With this issue, TidBITS celebrates its ninth anniversary, making it one of the oldest regularly published Internet publications ever. To mark the occasion, Adam explores the motivations and philosophies behind publishing TidBITS, and Geoff Duncan unveils a significant upgrade to the TidBITS article database. In the news, Apple bumps the iMac to 333 MHz and announces a $135 million profit, Virtual PC 2.1.3 appears, and REALbasic 2.0 ships.
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iMacs Rise to 333 MHz -- Apple Computer has announced new iMacs featuring 333 MHz PowerPC G3 processors. The systems are essentially unchanged from the 266 MHz models unveiled last January and share their $1,199 suggested price along with 512K of backside cache, 32 MB of RAM, a 6 GB hard disk, a 24x CD-ROM drive, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, an ATI Rage Pro Turbo graphics controller with 6 MB of video memory, and a 56 Kbps modem. Apple is touting the 333 MHz iMac as a premier gaming machine with "Pentium-toasting" performance, and the higher clock speed should help consumers' perception of iMacs as compared to PCs with even higher clock speeds. The new systems are available immediately from dealers and the online Apple store. [GD]
Apple Pockets $135 Million in Profit -- Apple Computer announced a $135 million profit on $1.53 billion in revenue for its second fiscal quarter of 1999, marking Apple's sixth consecutive profitable quarter. Apple also has $2.9 billion in cash and short term investments, up $300 million from last quarter. Apple's profits were buoyed by $50 million from continued sale of shares of ARM Ltd., but Macintosh sales numbers remained strong, with Apple showing a 27 percent growth in unit sales since the same quarter last year. Although inventory problems continue to nag iMac availability (partly because blueberry iMacs seem more popular than other colors), Apple spent $8 million improving manufacturing operations and ended the quarter with a mere one day of inventory. Roughly half of Apple's sales come from outside the United States, and Apple says it shipped 400,000 Power Macintosh G3s during the quarter, although PowerBook sales lagged, probably because customers are waiting for future models. [GD]
Virtual PC 2.1.3 Features Floppy Fix -- Connectix has released a small update to Virtual PC that corrects a problem where PowerBook G3 users running version 2.1.2 were unable to access the floppy drive from the left expansion bay (see "Virtual PC 2.0: Not Just a Minor Upgrade" in TidBITS-433). If you haven't updated the program since version 2.0, be sure to go through the additional steps listed in the Read Me file or on Connectix's Web page before applying the 2.1.3 patch. The updater is a free 1.5 MB download. [JLC]
REALbasic 2.0 Shipping -- On 19-Apr-99, Real Software Inc. released the current developmental release of the company's application development framework REALbasic as version 2.0. Benefits of REALbasic 2.0 include refinements to the core programming language, improvements in the development environment interface, speed gains, and better handling of color, movies, graphics, files, localization, and Apple events. The Professional Edition also includes built-in database facilities, ODBC connectivity, and the capacity to generate Windows executables. (See "Yes, Virginia, There Is a REALbasic" in TidBITS-443 for a review of REALbasic 1.0.)
Pricing is set at $100 for the Standard Edition and $300 for the Professional Edition, with discounts for academic customers (who are licensed to create freeware applications only) as well as those upgrading from REALbasic 1.0. Customers in certain overseas countries are referred to foreign distributors; others may obtain REALbasic directly from Real Software. The program is a 2.5 MB download and runs as a 30-day demo until a license is purchased. Printed documentation, as well as a CD-ROM with extra examples, will soon be available at an additional cost. Real Software has clarified its intention to continue at full speed with incremental bug-fix releases to REALbasic 2.0, which had hitherto been appearing frequently. Cautious customers may wish to wait a few weeks before upgrading until more of the known bugs have been squashed. [GD]
by Adam C. Engst <email@example.com>
This issue marks our ninth year of publication, and if anything, I remain all the more amazed that we're still publishing TidBITS. Flux runs rampant in the computer industry, and many Mac publications have come and gone. TidBITS has participated in the rise of the Internet, changing to match the latest technologies and trends while remaining true to our roots. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain some of the motivations that have driven weekly publication of TidBITS since 1990 and the philosophies that influence what and how we publish.
Motivations -- A common question about TidBITS is: "How do you make money?" The short answer is "via sponsorships," of course, but a question we hear less frequently is "Why do you publish TidBITS?" It's all due to motivation, and although our motivations have evolved, they remain similar to those we had in the beginning.
Back in 1990, Tonya and I created TidBITS because we wanted to update her coworkers at Cornell University with the latest developments in the computer industry. Tonya also wanted to hone her PageMaker skills, and I immediately abstracted the idea to electronic publishing via HyperCard and the Internet. Our overall goal was to spread interesting information and opinions to other people. In my opinion, that desire to tell the stories must be the primary goal of most writing.
We didn't consider money as a goal for quite a while. I can't recall when we came up with the idea of sponsorships in TidBITS, but reality touched down in 1992, when we attracted our first sponsorships. At that time, the Web was still over the horizon, graphical banner ads were unimaginable, and advertising was distinctly not kosher on the Internet. We worked hard to ensure that our sponsorships were more than just advertisements, offering information via email that was hard to get in those pre-Web days.
Over the years, we've had to consider business realities when making decisions, and, particularly now that TidBITS supports a small staff, maintaining an income flow is an important goal. That said, no one will ever get rich from TidBITS, so despite the need to bring in money, our original motivation of sharing information remains ascendant.
We've also stayed true to another of our original motivations - to create a constantly expanding archive of quality information that people could use as a research tool, both for current projects and historical looks back. That's why the original TidBITS HyperCard stacks knew how to combine themselves into an archive, why we worked with Akif Eyler on his Easy View program for browsing text, and why we now put so much effort into our online database to expose older content that's still relevant (see Geoff Duncan's article below).
This desire to create an archive of related information was also one of the reasons I created TidBITS Talk last year. TidBITS is too small of an organization to produce all the content we want or to have expertise in every field. By opening up TidBITS Talk to knowledge from many of our readers, we expand the amount of knowledge we can provide to others.
TidBITS Talk is also the embodiment of something we've enjoyed about TidBITS since the beginning - an online community. To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment about defining obscenity, online communities are difficult to describe, but you know them when you see them. Before TidBITS Talk, we felt a sense of community around TidBITS, but we weren't sure to what extent our readers felt they were participating. Since its creation, TidBITS Talk has coalesced into a true online community that keeps members coming back both for the information and the sense of belonging.
Philosophies -- Due in part to our limited journalistic experience when we started TidBITS in 1990, we've formed an unusual set of philosophies surrounding what we publish in TidBITS.
First and most important, we select the information that appears in TidBITS carefully. We hope that by focusing on topics of particular interest to us, our enthusiasm will show through. It's an unfortunate fact of life that our interests don't precisely overlap the interests of our entire readership, but there are plenty of other sources of information for topics we don't cover. Also, we don't wish to compete in the "all the news, updated constantly," field of Web journalism because, frankly, we can neither handle the immense workload required to do that work right, nor force ourselves to write about topics that we don't find compelling.
Although we're serious about being editors and creating a professional publication on a regular schedule, we're also firm believers in the statement, "If it's not fun, it's not Macintosh." For us to continue publishing TidBITS, we have to enjoy what we're doing. Having fun was hard during the end of 1997 and beginning of 1998, when Apple seemed caught in a death spiral, but now we're glad we stuck with it.
Another of our major philosophies is that our information should be as accurate as we can make it. We usually avoid writing about software that isn't available; we shy away from reporting all but the most universal bugs or conflicts, and we publish essentially no rumors - all in the name of hard information. We're well aware that this attitude means that people read other publications for the rumors, pre-release news, and troubleshooting information, but we can't do everything. Long ago, when our weekly electronic publishing schedule meant that we could scoop MacWEEK's print edition, we were more likely to publish a rumor, news of a new product, or a conflict between popular extensions. Today we avoid publishing this sort of information unless we can confirm the rumor absolutely, test the pre-release software, or both reproduce the conflict and confirm it with the developers. It's a trade-off between the rush of the scoop and the satisfaction of publishing something you're positive is correct.
Why have we shied away from such popular types of information? Two reasons. First, the longer you spend in the industry, the more you learn that there are multiple sides to any story. Whatever you publish will have an effect on a company, individuals at that company, and a wide range of Macintosh users. So, if we hear a rumor, we judge not just the reliability of the information but also the effect that publishing the rumor will have. After this many years, we're privy to a great deal of information that we can never use in TidBITS or even mention to friends, but that is still extremely useful to our understanding of the ebb and flow of the industry. People talk to us because they know we'd never pass on even possibly privileged information.
Second, whenever we published rumors or bug reports in past we were immediately inundated with email from readers asking for more information. Since even now we try to respond to every message sent to us (with varying degrees of success), receiving a few hundred messages after publishing an article was overwhelming. We dislike being overwhelmed, so we avoid publishing incomplete information that seems likely to stimulate cries for more details.
Third, when we look back at what we've published, we're happiest with the articles you're unlikely to see in any other publication. News that a product has shipped is widespread and essentially public domain, so we prefer to devote our space to unusual subjects, in-depth reviews, or even multi-part overviews of a topic. We're trying to reveal tiny bits of the universal truths about the world, and we're happy to speak at enough length and in enough depth to do that, describing experiences, thoughts, research, or even historical background as necessary.
Individuals & the Macintosh Ecosystem -- Related to all of this is our belief in the importance of the individual, "the person behind the personal computer," as we used to say. To us, the Macintosh industry is not a collection of faceless impersonal corporations out to make a buck, but a civilized ecosystem of individuals including developers, product managers, marketers, PR representatives, other members of the press, and - most important - users. Our utopian belief is that everyone within the ecosystem has a responsibility to other members of the ecosystem. The system relies on a capitalist structure, so competition can and should benefit the ecosystem. If two competing products continually leapfrog each other in a quest to offer the best solution to users, everyone benefits.
But everyone within the ecosystem must understand the effect of their actions, not just on the macro level of a company, but on the micro level of the specific people who are affected. Every ecosystem will have dominant life forms, but sustainable ecosystems have a balance between a diverse set of life forms. The Macintosh ecosystem is no different. Buying an expensive program rather than pirating it might help improve a company's bottom line enough to allow one of its programmers to set up shop on her own; she, in turn, may produce a unique shareware product that enhances the user experience sufficiently that Apple decides to license the code for inclusion in the Mac OS. Similarly, a good idea from a single programmer distributed as freeware might catch on and change the whole industry's expectations for how software should work.
To quote Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext, "Everything is intertwingled." It's easy for us to focus on ourselves, but in fact looking outward and considering the impact of our actions on the ecosystem is more likely to improve life for all of us.
Thinking of others is what created the Macintosh community. That level of community doesn't exist in most other industries, and it is directly responsible for the Macintosh's success over the years, especially during the tough times. Craig Isaacs of Dantz Development told me recently that in a survey to find out how people learned about their backup program Retrospect, he was stunned to learn that 37 percent of the respondents heard about it via word of mouth. That tells me Macintosh users talk to each other, support each other, and create a self-sustainable network with users and companies - in short, an ecosystem.
We're often asked if there is a PC equivalent of TidBITS. We've looked, but we've never found a publication that resembles what we do with TidBITS. In large part, we believe this is because the PC world lacks a sense of shared community, perhaps due to the sheer number and diversity of PC users, the lack of a single company to rally around, or the fact that using a PC is often more of a default action than a conscious choice.
In 1990, TidBITS started life as a gift to the Macintosh online community, and over the years, we feel it has become a significant part of the Macintosh ecosystem. In turn, though, we have many people to thank for our success, including our staff, our authors, our sponsors, our volunteer translators, and most important, our readers. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't bother, and you have our sincere appreciation for giving us a reason to do something we love.
by Geoff Duncan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
One of the burdens of publishing for nine years is that there are nine years' worth of back issues that must be archived, organized, and made available to readers in useful ways. TidBITS's efforts in this area go all the way back to our first issue - published as a HyperCard stack that automatically integrated future issues - and continues today with the latest features in our Web-based article database.
Webward Ho! In late 1996, with the Web undergoing explosive development, Matt Neuburg converted our back issues to HTML, pointing the way toward a full Web-based archive. A few months later, Adam fired the starting gun on a race to provide a way for readers to search the entire contents of TidBITS via the Web, signalling an end to readers needing to maintain local archives of TidBITS (see the article series "Search Engine Shootout").
Adam's search engine shootout was a tremendous idea: it let TidBITS cover a variety of Macintosh-based search engine technologies without requiring us to become experts with all of them - and, in the end, TidBITS would get its own search engine! We announced the contest, reviewed the entries, and (with considerable consternation) selected a winner based on Apple e.g., a search technology from Apple that eventually became part of products like AppleShare IP, WebSTAR, and even Mac OS 8.5's Sherlock.
A month or two before the search engine went online, I'd begun experimenting with an online article database for TidBITS, built using FileMaker Pro and Blue World's Lasso. Although implemented as more of a thought experiment than a serious effort, it evolved into an adjunct of the full-text search engine that we called an "Author/Title" search. It didn't allow users to search the full text of articles but was handy for locating articles by a specific author or within a particular date range.
More significantly, the FileMaker-based system gave us a way to refer to specific articles instead of a complete issue of TidBITS. We'd been wanting this level of focus for years (and it wasn't offered by our Apple e.g.-based search engine), so we rolled this capability into the major Web site redesign unveiled in October of 1997 in TidBITS-400. From that point on, GetBITS URLs (like the one below) have been liberally sprinkled throughout TidBITS issues, pointing readers directly to relevant articles we had previously published.
A Sinister Plan -- Although I didn't explain it to anyone at the time, I had a secret agenda for all those GetBITS URLs. While they have an immediate benefit of taking readers to the right thing (an article, a MailBIT, an update, an article series, or, more recently, threads in the TidBITS Talk database), I thought they might also have a long term benefit. After all, we were integrating new articles into the database every week, and those articles contained GetBITS URLs that pointed to related resources in the same database. Over time, I hoped those links between items would become useful in and of themselves.
This may not come as a great revelation to many readers, but the fundamental strength of a database is not searching through information, but the capability to organize that information in useful ways. Fundamentally, a search just finds things, while a database can make those found objects smart - how smart depends on the database design and the point of view of the user. I hoped that by capturing the information about what other TidBITS material was relevant to a particular article, I'd eventually be able to make articles smarter.
Foiled! Unfortunately, even our best laid plans don't always work out. I don't recall the precise moment when our collective frustration with the Apple e.g.-based shootout winner reached critical mass, but I hit my limit while Adam and Tonya were in Australia during the beginning of 1998 and I spent hours trying to prevent Apple e.g. from crashing constantly. Despite our best efforts, it seemed we'd have to provide a TidBITS search engine ourselves, and the "Article/Title" database was pressed into service.
Without getting into a lengthy discourse on the numerous issues and performance bottlenecks involved in serving FileMaker Pro databases to the Web, let's just say that the transition was not without difficulty. The situation was further complicated by the premiere of the TidBITS Talk archive, our most ambitious database project to date, and the introduction of Sherlock, Mac OS 8.5's Internet-savvy search tool.
How could Sherlock impact our databases? As useful as Sherlock might be, it's responsible for many inappropriate (and unintended) queries to Internet search engines. Since Sherlock doesn't make it convenient for users to activate or deactivate search resources selectively, users tend leave all their plug-ins enabled. So, the TidBITS article database regularly receives queries unrelated to TidBITS. Sherlock search queries from this morning include "Beatles lyrics," "screenwriting tips," and "MIDI violin" - and unpublishable queries for adult materials. These searches tie up the database, and although we've implemented query requirements to reduce the burden, inappropriate searches remain troublesome. In any case, finding ways to reduce the database load caused by Sherlock took time and prevented me from working on my master plan for smarter articles... until now.
Towards Smarter Articles -- Articles retrieved from the TidBITS database now present considerably more contextual information, which will hopefully be useful to TidBITS readers. It might be helpful to follow along in a Web browser, using Matt Neuburg's review of Conflict Catcher 8 from TidBITS-446 as an example.
If you've accessed items in our database before, the first new thing you'll notice is a set of links to the right of the article's text, collected into several colored boxes. These boxes group together items related to the current article, including articles that appear in the same TidBITS issue, series the current article belongs to, specific TidBITS items referenced by the current article, and most significantly, articles that later referred back to the current article.
Looking at Matt's Conflict Catcher review, you'll see the article was later referenced by two additional TidBITS articles discussing subsequent updates to Conflict Catcher. (By the time you read this, that review will also know that this article refers to it.) You can also see that Matt pointed back to three previous Conflict Catcher reviews that have appeared in TidBITS over the years, as well as an article about the demise of quality printed documentation and a review of InformINIT. You'll also see that the review is part of a series, along with a list of other articles that appeared in TidBITS-446.
Because we've been using GetBITS URLs for only about eighteen months, they don't appear in our older articles and, hence, older articles may not yet know about articles that refer to them or articles to which they themselves refer. Nonetheless, I have completely cross-linked about 550 articles going back to the latter part of 1994, while about 200 earlier articles still need to be fully integrated.
Since introducing TidBITS Talk last year, we've been repeatedly startled by the quality of discussion and information traversing that list, and it seemed appropriate to make relevant TidBITS Talk material available from TidBITS articles. So, if a TidBITS article mentions a discussion in TidBITS Talk or is itself specifically referenced by a message sent to TidBITS Talk, we display a link at the top of the article that takes you directly to the appropriate items in the TidBITS Talk archive, using a new browser window. (The TidBITS Talk links are also one of the few instances where we use more than one graphic on a Web page - with a total transfer burden of 367 bytes, I couldn't resist.)
Towards a Smarter Presentation -- Along with making TidBITS articles more useful and context-sensitive, we've also tried to enhance other ways people interact with our database. GetBITS URLs now appear in browser location fields and history lists, so it's easier to bookmark specific articles and see which items you have previously visited. We've also enhanced our search results pages, and our main search form now offers some pre-formed queries that display recent articles TidBITS has published in particular categories, as well as listing the most popular articles in our database. In general, the HTML served by the database is cleaner; we've implemented some discrete changes that make the archive more accessible to Windows users; and commonly accessed items are much more Lynx-friendly. Finally, queries now search the contents of both TidBITS and NetBITS issues.
Today Searching, Tomorrow the World! We hope you enjoy these database changes in honor of TidBITS's ninth anniversary, and that they make our content more accessible and useful to you. As usual, there are other grand schemes, plots, and enhancements we hope will bear fruit in the future - but we can't tell you about them now. It would spoil the suspense!
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.