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Just when you thought Eudora might never be updated, we have surprising news: the venerable email client is becoming an open-source project built on Mozilla’s Thunderbird. Read on for details, staff commentary, and a MacNotables podcast with Adam Engst and Macworld’s Jason Snell. Also in this issue, Apple releases a red iPod nano whose sales will contribute to global AIDS relief, Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion, and 3D-XplorMath makes scientific fine art. Plus, Glenn Fleishman notes the first set of ExpressCards coming to the Mac, and Charles Maurer returns with a review of Photomatix.

Mark H. Anbinder No comments

New iPod nano Sees (RED)

Apple will donate part of the proceeds from sales of a new, red-hued iPod nano model to the global fight against AIDS. The $200 iPod nano (PRODUCT) RED offers 4 GB of storage, just like the other colored iPod nanos the company announced last month (see “Apple Updates iPods, Introduces Movies, Previews iTV,” 18-Sep-06). Apple will donate $10 from each sale to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in Africa.

The iPod nano (PRODUCT) RED Special Edition joins red Motorola cell phones, red Armani wristwatches, and red American Express charge cards among special products aimed at raising AIDS awareness along with funds that will help buy and distribute anti-retroviral medicine. The (RED) movement was created by U2 singer Bono and political activist Bobby Shriver to engage businesses in the fight against AIDS.

The (RED) manifesto states, “We believe that when consumers are offered this choice, and the products meet their needs, they will choose (RED).” Apple says they’ll also offer a special edition (RED) $25 iTunes gift card beginning next month. The new iPod nano model is available worldwide immediately.

Staff Roundtable — Is this activism or is it marketing? The TidBITS staff weighs in on the iPod nano (PRODUCT) RED Special Edition:

[Adam Engst] Perhaps I’ve never noticed anything quite like this before, but I’m quite intrigued by the implications of what appears to be a tightly integrated marketing campaign that simultaneously enables companies to sell multi-branded products and raises money for a worthy cause. There have been plenty of time-limited fund raisers in which companies donate some of their profits to a particular cause (even we did that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, donating 10% of the proceeds from Take Control ebook sales in September 2005 to the relief effort), but this is different. By combining the brand power of a product like the iPod with a new brand – (RED) – both Apple and the (RED) project boost each other, Apple gaining the prestige of helping to fight a global crisis and (RED) becoming associated with an ultimately (at least for the moment) hip product. Call it capitalactivism or activicapitalism, but it would seem to be a new breed of convergence.

All that said, the capitalization and punctuation of (RED) is driving me crazy.

[Mark H. Anbinder] In this post-silicone-wristband world, activism and awareness are all about brand recognition. I love the idea that consumers who want to support a cause have the opportunity to purchase recognizable products from iconic brands, demonstrating their own support while at the same time directing corporate philanthropy. The consumer wins, companies like Apple and Motorola win, and important charities win.

[Jeff Carlson] Of course, you need major brands and major influence (in this case, Apple and Bono) to accomplish this type of deal at such a large level. What next? Just think of the publicity value if Microsoft were to donate $10 toward AIDS relief (or some other charity) for each copy of Office sold. The company can certainly afford it, and can always use the positive publicity. But will this approach scale down? Would (RED) be interested in working a conglomeration of Macintosh shareware companies? As can happen with big charity endeavors like this, the (RED) program will hopefully also serve as an example and encourage others to support other causes in similar ways.

David Elliott No comments

Mathematical Art from a Mac

The cover of the journal Science for 22-Sep-06 features a beautiful artwork titled “Still Life: Five Glass Surfaces on a Tabletop” by graphic artist Luc Benard and mathematician Richard Palais, but the image is neither a photograph nor a Photoshop illustration. Instead, the five objects pictured are famous mathematical surfaces produced by the free Macintosh program 3D-XplorMath. The objects were then exported into Bryce, a 3D-rendering program, where Luc Benard gave them a glassy texture and placed them on a virtual glass-covered wooden tabletop.

The image is the first-place winner in the illustration category of the 2006 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, jointly sponsored by Science and the National Science Foundation.

Richard Palais, a well-known professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, has worked on the mathematical visualization program 3D-XplorMath (previously known as 3D-Filmstrip) since 1997. Users can view a gallery of interesting mathematical objects in it, plus modify various parameters and viewing options for further experimentation. 3D-XplorMath runs in Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X as a Carbon application and is a free 12.3 MB download.

Glenn Fleishman No comments

ExpressCards Issue Forth

We’ve been predicting a gusher of ExpressCards, the new slot-loading expansion cards for the MacBook Pro and high-end PC laptops, any time now. Any time now appears to be today. This week, three ExpressCard offerings bring SATA2 storage, gigabit Ethernet, and a new kind of dock to laptops.

Most significant is WiebeTech’s TeraCard Express34, which offers 2.5 gigabit per second (Gbps) support for SATA storage, including both SATA1 and SATA2. SATA2 is one of the best methods for directly connected high-speed disk access, typically involving real-time video editing or recording, or extremely large data sets used for heavy computational tasks in life sciences. The two independent eSATA (external SATA) ports are nominally rated at 3.0 Gbps, but the ExpressCard single-lane bus runs at 2.5 Gbps. The card comes with Windows and Mac OS X drivers, and retails for $120.

The MacBook Pro has gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet) onboard, just like all current Macintosh models. However, those who need the highest of high-speed networks might prefer having two separate gigabit Ethernet ports, as are found on the Mac Pro and Xserve, either to use the laptop as a connector between two networks or to pump out the maximum amount of data. Small Tree Communications has introduced the PEG34m, an $80 ExpressCard for the MacBook Pro; Windows drivers are also available. The Ethernet connector folds out, enabling the card to lie flat when not in use; like CardBus cards, ExpressCards are thin enough that any port would stick out as a large bulge.

Call the $200 Belkin Notebook Expansion Dock a vision of things to come for MacBook Pro users. You’re probably familiar with the concept of a laptop dock, such as the BookEndz docks, or the Duo Docks that Apple offered for my late, lamented PowerBook Duo, long ago. Laptop docks provide a whole host of jacks that marry with a laptop’s DVI or VGA port, USB and FireWire ports, audio ports, and even the power jack so you don’t have to connect and disconnect every piece of office equipment whenever you come in or leave with your laptop. But instead of attempting to mate numerous jacks with their dock equivalents, Belkin’s new dock simplifies that marriage by routing everything through the ExpressCard slot – but it works only with Windows laptops for now.

The Belkin dock uses the ExpressCard slot to carry data back and forth to five USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port, VGA and DVI video connectors, and a 5.1 surround-sound audio input and output (analog and optical digital). Its monitor port should allow the use of two monitors in addition to the MacBook Pro’s built-in LCD display – the MacBook Pro natively supports an external monitor already, and the dock would thus allow a second external monitor.

A Belkin representative said that the company was working on Mac support, but wouldn’t commit to a release timetable. If you think you might want this particular product available for your MacBook Pro, letting Belkin know might help raise its priority.

Adam Engst No comments

Google Buys YouTube for $1.65 Billion

Search engine giant Google announced last week that it is buying the popular video sharing site YouTube for $1.65 billion in Google stock. Although Google has its own video sharing service, Google Video, traffic statistics from Hitwise show YouTube with two and a half times more hits than Google Video back in August 2006, and more than four times the visits in September 2006. YouTube will keep its name and will continue to operate independently from Google, and Google claims that YouTube will complement Google Video rather than replace it.

Does the acquisition make sense? From Google’s perspective, it gives Google the lion’s share of the fast-growing video sharing world, and another vast source of pages on which to display contextual advertising. Google has said it won’t run ads before videos, but I have to assume that people at Google are thinking hard about new ways to turn user-contributed video into a serious revenue stream.

It’s even easier to see why YouTube would want this deal. The company has been losing money and hasn’t come up with any reasonable way to reverse that trend. Bandwidth and server costs and maintenance must be insane for YouTube, but those are problems that Google has already solved. Plus, YouTube was facing threats of lawsuits from the major movie studios, and Google announced deals to display music videos from Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. Those deals indicate Google may have the negotiating clout to make licensing happen more broadly, and Google certainly has the money and legal firepower to fight any lawsuits that do ensue.

These music videos will be made available for online viewing for free (select music videos from Warner Music Group will also be available for purchase as downloads for $2), and the studios will gain revenue via Google’s normal ad model. That may hurt Apple’s ability to sell $2 music videos via the iTunes Store (see “iTunes 6 Gets Video,” 17-Oct-05), although it remains to be seen if the audio and video quality of free music videos on Google Video/YouTube will be comparable to downloads from the iTunes Store.

Google’s press releases also note that the company is working with content companies to allow people access to music and video for use in their “creative user-generated productions,” which presumably is meant to cover user-created videos, but makes me wonder about sample and mixing of music as well. But the most interesting statement in the Warner Music Group press release is: “Once Google’s technology is implemented, content companies such as Warner Music Group will have the opportunity to monetize the use of music in user-generated content, or if they choose, have the content removed from the platform.”

There’s clearly a dance going on here, but it’s unclear who’s leading or where it’s headed, and it bears future scrutiny. Google may or may not always live up to its motto, “Don’t be evil,” but companies like Sony BMG Entertainment and Warner Music Group have definitely thrown their lot in with the devil in the past, as with the scandal surrounding Sony BMG’s surreptitious distribution of spyware on audio CDs as a copy prevention mechanism.

Mark H. Anbinder No comments

Eudora Goes Open Source with Thunderbird

Qualcomm announced last week that future versions of the venerable email program Eudora, which the company has sold for many years, will become an open-source collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation. Steve Dorner, vice president of technology for Qualcomm’s Eudora group and the software’s original developer, says he’ll lead a group that will “build an open-source mailer with Eudora features on top of Thunderbird.”

First created in 1988, Eudora was a popular Macintosh email client in the early days of the Internet, and it still enjoys broad use, especially at academic institutions and among Mac veterans who refuse to give up its power-user capabilities in favor of newer software. In 1992, Qualcomm (otherwise known for developing wireless phone technologies) acquired the software from the University of Illinois and hired Steve Dorner, and has continued to develop Mac OS and Windows versions.

“I was getting really tired of maintaining Eudora’s elderly code base, as well as working on extremely boring things like HTML rendering,” Dorner told TidBITS. He looks forward to “using Thunderbird as a base,” allowing him to focus on “the things that make up the core productivity parts of the Eudora experience.” The company picked the cross-platform Thunderbird product because, he says, “it has strengths where Eudora has weaknesses, and will complement us quite nicely. Mozilla is also happy to have us developing for their platform, and has made it very clear to us that they welcome our effort.” He hopes “that improvements [will] flow freely between the two mailers.”

Qualcomm plans to release the first freeware, open-source version of Eudora in the first half of 2007. In the meantime, the company has released the final commercial versions (6.2.4 for Mac OS X and 7.1 for Windows), which will continue to be available, now for $20, with support provided for six months. Existing support contracts and site licenses will be honored until the end of the current terms, and paid and sponsored-mode versions of the current software will continue to work “in perpetuity.”

Steve Dorner admits he doesn’t know which parts of Eudora are most useful to its proponents, and asks users to speak up and offer input “on what our priorities should be.” Users who wish to weigh in, or developers who’d like to pitch in for the open-source effort, should visit the Eudora developer page.

The just-released Eudora 6.2.4 is a minor upgrade, offering mostly a new importer for the Tiger version of Apple Mail (as much as it seems somewhat unlikely that many people would be switching from Mail to Eudora until progress is seen on the open source version of Eudora), updated SpamWatch definitions to help Eudora keep up with spammer tricks (available only in Paid mode), and a variety of minor tweaks and bug fixes. Since it costs $20 to keep using Eudora in Paid mode, the decision of whether or not to upgrade is mostly a matter of whether you’ve been having trouble with now-fixed bugs. It’s a 12.3 MB download.

Staff Roundtable — Although not everyone on the staff currently uses Eudora, many of us still do, and our long experience with the program generated some opinions.

[Adam Engst]: I’ve already had numerous people asking me what I think of Qualcomm’s announcement, often with what seem to be ominous undertones or the assumption that this announcement means the end of Eudora as we know it. But in fact, I’m happy to hear that Qualcomm will be working with the Mozilla Foundation to build the next version of Eudora on top of Thunderbird. It’s a relief to have a strong public statement of direction after watching Eudora exist in a kind of corporate limbo for several years, never receiving the resources that were necessary to give it a modern code base. Although I don’t have any particular experience with Thunderbird, open source projects generally work well under the hood, so a combination of open source underpinnings and Eudora’s power-user feature set could be great. Plus, although Eudora has been available for free in various forms over the years, having the full program become freeware will enable it to compete better with bundled applications like Mail.

That said, I do have some reservations. First, will Eudora attract developers who will make substantive contributions? I’d guess that Eudora has a disproportionate number of developers in its user base, and universities that desperately want to avoid Microsoft Outlook (and they do) may well be interested in contributing development resources. Second, will the Eudora team be able to create something compelling in a reasonable time frame? I’m sure it will be plenty of work just to get a basic set of Eudora’s current features working, but email is crying for a complete rethinking.

What I’d really hope to see is a plug-in capability in the new Eudora that enables developers to create innovative plug-ins, much as has happened with the open source Firefox Web browser. Firefox itself isn’t particularly unusual, but the numerous plug-ins extend its functionality in a wide variety of ways. Plug-ins for the new Eudora would seem likely, since Thunderbird already offers this capability.

I encourage anyone interested in the future of Eudora, whether or not you’re a developer, to participate in the open source project. Goodness knows that open source software could use more user interface designers, documentation specialists, and normal users to provide real-world feedback.

Also, Jason Snell of Macworld and I discussed the Eudora announcement with Chuck Joiner on a special edition of our MacNotables podcast. It’s a hoot, so give it a listen!

[Glenn Fleishman]: I have to ask, as a loyal user of Bare Bones Software’s Mailsmith, what Eudora becoming free and open-source does to the cosmos of email clients for Mac OS X. It’s pretty clear there’s a very small market to sell email clients to Mac OS X users based on Qualcomm exiting the paid market – and you could use Eudora in one of two free modes, anyway – and the paucity of unbundled commercial email clients.

Apple’s Mail is part of Mac OS X. Eudora has a free and paid mode. Entourage is part of Microsoft Office. AOL’s mail is part of the AOL client. Thunderbird is free. PowerMail and GyazMail are commercial, and although I have no idea of their user bases, neither shows up in my email with any frequency. And Mailsmith is commercial software.

Of course, most Eudora users I know used the free Sponsored mode, which means that switching to free, open-source (no sponsor) as their only method of release isn’t as profound a shift as switching from a commercial client. This may not, therefore, affect Bare Bones or any bundled/free mail clients’ market share or mind share.

What will be interesting is whether the open-source community and existing projects merge into a Eudora/Thunderbird code base, or even fork from Thunderbird into something completely new. I have long said that open-source can’t make decent graphical user interfaces, and that’s still been generally true, with projects under the Mozilla Foundation (which is heavily funded by corporations and donations) being the biggest exceptions.

[Mark H. Anbinder] No doubt because of its origins in higher education, Eudora enjoys a bigger market share in academia than anywhere else. That share has been dropping, though, as Eudora’s ability to keep up with modern mail habits has fallen behind. At Cornell University, for example, Eudora users (especially on the Windows platform) have complained about inadequate IMAP support, and Steve Dorner would be the first to admit that the software’s capability to display HTML-encrufted email is stuck in the 1990s.

Even though many users, looking for a more modern user experience or better IMAP handling, have migrated to Thunderbird or Mail over the last couple of years, Eudora’s power-user contingent is holding on as long as it can, unwilling to give up years of perfectly tuned filters, fast and powerful searching, and comprehensive support for multiple “personalities.”

Filters and personalities are certainly the key reasons I still use Eudora; it lets me handle mail to and from a dozen separate addresses in a way that no other clients I’ve tried can offer, including both Mail and Thunderbird. Combine that with over a decade of mail stored in Eudora, and you can imagine I’m looking forward to a new Eudora that will let me migrate effectively, gaining modern email features without losing the core capabilities I’m accustomed to.

Charles Maurer No comments

Photomatix: A Virtual Magic Wand

Imagine you are staring at a magnificent mountain scene – blue sky, dramatic clouds, glaciered peaks, rocks of varied hue. You take a picture but when it’s processed you are disappointed. The sky and glaciers show up clearly but everything else is dark or black.

Every photographer has experienced this kind of disappointment. It happens because the range of brightness of objects outdoors is usually higher than a camera can capture or a sheet of paper can reproduce – typically a thousandfold higher or more – so the photographic process must squeeze and truncate the tones to make them fit. Digital processing can dodge some of this problem (see “Reality and Digital Pictures,” 12-Dec-05) and now an application can tackle it directly: MultimediaPhoto’s Photomatix. As you can see from the before-and-after photo of just such a scene, it works like magic.

Dynamic Range — The range of brightness of a scene or an image is called its dynamic range. A sunny scene will likely have a dynamic range of at least 100,000:1 and its range can exceed 1,000,000:1. In contrast, image sensors can record on the order of 1,000:1 (DSLRs) or 100:1 (other cameras), and paper can display a range of only about 100:1. The range of computer monitors is roughly comparable to that of paper.

Note that these are two different problems: (1) the dynamic range of a scene can be greater than a camera can capture and (2) the dynamic range of a digital image can be greater than paper or screens can reproduce. Both of these are problems of high dynamic range (“HDR” in jargon) but the meaning of “high” depends upon the context. There are no established conventions for the use of the term and there is no standard HDR format.

In principle, the first of these problems has a simple solution. If one exposure records too narrow a range of tones, first take enough exposures to record the entire range then tell a computer to combine the overlapping exposures. To combine them you can take some form of average, or you can take light tones from one file and dark tones from another, or you can create an image with sufficient bits to describe every tone in both. In practice these solutions may need some fiddling because the tones in an image are neither perceived nor recorded in neat steps, but in principle they are straightforward.

The second problem is incomparably more difficult. Consider what it might mean to compress tones tenfold. It happens that photographs in newspapers display a range of reflectance from highlight to shadow of about 10:1. Let’s say that you photograph a man reading a paper. If all of the photo’s tones are compressed tenfold, then you are likely to see a man reading a sheet of grey.

Tonal Compression — High tonal compression is quite a trick, yet Photomatix does it. Photomatix performs its magic like a magician, by directing the viewer’s attention. The eye cares little about subtle gradations and minuscule detail; the eye looks for clear contrasts between adjacent tones. “Local contrast” is the jargon. Most of the information we take from a scene comes from local contrast. Photomatix makes sure that we notice this local contrast and slips through the compression on the side. Where it finds clear contrasting tones, first it enhances them and then it compresses the rest.

To see how this works, look at this picture of buffalo herders. The dark image shows the raw file. It is exposed to retain detail in the highlights. To make the picture in the middle I lightened the shadows using Photoshop’s shadow/highlight control. For the picture on the right I used Photomatix. Both versions I finished to make as naturalistic as I could. (Note: the herder’s beard looks unnatural because he dyed it with henna.)

Although this function is intended for squeezing HDR pictures onto paper – well, any magician who can saw a woman in half can also pull a rabbit from a hat. Local contrast carries most of the information in every picture, not merely in pictures with a high dynamic range but also in pictures with a low dynamic range. Enhancing local contrast within a dull photo can increase its apparent dynamic range.

For an example of this, look at these three pictures. All of these carry the same range of tones. The top one shows the raw file. It contains the highlights and shadows needed to show three-dimensionality, but the lighting is so flat that the highlights and shadows are difficult for the eye to see readily or for ordinary manipulations to bring out. In the middle picture Photomatix has enhanced those contrasts to turn a dull photo into a decent one. The new contrasts I was able to enhance further by conventional means to make the finished picture at the bottom.

Combining Exposures — Photomatix’s developer sells a plug-in ($70) that does only tonal compression and a stand-alone package ($100) that also provides several ways of combining different exposures into a single image. Currently the plug-in works only with Photoshop CS2 although it will probably also work with Photoshop Elements 5. (It also works with Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements 4 for Windows.)

I usually use the plug-in, because I work with Photoshop CS2 and rarely combine exposures. I have combined some photos to stunning effect but the Foveon sensor in my DSLR has a sufficiently broad dynamic range that I seldom want to do this and when I do, usually I cannot because the camera is not on a tripod or the subject is not dead still.

Images from cameras with a smaller sensor would benefit from this treatment more often, as might scans of film, but I would not expect it to be an artistic panacea, not even when the camera is on a tripod and the subject is stationary. That’s because if a scene shows extremes of contrast, it will likely look unnatural if the photo replaces the extremes with moderation.

You can see an example in these photos of a rain forest. On the left, a single exposure captures the extreme contrast of the forest but loses the range of colour in the shade. It shows the forest but not the trees. On the right, a combination of two exposures shows the trees but not the forest.

Since I seldom combine images, I cannot compare Photomatix’s combining functions with the equivalent features of Photoshop or other products. I can say, however, that Photomatix’s tone-mapping strikes me as more sophisticated than the equivalent functions in Photoshop or in any other plug-in I know of. Sometimes the tone-mapping from Photomatix seems too dramatic, but I have found Photomatix to be so helpful so often that I have learned to try it on almost every picture I take, to see what it will do.

The First Step — An image re-mapped with Photomatix is a starting point, not a finished product. After re-mapping an image – which must be done before anything else – I still need to adjust it in all the usual ways, just as I need to after adjusting it with Photoshop’s shadow/highlight control (see “Editing Photographs for the Perfectionist,” 27-Sep-04). Also, enhancing detail in shadows and highlights enhances noise as well, so the image ends up needing an unusually thorough cleaning. A specialized noise-reduction package like Noise Ninja I find to be essential.

Although Photomatix is an excellent product, it is still a young one. The developer is still tinkering with the algorithms and the user interface. On my computer the plug-in and application have both been stable, but occasionally they have not behaved quite as expected and the processed image does not always look quite like the preview. However, the developer is a single person who handles sales and support as well as programming, so she does not sweep problems under a corporate rug; she deals with them. The latest releases (1.1 for the plug-in and 2.3 for the application) appear to be significantly cleaner than the last ones. Demo versions are free for the downloading.

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TidBITS Staff No comments

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