Want to use a FireWire webcam in Mac OS X? Adam scans the topic, focusing on the FireWire WebCam Driver from IOXperts and glancing at the available video camera software. Switching gears, he also looks at managing DNS information with easyDNS, something anyone who wants their own domain can use. Updates this week include Palm m515 and m130 handhelds, Mac OS X’s Java implementation, WebSTAR 5.1, Synchronize Pro X, and the PowerMate 1.0 driver.
Vote for TidBITS in Third Best of Mac Web Survey! Starting Tuesday, 05-Mar-02, the Low End Mac Web site is running their semiannual popularity contest for Macintosh news and information Web sites. Although every publication can encourage readers to vote for them (and most do), the survey asks for ratings of all the sites with which a respondent is familiar, radically increasing the number and breadth of votes. So please take a moment and help the TidBITS PR cause with a vote (the list is alphabetical, so you’ll have to scroll way down to the bottom), but make sure to rank your other favorite Mac sites too. [ACE]
Palm Introduces Color m515, m130 Handhelds — Palm, Inc. has introduced two new color models to its handheld lineup. The $400 Palm m515 shares the same size and case design as the m505, but with a much brighter, active-matrix transflective color screen. The m515 is also the first Palm handheld to offer 16 MB of built-in memory. Like all of the company’s current models, it also features a Secure Digital/MultiMedia card slot and Palm’s USB universal connector for synchronizing data and adding peripherals such as keyboards and modems. Also introduced today is the $280 Palm m130, featuring 8 MB of memory and bringing a passive-matrix transflective color screen to the curvy m105 form factor. The new models are available now. [JLC]
Apple Updates Mac OS X Java — Hot on the heels of our coverage of Java in Mac OS X, Apple has released the Java 1.3.1 Update 1, a 21.1 MB download available via Mac OS X’s Software Update. Apple recommends that everyone download and install the update because it enhances overall stability and compatibility, plus improves text handling, mouse behavior (particularly when dragging in complex applications), multi-page printing, and more. Numerous bugs have also been fixed. Full (and more technical) release notes are available for developers. [ACE]
4D WebSTAR 5.1 Update Adds FastCGI, URL Redirection — 4D, Inc. has continued applying pressure to the idea of using Mac OS X’s built-in Apache Web server with last week’s release of WebSTAR 5.1. Most notable among WebSTAR 5.1’s new features is the integrated 4D WebSTAR Rewrite plug-in (based on Pardeikes Welcome Plugin for earlier versions of WebSTAR). We use Welcome heavily for virtual hosting, redirecting URL requests on the fly, transparently rewriting URLs (replacing ugly Lasso URLs with our permanent GetBITS URLs) and more, so its inclusion in WebSTAR 5.1 is extremely (ahem!) welcome. Along with bug fixes and performance, compatibility, and usability improvements, other new features in WebSTAR 5.1 include support for the FastCGI gateway interface, automatic language negotiation based on browser preferences, a speedier new WebSTAR Admin client, a new WebObjects adapter, and improved search summaries. The 46 MB update is free to registered users. [ACE]
Shiny PowerMate Gets Software Polish — Griffin Technology has updated the driver software for its PowerMate, the shiny metal knob that garnered so much attention at the previous two Macworld Expos (see "Macworld Expo San Francisco 2002 Superlatives" in TidBITS-612). The 1.0 driver for Mac OS X (a 1.3 MB download) includes AppleScript support and bug fixes; the Mac OS 9 driver (also at 1.0, and an 830K download) supports keyboard sensitivity and fixes bugs. [JLC]
Synchronize Pro X Released — Qdea is now offering Synchronize Pro X 1.0, a Mac OS X-native version of its synchronization and backup utility (see "Tools We Use: Synchronize" in TidBITS-482). As its name suggests, Synchronize Pro X compares sets of files and updates them to match. It can also copy files from one volume to another and can even copy your startup disk to create a bootable Mac OS X system. Additionally, it can perform unattended backups to local or network volumes, or over the Internet (including Apple’s iDisk service). The demo of Synchronize Pro X, a 1.6 MB download, works with folders containing less than 10 MB of data; its more advanced features can be applied only to folders with less than 1 MB of data. Registration removes these limitations and costs $100 (or $70 for users of the basic Synchronize program). If you’ve purchased Synchronize Pro within the last two years, the new version is free. [JLC]
When I graduated from Cornell in 1989, one of my primary worries was keeping Internet access. Since that time, a serious chunk of my professional life has been devoted to understanding how the Internet works and explaining it to others, through TidBITS, my Internet Starter Kit books, and in person. When I look back, I’m struck by how things have become ever easier.
Talking about ease of use with regard to running Internet servers has been tricky, though. Sure, I can set up a mailing list in LetterRip Pro in a few minutes, and new software like 4D Portal lets you create your own portal site quickly. But when I recommended that a friend looking for a new mailing list hosting provider try LetterRip Pro instead, he demurred, because he didn’t want the responsibility of watching the server and performing related administrative tasks. It’s hard to argue, since even I have let others handle many of those tasks for me over the years.
DNS Details — In the last six months, though, I’ve taken control over one of those administrative tasks that so many people delegate to their ISP – domain name service (DNS) management. For those whose familiarity with DNS is primarily through the millions of dollars paid for coveted domain names during the Internet boom, the entire point of DNS is to translate between human-readable names like www.tidbits.com and the numeric Internet addresses that identify each computer on the Internet, such as 220.127.116.11. You start to care about DNS when you want your own domain name, which establishes your own presence on the Internet and offers the benefits of a custom email address. Once you start running your own servers, a domain name becomes essential for anyone trying to connect to your servers over the Internet.
One more bit of background. Historically, you could go to your ISP and ask for a domain name, and they would register it and manage it on your behalf for a fee. Those tasks, registration and management, are actually separate. For a long time, there were very few registrars, and only one handling the most common .com domains: Network Solutions, now owned by Verisign. That situation has changed, and now many different registrars will register a domain name for you for a fee. No matter who registers your domain name, you also need someone to manage it, which involves running multiple DNS servers, making arrangements for backup servers, and so on. ISPs are obvious choices for this task, but they’re not always ideal, for the simple reason that if you decide to switch ISPs, you have to transfer control over your domain to another ISP along with everything else. Since transferring control involves changing settings with your registrar, it ends up being a multi-step process in which the penalty for mistakes is high – the loss of all email and Web accessibility.
Make DNS Easier — Making DNS changes with Network Solutions, still the dominant registrar, is an arcane email-based process so slow, unpleasant, and fraught with errors that it’s best described as Kafkaesque. If a change doesn’t work (as has often been true for people we know), you often have to call Network Solutions for support, a telephone experience that often ranks with chatting with surly civil servants at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Actually, it’s worse, since oftentimes no Web or email traffic can reach your domain for hours or days even after the problem is fixed. A number of the outages we’ve had over the years have been caused by (or exacerbated by) mistakes made at Network Solutions.
A few years back, a few guys equally as irritated at Network Solutions founded easyDNS to solve these problems. easyDNS can act as a registrar for Canadian domains (.ca); they work with another registrar to handle new registrations in the most common top-level domains; and you can transfer control of any domain to them for management, no matter where it was originally registered.
Management of DNS is where easyDNS shines, and where I’ve become addicted to their services. I’ve owned tidbits.com for many years, and Northwest Nexus managed it for us, which meant that every time we brought up a new machine or moved a server to a new IP address (a common occurrence, since tidbits.com machines live on four separate networks), we had to talk to a network administrator at Northwest Nexus. Although they were helpful and friendly until the company was acquired by Winstar Communications, even before that we couldn’t always contact the necessary person, and occasionally a typo would sneak in, causing no end of consternation. Overall, we felt helpless.
When easyDNS approached me about sponsoring TidBITS, I jumped at the chance to test their services in a situation where I knew the people behind the company. Since moving the registration of the tidbits.com domain to OpenSRS (the registrar easyDNS uses) and transferring management to easyDNS from the unresponsive Winstar wasn’t trivial, I felt better knowing I could talk with someone at easyDNS should anything go wrong. Happily, the process was easy and worked perfectly. Due to the way Winstar’s servers were set up, easyDNS couldn’t import my domain record automatically, which they can in some cases (if you have a lot of entries in your domain record, your ISP might export a zone file for you). Luckily, it wasn’t hard to retype the 10 names I map to different machines.
Since then I’ve had several occasions to change which names map to which IP numbers, and a worrying task that used to require a phone call has become a matter of logging into easyDNS’s secure Web site and making the change in a form. I especially appreciate how, after every change, easyDNS displays a confirmation page that tells you exactly how long it will be before your changes will be available to the world at large. Before using easyDNS, a large part of the stress involved with making DNS changes was never knowing how long before the changes would become available. Now easyDNS tells me exactly how long it will be, and if I know I’m going to be making some changes soon, I can lower the important time-to-live (TTL) setting to ensure changes propagate quickly.
I’ve also needed to update the whois information that identifies the administrative and billing contacts for a domain, something that’s now simple to do via easyDNS for domains registered with OpenSRS. With Network Solutions, something as simple as an email address change required complex maneuvers – updating our information via easyDNS’s forms is far easier.
Other easyDNS Services — easyDNS provides numerous other DNS-related services, all of which are available in their DNS-Plus + Domain bundle, which costs $55 per year. Other packages offer smaller sets of features and cost less, down to $20 per year. These features include:
Email forwarding, both for up to 100 specific addresses and for any unspecified address in your domain. For instance, if your custom domain was example.com, you could forward <[email protected]> to <[email protected]>. Forwarding of unspecified addresses can also be useful, though it will likely collect a lot of random spam. You can also set up a "mail-to-all" address that sends mail to every address in your domain, which is helpful for warning users about scheduled downtime.
Control over mail exchanger (MX) records and a backup mail server. MX records define which mail server(s) handle mail for your domain. In our case, Eudora Internet Mail Server running on king.tidbits.com manages our mail traffic, but we can define backup mail servers to hold mail temporarily should king.tidbits.com become inaccessible. easyDNS also provides backup mail servers for you.
Forwarding of Web traffic to a specific URL. This feature lets you tell everyone to visit www.example.com, for instance, and then point that at your Web pages wherever they may live. "Stealth forwarding," an optional enhancement, uses frames to make sure that people see only your custom domain in their Web browser Address field. If you don’t yet have your Web site online, easyDNS can display a "coming soon" page instead.
Support for round-robin DNS. One way of spreading particularly high traffic across multiple identical servers is to use easyDNS’s round-robin DNS feature. When someone’s Web browser tries to resolve your domain name into an IP number, easyDNS rotates between returning the different IP numbers you’ve specified to match the server’s name.
Picking Tasks — What I like the most about easyDNS is that I control my own DNS information, while they handle the administrative tasks of running domain name server software and secondary name servers. I could do that with Mice & Men’s QuickDNS, but as with my friend who didn’t want to run his own LetterRip Pro server, I don’t want to be responsible for everything related to my domain name.
Most of the complaints I still have with my DNS setup aren’t related to easyDNS, but with DNS’s terminology and rigidity. For instance, "start of authority" settings are where you set how often your DNS settings are updated in different contexts, and without knowing that MX stands for "mail exchanger," it’s easy to become confused. Luckily, easyDNS provides generally good help, both as tutorials and from the page where you enter information (click the question mark); the only exception was with round-robin DNS, which seems to be explained only in their FAQ. Plus, every time I’ve asked a tech support question, I’ve received a prompt answer. I haven’t had to call, which you can do during business hours.
Are there other companies that provide services similar to easyDNS? Yes, of course, since Network Solutions’s arcane system makes the need for friendly front-ends to DNS glaringly obvious. Nonetheless, when we first mentioned easyDNS in TidBITS, people on TidBITS Talk immediately spoke up to recommend the company, making me all the more comfortable with them. If you’re looking for help with DNS management or email and Web URL redirection, you won’t go wrong with easyDNS, and I’ll certainly be using them for the foreseeable future.
When the iMac first came out, many people immediately noticed similarities with another recent high-profile, high-design product, Volkswagen’s new Beetle, to the point where a Beetle painted to look like an iMac made an appearance at San Francisco’s Macworld Expo in 1999. But the more recent, if less graphic, connection between Apple and Volkswagen has Mac OS X appropriating Volkswagen’s tag line: Drivers Wanted.
The success of an operating system is directly related to the breadth of drivers available for it. It shouldn’t be surprising – a driver is the piece of software that enables the operating system to interact with a specific peripheral, be it a printer, an external hard disk, a scanner, or one of those inexpensive video cameras generally referred to as a "webcam." Drivers generally come from three sources. For common devices that provide the most value to users, Apple often writes universal drivers and ships them with the Mac OS. Manufacturers then make sure that their devices work with Apple’s universal drivers. For less common devices, manufacturers have to write their own drivers, which users must install to make the devices work properly.
What’s the third source? Independent developers. Every now and then a programmer will become fed up with an existing driver, or perhaps the complete lack of one, and write an independent driver. These drivers are usually shareware – think of Alessandro Levi Montalcini’s USB Overdrive mouse driver, now in beta for Mac OS X – and peripheral manufacturers often license a shareware driver to avoid developing their own. The main attraction to licensing an existing driver is that driver development is a black art mastered by relatively few people, as evidenced by the truly clumsy inkjet printer drivers we’ve seen over the years.
Eyes in the Sky — Years ago, Connectix introduced the QuickCam, a tennis ball-sized video camera that connected to the Mac’s serial port. It was low resolution and only black-and-white, but it was still an amazing breakthrough for bringing video into a Mac without buying an expensive camcorder. The market for these tiny video cameras has evolved over the years to add color and new connection types like USB and FireWire, but for the most part, they’ve remained small, inexpensive, and low resolution. Low prices have ensured their lasting popularity for a host of uses, including security monitoring, videoconferencing, QuickTime movie recording, and the eponymous use of either uploading periodic still images or streaming video to a Web site.
But it wasn’t happening under Mac OS X.
Apple has been busy working on more important drivers for Mac OS X, such as those for printers, external hard disks, and digital still cameras. Manufacturers of webcams haven’t been interested in springing for the development costs to create Mac OS X drivers because they don’t see the Mac OS X market being large enough yet. That leaves our third source of drivers: independent developers. Or, in this case, one independent developer, a tiny company called IOXperts. You probably haven’t heard of them, although the programmers involved, Steve Sisak and Dave Koziol, are among the best-known Mac developers. Plus, if you’ve used a USB or FireWire webcam under Mac OS 9, they likely wrote the driver for the camera’s manufacturer.
Frustrated by the refusal of the camera manufacturers to pay for Mac OS X driver development, IOXperts went ahead and wrote a driver to run most FireWire webcams out there. They chose FireWire cameras because that world is relatively standardized at the hardware level and because FireWire is more similar between Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X than USB. It wasn’t easy and involved debugging Apple’s Mac OS X FireWire code, but eventually they managed it, and for the last few months, people with a supported FireWire webcam have been able to download a copy of the IOXperts FireWire WebCam Driver and start using their webcam again under Mac OS X. This is cool.
Driver Licenses — IOXperts had to figure out how to pay for all this development, and hoping that camera manufacturers would eventually license the driver wasn’t going to pay the rent. So they decided to go direct to consumers. Selling drivers as shareware is generally tricky business, because the entire point of a driver is that you don’t see it, and software that works invisibly has a much harder time presenting its payment message to the user.
IOXperts came up with a clever approach. You can download, install, and use their driver with your FireWire webcam for free… for 30 minutes. When you plug the camera in, a dialog reminds you of the time limit and encourages you to pay $20, but if you dismiss it, you can use the camera without interruption for 30 minutes. When your time is up, another dialog reiterates the message, but if you want to keep using the camera, just unplug it and plug it back in. In short, it’s a great user experience: just annoying enough to make you want to pay, but not so limiting that you can’t get a feel for how well the driver is working.
Clicking the Buy button in the dialog walks you through a simple purchase process using the eSellerate system, which worked fine for me. Once you’ve paid for the driver, you can use it with the same camera on any number of Macs – just plug in the camera before installing the driver, then enter your serial number when prompted. The fact that the driver is latched to a specific camera means that if you have multiple cameras, you’ll have to buy multiple copies of the driver.
IOXperts also makes their driver available for people using Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 9 who might have bought a camera that doesn’t already include a Macintosh driver. The Mac OS 8/9 version uses the same serial numbers as the Mac OS X version, so you can use your camera under both operating systems without paying twice.
Camera Compatibility — Speaking of multiple cameras, the FireWire WebCam Driver supports quite a number, including popular ones from iREZ, Orange Micro, FireWire Direct, and Unibrain. For a complete list, check the compatibility list at the IOXperts Web site. I did my testing with Unibrain’s $120 Fire-i digital webcam, which is about 2.25 inches (6 cm) square, and features a clever spring-activated clip on the back that rotates and can move in or out from the back of the camera as well.
The Fire-i camera sports two FireWire ports, one on either side: you can pick the most convenient side for the cable, and also daisy chain other FireWire devices (though no Macintosh software supports multiple cameras yet). There’s also a jack for an external power source, which could be necessary for people with many FireWire devices requiring bus power or those using FireWire PC Cards (FireWire’s power requirements exceed the PC Card specification for power consumption). For people using Windows the external power jack is more important, since most Windows laptops reportedly don’t provide FireWire bus power, Sony’s i.LINK ports don’t, and not all PCI cards do either. (As a total aside, FireWire’s power management is neat – every device declares its power consumption, which can even be negative if the device adds power to the bus.)
The Fire-i camera’s resolution is 640 by 480, and it can capture 30 frames per second. Although I don’t have much experience with different webcams, the Fire-i seems like a slick package, and thanks to the IOXperts FireWire WebCam Driver, you can use it with Mac OS X, which wouldn’t otherwise be possible (although Unibrain is planning to release a version bundled with the FireWire WebCam Driver for Mac users soon).
What About Software? There’s a problem with everything I’ve described so far. Clearly, you need a FireWire webcam, and you need IOXperts’s FireWire WebCam Driver, but that will get you only a camera that can theoretically display video on a Mac running Mac OS X. To see and work with video, you still need another application. There aren’t many programs that work with FireWire webcams under Mac OS X right now, but IOXperts lists a few, and those that I’ve tested have worked.
BTV 5.4 and BTV Pro 5.4 from Ben Software. The $20 BTV is a simple video application that lets you view and capture video and still images from your webcam (and from many other video sources like TV cards, etc.). The $40 BTV Pro takes those features and adds a slew of additional ones, such as motion detection, time lapse capture, frame averaging to eliminate noise or fast moving objects from a still image, movie playback and editing, and more. Both are shareware; make sure you get the Carbon versions for Mac OS X.
CoolCam X 2.1 from Evological. This $20 shareware program provides the classic webcam features of capturing still images on a periodic basis and uploading them via FTP. It can also save images locally and can create time-lapse QuickTime movies. It has motion sensing capabilities, and you can add text captions, picture badges, and clocks in any font, size, style or color.
Video Funhouse 1.1 from Evological and Chaotic Software. For $25 shareware, Video Funhouse lets you twist, bulge, pinch, and push faces and other objects into any imaginable shape (and some you don’t want to imagine). But what’s cool about Video Funhouse is that you can do this with live video rather than just a still image. Video Funhouse provides a number of other effects, and you can take a snapshot at any point.
iSpQ VideoChat 5.0.4 from nanoCom Corporation. The $40 iSpQ lets you do standard chatting over the Internet with other iSpQ VideoChat users. The added fillip is being able to see the other person live while you’re typing to them, and compatible versions of iSpQ VideoChat are available for Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, and Windows. There is a known problem with the FireWire WebCam Driver that can cause the program to stop sending video after quite a number of hours, but that’s easily avoided. A 21-day trial version is available.
VideoScript 2.2 from VideoScript, Inc. This free tool basically lets you script video, not in the sense of writing film scripts, but for automatically analyzing and manipulating video images and cameras. You can write scripts to detect and log movement, generate movies, perform image enhancement, and a variety of other things (they suggest using VideoScript to count cells through a microscope, which is one of the most brain-numbing tasks around). A professional version accessed by purchasing a license ($30 for 21 days if you only want to do a single project, or $400 for unlimited use) adds more features, such as AppleScript integration. VideoScript is still in beta for Mac OS X.
The Detailed Review — I started out thinking I’d review IOXperts’s FireWire WebCam Driver, but you know what? It’s hard to review a driver, particularly one that just works, because there isn’t a lot to say. Plug in the camera, launch a video application, and video appears on the screen, exactly as you’d expect. IOXperts has a FAQ on their Web site with a few problems you might encounter (I didn’t), and they also run a mailing list for users to discuss the driver. Considering the size of the company, they desperately want to prevent users from needing to contact tech support, so they’ve taken the smartest approach to reducing tech support costs – creating a quality piece of software that doesn’t require support. In short, if you want to use a FireWire webcam under Mac OS X, you won’t go wrong paying 20 bucks to IOXperts.
If you like unusual hardware, I’d pay attention to IOXperts, since they’re also working on things like universal 802.11 wireless networking drivers (written by networking guru Amanda Walker and just released in beta form) and drivers for the Philips USB webcam. Join the beta mailing lists if you’re interested, and if you want to see Mac drivers for some piece of hardware, encourage the manufacturer to contact IOXperts. That way we all win.