We’re more optimistic about TidBITS turning 13 than when we entered our own awkward teenage years, and Adam reveals why. Plus, Andrew Laurence reviews the SLIMP3, a device for streaming your iTunes music to your hi-fi stereo system (or anywhere else in the house). Also in this issue, The Wireless Networking Starter Kit becomes available electronically, and Apple releases both Mac OS X 10.2.5 and Safari Public Beta 2.
Mac OS X 10.2.5 Released
Mac OS X 10.2.5 Released — Apple has rolled out several improvements in its latest system release, Mac OS X 10.2.5. Bluetooth support has been added for Nokia 7650 and P800 phones, and the Bluetooth Setup Assistant now recognizes some Microsoft mice and keyboards. Also supported are a trio of Canon cameras, and a host of disc burners. On the networking front, the update fixes issues of DNS lookup, copying files to an SMB volume, Internet Sharing of certain DSL or cable modem connections, .Mac passwords up to 32 characters long, and problems with LDAPv3 connections timing out. The update also resolves a security issue with shared Drop Box folders and problems with internal modems connecting to certain Scandinavian ISPs.
Of course, the 10.2.5 update includes a grab bag of other enhancements, such as the date being reset to 1969 or 1970 at startup, improved Mail responsiveness and character encoding in a dozen languages, and fixes to Classic. Lastly, Apple Event traffic between Classic and native Mac OS X software has been improved. Apple is offering the update in three configurations: a stand-alone 38.2 MB update from Mac OS X 10.2.4, available via Software Update or as a separate download; a downloadable 81.9 MB Combo update for any version of Mac OS X 10.2 or later; and as an update CD that can be purchased from the online Apple Store for $20 (look in the Apple Software section). [JLC]
Apple Releases Safari Public Beta 2
Apple Releases Safari Public Beta 2 — Apple’s widely adopted beta Web browser received an update today to Public Beta 2. New in this incarnation is the capability to browse multiple pages within the same window using a tabbed interface, along with the AutoFill features made popular by Internet Explorer. This release includes a new Reset Safari option, which clears the history, cache, cookies, and Downloads window, along with any saved names and passwords, AutoFill text, and Google search entries. Safari Public Beta 2 also improves compatibility with Web standards, boosts AppleScript support, imports Netscape and Mozilla bookmarks, and is available in English, Japanese, French, and German. The update is available via Software Update, or as a 3.7 MB download. [JLC]
The Wireless Networking Starter Kit Goes Electronic
The Wireless Networking Starter Kit, which I co-authored with Glenn Fleishman, is now available as an electronic book. In part because the print edition of the book hasn’t been the huge best-seller we hoped it would be (a misconception common to most authors), we’re doing things a bit differently than I did with my iPhoto Visual QuickStart Guides.
Based on requests we’ve received, we believe there are two sets of people who might be interested in an electronic copy of the book. The first set has already purchased the paper edition, but wants an electronic edition for ease of reading on a laptop or for the full-text searching that paper books can never provide. The second set would prefer an electronic edition instead of a print edition, either because of the difficulty and expense of receiving a physical book or because they don’t want to participate in the use of paper.
So, we have two solutions. Both get you an 8 MB Acrobat PDF containing the full text of the print edition along with a number of small updates we submitted for the second printing, plus an updated version of the 10-page addendum on 802.11g and AirPort Extreme that we posted to our Web site in February.
Existing Readers — If you have already purchased the print edition of the book, you can buy an electronic copy for only $5 via PayPal. We don’t anticipate that many people will want to do this, so we haven’t invested much time in setting up a complex online ordering system. Just follow the directions on the Web page linked below to find the password, click the Buy Now Button, enter the password in the PayPal Special Instructions field, and we’ll send you the download location via email.
Electronic Only — If you don’t already own a copy of the book but would like to buy an electronic edition, you can now do so via our friends at Lockergnome’s GnomeTomes. To avoid conflicting with the print edition, we’ve priced the electronic version at $22, basically the same final price as the physical book. The book is being sold via an eSellerate affiliate relationship with GnomeTomes, so GnomeTomes will provide any help you need in downloading the book, but the process is so straightforward that it’s highly unlikely you’ll have difficulties.
Continuing the Experiments — There’s no telling how popular either of these offers will be, but we’ll add them to the list of things we’ve experimented with so far with my iPhoto books and Glenn’s Real World GoLive 6 book. Stay tuned for results and additional tests.
TidBITS Turns 13: Setting Goals
Being a teenager means living in an awkward time when you no longer quite wish to behave like a child, but you boomerang between rebelling against adult society and revelling in the fascinating world of adulthood. That confusing age springs to mind because this week TidBITS becomes a teenager and starts its 13th year. Publication years may not equate to dog years, but it certainly feels as though TidBITS has been around for one heck of a long time. Tonya and I were only 22 years old when we started publishing TidBITS in April of 1990, so TidBITS has occupied nearly our entire adult lives. For a quick trip through TidBITS history, check out other anniversary articles we’ve written over the years.
Perhaps it’s natural, as we age and TidBITS ages, for us to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture – what do we want TidBITS to look like when it turns 18 or even 21? And, as Tristan would have asked a year ago: why, why, why? As annoying as the incessant questions of a small child can be, the answers can sometimes be revealing. Why do we want to share information with others? What compels us to review certain types of products? What accounts for the topics that interest us? What do we hope to accomplish with TidBITS?
These deeper questions have occupied many recent late night conversations. Our original motivations for creating TidBITS and TidBITS Talk, such as the desire to share information with others, to establish an archive of quality information, and to create an online community, remain in place, but they are now informed by four goals that we hope will help us evaluate future project ideas and directions. Only time will tell if we can free up the time to implement a number of the ideas we have for new projects, but we hope both our improved focus and our forthcoming content management system will help.
Increase Understanding — Long ago, we decided to concentrate on providing in-depth content, whether in the form of a detailed review, an informed and considered analysis, or a comparison of multiple products. Although we also cover news events and product releases in brief, the point of doing so is not to be comprehensive, but to continue to build on the foundations of previous articles. Most product releases we cover are for products or genres we’ve written about in the past, and the news events either continue previous coverage or set the stage for future analysis. There are many other publication models, but this is the one we’ve chosen, and it will always distinguish us from other media outlets, much as a weekly magazine like The New Yorker will never be mistaken for a daily newspaper like The New York Times.
But why do we publish articles that are longer than would appear even in some monthly magazines? In trying to answer that question, we realized that our goal is to increase our readers’ (and our own) understanding of technology. That means not only covering an event or product, or providing a piece of advice or an opinion, but also explaining the reasoning that informs the entire article. To torture an aphorism, we don’t want to hand you the fish of a fact, we want to help you learn how to determine where the fish facts are biting and land your own.
This goal runs counter to the way many people merely want answers to questions or can’t make time for anything longer than a sound bite. To be fair, sometimes a simple fact is all that’s needed; understanding what lies behind that fact is overkill. But in most cases, we feel that saving time by learning only the fact is a false economy, since there are an infinite number of facts, but a far smaller number of systems explaining those facts. Read TidBITS and you’ll learn along with us.
Independent Information Source — We in the media aren’t always a creative bunch – we republish thinly recast press releases, read each other’s articles, and frequently offer yet another article on the same topic. Add to that the ever-increasing corporatization of the media, and you can perhaps see why our second goal for TidBITS is to act as an independent source of news and information.
This goal is more subtle than it might seem initially, since the Macintosh and Internet worlds do not suffer from too-few independent voices. The problem is filtering the wheat from the chaff and being able to present it to a sufficiently large number of people. This was one of the huge promises of the Internet, in that it would provide an answer to A. J. Liebling’s famous quote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Today, Liebling might be more concerned with how freedom of the press to publish alternative or unpopular ideas is limited by its ability to attract attention in a world where so many people have printing presses.
Providing an example of a high-quality independent publication is also important from the standpoint of showing that publications don’t need to be beholden to large corporate masters, as is true of so many mainstream media outlets. We have no specific plans to create new publications that venture outside our primary topic areas, but we have heard time and again from people who have been inspired by TidBITS to create their own small newsletters on a wide variety of subjects. That’s a good feeling.
Promote Innovation — As much as it can be difficult for independent voices to be heard on the Internet, it’s even harder for a programmer with innovative ideas to introduce a product to large numbers of users. That task is certainly easier than it was in the days before the Internet, when mass distribution required a boxed product publicized by paying the large mail-order catalogs for advertising. But once again, so much is available on the Internet that it’s difficult for anyone to tease out the most interesting pieces of software and make sure people know about those packages.
That’s where our third goal comes in – we want to promote innovation in the computer industry by supporting small developers with big ideas. As many developers can attest, for us that doesn’t mean simply writing solid reviews of worthy but little-known programs. We often provide direct feedback and advice to developers on a wide variety of topics ranging from interface to marketing, and we’ll also try to make sure that the right people know each other to encourage any available synergies. It’s also why I speak every year at the MacHack developers conference about the best ways to work with the press and to present products to users. (As I did last year, this year I’ll conduct a hands-on workshop to evaluate documents necessary for a successful product release, including release notes, press releases, and Web product pages.)
Digital Content Experimentation — Our final goal aims deep at the heart of what we do each week – create content in a digital world. It’s navel gazing, to be sure, but we’re fascinated by the currents and eddies surrounding the creation and consumption of digital content. How is digital content different from content delivered in a more analog format? Should one be worth more than another? Is the content truly separate from the medium in which it’s consumed? Are sustainable business models for digital content possible?
These are all questions we continually ask ourselves, and they lead to our fourth and final goal. We want to examine, explain, and promote sustainable models for the creation and consumption of digital content. We’ve done a lot of this work in the past, with our coverage of the copyright wars, our ongoing PayBITS experiment, and the ways I’ve made electronic versions of my books available.
Keeping It Personal — None of the above goal setting suggests to us that we’re going to change anything major with TidBITS. The point of discussing and articulating these goals is to give TidBITS as an organization more focus, or, to look at it another way, a more concrete awareness of why we do what we do. In particular, we think it’s important that TidBITS remain personal, that we try to answer all the email we receive, and that we all think of one another as individuals.
Along with our efforts to treat you as individuals, we’ve been on the receiving end numerous times as well. Along with all the kind words you’ve sent us in email, the generous voluntary contributions you’ve made to TidBITS, and the support you’ve shown both us and other authors via PayBITS, many unique interactions with readers stand out, far too many to share here. For instance, a while back, the folks at Power On Software took me up on a joke I’d included as the last line in the bio on my book covers: "He has yet to be turned into an action figure." Showing extreme creativity and a wicked sense of humor, they modified an action figure to look like me and outfitted it with tiny copies of my books. It was truly hilarious and an excellent example of hacking the press, and I’ve changed my bio appropriately. More recently, Paul Durrant sent Tonya a book on helping children sleep better after she made a comment about motherhood-related sleep deprivation, and just a few weeks ago, a mysterious plastic box with no return address arrived from Berkeley, California containing some "Tidbit" caramel candies. Yum!
You’re a good lot, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to write for you each week. Here’s hoping we’re all still going strong and enjoying what we do in another 13 years.
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SLIMP3: MP3, Get Thee to the Hi-Fi
Hi. My name is Andrew. I’m a music junkie.
Because my wife and I own upwards of 1,000 CDs, storage has become a problem, not to mention a decorating nightmare. Sure, an additional rack would accommodate another couple hundred discs, but at this rate we’ll have racks in every room of the house. Although CD jukeboxes take up less space, they’re expensive, hold only 400 discs, and you can daisy chain only two of them. Even then, how would one quickly scan the collection for a particular album or assemble a playlist for an evening? After all, a library is effective only if its contents are accessible.
MP3 presents an attractive option, given that hard drives are physically small and cheap, and player software affords yummy sorting and playlist filtering. With a sufficiently capacious hard disk (or multiple hard disks), I could conceivably store the entire collection, even at a hefty bit rate that minimizes loss of quality. Clearly an MP3 server is the answer, with an easy interface and perhaps a remote control. But how to get the MP3s to the stereo and its high-quality speakers?
Our computers live in our den, where the sounds of typing, printing, and whirring hard drives are safely sequestered from the living room’s media bliss. I don’t own a laptop (and buying even a used one would be expensive), so we won’t discuss perching one atop the stereo cabinet (where it would be a decorating problem as well). Since the computers aren’t anywhere near the stereo, an inexpensive minijack-to-RCA adapter cable clearly isn’t an option. On the other hand, my house is wired with Ethernet, and augmented with 802.11b wireless. Perhaps we could use the network to deliver the digital media to the stereo for analog playback?
A SLIM Solution — The $230 SLIMP3 from Slim Devices, Inc. bridges the gap between the computer and the home stereo. It includes player hardware (a network device that attaches to your stereo receiver’s RCA inputs), a remote control, and server software that runs on a remote computer. The software parses your iTunes Library (including playlists) and then streams MP3 files over the network to the player, which decodes them into analog audio for the stereo.
The player’s sole visible feature is a bright green, two-line, vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) that shows the software’s menu structure, playlist, and current track. The back of the player contains only jacks for power, 10Base-T Ethernet, and RCA left and right outputs. At a svelte 8.5 by 2.5 by 2 inches (21.6 by 6.4 by 5.1 cm) and perched atop a smoky grey stand, the player exhibits stark simplicity. Clothed entirely in black, the SLIMP3 player is the model of Johnny Cash cool.
Installing the SLIMP3 is quick and easy. First, download the latest version of the software for your operating system (a 1.4 MB download). In addition to Mac OS X, the SLIMP3’s software officially supports Windows 95/98/Me/XP/NT/2000 and Linux. Other Unix operating systems can install from a source code tarball. For Mac OS X, launch the installer, choose whether the preference pane should be available to just yourself or for all users, and click Install. The installer automatically opens the new SLIMP3 Server pane in System Preferences. Choose whether the SLIMP3 software should launch automatically at boot or login, and click Start. Next, attach the player to your home stereo with the included RCA audio cable, and to a 10Base-T Ethernet network (or 802.11b wireless bridge, such as the Linksys WET11). Plug in the power adapter, answer the yes-or-no startup configuration questions and Shazaam! You’re listening to MP3s on your home stereo.
Since the SLIMP3 is an IP networking device, the simplicity of configuring the device depends on the configuration of your network. If you have a household router that allocates IP addresses via DHCP, an answer of "No" to the configuration question directs the player to use DHCP to get an IP number, and ZeroConf (Apple’s Rendezvous) to locate the SLIMP3 Server. If you need to specify anything manually, those options are available by answering "Yes."
When the SLIMP3 Server starts, it scans the iTunes preference files to learn the location and contents of the music library. Along with files, artists, albums, and genres, all playlists are parsed for display and selection. The SLIMP3 can also play MP3-based Internet radio stations; if any are defined in an iTunes playlist, they are available as well.
You control the SLIMP3 player with either the included remote control or the server’s embedded Web interface. Via either interface, you can browse the library or search for music according to songs, artists, albums, genres, or playlists. To add an item to the player’s current playlist, press Add. The new item, whether one song or a grouping of many songs, is immediately available for playback. Once items land in the current playlist, you can remove or re-order the individual songs. Just press Play to begin listening. I tend to prefer the Web interface, as only two lines of text display on the player. Although the player’s display and remote control are highly functional, scrolling through a lengthy library can be tedious.
SLIM Pickings — With such a painless setup, I expected to rejoice in the unfettered bliss of unlimited music. I imagined myself stringing songs and albums together in playlists of the moment, spinning an unending soundtrack from the virtual depths of a bottomless multi-disc CD player.
In reality, I find that most often we just play from the entire library, randomly sorted. This style of listening brings unending joy as we discover forgotten tracks and even artists, but it can also result in unexpected musical pairings, such as Frank Sinatra’s "Chicago" followed by "Paradise City" from Guns N’ Roses. While I haven’t touched the physical CDs in weeks, I find myself pining for the tactile sensation of browsing and selecting music to match the whims of the moment. This is largely a behavioral issue, as I still tend to listen to music in album units. Over time I expect that my listening habits will adapt, and I’ll build more and more "mood" playlists. I’m still at a loss for the CD inserts, however, as there’s just something about thumbing through the liner notes. But long term, boxing up the discs and jewel cases is moving from a vague concept to an attainable goal.
For all its auditory wonder and convenience, I must point out that the SLIMP3 is a geek toy that aspires to be a consumer electronics device; it lacks the high SAF (spouse acceptance factor) of, say, TiVo. The SLIMP3’s very paradigm of streaming music from a server, for instance, has unintended consequences in a home setting. For example, the source of our MP3s is my main computer, which had previously been set to sleep after 15 minutes of inactivity. If I want to play music with the SLIMP3, I have to consider whether the iMac is awake, and then adjust the Energy Saver settings to not sleep. This annoyance could be allayed, however, if the player supported Wake-on-LAN. (As recently discussed in TidBITS Talk, Wake-on-LAN is a magic packet which wakes a sleeping computer for network administrative access.) In such a scenario, the player could send a Wake-on-LAN packet in response to the user’s first remote control action on those occasions when the server can’t be seen on the network. A sleeping computer would then awaken and resume playing music. In a similar vein, a network-based device is only as good as the network’s infrastructure; some owners of Linksys routers have reported degradation in network performance for other applications on the SLIMP3 Server machine.
I was somewhat disappointed that a software CD is not included in the Spartan packaging. The necessity of a download before installation is perhaps just as well, considering the rapid pace at which the software is updated, but it definitely adds effort to the initial installation process. (Indeed, software updates prompted rewrites of several paragraphs of this review.) I’d also like to see a broadcast mailing list for software announcements; currently they are announced only through company-operated Yahoo Group discussion lists.
Let it be known, however, that as a geek toy the SLIMP3 is righteous indeed. Its server software is written in Perl, and both it and the player’s firmware are GPL-licensed open source and available from SourceForge. Mailing lists for users and developers teem with discussions of user habits, bugs (promptly fixed), and feature suggestions (often implemented). The software is almost infinitely configurable from the Web interface, where you can reorder, add or remove menu items, adjust display formats, use different Web interface display skins, and activate a host of advanced features, including games. (The included SlimTris is a wonderful, albeit horizontal, implementation of Tetris which one plays with the remote control on the player’s display.) If you’re comfortable working with Perl modules and updating package dependencies, third-party plug-ins offer such goodies as a weather feed and a BBC news ticker. A given server can support as many players as you have bandwidth, either synchronized to the same stream or each playing a different stream. Because the software is a ZeroConf-compliant network service, a Rendezvous-aware browser such as Apple’s Safari easily brings up the server’s Web interface. Last, you’re not limited to the SLIMP3 hardware to listen to the server’s stream; point any MP3 player software that can tune an Internet stream (e.g. iTunes or WinAMP) to stream.mp3 on port 9000 of the SLIMP3 Server and you’re in business. (To try this yourself, you’d need to change "YourMusicServer" in the third URL below to match your computer’s Rendezvous name as shown in the Sharing preferences pane.)
The SLIMP3 is an elegant MP3 solution, but I wish I loved it more. This paradigm of streaming from a PC server to the stereo is not the solution I’d envisioned. I realize now that I wanted the MP3s to be stored on a hard disk-based device in the entertainment cabinet, just like the other stereo components. Having lived through California’s rolling blackouts a couple of years ago, I wanted the storage device to turn off when I’m not playing music. I wanted to manage it at the computer or with a pretty television interface. Basically I wanted a TiVo for MP3s, though preferably one that could have huge hard disks added to it easily.
To be fair, the SLIMP3’s paradigm is popular, as evidenced by its competitors: the Rio Digital Audio Receiver from the now-bankrupt SONICblue, Turtle Beach AudioTron, and MacSense’s forthcoming HomePod. These devices are evolving as a relatively cheap and, more importantly, a growing market segment, while expensive disk-based devices persistently flounder in the marketplace. TiVo has joined the streaming solution market as well; their stand-alone Series2 hardware can run the new Home Media Option, which plays MP3s and digital photos on your television after streaming them from your Mac or PC via the TiVo Desktop application (which, like the SLIMP3 Server, uses Rendezvous).
My own musings aside, the SLIMP3 player is a neat little device and a great way to bring the computer’s MP3s to the home stereo.
[Having pursued a career in computing, Andrew Laurence is the black sheep in a family of writers. When not battling flood waters with his new sump pump, he can often be found shopping for increasingly bigger hard drives.]
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