Want to make a diagram? Most graphics applications will let you down, but not ConceptDraw, reviewed this issue, thanks to its diagram-specific feature set. We also look at Aladdin’s StuffIt Deluxe 6.0, and cover smaller updates to Eudora 5.0.1, [email protected] 3.0, Action Files 1.5.4, and Action Menus 1.0.2. In the news, Quark founder Tim Gill exits the company, Napster releases a Mac client, and Priceline.com bags the concept of bidding on groceries.
Eudora 5.0.1 Released — Qualcomm has released Eudora 5.0.1, a minor upgrade to the company’s widely used email program (see "Eudora 5.0 Reads Your Mind" in TidBITS-547 for a review of the new features). Changes include a variety of minor tweaks and fixes to Eudora’s rewritten Address Book, along with a number of other small modifications to the spell checker, Eudora’s IMAP functionality, and importing. If you’re using Eudora 5.0 now, it’s a worthwhile (and free) update; if you haven’t upgraded from a previous version, nothing in 5.0.1 other than improved stability should change that decision. Eudora 5.0.1 requires a PowerPC-based machine running Mac OS 8.1 or later. It’s a 4.6 MB download. [ACE]
Updates to Action Files 1.5.4 & Action Menus 1.0.2 — Power On Software has released a pair of minor updates to Action Files and Action Menus, the company’s $30 utilities for enhancing Open and Save dialog boxes and for creating custom menus and keyboard shortcuts. (See "Get a Piece of the ACTION Files" in TidBITS-434 and "Now Menus Reincarnated as Action Menus" in TidBITS-503.) Action Files 1.5.4 improves compatibility with several applications (BBEdit 6, Adobe Photoshop 6, Adobe Illustrator 9, Microsoft Word 2001, and CodeWarrior), addresses some compatibility issues with Mac OS 8.1 and earlier versions, and fixes a bug that prevented some items from showing up in the Recent Item list. Action Menus 1.0.2 addresses similar Mac OS 8.1 and earlier compatibility issues, fixes a bug that hampered custom keyboard command creation and deletion under Mac OS 9.0.x, fixes a bug that prevented documents created by certain applications from showing up properly in Recent Items menus, and fixes a bug with Multi-Action Menu Commands under Mac OS 9.0.x. Although the updates are unquestionably minor, they are free (just install the demos to upgrade), and since they patch the Mac OS at a low level, it’s probably worth upgrading when you get a chance. Action Files 1.5.4 is a 2.3 MB download; Action Menus 1.0.2 checks in at 2.2 MB. (And while we’re on the topic, kudos to Power On’s Now Up-to-Date & Contact, which has reportedly taken over the number one sales position in Japan in the scheduling and project management category on any platform, outpacing even Microsoft Project and Lotus Organizer on Windows.) [ACE]
[email protected] 3.0 Client Available — The folks at the [email protected] distributed computing project – which takes advantage of idle systems around the world to analyze radio telescope data for possible extraterrestrial signals – have released version 3.0 of the [email protected] client for Macintosh. Version 3.0 still runs as either a screen saver or stand-alone application, and introduces new highly optimized Fast-Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithms; the performance improvements offered by the new techniques enable the [email protected] client to attempt two types of pulse detection ("pulses" and "triplets"). Version 3.0 also expands the range of Doppler shift rates examined, and tightens its Gaussian curve fitting to reduce the number of false positive reports. The client is also a little pickier about updating its 3D graph, since drawing to the screen can take longer than actually performing the computations. [email protected] 3.0 is a 450K download, and requires a PowerPC-based machine with at least 24 MB of RAM running System 7.5.5 or higher; use of the version 3.0 client will eventually be required to keep participating in the [email protected] project. If you haven’t already, consider joining the TidBITS [email protected] team! [GD]
Napster (Finally) Releases Mac Client — Napster, the controversial peer-to-peer music sharing service currently being sued by major recording industry players for promoting piracy, has released its first beta client software for the Macintosh. If the software walks and talks like Blackhole Media’s Macster, one of the most popular third party Napster clients for the Mac, don’t be surprised: Napster recently purchased Macster and has now blessed it as its official Mac client. Napster plans to keep the same team of developers working on it. The client allows users who register with the Napster service to download MP3 files from other members of the Napster community, as well as optionally share a local stash of files with that community and participate in real-time chats. The Napster 1.0b1 client is a 1.3 MB download and requires a PowerPC-based machine running at least Mac OS 8.1 (with CarbonLib 1.4 and Internet Config); Napster plans to release support for non-English languages shortly. [GD]
Entourage Followup — A postscript to my review of Microsoft Entourage in TidBITS-550: Despite the congeniality of its organizational structure to my working style, I eventually found that, as I had feared, Entourage’s speed was a show-stopper. Entourage was taking several minutes to perform and display the results of a search that Eudora can complete in a few seconds, and many seconds to move or delete selected messages, which Eudora can do almost instantly. Even switching between windows was slow. I’ve now migrated completely back to Eudora. This turned out not to be quite as simple as I stated in the review; the method I suggested works for incoming messages, but not for copies of outgoing messages. Instead, I used a superb AppleScript script, Eudora Export, the combined work of Dan Crevier and R. Shapiro; thanks to it, Eudora users can experiment with Entourage fearlessly. [MAN]
Priceline.com Ceases Bidding on Groceries — In "Name That Price on Priceline.com!" in TidBITS-499, we wrote about a good experience (not since repeated) with purchasing airline tickets through Priceline.com’s auction approach. We also looked at Priceline.com’s WebHouse Club program for buying groceries and gasoline through a similar method of bidding on low price. Though we have been extremely positive about the utility of shopping for groceries online through firms like HomeGrocer.com (now owned by Webvan), the WebHouse Club program made no sense at all to us. Now, after less than a year of operation, Priceline.com is closing down the WebHouse Club program (though none of the company’s other services). The moral of the story? Different goods require different business models, whether or not the Internet is involved. [ACE]
Gill Exits Quark — Sources close to Quark, Inc. have confirmed that founder and chairman Tim Gill has left the company to pursue philanthropic efforts through his organization, the Gill Foundation. Fred Ebrahimi, Quark president and CEO, recently purchased Gill’s half of the privately held company. Gill founded Quark in 1981 and wrote the first word processor for the Apple III. Ebrahimi was hired as president and CEO in 1986. Quark’s flagship product, QuarkXPress, has been one of the major applications in the desktop publishing field since its release in 1987. Representatives at Quark had no comment. [JLC]
Poll Results: Front and Center — Last week’s poll asking what folks consider to be the most common tasks for which they use their Macs was both enlightening and predictable. By far, the runaway responses were email and Web browsing, which garnered 87 percent and 80 percent of the responses, respectively – clearly, the Internet dominates the computer use of this poll’s respondents. Word processing placed a strong third place, ranked by about 63 percent of the respondents, but from that point on the responses were a wash. Graphics, spreadsheets, and print/Web publishing each garnered responses of 30 percent or more (meaning about one respondent in three considered them a common task) and both development and games earned a about 20 percent response (meaning about one poll respondent in five is a gamer or software developer). Remaining categories – audio and video, tweaking the system, and other – were cited by 12 to 18 percent of respondents, and educational software finished last, cited by only 5 percent of the poll’s respondents. [GD]
Poll Preview: Bandwidth Is Good — As noted above, last week’s poll revealed that TidBITS readers consider email and Web browsing the most common tasks they perform on their Macs. But that raises the question of bandwidth; if you’re such a wired lot, what kind of Internet connections do you use on a regular basis, both at work and at home? We use a variety of connections, ranging from 56K modems and 56K frame relay to 128K ISDN and 256K DSL. Register your vote on our home page! [ACE]
In moving to version 6.0, the venerable StuffIt Deluxe compression and archiving package has received a significant update from Aladdin Systems. Most notable among StuffIt Deluxe’s new features is ReturnReceipt, which enables the sender of a compressed email attachment to request notification of the attachment’s expansion. ReturnReceipt works by creating an outgoing email message acknowledging expansion when the recipient expands the attachment within StuffIt Deluxe 6.0 and StuffIt Expander 6.0. Recipients always have the choice of acknowledgment, and previous versions of the StuffIt products just see a text file. We haven’t had a chance to test this feature yet, but it sounds promising for certain situations. Also new is the capability to search for items within StuffIt archives, support for additional file formats for compression and expansion, optional automatic update notification, cooperation with external anti-virus programs for automatic scanning after expansion, and an option to recover damaged archives. It’s also worth noting that StuffIt Deluxe 6.0 uses the same file format as StuffIt 5.x.
The application portions of StuffIt Deluxe work with Mac OS X Public Beta; unfortunately that’s not true of the popular extensions that rely on the classic Mac OS Finder, including Magic Menu, True Finder Integration, Aladdin StuffIt Browser, Archive Via Rename, and the StuffItCM contextual menu support. StuffIt Deluxe requires a PowerPC-based machine with Mac OS 8.1 or higher and 6 MB of available RAM. StuffIt Deluxe 6.0 costs $80; upgrades are $30 for owners of previous versions of the StuffIt line, and they’re free if you purchased StuffIt Deluxe 5.5 after 01-Oct-00.
Simultaneously, Aladdin released StuffIt Expander 6.0, the latest version of the company’s near-ubiquitous freeware expansion utility. Changes include support for more file formats (none of which now relay on the StuffIt Engine provided by DropStuff with Expander Enhancer), including .rar files, optional automatic notification of future updates, and cooperation with external anti-virus programs for automatic scanning after expansion. Aladdin says that StuffIt Expander 6.0 is compatible with Mac OS X Public Beta. Since StuffIt Deluxe 6.0 and DropStuff 6.0 continue to use the StuffIt 5 file format, you don’t need StuffIt Expander 6.0 to expand newly created StuffIt archives – the 5.x versions of StuffIt Expander will continue to work for that purpose, although they’ll see only text files representing ReturnReceipt requests. StuffIt Expander 6.0 requires a PowerPC-based machine running Mac OS 8.1 or later (people with earlier systems should stick with StuffIt Expander 5.5); it’s a 2 MB download.
Along with everything else, Aladdin also released DropStuff 6.0 and DropZip 6.0, upgrades to Aladdin’s $30 stand-alone drag & drop utilities for creating StuffIt and Zip archives. Changes include tweaks for Mac OS X Public Beta compatibility and optional automatic notification of future updates. Neither can create archives that incorporate ReturnReceipt requests – for that you need StuffIt Deluxe. Upgrades from the previous version of DropStuff cost $15 (DropZip upgrades are free for registered users), and demos of both are available as 3.6 MB downloads.
Sooner or later, you’re going to want to draw a diagram. Of course, you may already know the importance of diagrams – perhaps because you have to chart team organization or workflow at the office. But if you’re like me, diagramming just sneaks up on you; you give it no thought until suddenly you need to show someone some sort of conceptual structure. And it isn’t just the final presentation that’s significant; it’s the whole process of thought, creation, and alteration. What you want is the computer equivalent of a pencil or a blackboard, but neater, cleaner, quicker; it should be easy to sketch your initial idea and easy to change it without messing it up.
How do you do that on the Mac? Many programs I’ve discussed in past issues of TidBITS can be used for diagrams, including Inspiration, Canvas, and even Excel. But ConceptDraw, from Computer Systems Odessa Corp., is dedicated to diagramming, and brings great ease, originality, and power to the task.
To understand ConceptDraw, let’s explore it in three conceptual layers that reveal themselves as you dig successively deeper into its workings: drawing, connections, and "smart" objects.
Drawing — When you start using ConceptDraw, you’ll probably wonder what the fuss is about. It looks like a drawing program. Indeed, all the standard basic drawing features are present; ConceptDraw may feel a bit clunky in comparison to the slick, powerful interfaces of Canvas or CorelDRAW, but no important basic functionality is missing.
You can draw a path of lines, Bezier curves, and sectors of circles and ellipses. A path can have line color, thickness, dot-and-dash style, and arrow style. A closed path can have fill color, pattern, and shadow. Every distinct path is an object, or multiple paths can be joined to form an object; multiple objects can be grouped. Objects can be resized, flipped, and free-rotated. Every object has a movable text box, whose text can be styled. There are helpful tools for aligning and distributing objects, and for copying style features between objects. The cursor can snap to a grid or to an object’s bounding box or outline, and objects can be "glued" to a guideline. Documents can even have multiple layers and multiple pages.
Still, although ConceptDraw wouldn’t be useful if you couldn’t draw with it, drawing alone is not enough to make a diagram. For that, you need connections.
Connections — It turns out that every object in ConceptDraw is either a normal object or a connector object. A connector object has two inherent connection points, one at each end. A normal object has four inherent connection points, at the midpoints of the sides of its bounding box. Furthermore, you can give any object as many additional connection points as you like, which you can move or delete if you change your mind.
Now, when you drag one of a connector object’s two inherent connection points, its other inherent connection point stays put; the object stretches and rotates to compensate. And when you drag one of a connector object’s inherent connection points onto a connection point of another object, and let go, the two connection points become attached; this means that if you move the second object by dragging, resizing, or rotating it, the connector object’s inherent connection point moves too – while its other inherent connection point stays put. Thus, if you have some normal objects linked by connector objects, you can move any of the normal objects and still maintain the linkages.
ConceptDraw supplies two default connector objects – a straight line, and a sequence of lines that magically stay straight and perpendicular to each other. However – and this is the Really Interesting Part – you can turn any object into a connector object; so connections can appear exactly as you want them. And any object (including a connector object) can have text; so connections can be labeled. Plus, you’re in charge of where an object’s connection points are; so connections stay neat and precise.
Thus, ConceptDraw supplies you with much more power to create and maintain your diagram the way you want it than does a drawing program not dedicated to diagramming. However, the best is yet to come: ConceptDraw’s objects can be "smart."
"Smart" Objects — Any draw program maintains, for each object, certain internal data describing it and dictating the object’s drawn representation – the object’s height, its width, its degree of rotation, the endpoints and other determining parameters of all the segments of all its paths, its line thickness, its fill color, its text and all its text style information, and so forth. ConceptDraw, unlike any drawing program I know, gives you direct access to all this data. Select any object and choose Show Table from its contextual menu, and a new window opens, rather like a spreadsheet; that’s the object’s data.
You can modify the data in this table, and see your changes instantly reflected in the drawn representation; you thus have precise numeric control over the object. But the true power emerges when, instead of a raw value, you enter a formula describing a value as the result of a calculation, using standard arithmetic operations and a repertoire of other math and string functions. Such a calculation can involve other values from this object’s table – or from another object’s table. Thus, you can give an object special customized behavior.
For example, normally when you rotate an object, its text rotates with it; for an object whose text should never rotate, set its TextAngle to -Angle (the negative of the object’s own rotation). To make an object’s width always be the same as that of another object named ObjID1, set its Width to ObjID1.Width. To make an object’s text always state the object’s height, set its TheText to ValToText(Height). You can even give an object its own custom contextual menu, whose items can operate on the object’s values.
As you contemplate the power of such formula-based access to an object’s specifications, you may experience a feeling of awe, like that well-known woodcut where the scholar pokes his head out through the night sky to see the wheels and gears of the universe beyond. You may also have a feeling of regret that you didn’t pay more attention to your high school trigonometry. For example, I was able to create a rectangular object which, when rotated, remains always a parallelogram with vertical sides; but it took four cups of coffee, and afterwards I had to lie down.
[Kerry Magruder, one of the creators of the HyperCard-based notetaking program HyperNote, has researched the fascinatingly convoluted history of the image Matt mentions above. It’s worth reading. -Geoff]
Pet Project — ConceptDraw comes loaded with libraries of normal and connector objects, many of them smart, ready for you to assemble into diagrams. There are libraries for describing object-oriented structures and information models, such as Booch, UML, and Express-G (don’t worry, I don’t know what any of that means either); for flowcharting and dataflow; for database modeling; for drawing networks; for showing relationships among Web pages; for constructing room layouts; for circuit diagrams; for technical drawings; for organizational charts and project planning; and lots more, including extra clip art, symbols, and map pieces.
You can also create your own libraries; so naturally I had to give this a try, using a pet project of mine, sentence diagrams. (Readers who are old enough may remember sentence diagrams from high school; as an ex-language teacher, I still use them.) The results were spectacular. After a few days of design and experimentation, I ended up with a small library that makes sentence diagrams dead simple to construct. Individual words are "smart" objects whose line length automatically adjusts to the length of the text, and with connection points that stay evenly spaced. Horizontal words are linked by connector objects expressing subject-predicate, object-complement, and so forth. Slanting modifier words are "glued" to horizontal words at connection points through something called a "control point," which is too complicated to explain here. My most brilliant achievement was the right-angle that connects one modifier to another (as in "very humane"); it’s a smart connector object that keeps its right-angle and its rotation when its connection points are moved.
To see what I’m talking about, check out the Web page below, which shows two of my sentence diagrams. But you won’t learn much from this, because what’s important is not the diagram but the process by which it was created. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that once I had the library developed, the diagrams were really quick and easy to make.
Wish List — ConceptDraw is a young program with frequent updates, and it feels immature, even a bit raw in some ways. It treats screen real estate like a Windows port, with status bar at the bottom and innumerable palettes at the top. The interface design is odd: many common actions are available only through palette buttons (they have no menu equivalents), while others are buried deep in dialogs. If you make a mistake entering a formula you get the most unhelpful error message I’ve ever seen. The program employs some non-Mac-like conventions, and there are lots of "secret" keyboard equivalents that you can discover only from the manual.
The manual is decent HTML, with excellent use of animated GIFs to illustrate procedures, but it’s tedious and compendious, not instructive or explanatory, and contains some confusing errors. What’s really needed is a tutorial, as well as a guide to the libraries, which are not explained at all. Also, someone whose native language is English should be hired to correct the spelling and grammatical errors that pervade the manuals and the program itself.
I occasionally saw ConceptDraw crash, particularly when I tried to paste something it didn’t like; so save your work often. Several times I had to force-quit when it refused to quit normally. Some operations, such as opening certain libraries, are very slow. It initially didn’t print properly (rotated text was not rotated on paper as on the screen), but the developers eventually sent me a beta that fixed this. Also, I was astonished when I opened a saved ConceptDraw document and found that the text had been corrupted wherever I had used high-ASCII characters (for example, Option-p had become a question mark); the developers told me of a setting that prevents this, and explained it as a cross-platform issue, but to me there can be no excuse for text changing between closing a document and opening it again on the same machine.
Finally, now that I’ve developed a taste for ConceptDraw’s smart objects, I wish they were even smarter. If its formula language were more like a programming language, and if it could express valuable notions such as "all objects to which this object is connected," some even more powerful effects could be achieved. Perhaps this will be forthcoming in a future version.
Endpoint — It’s hard to believe, but there’s quite a bit about ConceptDraw that I haven’t mentioned. You can customize object behavior in other ways, such as what properties (e.g. rotation) are locked, and what an object does when double-clicked, or when its group is resized. Objects can contain links, and can be made to open other documents, other pages of the same document, or Web URLs. Also, ConceptDraw is cross-platform; the Windows version does OLE embedding and linking, and there’s a converter for importing files from Visio (its main competitor, now owned by Microsoft).
ConceptDraw does two things I really like. First, it helps you draw diagrams, a functionality hitherto essentially missing on my Mac. Second, it opens its power to the user, exposing its objects through data tables and making them customizable through formulas – and I’m a complete sucker for programs that do that. It has its faults, but it’s also still under development, so look for future improvements. Meanwhile, if you draw any sort of diagram or even think you might have reason to do so, now is a fine time to look into this fascinating program.
ConceptDraw 1.55 requires a PowerPC-based machine with Mac OS 8 or later. It takes up about 30 MB of hard disk space and prefers 30 MB of RAM. ConceptDraw costs $160 (boxed) or $125 (downloadable, with a discount to $98 currently available), and a demo is available for download.