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Loose Cables - Raining on Apple's parade

Loose Cables - Raining on Apple's parade

Loose cables is an irreverent look behind the scenes at testing computer products, in particular at IDG's Infoworld lab in the US. Our insights are gleaned during the long hours spent testing, and even longer hours spent sorting through outrageous vendor claims and press releases. Some of the insights are technical, some are political, and some are just fun.

Because we hand out wet blankets like ISP's do diskettes, we couldn't let the release of Mac OS 8 pass without comment. It's amazing that with Apple losing millions of dollars and looking worse by the day, people are squealing about 3D dialogue boxes.

We haven't seen this much greasepaint since Dynasty.

Still, we'd like to congratulate Apple on shipping an improved product and doing so on schedule. Mac OS 8 has some nifty features, including a much-improved networking model and that innovative feature known as multitasking. Of course, most of this has been available on Wintel for years.

We saw a telling comment from the manager of a local Macintosh specialty store. In his eagerness to put the best face on the old biddy, he may have said a little too much about Mac OS 8: "It actually feels a little slower, but it will make you more productive because you're able to run more than one thing at one time."

We think it feels slower too; guess we'll just have to take his word on the productivity part.

On the marketing tip, it's no surprise that Microsoft's launch of Windows 95 was so much more successful hype-wise. If Apple really wants to shake up the industry, we suggest the company stops trumpeting that it finally caught up with Windows 3.1 and go buy Waggener-Edstrom, Microsoft's we-can-sell-sand-in-Arabia public relations company in the US. That crew is a group of miracle workers.

That's why they call it an adjustment: during a demonstration of O'Reilly's new WebSite server, company representatives declared how they implemented new-fangled features such as Java and Active Server Pages only after these "standards" had moved past the "marketecture" stage.

Then, in an about-face that occurred literally between PowerPoint slides, O'Reilly unveiled iHTML, a marketecture of their own that put a lie to all the sober pronouncements. Although iHTML may provide a fast, simple way to create templates for dynamic content - thus filling a gap not met by Java, Perl, or JavaScript - O'Reilly's mid-demo reversal had us looking for a chiropractor.

Paging Tonya Harding: forget carpal tunnel syndrome. Most of us are headed for knee-replacement surgery after banging our patellae on keyboard drawers all day long. Office furniture makers must assume all cube dwellers are 4 feet tall with 700-pound wrists. Is it too much to ask that a drawer be able to adequately support the keyboard and a reasonable amount of additional weight - without being built like a front-end loader?

Play Myst II for me: a recent article on Web consultants in another publication had not one, but two, references to Ribbon, the Myst sequel. Unfortunately, the new game is actually called Riven, not Ribbon. It's such an off-the-wall typo that we can only assume the publication's copy editors have started using voice-recognition software.

And Mir is using Oak: a local morning-show host chirped recently that Sun was tickled pink because Java was being used on the Mars land rover. After imagining little green men implementing the "die.earthling.now" method, we wondered if NASA had skimmed over Java's "Don't use this if it's really an important application" licence agreement. Our worries were unfounded though; Java is implemented merely on the space agency's Web site. Hey, what's 50,000,000 miles, give or take?

It takes a global village

We remember when Global Village Communi-cations - the modem and remote-access vendor that built the best Macintosh modems under the sun - used to be a warm, fuzzy company. Once upon a time, when one of us had a dead PowerBook modem on his hands, support staff at Global Village told him to leave it on his porch so Federal Express could pick it up and drop off a new one. They didn't even ask for the serial number of the two-year-old device.

Well, if your modem is no longer in production, expect to pay through the nose for support. Given that older versions of the PowerPort software will render a PowerBook useless with the right combination of extensions, we think a free download of the upgraded software from Global Village's Web site is the least they could do.

Unfortunately, at the centre of Global Village's voice mail maze, you're rewarded with the opportunity to pay $US30 to have someone tell you the software stinks and another $30 for the upgrade. Or you can bite the bullet and buy the upgrade blind, hoping it's what you need.

See what happens when little companies grow up?

You may have caught wind of the latest technology that promises to be every user's electronic secretary: intelligent agents. In theory, these bots will eventually crawl the Internet collecting and collating bits you've indicated might be of value. We haven't seen a proof-of-concept yet, but there's some flesh-based filtering happening on the Web now that's beaten software agents to the punch.

Several online news sites offer headlines and off-site links to hot stories, but the coolest filtering is personality-driven. It's the model through which the Web blossomed.

So if you need an intelligent agent, pick one with some street smarts. Dave Winer, for instance, is a sunchild-cum-gadfly who updates his Scripting News site (www.scripting.com) several times a day with a thread of links that record the ebb and flow of industry doings. Another strong voice is Michael Sippey, architect of Stating the Obvious (www.theobvious.com).

The sites aren't as personalised as an envelope from Mum stuffed with hometown news clippings that "you really should read", but they've got the heart that algorithms and Boolean logic don't.

We got that sinking feeling after seeing flak for MovieCD that promised it would "bring VHS quality to the computer". VHS quality? Pinch us. We've tested some MPEG streaming video that looked good on a monitor and were just getting excited about the prospect of digital video disc killing off VHS. Now someone wants to subject us to jumpy, grainy, odd-colored stuff on our CRTs. One step forward . . .


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