Your friends turn to you to troubleshoot their Macs, but what if you aren’t nearby? Jeff Carlson looks at HouseCall, a utility for connecting to remote Macs and using them as if they were on your desk. Also, we revisit REALbasic and Internet grocery shopping, plus note the releases of ShrinkWrap 3.5, a battery fix for some PowerBook G3 Series owners, and MacHeadlines, which displays customizable new items from the Internet.
ShrinkWrap 3.5 Adds Features & Speed — Aladdin Systems has released Chad Magendanz’s ShrinkWrap 3.5, the latest version of the company’s widely used utility for creating and managing disk images. ShrinkWrap 3.5 offers support for HFS Plus volumes, Navigation Services, an option to copy only used blocks, various interface enhancements, and the capability to access disk images nested within disk images. Version 3.5 also enhances ShrinkWrap’s compatibility with the NDIF disk image format used by Apple’s Disk Copy, now supporting segmented images split into multiple files and also creating Disk Copy images two to five times faster than Disk Copy itself. ShrinkWrap can also optionally use StuffIt compression and 40-bit encryption, automatically launch an installer when a disk image is mounted (perfect for software distribution), and even access disk images and drive containers used by Virtual PC, Adaptec’s Toast mastering software, Hard Disk ToolKit, Apple’s DOS Cards, Insignia PC emulation products, and more. ShrinkWrap 3.5 is a $15 upgrade for owners of ShrinkWrap 3.0; otherwise, Aladdin sells the product online for $30. A 1.1 MB 30-day demo is also available. [GD]
Possible Fix for PowerBook G3 Series Battery Woes? Apple has released the PowerBook G3 Series Battery Reset Update 1.0, intended to alleviate problems with main batteries experienced by owners of some PowerBook G3 Series laptops. Reported problems include batteries that are not acknowledged by the PowerBook, batteries that fail to charge, or batteries that report inaccurate charge levels. The PowerBook G3 Series Battery Reset Update includes a small application that can reset one or both PowerBook batteries (if two are inserted), which should enable the PowerBook to recognize them correctly. Apple doesn’t claim this application will solve all battery problems. Do note this update only applies to PowerBook G3 Series computers (family number M4753 – look at the label on the bottom of the computer) and not to current bronze keyboard PowerBook G3s. Apple details the differences between various G3-equipped PowerBooks in a Tech Info Library article. The update is a 190K download. [GD]
Trexar Releases MacHeadlines 1.7 — Trexar Technologies today released MacHeadlines 1.7, an update to the product previously known as NewsTicker. Much like Trexar’s MacTuner and WeatherTracker, MacHeadlines provides a dedicated interface to information from the Web, in this case scrolling headlines, stock prices, and other information in a highly customizable window. Click a headline to load the associated article in your Web browser. MacHeadlines comes pre-configured with some common news sites, and you can add your own (including TidBITS). MacHeadlines requires System 7.5.1 or later with Open Transport 1.1 or better. MacHeadlines is $20 shareware; the evaluation version expires after 20 days. [ACE]
A year ago in "Yes, Virginia, There Is a REALbasic," in TidBITS-443, I praised REAL Software’s REALbasic as being a powerful object-oriented development environment that encouraged rapid, improvisational creation of useful, well-behaved Macintosh applications with pleasing interfaces. I put my time where my mouth was and have now written a book about REALbasic (called "REALbasic: The Definitive Guide" and due from O’Reilly in October).
While I was working on the book, REALbasic continued to evolve. This was a source of frustration for me, but no book can be up to the minute on the software it describes, and besides, it was also a source of great excitement, because the program improved as the book was being written. Having written the entire book initially to describe REALbasic version 1.0, I then rewrote it to describe version 2; and I’m glad I did. The timing turned out splendidly. Although REALbasic 2.0 was released prematurely, the 2.0.2 release (and even more so the 2.1 alphas which have followed it) eliminate so many problems and provide so many valuable improvements that users, in my view, should now no longer hesitate to upgrade or purchase the Standard version. And when they do, the book will be there to help them. (I cannot, however, yet recommend the $300 Professional version, which adds database functionality and the capability to build Windows programs from the same source code. These two features are still in rather poor shape, especially given their steep price tag.)
In REALbasic 2.0, there are many new Appearance Manager controls (such as bevel buttons), printing support is improved, QuickTime movies can be constructed in real time, Apple event support is better (though still incomplete), and the Mac toolbox can be called directly on both PowerPC and 68K machines. Many miscellaneous holes in functionality have been filled; some remain, but the folks at REAL Software know of the problems and appear to be taking them seriously, so there’s hope that these, too, may soon be fixed. Also, the programming language has been deepened through the addition of constants, pass-by-reference parameters, array parameters, and variants. Plus, the environment’s object orientation has become much more sophisticated thanks to constructors, virtual methods, and class interfaces which act as a stand-in for multiple inheritance. All that may sound daunting, but what it really comes down to is that programming with REALbasic is even easier and more natural than before.
I continue to recommend REALbasic strongly – and not just because of the book. It’s truly a fun and cool way to develop applications. I also think it would make a great environment for learning to program for the first time. I’ve been testing this notion on some children on loan from a friend, running a sort of private "computer camp" – the results have been wonderful. REALbasic gives instant gratification and turns programming constructs into vivid actions; the kids had a great time getting the computer to translate from English to Pig Latin, to draw stick figures and animate them, and to play tic-tac-toe.
REALbasic 2.0.2 Standard costs $100 ($60 academic), or $50 to upgrade from version 1.0 ($30 academic). You can buy it directly from REAL Software’s Web site.
How many times have you helped a friend or relative with a Macintosh problem over the phone, knowing you could fix the trouble in a fraction of the time if you could just get your hands on their machine? Although the trouble might be trivial, guiding someone verbally through a visual interface can be quite an exercise in patience – especially if they’re beginning users who don’t yet have a solid grasp of the terminology that describes what they’re seeing. You have to build a mental picture of their screen based on their descriptions, while also giving instructions in terms they can easily understand.
Now, you can get your hands on their machine, no matter where you happen to be. Netopia’s Timbuktu HouseCall includes the access and control features of its more powerful sibling Timbuktu Pro in a package geared for simplified one-to-one access. HouseCall enables you to view or control another Macintosh, exchange files, type messages in a chat window, and even use an intercom feature to speak to the other person using microphones attached to both Macs. HouseCall can connect two computers over the Internet or via direct modem-to-modem connection.
HouseCall has two components: the HouseCall Patient control panel that the other user installs on the ailing Mac (which must, of course, be able to boot and use its modem or Internet connection), and the HouseCall Doctor application that you, as the on-call Mac expert, use to interact with the other machine.
The Internet as Waiting Room — The easiest method of connecting a doctor to a patient is via the Internet. Enter the IP address of the remote machine in the HouseCall Doctor application. When the patient enables Internet access to the HouseCall Patient, you can connect.
Not everybody has a fixed IP address, so patients using a dial-up Internet connection (who typically receive a different IP address each time they connect) can enter their email address. With Internet access enabled in HouseCall Patient, the current IP address is displayed and stored temporarily with the email address on Netopia’s public Internet Locator Server. The doctor needs only to enter the patient’s email address to prompt HouseCall Doctor to look up the currently assigned IP number. Users sensitive to broadcasting their email address can use any unique address; according to Netopia, this information is used only for establishing HouseCall connections.
Nursing Modem-to-Modem Access — HouseCall doesn’t require an Internet connection, as long as both machines have modems and access to a telephone line. By default, HouseCall tries to operate via a direct modem-to-modem connection, an option that represents some of the software’s strongest and yet most frustrating aspects. On one hand, you can both talk and transfer data using the same single-line phone connection, which can be handy if you need to pause your diagnostic work and speak to the other person without breaking the connection and calling back. However, establishing a modem-to-modem connection in the first place can be frustrating.
My biggest gripe with HouseCall is that you must use your voice line as the data line. When a client of mine was having a problem that we couldn’t diagnose over the phone, I turned to HouseCall instead of making an unscheduled 30 minute drive to his office. Although we both have two phone lines, I had to plug my voice phone line into my PowerBook, then initiate the call using my phone; similarly, he had to juggle phone cords and handsets on his end. With both of us on the phone, we each clicked HouseCall’s Activate Modem button, and after enduring modem connection tones, were instructed by HouseCall to hang up the receivers. Once the data connection is established, you can click HouseCall’s Talk on Phone button to go back to voice communication.
Netopia deserves credit for making the process straightforward: each step is explained by a dialog box that must be dismissed before you can continue. However, many people requiring remote assistance won’t be technically inclined, and the succession of dialogs and commands could easily become confusing. Also, in this age when many people have phone lines dedicated to data access (especially true of folks acting as computer doctors) HouseCall should include the capability to enter the patient’s phone number and make the connection directly without requiring a doctor to call a patient using a handset.
The Ghost in the Machine — Once a connection is up and running, HouseCall is a joy to use. As doctor, you can click the Control button to display the contents of the remote Mac’s screen; now you can control the Mac as if it were sitting on your desk. My client expressed amazement as his PowerBook seemed to be pointing, clicking, and opening folders on its own. For my part, I was quickly able to delve into his System Folder to confirm my theory as to why his computer was misbehaving (an old version of the StuffIt Engine was preventing some email attachments from being decoded). Tasks that would have been difficult and time-consuming to explain verbally took only a few minutes to perform, I didn’t have to try to visualize what my client was doing, and my client could watch precisely what I did.
To my surprise, HouseCall was quite responsive, even over our 33.6 Kbps connection. If the connection had been slower, I could have switched the HouseCall display to black-and-white by clicking a B&W icon on the left edge of the window, which would improve performance by reducing the amount of display data being pushed to my machine.
While working, I was also able to ask my client questions using HouseCall’s Chat window (which is a fairly standard chat interface where you type back and forth with the other person) without switching back to the voice line. Communicating via the program’s Intercom feature was also an option, but since he was on a deadline we didn’t take the extra time just to experiment. I later tested the Intercom feature using a fast DSL connection with a colleague also using DSL; the feature is usable – especially if you have a microphone into which you can speak directly – but it tended to be a little sluggish and the sound quality could be choppy. Someone with more dedicated support needs could definitely benefit from using the intercom, though.
To fix my client’s problem, I deleted the outdated extension and copied over the most recent installer for StuffIt Expander by dragging it from my desktop and dropping it on his. An Exchange progress window appeared, followed by a pleasing tone to announce completion of the copy operation. (I’m always impressed when software incorporates good, unique sounds.) If I only needed to copy the files to him, I could have begun by creating a new exchange session without controlling his machine at all. In that case, an Exchange window appears containing only a directory list of both computers; simply select a file and click Copy. After installing the new version of StuffIt Expander, I was able to decode the files that he needed for his deadline. Declaring the patient cured, we disconnected, and I sent him a bill that likely totalled far less than a real doctor’s charge for the same amount of diagnostic time.
Control Issues — Timbuktu Pro can be configured to allow a system administrator to connect to a user’s machine semi-transparently; a flashing icon on the menu bar denotes that someone is connected, but as long as access has already been set up, the administrator can connect at any time. Since HouseCall is intended for occasional access, nearly every action requires confirmation by the patient, from establishing control to instigating a chat session, and the doctor must wait until the patient has given approval. This can be frustrating for the doctor, especially when copying multiple items: each exchange requires confirmation, and unfortunately my client once stepped out of his office for a minute while I waited for him to approve a file transfer. But such annoyances are minor compared to having to spend twice as much time on the phone or visit the recalcitrant computer.
HouseCall shares a few other options with Timbuktu Pro. You can copy the contents of the clipboard from one machine to the other, and there are settings at the left edge of the HouseCall window to control whether or not resizing the window resizes its contents or just changes the amount of visible screen space. You can also toggle between Control mode and Look mode, where your mouse and keyboard actions aren’t applied to the remote machine (in case you need to observe how a patient is performing a task, for example). HouseCall also includes a Modem Monitor window to view the state and duration of a modem-to-modem connection.
Expert Care without Paperwork! The HouseCall Doctor application is a free 1.1 MB download from Netopia’s Web site. The patient client, also a 1.1 MB download, costs $30 individually, $50 for two registration codes, or $200 for a ten-pack. Although several people I’ve spoken to are surprised the client has to pay for the software, having the patient pick up the tab is often a small price to pay in exchange for having troubles resolved by an experienced Mac expert. At typical consulting rates, HouseCall will likely pay for itself during the first session.
HouseCall is a great easy-to-use solution for anyone who has ever tried to diagnose a Macintosh problem over the phone. Both components require a PowerPC-based Mac OS computer, 16 MB of RAM, modem or Internet access, and Mac OS 8.1 or later. A fully functional, three-day evaluation version of the HouseCall Patient is also available.
Last March, I wrote about how we had started using HomeGrocer.com, a local Internet grocery service, in place of trips to the supermarket. The article prompted much discussion on TidBITS Talk of issues surrounding the move of something as basic as food gathering from the real world to the virtual space of the Internet. And since March, a number of changes have occurred in the Internet grocery field.
Update on HomeGrocer.com — I’ve enjoyed watching HomeGrocer.com grow over the last few months. With most Internet-related companies, it’s hard to get a feel for the changes in the company because your experience of them is so divorced from the real world. But with HomeGrocer.com, a truck arrives at our house each week, and most of the drivers are happy to chat while they unload our groceries. In May, HomeGrocer.com expanded to the Portland, Oregon area. The demand took HomeGrocer.com by surprise; within five weeks of announcing the Portland expansion, order volume there had reportedly increased past where it had been in Seattle after a year of operation. The surprise hit in multiple ways; HomeGrocer.com had chosen to send long-haul trucks from the company’s Seattle warehouse to Portland rather than take the expensive step of building a warehouse in Portland.
Local HomeGrocer.com service has improved in various ways as well. You can now schedule deliveries for any day of the week during a wider range of hours. HomeGrocer.com’s Web site has had several usability improvements, along with the occasional step back, such as when someone decided it would be clever to force some items into a "Natural & Organic" category. That category had the effect of scattering items around your lists; some fruits and vegetables might be under "Produce," whereas others were "Natural & Organic." It was a dumb move, but to HomeGrocer.com’s credit, our outraged messages received immediate responses and it quickly became a secondary categorization method.
HomeGrocer.com continues to add new products, but we’ve been disappointed with the amount of locally grown and seasonal produce they carry. Similarly, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve added significantly more unusual or hard to find items. I fear that as HomeGrocer.com grows, they’ll focus more on the least common denominator rather than on the aspects of grocery retailing that differentiate them from standard supermarkets.
The biggest news for HomeGrocer.com of late was a $42.5 million investment from Amazon. Although speculation about how the two businesses might combine their core competencies was rampant, little has changed externally. It makes little sense for HomeGrocer.com trucks to deliver Amazon orders given the efficiency and ubiquity of other delivery services, and perishable groceries are a significantly different market than what Amazon normally sells. I would like to see a consumer comments section for grocery items, along the lines of the reader comments section for Amazon’s books. Although such comments aren’t guarantees, any additional information when deciding what brand of refried beans to buy, for instance, would be helpful for those of us who don’t buy refried beans often enough to develop much of an opinion on our own.
The Competition — Although Amazon’s investment will help HomeGrocer.com expand to new markets (the San Francisco Bay Area is probably next), other companies are also moving to fill the need for Internet-accessible grocery stores around the world. Peapod received good but not great reviews from TidBITS Talk participants; one of the reasons for the mixed reaction was that Peapod recently switched (at least in some places) from partnering with local grocery stores to creating its own warehouses. Although the move should make Peapod more efficient, it has also reportedly hurt selection.
Webvan, a Bay Area startup, has also garnered quite a bit of press. Webvan is attempting to set itself apart from the other Internet groceries by waiving its $5 shipping fee on orders over $50 and by reportedly offering lower prices than you’d find in supermarkets. No one has yet reported in to TidBITS Talk on Webvan’s service.
I’m amazed at how many supermarkets the Seattle metropolitan area seems to support. The Internet grocers are only now starting to bump into each other in local markets, and it remains to be seen how that competition will play out.
Societal Aspects of Internet Groceries — In my original article, I touched on a few societal aspects of shopping for groceries on the Internet, and more came up on TidBITS Talk.
Shopping for groceries has more societal baggage than most other forms of shopping, simply because food gathering isn’t optional. One way or another, we must all acquire food each day, and the ways in which we’ve done that characterize society throughout the ages. In broad strokes, we’ve jumped from hunter/gatherers to nomadic herders to agriculturists; more recently, populations have shifted from farms to cities, farming has become significantly more mechanized, and we now take for granted immense food distribution networks. Overall, Internet grocers are only a minor shift in the overall ways we gather food – in fact, grocery delivery was commonplace in many cities not all that long ago.
However, Internet grocers deliver to a wider geographical area than old-time grocers delivering to local customers. These regular deliveries have the potential to change driving patterns, and given the tremendous impact of automobiles on society and environment, I expect that for some people the reduction in driving, with the concomitant reduced pollution and congestion, will prove especially important.
The social aspects of shopping also prove interesting. Although the traditional marketplace was often the primary opportunity for socialization for agrarian societies, many of today’s shopping experiences do nothing to bring people together. Some stores realize the importance of encouraging community, so it’s not uncommon to see bookstores with coffee shops or grocery stores with food courts. Many people crave community, and physical stores may find that providing a place to gather helps them compete against the increased efficiencies of the Internet grocers.
Some people on TidBITS Talk expressed fears about Internet grocery shopping being yet another excuse for people to avoid others, but I don’t believe there’s any real danger there. People who aren’t interested in socializing don’t do so at traditional grocery stores; folks who do can use the time saved with online grocers with friends and family. Sure, the possibility for abuse is always present; the individual must still take responsibility for his or her life.
On a larger scale, Internet grocery shopping represents a fairly fundamental shift in consumption patterns. Internet grocers affect local employment, taxation, and other issues related to the presence of traditional supermarkets. I can’t predict how these issues will play out, since I think Internet grocers will have to maintain significant local presences in the markets they serve due to the perishable nature of many foodstuffs.
Finally, TidBITS Talk participants raised some concerns about the economic requirements to participate in Internet grocery shopping. Vast numbers of people can’t afford computers or Internet access and as such, undoubtedly can’t participate. Traditional supermarkets will continue to serve those areas, but I think we may also see innovative ways of providing hardware and Internet access to lower-income families. For instance, an Internet grocer making inroads into a geographic area could provide inexpensive computers and Internet access in exchange for a service contract, constant advertising, or a certain level of shopping. If the "free PC" movement proves successful in general (as it has in the cellular telephone market), there’s no telling how far it might spread.