Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 31 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals
Show excerpts

TidBITS#522/20-Mar-00

Which Palm OS-based handheld should you buy? Travis Butler attempts to answer that question by comparing the main devices from Palm, Inc. and Handspring. Also in this issue, Geoff Duncan looks at the history of the Web display wars to determine why it’s such a mess. We also note a band-aid for a destructive sleep bug on iBooks and PowerBook (FireWire) computers, ACI’s purchase of StarNine, and the release of Virtual PC with Linux and Action Files 1.5.2.

Geoff Duncan No comments

Sleep Memory Extension Blocks Laptop Bug

Sleep Memory Extension Blocks Laptop Bug — Apple’s new Sleep Memory Extension helps protect iBook and PowerBook (FireWire) computers from data loss or corruption when using the "Preserve memory contents on sleep" feature under low memory situations (see "iBook, PowerBook Data Loss Problem Noted" in TidBITS-521). The extension, a 184K download, disables the "Preserve memory contents on sleep" checkbox in the Energy Saver control panel. This disables the computer’s capability to preserve memory contents to disk for recovery in the event of total power loss during sleep; however, it also prevents users from stumbling into the data loss problem associated with the feature. We still expect Apple to address the actual problem in an upcoming software release; in the meantime, this extension keeps users out of harm’s way. The extension works on English and localized versions of the Mac OS, though the ReadMe file is available in only English. [GD]

<http://asu.info.apple.com/swupdates.nsf/artnum/ n11602>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=05839>


Jeff Carlson No comments

Look Elsewhere for PowerBook (FireWire) Security

Look Elsewhere for PowerBook (FireWire) Security — Apple has issued a Tech Info Library article warning owners of new PowerBook (FireWire) machines not to install the Password Security control panel. Although the control panel shipped with Mac OS 8.6 (it isn’t included by default on laptops using Mac OS 9), copying it from another machine for use on a PowerBook (FireWire) can result in damaged or lost data. Apple recommends that owners instead use the password feature found in the Multiple Users control panel. (See "Major Features in Mac OS 9" in TidBITS-503 for more on working with Multiple Users.) [JLC]

<http://til.info.apple.com/techinfo.nsf/artnum/ n58612>

<http://www.apple.com/powerbook/>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=05625>


Adam Engst No comments

ACI Buys StarNine Technologies

ACI Buys StarNine Technologies — ACI US, makers of the high-end 4D relational database, have purchased StarNine Technologies, makers of the WebSTAR Server Suite and ListSTAR, from Platinum Equity Holdings. The acquisition provides ACI with significantly beefed-up presence in the Macintosh Web server market, plus the code and personnel to improve 4D’s position as a Web-enabled database. Since Web publishing has increasingly been supported by back end databases, it would seem likely that we’ll see additional integration between WebSTAR and 4D in the future. [ACE]

<http://www.acius.com/>

<http://www.starnine.com/>

<http://www.acius.com/press/press_releases/ pr031500_StarNine_Acquisit.html>


Adam Engst No comments

Connectix Ships Virtual PC with Linux

Connectix Ships Virtual PC with Linux — Connectix has shipped a version of its Virtual PC Pentium emulation product bundled with a pre-installed copy of Red Hat Linux. Running Linux within Virtual PC removes some of the performance advantages of running versions of Linux compiled for the Mac’s native CPU (such as LinuxPPC and Yellow Dog Linux), but makes up for it with increased installation simplicity and compatibility with more software that’s compiled to run on Linux-based PCs rather than on Linux-based Macs. Since Virtual PC runs in a window on the Mac, switching between the Mac OS and Linux doesn’t require rebooting. Virtual PC with Red Hat Linux costs $100 and sports the hefty system requirements of a PowerPC G3 or G4 running at 350 MHz or faster, 1.1 GB of disk space, Mac OS 8.6 or later, and 96 MB of RAM (128 MB recommended). [ACE]

<http://www.connectix.com/products/vpc3_ linux.html>

<http://www.redhat.com/>

<http://www.linuxppc.com/>

<http://www.yellowdoglinux.com/>


Jeff Carlson No comments

ACTION Files 1.5.2 Update Released

ACTION Files 1.5.2 Update Released — Power On Software has released an update to ACTION Files, its utility for enhancing open/save dialog boxes (See the review of ACTION Files 1.0 in "Get a Piece of the ACTION Files" in TidBITS-434). Version 1.5.2 enhances support for non-U.S. versions of the Mac OS, better handles excluded applications in the compatibility list, and improves the user-assignable command keys and the volumes menu in Navigation Services dialog boxes. In addition, compatibility problems with EndNote, FontLab, and MacTicker have been worked out. ACTION Files 1.5.2 is a free update to registered users of previous versions; download the free 2.3 MB free trial, which doubles as the update. ACTION Files retails for $30 if downloaded and purchased from the Web, or $40 for a boxed CD-ROM. [JLC]

<http://www.poweronsw.com/site2/html/products/ af.html>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=04931>

<http://www.poweronsw.com/site2/html/download/ freetrialau.html>


Jeff Carlson No comments

Poll Results: Palm Before the Storm

Poll Results: Palm Before the Storm — Apple’s recent eye-catching designs have sparked debate as to whether the appearance of a device contributes to its success. Without its gumdrop shape and translucent plastics, would the iMac have been just another Performa? The same issue may impact handheld organizers; last week, we asked, "If you’ve been thinking about buying a Palm OS-based handheld device, which model do you find most appealing?" Surprisingly, the Palm V and Vx – Palm’s slim aluminum-cased models – garnered 33 percent of the votes. Although the equally powerful Handspring Visor Deluxe garnered 23 percent of the responses, the Palm V and Vx models carry a considerably higher price tag. This suggests respondents are willing to pay more for a much smaller, lighter, and thinner device. The workhorses of the Palm line, the Palm III family, grabbed 20 percent of the votes, followed by the color Palm IIIc with 13 percent. [JLC]

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbpoll=34>


Adam Engst No comments

Poll Preview: Clear as Mud

Poll Preview: Clear as Mud — The origins of HTML were focused on structure over layout, but as the Web became increasingly commercial the look of a Web page became ever more important. HTML evolved into more of a page layout language, multiple Web browsers each offered their own interpretation of HTML tags, and in many ways, we’ve ended up with a mess. It’s commonplace for Web pages to display badly: perhaps the text size is too small or too large, the page is too large to fit in your Web browser window, scripts fail, or content appears to be missing. We’ve all evolved techniques for dealing with such annoying pages; this week’s poll question asks, "What are your most common responses when you encounter a Web page that displays poorly?" Visit our home page to register your votes! [ACE]

<http://www.tidbits.com/>


Travis Butler No comments

Which Handheld Belongs in Your Palm?

Folks interested in buying a Palm OS-based handheld have many more options now than they did a year ago. In addition to the eight models Palm, Inc. has introduced since the original Palm III, handhelds that license the Palm OS – most notably the Handspring Visor – have begun to appear. More options ultimately help consumers, but prompt the obvious question: which device should you choose?

<http://www.palm.com/>

<http://www.handspring.com/>

This article focuses on the two leaders in the Palm OS market, looking at various Palm, Inc. and Handspring Visor models. (For a review of the Visor, see "A Handheld Surprise: the Handspring Visor" in TidBITS-521.) But first, although I don’t have direct experience with other Palm handhelds, it’s worth noting Palm OS-licensed devices like the TRGpro and IBM WorkPad.

<http://www.trgpro.com/>

<http://www.pc.ibm.com/us/workpad/>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=05844>

The TRGpro is essentially a Palm IIIx with a Compact Flash slot built into its back. (Compact Flash is a miniature card design mainly used for memory storage in digital cameras, though some other peripherals are available). TRG has a history of selling utility software and memory upgrades for hard-core Palm users, who appear to be one of two target markets for the TRGpro. Corporations and vertical application vendors seem to be the other market, since TRG can produce custom configurations of the TRGpro. I suspect these niches will find the TRGpro more appealing than the general consumer. At $329, compared with $249 for the Visor Deluxe and Palm IIIxe (see below), the TRGpro is pricey.

In TidBITS Talk, Stephen Cochran passed on some links to other Palm OS-based devices including the IBM WorkPads, which appear to be relabeled devices from Palm, along with several Palm OS-handheld and cellular phone combinations.

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tlkmsg=6322>

Up-front Expectations & Costs — Like purchasing a computer, choosing a Palm device depends on what you need and how much you want to spend. Whenever I talk about price comparisons, don’t forget to make the following adjustments to account for the costs involved in making sure the device will connect with your Macintosh.


  • Add approximately $10 to a Palm purchase if you have a serial port Mac. You’ll need Palm’s MacPac to hook up to the PC-style serial plug included on the Palm HotSync cradle. The MacPac contains the serial adapter and the Macintosh Palm Desktop software on CD-ROM. You can order just the adapter from Palm for $6 and download the software for free, but you’ll wind up paying at least $10 when you add shipping costs.


<http://www.palm.com/products/macintosh/>


  • Add $35 to $40 to a Palm purchase if you have a USB Mac. You’ll need either the PalmConnect USB Kit or a device such as Keyspan’s USB PDA Adapter.


<http://www.palm.com/products/accessories/ usb.html>

<http://www.keyspan.com/products/usb/PDAadapter/>


  • Add about $30 to a Handspring Visor purchase if you have a serial port Mac. Every Visor comes with a USB HotSync cradle, but Handspring sells a serial cradle for $30 that also includes a Mac adapter.


<http://www.handspring.com/products/ cradlescables.asp>

This means a Palm comes out somewhat ahead on price if you have an older serial port Macintosh, and a Visor is significantly ahead if you have a USB Mac.

Only a Palm — First off, there are some Palm models that don’t have a Handspring equivalent.

If you want a device with a color screen, right now the Palm IIIc ($449 list) is the only Palm OS game in town. There aren’t many applications I use where color would be a significant benefit, and at almost twice the price of the standard models, I’ll pass on the Palm IIIc. I’m also not sure what I think of the color screen, based on my limited exposure; for some reason, it reminded me of the first color PowerBooks. The display was sharp, clear, and bright, unlike many color Windows CE models I’ve seen, but something about the colors and contrast made it harder to read than the monochrome screen of current Palm models. Try before you buy.

If you want wireless connectivity, go for the Palm VII ($449 list). Although three companies showed different wireless Springboard modules for the Visor at Macworld Expo, all were designed for local devices and networks rather than the cellular phone-like roaming access of the Palm.net service.

There’s no shame in loving the slim aluminum case and rechargeable battery of the Palm V/Vx ($329/$399 list, respectively). I’ve spent a fair amount of time with my friend’s Palm Vx; the case is nice, the screen seems a little better than other models, and it feels a more solid than the other models. However, the size, style, and battery aren’t worth the extra money to me, as they clearly are to many others who responded to last week’s TidBITS poll.

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbpoll=34>

Palm & Handspring, Hand to Hand — It’s easier to compare models that compete directly in terms of pricing and features.

On the low end, the standard Visor and the Palm IIIe share many characteristics. Both have 2 MB of memory and store the operating system in read-only memory (ROM), which means the Palm OS is not upgradable. (Other Palm devices feature flash ROM that can be overwritten by an upgrade utility). However, the Visor includes the Springboard expansion slot, enabling you to add memory and other Springboard devices; the Palm IIIe is a closed, fixed system.

Recent price cuts bring the list price of the IIIe down to $149, $30 cheaper than the standard Visor before connection costs; however, the Springboard slot and slightly better ergonomics tilt the balance in favor of the Visor. You can get the standard Visor without a synchronization cradle for $149; I wouldn’t recommend that, because the cradle is the main way to install software and back up your data. Let me repeat the old truism – backup is essential, especially on a handheld where a pair of run-down batteries can mean losing everything. Handspring sells a Springboard Backup Module for $40, enabling you to back up your data to the module, but you lose the capability to synchronize data with your Mac by not having a cradle.

<http://www.handspring.com/products/mbackup.asp>

Higher up the lines, the Visor Deluxe competes with the Palm IIIx and Palm IIIxe. The Palm IIIxe appears to have been introduced specifically to compete with the Visor Deluxe: it sells for the same $249 price and includes 8 MB of memory. The Palm IIIx has half the memory of the other two, but the recent price drop makes it slightly cheaper at $229; it also has an internal memory expansion slot that isn’t present in the Palm IIIxe.

<http://www.palm.com/products/palmiiix/ details.html>

<http://www.palm.com/products/palmiiixe/ details.html>

However, I suspect most people won’t use the Palm IIIx’s internal expansion slot, and 4 MB of memory is easily worth $20. So, the decision narrows down to the Palm IIIxe versus the Visor Deluxe.

The new low-cost Palm IIIxe takes away most of the value advantage that the Visor Deluxe had when it was introduced. Therefore, the question boils down to which capability is more important to you: being able to update the Palm OS using the Palm IIIxe’s flash memory (the Visor Deluxe, as with the standard Visor, uses ROM to store the operating system), or being able to use Springboard expansion modules.

It’s a hard decision. I want OS upgradability – the interface improvements in Palm OS 3.5 (like tapping the title bar to pull up the menu bar) sound like they smooth the user experience. And, to date, most announced Springboard modules are not yet shipping.

<http://www.handspring.com/products/springboard_ news.asp>

That said, the benefits of the Springboard slot seem more concrete than OS upgrades. Although it’s possible a future OS upgrade may be needed to run some software, I think the non-upgradable Palm IIIe will keep developers focused on the current OS version for some time. And, although there are devices that can connect to the Palm series through the built-in serial connection port, the Visor’s Springboard slot offers more convenience and greater functionality, while also keeping the Visor’s connector free for other add-ons like external keyboards.

An Organizer in Hand — Choice is a good thing, and today’s Palm OS market is no exception. Although I ended up with a Handspring Visor Deluxe most recently, I can’t think of a single model mentioned above, with the possible exception of the Palm IIIe, that I’d be unhappy to own. It’s just a question of determining which model fits your needs and pocketbook.


Geoff Duncan No comments

Building Characters: A Brief History of the Web War

A little over a year ago in TidBITS-467, I wrote about some historical and technical reasons why text on Web pages can be illegibly small when viewed on a Macintosh – especially pages designed by and for Windows users.

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=05284>

The principles and problems outlined in that article are as true today as they were then, but new Internet standards and a new generation of Web browsers are beginning to offer possible solutions to both Web users and Web authors. This article examines some of the history of text presentation on the Web; future installments will examine new Web standards and new browser capabilities, plus offer concrete advice on preparing platform-friendly Web content.

Text Rules— Let’s face it: much of the information we use on our computers is in the form of text. We write and edit documents, send and receive email, and browse and create Web pages. Compared to images, movies, and audio, text is a simple data type that crosses between platforms and operating systems with relative ease. So why does text so often display badly, especially on the Web? Why are we constantly fussing with window sizes, font sizes, and browser preferences when all we want to do is read text?

In a nutshell, text differs between operating systems mainly because each operating system makes a different assumption about how pixels on a display translate to physical measurements. The Mac OS assumes a resolution of 72 dots per inch (dpi) regardless of the physical resolution of a display device, and there’s no way to change this setting. In contrast, Windows assumes a resolution of 96 dpi (or 120 dpi using Large Fonts), and this setting can be changed arbitrarily under recent versions of Windows. Unix systems typically use resolutions from 75 to 100 dpi and can usually be configured by the user.

The difference in assumed resolutions determines how many pixels the computer uses to render text. Assuming a point is 1/72nd of an inch, the Mac OS will use 12 pixels to render 12 point type, while a Windows system will typically use 16 pixels. If you display these characters side by side on the same display, the Windows characters will look 33 percent larger than the Macintosh characters.

<http://www.tidbits.com/resources/522/mac-win- text.html>

Using a larger number of pixels to render text has many implications, but here are two key concepts to keep at the back of your mind:


  • Text is rendered with more accuracy, so important features in a typeface (serifs, special symbols, relationships and spacing between letters, etc.) are more likely to be preserved or presented accurately.

  • Fewer characters fit into an arbitrary region of your screen, like a Web browser window. Fewer characters convey less information to a user, so that region can be described as having a lower "information density" than it would if its text were rendered using fewer pixels.


Casualties of War — Believe it or not, these platform-related differences in text rendering didn’t go unnoticed in the Web development community – in fact, they substantially predate the World Wide Web. If the issue is so old, why hasn’t it been solved by now?

The answer is complicated. Remember one truth that has been frustrating many Web authors for years: HTML wasn’t meant to describe the physical or typographical presentation of a document; rather, HTML describes the structure of a document – which items are headings, which items are links, which items are lists, and so on – in a platform-independent manner. Decisions about a document’s presentation were left up to individual Web browsers (or, more properly, "user agents"). They were supposed to look at the structure of the document and present it on their particular platform in a way that made sense.

This is where the forces of the computing industry reared their ugly heads. For years, operating systems tried to present users with a WYSIWYG world – What You See Is What You Get. Along with graphical user interfaces, WYSIWYG was one of the attractions that brought people to personal computing. HTML’s abstract approach frustrated computer users of all stripes – personal, professional, corporate, and others – who expected WYSIWYG. Those expectations morphed into strident demands as the Web became a vehicle for publishing, then commerce.

When software developers hear strident demands from customers, those demands are translated directly to the phrase "market opportunity." Browser developers rapidly rolled out non-standard HTML tags which almost invariably described the presentation of a document rather than its structure. Netscape quickly muddied the water with CENTER tags, alignment attributes, colors, and ways to specify text wrapping. Web "designers" began publishing books on wringing WYSIWYG-like behaviors out of the browsers of the day (at best advocating extensive use of tables; at worst promoting "spacer GIFs" and violating virtually every principle of an adaptive, cross-platform technology). Although late to the game, Microsoft jumped in with contributions like MARQUEE, background sounds, and ways to slice and dice border colors. Simultaneously, a flurry of graphical HTML editors appeared, often producing markup that looked like the peckings of a thousand typewriter-equipped simians. And, of course, eventually Netscape went hog-wild, unleashing font tags, MULTICOL, the SPACER tag, and a "layers" technology that allowed arbitrary onscreen placement of objects.

In short, the browser wars were well underway, and much of the artillery was aimed directly at the core principles of HTML. Although folks at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) tried to keep a rein on things, 1996’s HTML 3.2 specification ended up being a mishmash compromise between the abstract structural concepts of HTML and the presentation demands of an explosively growing industry. And nobody was happy about it.

<http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html32.html>

Return to Standards — As the Internet exploded, however, a funny thing happened. Although the main devices using the Web continued to be personal computers with graphical interfaces, alternatives methods of accessing the Web began to multiply. Text-only browsers not only survived but gained popularity as power users became disgusted with long download times and pointless graphics. WebTV promised to turn any television into a limited Internet appliance, and folks connected PDAs like Apple’s Newton to the Web, not to mention Palm devices and cellular telephones. Similarly, ever-present accessibility issues – for users who are visually impaired, color blind, or unable to use traditional computers – weren’t being served by the combative, proprietary course of HTML development. Suddenly the structure of an HTML document was becoming important again, since details of a document’s presentation were irrelevant to these devices. After all, what’s a black-and-white Palm device with a 160-by-160 screen size going to do with an HTML table which insists it must be fire engine red and 600 pixels across?

At the same time, the major browser vendors were hit with a backlash because their incompatible and often ill-conceived HTML extensions created confusion and impediments for both Web users and authors. Conformance to standards became a rallying cry, and standards-oriented efforts like Lynx and Opera gained substantial credibility (as has the Mac OS newcomer iCab). It didn’t take long for the heavyweights to see the light, with Netscape spinning its Web browser development off to the Mozilla open source project, and Microsoft pledging to toe the line on standards, in part due to pressure from the ongoing federal antitrust case against the company.

<http://lynx.browser.org/>

<http://www.opera.com/>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?nbart=04593>

<http://www.icab.de/>

<http://www.mozilla.org/>

<https://tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbser=1152>

Nonetheless, demands that Web authors be able to indicate a document’s presentation in addition to its structure weren’t going to go away. The cat was already out of the bag, with hundreds of thousands of existing Web sites and millions of existing Web users, and more of each appearing every second. What could be done?

The Cascade Effect — Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, offer a solution to the structure-and-presentation dilemma. CSS had been percolating quietly within the W3C during the browser wars and was adopted as a recommendation in late 1996, although no mainstream tools supported it. The basic idea behind CSS is to separate formatting information – positioning, sizing, margins, leading, type faces, and more – from the structure of a document, as represented by HTML.

<http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/>

Style sheets may be integrated into an HTML document (using the STYLE tag) or exist as separately linked external files (convenient for multiple documents which share styles). Conceptually, CSS has similarities to styles used by a word processors: each CSS style, or rule, applies certain formatting characteristics to items. For instance:

P { color: red; font-family: Palatino, serif; }

Here, P is called a selector, and refers to any <P> tags in the current HTML document. The information in curly braces is called a declaration, and specifies the particular properties and values for a CSS rule. This rule says that the text within all <P> tags in the current HTML document should be presented in red, preferably using the Palatino font. If Palatino is not available, paragraphs should be displayed using the browser’s default serif font. Using CSS, you can define a wide variety of display and presentation characteristics for any valid HTML tag in a document – including the document body, heading tags, table cells, links, and more – specific tags, or even unique instances of a tag.

For now, there are three important things to remember about CSS:


  • Unlike styles in a word processor, the display characteristics for any item are determined by the cascade, or the combination of multiple style sheets. At a basic level, at least three style sheets are always in play – the current document’s, the user’s, and the browser’s default. Although a document’s rules usually take precedence, they can be overridden by user or browser rules. Thus, in theory, a user can define his or her own style sheet so no text is ever displayed below 14 pixels in size, for example, no matter what size the document may specify for text sizing. This gives documents the capability to request particular formatting, while still accommodating the specific needs of users. Basically, documents suggest how they should be formatted, rather than demanding a particular presentation.

  • Style sheets are the recommended method to control virtually all document layout and presentation in the current HTML 4 standard, although HTML 4.0 Transitional still includes most of the presentation attributes from HTML 3.2, such as specifying some objects’ widths and colors. The second version of CSS, called CSS2, was adopted as a W3C recommendation in mid-1998, and expanded on the capabilities of CSS1 in significant ways.


<http://www.w3.org/TR/html401/>


  • Since CSS covers a wide range of formatting capabilities, it is extraordinarily complex to implement. As of this writing, no released browser fully supports CSS1 or CSS2, in part due to the fallout from the heated browser wars in the late 1990s. Some browsers support useful subsets of CSS1 and CSS2 – most notably the current versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Opera – although there are a myriad of significant bugs in current and older browsers. Netscape Communicator/Navigator 4.x makes no claims about supporting any aspect of CSS; instead, CSS support has been relegated to the Mozilla open source project. Some style sheets can influence the display of Web pages in current versions of Netscape, but more often than not the behaviors are incomplete or completely incorrect. This spotty support vastly complicates the use and deployment of style sheets.


To Be Continued — Wait! What does all this have to do with how many pixels are used to draw text on the Macintosh screen? How does any of this technology improve your Web browsing experience, or let you create friendlier Web pages? Those and other mysteries will be revealed in our next installment.