Want ubiquitous wireless access to your email and the Web from a svelte handheld computer? Us too, and Jeff Carlson explains why the new Palm i705 is at least a step in the right direction. Adam returns from the 17th annual MacHack developers conference with a look at the future of the Mac world, and Matt Neuburg offers a short review of the powerful bookmark utility URL Manager Pro.
TidBITS Server Problems — Just a quick heads-up that we’ve been experiencing problems with our main Web and email server over the last few days, and since we haven’t yet been able to track them down, they’re likely to continue for a while. In short, rest assured that if you can’t get through to our Web server or if email is bouncing temporarily, we know and we’re working on it, so there’s no need to alert us further. [ACE]
After some years exploring the Web, most of us have collected a number, possibly quite a large number, of URLs that we keep squirrelled away for future reference, in accordance with our habits and interests. Such preserved URLs are often referred to as "bookmarks." Adam wrote a three-part article in 1996 on bookmark management software and techniques, but at the time I paid scant attention, since my browser of choice, Internet Explorer, handled them adequately, providing a hierarchical menu for choosing "favorite" URLs and an outline interface for arranging them. All that changed, though, in the move to Mac OS X. The problem was partly migrating my settings from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X and keeping them coordinated in case I switched back. But even more important, I no longer had a browser of choice – in this brave new world, I have been experimenting with several browsers (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, OmniWeb, and others) that clamor for my attention. With abrupt clarity, I knew I needed a separate, browser-agnostic URL keeper to act as a central repository.
In this moment of need, Alco Blom’s URL Manager Pro saved my bacon. I have been using it in various development versions for months now, but it has just gone final as version 3.0, which seems an appropriate opportunity to recommend it. And I most certainly do. To put it simply, if I had to list the top five utilities without which I could never have made the switch to Mac OS X, URL Manager Pro would be one of them.
Laying Out the Garden — A URL Manager Pro window represents a bookmark file; you’re not limited to one such file, but I like having just one that opens when URL Manager Pro does. The window displays an outline of folders (categories) and URLs within them; you can rearrange these as one would expect of an outline. You can add a note to each URL, as well as set various other options. Double-clicking a URL opens it in your browser; or you can drag it into a browser. But you don’t need to work in URL Manager Pro’s window just to open a URL; the bookmark file can also be displayed hierarchically in the program’s Dock menu, and even, in the case of Internet Explorer, Opera, and iCab, as a normal ("shared") menu amongst the browser’s own. (An accompanying "menulet," Mondriaan, lets you access a limited set of separately determined URLs even when URL Manager Pro isn’t running.)
Similarly, there are various ways to add a URL from your browser to the bookmark file. You can drag the address from the browser into the bookmark file; you can choose Add Bookmark from URL Manager Pro’s Dock icon menu while the browser window is frontmost; you can choose Add Bookmark from the browser’s shared menu if it has one; and in some browsers you can even Control-click a link and choose Add Link to URL Manager Pro from the contextual menu.
Tough Row to Hoe — URL Manager Pro’s weakness is the inconsistency of the implementation of its features across different Internet programs. The chief fault lies, of course, with those Internet programs, of which some support shared menus and some don’t, some support certain Apple events and some don’t, and so forth. It’s confusing, and made more confusing by URL Manager Pro itself. You never quite know what a menu item will do, because the same words mean different things in different places. For example, Add Bookmark in the shared menu brings up a dialog for modifying the URL information before entering it in the bookmark file; Add Bookmark in the Dock menu doesn’t; Add Bookmark in URL Manager Pro’s own menu creates a blank URL; and there’s no Add Bookmark in Mondriaan at all. Come to that, why is Mondriaan so different – why isn’t it simply a menulet version of URL Manager Pro itself, providing access to the bookmark file, as an alternative to the Dock and the shared menu? In general, the details of how one accesses functionality, such as the names of menu items, could use some rethinking. The situation isn’t helped by a manual that’s vague, poorly structured, and not always complete.
Nonetheless, URL Manager Pro is a powerful program, full of surprises and usually anticipating your needs; most users will probably require just a fraction of its power. It can be set to watch and record your browsing in a history list, so you can later recover a URL you forgot to add previously. It can import all the links within a Web page or email. It can validate links. I could go on and on – its abilities are too various to list here. Try it and see for yourself.
URL Manager Pro runs natively under Mac OS 8 or higher (2.4 MB download), including Mac OS X (2.2 MB download). It costs a mere $25, or $11 to upgrade from version 2. For $37 you can register both URL Manager Pro and Alco Blom’s other shareware utility, Web Confidential, on which I also depend for storing and retrieving user account and password information (see Adam’s review – "Web Confidential: Securing Information of All Sorts" in TidBITS-441).
The MacHack developers conference – the 17th of which was held last week in Dearborn, Michigan – is tremendously unusual. The keynote starts at midnight, wireless (and wired) Ethernet access is available throughout the lobby of the venue (the Holiday Inn Fairlane), and the age of the attendees ranges from those in elementary school to those approaching retirement. But despite all this, the most salient fact about MacHack for the non-programmer is that it shows where the Macintosh industry will be heading. Macworld Expo is the ghost of Macintosh present, MacHack is the ghost of Macintosh future. (And much as historical trivia is fun to bat around, there won’t be a ghost of Macintosh past conference as long as the Macintosh world remains viable and continues to move forward.)
People — For those of us who have come to at least the last few iterations of MacHack, the absences of other long-standing attendees was initially disturbing. Well-known programmer after well-known programmer didn’t show up, but as the reasons came forth, it turned out that most of the missing people had been kept away by work deadlines, not a lack of interest in the Mac or a switch to another platform. Attendance in general was down – not surprising in this economic climate – but a large number of first timers helped to swell the ranks to a total of about 270 attendees. A good number of these folks were Unix users, and although Mac OS X’s impact on the overall base of Mac users is still in an early phase, it’s clear that within a few years, the migration of Unix and Windows users to the Mac will make the Mac community significantly more diverse. Whether or not it will also be larger in proportion to the overall computing world remains unclear, but there’s no question that Mac OS X improves Apple’s chances of increasing market share.
Related to the influx of Unix users were the two keynotes – the first from publisher Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly and Associates and the second from Slashdot’s Rob Malda (known online as CmdrTaco). Tim has recently become a Mac user thanks to Mac OS X and a Titanium PowerBook G4 given to him by Apple, and O’Reilly is publishing ever more Macintosh books as their core audience of Unix geeks increasingly starts relying on Mac OS X. O’Reilly is even holding a Mac OS X conference in late September of 2002 – I’ll be speaking there.
Another positive sign for the future was the presence of the many "yoot" – students at all stages of education who attended the sessions, networked with the older programmers, and participated in the Hack Contest. Although some have attended more MacHacks than I have, many others were at their first MacHack. That’s just too cool – there isn’t another industry event that I know of where kids are not only encouraged to attend, but are treated as peers by the best in the business. Talk about investing in your future.
Of course, the yoot who attend MacHack are, as with the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, above average, with a significant level of Macintosh and Unix knowledge. Nowhere was that more clear than with Adam Atlas, a 12-year-old who took second place in the Best Hack Contest (more on that next week) and presented a session on REALbasic, and Andy Furnas, a 14-year-old from our home town of Ithaca who is a member of next year’s MacHack organizing committee. These bright, engaging kids are creating their own future, hopefully in the Macintosh world, and if MacHack can play a role in that, all the better.
Last, I was heartened to realize that no matter what the future holds for the Macintosh, if MacHack is any indication, community will remain important. The Macintosh itself has many distinguishing features, but a strong, vital community is difficult or impossible to create intentionally; let’s make sure we don’t lose the one we have.
Hardware — The selection of hardware was also indicative of where we’ll be heading, at least in some ways. Titanium PowerBook G4s and iBooks dominated, with a few scattered PowerBook G3s and colored iBooks thrown in for good measure. Obviously, portable computers are far more likely to be taken to a conference than a desktop machine (although Jorg Brown brought a new iMac that was animated for the hack contest), but a significant number of the programmers said that their Titanium PowerBook G4 was also their primary machine. Plus, a number of Unix users who have switched to the Mac said that part of the decision, after Mac OS X itself, was the fact that Apple makes cool laptops. Computing is becoming ever more portable, and although there’s a constant trade-off between size and screen real estate, it’s worth keeping an eye on anything that improves the portable computing experience.
AirPort cards were nearly ubiquitous, though the volunteers who set up the MacHack network still provided Ethernet hubs at many of the tables in the hotel lobby for the folks with the earlier models of the Titanium PowerBook G4, which had terrible AirPort range (reportedly somewhat better in the most recent models). Wireless networking has been on a steep adoption curve ever since Apple introduced AirPort several years ago. It’s appearing in many locations, such as trade shows, libraries, and airports, and the way things are going, the lack of wireless Internet access will become more surprising than its presence within a few years. Perhaps we’ll see it on airplanes, in supermarkets, and even city parks – I’d say the sky is the limit, but in fact, the limiting factors for wireless networking are more physical and political (see "Peering into 2002’s Tea Leaves" in TidBITS-612 for my wireless prognostication).
Software — On the software side of things, Mac OS X was equally as prevalent as Apple’s newer laptops. A few people were still running Mac OS 9, and one brave soul even brought a PowerBook Duo 280c running System 7.6 for his hack (which modified the Chooser’s display of file servers so you could tell which ones supported AppleShare over TCP/IP rather than AppleTalk), but it was clear that developers had taken the none-too-subtle hint from Apple that there’s no point in developing for Mac OS 9 any more.
Mac OS 9’s status for developers was hammered home during a tongue-in-cheek session from Apple’s Keith Stattenfield, who was the development lead on Mac OS 9. His session, entitled "The Future of Mac OS 9," consisted mostly of slides listing euphemisms for "dead." Keith summed up with an emphatic, "It’s dead!" and a mock-concerned "Really?" from the audience had the entire room laughing. On a more serious note, Keith did reassure developers that Classic will be around for years, and bugs in Mac OS 9 are still being investigated to improve Classic, QuickTime, other components, and even Mac OS 9 itself if a sufficiently serious problem is discovered. Plus, Apple is looking at ways of improving Classic – I hope they’ll consider letting users save the state of Classic like you can do in Connectix’s Virtual PC rather than starting it up and shutting it down all the time.
It is worth noting that although the developers were using Mac OS X, and I didn’t hear much complaining about the basics of the operating system, there were plenty of specific complaints about details of Mac OS X. In many of those cases, it was clear that Apple knew about the problems and was working hard to fix them – Mac OS X is a huge project, and it takes time to implement, test, and integrate fixes. The next major release of Mac OS X, codenamed Jaguar, should include a wide variety of improvements when it appears in a few months.
Keynote Thoughts — As a closing thought, I’d like to pass on the list of editorial filters that Tim O’Reilly said the editors at O’Reilly and Associates apply when determining whether they should cover a new technology. To catch O’Reilly’s interest, a technology should:
- be network related (by network, I think they mean networks of people, not computers),
- engender a real need for information,
- have grassroots support,
- inspire passion,
- have deeper social implications,
- have professional practitioners, and
- have a possible business ecology.
It also helps O’Reilly’s decision if the technology is also:
- disruptive, not just evolutionary,
- enabling of other technologies,
- at the right point in its life-cycle, and
- being adopted at an accelerating rate.
It’s easy to see how these requirements applied to the Internet back in the early 1990s, and Tim said that he felt the next big thing was going to be looking at the Internet as a platform rather than a network (this is what people are thinking about when they talk about Web services). Now think about how these filters might apply to Mac OS X. For the most part, it meets the requirements, though I’m not sure it’s possible to say that it’s a disruptive technology at the moment (at least in the sense O’Reilly means – it’s certainly been disruptive to many people in the more common usage of the word).
If we were to take MacHack to the logical extreme, we’d all be spending time in groups of friends and colleagues, continually inventing the future with tiny Mac OS X-based Macs that exist as much on the Internet as they do in the physical world. Science fiction? Certainly, but the same would likely have been said not all that many years ago of where we are now.
"It’s great living in the future," a friend of mine is fond of saying, which for me over the past few weeks has been embodied in using a Palm i705 wireless handheld. The successor to Palm’s clunkier but groundbreaking Palm VII, the i705 offers wireless Internet access nearly anywhere, in a device that’s slightly larger than my old standby, a Palm Vx. Waiting in my car for my wife to leave work, I can find out which movies are playing in the area or check my email without finding a WiFi-equipped Starbucks. However, as with other expectations of living the future – silent, non-polluting, air-cars guided automatically by computer come to mind – the i705 is also grounded in the realities of the present, specifically when it comes to the speed (or lack thereof) of working online.
From VII to i705 — Altogether, I’m primarily impressed with the i705’s size: the Palm VII was a modified Palm III with an extended top containing the wireless radio. Activating the wireless access required you to lift an antenna, which added another five inches or so to the height. The i705, in comparison, is a slightly thicker Palm m500. The antenna is now a curved bump at the top of the unit, more like a raised eyebrow than the Palm VII’s flat Frankenstein forehead.
The i705 has a grayscale screen, 8 MB of memory, an infrared port, and a Secure Digital/MultiMedia card slot for using removable storage cards or add-on devices such as Palm’s Bluetooth Card. Its built-in rechargeable battery on my unit was surprisingly robust: even after having the wireless radio activated all day (more on that later), battery drain was negligible, and even regular use of the device didn’t affect battery life much (unlike my Palm Vx, which has a much shorter battery life than it used to). It runs Palm OS 4.1, which means you get the full complement of organizer software such as Date Book, Address Book, To Do List, Memo Pad, and Note Pad.
Also new in recent Palm handhelds is Clock, a time and date display activated by tapping a clock icon on the silkscreened area. It’s a handy feature, but with an unfortunately inconvenient method of activation. The Palm m100 series uses Clock much better: with the device powered off, pushing the scroll-up button displays the time. On the i705 (as well as the m500 series), you must either pull out the stylus to tap the teeny clock icon, or have great fingernail dexterity. On the plus side, you can set an alarm using Clock, which means my Date Book should no longer be cluttered with mid-day appointments titled "Wake Up."
The silkscreened Calculator button has been replaced by a star icon, which is confusing until you learn that you can set any application to launch when you tap it. This button remapping capability has been around for quite some time, but I’m guessing people didn’t know to take advantage of it, so Palm created this Favorite App button. (To change how it’s mapped, go to Preferences, choose Buttons from the pop-up menu at the upper-right corner, then choose an application from the pop-up menu to the right of the star button icon.)
Also remapped are the two right-most plastic application buttons. Formerly the To Do List and Memo Pad buttons, they now launch the MyPalm and MultiMail applications. As a longtime Palm user, I consistently hit one of these to bring up the To Do List or Memo Pad, but I’m sure I’d adapt over time. My short-term compromise was to remap (again, in the Prefs application) the MyPalm button back to the To Do List, but leave the MultiMail button alone.
Without Wires, but Not Without Strings — Using the Palm i705 without enabling the wireless access would be like leaving a sports car in the garage. However, you should factor in the service costs in addition to the $450 price of the organizer. Palm offers two pricing structures for its Palm.Net service.
The Associate Plan costs $20 per month and covers up to 100K of data transferred during the month, plus $0.20 per kilobyte above that. Unless you’re especially skimpy on your wireless access, this plan is ridiculous. I did not deliberately try to max out the wireless usage, and still chewed through 441K during one month of use. Under the Associate Plan, that would have cost me $68.32 in addition to the $20 monthly fee. Ouch.
The Associate Plan may just be Palm’s way of enticing users to go for the better (though still not cheap) Executive Unlimited plan, which for $40 per month offers a flat rate for as many kilobytes as you can pull down. Palm also offers an Annual Executive Unlimited plan, which ends up costing $35 per month if you prepay for a full year’s service.
You’ll also need to consider geographic availability of Palm.Net. If you live in a major metropolitan area in the United States, chances are you’ll have coverage (see Palm’s maps at the link below for more detail). However, as with cellular phone coverage, Palm.Net could prove elusive at times. One afternoon, my wife and I were trying to find a restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years, so we pulled into a parking lot and did a Google search. No connection. So I drove around while she held the Palm, waiting for the connection to improve, until she finally asked with a smirk, "Can you go to an area with wireless access, please?" I could only reply, "Yes, I think I see some access up ahead." After about a mile or so, the signal strength picked up, and we were able to get the restaurant’s address.
Web Clipping — When the Palm VII first appeared, the only service options were based on per-kilobyte usage. To reduce the amount of data transferred, Palm developed what it calls Web Clipping, a novel method of downloading only the information you need. Instead of loading a Web page that’s been designed for computer viewing (i.e., chock full of graphics and ads), Web Clipping uses Palm Query Applications (PQAs) to send and receive data. Essentially, these are small programs that let you perform a specific request, such as retrieving movie show times (using Moviefone) in a specific area code, listing recent news headlines (via CNN, ABC News, USA Today, and the PR Newswire), or a number of other quick bursts of information. PQAs are basically just Web forms that grab specific information. On the i705, Palm rolled a number of PQAs into one MyPalm application to provide an Internet portal. You can also download other PQAs from the Web – PalmGear links to all sorts of Palm software, and has created a PQA that can download and install other PQAs over the i705’s wireless connection.
Despite Palm’s deliberate bandwidth belt-tightening, I found the i705 to be surprisingly slow. You access the built-in PQAs via the MyPalm application, and even clicking any topic from the main screen requires a new connection and data transfer; I don’t know what it could possibly be asking for, since it’s apparently loading only the built-in Web form. For example, testing as I write this, it took 18 seconds between tapping the News link to displaying a page with four PQAs listed. Tapping the CNN option causes a 10 second pause before listing a main page with CNN’s links. I tap the new Top stories link, wait 14 seconds, and a page of headlines is displayed. I tap a headline, wait another 25 seconds, and am finally given the text of a 2K article. It’s taken me roughly a minute to get to a single news story.
The MyPalm application also offers a straightforward browser to connect to regular Web pages, but that’s more painful to use. You cannot switch to another application while MyPalm is downloading Web content, so you’re left watching the steady pulse of the round progress indicator (which doubles as a stop button during transmission) as you wait for data to load. Several times, the i705 lost contact with the server when viewing Web pages, resulting in partial pages. Amazingly, there is no Refresh command to reload the contents of the page, so you have to go back to the previous page, tap the link for the article you want, and hope it loads on the second try. If you arrived at your partial page by writing its URL, the address isn’t saved, so you have to write it again.
Unfortunately, MyPalm seems to be the only choice for Web browsing; other Palm OS browsers such as Handspring’s Blazer didn’t work over the Palm.Net service in my testing.
Email — Far more useful is the included MultiMail application, which you can use to access your Palm.Net email or any other POP or IMAP account. When you tap the Get Mail button, you’re given the option of retrieving full messages or just the Subject lines of the mail waiting on your server. You can also choose to skip larger messages (the default limit is set at 50K – that’s half of your monthly allotment if you’re on the $20 Palm.Net plan), retrieve only unread mail, or ignore attachments.
Messages stay on the server by default, so anything you’ve read will show up later (marked as read) in your email program on the Mac. If you delete a message on the handheld, you have the option of deleting it on the server as well, which means you don’t have to look at the same spam twice.
The i705 also includes an option to schedule when the radio is activated, which is handy for checking email automatically: you can choose to keep it on all the time, activate it manually each time you need it, or set a block of active time such as 8 AM to 6 PM. Using a form on the my.palm.net Web site, you can instruct Palm’s server to check your accounts every day or every hour, then forward the messages to the handheld. When new mail is waiting, the handheld can sound an alarm, vibrate, flash its indicator light, or perform a combination of all three.
You can also set up filters to control which messages are downloaded, though they are confusing to create and mostly ineffective. Unlike the filters found in most Mac email clients, you can’t specify a filter to ignore messages (such as spam); instead, you can only choose which messages to accept. So, I could create a filter that grabs any message from Adam or Geoff, but not one that avoids spam messages with "viagra" in the Subject line. Even so, I found the capability to check email remotely to be the most important for me, and it was workable to grab a list of message subjects and manually filter those.
It’s also worth mentioning that the i705 includes an AOL Instant Messenger client, but frankly the device’s performance made me snicker when I considered how "instant" the messages would be, so I didn’t test it out.
The Future Is Almost Now — If you need compact wireless Internet access, the Palm i705 is a good device that also acts as your personal organizer, as long as you’re not expecting to do it quickly. And if wireless connectivity outweighs some of the inconveniences of Palm’s built-in software, you’ll be happy to have a more compact device to carry around.