We celebrate the 500th issue of TidBITS with a redesign of our home page, including the addition of weekly polls and quizzes. Also this week, Adam weighs in with the first part of an article on how he’s come to see the light of the MP3 format for music. In the news we cover the releases of a free update to Retrospect 4.2, Retrospect for Windows, Netscape Communicator 4.7, and FileMaker Pro Web Companion 5.0v2, plus cheaper prices on Palm handhelds.
Cheaper Palm VII Debuts Nationwide — Palm Computing has announced the nationwide availability of the wireless Palm VII device in the United States. The Palm VII, which features built-in wireless Internet access, has been available in the New York City metropolitan area since 24-May-99. In addition to expanded availability, the Palm VII’s price has been reduced from $600 to $500. Palm also announced a third option for subscribing to the monthly Palm.net service, required for wireless access: the Volume Plan includes 300K of transferred data for $40 per month (the existing Basic Plan offers 50K for $10, while the Expanded Plan includes 150K for $25). The cost of data used beyond the monthly limits dropped to $0.20 per kilobyte. Although that sounds like a minuscule amount of data, the Palm VII uses a technology Palm calls Web Clipping which can dramatically reduce the amount of data transferred during each transaction. Still, early users have reported that it’s easy to burn through several hundred kilobytes of data during a month’s time. Palm also announced price cuts throughout the entire Palm organizer product line plus the Palm Vx, an expanded version of the slim Palm V offering 8 MB of RAM (versus 2 MB in the original) and a slightly faster processor. [JLC]
Brought to You by the Letter T — Only two days after releasing the latest version of their flagship product (see "FileMaker Pro 5 Released to Controversy" in TidBITS-499), FileMaker, Inc. released an update to the FileMaker Pro 5 Web Companion. The FileMaker Pro Web Companion 5.0v2 fixes problems where passwords containing the letter "t" would not appear correctly in Web Security databases and corrects a problem referencing custom HTML error pages. Updaters are available for both Mac and Windows versions of FileMaker 5, and both measure approximately 600K. [JLC]
Retrospect 4.2 Update & Retrospect for Windows — Days after releasing Retrospect for Windows, Dantz Development has released a free downloadable upgrade for the Macintosh version of Retrospect. Retrospect 4.2 changes the way Retrospect Client licenses work, shifting from individual client licenses to application-based licenses that should ease administration of numerous Retrospect Clients. Retrospect Client packs also now contain versions for both the Macintosh and Windows; in the past, you had to purchase them separately. All previously purchased Retrospect Client codes work with both the current Macintosh or Windows clients (you should also download the Retrospect Client Updaters package from Dantz’s Web site). Accessing networked clients is easier in Retrospect 4.2, which can automatically find clients within defined IP address ranges. Long-time Retrospect users will need to pay attention to a few terminology changes made to clarify basic Retrospect operations: StorageSets are now called "backup sets," New backups are "New Media backups," and Full backups now go by "Recycle backups." Retrospect 4.2 will also feature new HTML Help and updated documentation, but neither are available yet. Finally, although the updater works only with the English language version of Retrospect 4.1, international users can now take advantage of the 56-bit DES encryption that Dantz previously wasn’t able to export. The Retrospect 4.2 Updater is a 2.2 MB download, and the Retrospect Client Updater package weighs in at 1.9 MB.
Dantz has also released the first full version of Retrospect for Windows (previously, Retrospect Clients for Windows were available, so you could use a Mac to backup Windows machines). Retrospect 5.0 for Windows comes in three versions: Retrospect Desktop Backup, Retrospect Workgroup Backup, and Retrospect Server Backup. The $150 Desktop version runs on Windows 95/98 and NT Workstation and backs up a single PC to all removable cartridge drives and most CD-R, CD-RW, and tape drives. The $300 Workgroup version also runs on NT Server and includes 20 Retrospect Client licenses to back up either networked Windows or Macintosh clients. The $500 Server version includes 100 Retrospect Client licenses and can back up client machines over multiple IP subnets. You can download a 30-day 7.8 MB demo of Retrospect for Windows.
The release marks Dantz Development’s first major move out of the Macintosh market, where Dantz has about 95 percent of the market share. Ironically, according to Craig Isaacs of Dantz, the move was prompted by long-standing requests from Macintosh fans in Windows environments who were frustrated at the lack of decent Windows backup software. [ACE]
Netscape Communicator 4.7 Released — Despite focusing most of their efforts on Netscape Communicator 5.0, Netscape Communications has released Netscape Communicator 4.7. Changes are generally minor, with one useful but undocumented new feature: if you Command-Option-click a link, Communicator uses Internet Config settings to send the link to the appropriate application (such as FTP links to Anarchie, or mailto links to Eudora). Other changes include several security fixes, 56-bit DES encryption for both U.S. and international versions, and a Netscape Radio service that lets you listen to Internet radio stations. Communicator 4.7 requires a Power PC-based Macintosh running System 7.6.1 or later, and the full download is 12.9 MB. [ACE]
I’m shocked that we’ve published 500 consecutive issues of TidBITS. Back when we started, I would never have predicted that TidBITS would have enjoyed such longevity. It’s a testament to the Macintosh, Apple, and the Internet that we can still find sufficiently interesting topics to cover. Plus, the support you have all provided over the years and the positive response from hundreds of individuals to our TidBITS Contributions program has kept us enthused about continuing. This week, we’re pleased to unveil a redesign of our home page aimed at exposing more of our content and adding a few cool new features like a weekly poll. Visit the new home page and follow along to learn what we did and why.
Looking Back — Although we haven’t kept old versions of our Web site around after redesigns (even we’re not that retentive), I decided to go back and read about our previous redesigns. In September of 1996, I wrote about our first redesign in "Rethinking a Web" and "Rethinking More of a Web" in TidBITS-344 and TidBITS-345. That effort was also the first time we put conscious thought into how we wanted the site to work. Some of those initial design ideas remain to this day, although modified and updated for modern HTML capabilities like tables.
October of 1997 brought another significant redesign, and in "Four Hundred Issues and a Dynamic Web Site" in TidBITS-400, we unveiled major changes to our entire site, including a new graphical logo, the GetBITS CGI that enabled us to provide permanent URLs to individual articles in our database, and a persistent left-side navigation bar. Our home page has retained that basic look for two years now, an eternity on the Web.
We weren’t sitting still during those two years, which brought the release of TidBITS Talk and its Web-based archive that I apparently suckered Geoff into creating (see "TidBITS Talk & the TidBITS Talk Archive" in TidBITS-440) along with a database overhaul that enabled articles to know about related articles and TidBITS Talk threads (see "Adding Context to TidBITS Searches" in TidBITS-477).
Seems like a lot of Web work for an email publication, no? It’s true that most people still read TidBITS in email, but we’ve always been open to alternate methods of distribution. It’s not our business to dictate how you should read TidBITS, which is why we publish TidBITS via email, the Web, FTP, and an active channel using Microsoft’s now-ignored Channel Definition Format. For those of you using Palm handheld devices, David Charlesworth <[email protected]> has recently begun converting issues of TidBITS into the Palm DOC format, which you can read with the free AportisDoc Reader. David also has a page designed for users of AvantGo’s HTML display service for the Palm devices – if you’re interested in reading TidBITS instead of that 1982 issue of TIME Magazine at the doctor’s office, check out David’s welcome conversions.
Expose Yourself to Content — Our primary design goal with this year’s redesign was to increase the amount of timely content on our home page by leveraging the Web in ways that make sense for a publication. The Web works well for browsing and searching through archives, collecting bits of information into sets, and for dynamic data. On our new home page, we focus on these uses in several ways.
The new page design devotes a fair amount of space to the most important piece of work we do – the current issue of TidBITS. The new approach reorganizes information relating to each issue, starting at the top with the issue title, which links to the full issue in HTML format for those who wish to read our traditional "just the text" view of the issue on the Web. Below the issue title come the MailBITS and Articles headlines. You can scan them quickly and follow their links to the individual articles in our article database. We wanted to make it easy for people to read just the articles that interest them without paging through the rest of the issue. And if you prefer reading text to scanning headlines, the abstract of the issue appears next, describing what’s inside in a more verbose fashion.
Throughout the week after an issue comes out, we publish short news bits that we’ve been calling "TidBITS Updates" on our Web site. We did this initially to bring some changing content to our home page to encourage people to visit more frequently. It’s proven even more valuable to us as an encouragement to cover the most important events and product releases as they occur, rather than putting everything off until just before the full issue comes out. The new page design includes these updates on the top of the right-hand column in a section titled "Breaking News." Each news headline links to the appropriate section of another Web page that contains the full text of active new reports.
New to the home page is the bottom half of the right-hand column, titled "Dig Deeper in TidBITS Talk." TidBITS Talk is our moderated discussion list that raises additional details about topics raised in TidBITS. TidBITS Talk has proven itself one of the most useful Macintosh mailing lists, thanks to the knowledge, experience, and insight of the TidBITS Talk members, combined with the work we put in keeping discussions on topic and editing messages for relevant content. By displaying some active TidBITS Talk threads from our Web archive on our new home page, we hope that people who don’t want to subscribe to yet another mailing list can still benefit from TidBITS Talk or jump into discussions that immediately interest them.
The contents of the right-hand column on the new page shift to accommodate different numbers of breaking news headlines and TidBITS Talk "threadlines." That column has eight slots, up to five of which can be filled by breaking news items. If there are fewer news headlines, you’ll see more TidBITS Talk threadlines. And if there are more than five news headlines or more active TidBITS Talk threadlines than will fit in the remaining slots, you’ll see "more…" links that display all current items.
Polls and Quizzes — Beneath our main content area, you can see the main addition to our home page – a weekly poll or quiz. Polls and quizzes are another example of appropriate use of the Web – managing them via email is at best messy. We decided to build poll functionality initially because it can be fun and because we occasionally wanted a way to poll our readership about some hot topic. (TidBITS Talk works well for lengthier opinions and discussions but isn’t appropriate for simple opinion surveys.) Once we’d worked out the basics of a poll, we realized that the only difference between a poll question and a quiz question is that a quiz has a correct answer. Building in that addition was easy, and it lets us provide quizzes you can use to test your Macintosh or Internet knowledge.
Asking a poll or quiz question is the easy part. More interesting is the results page you see when you respond to the poll or quiz. The results page restates the question, provides a graph of the responses with both graphical bars, numeric percentages, and raw numbers for each answer, and provides links to TidBITS articles and TidBITS Talk threads that tell you more about the topic in question. We’ll also have links to previous poll and quiz results.
I can barely wait to see the responses to some of the polls we have planned, and we’re working on a wide range of quiz questions appropriate for Mac beginners all the way up to those who consider themselves Macintosh alpha geeks. We plan to announce each new question in TidBITS and report on the results of the previous week’s question, but the only way to participate will be on our home page.
Text Banners — Although we’ve never included graphical ad banners on our home page (we did have them within NetBITS issues), we’ve long had what we informally call "the purple box" at the top of the home page, below the main logo. We use the purple box to alert visitors to interesting projects, events, or books by staff members, including things like our voluntary contribution program and [email protected] team. Our main frustration with the purple box has been that it’s difficult to update, and as a result, we don’t change it as often as we’d like.
We’ve come up with a slightly new use for the purple box that fits in with the difference between our sponsorship program and straight Web-based advertising. With the sponsorship program, we’re careful about just who we work with because a sponsorship is associative – our reputation rubs off somewhat on our sponsors, and theirs on us. The new design for the purple box helps clarify that relationship by displaying a small icon from the sponsor next to their sponsorship text from the most recent issue. Since we encourage sponsors to offer special deals to TidBITS readers, we hope this redesign will also increase the utility of the sponsorship text for readers without the overhead (and annoyance) of traditional advertising banners.
Looking Forward — As is often the case with a large project, we came up with additional ideas and possibilities for the redesign that we ended up setting aside for lack of time. Since we’re always looking for ways to improve TidBITS, that means we have more ideas to implement in the future. As always, if you have comments or suggestions, send them along. Who knows what we might end up with when TidBITS-600 appears in another two years?
As much as I try to stay abreast of the software world, publishing TidBITS can prevent me from sitting down with a new program or exploring a new technology. As a result, I almost missed the massive change that’s happening with music thanks to MP3. Almost a year ago in TidBITS-455, Kevin Savetz wrote an excellent introduction to MP3 in "Move Over MTV, Now There’s MP3," but only in the last few weeks have I internalized how deep the changes go.
Quick Recap — MP3 stands for MPEG 1 layer 3 and is a highly compressed file format for storing audio that can be replayed without significant loss of quality. The term "near CD-quality" is often bandied about, but the important fact is that non-audiophiles probably won’t hear the difference between music on an original CD and the MP3 version. People who have excellent hearing or are trained in music probably will notice the difference, but MP3 isn’t an incremental change from the top of the audiophile food chain, it’s a grass roots revolution begun outside the music industry. That said, I gather audiophiles are pondering the implications of MP3 as well, since bringing music into a computer makes possible all sorts of manipulations and auditory tweaks that were previously impossible.
We’ve seen significantly more MP3 software since Kevin’s article, with support for MP3 appearing in QuickTime 4.0, plus a number of free (SoundApp, GrayAmp, and QuickMP3) and commercial (SoundJam MP, Macast, Audion, and the beta MVP) applications that offer more full-featured interfaces than the QuickTime Player.
Thanks to MP3, the Internet has become a more viable publishing medium for independent musicians, who often release recordings in the tightly compressed and royalty-free MP3 format, either enticing you to buy the full CD or to pay a small fee for a particular track. MP3 is also now being used by a variety of sites like SHOUTcast and The Green Witch for streaming radio broadcasts that most of the commercial MP3 players can play back. A program called Ampcast helps you find these MP3-based radio broadcasts, and if you want to play disk jockey, check out BayTex Fiesta and MegaSeg, both of which let you mix and fade between MP3 songs.
MP3 has started to leak out into the physical world as well, and we’re seeing numerous featherweight MP3 players like the Diamond Rio 500, the I-Jam, and the jazPiper. These devices rely on small memory cards that store MP3 files downloaded from a Mac or a PC.
Being Really Digital — Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab often writes about the importance of digital over analog, and MP3 provides an interesting take on the difference. After all, music distributed on CDs is digital, and much is often made of the superior sound quality of CDs, supposedly because they’re digital. In fact, the reason CDs provide excellent sound quality is that they provide more bandwidth than many analog methods of playing recorded sound, such as cassette tapes, and the quality of the CD-based audio doesn’t deteriorate over time and with each use. Sound quality is unrelated to the digital/analog divide.
Although they use a digital storage format, CDs feel like members of the analog world. You buy CDs in stores, and they come in cardboard and plastic packages. You can damage CDs, and you must constantly swap them in and out of your CD player. Simply put, CDs are physical objects that you use much like analog audio cassettes and vinyl records.
I can hear the muffled protests in the ether already, because you can put CDs into your Mac, download title and artist information from the Internet, and work with their contents as though each track were a file. That’s true, but most people don’t because of the sheer size of those files – often 30 to 50 MB each. Someday we won’t think twice about working with files that size, but for most purposes now, a 40 MB file is too large to store conveniently on your hard disk, copy over a network, or download from the Web. A full CD might hold between 450 MB and 740 MB of audio data, which means I could store approximately 2 of them on the 1.2 GB hard disk in my Power Mac 8500. There’s no reason to bother working with these massive CDs on the Mac – my $250 bookshelf stereo holds 6 CDs at once.
That’s where MP3 waltzes in. You can convert a song from a CD into MP3 format and in the process, reduce its size by a factor of ten. A 30 MB original might drop down to 3 MB, and although a full CD might still occupy 45 to 75 MB, that’s a far cry from its original size.
Broadcasting the Revolution — Before going on, let me explain how Tonya and I joined the MP3 revolution. Last year, our Sony CD player started having tracking problems. I searched the Internet, found instructions for repairing CD players, and, after a bit of puttering, solved the problem by refocusing the lens. It worked wonderfully for about a week, when the problem came back. I kept fixing it for some time, but eventually became annoyed at taking the CD player apart every time it stopped working.
The repair route was too expensive, so we started shopping for a replacement CD player and were irritated to discover that the higher quality players with decent feature sets and interfaces haven’t come down much in price since we’d bought the previous one. We didn’t want to spend a lot, so we gave up on buying a new player and instead replaced our old player with the bookshelf stereo that had been in Tonya’s office, figuring that eventually we’d resign ourselves to the cost and buy a new one, possibly a 100-CD jukebox unit if we could find one with a decent interface.
This solution was acceptable, but the stereo components still had to be in the living room, far from the kitchen where we spend most of our free time. We could hear the speakers well enough in the kitchen, but changing the volume or changing a CD required a journey to another part of the house, which was impractical when we just needed to answer the phone, for instance. Ideally, we did want the speakers in the kitchen, but there was neither room for them nor an easy way to run the wires.
What is in our kitchen, however, is our PowerBook G3, which is always available for recreational Web browsing and shared calendar and contact databases. The pieces had started to fall together.
Enter SoundJam — After Macworld Expo, Casady & Greene sent me a copy of Jeff Robbin and Bill Kincaid’s $40 SoundJam MP (currently at version 1.1) to review. Since SoundJam requires a PowerPC 603e-based Mac or better, I first installed it on my main desktop Mac, a Power Mac 8500, and tried to use it for a few days, but it became clear that it wasn’t going to change my work life. I have a few hundred megabytes of free disk space, but even MP3 files eat vast quantities of storage that I occasionally need for temporary work files. Playback tended to sputter when I launched a program or did something that required a lot of disk access. And I already had the six-CD bookshelf unit with good speakers in my office, complete with a remote control to pause the music at the press of a button when the phone rang. To pause SoundJam, I would have had to switch into the program and press the spacebar to pause the music every time I answered the phone. Although I could have automated that process using KeyQuencer, it might still have been difficult to do quickly, depending on what I was doing. And, if my Mac crashed or needed restarting, I’d have to start SoundJam playing again each time. It was simply too much trouble to integrate SoundJam into my existing desktop Mac and methods of working.
As I was relating all this to Tonya while making dinner one night, it finally hit me: all the problems I’d faced in my office disappeared in the kitchen. The PowerBook G3 had a ton of free disk space, it wasn’t used heavily for other tasks, so turning the music on and off wasn’t a big deal, and with a decent pair of powered speakers I had lying around, it could take over from our main stereo system when we were in the kitchen.
That night I installed SoundJam and the powered speakers and started to convert tracks from some of our favorite CDs. Within seconds after the beat of Abbey Lincoln’s "Who Used to Dance" came through the speakers, it became clear that this was the future of our music listening experience.
In the second part of this article, I’ll look at SoundJam in more detail, plus muse about some of the ideas that stem from realigning my head to think of music as MP3 files.