Is it time to tear yourself away from the computer and get outside? Why not go geocaching? Mariva H. Aviram reports on this growing Net-related recreation where you use a GPS device to track down hidden treasure. We also explore Palm’s announcement that it’s purchasing rival Handspring, look at QuickTime 6.3, and note the releases of WebSTAR 5.3, Spring Cleaning 6.0, and After Dark for Mac OS X, along with Apple’s iMovie 3.0.3, iSync 1.1, and Keynote 1.1.
iMovie 3.0.3 Improves Performance, Finally — Shortly after releasing QuickTime 6.3 last week (details later in this issue), Apple also made iMovie 3.0.3 available as a free update. As iMovie is built on QuickTime technology, one of its main improvements is better audio and video synchronization when exporting movies to QuickTime format. iMovie 3.0.3 also feels significantly more responsive, a welcome change, and now includes an option to enable or disable the Ken Burns Effect; previously, the pan-and-zoom effect was applied to all still pictures imported into iMovie. Only hinted at in Apple’s description of the update is the capability to crop photos using the Ken Burns Effect: Option-click the Finish radio button to apply the same zoom setting as the Start state. (This also avoids an annoying glitch where still photos would experience pixel shifts if the Start and Finish states were slightly different.) Another welcome change is a preference option for specifying that new projects be set to NTSC or PAL format. Although this update doesn’t fix all outstanding issues with iMovie 3 – for example, users still report frequent crashes – iMovie 3.0.3 represents significant improvement. The updater is a 12.1 MB download; a full installer is also available as an 82.3 MB download. iMovie 3.0.3 requires Mac OS X 10.1.5 or later and QuickTime 6.3; 256 MB or more of RAM is recommended. [JLC]
iSync 1.1 Supports More Phones, Safari Bookmarks — Apple has released iSync 1.1, its Mac OS X-only technology for synchronizing contacts, calendars, and other information across multiple computers and other devices (see "Jaguar, iCal, and iSync Appear" in TidBITS-639). Version 1.1 adds support for several new mobile phones and can synchronize Safari bookmarks between computers by way of a .Mac account (a feature you can emulate with the free JeepSafari if, for some reason, you don’t want to install iSync). iSync 1.1 is available via Software Update or as a 5.3 MB download. iSync 1.1 requires Mac OS X 10.2 or newer and iCal 1.0.2 or newer; synchronizing to Palm devices requires a separate iSync 1.1 Palm Conduit available as a link on the iSync download page. [GD]
Keynote 1.1 Enhances Features — Apple has released version 1.1 of its new Mac OS X-only presentation program Keynote. The update improves Keynote’s ability to import and export PowerPoint presentations, adds the capability to jump to a specific slide during a slideshow, includes an option to not clip 3D transitions, improves feedback and interaction while working with slides in the Navigator, optimizes exported QuickTime files, reduces the size of themes and presentation files, and improves the overall performance of QuickTime video. The Keynote 1.1 update is a 30.3 MB download and free to current Keynote users. Keynote itself costs $100. [GD]
After Dark Returns for Mac OS X — Tonya still wears her Flying Toasters sweatshirt from the days when Berkeley Systems’s After Dark screensaver was so popular it had not one, but two books written about it (see "After Dark: The Books" in TidBITS-150) – in fact, the very first item in the very first issue of TidBITS concerned a maintenance release of After Dark! If you don’t remember After Dark, keep in mind that the screensaver was launched in 1989 and finally faded out in 1999. After Dark sported modules beyond Flying Toasters, including a simulated aquarium, a Mandelbrot fractal generator, and the Sisyphean Mowing Man, who can never finish mowing his lawn (but never seems to run out of gas). Numerous other modules came from independent programmers and annual programming contests, though no one ever implemented my idea of a simulation of one of those sand sculpture panels where different colored grains of sand fall to create an otherworldly landscape each time you flip the panel.
Unfortunately, the After Dark engine was incompatible with Mac OS 9, and After Dark fell into software purgatory. Infinisys, the Japanese distributor of the original After Dark, has ventured into the void to rescue After Dark from oblivion. Infinisys’s After Dark X + Fish relies on the Mac OS X screensaver engine, and Infinisys has made use of Mac OS X’s support for OpenGL 3D capabilities in providing not a straight port of the old modules, but many new options and displays. After Dark X + Fish costs only $10 and requires Mac OS X 10.0.4 or higher (though I hope everyone is using at least Mac OS X 10.1.5). Some modules may not work on multiple monitor configurations. [ACE]
Spring Cleaning 6.0 Eliminates Crud — It’s spring (at least in this hemisphere, so bear with me if you’re south of the equator), when a young geek’s fancy turns to removing unnecessary files from his hard disk, improving performance, and making sure no one can snoop around and find out where exactly his fancy has turned. Staying seasonal, Aladdin Systems has released Spring Cleaning 6.0, the latest version of their uninstaller, which munches cookies, recycles empty folders, clears out incriminating Internet caches, dumps orphaned preferences files, and much more. New in 6.0 is the capability to throw out unnecessary operating system language files (no, leaving <insert language here> active on your Mac won’t help you learn to speak it), delete Sherlock’s cookies, and work with Opera and Safari. Spring Cleaning works with Mac OS 9.1 and up, or Mac OS X 10.1.5 and later, and comes in English, German, French, and Japanese versions. It costs $50 new, and you can upgrade from a previous version or a competitive product for $20, or from any other Aladdin product for $30. [ACE]
WebSTAR V 5.3 Adds iCal Support — 4D has released 4D WebSTAR V Server Suite 5.3, updating the suite’s 4D WebMail Pro module with the capability to display, publish, and subscribe to iCal calendars. Also improved is WebSTAR’s search engine, which is now faster, handles international characters sets, and supports unlimited page indexing with no additional licensing. Finally, WebSTAR 5.3 boasts a new Security Plug-in that offers additional granularity when granting or denying access to specific parts of a site. The update to WebSTAR 5.3 is free for registered users of WebSTAR V; it costs $200 for WebSTAR 4 users, $300 for users of WebSTAR 3 and Mac OS X Server, and $400 new. [ACE]
Apple has released QuickTime 6.3, the latest version of its foundation digital media technology. Version 6.3 offers improvements to DV audio and video synchronization (helpful for video authoring applications) along with specific improvements for Apple’s Keynote, iMovie, and iDVD applications. Version 6.3 also includes "automatic detection of streaming transport," which, though unspecified, presumably means QuickTime better handles media being accessed via network streams rather than from local devices.
Perhaps more significantly, QuickTime 6.3 also includes support for 3GPP media, an extension of the MPEG-4 standard aimed at delivering rich media over wireless broadband networks (like Apple’s AirPort) to a variety of wireless devices. (3GPP stands for 3rd Generation Partnership Project; Apple has collected together some basic information and pointers about 3GPP on its Web site. The format is seeing growing use among mobile phone and PDA users in Asia and Europe.) QuickTime 6.3’s 3GPP support incorporates an H.263 video codec (often used in video conferencing), an AMR (Adaptive Multi-Rate) audio codec (which is a narrowband codec especially useful for speech), and support for 3G Text (TX3G) which is a text track that can be synchronized with audio or video. The basic idea behind 3GPP support is that people creating content in QuickTime could deploy that content to wireless devices like mobile phones, PDAs, and computers using a single format, and have the media automatically scale to the capabilities of the device.
QuickTime 6.3 is available as a 20 MB download via Software Update; a separate stand-alone installer is also available. 3GPP playback and authoring support requires the 3GPP component, which must be downloaded separately. QuickTime 6.3 is available for Mac OS X 10.2.3 or later, Mac OS X 10.1.5, Mac OS 8.6 or 9.x, and Windows 98/Me/2000/XP; 3GPP support is not available for the classic Mac OS. Updating to QuickTime Pro – which unlocks authoring features in the QuickTime applications – still costs $30.
Five years after the founders of Palm, Inc. bolted from the company to form Handspring, Inc., Palm is pulling them back in. Palm has announced that it is acquiring Handspring in a stock swap deal valued at $192 million. In addition, Palm’s board of directors gave final approval to spin off its PalmSource subsidiary, which handles Palm OS development and licensing, into a new company. The Handspring purchase will happen after the PalmSource spin-off sometime in the third quarter of 2003, according to Palm.
The merged company, which will be renamed later in the year (PalmSpring, anyone?), retains the three Handspring founders responsible for Palm handhelds: inventor Jeff Hawkins will become Chief Technical Officer, Handspring President and COO Ed Colligan will lead a new smartphone solutions group, and current Handspring CEO Donna Dubinsky will stay with the new company as a member of its board of directors. Todd Bradley, the President and CEO of Palm’s Palm Solutions Group (which handles the hardware side of Palm development and sales) will keep his position, while a handheld computing solutions group will be led by Ken Wirt, currently Palm’s vice president for sales and marketing.
Although this move comes as a bit of a surprise, given that Handspring was founded because Hawkins and his team felt constrained by Palm (then owned by 3Com), it makes some sense in the current economy. After the launch of the well-received Treo line of phone-enabled handhelds, Handspring hasn’t made much noise or significantly updated its product lines (though they have been busy expanding Treo coverage in several international markets). Palm, on the other hand, has finally started to act like the company it promised to be, releasing new handhelds such as the Zire 71 and Tungsten family that do more than just the basics of previous models.
But both companies have faced a sharp decline in the numbers of new handhelds sold. The Palm organizers currently in use provide the basic functionality that most people need: managing addresses and schedules. This is great from the user standpoint, because a device purchased several years ago is still useful, but it’s a terrible situation for companies that rely on continued hardware sales to stay alive. That’s why the newest handhelds offer color screens, multimedia options, more memory, wireless access, and faster processors.
In that vein, buying Handspring gives Palm immediate access to the burgeoning cellular phone/PDA market (expected to triple in size this year, according to IDC). More important, perhaps, is that Palm gains Handspring’s hard-won experience in dealing with cellular phone service providers around the world. The deal also offers additional resources against the growing Microsoft Pocket PC market and puts to rest any talk of Apple buying Handspring, a possibility that would have given Apple an entry into the cell phone and PDA markets.
From the financial perspective, Palm and Handspring estimate that they can save $25 million annually by combining their operations and eliminating overlapping programs and associated real estate, which also includes the loss of about 125 employees. As part of the purchase, Palm agreed to lend Handspring $10 million, which could jump to $20 million if needed, to handle operating expenses while the deal is pending.
Sitting at a glowing screen for hours on end, with little or no live human interaction – this is the typical Internet experience. But some areas of the Internet compel users to leave the keyboard, go outside, and interact with the real world. This category of Web sites, hugely popular and usually non-commercial, doesn’t have a name yet. Because these sites promote an activity or hobby – even a lifestyle – beyond the Web, they’re more of an online/offline phenomena. I’ve dubbed the aggregate of these Web sites "Internet-Guided Offline Recreation" (IGOR). IGOR is different from sites that merely discuss offline recreation, like sailing or knitting, because the activities are mediated and tracked by – and essentially inseparable from – their Web sites.
GPS Games — On 01-May-00, the Clinton Administration ended the U.S. government’s policy of Selective Availability, the intentional degradation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. The new availability of GPS to the civilian population had practical applications for telecommunications, emergency response, transportation, and industry. It also launched a new form of recreation.
Only two days after the end of Selective Availability, someone hid a logbook inside a container near Portland, OR and posted its GPS coordinates on the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup. Just three days later, the container, called a "cache," was visited twice, the visits recorded in the logbook and online. From the immense curiosity, immediacy, and coolness factor that this generated, a high-tech hide-and-seek game was born: geocaching.
Geocaching.com, the first and most trafficked Web site devoted to geocaching, facilitates seeking and creating new caches. The caches are registered in the Geocaching.com database according to "waypoints," short names representing the identifications of specific caches. Each waypoint is associated with GPS coordinates that indicate the exact location of the cache.
The Geocaching.com site enables searches for any relevant data: zip code (within a user-defined radius), location, coordinates, keyword, area code, waypoint, or geocacher’s username. For example, if you search for waypoint GC78A5, you’ll find a geocache called "Stock Market CrACHE in Twin Peaks." The details page provides the coordinates, difficulty and terrain ratings, notes and encrypted clues (easily decrypted by the "cheater" link), zoomable map, and log entries and photos from other geocachers.
Most caches are hidden in parks, wilderness areas, and other public spaces. When hunting for a cache, it helps to have both GPS coordinates and clues in hand – but also look for the telltale path of trampled grass that often betrays the hiding place.
Some caches are so challenging that finding them might require more than one attempt. The coordinates are accurate to about 15 feet (4.6 m) at best – which, when multiplied by two (to account for the margin of error of both GPS units, the hider’s and your own) is 30 feet (9.1 m) – and beyond that, you’re on your own. I had to return to "Sounds of the Bay" after my first unsuccessful search because the cache could have been hidden in any of the myriad crevices of the loose-rock wharf, and even the "spoiler" photograph of the geocache owner pointing to the hiding spot didn’t help.
A "Traditional Geocache" (marked by a generic icon) is an airtight, waterproof container that stores a logbook and pen for on-site comments, a disposable camera, and some goodies. The idea is for geocachers to sift through the goodies, take one, and add something new. Don’t expect to find a wad of cash or valuable jewelry in a geocache; prizes usually comprise old toys, coins, seashells, and trade convention gewgaws. But getting stuff isn’t the point of geocaching; the real prize is just finding the cache and admiring the view while you’re there.
Another type of geocache is a "Multi-Cache," which contains a clue in the first cache that leads the geocacher to a second cache and possibly more after that. Sometimes these can be all-day affairs, involving clues, puzzles, or riddles, for which only hard-core geocachers have the necessary time and patience. (The Geocaching.com Web site, previously all non-commercial, recently launched a premium service for such serious geocaching.)
Sometimes you won’t get a prize at all – at least not one you can take with you. A "Virtual Cache" has no hidden container: the location itself is the prize. (The details page may ask you to answer a specific question about the location or to perform a task.) An "Event Cache" involves both space and time; geocachers go to a certain location at a certain time to meet other geocachers. Avid geocachers frequently check the Events Calendar to see when an Event Cache is happening in their area.
Seek and Hide — Of course, you’re not limited to just seeking – you can create your own cache as well. I recommend finding at least one geocache before establishing your own to learn what works well and what the best caches offer. You’re responsible for the caches you hide, which means visiting them occasionally, cleaning out debris, replacing cameras when film runs out, and adding new stuff. If you’re lazy or don’t have much time to visit your geocache, hide it close to your home to avoid traveling extensively to check it. And read the instructions carefully; I mistakenly hid a cache in Land’s End, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and therefore federal land – a geocaching no-no. Since it’s across town, I have yet to retrieve it. Further, use good judgment based on your knowledge of the area. I hid a geocache containing a beautiful handmade logbook and a bag of candy in what I thought was the perfect hiding place: the trunk of a large evergreen tree. But, because the tree is in San Francisco, a homeless person moved in underneath the branches, and my cache not-so-mysteriously disappeared.
I started with three hidden geocaches, and now have only one left, but I am quite happy with it. It’s in a beautiful, easily accessible area, so it’s visited often. I developed the film of its first disposable camera onto prints and a photo CD, whose images I uploaded to the geocache details page. Before I looked at the prints, I hadn’t quite realized what a marvelous hobby geocaching is. No two photographs were alike. In several pictures, a man stood alone, sometimes staring off-center because he’s taking his own picture. Other pictures showed couples and groups of friends, smiling or sticking out tongues. A young father posed with a baby in a backpack carrier, a dog shivered in the wind, a too-close wristwatch blurrily displayed the time, and a toy lay on the grass. Photos were taken from different directions and perspectives, at different times of day (including one wigged-out guy at night), during different seasons, and in different types of weather (sometimes clear and sunny; other days, foggy). I slid the prints into a cheap pocket-sized photo album, labeled it "See the geocachers who have come before you!", and added it to the cache.
Spin-offs — A testament to the popularity of Geocaching.com is its spin-off sites. Navicache.com offers the same thing as Geocaching.com, but with a more amateurish site and fewer registered caches. Geocaching Worldwide began specifically for Australians and later expanded to include caches located around the globe. Geodashing turns geocache hunting into a race to find one cache after another (uploading photos as proof), and has appropriately renamed "waypoints" as "dashpoints." Befitting the patriotic times, CacheAcrossAmerica has successfully established a chain-link of geocaches across the continent, following the approximate path of Interstate 80. The burgeoning EcoScavenger encourages geocachers to "share places rather than stuff" – a nice idea but already covered by Geocaching.com’s virtual caches. Inspired by the cheap plastic toys in Hasbro’s classic Barrel of Monkeys, a couple of jokers created a very serious Web site that invites geocachers to Linn Run State Park in Pennsylvania to conduct "monkey research."
Geocaching aficionados appreciate Buxley’s Geocaching Waypoint, a companion guide chock-full of interesting stuff. Buxley’s world map of cache sites reveals the predictable pattern of a hobby for the techno-elite (that’s us): the vast majority of caches are hidden in the United States (and southern Canada) and Western Europe; the rest are hidden in coastal areas of Australia, Central and South America, South Africa, major Asian cities, and Pacific islands. In other words, even though geocaching is a relatively inexpensive hobby, players live in and travel to "rich" areas and so obviously have enough food, shelter, and disposable income to afford GPS units and Internet-connected computers. Buxley’s also keeps a log of geocaching news and unique caches that involve more than waypoints and containers.
Getting Started with Geocaching — One of the major draws of geocaching is that it’s a relatively inexpensive and easy hobby to participate in. A bare-bones handheld GPS unit, which you can buy for about $100, can read satellite signals and triangulate fairly accurate coordinates – all you need to get started on your first geocache. For around $350, a fancy GPS unit includes features like downloadable mapping, waypoint storage, an altimeter, and other geeky but useful stuff. Other units work specifically in cars, and some combine GPS capability with fish-finders and water-navigation tools.
GPS games are an innovative way to combine computer nerdism with outdoor adventuring. It costs next to nothing and inspires eager novices to join the "secret society" of geocachers. It’s easy to get addicted (some geocachers seek hundreds of caches per year), but as vices go, this one’s not so bad.
In the next installment of this article, I’ll explore a few other variations of geocaching, such as tracking currency around the world, exchanging physical notebooks, and more. See you at the next waypoint!
[Mariva H. Aviram, author of several books and numerous articles, has a passion for the outdoors, art, books, film, culture, and satire. More information can be found at her Web site.]
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