News abounds this week, with stories ranging from Microsoft’s acquisition of AOL to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security standardizing on Macs, with Hormel’s anti-spam campaign providing a brief diversion. In the product world, Geoff Duncan reports on CountDown G5, which lets G5s run Mac OS 9 software, Jeff Carlson examines the iChat 2.2 public beta, Glenn Fleishman passes on news of a wire-free laptop charging technology, and Adam looks at a SubEthaEdit-enabled conferencing service. Lastly, Apple announces a GarageBand add-on and we release our first business ebook in the Take Control series.
<Bleep>ing GarageBand! Apple Computer today announced the availability of Bleeper, a free innovative Audio Units plug-in for use with Apple’s entry-level digital music program, GarageBand. In a technological first for a plug-in designed for a music-creation program, Bleeper integrates with Mac OS X’s built-in Speech Recognition technology to detect and “bleep” potentially profane or obscene language in speech or singing in real time. Bleeper can be applied either to existing audio tracks (to create “radio mixes” of your GarageBand songs) or to vocals being recorded in real time (so parents and teachers don’t have to worry about children creating potentially offensive material with GarageBand). You can even apply Bleeper to instrumental tracks, although the results can be a little unpredictable. Bleeper itself is highly configurable, enabling music creators to insert silence, a wide variety of substitution tones, or even vanity noises whenever Bleeper detects a potentially offensive word. In another first, Bleeper can be installed and configured for all users by entering a Mac OS X administrator login: that is, a parent or teacher can install Bleeper and require that GarageBand use it for all vocal tracks. Mac OS X users without administrator privileges can configure Bleeper in their songs, but not disable it. The English language version of Bleeper is available now as a 4.1 MB download via Software Update; Apple anticipates localized versions of Bleeper will be available in coming weeks. [GD]
“Take Control of Your Island Nation” Released — Needless to say, few of us actually have our own island nations, but with this latest installment in our Take Control series of electronic books, we’re branching out into the rough-and-tumble world of business self-help books like “First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.” Written by legendary business consultant Michael Milkem, the hidden force behind NeXT’s acquisition of Apple Computer and the AOL/Time Warner merger, “Take Control of Your Island Nation” draws comparisons between orchestrating an overthrow of a corrupt banana republic government and regaining authority in an out-of-control business. You’ll learn how to identify and cultivate powerful benefactors before you need their help, how to amass (and conceal) the necessary arsenal of business weapons, and how to time your entry into the heart of the battle. Follow-through is everything, and once you’re in control, the ebook provides invaluable advice on managing information sources, rewarding your supporters, and concentrating your power base to repel counter-insurgency. Bonus Section! These days, it’s all about image, and although combat fatigues and cigars won’t help in you in the boardroom, our tips on appearance will lend credence to your cause when the TV crews come calling. Published 01-Apr-04, “Take Control of Your Island Nation” has 53 pages and costs $5. [ACE]
Canned Spam Can Can Spam with CAN-SPAM — Hormel is expected to announce today their campaign to can spam using their canned Spam with the aid of the CAN-SPAM legislation. Starting today, Hormel will print the phone number, email addresses, and other information about unsolicited email senders on cans of Spam along the lines of the “Have you seen me?” photographs published on milk cartons. Canned Spam buyers who help to can spam by canning spammers can receive cans of Spam as a reward. [GF]
This week we have a special one-day DealBITS drawing! In conjunction with Hormel’s anti-spam campaign, we’re giving away one can of Spam, the real stuff, a $2.95 value. And to make it a real collector’s item, I’ll personally autograph the can, enabling the lucky winner to prove that I sent them Spam (no complaining to SpamCop or our ISPs, though, since if you enter the contest, this Spam will definitely be solicited!).
Apple today released a public beta of iChat AV 2.2, the company’s popular instant-messaging and audio/video conferencing application. In addition to providing a handful of bug fixes, the update incorporates support for Microsoft’s MSN text messaging network.
Previously, the MSN network was unavailable to iChat users because iChat uses the AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) network, and the two protocols are incompatible. Although AIM boasts over 100 million users, many iChat users (myself included) found themselves unable to communicate with friends and relatives whose companies use MSN at work. The solution has been to run Microsoft’s MSN Messenger for Mac (available as a free download or bundled with Microsoft Office X) in addition to iChat. Even other chat utilities such as Fire, which can straddle multiple instant messaging protocols, have not been able to offer a way to communicate directly between AIM and MSN.
The iChat AV 2.2 Public Beta bridges the gap by automatically translating the protocols using an intermediary array of G5 Xserves housed at Apple’s data centers. Apple claims that the translation process doesn’t affect performance of text messaging or file transfers (which, like previous versions of iChat, are set up as direct connections between the two computers participating in the transfer).
The Price of Compatibility — However, due to the volume of instant messaging traffic, this new service isn’t completely free. In a deal worked out between Apple and Microsoft, chat sessions between iChat and MSN clients will include “short, targeted, and relevant” promotional messages within text chats; the text appears in the same gray, sans-serif text used to display timestamps and other system messages (such as “Direct Instant Message session started”).
The two companies promise that the messages won’t be obtrusive, and that users will find them useful – for example, providing offers for $5 off the price of Microsoft Office when the message is clicked. If the sponsored message system is successful, according to insiders at each company, they might consider selling subscriptions that would display specific information in the gray promotional text, such as virus alerts, stock quotes, and news headlines. (I should point out that similar functionality can be had using third-party iChat utilities such as iChat Status or Status Symbol, which use iChat’s status message to display this type of information.)
There’s good news for .Mac subscribers, however. Because the protocol translation service is offered by Apple, people who have paid for the full .Mac service (which costs $100 per year) can opt to not see the sponsored messages. iChat checks that the .Mac member name matches the one listed in the .Mac preference pane in Mac OS X’s System Preferences (and that it’s an active .Mac account) and automatically disables the messages; you can go into iChat’s preferences to turn the feature back on, if you choose.
iChat AV 2.2 Public Beta requires Mac OS X 10.3.3 or later and is available as a 6.3 MB download from Apple’s Web site. The beta is set to expire 01-Apr-05.
Cast your mind back to September of 1999, when we reported on a highly publicized move by the U.S. Army to transition its primary Web server from Windows NT to Power Macintosh G3s running WebSTAR (then from StarNine Technologies, now owned by 4D). The reason was simple: the Army’s home page had been hacked and modified in embarrassing ways, and even though the FBI arrested a teenager in connection with the incident, the Army addressed the problem in part by switching away from the insecure Windows NT.
Although 1999 seems an eternity ago, some things never change, and today the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would be standardizing all of its computing functions on Macs running Mac OS X. As with the Army’s decision back in 1999, the reason is security. Even though Microsoft continues to block holes in Windows, we’ve seen an ever-increasing number of worm and virus epidemics that have turned millions of Windows-based PCs into zombie spam generators and resulted in many billions of dollars of damage and cleanup costs.
Therein lies the difference since 1999. Although DHS remains concerned about the security of its internal and external Web sites, the real worry today is that the entire department could be crippled by a virulent Windows worm or virus. The Army was merely embarrassed by their Web site being modified, but a worm-based attack on DHS computers could seriously compromise the agency’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack. DHS has been particularly concerned about such attacks, issuing an alert in March about a Windows program called Phatbot that brings peer-to-peer networking concepts to malicious software.
Needless to say, the announcement is good news for Apple Computer, since it will entail the purchase of hundreds of thousands of Macintosh systems. Apple stock rose $4.01 on the announcement as Wall Street took account of the future earnings.
It’s important to remain realistic about the effects of DHS switching to Mac OS X. In the past, Macs have been largely free of worms and viruses at least in part because Macs weren’t generally used in “interesting” places (interesting, that is, to the sort of people who write malicious software). Targets don’t get much more prominent than DHS, and I fully expect to see more hacking effort aimed against Macs in the near future. Apple is not unaware of this possibility either, and has already started advertising for additional security engineers, as evidenced by the job posting below (Apple ID required for login).
On the balance, though, I think this is a positive move. Particularly with Microsoft’s efforts to monopolize the ISP market (see Glenn Fleishman’s article later in this issue), announcements like this are necessary for Apple to keep from being entirely marginalized. Increased use in government, particularly in situations with sensitive data, will also likely advance the Mac’s case in the business world, where the need for security is the one of the few things that can divert an IT manager from choosing the combination that Windows-based PCs have always provided so well: low upfront costs and guaranteed support jobs.
The French start-up software company Freedom Technologies today announced the immediate availability of CountDown G5, a controversial firmware update which enables users to start up Apple’s Power Mac G5 systems using either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X.
As shipped by Apple, Power Mac G5 systems can start up using only Mac OS X (although they can run older software in the Classic environment). But now, Mac OS 9 users can enjoy the performance and raw power of the Power Mac G5 system if they do not want to use Mac OS X, or are still among those users for whom Mac OS X versions of needed software are not yet available. CountDown G5’s methods are not subtle, and using CountDown G5 to create a Mac OS 9-bootable system could leave you with an unsupported hybrid machine, jeopardize your warranty, or create unexpected problems with future operating system updates. However, if you simply must have G5 power within Mac OS 9 – and if the Mac OS X Classic environment doesn’t cut the mustard – then CountDown G5 is your only option.
How CountDown G5 Works — CountDown G5 updates the Power Mac G5 firmware to allow the machine to start up using Mac OS 9 as well as Mac OS X – following the update, the Power Mac G5 will recognize bootable Mac OS 9.2.2 volumes as viable startup volumes, as well as volumes with Mac OS X 10.2.7 or newer installed. CountDown G5’s method of updating the Power Mac G5’s firmware is exactly the same as that which Apple would use if a flaw or incompatibility necessitated a change (such as the firmware updates issued for early iMacs, without which installing Mac OS X 10.2 or higher can render a machine inoperable).
Despite all the new subsystems and processor technologies in the Power Mac G5s, Freedom Technologies learned that the systems’ firmware packages aren’t terribly different from firmware shipped in Mac OS 9-compatible machines. Using careful black-box reverse engineering, they were able to determine which portions of the Power Mac G5 firmware needed to be changed to provide Mac OS 9 compatibility, and exactly what those changes should be. Although Apple did not perform extensive compatibility testing of the Power Mac G5 hardware from Mac OS 9 – since they anticipated all access would be moderated by Mac OS X – Freedom Technologies engineers reported discovering no significant problems accessing all the Power Mac’s features from Mac OS 9, in part because many of the new technologies (including FireWire 800 and USB 2.0) are based on open standards for which complete technical specifications are available. According to CountDown G5’s lead developer, in the handful of instances where incompatibilities were found, working around them was only a small portion of the engineering effort.
When started up from Mac OS 9, however, Power Mac G5 systems do not take advantage of the G5 processor’s native 64-bit mode: Apple would need to rewrite Mac OS 9 for 64-bit compatibility, and it goes without saying that Apple is expending virtually no development resources on Mac OS 9 these days. Similarly, Freedom Technologies cannot guarantee any particular driver or peripheral will work with G5 systems booting Mac OS 9, since they have no control over how third party vendors developed their software drivers. CountDown’s release notes cover cases of known incompatibilities (currently a handful of USB printers and digital cameras).
T Minus 10 — CountDown G5 installs from its own CD-ROM: users insert the disk, restart while pressing C, and respond to the prompts once the system starts up. The installer is emphatic about confirming that the user understands the nature of the CountDown G5 product and is certain they wish to install it: you cannot mindlessly click through the CountDown G5 installer or walk through quickly by pressing Return. Default buttons and the nature of dialogs change, and users must successfully answer a quiz (as well as input a serial number) to install the product.
The reason for these extreme precautions is simple: once you install CountDown G5, there’s no going back. Freedom Technologies cannot legally provide Apple’s default firmware as an uninstall option, and Apple itself provides no way to re-install the firmware which ships on Power Mac G5 systems. Installing CountDown G5 is a one-way ticket, and users would be well-advised to do it only when plugged into a UPS: if the power were to fail during the two-minute installation process, there may be no way to recover the Power Mac G5 without replacing the motherboard.
Users should also note that installing CountDown G5 in all likelihood voids Apple’s warranty, although Apple has not yet made a formal statement on the subject. Similarly, warranties of third-party hardware products may not apply to CountDown G5-enabled systems. In particular, Macintosh peripherals developed with only Mac OS X in mind are extremely unlikely to work under Mac OS 9, even on G5 systems running CountDown G5, since no Mac OS 9 drivers will be available for those devices. Examples include third-party mice and input devices, scanners, and printers, although some devices (such as external hard drives) which are Mac OS 9-compatible should work without a hitch.
Lift Off! CountDown G5 1.0 is presently available only for Apple’s Power Mac G5 systems and will refuse to install on any other Apple hardware. Freedom Technologies says they’re looking into producing versions of CountDown for modern iMacs as well as Apple’s high-end laptops, but their focus is on Apple’s professional Power Mac G5 users. Freedom Technologies will have to update CountDown for any new Power Mac G5 systems Apple releases, as well as for any firmware revisions Apple slips into its production cycle. Freedom Technologies offers a tiny application (a 240K download) which reveals whether CountDown is compatible with the firmware in a particular Power Mac G5 system.
CountDown G5 1.0 is available immediately to citizens of E.U. member states for 50 euros; U.S. citizens must pay an additional technology export duty which will bring the total cost to between $95 and $110, depending on currency values and the status of technology trade agreements. CountDown G5 is available only on serialized CD-ROM; there is no downloadable version.
Almost 10 years ago, I wrote an article for TidBITS called “The Experiment Is Over” about the end of the governmentally funded, usage-restricted Internet backbone. The Internet’s experimental age, during which the government and research institutions built, connected, and paid for the Internet, was replaced by the commercial age, in which large-scale businesses charged for infrastructure and feeds.
Today, we’re seeing the end of the second experiment: multiple companies offering Internet service to individuals. Early this morning, an announcement reported that Microsoft was successful in a purchase deal to buy AOL’s entire operations, confirming a rumor that the companies were in talks about an acquisition. Separately, the company also managed to buy the now-profitable EarthLink, which Microsoft had courted several years back, as well as several other major ISPs. Microsoft already owns a portion of the cable ISP Road Runner, and provides Internet service to about nine million subscribers via MSN.
In the short term, it seems likely that the cost of Internet access will drop, as Microsoft applies economies of scale after merging the operations of these large ISPs. That, however, will bring into question the survival of the remaining small, regional ISPs that make up the remainder of the market after Microsoft’s 69 percent share, which is of course backed by Microsoft’s marketing muscle and infinitely deep pockets. MSN, for instance, reported its first profitable quarter in the third quarter of 2003 after eight years of red ink.
The U.S. Justice Department, drained of staff and funding by previous unsuccessful battles with Microsoft, has already pledged to not fight the effort. A spokesperson said, “With so many independent ISPs competing Microsoft throughout the United States, we see no antitrust concerns with Microsoft’s recent acquisitions.” The European Union, which recently found Microsoft guilty of antitrust violations, is said to be watching Microsoft’s actions in the U.S. ISP space carefully. Finally, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a statement saying that “it’s in the best interests of consumers to have a single entity that can better fight spam centrally.”
In the longer term, we expect costs to rise, probably not directly, but through service bundles, much the way cable companies package channels in such a way that you end up paying for far more channels than you’d ever watch. More concerning, though, is the increased vulnerability of an Internet that’s in effect run by Microsoft. Biological monocultures are prone to population crashes due to pests, disease, or environmental change, and the same is proving equally true in the computer world. With reduced variability in operating systems and operating practices among large ISPs, much larger portions of the Internet could be affected by malicious code aimed at Microsoft-specific software or systems.
If you’ve ever been a part of a decentralized working group, you’re undoubtedly aware of the utility of shared conference calls; I’ve spent many an hour on conference calls for a variety of projects. But one of the major problems with conference calls is that someone always has to take notes, which is tricky to do while participating in the discussion. The notes are also only as good as the notetaker was attentive, and in my experience, there’s a wide range of notetaking skills (and desire) among my peers.
I’m looking forward to trying a new service that promises to solve this problem entirely, though. Called SEETS, for SubEthaEdit Transcription Service, the idea is simple. You use a particular telephone conferencing service and as part of the cost, a trained notetaker listens in on your call and takes notes on the discussion. But, as you probably guessed from the name, the cool part is that the notetaker takes the notes in a shared SubEthaEdit document that anyone on the call can join. (For those that haven’t seen it, SubEthaEdit, formerly known as Hydra, is a free, real-time, collaborative text editor from a group of German computer science students calling themselves TheCodingMonkeys.)
I’ve found that watching someone take notes on a discussion in SubEthaEdit helps focus the discussion, since there’s a visible record of what’s been said (preventing unnecessary backtracking and allowing latecomers to catch up quickly) and what’s coming up (if an agenda has been set in advance). And even if one person is taking most of the notes, it’s easy to make small changes to account for important points that person might have missed or may not realized were significant.
SEETS notetakers are trained not just to transcribe a discussion, but to reflect the structure of the call, appropriately labeling each point with the name of the person who made it. And although most people probably won’t want to add to the notes all that much, an occasional addition or terminology correction will help the notetaker improve the accuracy of the notes.
Although it would seem that the SEETS notetaking service would add significantly to the cost of the conference call, it’s in line with the national average at 25 cents per minute per person (though admittedly higher than the cut-rate conferencing services, which are down around 8 cents per minute). Two factors make this price possible: the reliance on inexpensive Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology for the actual call, and the use of highly skilled but relatively low-paid workers in India for the actual notetaking service. And of course, even if 25 cents per minute sounds expensive, if SEETS lets everyone on a business call stay focused and not spend time afterwards fleshing out the notes, it’s easily worth the cost.
In fact, that’s a final benefit of SEETS – everyone can save their own copy of the notes at the end of the call. No more waiting for someone else to finish them up and send them out in email to find out what your action items are.
I won’t pretend that SEETS is ideal for every conference call. For one, SEETS supports only English at the moment, though the company may offer additional languages in the future. There are also undoubtedly topics that are simply too sensitive to allow an outsider to listen in. But for those routine conference calls that consume an hour of your life, using SEETS can at least let you focus on the topic at hand and not worry that the discussions will be forgotten as soon as everyone hangs up.
Building on the success of short-range induction charging, such as is used in the MobileWise wire-free electric power technology, Posicharge, Inc. has introduced the latest advance to wireless networking technology: the Tes-La passive energy charging system. When a Wi-Fi hotspot adds Tes-La coils to their wireless gateways, your laptop pulls voltage from the air using a system similar to that which allows drivers to debit charge accounts as they zip through special toll gates.
A laptop requires a special antenna-like adaptor that replaces the power adapter that comes with the machine. Although power can be transmitted over thousands of feet, its strength dissipates as you move away from the Tes-La coils. It’s highly recommended that you wear a grounding strap or constantly touch metal while using the Tes-La system to avoid static discharge (Posicharge offers a pair of grounding straps designed to look like fashionable wrist apparel instead of cheap Velcro straps).
What’s fascinating about Tes-La is that it’s not a dumb system: it uses a power delivery protocol called TCP/EP, or TCP over Electrical Power. TCP/EP can be metered by measuring the outgoing amperage contained in each packet. A laptop negotiates its power needs through the protocol. For example, when you first connect the battery is quick-charged to about 70 percent of capacity; then the amperage is throttled back to a slow trickle to top off the remaining capacity. Another advantage to this approach is area-wide power consumption: the system doles out power based on the number of users in the vicinity, averaging the outgoing power among multiple users.
However, the Tes-La system is not without its flaws. Sending power through the air has been a dream of the modern age since the 1920s, but the dangers associated with it can’t be understated. One of Posicharge’s competitors, Noside Connections, alleges that if one were to place a dog in the direct path of a Tes-La transmitter, the animal would be fried in a manner of minutes (Noside assured us that the example is theoretical, and that no animals have been tested in this manner).
Posicharge, in response, notes that the Tes-La system is designed to step down its power when it senses interruptions, and that dogs are rarely found in the cafes and other public establishments in which Wi-Fi is traditionally offered.
Tes-La should be available in the United States once the FCC, FDA, FAA, USDA, NSA, DHS, and other governmental agencies provide their approval.