Internet grocers may be fighting an uphill battle, but for Alex Hoffman, Netflix proves that an Internet business can best the near-ubiquitous video store. Derek Miller joins us to compare two Palm word processors, WordSmith and Word To Go. Mac OS X-only releases continue apace, with iDVD 2, Snapz Pro X 1.0.1, and Timbuktu Pro 6.0.1. Other important releases include iTunes 2, Netscape 6.2, and GraphicConverter 4.1, which support both operating systems.
iTunes 2 Now Available — iTunes 2, introduced with Apple’s new iPod, is now available as a free download. Currently the showcase of Apple’s digital hub strategy, the music player adds a 10-band equalizer with 22 presets, a crossfader for smooth transitions between songs, and automatic synchronization with the iPod (see "iPod Makes Music More Attractive" in TidBITS-603). The update also boasts CD burning at twice the speeds of the original version. iTunes 2 is available for Mac OS 9.0.4 or later (Mac OS 9.1 if you want to burn audio CDs) as a 3.4 MB download.
A separate iTunes 2.0.1 for Mac OS X is also available, after Apple pulled the first version due to a problem with the installer that could either erase files or set permissions incorrectly – see TidBITS Talk for more details. (If you downloaded iTunes 2 for Mac OS X and encountered no difficulties, you don’t need to install version 2.0.1. However, Apple recommends that you delete the iTunes.pkg installer file – go to the Library folder at the top level of your hard disk, open the Receipts folder, and locate the file there.) iTunes 2.0.1 for Mac OS X requires Mac OS X 10.1, and is a 3.9 MB download. U.S. English and Japanese versions are currently available; Apple says additional localizations will be available soon. [JLC]
Netscape 6.2 Released — Netscape Communications has released Netscape 6.2, bringing full Mac OS X compatibility and fixing bugs. The new version exists as an application package for Mac OS X, which means installation is merely a matter of dragging the Netscape file to your hard disk. A number of problems have been fixed, such as sluggish performance on dual-processor Power Macs and LDAP functionality. Netscape 6.2 requires a PowerPC 604e running at 266 MHz or faster, with at least 64 MB of RAM and Mac OS 8.5 or later. The Mac OS X version is a 16.9 MB download; the Mac OS 9 version remains an active installer that downloads just needed modules, so be prepared for a potentially lengthy installation process. [JLC]
GraphicConverter 4.1 Released — Lemke Software has updated its popular shareware image-editing application, adding support for even more image file formats and incorporating bug fixes. GraphicConverter 4.1 adds support for importing JPEG2000 and Nokia .pict images, and improves TIFF importing. The program also supports ColorSync profiles during printing, adds an unsharp mask (image sharpening) feature, and improves functionality under Mac OS X. GraphicConverter 4.1 is a free upgrade for registered users; the shareware price is $30 for European residents and $35 for users outside Europe. The file is a 3.4 MB download, and is available in Carbon, Classic PowerPC, and 68K versions. [JLC]
Poll Results: I Saw, I Paid, iPod — Last week brought Apple’s announcement of the iPod portable music player and was followed immediately by criticism that the $400 price tag was too high for what the device does. TidBITS readers tend to agree, with less than a quarter of respondents in our poll saying that they would seriously consider paying $400 or more for an iPod. But Apple’s design efforts didn’t go unnoticed – 40 percent of respondents would consider the iPod at $300, which is still costlier than the competition, though another 28 percent weren’t interested unless it cost around $200. The upcoming holiday shopping season should provide a sense of whether or not Apple has overestimated the price people are willing to pay. [ACE]
Now that Mac OS X has evolved into a far more usable operating system with the release of 10.1, we’re starting to see both new versions of applications and a steady stream of incremental updates to programs already in the pipeline.
Apple Releases iDVD 2 — Apple is now shipping iDVD 2, a Mac OS X-only update to its software for easily creating and burning DVDs in a SuperDrive-equipped Mac. Previewed at Macworld Expo New York 2001, the new version adds motion menus (full-motion menus and buttons), more themes, a new interface, and the capability to add a soundtrack to slide shows of still images. More significantly, iDVD 2 can store up to 90 minutes of video on a DVD disc (up from 60 minutes in the previous version). iDVD 2 can also perform MPEG compression and disc burning while in the background. The upgrade appears to be free, but since it is distributed on a DVD disc, Apple is charging a $20 shipping and handling fee. iDVD 2 requires a Power Mac with a SuperDrive (the program does not appear to support external DVD burners at this time), Mac OS X 10.1 or later, and a minimum of 256 MB RAM (384 MB recommended). [JLC]
Snapz Pro X 1.0.1 Adds Features, Compatibility — Ambrosia Software has released Snapz Pro X 1.0.1, an update to their Mac OS X-compatible screen capture utility (see "TenBITS/03-Sep-01" in TidBITS-595 for more on Snapz Pro X’s new features). The new version incorporates numerous small changes to provide compatibility with Mac OS X 10.1; minor performance enhancements to the movie capture feature; bug fixes; and localizations in French, Japanese, and Italian, along with localized French and Japanese documentation. New features include a movie guide that shows you the area of the screen being recorded, a separate selection rectangle for movies, the capability to turn off desktop preview icons, and DVD capture with Nvidia graphics cards. Snapz Pro X 1.0.1 is a free upgrade for registered users; it’s a 9.9 MB download. [ACE]
Timbuktu Pro 6.0.1 Mac OS X 10.1 Compatible — Netopia has released a free update to Timbuktu Pro 6.0.1 that adds no new features to the remote control application under Mac OS X, but does provide necessary compatibility with Apple’s recent Mac OS X 10.1 release (see "TenBITS/23-Apr-01" in TidBITS-577 for more on what’s new in the Mac OS X version of Timbuktu Pro). You’ll need your serial number and activation key to download the update. [ACE]
Word processing on a Palm OS-based handheld device seems a silly idea. A tiny, 160 by 160 pixel screen, limited font support, and no hard drive or keyboard? Processor speed and RAM put to shame by a Mac from 1993?
Yet here I am, composing this article on a Palm IIIxe – and not just to prove a point. Even compared to a state-of-the-small laptop like an iBook, a Palm device is more convenient to carry. It’s silent and works for weeks on a single set of batteries. Backups are automatic with every HotSync. It’s easy to use nearly anywhere – I wrote this article while sitting on the couch next to my sleeping daughter and edited it while waiting for her to get a haircut the next day.
With a folding keyboard such as the Palm Portable keyboard, I can carry my electronic writing tool kit in a pocket or two, so I’m more likely to have it with me. The Palm’s limited hardware also forces programmers to think hard about which features are necessary and which are fluff.
So when I went searching for a word processing application for my Palm, the options included two well-crafted packages: DataViz’s Word To Go 4.001 (part of the Documents To Go suite) and Blue Nomad’s WordSmith 2.01.
Each offers a good set of composition and editing features, Macintosh synchronization, and little else to get in the way. But the two programs, while superficially similar, follow different philosophies. Which is best depends on what you need to do.
The Tool versus the Knife — Many a computer geek has a belt clip that carries a Leatherman multi-tool – blades, screwdrivers, files, pliers, and other gadgets ready to pivot into use at any moment. None of these tools is as good as its stand-alone equivalent, but few people keep a toolbox handy all day. The multi-tool’s value is that it does the job admirably when it’s all you have.
Professional chefs, on the other hand, sometimes carry a single Henckels knife from job to job. That knife will not tighten a screw, file a fingernail, or turn a bolt, but it’s no compromise – it is the best possible handheld implement for the many things a chef needs to cut.
Among Palm word processors, Word To Go is a Leatherman tool, while WordSmith is a Henckels knife. If you work with a variety of documents mostly on your desktop computer and need to put them on your Palm for light editing or inspection, flip out Word To Go’s workmanlike cutter. If you plan on doing serious writing work on the road, WordSmith’s finely honed blade will be more your style.
On the Palm: Simplicity and Nuance — At first, Word To Go and WordSmith looked almost the same to me: a sparse on-screen editing area with minimalist toolbars, a scroll bar, and a title tab. Each lets me select, copy, paste, italicize, boldface, indent, and otherwise format my text. Both programs support bookmarks, colored text (on color handhelds), and external keyboards. Each preserves some formatting elements from Mac documents and discards or hides others. Both offer fully functional downloadable trial versions. Oddly, neither program understands HTML or checks spelling (though Blue Nomad is working on a spell checker).
As I worked, WordSmith stood out. First, I noticed that it had four full menus, compared to Word To Go’s sparse two. WordSmith can search and replace, while Word To Go can only search. You can hide WordSmith’s toolbars, making up to 15 lines of text visible. It can replace the Palm’s built-in Memo Pad, and can read and write standard Palm DOC files.
WordSmith’s toolbars have more features but take up less space. Its document navigation, paragraph formatting, outlining, and font control are much more powerful, and it has 10 separate clipboards to hold text for pasting. If you have a keyboard, the Palm stylus is hardly necessary. But if a keyboard isn’t handy, WordSmith includes a number of simple, time-saving stylus shortcuts.
Blue Nomad has made even the small things slightly better. For instance, superscripts and subscripts are visible onscreen, and WordSmith displays the document name in the title tab, while Word To Go shows only its own name.
Word To Go isn’t a lightweight, however. Its basic typing, editing, and formatting tools are good. It permits some editing of tables and lets you save documents or the application itself to SD/MMC memory cards, where WordSmith doesn’t. I found that its scroll bar works better. And most significantly, Word To Go is part of a suite that includes a spreadsheet program and (as a free add-on) a PDF reader.
On the Mac: Choices Are Good — Palm OS handhelds are irrevocably wedded to their desktop cradles – they are "connected organizers," after all. And it is on the desktop where Word To Go outshines WordSmith.
Both DataViz and Blue Nomad are established companies, but DataViz has been making Macintosh software far longer. It shows. Documents To Go includes an installer, while you must expand and install the WordSmith files manually on your Mac and Palm. DataViz’s long experience with its MacLinkPlus conversion utility means that Word To Go reads and writes several generations of Microsoft Word formats, as well as AppleWorks and ClarisWorks, plain text, and Palm DOC files.
Other components of the full Documents To Go package handle a variety of spreadsheet types and even convert Acrobat PDFs for handheld reading. I half-expected integration with MacLinkPlus on my computer, but it wasn’t there; Documents To Go uses its own internal conversion engine.
The Macintosh synchronization program for Documents To Go closely resembles MacLinkPlus’s as well. It is a much more Mac-like application than WordSmith’s minimalist dialog box, which seems a basic port from Windows. Although both packages support dragging and dropping files, Documents To Go also provides a full complement of menus and buttons to control how synchronization works. It includes such niceties as a contextual menu plug-in, too.
WordSmith, on the other hand, imports and exports only one type of formatted text from your Mac: Rich Text Format (RTF). RTF is a wise choice, since nearly every Mac word processor, from Microsoft Word to AppleWorks to Nisus Writer, can save to RTF. (Strangely, RTF is the only major format Word To Go does not support.)
Unfortunately, you cannot move a plain text Mac document to your Palm with the WordSmith synchronization conduit – you must either convert it to the Palm DOC format with another utility (such as Sync Buddy or MakeDocDD), add it to the Palm Desktop application as a memo, or save it as RTF from your word processor first. Those like me who like to write in BBEdit or another text editor on our Macs would appreciate if Blue Nomad could save us the extra steps.
Blue Nomad, formerly known as BackupBuddy Software, is best known for its BackupBuddy Palm utility. Backup remains one of WordSmith’s strengths. For example, if both the Palm and Mac versions of a document have changed since the last synchronization, the Palm version takes precedence – but the Mac version is also automatically backed up.
Both packages include a few features that don’t appear on the Mac side. Luckily, none of these Windows-only features are essential and both programs remain strong without them.
Blue Nomad says that they will release a Mac OS X version of WordSmith once Palm, Inc. makes native Mac OS X conduits available – sometime this fall, perhaps. DataViz, which has already released a Mac OS X version of MacLinkPlus, is likely to do the same.
How Will You Slice It? If you need to import a variety of files into your Palm – whether from Word, AppleWorks, a text editor, Excel, or Acrobat – and if you don’t need to change them extensively there, Word To Go is one of a broad array of serviceable tools to keep the basics of your office suite in your pocket. Your inner multi-tool geek will applaud how much you can do.
If you’d rather satisfy the discerning palate of your inner word chef, though, then you need a less versatile but more refined instrument – a real handheld word processor with which you can write every day. If you can live with more rudimentary RTF-only file conversion and a Mac experience with more rough edges, then look at WordSmith. Over time you’ll appreciate its finesse in the Palm environment. Maybe Blue Nomad can put similar effort into addressing some of WordSmith’s desktop shortcomings.
Word To Go requires a Power Mac with Mac OS 8.1 or higher, a handheld with Palm OS 3.0 or higher, 32 MB of RAM and 20 MB of disk space on the Mac, and 330K of memory (plus room for documents) on the Palm. It is part of the $70 Documents To Go suite; a 30-day, 4 MB trial download available. The Add-On Pack, which includes the PDF viewer, is currently free, though it usually costs an extra $20. There is extensive Mac HTML help but no full manual.
WordSmith requires a Power Mac with Mac OS 8.1 or higher (Mac OS 9 recommended) and 450K (plus document space) available on a Palm OS handheld. It costs $30 as a 1.3 MB download. The trial version is limited to 100 editing sessions before it will no longer synchronize, and 200 before rich text editing stops working altogether, but it continues to read DOC and Memo Pad files indefinitely. The electronic manual is quite complete, but too large to import onto most Palm OS devices. Handmark’s WordSmithPro is a retail version of the same product.
[Derek K. Miller is a homemaker, writer, editor, Web guy, and drummer based in Vancouver, Canada. He carries his Palm IIIxe and Leatherman Wave almost everywhere, but his Henckels knives stay at home. He tries to keep his weblog interesting.]
Despite billions of dollars, tons of hype, and even a number of very happy customers, Internet grocery shopping has suffered notable business failures like Webvan and Kozmo.com (see the "Groceries in Our Midst" series of articles). However, this does not mean that old ways of doing errands cannot be replaced by more convenient services using technology and the Web. My favorite example is Netflix.
Netflix is a cross between the Internet Movie Database, Amazon, and Blockbuster, enabling you to rent and return DVD-based movies without leaving your home. It truly has replaced a brick-and-mortar store with a fully functional Web site for me and 300,000 other users.
Video rental stores, exemplified by Blockbuster and all of its competitors, suffer from the same problems. By the time I get to the store, the movies I want to see are already rented, especially on weekends. If I do find a movie to rent, I’m allowed to keep the movie only for a few days, meaning that I have to watch it almost immediately. I also need to return the movie promptly or suffer a significant penalty that can double the cost of the rental. These limitations would be more tolerable if only the video stores weren’t so limited in the movies that they carry. Sure, the big chains stock the latest hits, and the local shops often carry specialties, but none of them offer the universal selection to which buying movies from Amazon has made me accustomed.
Netflix addresses all of these problems, and introduces only a couple of small hiccups in the process.
Receiving and Returning Movies — The basic idea behind Netflix is that you select movies on the Web and Netflix mails you the DVDs via first class mail in an envelope slightly larger than the disc (sans packaging). (This approach wouldn’t work with videotapes, because DVD discs can be mailed at letter rates rather than package rates.) After you watch the movie, simply drop it in the mail using the same envelope, which already includes postage. Each time you return a movie, Netflix sends you another. There is no need to go to the store to pick up or return the movies, and best of all, you can keep a DVD for as long as you want – there are no late fees.
This stream of DVDs is made possible by setting up a queue of movies you want to watch at the Netflix Web site. You can add and remove movies from your queue, and you can change the order of movies to determine the order in which the DVDs are sent. When Netflix receives the last movie you returned, it sends out the next available movie on your list, and notifies you by email. My queue currently lists 61 movies, some which are still in theaters.
Netflix does not charge for each rental, relying instead on a monthly membership fee that corresponds to the number of movies you can have at a time. The Standard fee of $20 per month gives you three movies at once, though this does not mean you are limited to three rentals a month. At this level, you could easily watch eight or nine movies per month by watching and returning movies promptly.
Other membership levels include Bonus (four movies for $25 per month), Plus (five for $30) and Ultimate (eight for $40). Economy service ($14 for two movies) is available as well, making it easy to watch a movie every weekend. With Ultimate, a committed videophile could see watch between 16 and 24 movies a month.
Rows of Shelves of… Pixels — Netflix’s delivery method is wonderfully centered around the customer: I need only a mailbox to return movies, and I get around to it when I feel like it. But a great delivery mechanism is only part of the Netflix appeal. For starters, Netflix offers a huge selection, claiming to carry every DVD in print – 10,000 in all. That alone goes a long way toward eliminating the problems inherent to the brick-and-mortar stores.
When you visit a physical video store, you’re in permanent browse mode – the store employees are the closest you’ll get to a search engine. At the Netflix Web site you can search for movies by name, director, and actor, in addition to a number of other options.
As you would expect from an online storefront, the main page includes various listings to pique your interest. Today, for example, I see a Family Fun collection (The Wizard of Oz, The Iron Giant, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Animal Crackers), and mysteries (Twilight, The Lady from Shanghai, The Astronaut’s Wife, Cutter’s Way and The Big Lebowski). There are numerous other groupings listed as well. There are also some permanent genre listings, such as Action & Adventure, Children & Family, Classics, Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Gay and Lesbian, Horror, Indie, Mature, Music & Concert, Romance, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Special Interest, and Thrillers.
Often more helpful are the special category and Expert listings. These include Academy Award-winning films, the American Film Institute’s AFI 100 lists, and recommendations by movie critic Leonard Maltin and "Mr. DVD," who answers questions and points to relevant movies. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the Best Bet listing. By allowing customers to rate movies, Netflix recommends titles customized for your tastes. Presumably, Netflix is using aggregate ratings, much like Amazon’s rating system. My Best Bets are pretty close to the mark, and the more I rate movies, the more accurate its recommendations appear to be.
The end result of the Netflix selection process is that I get movies that I truly want to see. In video stores I would often end up picking up something I was only marginally interested in seeing, because everything that I really wanted to see was already rented. Netflix’s queue works well because you don’t have to remember what you wanted to rent – it’s all saved online. Whenever you think of a movie you’ve wanted to watch (I’ve been meaning to see Seven Samurai, for example), you can add it. I’ve found myself watching older movies through Netflix more than I ever did through Blockbuster. This has often resulted in better choices than those offered by more recent releases.
Why I’ll Never Go Back to Blockbuster — Because I don’t have to return movies immediately, I always have a few on hand. I try to set up my queue with a variety of different types of movies, so that I can watch films that suit my mood. For example, I wasn’t in the mood to view Sophie’s Choice for months after I received it, but I watched Planet of the Apes immediately after it arrived. There’s no need to return movies in order they arrived. This sort of scheduling just isn’t possible with conventional rentals.
And DVDs are just cooler than videotapes. It’s not just the quality – DVDs now regularly include special features such as scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical release, directors’ and actors’ commentaries, and "making of" documentaries. Because I can keep the movie as long as I want, there’s time to watch those special additions. Netflix is also great for watching DVDs containing several episodes of television shows that aren’t available to everyone, such as HBO’s The Sopranos. And, anyone who has small children (who often want to watch the same movie every day for a week) will find the "no due date" policy a godsend.
Quibbles & Customer Service — Netflix really is as good as it sounds, though there are a couple of minor weaknesses. You’re never completely guaranteed to receive the first choice of movies in your queue. If it’s out of stock for a month (Netflix may have a huge selection and 2.5 million discs in stock, but they still have only a finite number of copies of each movie), then you wait a month. Of course, movies that I must see, I see in theaters. If I can’t wait to see it again, I generally want to own it anyway. However, to be fair, local rental shops can’t guarantee you’ll get your first choice either.
And there are certain problems which cannot be avoided in this model. Netflix simply can’t provide instant gratification (so you may still find yourself in a local store for the spur of the moment movie rental). Using Netflix doesn’t support local businesses. You can’t engage a clerk in a conversation about your movie choices. You can’t get a soda and bag of microwave popcorn delivered with your movie. Compared to the convenience offered by Netflix, however, these issues don’t bother me at all.
The real challenge Netflix faces is that even loyal customers sometimes find their use of the service waning after a few years. There are only so many movies that most people want to see, and after catching up on all those old movies, the crop of worthwhile new ones may not be sufficient to keep customers interested permanently. But for anyone starting now, that isn’t likely to be an issue for several years, and there’s no telling how Netflix will have evolved to address the problem by then.
I’ve had very few problems with Netflix. If you have not heard from them within four days after mailing a movie back, you can notify them from the Web site that you already shipped it back, and they will send you your next movie. The same goes if a movie never arrives. Also, with so much use, it’s inevitable that some discs may arrive scratched. The one time I received a damaged disc, it was easily reported on their Web site. In all these cases, Netflix sends you a replacement at no additional charge.
In fact, the service is so straightforward, and solutions for the few potential problems already in place, that I have never felt that I needed (or even wanted) to call to speak to someone. Their Web site takes care of it all, something I’ve never said of any other service or store.
All Tomorrow’s Movies — These days, every dot-com business has to show people that they can continue to make money in this economy. Netflix, however, has not made the mistakes of so many other Internet businesses. They offer a service for which people were already willing to pay (movie rentals); they have real revenues (an annual rate of about $70 million); and the service is extraordinarily easy to use. Although the privately held Netflix doesn’t report earnings, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has predicted the company will break even in the first quarter of 2002.
What makes Netflix interesting is the way they’ve fabricated an essentially low tech service (mailing envelopes through the U.S. Postal Service) from the high-tech cloth of cutting edge DVD movie distribution media and a well-designed Web site. The quality of DVDs can be better than you’ll see in a movie theater after a few hundred screenings, and the bonus material is often well worth investigating. But as long as DVDs were firmly ensconced in the Blockbusters of the world, they were essentially just souped-up videotapes held back by the distribution techniques of the 1980s. Netflix gives DVDs their due by taking movie distribution to a new level, where a movie you want to see is pretty much always available. Perhaps we’ll have high-quality video-on-demand in a few years, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Netflix in that business as well, but until then, I’ll be checking my mailbox for all the latest releases.
[Alexander Hoffman refuses to spend his own money on the very machines he makes a living supporting. Recently, he and his soon-to-be wife have been watching his TiVo and Netflix fight it out for their affections. ("Kids, you stop that right now!")]