full maze of mouse utilities would make this a truly cheesy article. If the items mentioned here whet your thirst for other mouse-related interface enhancements, check out the numerous other utilities that came up in a TidBITS Talk thread recently.
USB Overdrive — The prolific Alessandro Levi Montalcini, perhaps best known for his macro program KeyQuencer, has released USB Overdrive, a universal USB driver that claims to handle all USB mice, trackballs, joysticks, and gamepads from any manufacturer. So if you have a Mac with USB ports (or if you buy a Keyspan USB card for an older Mac), you can now use a wide variety of USB devices that were designed for PCs.
USB Overdrive doesn’t let you just use these devices, though, it lets you access all the buttons, switches, wheels, and controls that may appear on them. You can link a scrolling wheel to document scrolling, Control-clicking to a second mouse button, or complex macros to other controls (not surprising, given’s Alessandro’s experience with KeyQuencer; see "KeyQuencer – QuicKeys Quencher?" in TidBITS-351). Function mapping can be either global or specific to certain applications, and USB Overdrive can work with multiple USB devices at once.
New to the recently released USB Overdrive 1.1 are an auto-scroll feature that doesn’t require a mouse wheel, new application-specific mouse speed settings, added support for more USB devices, and more. Frankly, if you have a USB-capable Mac, USB Overdrive opens up the entire world of PC USB hardware, which helps everyone involved. USB Overdrive 1.1 is $20 shareware and a 250K download.
TheMouse2B — If USB Overdrive is overkill or if you don’t have USB, consider Matthew Dolan’s TheMouse2B, a control panel that lets you configure the second mouse button on your mouse, should you have a mouse with multiple buttons but no customization software. You can configure the second mouse button to act as a single-click, double-click, click-lock (for dragging), or Control-click for accessing contextual menus (actually, any modifier click is possible, so you could have it Option-click to switch and hide applications). TheMouse2B reportedly works with a variety of ADB and USB two-button mice under System 7.0 and later (Mac OS 8 or later recommended). A 97K download, TheMouse2B is $10 shareware.
Snap-To and Scrollability — A popular option in the Kensington MouseWorks software is the capability to have the mouse cursor snap immediately to default buttons in dialog boxes that appear. I use it and like it for the most part, although I occasionally end up clicking the wrong button, especially when faced with a number of dialog boxes in sequence. For people who don’t use Kensington pointing devices, Eden Sherry’s $5 shareware Snap-To control panel offers the same functionality. Snap-To sports a few features beyond the basic Kensington MouseWorks functionality as well. You can disable Snap-To in Open and Save dialog boxes, where you usually need to navigate your hard disk or enter a file name before clicking the default Open or Save buttons. And Snap-To can move the cursor to the default button in a smooth gliding motion, rather than the abrupt snap that can cause you to lose track of where the mouse cursor had been. Snap-To is an 81K download and works on any Mac with System 7.0 or greater.
Eden has another clever utility called Scrollability that offers two additional ways of scrolling windows. You may be familiar with the "grabber" hand method of scrolling in some graphics and layout applications, such as QuarkXPress, PageMaker, or Photoshop. The Finder added that feature (try Command-dragging a Finder window) in Mac OS 8.5, but with Scrollability, you can grab-scroll windows in almost any application (and you can exclude those applications that conflict with Scrollability). For grab scrolling, you can define any set of modifier keys and limit the area in which you can cause grab-scrolling to happen. If holding down modifier keys is too annoying for you (and you don’t have a multiple-button mouse or trackball that could have a button defined to the modifier key combination), Scrollability’s other feature is to define an area (10 percent of the window height, by default) on the top and bottom of each window. Moving the cursor into those areas turns it into an up or down-pointing arrow and scrolls the window. It’s not for everyone, but if you find the standard scroll bars clumsy, it’s worth a try. Scrollability is $10 shareware and is a 134K download.
SmartScroll — Other scrolling innovations in the Mac OS 8.5 Finder are proportional thumbs that reflect the length of the window contents and live scrolling that moves the content of the window along with the scroll thumb. But those features are available only in the Finder and some updated applications. What if you want to take advantage of them in older applications? Then you’ll need Marc Moini’s SmartScroll, which makes these features available across all applications. SmartScroll works on any Mac released since 1990 running System 7.0 or later. It’s $12 shareware and is a 208K download.
Prestissimo — A long time ago, I used a utility called DoubleScroll, which provided double arrows on both ends of the scroll bar. DoubleScroll is still around, though it doesn’t work with Mac OS 8. Although the Mac OS 8.5 Appearance control panel’s Smart Scrolling feature can put double arrows on the scroll bars, it provides only one set at the bottom and right ends of the scroll bars. Luckily, a freeware control panel called Prestissimo can restore the functionality originally offered by DoubleScroll. Along with giving you better control over the keys used for application switching and the Application Palette in Mac OS 8.5, Prestissimo enables double scroll arrows at both ends of the scroll bars. Ironically, Prestissimo only reveals functionality that already exists in Mac OS 8.5 but that Apple chose to hide. If, like me, you’ve missed double scroll arrows on both ends of the scroll bars, give Prestissimo a try.
No Reason to Grouse about Your Mouse — It’s possible you’ve never needed or desired any added mouse functionality, and if so, Apple would probably agree with you, considering how unchanged mouse functionality has remained over the years. However, you may be surprised how one or two little utilities can enhance to your use of the Macintosh.
When Apple acquired NeXT in late 1996 the goal was ostensibly to acquire a next-generation operating system that could replace the Mac OS, since Apple had bought into the notion that the Mac OS was creaky and could barely cross the street under its own steam. As the past two and half years have demonstrated, the most valuable part of the NeXT acquisition was in fact the return of Steve Jobs to Apple’s helm. Since Jobs has become interim CEO, Apple has successfully executed a number of daring moves, most notably the release of the iMac.
It’s easy to forget that the other effects of NeXT acquisition have barely begun to be recognized. Sure, Apple has talked about a road map to future versions of the Mac OS and has even released Mac OS X Server, but for the most part, we’ve simply seen improvements to the Mac OS we know well. But if you look back the schedule Jobs laid out at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) a year ago, you’ll see that Apple has done well at meeting those self-imposed deadlines. Mac OS 8.5 shipped on schedule in Q3 of 1998, Mac OS X Server was only a little late in Q1 of 1999, and Mac OS 8.6 appeared soon after its scheduled Q1 1999 launch. The next major release comes in Q3 of 1999, when Apple plans to ship the next version of Mac OS 8, codenamed Sonata, with the first full release of Mac OS X scheduled for early 2000.
One friend who attended this year’s WWDC called it "nicely boring," because along with the schedule, Apple was sticking to the same stories told at the previous year’s WWDC. Despite the lack of excitement, that’s great news to hear, since developers in the past have griped about paying a lot of money to go and listen to Apple evangelize technologies that would meet the guillotine shortly thereafter. Consistency is good, and for Apple, consistency seems to mean adding underlying improvements to Mac OS 8.x and concentrating on the release of Mac OS X.
Mac OS X Details — Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mac OS X for current Macintosh users is that it is slated to support most existing Mac OS 8.x applications, some that won’t be able to take advantage of Mac OS X’s advanced features, and others that can become full-fledged citizens by sticking to a set of current Mac OS application programming interfaces (APIs) called Carbon, which Mac OS X will support directly. If Apple and Macintosh developers are able to pull off the Carbon strategy, it will truly be a best case situation where existing applications can take advantage of Mac OS X’s features without needing complete rewrites. Here are the basic levels in Mac OS X:
Classic: This "Mac OS virtual machine," which replaces the Blue Box (a part of Rhapsody, the precursor to Mac OS X), will let us run current applications that are not Carbon-compatible and thus won’t benefit from the advanced features of Mac OS X. At WWDC, Apple showed Classic applications running in their own windows, not all together in a single Blue Box window as previously shown.
Carbon: Applications compiled for use with Carbon will run directly under Mac OS X, taking advantage of protected memory, preemptive multitasking, and other features of Mac OS X. Carbon is important to Mac OS X’s success, since Apple claims it’s easy to make existing Mac OS applications Carbon-compatible. Some developers dispute the ease of making an existing application Carbon-compatible, but none argue that it will be easier than porting to Cocoa or rewriting from scratch.
Cocoa: Applications written for NeXT’s OpenStep (perhaps with some tweaking) and future applications written specifically to Mac OS X take advantage of all of Mac OS X’s features. This native layer of Mac OS X, previously called the Yellow Box, is now called Cocoa. Cocoa will also offer advanced support for Java.
Command-line: Yes, Virginia, there will be a command-line option in Mac OS X for working with command-line Unix applications. For the sake of most Mac users, we hope it’s a totally ancillary interface.
This combination of the best of the Macintosh with the best of NeXT’s operating system technology sounds great in theory, but as Mac OS X’s release date looms closer, concerns arise. Most of the public moves from Apple have focused on improving the Mac OS and releasing new Macintosh hardware. But all those employees who came over from NeXT haven’t been sitting still. They may wear Apple badges now, but it’s possible that on some levels these people are more interested in turning the Macintosh into a NeXT-like system than in making a Macintosh system built in part from NeXT technologies. I commented on this back in 1997, when the lines between Apple and NeXT technologies were more distinct. Things have blurred since then, but a sense of NeXT/Unix mentalities being forced onto Mac OS X still remains.
Examples of this unsettled feeling broke the surface at this month’s WWDC. In each case, Apple has made promises about maintaining the best of the Macintosh, but after discussions with Macintosh developers, we’re left with concerns about how the situations will play out in reality. Consider the following:
Carbon Finder — At WWDC, Jobs and Apple vice president Phil Schiller showed the "Carbon Finder," a version of the Finder rewritten from scratch. Unfortunately, on the surface it bore little resemblance to the Finder that tens of millions of Macintosh users use every day, and the audience greeted it with a combination of hisses and silence (comments after the keynote were even less polite). Instead, the "Carbon Finder" looked like an updated version of the NeXT Workspace Manager file browser (see the Macworld Online picture linked below) that was used by at best tens of thousands of people in NeXT’s heyday.
It seems that with proper settings, the Carbon Finder could be made to look like the current Finder, and it should provide a better interface for network browsing than the Chooser or even the Network Browser, which isn’t part of the Finder. Apple has long needed to resurrect something along the lines of the PowerTalk Catalog, a desktop icon that provided access to networked servers (see "PowerTalk Arrives" from TidBITS-195 for description).
There’s nothing wrong with multiple pane file browsers, but they often aren’t as flexible as today’s Finder. No one minds Apple providing a file browser as an option, even as a View option, but if Apple attempts to replace the Finder with a less-capable file browser, current Mac users will revolt. For a preview of a file browser, try Greg Landweber’s shareware utility Greg’s Browser.
The Yellow Brick Pathname — Mac OS X is based on Unix, and one of the basic aspects of Unix is a reliance on special directories with cryptic names like /bin, /etc, /usr, and so on. That’s not all that different than the Mac OS’s reliance on special folders like the Extensions, Control Panels, and Preferences folders. The main difference is that Unix file systems rely on pathnames not just for the special directories, but for all directories. In contrast, the Mac’s HFS and HFS Plus file systems assign every file and folder a unique ID number. The beauty of file IDs is that their independence from names and paths allows a level of abstraction that’s not possible under Unix. For instance, if you rename the folder that contains your applications, everything works as it did before, because file IDs don’t change. In Unix, such an action would cause all pathnames to change, in turn causing applications to lose track of support files.
In addition, it’s possible on the Mac to have multiple volumes with the same name, something that doesn’t come up with Unix (where the root level is always /) or Windows (where every volume has a unique letter). The impact of losing the capability to have multiple volumes with the same name could range from annoying to disastrous.
Mac OS X is slated to support HFS Plus by default, so file IDs should continue to work on disks that use HFS Plus. However, the fact that standard NeXT programming practices encourage pathname use may result in file IDs not being used. It’s also unclear what will happen when sophisticated users move back and forth between the different file systems also supported by Mac OS X. Even mentioning multiple file systems to most Mac users is a bad thing, so let’s hope Apple manages to hide the entire situation from normal users.
What’s Your Type? Mac OS X, being Unix, may also rely in part on filename extensions to assign types to files, just like Windows. A GIF file must have a .gif extension, a text file must have a .txt extension, and so on. The Mac OS instead uses file type and creator data structures to type files, so although you’re welcome to add .gif to a GIF file’s name, the operating system identifies the file as a GIF based on its file type code, not its file name.
Another feature Macintosh users expect is that files of the same type can open in different applications when double-clicked. One text file might open in SimpleText, whereas another might open in BBEdit or Nisus Writer. In Unix, as in Windows, files of the same type can be linked only with a single application. Aside from the obvious loss of functionality here, there’s a loss of control for the user. Suddenly, you must name your files correctly or they won’t work as you expect. I can’t imagine trying to explain to my grandmother that every file she creates must have a specific set of characters at the end of the filename. Applications could add them automatically, as many Windows programs do, but that’s also confusing.
Again, since Mac OS X will support HFS Plus, type and creator codes will probably be retained at least when using an HFS Plus file system. Expert users are curious how Mac OS X’s Unix utilities will interoperate with HFS Plus volumes, since it’s unlikely that the Unix file copy command cp, for instance, would retain type and creator codes when copying files on an HFS Plus file system.
To Text or not to Text — As a final concern, consider the humble preferences file. Normal Macintosh users seldom interact with their preferences files directly, because it’s an accepted tenet of the Macintosh world that applications must provide an interface to their preferences. In the Unix world, though, text-based preferences files rule.
As a friend has noted, attempt a real Apache configuration in today’s Mac OS X Server and you’re in vi (an arcane Unix text editor). Want to change a setting? Just edit the appropriate line in this text file! That may work fine for Unix power users, but it’s a recipe for disaster in the Macintosh world. Text-based preferences files are brittle; make a single character mistake and the application won’t behave as you expect.
Of course, an application could provide a graphical interface to its preferences and save the results in textual form, but as we’ve seen in programs ported from the Unix world, once there’s a text-based preferences file in use, creating a graphical interface becomes a low priority and may never happen.
Reading the Cocoa Leaves — These concerns are for the moment just that, concerns. Mac OS X isn’t scheduled to ship for at least seven months, and since Mac OS X Server slipped from Q3 1998 to Q1 1999, it’s entirely likely that the full Mac OS X will slip as well.
That gives Apple time to make sure that Mac OS X truly incorporates the combination of the best features of the Mac OS (the user experience) and the best features of the NeXT (modern operating system features). Steve Jobs has called the Mac OS Apple’s "crown jewels," saying that Apple had to concentrate on the Mac OS because that was where the company’s customers were. No one bought Macs during Apple’s death spiral days because they cared that Apple would one day release a totally different operating system. They bought Macs then, as they do now, because the Mac OS remains the best computing experience available today.
I sincerely hope that Jobs wasn’t buttering up existing Macintosh users merely to bolster Apple’s then-waning fortunes, because his comments then were on target. As good as aspects of the NeXT may have been, it was not a commercial success, whereas the Macintosh changed the face of computing. Keep the Macintosh face, Apple, and utilize the NeXT technology behind the scenes where it can work its magic without disturbing millions of Macintosh users.