Internet audio is going places — and nowhere faster than for the net‑surfing Mac user. Martin Russ looks at the latest developments.
Early in February, LiveUpdate, a small software company in snowy Wilmington, Massachusetts, USA, released a small plug‑in for the Netscape browser. It's an interesting comment on Macintosh World Wide Web (WWW) surfers that their 'overwhelming' response caused LiveUpdate to accelerate their Mac release schedule, with the result that the Macintosh version was released a couple of weeks later.
Crescendo allows MIDI Files to be played in the background of a WWW page — which means that huge audio files in incompatible formats (AU,AIFF,WAV...) are no longer the only way to provide music whilst you surf. It requires Netscape 2.0, Mac System 7.5 and the ubiquitous QuickTime 2.1 — which might give a clue as to where the default MIDI File playback instruments are coming from. At the moment, the Mac version of Crescendo needs to load in the whole of the MIDI File before playback can start, which can be a disadvantage given the slow download of files using 14.4K modems, but Crescendo Plus starts playback as soon as the MIDI File starts arriving. Crescendo Plus is only available for Windows 95 and Windows NT at present, with Windows 3.1 and Macintosh versions due later in the year.
Crescendo is a Netscape 2.0 plug‑in — a little piece of software that adds functionality to the Netscape WWW browser. The download file is a tiny 20Kb .sit.hqx file, and this explodes into a folder of just 48Kb, including a 'read me' text file. No hard disk space problems here! LiveUpdate intend to release more 'real‑time' audio and music products, and their WWW site is well worth a visit: www.liveupdate.com.
Crescendo 1.0 is shareware, with a $9.95 fee, and a 12 month automatic update via e‑mail. Crescendo Plus has the same one year support, but costs $19.95, and is available free to full‑time students, faculty and staff of higher educational institutions, as well as libraries.
In this column, I often mention those little bits of essential shareware that can make life with a Mac much easier, and people are always asking me for a good, reliable source of them. Well, there are the PD and shareware libraries, as well as bulletin board systems (BBS) — and the internet itself has huge resources in the form of FTP sites. But one of the most convenient ways of getting software has to be the CD‑ROM. CD‑ROMs come as an option with most Macs (and most PCs too!) these days, and even adding an external drive with SCSI is remarkably low‑cost. There are some wonderful games too: try Myst if you fancy spending several weeks on a mysterious island!
For many years now, my prime sources of Mac shareware have been just two places. The Arizona Mac User Group's (AMUG) BBS in a Box CD‑ROMs were originally designed to enable bulletin board operators to provide large quantities of PD and shareware to their clients, but anyone can buy them. The current set is three CDs full of compressed software, and they are updated every six months with a new release. Once you have bought the initial disks, the updates drop in price, provided you register with AMUG. I buy every other update, and the last set of CDs cost just $49. For nearly 2Gb of compressed software, that sounds like a bargain.
If it isn't on BBS in a Box, then it is probably on the Info‑Mac CD‑ROM. This is a snapshot of the latest contents of one of the largest Mac software archives at Stanford University. Typically, the 650Mb of uncompressed software costs about $49 from publisher Pacific Hi‑Tech.
Although I get these CD‑ROMs direct from the USA, you may well find them at your local computer dealer, or by mail order from the usual Mac suppliers. In either case, they represent a cost‑effective way of obtaining more software than you are ever likely to use (or be able to pay for!).
Press releases, specification sheets, technical documentation... more and yet more pages of information about Apple products. With all the changes at Apple over the last few months, some of them are bound to get out of date. As tangible proof of this, you only have to look at the review I did of Opcode's Studio Vision Pro Version 3.0, in the March 1996 issue of SOS. In the panel where I describe the hardware, I mention the Apple AV NuBus card.
Now, I first heard about the card on a specification sheet for a PowerMac, where it described how it added AV functions to non‑AV Power Macs. I found it mentioned again in the technical support documentation, and finally, I saw someone advertising it in a magazine. It wasn't until after the magazine had come out that a puzzled SOS reader rang up and asked why he couldn't find one. Further research showed that although there are mentions of such a card in several places, no‑one seems to have seen one, and anyway, it only adds the video AV functionality, which does not help a Power Mac user with audio.
So I can only offer my abject apologies. I was rather convincingly led to believe that something existed, when it appears that it probably does not, and anyway, it doesn't do what it sounds like it should. In a world full of vapourware of various shades, it's very embarassing to be caught out. Rest assured that I will try and be more vigilant in future. I am reminded of the words of a highly talented past colleague: 'trust no‑one'.
How It Works — SLIP And PPP
Last month's 'How It Works' section gave an overview of all the software that you need to make an internet connection. Several people have commented that it made it look rather complicated, so this is probably a good point to compare the internet and MIDI. Both require a physical interface to the network (telephone or MIDI). Both need a 'driver' to enable the computer to work with the interface (SLIP or PPP for the modem, and an 'Interface Driver' for MIDI). OMS, FreeMIDI, or even the obsolete MIDI Manager is roughly comparable to MacTCP and IP (Internet Protocol). And the applications or programs on top then communicate with the network via the underlying 'stack' of software.
Just as with MIDI, once you have the software set up, you will only use the 'top‑level' applications, and the details of how everything underneath works aren't that important. The only time when you need to have an understanding of what is happening is when you set it up in the first place. Otherwise, you might install part of the required software, and miss out one important piece of the stack — with the result that nothing will happen! The same thing happens if you don't install all of the required MIDI software, of course.
So, back to SLIP and PPP. These are the interface between the generic networking software of MacTCP/IP, and the network‑specific hardware which is the modem. There are two modes of operation: setting up and everyday use. Setting up requires you to supply a few bits of information about the modem and the people at the other end of the telephone network: the Internet Provider (Demon, CIX, Cityscape, Compuserve, Delphi, etc). Everyday use might occasionally involve choosing which phone number to use, but normally you won't need to do anything at this level.
So the setting up of SLIP or PPP is probably going to be a once‑only event, although it makes a lot of sense to keep a note of exactly what you type in, because you never know when you will have a hard disk problem. You do backup your disks, of course, don't you? The help and advice that you get to help you set up SLIP and PPP varies — some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are very helpful, whilst others leave you to figure it all out for yourself. Some ISPs are very focussed on IBM/PC‑compatible users, rather than Mac users, although almost all of the setup information for SLIP or PPP is the same for Mac or PC! Just ignore anything that mentions WinSock, and concentrate instead on the setup details.
Right, so we have a SLIP/PPP setup dialogue box on screen that requires some empty fields to be filled in. Some of the required information is obvious: 'your name' is usually there somewhere, and the telephone number of the ISP is going to be needed as well. The ISP should have told you about your 'user name', or you may have specified it yourself. You will need to have prepared your own personal password: real words like 'password' or 'martin' are not recommended! Avoid the obvious: use a combination of letters, numbers and perhaps a symbol. '75$apqlm' is one example [Yeah, right Martin, nice and easy to remember — Ed].
Not so immediately obvious is the type of modem that you are using: it is almost a certainty that your particular modem is not listed in the pop‑up box in the dialogue. Luckily, this probably does not matter, since almost all modems nowadays will respond to a 'standard' set of commands called Hayes commands. Selecting the 'Hayes compatible' option should work with most modems. If not, then you need to contact the ISP. Probably the most potentially trouble‑prone part of the whole setup is making sure that the SLIP/PPP software talks to the ISP's own server software — it is rather like a short conversation. The ISP server says who it is, and then asks for a user name. The SLIP/PPP software replies with your user name, and the server then asks for a password. After the password has been passed across, then the server may ask for a protocol, which is where the SLIP/PPP software says SLIP or PPP, as appropriate.
The details of setting up SLIP or PPP software may vary for different ISP servers, but the basics are of this form. Most ISPs will tell you how to do this in some detail, and may even supply pre‑prepared scripts which do it automatically. But it's always interesting to know something about what is happening behind the scenes, and it is not impossible to get a corrupted setup file! I should know, since it has happened to me twice so far. I now keep backups of all the setup and preference files for my internet and Email software.
Next month, I will look at MacTCP.
Apple News In Brief
The revised versions of current Power Macs equipped with Firewire (the fast serial peripheral buss) which were due this autumn are now unlikely to appear. Instead, a PCI‑buss card will provide Firewire capability in existing models. Apple is concentrating on producing new Macs to a standardised form, which was previously known as the Common Hardware Reference Platform. This should allow choice of operating system: MacOS, Windows NT, Novell Netware, various flavours of Unix, and perhaps even IBM's OS/2 Warp.
Apple are reducing prices of Power Macs again. 7200s, 7500s, 8500s, and 9500s have been reduced in price by about 10%. Contact Apple on 0800 127 753, or better still, stop a passing Apple dealer and buy one!
In a move towards a softer release approach, System 8.0 may be released early (maybe even later this year, or early next year) with restricted functionality, and further features added later. Some of this may be due to the ongoing restructuring within Apple, although competition from Windows 95 and Windows NT may also be responsible. Many of the features that will be retained in Copland will extend and simplify the use of the Finder, with lots of finding, display and searching refinements. Also due to appear is the 'CyberDog' internet interface, which should bring WWW access into more applications via the OS.
Nope, not the film with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfus, but a new area on Apple's World Wide Web servers, which aims to be a celebration of Apple, and not the dry technical information that you find elsewhere. There's some rather good rumour‑countering, and an explanation of OpenDoc and its non‑connection with Lego. Definitely an alternative to doom, gloom and Apple‑bashing. Go to:
- NET CURTAINS
Whilst everyone else is writing obituaries for eWorld, Apple's fledgling online service, I'm saddened by its demise. By the time you read this, eWorld will be no more. Some commentators have joked about the 150,000 subscribers, and others have mocked the friendly, caring community atmosphere that seems to have distinguished eWorld from almost every other online service. I don't think this is fair. eWorld showed that it is possible to have an online service which appeals to everyone, not just twenty‑something male computer geeks. Hopefully, the 'huge mailshot, bundled everything' people will learn a thing or two from eWorld's virtual neighbourhood approach. Once again, I get the feeling that Apple was breaking new ground that others will reinvent in years to come.
On The Net
Emblaze real‑time animation:
Arizona Mac User Group:
Get a warm feeling!
Can't read movie adverts quick enough?
Just for curiosity...