Macworld Expo in San Francisco is still on our thoughts, as we pass along our traditional Macworld Superlatives article, looking at the coolest of the cool. Also this week, Jeff Carlson delves into the Apple’s Mac OS X interface preview – register your opinion of the Mac OS X user interface in this week’s poll! In the news, we cover the releases of FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, WebSTAR 4.2, SoundJam 1.6, and DiskWarrior 2.0.
FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited Ships — FileMaker Inc. has shipped the English language version of its $1,000 FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited, which removes FileMaker Pro 5.0’s little-loved licensing restrictions and ten-Internet-users-in-twelve-hours limit, and adds the FileMaker Web Server Connector, a Java servlet that permits databases published via FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited to be served via popular high-end Web servers like StarNine’s WebSTAR, Apple’s AppleShare IP, Apache, and Microsoft’s IIS. (See "FileMaker Pro 5 Released to Controversy" in TidBITS-499 for coverage of the initial release of FileMaker Pro 5.) FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited includes all the features of FileMaker Pro 5 – including Web Companion for simple Web serving needs, dynamic XML-based rendering of FileMaker Pro screen layouts to modern Web browsers, ODBC client and data source capabilities, and database synchronization.
As expected, FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited does not include long-sought capabilities like multi-threaded execution that could mitigate the serious performance bottlenecks experienced in even modest database publishing. FileMaker’s solution lies in its Web Server Connector: when installed on a compatible Web server, the Web Server Connector can provide load-balanced access to databases shared by multiple copies of FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited. Those databases, in turn, could be served to FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited via the recently released $1,000 FileMaker Pro Server, which doesn’t offer authoring capabilities but can serve FileMaker databases in a multi-threaded manner. Thus, it’s possible to use multiple computers as an array, each of which in essence serves as a single "thread" in a database publishing operation. (See FileMaker’s diagram as an example of this technique.) Long-time database publishers using FileMaker Pro have generally been unimpressed by this design, noting they’ve been able to construct similar server arrays at considerably less cost for years using earlier versions of FileMaker Pro. However, FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited offers some publishers an option heretofore unavailable: the capability to serve FileMaker Pro 5 databases to more than a handful of users. FileMaker Pro 5 Unlimited requires a PowerPC-based Mac with Mac OS 7.6.1 and at least 16 MB RAM; some volume discounts are available. [GD]
Ballmer is Microsoft’s New CEO — TidBITS doesn’t usually cover executive shifts at companies other than Apple, but we should note Bill Gates promoted Steve Ballmer to Microsoft’s CEO position last week. Gates will still serve as the chairman of Microsoft’s board, and created a new position for himself as Chief Software Architect to oversee strategic directions and software technologies. Gates has extracted himself from Microsoft’s day-to-day operations over the last few years, so it’s difficult to speculate on long-term effects of this change. However, Gates has long demonstrated support for the Macintosh within Microsoft, while Steve Ballmer has no such history. [GD]
WebSTAR 4.2 Optimized for G4s — StarNine Technologies has unveiled WebSTAR Server Suite 4.2, the latest version of its integrated collection of Internet servers. The collection includes Web, email, FTP and proxy servers as well as database publishing and site searching capabilities. WebSTAR 4.2’s primary advance is that the main WebSTAR application and the majority of its components have been optimized for the PowerPC G4 and its Velocity Engine, enabling WebSTAR to process requests faster, especially for dynamically generated material. WebSTAR 4.2 also includes bug fixes and enhancements unrelated to G4 systems – particularly in its email, Lasso Web Publisher, and search components – making the upgrade valuable to all version 4.x owners. Version 4.2 is a free upgrade for owners of WebSTAR 4.x; otherwise, WebSTAR Server Suite is $600 with educational, upgrade, and volume discounts available. [GD]
SoundJam 1.6 Adds MP2, Hierarchical Playlists — Casady & Greene has shipped SoundJam 1.6, a free update to the company’s popular MP3 player and encoder. SoundJam 1.6 can now encode into MP2 format (MPEG Audio Layer 2, an older and less-efficient audio format that sounds better than MP3 at high bitrates) and also supports transparent skins, adds hierarchical playlists, provides fast forward and fast reverse buttons for currently playing music, supports live window dragging, and includes a skin builder. The release also includes a SoundJam Extension that changes CD track names in the Finder to those found in the CDDB. SoundJam 1.6 is a 1.8 MB download. [ACE]
DiskWarrior 2.0 — Alsoft has introduced DiskWarrior 2.0, the latest version of its data recovery and directory optimization tool. In addition to its lauded directory optimization, fully functional preview feature, and near-magical CD-ROM that can start up a wide range of Mac systems (see "Fighting Corruption with Alsoft’s DiskWarrior" in TidBITS-486), DiskWarrior 2.0 adds DiskShield, a new feature that checks the validity of any directory information being written to or read from your disks. In theory, DiskShield could prevent directory damage from occurring in the first place and alert you to potential problems before they grow into catastrophes. DiskWarrior 2.0 also includes the capability to graph fragmentation in disk directories so you can get an idea how much an optimized directory might help. DiskWarrior still lacks traditional disk optimization and brute-force data recovery offered by other disk recovery products, but the DiskWarrior CD ships with Alsoft’s PlusOptimizer, a disk defragmenter that can be used on Mac OS Extended Format (HFS Plus) volumes. DiskWarrior 2.0 is $70 plus shipping; currently the download-only version remains at 1.1. Upgrades from previous versions of DiskWarrior are $30 plus shipping. [GD]
Poll Results: Apple of Your iFuture? Although many Macworld Expo attendees were expecting Steve Jobs to make hardware announcements (even the attendees not swayed by rumor sites), the major news turned out to be Apple’s suite of new Internet services such as iTools and iCards. Despite the undeniable fact that Apple’s new Internet services certainly aren’t perfect (and we’ll be looking at more of the concerns in a future issue), we’ve been impressed with their overall design and integration. So when we asked, "Do you plan to use any of Apple’s new Internet services?" we weren’t surprised to see that 82 percent of respondents answered yes. Apple has grabbed the interest of a lot of people with these Internet tools; let’s hope they continue to polish the existing tools and offer new ones as well. [JLC]
At each Macworld Expo, we endeavor to locate a singular example of what the show represents: a product or clever metaphor that perfectly encompasses the deeper currents of what it means to float in a sea of 70,000+ Mac enthusiasts. After a few minutes of that, we come to our senses and instead look for products, booths, or people that pique our interests or catch our jaded eyes. If your product is featured here, feel free to display our new Macworld Expo Superlative badge on your Web page and link to this article in our article database. You can pick up the badge on our badges page (which has a lot of fun badges for readers too) at:
We can’t pretend any sort of monopoly on noticing cool stuff at the show, and Omar Shahine and Travis Butler both contributed excellent lists of their show picks (complete with links to pictures that Travis took) to TidBITS Talk.
The Perfit Fit — In "Pointing the Way with USB Mice," in TidBITS-506, Warren Magnus noted that he could never use the beefy Contour Designs UniMouse comfortably. Contour has addressed this with their three-button Perfit Mouse, which features five different sizes for right-handed users and three for left-handed users. And if you don’t want to spend $90 to $100 on the Perfit Mouse in graphite or blueberry, at least pick up a $15 UniTrap, which replaces the plastics on Apple’s awful puck mouse, turning it into a usable shape. [ACE]
Scan This, Bub! While walking through the Consumer area, we were commenting on all the neat products from small companies we’d never heard of before, then paused and realized the "little" company with a very cool flatbed/handheld scanner in front of us was actually NEC Technologies. Despite the size of the company, their $125 PetiScan merits an award for the coolest scanner we saw. You can use it as a flatbed scanner for documents, but if you pop off the lid, it becomes a portable handheld scanner, tethered only by a single USB cable (which carries power as well), that’s ideal for scanning clothing, trees, posters, or whatever. Because of its small size (8.5" wide by 5.5" high by 1.4" thick), the PetiScan can scan a maximum of 5.8" by 3.9", but it includes Presto ImageStitching for joining scans together. [ACE]
We Control the Horizontal… If you’ve longed for more keyboard control of the Mac OS, check out MindVision’s new $20 MindControl launcher utility. Press a user-defined hot key and a command line appears for you to type either type pre-defined shortcuts you’ve set up ("nw" for Nisus Writer, for instance), or full names of documents, applications, servers, or URLs. Press Return and MindControl launches the appropriate item. MindControl has lots of tweaky little features (like support for passing some parameters) and configuration options, but I love just having keyboard access to some of the items on my hard disk, especially now that I’m so used to switching to my Web browser and typing a company name to visit their Web site. [ACE]
We Control the Vertical — MacSpeech’s speech-based macro utility, ListenDo 1.1, offered a great price: free! Plus they were selling nearly a dozen of their application-specific ScriptPaks, normally $10 to $20 each, for a grand total of $20. ListenDo replaces Apple’s Speakable Items folder with better management of scripts, including automatic application-based sets (having fewer active scripts at each moment means recognition is faster and more accurate) plus you can choose menu items, click buttons, and type stock phrases just by saying their names. [MAN]
Notable Quotables — Despite the brain-damaging effects of over-amplified Macworld party bands, we keep an ear out for juicy quotes. For example, when Steve Jobs accidentally turned over a VST 100 GB RAID array, causing one drive to fall to the stage, our colleague Hartmut Koenitz remarked that it was fully "hot droppable." We also overheard a reference to Mac OS X’s new "Jolly Rancher interface" at a party. No wonder Steve Jobs said Aqua was good enough to lick. [JLC]
Notable but not Quotable — Several companies went overboard with marketing copy. See if you can guess what this sentence from a company’s booth sign describes: "The powerful document processing solution for your mobile or desktop Macintosh." (It was a small, tangerine-colored scanner.) And then there was this headline in a product sheet from MediaLot.com, a company we couldn’t figure out from their booth signs: "The online teamspace for collaboration, project management, and digital asset management." (It was a Web-based project management tool.) After these examples of tortured prose, TechWorks picks up Hemingway points for "Buy TechWorks RAM Here." [ACE]
Will Distribute Flyers for Food — One of the most depressing aspects of Macworld Expo in San Francisco is the homeless population around Moscone Center. Kudos to WISP, Inc. for giving a homeless guy a job handing out flyers about their wireless products and services. He was much more enthusiastic than the normal folks who try to push flyers into your hands as you walk the streets around Moscone, and he was clearly trying to do a good job. [ACE]
Is that a Hard Disk in Your Pocket? LaCie’s new PocketDrives bring back the times when you could schlep your hard disk around rather than heft a PowerBook. Today’s PocketDrives, however, boast 6 GB ($400) and 18 GB ($750) capacities, plus hot-swappable USB and FireWire interfaces. Despite building in both USB and FireWire controllers, the 1" high units measure only 3.5" by 5.75" and weigh 12.5 ounces. The casing also sports a rubberized edge that protects against shock and provides a place to wrap cables. [ACE]
Coolest Beachwear — This summer, all well-dressed laptops will wearing the $40 e-clipse, from Hoodman, of (naturally enough) Hermosa Beach, California. It’s a hood that fits over your PowerBook screen so you can see it even in bright sun. The nylon e-clipse packs into a small flat bag and is spring-loaded, so it assumes and holds its hood shape automatically. The viewing hole is quite a bit smaller than the screen, unfortunately, so you have bend close to see the full picture, but the Hoodman guy we spoke with said it had to be that small or glare still snuck in. You’ll impress everyone by whipping it out when a bully tries to kick sand in your PowerBook’s face. [MAN]
Kill the Golden Goose Award — To IBM, for demoing but not selling ViaVoice at the show. Everyone wanted it; many folks had come just to buy it, and would have paid any price for it; no one could get it. Angry would-be customers can take revenge by waiting for iListen, MacSpeech’s dictation offering, which will probably be ready in time for the next Expo and will let you dictate into any application (with ViaVoice, you must dictate into the SpeakPad application and then transfer the text elsewhere). Despite the disappointment of IBM’s sales policy, I went ahead and bought ViaVoice through mail-order and am already hopelessly addicted. [MAN]
Internet-Enabled Voice Mail Done Right — At first I thought Pagoo was another attempt to clog up email by attaching sound files to messages. Instead, Pagoo is geared toward the people who busy out their phone lines while online via modem. Pagoo provides a voice mail system that lets callers leave a message that you can hear while still online. The Pagoo application runs in the background and alerts you when a new message appears; you can then listen to it using Pagoo or access it from the Web. One nice advantage is that Pagoo doesn’t hog your bandwidth checking for messages; it simply registers your computer’s temporary IP number with Pagoo’s servers, which ping your machine only when a message is waiting. And it’s cheaper than voicemail. [JLC]
Fill Gaps with iLiner — Mercury Software’s new $50 iLiner gets points for filling in some thin patches in the Macintosh software line: outlining and presentation tools. iLiner is nominally a basic outliner, but it can also export to QuickTime 4.0 slide presentations, providing another option for presentation software. Where iLiner shows the most promise, though, is in accessing Sherlock’s text summarization feature in any application. iLiner is clearly a 1.0 product, and Mercury Software’s Ian Shortreed said that he has a long list of features he wants to add now that he’s gotten 1.0 out the door. [ACE]
Try and Try Again — Kudos to Copernican Technologies for Boswell, which makes another attempt to succeed in the space of personal information archives. We all have snippets of information floating around our hard disks as clippings, text files, URL bookmarks, and more. Boswell aims to help you capture, archive, and organize that data, and although it’s still in beta you can order for $40 now and get a free upgrade to the $130 final release. Boswell looks promising, and we plan to take a closer look once it’s final. For suggestions on how other Mac users store and access bits of data today, check out the TidBITS Talk thread on the topic. [ACE]
One of the few surprises at last week’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco was a first look at the new Mac OS X user interface. Although the new operating system was announced in mid-1998 and its technical features (like preemptive multitasking and protected memory) are known, those things don’t have the potential to stir up the ire and interest of Mac users quite so much as the notion of tampering with the Mac OS look and feel.
So when Steve Jobs said that he was going to show off the Mac OS X user interface, which he claimed has been one of the best-kept secrets within Apple, I perked up. Sure, Mac OS X can do some whiz-bang things under the hood and not turn your Mac into putty when an application crashes, but what will I be looking at for several hours each day? How will Mac OS X affect the way I interact with my computer?
It’s important to note that the demos at Macworld Expo, both during Jobs’s keynote and in the Apple booth, represent the closest look at Aqua so far – and it’s not much. A limited preview is available from Apple’s Web site, but questions remain about elements not demonstrated at Macworld. No doubt there will be tweaks and revelations by the time Mac OS X is released later in the year.
The Look You Want to Feel — The success of Apple’s iProducts, from iMac to iBook, has shown that appearances do matter, that the look of something can often determine its success, regardless of other technical merits. So it’s no surprise that Apple’s emphasis on look is moving to its software as well.
Overall, Aqua is surprisingly sparse and clean, and will be familiar to anyone who has used a Mac. The gray fill of the current Platinum interface is replaced by white, with a subtle horizontal line pattern similar to the iMac’s faceplate texture. Aqua gets its name from the use of a watery, translucent look for interface elements like buttons and sliders; the top navigational elements at Apple’s Web site use a similar effect.
Aqua also employs soft drop shadows to windows and menus to provide a more polished appearance and emphasize layered items. I’m surprised that I like the effect as much as I do, since drop shadows are overused. Other effects, like animation, make an appearance in Aqua. Rather than a dull black outline to denote a default button in dialog boxes, Aqua’s method of highlighting a button is for it to light up and slowly pulse like the iBook’s and iMac’s power button.
One noticeable departure from today’s interface is the placement of window controls for close, zoom, and minimize (the successor to WindowShade, which collapses the window into a new element, the Dock). All three are now round buttons located at the left edge of the title bar, and follow a traffic light metaphor: red closes, yellow minimizes, and green zooms. For people who are color blind or who still use grayscale displays, the buttons also feature a roll-over effect when you pass your cursor over them: the close button displays an X, the minimize button displays a minus sign (-), and the zoom button displays a plus sign (+). The new controls also function for both active and inactive windows, so you can close a background window without bringing it to the foreground.
It will be interesting to see how current Mac users adapt to the new arrangement. There’s bound to be a bit of frustration from users who have been zooming their windows from the right side for years. Plus, a few TidBITS Talk participants have pointed out that putting destructive commands (the close button) and nondestructive commands (minimize and zoom buttons) next to one another invites danger.
Less Clutter, Less Confusion — In Mac OS X’s Finder, the title bar sports one other button: a transparent blob at the right side that toggles Single Window Mode. Unlike the current user interface, where burrowing deep within a folder structure can leave a scattering of overlapping open windows, Single Window Mode displays only the active content. If you’re using the Finder in Single Window Mode, only the current directory is shown; within an application, you can have multiple files open but only the active one actually displays.
Long-time Mac users may scoff at the Single Window Mode, but I think it’s a great idea. Computers can be intimidating to new users, and part of that intimidation is caused by complexity; a screen full of windows that aren’t in active use is complex. Sticking to the current task reduces clutter and confusion. Luckily, it’s easy to toggle between modes by clicking the Single Window Mode button, though it’s odd to have what appears to be a system-wide preference on every window, whereas the other controls are window-specific.
Modal dialogs are also now specific to the windows they belong to. If you close a file that hasn’t been saved, the standard "Do you want to save changes?" dialog is attached to the file’s title bar, and remains there until you’ve acted on it – but you can still switch to another application. Also, dialogs are translucent, letting you see the data beneath them. It’s hard to tell from the demo if this is actually a useful feature or an example of eye candy. Still, the translucency adds yet another level of visual polish that isn’t found in current operating systems.
The Dock Is In — A new interface element to the Mac OS is the Dock, an area along the bottom of the screen where you can store apparently anything. The Dock resembles the Windows Task Bar, but you can drop inactive applications, frequently used folders or files, or favorite QuickTime movies into the Dock. The Trash is also now a member of the Dock, rather than its own element on the desktop. During Steve Jobs’s demo, he repeatedly minimized items to show off the way they move: windows don’t just disappear and appear in the Dock, but rather stretch and shoot their way to the bottom of the screen like an animated sheet of rubber sucked down by a vacuum cleaner, a transition called the "genie effect."
A docked item appears as an icon, either generic (like a folder) or as a preview of the item’s content (such as images or QuickTime movies, which can continue to play). You can specify whether the Dock always appears or is activated when the mouse moves to that area. You can also specify the size of the Dock icons dynamically. And as the bottom of the screen fills up, the icons automatically shrink to accommodate more items. One of the highlights of Jobs’s demo was the Dock’s capability to enlarge each icon as the mouse passed over it, resulting in a shifting sand dunes effect whereby the adjacent icons resized in diminishing proportions.
The Dock demo elicited the biggest wows of the talk, and though it’s certainly snazzy, I wonder how effective it will actually be. It feels random to have your applications and documents and whatever else just hanging out at the bottom of the screen. The placement also begs the question of what will happen to the current Mac OS’s tabbed windows, which also occupy real estate at the bottom of the screen. I rely on pop-up windows for quick access to email attachments, file downloads, and aliases, and it’s unclear if I can transfer that functionality to Mac OS X.
Finding the Finder — Long-time Mac users will also have to become accustomed to the idea that the Finder lives in a window by itself. (In fact, the Mac OS X Finder looks like a variation of Mac OS 9’s Sherlock 2). It features buttons to access your computer, applications, documents, favorites, and people, plus a button labelled Home that takes you to a main directory of your choice (whether it’s on your machine or on a network). The Finder works as a single window view by default, but you can also open multiple windows as in the existing Finder. The Finder also incorporates a third, split-pane column view, inherited from Mac OS X’s NeXT origins. As you navigate the file structure of your hard disk, new columns appear to display a horizontal hierarchy of the structure.
Although putting the Finder into its own window sounds alien to most of us, it makes sense for new users. Under the current Mac OS, tell a new user to switch to the Finder, and they’re likely to reply, "Huh?" That’s because the Finder and the desktop are synonymous to most of us. The Finder will become the tool to find information, instead of a catch-all for file and application icons. It’s also good that you can choose which view to use. It’s no secret that Jobs has advocated the split-pane browsing method for years. And allegedly it took quite a bit of work within Apple to convince him that the Finder should offer traditional navigation as well as the split-pane view.
Graphics, of Quartz — Mac OS X’s 2D graphics capabilities come from Quartz, a rendering engine based on PDF (which is a vague descendant of Display PostScript used in the NeXT operating system). In fact, much of the effects mentioned so far, like translucent dialog boxes and menus, drop shadows, and resizable Dock icons, are due to the Quartz engine. Another example is the use of anti-aliased text, though hopefully this feature will also be a user-definable preference. Although I find well-designed aliased text is easy to read, others find most if not all anti-aliased text alarmingly smudged, especially at small sizes. (See "Better Typography Coming to a Screen Near You" in TidBITS-403).
Having built-in PDF support means that applications will be able to save to PDF without additional software. However, it’s not clear if Quartz will provide many of the more subtle features of PDF, such as forms, routing information, and digital signatures. Jobs did demonstrate the Quartz PDF Compositor, an application that could easily add, manipulate, and export PostScript-based artwork with drop shadows and variable transparency.
Good Enough to Lick? During the Macworld Expo keynote, Steve Jobs reinforced his unusual oral fixation on Apple products by claiming that they were good enough to lick. Certainly, the interface looks different from the softly beveled appearance of Mac OS 8 and later. But is the Mac OS X interface just iCandy? Will the pulsing glow of an OK button really make a difference? Yes and no. The new look adds pizzazz to the interface, which is both cosmetic and functional. It’s an implementation of Look Different: for someone who has never used a computer before, the interface is clean and inviting.
But the new design also serves a similar function to the iMac’s external design: it will be harder for Microsoft (or others) to add pulsing buttons and animated windows to their operating systems without acknowledging that they’re copying the look of the Mac. Computer makers are finding that they can’t directly copy the look of the iMac, and it’s likely that Apple could pursue companies that infringe upon the Aqua interface. Surprisingly, this has already begun to happen. Apple’s lawyers recently sent cease-and-desist letters to a site for posting a "skin" titled WinAqua for use with the Windows interface-customization tool WindowBlinds. Apple also apparently asked Casady & Green to yank an Aqua-looking skin for SoundJam.
The demonstration at Macworld Expo was definitely a fun peek at Aqua, and it will be interesting to see more details emerge as the estimated Mac OS X release date of the middle of 2000 nears. Numerous questions remain that weren’t answered in the demo. For example, the Apple logo appears in the middle of the menu bar; is it the functional Apple menu we’ve used for years, or just corporate branding? Either way, what happens in a program that has more than the standard handful of menus? Does the logo slide aside, or do menus wrap around it? Also, how much of the interface will be controlled by the user? Can I specify solid buttons and scroll bars if Aqua’s watery elements make me seasick? Only time – roughly six months if Apple can keep its intended schedule – will give us these answers.
We’ll have to wait longer for the more difficult answers, however. As Apple embarks on the next major revision of its Macintosh operating system, how durable is the interface? What happens in a few years when the translucent, bright-colored look is out of fashion – not only onscreen, but in case designs as well? Will we look back on the Aqua interface someday the way we look back on bell-bottomed pants or fluorescent leg-warmers? Will the Mac OS interface change according to Apple’s ad campaigns?
It’s possible. However, at the Expo keynote, Jobs began his introduction to Aqua with a black-and-white image of the first Macintosh interface. The crowd laughed, but the joke had two faces: that original screen looked so foreign compared to the colorful displays on our modern desktops; yet at the same time its windows, icons, menu bar, and Trash can are elements we see on our Macs every day. In other words, interface change is not bad in and of itself, but it must be managed carefully to be both comfortingly familiar and invitingly different.
Poll Preview: Think Different about Aqua? For this week’s TidBITS poll, we’re asking, "How do you feel about Apple’s new interface for Mac OS X?" Preliminary correspondence suggests four approaches: "Love it!", "Seems OK", "I’m worried", or "Hate it!" Does Aqua float your boat, or is destined for a watery grave? Register your opinion today on our home page!