Are you bothered by how stupid telephones still are, after all these years? Adam is too, but thanks to Parliant’s PhoneValet, his telephone is more usable than ever before. Also this week, we note the cyclical nature of the industry and welcome two new sponsors, Aladdin and CS Odessa. In the news, we cover the releases of AirPort Extreme 5.1.3, Mailsmith 2.0.2, and PopChar X 2.1.2, along with the announcement of the Adobe Creative Suite and a few corrections.
AirPort Extreme 5.1.3 Firmware Update — Apple has released a firmware update for AirPort Extreme Base Stations, boosting security and improving performance. The revision should better handle network attacks that may be directed at an AirPort Extreme Base Station, including denial-of-service attacks, and help maintain Internet connectivity (we hope this will address situations where AirPort Extreme Base Stations required frequent resetting). Setting up the Wireless Distribution System (WDS) has been made easier, USB printing has been improved, and administrators can now set up a DHCP range when NAT (Network Address Translation) is on (good for avoiding IP range conflicts with ISPs that use NAT internally). The firmware update is a 1 MB download. [JLC]
Adobe Checks Into the Creative Suite — Adobe today announced major upgrades of their professional print and Web publishing applications, together dubbed the Adobe Creative Suite. Available later this year, the suite will include the next versions of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and GoLive. Like its rival Macromedia, Adobe has abandoned easily understood version numbers (such as Photoshop 8 or InDesign 3) in favor of marketing-inspired letters (Photoshop CS and InDesign CS). Behind the names, however, lie some significant upgrades. For example, InDesign CS incorporates nested styles, the capability to preview color separations before a piece hits the press, and a Story Editor where you can edit text independent of its layout (a feature present eons ago in PageMaker). Each application will be available separately, but Adobe hopes that the full Creative Suite will be more appealing, thanks to the addition of Version Cue, a version tracking and project collaboration framework that operates between the applications. The entire suite will be available in a premium pack for $1,230, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, GoLive, Acrobat 6 Professional, and Version Cue; a standard pack, at $1,000, will remove GoLive and Acrobat from the mix. The suite is expected to ship by the end of the year. [JLC]
Panther-Prepared PopChar Published — Ergonis Software has released PopChar X version 2.1.2, an update to Gunther Blaschek’s well-known utility for easily entering non-ASCII characters. This version fixes several bugs and is ready for Mac OS X 10.3 Panther; it is highly recommended that all current users download it, especially if you already installed version 2.1.1, which was quickly pulled because of a potential startup problem. Panther does sport an improved Character Palette, but PopChar X retains some advantages, such as working with non-Unicode fonts and non-Unicode-savvy applications like Microsoft Word. This update is free for users who purchased PopChar X within the last two years. PopChar X is $30 ($20 for Classic PopChar owners). [MAN]
Mailsmith 2.0.2 Makes Minor Fixes — Bare Bones Software has released Mailsmith 2.0.2, incorporating numerous minor feature enhancements and bug fixes into the company’s industrial strength email program (see "True Confessions of a Mailsmith Switcher" in TidBITS-690 for a review of Mailsmith 2.0). Also included in the upgrade is SpamSieve 2.0.1, the current version of Michael Tsai’s Bayesian spam filter, which integrates with Mailsmith, along with other email programs (see "SpamSieve 2.0.1 Improves Accuracy" in TidBITS-698). Mailsmith 2.0.2 is a free update for registered users; it’s a 14.7 MB download. [ACE]
Avondale Photoshop DVD Giveaway — Photoshop 7 won’t be current much longer, but our friends at Avondale Media want to give TidBITS readers an early crack at free copies of their DVD "Secrets of the Photoshop Masters." The DVD contains 93 minutes of tips and techniques about Photoshop 7 from Photoshop experts Katrin Eismann, Martin Evening, Jeff Schewe, and Steve Broback (who is also a founder of Avondale, and with whom we worked when he helped run Thunder Lizard Productions). Follow the first link below to order the DVD. There’s a $7 shipping and handling charge for U.S. delivery (check the chart at the second link below for international destinations). [JLC]
Listen to Adam on Inside Mac Radio — Want to listen to my informal take on what’s going on in the Mac world every week? Scott Sheppard has started producing a daily Macintosh radio show you can listen to on the Internet or download in MP3 format for later listening in iTunes or on your iPod. I’ll be talking with Scott on a regular basis, and you can check out the first show at the link below. Earlier in the month, I did an interview with Chuck Joiner on the online-only User Group Report, and with the promise of Scott’s Inside Mac Radio Daily appearing regularly, I’m curious to hear on TidBITS Talk what you think of these online radio shows, and if you’d like us to link to interviews with TidBITS staffers on a regular basis. [ACE]
Digital Photography Cruise in January, 2004 — Arthur Bleich, who contributes to TidBITS on digital photography topics, tells us that he’ll once again be leading an eight-day digital photography workshop cruise, this time to the Caribbean on 24-Jan-04. Space is limited to 30 attendees. [ACE]
We live in a cyclical world, though it’s sometimes hard to look past the quickly turning wheels of weeks and months to the slower yearly revolutions. A month ago, in writing about how we were trying some new revenue sources due to reduced revenues from our long-standing corporate sponsorship program, I noted that we might be seeing a rebound in the final quarter of the year. It has been particularly gratifying to have called that one accurately, and I’m happy to announce two new long-term sponsors this week, joining our existing crop of Small Dog Electronics, Bare Bones Software, and Fetch Softworks (whose $5 discount offer ends Tuesday, by the way!).
But what hammered home the cyclical nature of the Macintosh industry is an article I wrote almost exactly five years ago, just as the industry was coming out of the slump caused by Apple’s near-death spiral. Steve Jobs put an end to those problems with the iMac and his renewed emphasis on design and innovation, and in early October of 1998, we saw the results of the industry’s recovery reflected in several new sponsors joining us. It seems now we may be back where we were five years ago, with the fortunes of the Mac world once again on the upswing. Let’s hope both that I’m not hallucinating and that the recovery continues.
Aladdin Systems Sponsoring TidBITS — We’re pleased to welcome back as a sponsor Aladdin Systems, makers of StuffIt Deluxe, Spring Cleaning, the Ten for X collections, and DragStrip, along with some older Mac OS 9-only utilities like FlashBack and ShrinkWrap. With Connectix selling Virtual PC to Microsoft and Casady & Greene declaring bankruptcy, Aladdin’s longevity is even more pronounced. Few Macintosh developers have lasted so long or given as much to the community, ranging from continued development on the free StuffIt Expander to its annual charity drive and supporting groups like TidBITS. Through the end of October, TidBITS readers can also take advantage of a special offer on StuffIt Deluxe 8.0 that drops $30 from the list price of $80; upgrades remain $30. See the sponsorship area above for the link. [ACE]
CS Odessa — Also rejoining us this week as a sponsor is the Ukrainian software company CS Odessa, makers of the intelligent diagramming and business drawing program ConceptDraw (see "Make the Connection with ConceptDraw" in TidBITS-553 for a review of an earlier version of the program). ConceptDraw V is in public beta right now, so if you want to see what it’s like to create a document in which graphical objects understand their relationships to one another, it’s definitely worth a download.
Sometimes we wish we could rewind life as easily as rewinding television programs recorded by TiVo. In last week’s issue, Alex Hoffman’s article "TiVo Series2 Improves on Original" discussed how the digital video recorder could organize recorded programs in groups when perusing the Now Playing list. In the article, this is mentioned as a wishlist item, when in fact the Series2 does include the feature. Chalk up the error to a TidBITS editor who wishes his original TiVo could support that excellent way to browse shows: Jeff’s punishment will be to categorize and alphabetize all his DVDs and VHS tapes.
While we’re acknowledging our errors (which we’re told is good for the soul, even if it makes us feel the fools), Adam biffed his analogy of the 15-inch PowerBook G4 to Mama Bear in the children’s story The Three Little Bears. Although there’s some thought that alternate tellings may exist, most sources seem to agree that the porridge, chair, and bed that were "just right" belonged to Baby Bear. Adam’s punishment will be to read The Three Little Bears at bedtime until Tristan makes him stop.
Finally, in our hurried testing of StuffIt Deluxe 8.0 in the hours before publishing last week, Adam said that Mac OS X would prompt you about changing filename extensions when using StuffIt Deluxe’s Archive Via Rename feature. However, it turns out that if you turn off "Always show file extensions" in the Finder preferences (which is necessary for Archive Via Rename to work), Mac OS X doesn’t in fact prompt for each rename action. It makes sense; if you can’t see filename extensions, you might not realize you’re changing something, whereas if you can see them, it’s reasonable to assume you know what you’re doing. For this mistake, Adam’s penance will be give all the cryptically named PDFs on his Desktop better names.
Last Monday, as Geoff Duncan was preparing the TidBITS issue for distribution, Software Update notified me that I could install Mac OS X 10.2.8. It was late, I was tired, and I let it download and install without really thinking about the consequences. (Bad Adam! Always back up right before installing a major upgrade!) While all 40 MB were coming in, Jeff Carlson and I made the decision to post an update on the TidBITS Web site the next day rather than try to squeeze it into the issue. I’m glad we chose to put it off, since the update proved troublesome for many users. I lucked out; the update just moved the menu bar to my secondary monitor, confusing Classic and requiring a second restart, after which everything has worked fine.
Others weren’t so lucky. We received numerous reports of problems from people who upgraded to Mac OS X 10.2.8 right away, including kernel panics at boot. In particular, we verified that Mac OS X 10.2.8 was incompatible with some drivers for external FireWire audio devices for recording and producing audio. Many other users experienced the loss of Ethernet on Power Mac G4s. If you’ve been impacted by the Ethernet problem, there’s a reported fix posted on Apple’s discussion boards that involves reverting to a previous AppleGMACEthernet.kext file. Obviously, this solution is not endorsed by Apple, and we at TidBITS have not confirmed it.
Needless to say, Apple pulled the 10.2.8 update quickly, but the company hasn’t given any indication when a replacement will arrive. If you downloaded Mac OS X 10.2.8 but haven’t yet installed it, toss that file and wait for the replacement. If you’re one of the unlucky people who have had troubles, you’ll have to decide if you can work through them or if reverting to a backup is a better option. Remember that you can hold down the Shift key at boot to perform a Safe Boot that disables all non-Apple kernel extensions and drivers. That will probably help those experiencing kernel panics at boot, but I can’t see it helping with the Ethernet problem.
What was in the update? Mac OS X 10.2.8 included a number of Bluetooth improvements (partially to enable support for Apple’s new wireless keyboard and mouse) as well as unspecified enhancements to the Safari Web browser. It also included security updates for the Unix applications sendmail and OpenSSH’s sshd, support for USB 2.0 devices (even if you added USB 2.0 ports to a Mac using a PCI card or PC Card), and a fix for a problem mounting external FireWire drives.
As a computer person, I find myself continually frustrated by the limitations of the hard-coded devices that surround us in the real world, and one of the most irritating areas for this is the telephone. Why can’t my telephone announce who is calling before I pick up the phone? Why can’t I easily tell how much time I’ve been on the phone? And why do I still have telephone numbers – sometimes several per person – cluttering my brain?
A Canadian company called Parliant has taken it upon themselves to solve many of these irritations with a new $130 product called PhoneValet. It’s a combination of a USB device that connects your phone line with your Mac and Mac OS X software that handles call announcing (assuming you have caller ID service), call dialing, and call logging. (Note that it does not currently act as an automated attendant with multiple voice mailboxes or anything like that.) PhoneValet 1.0 works as promised, although it suffers from haphazard caller ID information from the phone company and a variety of minor problems common in 1.0 releases.
PhoneValet Parts and Pieces — The physical guts of PhoneValet are ensconced in a translucent purple box about half the size of a deck of playing cards. One side has a single RJ-11 phone jack; included in the package is a standard phone splitter so you can attach both it and your phone at the same time. The other side has a USB port; Parliant also includes the necessary USB cable for connecting to your Mac. No power is necessary, nor is a modem, but PhoneValet currently works only with analog phone lines, sometimes referred to as POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) lines.
The software side is held up by the PhoneValet application, which provides the primary interface, and a variety of smaller applications that work behind the scenes to track incoming and outgoing calls, dial the phone, and more – all so that the main PhoneValet application doesn’t have to be running for call announcements and logging to take place.
The PhoneValet application is, at least on the surface, a model of simplicity and interface elegance. It provides two main tabs: a Phonebook tab that lists all your stored names and numbers, and a Call Log tab that lists each placed, answered, or unanswered call. A Notes field lets you add free-form text notes to any phonebook or call log entry.
A toolbar at the top of the window provides five buttons and a Quick Search field. A Dial button dials the phone number associated with the current entry (whether it’s a phonebook or call log item), a Delete button deletes the current entry, and a Details button displays a drawer on the right side of the window that shows a few more details than are in the list, and lets you edit names and numbers. An Add Number button lets you add the phone number from a received call to your phonebook. Lastly, a Report button brings up a dialog that lets you query the call log database, displaying the results in a Call Log Report tab that appears next to the Phonebook and Call Log tabs. Similarly, if you use the Quick Search field to search in either the Call Log or Phonebook tabs, the results appear in either the Call Log Report tab or another Phonebook Report tab. In a nice touch, you can continue to search within the report tabs to narrow the results. Oddly, you can’t edit an entry in the Details drawer if you select it from one of the report tabs.
PhoneValet also puts an icon in the menu bar that provides a number of menu commands that enable you to control voice dialing.
Populating the Phonebook — You add names and numbers to PhoneValet’s phonebook in one of four ways:
Click the Add Number button with nothing selected to add a name and number manually in the Details drawer. It’s easy, but more work than is necessary most of the time.
Select an entry in the call log and click Add Number to add it to the phonebook. Much of the time you must enter or edit the name so it looks (and sounds, for voice announcements) the way you want.
Import from Apple’s Address Book. PhoneValet doesn’t integrate with Apple’s Address Book because Address Book is both limited to a single user at a time and isn’t available when no user is logged in. However, it’s trivial to import from Address Book, and Parliant will be tightening the connection between the two in a future release.
Import from a tab- or comma-delimited file that you’ve exported from your contact database. Parliant fixed a bug that stymied my initial imports, but it’s still a somewhat finicky process.
In using my contacts in PhoneValet, I realized that I use only about 1 percent of the more than 2,000 entries in my full Now Contact database. I imported just selected contacts into PhoneValet, but even still, it turns out I call a rather small set of people on a regular basis. The main downside of importing more contacts into PhoneValet is that the list becomes unwieldy (voice recognition accuracy may suffer as well), but the more entries you have, the more likely PhoneValet will be to announce a caller’s name correctly based on caller ID information.
Placing Calls — To make an outgoing call using the PhoneValet, you select an entry associated with a phone number (either a phonebook or call log entry) and click the Dial button. A dialog appears on the screen showing the name and number that will be dialed and instructing you to pick up a phone to dial. Parliant deserves points for this interface – it just seems very right to instruct the computer to dial and then have it wait until I’m ready, rather than it dialing instantly while I scramble to put on my headset.
If you have voice dialing enabled and an appropriate microphone, you can also just say, "Call Mom," for instance, to have it dial the number associated with your mother. PhoneValet uses Apple’s built-in speech recognition, which was quite accurate in my use. Only a few times did I find myself having to repeat myself or try again because it understood me incorrectly. Once PhoneValet recognizes the name, it dials the phone just as though you had clicked the Dial button.
Of course, you can also dial your phone (or any extension on the same line) using the telephone’s keypad. PhoneValet still sees and records the number you’ve dialed, tracking the time and duration of the call in the call log. If the person you’ve dialed is in your phonebook already, the call log displays their name as well as the number dialed.
I found the voice dialing feature exhilarating – finally, a situation where the Mac actually listens to me talk and does the right thing! But I also found it rather frustrating, for reasons that are out of Parliant’s control. I’m using one of Apple’s new iSight cameras as the microphone connected to my Power Mac G4, and there appears to be a bug in Mac OS X related to FireWire-based audio input whereby Apple’s speech recognition stops working after the Mac is brought out of sleep, at least until I toggled voice dialing off and then on again in the PhoneValet system menu. Irritating, since I was continually forgetting to toggle voice dialing in the morning after waking my Mac up until it didn’t work the first time I tried to place a call.
Even more troublesome (and it took quite some testing to pin this one down) was the fact that if Apple’s speech recognition is turned on, iChat AV audio chats always fail. It’s confusing too, since the error message in iChat AV just talks about how no packets were received in 10 seconds. However, I’ve now confirmed that I can leave voice dialing on, turn it off before initiating or accepting an audio chat, and then have the chat with no troubles. The solution to this problem will have to come from Apple; since iChat AV already knows how to pause and restart iTunes playback for audio chats; it should also toggle speech recognition off and on again.
A variety of preferences control how PhoneValet should dial your phone for local and long distance calls so it can understand what area codes count as local, if local calls require 7, 10, or 11 digits, what prefixes are necessary long distance dialing, and so on.
Receiving Calls — Whenever you receive a call, PhoneValet notices it, and if possible, reports the name and phone number of the call both visually in an easy to read pop-up dialog that appears briefly in the center of your screen, and audibly via Mac OS X’s speech synthesis. PhoneValet also starts an entry in the call log, recording the name and number if available, the start time, and the call duration. If you have multiple phone lines, which requires multiple PhoneValet boxes, PhoneValet also tracks which line the call used.
I waffle with "if possible" and "if available" in the above paragraph, because there are numerous caveats to PhoneValet’s call monitoring capabilities. You must have caller ID service from the phone company for it to work at all. Even if you have caller ID, though, PhoneValet can only pick up the information if it’s being reported, and many large organization phone systems (such as the ones used by both Apple and Cornell University) don’t necessarily relay that information. Individuals can block caller ID as well, and I found that PhoneValet failed to pick up caller ID information on many occasions as well.
In fact, I’ll tell you exactly what happened, since I think it’s instructive both from what kind of information I was able to extract from PhoneValet’s call logs, and just how caller ID service can be flaky. I asked PhoneValet to display all the calls I’ve received and saved the report to a tab-delimited text file, which I then opened and converted to a list in Microsoft Excel. Since the end of July, I’ve received 171 calls, 131 of which have come through with no caller ID information – that’s over 75 percent! Since I have all unanswered calls forwarded to my cell phone, which also does caller ID, I’ve noticed that the cell phone is much better about picking up caller ID information, often displaying it properly when PhoneValet misses it entirely. (See "Rejiggering Personal Voice Communications" in TidBITS-593 for the story of how we set up our cell phones.)
Bothered by this poor performance, I checked into it more. Kevin Ford, Parliant’s president, said that the quality and content of caller ID sent to your phone line does vary, but he was surprised at the performance I’d seen. Then I called Verizon Repair, and the repair guy who visited confirmed that the phone company equipment was working properly, but when he tested the internal wiring in my house, he found a short that he said could account for the lost caller ID information. I’m not looking forward to tracking down the short, since our house has something like 15 phone jacks, many of which are daisy-chained together in unknown configurations. The repair guy also said the short could stem from too many phones connected. We normally have about eight devices plugged in, which might well be too many. A traditional telephone handset is considered as one ring-equivalency number (REN), with five RENs as the maximum for a standard home. Modern phones may have RENs lower than one, apparently, so I might have been okay, but I’ve unplugged two phones and our outgoing-only fax machine to see if that helps.
Needless to say, I was disappointed that the caller ID feature didn’t work better on my line, since one of my big plans was to use PhoneValet to announce calls both on my Mac upstairs and on another Mac downstairs, so I’d receive advance notice of who was calling even if I wasn’t in my office. PhoneValet can run AppleScript scripts or send email whenever a call comes in, but I never bothered to figure out how to do it, given that it would be useful on only a quarter of the calls I receive. Kevin also said that Parliant plans to enable PhoneValet to announce incoming calls on multiple computers for just this purpose and for small offices with multiple analog phone lines, and they’re also looking at enabling caller-specific actions.
Annoyingly, telemarketers almost always block caller ID information, so if you’re trying to avoid them, you must pick up the phone based only on positive identification of people you want to talk with. That also points to a piece of advice for those of you who block your caller ID information – consider yourself warned that those of us who want to know who’s calling are much more likely to ignore your unidentified calls.
Problems and Annoyances — I said before that PhoneValet’s interface was a model of simplicity and elegance, at least on the surface. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll start finding unwelcome surprises and annoyances.
Whenever you edit an entry or add note text to one, you must explicitly save your work. That usually happens when you select another entry and PhoneValet prompts you to save. It’s an annoying extra step, and one I ran into often, as I added names or notes to unidentified entries. Instead, PhoneValet should save all changes automatically, and if Parliant is concerned about data loss, they should implement a multiple Undo capability.
The phonebook and call log are just columnar lists, and you can sort them by clicking the column titles (other than Note; I have no idea why you can’t sort the list by the entries that have notes). Clicking a second time reverses the sort order, which is good. Otherwise, however, the lists lack all of the standard niceties. You can’t select multiple items, as you might want to for deleting a number of unused entries from your phonebook, or bogus placed call entries from your call log (if you make a mistake dialing a phone number manually, hang up, and try again, PhoneValet records both actions). It also lacks any sort of selection shortcuts, so you can’t type the first few letters of an entry in the phonebook to scroll to that entry, which would be highly welcome. Future versions will reportedly add these enhancements.
The inability to select contacts quickly is particularly problematic if you don’t use voice dialing, since there’s no other shortcut for finding and dialing a number from your phonebook. I’d like to see Parliant add a list of contacts to the system-wide PhoneValet menu so you could choose a contact from that menu to dial the associated number. With just a little extra tracking, they could even offer a separate list, perhaps in a hierarchical menu, of the contacts you call most often.
That suggestion hints at a deeper problem. PhoneValet actually uses an SQL relational database from OpenBase, but for the moment, it seems under-utilized. For instance, why not report, in a phonebook entry, how many calls you’ve placed and received from that person, along with total and average call duration? It’s of course possible to export a report and determine that information in a spreadsheet or database, but PhoneValet is already using a powerful database. Or, consider the fact that if you add a name to a call log entry for which you have only the phone number, PhoneValet doesn’t automatically change the name for all other call log entries from the same number, even if you then save that call log entry as a phonebook item. Parliant plans to add more database-driven features in the future, and third parties can access the database directly as well.
PhoneValet, You’re Hired — If I had a job that revolved around the phone, particularly one that involved billing for call time, I’d consider PhoneValet an essential tool for conducting business. But despite the fact that I don’t really need to track calls, and despite my problems with identifying incoming calls, I’ve become quite fond of PhoneValet, particularly the voice dialing feature. Other people who will especially like PhoneValet are folks with multiple kids who receive phone calls, people overwhelmed by sleazy telemarketers calling during dinner, and small offices for whom PhoneValet’s call logging simplifies tracking and calling customers back.
PhoneValet is very much a 1.0 application, with various attendant minor bugs and missing features, but Parliant has released several small updates since I started using PhoneValet in late July, so they’re clearly committed to improving the product. That commitment also comes through in their email support, which has been among the best I’ve seen of late. Each email message I’ve sent has received an automatic response containing a trouble ticket number, and a support rep has followed up immediately with help (apparently, it’s a full-fledged WebObjects support system). Several bugs I reported were fixed quickly in minor releases of the program, and Parliant even built a special version of the program to help track down some problems I was seeing that seemed to be in Apple’s code and which they couldn’t reproduce. Parliant also pays close attention to customer requests, adding and prioritizing features based on what people want, so make sure to ask for any features that would make PhoneValet work better for you.
PhoneValet 1.0 costs $130 for one phone line, with a $90 expansion pack for each additional line you want PhoneValet to manage. Since it relies on hardware as well as software, there’s no trial version, but Parliant does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. It works only in Mac OS X (10.1.5 or higher), although Parliant makes a similar product called Tell A Phone for Windows.
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