This week we examine two fixtures in the technology landscape: modems and databases. Kevin Savetz contributes a look at V.92, the next modem standard for those who can’t get broadband connections, and Jonathan Rentzsch starts a look at relational databases for Mac OS X by explaining what a relational database actually is. In the news, Apple releases Mac OS X 10.0.3, Casady & Greene discontinues SoundJam, Macromedia ships FreeHand 10, and we note the passing of author Douglas Adams.
So Long, and Thanks For All the Laughs — Don’t panic! Noted British humorist and Macintosh proponent Douglas Adams died unexpectedly from a heart attack at a gym near his California home last Friday. He was 49 years old. Among his many proclivities (he had built barns, worked as a bodyguard, and played guitar with the rock band Pink Floyd), Adams wrote the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which began as a BBC radio serial and also spawned graphic novels, record albums, a play, a computer game, and a television series. Adams had been recently working on a feature film adaptation of Hitchhiker’s for Disney. Although Adams didn’t try to write predictive science fiction, his works engendered a surprising collection of Internet and pop culture terminology (such as the name of AltaVista’s BabelFish translation service), and his fictional Guide – envisioned long before the Web – could be described as a galaxy-wide online collaboration system. Tributes from friends and fans are being collected at Adams’ Web site. [GD]
SoundJam Fades Out 01-Jun-01 — The future of Casady & Greene’s SoundJam MP has been in question since SoundJam’s programmers went to Apple, where they based the free iTunes on their SoundJam code (see "SoundJam Keeps On Jammin’" in TidBITS-535 for a review). Now Casady & Greene has announced that they will cease publication of SoundJam as of 01-Jun-01 at the request of the developers; however, in a move for which they deserve kudos, Casady & Greene will continue to provide technical support to SoundJam owners. All other Casady & Greene products continue unaffected. [ACE]
FreeHand 10 Goes Mac OS X Native, Adds Features — Macromedia is now shipping FreeHand 10, improving the vector graphics program’s integration with Flash 5 and running natively under Mac OS X. Specific new features include master pages, the Macromedia Standard Pen Tool (a multipurpose drawing tool that behaves the same in FreeHand, Flash, and Fireworks), and the implementation of Macromedia’s user interface. The full version of FreeHand 10 is currently available as an online download for $400; updates from previous versions are $130. A boxed version is scheduled to ship in late May. Since Macromedia is still updating its systems to support purchases and downloads from Mac OS X, the company recommends that Mac OS X users purchase the boxed version. [JLC]
Mac OS X 10.0.3 Released — Just days after the release of Mac OS X 10.0.2 (see "TenBITS/07-May-01" in TidBITS-579), Apple has offered an update to version 10.0.3. Apple says the Mac OS X 10.0.3 update fixes a problem in the Mac OS X Finder in which folders containing unusually large numbers of items don’t display all their contents. Installing Mac OS X 10.0.3 on a Mac running 10.0.1 also provides all of 10.0.2’s fixes, including CD burning, better stability, and a newer FTP server. You can use the Software Update control panel in System Preferences to download the update (automatic checks aren’t working for a number of people; if this is true for you, just click the Software Update control panel’s Update Now button). If a firewall or other situation prevents you from using Software Update, you can also download and manually install a 14.9 MB updater disk image. The manual approach requires that you already have 10.0.1 or later installed; otherwise, you’ll first need to install the Mac OS X 10.0.1 updater (available at the last URL, below). [MHA]
Kensington MouseWorks 1.0 for Mac OS X — Kensington has released the first full version of its MouseWorks software supporting Kensington mice and trackballs under Mac OS X. Although mice with two buttons or scroll wheels work on their own under Mac OS X, MouseWorks 1.0 for Mac OS X enables Kensington device owners to customize button actions. There are a few caveats with this 1.0 release: one-button mice and TurboMouse 1.0 to 4.0 products (the older, two-button versions) are not supported, and some functionality of MouseWorks under Mac OS 9 isn’t available, such as button chording, Application Sets, and Rest Reminders. Still, as someone who relies on using my right mouse button to double-click items, I’m happy to see that the basics are in place. Kensington MouseWorks 1.0 for Mac OS X is a free 3.3 MB download. [JLC]
UpdateAgent X Preview — The number of Mac OS X-compatible applications is rising all time. Major applications tend to get the most coverage, but what about smaller but no less essential utilities? Insider Software has released a preview version of UpdateAgent X, which scans your hard disk and automatically downloads available updates to your programs. Although this release is a little rough around the edges (most noticeable is the Classic-style black outline surrounding default buttons instead of Mac OS X’s pulsing color effect), UpdateAgent X delivers what it promises. A free demo that can download only Mac OS updates from Apple is available as a 2.5 MB download; the demo also lists but does not download other applications from its database of 5,000 programs. The full version costs $50 per year. Currently, UpdateAgent updates Classic and Carbon applications; support for Cocoa programs will be provided in a free update. [JLC]
Mac OS X Janitorial Staff — One of the ways that Unix achieves its vaunted reliability is by way of a scheduling tool called cron, which runs scripts that clean up the mess left by normal operating system usage. Mac OS X is no different than other forms of Unix in this respect, and it has daily, weekly, and monthly scripts that reset log files, back up internal databases, and perform other necessary tasks, often between 3 AM and 5 AM. However, typical usage of Mac OS X differs from other Unix systems in that Macs are often turned off or sleeping when they’re not being used, whereas other Unix machines tend to run constantly. Although powerful and flexible, cron has one major issue in this area – it doesn’t catch up on tasks scheduled for when the Mac was off or asleep. Brian Hill has addressed this limitation with a free utility called MacJanitor that lets you manually start Mac OS X’s daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance scripts. You must remember to launch MacJanitor, but as long as you do it every so often, it shouldn’t matter as much if you regularly leave your Mac sleeping or turned off during the period when it would like to be sweeping the floors. [ACE]
Setext Viewing on Mac OS X — Since 1992, email issues of TidBITS have been formatted using the structure-enhanced text (setext, pronounced "see text") format that I helped Ian Feldman develop during 1991. It’s an implicit markup language, so most people never even realize they’re reading it, but it is possible to write programs that can interpret the sections and style markup within setext – for instance, the text editors BBEdit and Alpha automatically detect the structure of setext documents. The canonical program for viewing setext documents is Akif Eyler’s Easy View 2.6.2, but some years ago Akif announced he had no plans to work on it further and released the source code. It still works (at least under Mac OS 9.1), but is undoubtedly living on borrowed time. A recent resurgence in interest in setext has resulted in Sascha Bigalke’s SmartView 2.0, which runs under Mac OS 9 and in Classic mode in Mac OS X, and Samizdat Software’s SetextView 0.3, which runs only in Mac OS X. Both are obviously still works in progress, with only rudimentary support for the kind of multiple file browsing Easy View provides, but if you’re interested in setext, they’re worth a look. [ACE]
A new breed of modems – referred to by the decidedly forgettable moniker of V.92 – is appearing on computer store shelves. They promise to add convenient features and squeeze every last ounce of speed from analog telephone lines. But don’t rush to upgrade just yet – it will be a little while before Internet service providers actually support this new standard.
When they do, you can expect to hear these four V.92 features touted:
Modem-on-Hold (also known as Internet call waiting) will be cause for celebration in single-phone-line households. The feature works with traditional call waiting, allowing you to answer an incoming call while you’re online. After you hang up, you can resume with the Internet connection unperturbed. Unlike existing, proprietary Internet call waiting options, V.92’s version won’t require you to install special software or pay extra for a forward-when-busy service from the phone company.
QuickConnect will reduce the time it takes to log in, cutting by half the training (or handshake) time in which the modems squeal and beep at each other to establish a connection. The first time your modem connects to your Internet provider, the modems walk up the available protocols until they agree on the highest common speed plus other features like compression. A V.92 modem memorizes information about the connection, which it uses for subsequent connections rather than taking time to renegotiate every time you dial in. It’s not a dramatic improvement, but will save a few seconds every time you log on.
Improved compression for faster downloads. Although these new modems have the same maximum download speed as today’s V.90 modems – 53 kilobits per second (Kbps), a limit set by Federal Communications Commission restrictions – they use a new compression protocol called V.44 that will make text and Web pages (both of which are highly compressible) download somewhat faster.
Faster uploads. A technology called PCM Upstream digitally encodes data the modem sends, increasing upload speeds to 48 Kbps from the speed limit of 33.6 Kbps, which dates back to the 1996 revision of the old V.34 standard. Latency for upstream data should also be reduced by 20 to 30 percent – not a significant factor, but it should help to improve performance for online gamers and video conferencing. [For background on latency, see Stuart Cheshire’s "Bandwidth and Latency" articles beginning in TidBITS-367; for details on the workings of 56K modems, see Jeff Carlson’s article in NetBITS-008. -Geoff]
(That mysterious V.whatever naming convention, incidentally, originates in Switzerland at the International Telecommunications Union, an organization that coordinates telecommunications networks and services. Protocols whose names start with "V." – which range from V.1 to V.300 – set standards for data communication over the telephone network.)
The Clogged End of the Pipe — Although several modem manufacturers have already released serial and USB V.92 models – any of which should work with a Mac – computer users can’t enjoy any of the new features until Internet service providers upgrade their equipment to handle the new protocols, which will probably take months.
I expect the largest ISPs to begin offering trials of V.92 in the middle of 2001, with official rollouts toward the end of the year or the beginning of 2002. Smaller service providers may offer V.92 access sooner.
America Online, the biggest online provider of them all, has not yet committed to supporting V.92. "This version of consumer modem is only now arriving in the marketplace," said spokesman Nicholas Graham. "As we did with the V.90 modem, we will thoroughly test and debug V.92 modems at the appropriate time."
Representatives of EarthLink and MSN, the second and third largest dialup providers, offered similar statements. "We’ll begin testing V.92 as soon as we feel it’s stable and reliable enough to incorporate into our systems," said Kurt Rahn, a spokesman for EarthLink. "At this point, though, we have no immediate plans to support it."
Replacing your current, working 56 Kbps modem with a V.92 model would be premature. But if you plan on purchasing a new modem anyway, it makes sense to buy a V.92-ready model. It will work with today’s V.90 standard now; when your Internet provider is ready with V.92, you’ll have the right hardware. Plus, there’s no financial reason not to buy a V.92 modem, since they cost about the same as V.90 units. A search at the CNET Shopper price comparison service revealed street prices from about $65 to $150.
You may not even have to buy a new modem to enjoy these new features. Some modem manufacturers are planning to release free "flash upgrade" software that will update the internal software (or firmware) of certain recent modem models to support V.92. Most older modems aren’t upgradable, though, since they lack the hardware power to handle the enhanced compression and call waiting features. Visit your modem manufacturer’s Web site to find out if an upgrade will be available for your modem.
I asked Apple whether they will start to install V.92 modems in new Macs, and if they can provide a firmware upgrade for today’s crop of internal Macintosh V.90 modems, but my calls were not returned.
The builders of both consumer modems and "head end" equipment – the communications hardware Internet service providers use – are in the process of fine-tuning their V.92 software. Many of the new features in V.92 are still being perfected. So even if you buy a new V.92 modem today, be prepared to flash-upgrade the hardware in a few months: this will assure you are using the latest and (theoretically) greatest firmware. It’s too early to tell whether these flash updaters will be available for the Mac; if your modem’s manufacturer only releases a PC-based updater, you may have to use a product like Virtual PC to run the updater or plug your modem into a friend’s PC to inject V.92 support.
"We think it surely makes sense for folks who do not have 56K or whose modems break today, to invest in V.92 platforms, but we certainly expect that they will want to flash them as the services really do roll out," said Larry Hancock, marketing director at Zoom Telephonics, a major modem manufacturer which now owns both Hayes and Global Village.
With the ever-increasing hunger for high-speed Internet access and the decreasing cost of broadband services such as cable modems and DSL, analog modems may be living their twilight years – V.92 could be the last great modem standard. But for now, despite relatively slow speeds and a staid reputation, there’s still a place for modem connections. After all, modem access is cheaper, simpler to set up, and available where broadband access isn’t.
[Kevin Savetz is a freelance computer journalist specializing in the Internet and Macintosh.]
Love it or hate it, Mac OS X ships with Unix under its hood. As a user, I worry the Mac experience could degrade into editing brittle text configuration files and typing obscure and unforgiving commands. As a programmer, I’m overjoyed because we Mac users now have access to certain industrial-strength software. This is the type of software that drives Fortune 500 companies, calculates extremely complex chemical reactions, and generates the movies we watch. Since I don’t make movies and I’m not a scientist, I’m most interested in the business side of this software. In particular, I’m interested in relational databases.
On the classic Mac OS, FileMaker Pro and 4D dominate the database scene. I’m partial to the newcomer Valentina, while other folks swear by Helix RADE or Frontier [for context, see Matt Neuburg’s articles on these last two. -Adam]. Unfortunately, none of these databases qualify as "industrial strength." Don’t get me wrong: they do their jobs well, but they lack the qualities that many database professionals crave: SQL and ACID. But before we dive into those two acronyms, let me introduce you to the relational database model. In the next installment of this article, we’ll look at some of the relational databases that become available to Macintosh users under Mac OS X.
Relational Databases — Although there are many different types of databases (free form, hierarchical, network and object relational to name a few), the relational database model is the favorite of businesses.
Introduced by mathematician Dr. E. F. Codd in the early 1970s, the model is simple (though most books like to obscure it behind mathematical jargon). Imagine a spreadsheet where you keep a list of your customers:
CUSTOMER_ID NAME EMAIL
1 Steve Jobs [email protected]
2 John Sculley [email protected]
3 Michael Spindler [email protected]
4 Gil Amelio [email protected]
Notice that you have three columns of information, with each column dedicated to holding a certain nugget of information. You have four customers, each represented by a distinct row.
The relational model calls this data layout a "table;" a relational database contains one or more tables. Although similar in concept to a spreadsheet, a table is different in that each column can hold only one type of data. For example, it would be illegal to put text into the "CUSTOMER_ID" column – it can hold only numbers. Also, unlike a spreadsheet, the relational model doesn’t allow cells to hold formulas (each cell must stand alone and can’t refer to another cell).
If you’re used to thinking of databases as a bunch of index cards (as in FileMaker), here’s a helpful guide: a table is analogous to a stack of cards, a row is analogous to a single card (a record), and a column represents a single field on a card.
Now, let’s say you want to keep track of your customers’ purchases. You whip up another table:
PURCHASE_ID CUSTOMER_ID DESCRIPTION
1 1 Black turtleneck shirt
2 2 Book: "How to Sell Sugar Water"
3 1 Faded blue jeans
4 3 Golden parachute
5 1 12-pack, bottled water
6 4 Book: "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs"
You can add rows to this table as customers make purchases. Each purchase has a "CUSTOMER_ID" column, which can be used to relate a purchase with a customer. For instance, in this table we know that Purchase #1 was made by Customer #1.
Let’s explore how these relationships can work. Given a PURCHASE_ID, it’s easy for us to retrieve the purchaser’s email address. Suppose we’re interested in the fourth purchase; its CUSTOMER_ID field is set to 3. By scanning our customer list for customers with an ID set to 3, we discover a Michael Spindler, email address <[email protected]>.
Relationships can also work the other way: given a CUSTOMER_ID, we can work backwards to compile a list of purchases made. Let’s start off with Steve Jobs, who has a CUSTOMER_ID of 1. Now we scan our purchase list, where we discover three rows with matching CUSTOMER_ID fields: purchases 1, 3, and 5.
By following good design rules when setting up your tables, your database will have little or no duplicate data and will accept only valid data. Another perk is that nothing in your database is tied to a specific program – if you outgrow your current database program, you can move to another without much effort.
Finally, relational databases are very scalable. You can start off on a $400 PC running Linux and migrate the same database to $400,000 IBM big iron. The only difference is speed and reliability. You can see why businesses like relational databases.
Now that you know the general idea about relational databases, we can decode the SQL and ACID acronyms I mentioned earlier.
SQL — SQL stands for Structured Query Language, and is correctly pronounced by spelling out its letters ("ess cue el"). Some folks pronounce it "sequel," however this is incorrect: there was a language named SEQUEL that was SQL’s forerunner. A minority pronounce SQL as "squeal," which never truly caught on, probably for the same reason SCSI was never pronounced "sexy" – it sounded silly in the boardroom. ("We’ll need to attach a sexy drive to our squeal server." Sure you’re going to say that to the big boss.)
SQL is the standard language used to communicate with relational databases. Because it’s actually a full language, users, developers, and software programs can use it to create, alter, and delete tables and the rows of information they contain. The use of a standard language opens relational databases up to a wide variety of interfaces and access methods that would have to be written from scratch individually for other types of databases. That accounts for one of the limitations of traditional Macintosh databases.
Like HTML, SQL is a declarative language. It contains no variables or loops, and is easy to learn even for the non-programmer. With a non-declarative language, you must spell out the steps necessary to complete a task. A declarative language, on the other hand, simply allows you to state the desired end-result. SQL is an older language, and although it is case insensitive, convention capitalizes almost everything. Here’s a valid SQL statement to create the customer table discussed above:
CREATE TABLE "CUSTOMER"(
This command creates a table named CUSTOMER with three columns: CUSTOMER_ID, NAME and EMAIL. The CUSTOMER_ID column is defined to hold a number, while the NAME and EMAIL columns are respectively defined to contain 100 and 200 characters.
It’s easy to enter information into a table using the INSERT verb:
INSERT INTO "CUSTOMER"(
) VALUES (
Space prohibits me from detailing the syntax for altering and deleting rows and tables, but it’s just as easy as creating and inserting tables and rows.
The key SQL verb is SELECT, which allows you to access and filter information from the database. For example, we can look up a customer’s email address like so:
WHERE "NAME" = ‘Gil Amelio’;
Here’s the result you get back:
The result takes the form of a table. Granted, in this case it’s a table with only one column, but it’s a table nonetheless.
As a final example, given a name, the following query displays all of a customer’s purchases. It’s okay if you don’t understand it, I just wanted to show off a little of what you can do with SQL.
FROM "PURCHASES" WHERE "CUSTOMER_ID" = (
WHERE "NAME" = ‘Steve Jobs’
Here’s the result:
1 Black turtleneck shirt
3 Faded blue jeans
5 12-pack, bottled water
The ACID Test — ACID stands for "Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, and Durability." These are the features that separate the pros (Oracle, PostgreSQL) from the minor leaguers (FileMaker Pro, 4D). When your business rides on the quality of your information, ACID is the feature set that helps you sleep at night.
Atomicity (pronounced "atom-ih-sit-ee") comes from the word atom and its original meaning: that which is indivisible. In a database, that means that multiple operations are all bundled up into one indivisible transaction. Either all of the transaction’s operations take place, or none of them do. This helps to ensure the database is in a valid state at all times.
Consistency is the principle that only operations that meet all the database’s validity constraints are allowed. The end effect of this is that illegal operations aren’t allowed, whether they are external (perhaps users enter invalid data) or internal (perhaps a disk fills up and a required row can’t be added).
In this wild Web world, databases have to deal with multiple concurrent modifications. But what happens when Alice’s transaction is modifying the table that Bob’s transaction is reading? Isolation ensures that Bob’s transaction sees the table as it existed before Alice’s transaction started or after it completed, but never the intermediate state.
Finally, Durability is the principle that once a transaction is completed, a mere system crash won’t wipe it out. In the real world, this means that transactions aren’t considered completed until the all the information has been written to a disk.
What’s Available? In the next installment of this article, I’ll cover the merits of a handful of database applications that can be run under Mac OS X, such as MySQL, FrontBase, and speculation about Oracle’s possible entry into the Mac field.
[Jonathan "Wolf" Rentzsch is the embodiment of Red Shed Software and runs a monthly Mac programmer get-together in Northwest Illinois.]