Communication with the user: some examples from the Lisa

In the past days I’ve been tinkering with the beautiful LisaEm, probably the best Apple Lisa emulator around (I’ve already mentioned it in this blog, by the way). After installing the various tools of the Lisa Office System (LisaWrite, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaCalc, LisaList, LisaProject, LisaTerminal), I started exploring them, using the emulated Lisa 2 as if it were a real computer, and taking notes about the interaction with the operating system and the user experience.

I won’t be talking in depth about the history of the Lisa, because it’s not the point of this post. The Macintosh and the Lisa user interfaces had a lot of similarities, but were also quite different, especially regarding the communication with the user. I have used early versions of the Macintosh OS, as early as System 2 if I recall correctly, and I’ve been using regularly every Mac OS version from System 6 to the current OS X Snow Leopard. By using the emulated Lisa for a couple of days, the first thing that struck me has been how thoughtful and literally user-friendly the Lisa Office System interface is. I daresay it’s even more user-friendly than the famous Macintosh GUI.

Let’s take a small visual tour. (Note: the images are a bit shrunk and you’ll have to click on them to see a better reproduction of the screenshots).

This is how the Lisa Desktop looks with the seven main applications (called Tools in Lisa’s parlance) of its office suite. Note the Empty Folders folder. In the Lisa operating system, there wasn’t a command to create a new folder: you just double-clicked on the Empty folders folder and a fresh, empty folder (named Empty Folders 11/14 — that is, today’s date is appended to the name) was created. This is not surprising, since the whole Lisa system is document-oriented, not application-oriented like basically every other OS around, then and now.

In Lisa’s specific desktop metaphor you would have a new folder by going where all the empty folders are and picking one, pretty much like a real office environment. The same would happen upon creating a new document using any of the seven aforementioned main applications. To create a new text document you don’t open the application LisaWrite (as you would do in any application-oriented system). If you do, Lisa would react this way:


“LisaWrite stationery?” you might ask. Yes, in every Lisa office Tool folder, along with a subfolder with a sample document and the Tool icon itself, there’s also an icon named [Tool name] Paper, in this case LisaWrite Paper. This is the stationery mentioned by the previous message. It works like the Empty Folders example we saw above. To create a new LisaWrite document, you double-click on the LisaWrite Paper icon and voilà, a blank text document appears in the folder, with the standard name convention LisaWrite Paper [today’s date].


Of course you can rename it as you see fit, and double-clicking it you’ll actually open the LisaWrite application. It may seem a little convoluted to our application-oriented habits, but I find its logic compelling and consistent. It’s a behaviour that was perceived as more natural by the people who designed the Lisa UI. In the real world, when you begin a new document, such as a personal letter, you don’t expect the pen or the typewriter to create the writing space, the template, for you. You take a piece of paper (and it might very well be a piece of dedicated stationery: a sheet with the company logo for a work-related document, or special high-quality letter paper for personal correspondence, etc.) and then you use the other tools to actually write that document.

With the Lisa, it’s the same. You want to create a spreadsheet? You tear off the specific template for it, which is a LisaCalc Paper, and you’ll be offered all the necessary tools to create and manage that spreadsheet inside the LisaCalc tool environment. You want to start doodling? Tear off a LisaDraw Paper. And so on.

Back to user communication. In my brief experience with the emulated Lisa, I noticed how the Lisa operating system presented better-worded warnings and error messages which were less obscure and potentially more useful than other systems, Mac OS included. Here’s an example. The LisaWrite application and its files came on two diskettes. To copy the contents of the diskettes in the Lisa’s ProFile hard disk, I inserted the LisaWrite 1 diskette, selected the icons and just dragged them on the empty LisaWrite folder I had prepared before. Coming from a long-time experience with the Macintosh user interface, that seemed the most intuitive thing to do. I didn’t know that on the Lisa you have to duplicate (D) the selected icons and move the blinking duplicates Lisa creates, instead of the original files. I also did not know that the American Dictionary included with LisaWrite was actually split between the two floppies (since it was too big to fit on one), and that I couldn’t just copy the first part along with the other files.

How would the classic Mac OS — or even the modern Mac OS X — deal with such a situation? Probably by displaying something like Error: Cannot copy American Dictionary in (target folder) or American Dictionary could not be copied in (target folder) and offering the [Stop] and [Continue] buttons, without giving much insight to the user regarding what just happened. Often the user would also like to know why a certain attempted operation has failed. Lisa helpfully reacted this way:


That dialog box is surely verbose for today’s standards, but it gives real information, and a useful, direct reference to the user’s manual so that we can understand what happened. You have to consider that such design for dialog boxes and error warnings was conceived in an era when users actually took notice of such warnings. From thence, it’s been a road downhill, also thanks to more brief, confusing and unhelpful error messages. Remember the coded error messages of the classic Mac OS? Sorry, a system error has occurred. (Error -11) Not useful at all. Not trust-inspiring, either.

Back to the American Dictionary impasse, I didn’t have the Lisa Office System manual at hand, but in the Lisa FAQ section of the LisaEm website, I found the answer:

[…] Note that you cannot mix and match normal files with files that are split across several floppies (such as the American Dictionary on the LisaWrite floppy.) Instead, you’ll have to first duplicate the normal files manually, and later transfer the split files. When copying a split file, the Lisa will eject the floppy and ask you for the next floppy to retrieve the next piece of that file. […]

Following the instructions, all went well and the Lisa kept me posted on the current state of operations:


It’s worth noting that the Lisa could automatically split large files and archive them on many 400K diskettes, and reconstruct them later when needed. It didn’t need additional tools or utilities like StuffIt or UnRAR. Thus, backing up the data in the hard disk on a series of floppy diskettes was very easy: you just dragged the hard drive icon on an empty floppy icon and the Desktop Manager would ask you for another disk, and then another, until it reached a full backup.

Another interesting aspect of the Lisa Office System is that it copy-protected applications and documents by giving them unique serial numbers that would tie them to a specific Lisa unit. So, when copying the various Office Tools from the diskettes to the ProFile hard disk, I received this warning:


Again, notice how well-written and informative this warning is. It is very clear about what’s going to happen, so that the user can make an informed decision.

Another example: I was manipulating an example list in the LisaList tool, and made changes in the formatting, order and font used in the list. Suddenly the screen went blank, as if the application had crashed or something. But soon the Lisa informed me about what was happening with another exhaustive dialog box:


I love that expression, “[The tool] is having technical difficulties”: it is clearly an example of an era when the personal computer was starting to spread among regular, non-tech users, and this warning sounds sort of reassuring, as if to say: there is a technical problem, I won’t confuse you with the details right now, but I can attempt to solve it, and here’s a reference in the User Manual that may help you understand what’s going on.

I’ve also encountered a couple of funny warnings. The first one occurred when I attempted to set the date correctly in the Clock desk accessory. The time was displayed OK, but the date was set to November 12, 1987. So I clicked on the date and entered 11/12/09, but alas, I discovered that…


So the Lisa was not Y2K compliant, and the date range limited to 1981-1995 (why not 1999, by the way?).

The second warning that made me smile was when I fired up the Calculator for the first time:


But in the end this is just another example of how the communication with the user was taken very seriously by the people who designed the Lisa GUI. The Calculator could have been launched in the default mode without telling anything to the user, but this warning tries to be informative and friendly anyway. It’s not strictly necessary, but it’s a nice touch.

These are just a few examples and by no means exhaustive, but I think they’re enough to give you an idea. In my interaction with the emulated Lisa I found many other nice touches in the dialog boxes and, generally, in the language used by the Lisa’s interface. (I like, for example, the choice of terms used for certain menus and commands: Housekeeping may make you smile as a name for a menu in the main desktop environment, but it’s more clear and effective than the generic Special menu you’ll find later in the Macintosh Finder. And the command to rearrange icons and snap them to the grid was a more colloquial Straighten up Icons than a neutral Arrange icons). This is an interface which showed, or attempted to show, some true respect for the user dealing with it. Today’s graphical user interfaces might be slicker and more intuitive, but I think they leave a lot to be desired as regards to notifications, warnings, and error messages. Too often the user is left guessing what caused a problem. Moreover, too often the user is left guessing what the warning means in the first place.

A Macintosh SE/30 after dark

Or, Flying toasters are a go

I can finally add a Mac SE/30 to my vintage collection.
I can finally add a Mac SE/30 to my vintage collection.

A few weeks ago, I received a nice and unexpected email from Roberto, a reader of my blogs, where he said he would like to donate me a Macintosh SE/30 since it was on my vintage Mac wishlist. I have already twenty Macs or so, but what could I say? I couldn’t let one of the prettiest compact Macs go to the recycler, so I gladly accepted the offer. It certainly soothes the pain I was feeling after having never received a PowerBook 170 that was promised to me and supposedly got lost.

And it certainly puts an end to my very personal saga with this Mac model. The Quest for the Holy SE/30 officially started back in 2002, although I had fallen in love with it a decade before, when I met the SE/30 in a graphic studio of a friend who asked for my assistance to finish a DTP project. I spent a whole week on that SE/30 running Aldus PageMaker and driving an Apple LaserWriter, and it was a hell of a time. So when my vintage collecting fever kicked in later, the SE/30 was one of my first targets.

First I was contacted by an acquaintance working in London. He said it had one soon to be decommissioned (yes, amazingly it was still used in an office environment as of late 2001), and we exchanged some emails to arrange shipping and everything. In his last email he wrote “Tomorrow morning I’m off to the post office to ask about shipping costs to Italy [where I was still living at the time]”. I never heard from him again. Every email I wrote him went henceforth unanswered.

Then another acquaintance, working in a large graphic & media company, told me they were throwing a bunch of ‘old Mac stuff’ away, and yes, there was a SE/30 among that stuff. So he said. We arranged a meeting (thankfully this time I could actually go where the ‘stuff’ was) and went to the Room Of The Discarded. He made his way through a pile of assorted computer parts and peripherals, and finally came up with… a Macintosh SE. Well… I already had one, and, and it was not a SE/30 but tempting anyway… But strange burn marks on the back weren’t a good sign. We tried to power it up, but the analogue bord was shot, as I imagined.

And these are just the first two episodes that come to mind. In these last seven years I frequently went this close to getting the beloved SE/30, but it never worked out, in a way or another. And no, I hadn’t even considered eBay. Shipping costs (especially from the United States) for a well packaged SE/30 are prohibitive and much higher than what the Mac itself is worth today.

The SE/30 arrived last Monday, with two issues. The first is that the Mac is mute. It boots fine, it works fine, but no sound at all. I cranked up the volume via the Sound control panel, but nothing happens. I played a brickout-like game and, pressing my ear against the Mac, I could hear something, but very faintly. I’ll work on this when I have more time, after the summer holidays. The other issue was that the hard drive was not recognised at boot (the SE/30 gave me the floppy icon with the blinking question mark), but after opening the Mac, I quickly found out that the drive’s power cable was not connected to the analogue board. It was a quick fix. After closing the Mac and turning it on, the drive was instantly recognised and mounted.

And I stumbled on to another nice discovery: After Dark 2.0 is installed. Flying toasters!

After Dark

So, thank you very much Roberto, for your kindness and generosity.

There’s a new browser in town

Well, it’s new but has a long history behind. Tomorrow, July 1, 2009, Classilla will be released. Classilla is a modern browser that should run on Mac OS 8.6-9.2.2. A brief FAQ is available here.

For more information, I decided to go to the source and write to Cameron Kaiser, the mind behind the project. He graciously replied and provided some clarifications:

Essentially, Classilla is an update to Mac WaMCom (but you can’t download it from there anymore — see the googlecode site to get it if you want to play with it). It updates the layout engine and fixes several core bugs, and for the next version it will have JavaScript updates as well (right now the JS is at best basic, though much quicker than InScript in iCab).

Mac WaMCom was based on Mozilla 1.3.1, after which OS 9 support ended. Because Classilla no longer corresponds to a particular Mozilla release despite being based almost completely on Mozilla code, it uses its own layout track named Clecko (instead of Gecko). If you forced me to say, I would call Classilla 9.0 roughly equivalent to Mozilla 1.6 (Firefox 1.0), but there are some bugs in Classilla that Firefox 1 does not have, and conversely some patches from as late as Moz 1.8 (FF 1.5) are also landed, so it is really a distinct engine despite its origins.

This version is deliberately unfinished because there is no source for WaMCom anymore, so I assigned an arbitrary deadline of July 1st to myself to get an update out. It should be considered in that light. I think people will find the improvements noticeable, but no miracles should be expected from Classilla for awhile, and it still has a number of bugs.

The version numbers, by the way, are based on OS 9 releases. So the next one will be 9.0.4, and then 9.1, etc.

I’m looking forward to try Classilla on my original blueberry iBook G3 clamshell (with Mac OS 9.2.2) and PowerMac 9500 (with Mac OS 9.1). If I’m not completely drowned by work, expect a brief review in the following days. I’m really glad something is still moving in pre-Mac OS X land.

The Newton Year 2010 bug: we have a patch!

One of the few Newton developers still active, Eckhart Köppen, has taken the initiative to find a solution to fix this nasty bug that threatens to seriously undermine the health of our ‘evergreen’ Newton from next January 1, 2010.

After publishing a diagnostic software (Y2010 Diagnostic) a couple of months ago, on May 24 Eckhart announced in the NewtonTalk mailing list that he had prepared a proper system patch, called Patch 71J059, which should resolve the issue. (At the moment the patch only works with US-language MessagePad 2100s.)

Needless to say I’m amazed by Eckhart’s technical skills — he has practically done everything by himself. Several members of the NewtonTalk list have already installed the patch successfully, and for now there appears to be no problem whatsoever. Someone has even managed to install it on a MessagePad 2000. My MessagePad 2100 patch version is 710031, so I will have to downgrade first, but the process is extremely simple. Now 2010 is a little less scary for those who still own, use and love this historical PDA which doesn’t want to retire. As I often say, the Newton community is truly extraordinary and resourceful — even now, more than 11 years after the Newton has been officially discontinued. And I am really happy to be a part of it.

The rise and fall of Mac clones

The August 1998 issue of MacFormat UK has a nice table with a timeline detailing the circa four-year interval when Mac OS was actually licensed to third-party manufacturers. I’m posting this as a sort of personal digital backup, more than anything. Anyway, I didn’t remember the clone period to have lasted so long. That’s why history is useful.

December 1994
Apple announces first Mac OS licence, awarded to Power Computing.

January 1995
Radius shows VideoVision Workstation prototype in public. DayStar Digital to make multi-processing Genesis MP.

February 1995
Pioneer announces desktop Macs for Japan.

April 1995
Power Computing is the first firm to offer clones for sale in US.

August 1995
Radius is first to offer clones for sale in UK.

September 1995
Parts shortages said to be restricting further licensees from signing up.

November 1995
Umax announces desktop Macs. CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform) officially launched; firms planning machines include Apple, IBM, Motorola, Power Computing and Umax.

February 1996
Motorola acquires sub-licensing rights and announces desktop Macs. Gil Amelio becomes Apple’s CEO. Research indicates that clones account for 10% of US Mac sales.

April 1996
Apple announces biggest-ever quarterly loss of $740 million.

May 1996
IBM acquires sub-licensing rights.

September 1996
Akia announces desktop and portable Macs in Japan.

November 1996
Spring launches announced for CHRP machines from Motorola and Umax.

December 1996
Apple’s purchase of NeXT Software returns Steve Jobs to Apple.

March 1997
Computer Warehouse launches desktop Mac range in UK. Vertegri Research announces portable Macs for US.

April 1997
Apple announces quarterly loss of $708 million. MacFormat 50’s round-up shows that 50 Mac models are on sale in UK.

June 1997
Research indicates that clones account for 25% of US Mac sales. CHRP machines now due for autumn; Motorola’s StarMax Pro 6000 announced. Motorola claims licence extensions agreed in principle.

July 1997
Gil Amelio… er, resigns; Steve Jobs adopts more prominent role.

August 1997
Apple buys back Power Computing’s Mac licence. Motorola postpones StarMax 6000 launch as licence discussions heat up.

October 1997
Licence talks fall apart; Motorola withdraws from Mac market and ends sub-licensing. IBM ends sub-licensing. Umax granted six-month extension.

December 1997
Motorola, Power Computing licences expire; all machines are sold out.

June 1998
Umax licence expires; other firms’ stocks dwindling.

Other licensees included Gravis and US dealers APS Technologies, MacTell and PowerTools.

The Macs we never saw: firms which announced licenses but never produced machines include Acorn, Datatech, Everex, Redbox, Sonnet, Soyo and Tatung.

My vintage writing corner

My vintage writing corner

With regard to creative writing, I can say that Internet has ruined my life. Up to 1999-2000, my production (poems, short stories, two novels — a short one and a longer, more complex one) had been quite prolific and without serious writer’s blocks. Then the Web, electronic mail, newsgroups, etc., began a slow but inexorable erosion process: of my time, my energies, my ability to concentrate on a story and forget about the world outside. The time devoted to writing has grown thinner and thinner and today it’s almost nonexistent. The cruel irony is that because of what I do for a living and also thanks to my many technology-related interests, I find myself reading and writing on my Mac(s) all day, something that frustrates a lot of my creative side.

I soon came to the conclusion that it is not possible — for me at least — to creatively write sitting at the same desk, in front of the same setup where I work, read news, manage email, navigate the Web. When your main system is capable of keeping multiple applications open, it’s easy to be distracted by incoming emails and updated RSS feeds. Not to mention the temptation to search the Web by following the spur of the moment — when that happens, the best case scenario is that I find myself two hours later digesting a lot of information I found following link after link, yet without doing anything really productive.

The solution is to configure a setup without an Internet connection. No browsers, no emails, no distractions: just me, my ideas, and the word processor. Now that I’ve acquired the Apple IIGS ADB keyboard you see in the picture, which is the most compact (and robust) of the smaller line of ADB keyboards manufactured by Apple, I connected it to my Macintosh Colour Classic, and I’m using this beautiful compact Mac as a creative writing setup. Its portable counterpart is the eMate 300, which can be easily connected to the Colour Classic for text file transfers. Another mobile solution I’m working on is the clamshell iBook purchased on eBay a while ago, which I’d like to keep as a OS 9-only machine, to act as an efficient bridge between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ world.

Since I started using this setup on a fairly regular basis, the creative drought seems over, thankfully. The effect of returning to a Mac with a 10-inch screen and System 7.1 is certainly interesting. There’s calm and much less chaos in the old System 7; that, and having a single application in the foreground is almost enough to inspire the creative process. I have yet to decide which writing tool to use; Word 5.1, WordPerfect, an old version of Nisus Writer or WriteNow? They are all excellent candidates, each with its pros and cons, although I tend to prefer WordPerfect and WriteNow. For the moment, I’m taking notes with the good old SimpleText and familiarising with all of these word processors. I’ll probably stick with WriteNow — it has a negligible impact on the mere 6 MB RAM installed, and has a simple yet powerful interface.

Furthermore, I must admit that using a Mac that boots in 40 seconds is amazingly refreshing!

OpenDoc: an introduction

The following article was written by Chris Cain for Personal Computer World and published in the March 1996 issue of the magazine. For a more general overview of the OpenDoc technology and what that meant, the Wikipedia has an interesting entry about it. I’ve chosen to reprint this article because I find it to be a good, simple introduction to OpenDoc, which was in my opinion one of the most promising features of the Mac OS system. Sadly it was terminated even before it could grow and improve.

Apple recently released the first version of its component software architecture, OpenDoc, which plays a major part in the company’s future plans. OpenDoc could completely reshape the way in which we work with Macs, PCs and other platforms. In fact, it’s my Utility of the Month.

OpenDoc is officially described as a multi-platform, component software architecture that enables developers to evolve applications into component software, or create new component software applications. In more simple terms, it’s about breaking down today’s monolithic software apps into smaller, more manageable components that can then be mixed and matched to suit every user’s needs.

At the moment, if you wanted to create, say, a newsletter containing text, graphics and spreadsheet data, you would probably edit each piece of data in a separate application and either export it as a file and import it into your main application, or cut and paste info using the clipboard. Either way, you end up loading three or four different packages and using only a subset of the tools on offer. It takes a long time and you can experience problems such as unsupported file formats and lack of memory.

With OpenDoc you have “Part Editors” instead of applications and your work is based around documents called “Stationery”. Part Editors are small sets of tools for doing jobs like editing text, manipulating pictures and so on, and Stationery files are templates for doing certain types of work. Each different type of Stationery contains links to the Part Editors used for that type of job.

To prepare the same newsletter with OpenDoc you would use a piece of stationery that has been set up with links to text editing, drawing and numeric data Editors. You’d then create your data using these and if you wanted to import a file created with something else, you’d just drag it from the desktop onto your document. If you’ve set up a stationery file without a certain set of tools, you just drag the appropriate Editor onto your document and they appear.

The beauty of working like this is that you use only as much RAM as you need for the job, and all tools are available whenever you want them without loading lots of individual applications. Part Editors should also be much easier to develop and maintain than larger applications, and will give small developers more of a chance to compete with large companies like Microsoft.

There will still be room for big applications in an OpenDoc world, but they will need to support embedded OpenDoc parts.

Apple’s OpenDoc 1.0 contains a Control Panel for setting up associations between Editors and different types of data, a few sample Stationery files and some very simple Editors to accompany them. I’ve been putting these through their paces over the past few weeks and have successfully managed to build a document using this method. Although it’s difficult at the start, once you get into it everything begins to make sense.

If you want to see for yourself what OpenDoc is all about, you can download it from Apple’s World Wide Web support sites.

Remember PowerTalk?

I didn’t. Well, I did, of course, but sometimes memory can’t retain all the details. Especially when it comes to yet another potentially brilliant idea Apple tried to implement, but dropped in a relatively short time frame.

PowerTalk was the later name of the Apple Open Collaboration Environment (AOCE) that was released in 1993 within the System 7 Pro bundle. There is quite an informative entry on AOCE in the Wikipedia, which will help in putting things in context. AOCE was created to solve a series of issues related to the electronic mail and delivery systems of that time, and the solutions it proposed were indeed promising. From the aforementioned Wikipedia entry (my comments are italicised in brackets):

At “one end” of the system, AOCE focused on the underlying delivery and addressing systems, generalizing the e-mail concept so the system could be used to deliver anything from e-mail to word processor documents to print jobs. Addressing was another issue the market was struggling with, so AOCE would offer a single universal addressing mechanism and address book, one that could support not only people’s e-mail addresses, but the “addresses” of things like printers and fax machines as well. These could be looked up in an interface much easier to use than the existing solution, the Chooser.

AOCE would normally store a user’s e-mail on their computer, as opposed to a server. This not only allowed the user to read their mail offline, but also removed the need for a single machine with huge storage space. Small networks could be set up simply by installing the standard “client” software; the machines would discover each other on AppleTalk and communicate directly. AOCE understood that users were not always connected to the network, so outbound mail was cached on the sender’s machine until both the sender and recipient were online. Even on a LAN this would be valuable, as many people turn off their computers at night and the mail would have to wait until the next morning for delivery.

Since the mail was stored locally, users with laptop computers would be able to read and compose mail while on the road. Everything would automatically update the next time they returned to the office and connected back to the LAN. AppleTalk Remote Access, Apple’s “standard” solution for supporting the AppleTalk protocol over modems, was also supported for those users who wished to sync up remotely. [This model can be seen today with services like MobileMe and the so-called ‘Cloud computing’, but it was 1992 when Apple had the idea].

For security over the potentially “open” phone lines, all communications could be secured using RSA encryption and digital signing, even on the local network. Additionally, Apple provided the Keychain, which stored various login credentials in an encrypted file. This allowed the users to use a different username and password on the various systems they used, placing them in the keychain for secure storage. This way they only had to remember a single password for the keychain; AOCE would retrieve the credentials for a particular service on demand. [Keychain has survived and it’s part of Mac OS X].

I’ve found a nicely written breakdown of PowerTalk in the March 1995 issue of a vintage UK magazine called The Mac. In that issue, the main feature was a 16-page special on the then-new System 7.5. The excerpt on PowerTalk I’m about to ‘reprint’ is taken from that special (pages 74-75). It is written by Cliff Joseph. (For better readability I won’t be formatting it with the blockquote tab; the text will be in italics enclosed in two separating lines).






PowerTalk isn’t just a single new feature, it’s an entire system designed to handle communications with other Mac users and with sources of information such as online services.

It’s easy to connect your Mac to a network or subscribe to services such as Cix and CompuServe, but in the past all these different connections had to be handled separately. You might get e-mail delivered to you from several different sources — from colleagues on your office network, from CompuServe and so on — but each set of e-mail would be stored in different parts of your hard disk. The network and each online service will have all their own passwords, and for business users there’s always the issue of security for sensitive information.

PowerTalk provides a central communications system that handles all these different sources of information, stores e-mail and network addresses for all the people you work with and controls passwords and security features.

Other software developers can design their applications to work in conjunction with PowerTalk so that you can share the information and documents you create within those applications. WordPerfect 3.1 supports PowerTalk, for instance, so when you set that program to type a memo you can instantly send that memo to a colleague without having to leave WordPerfect at all. Just select the e-mail option within WordPerfect and off it goes. [RM note: It’s the same thing you would do today using Mac OS X Services feature.]

The following is a quick guide to the main features of PowerTalk.


Rather like a contact management program, a PowerTalk catalogue is simply a collection of ‘information cards’. Each card holds details about a colleague on your office network, or about anyone else to whom you send mail or other types of information. The card stores personal details such as the person’s name and telephone number, plus their e-mail or network address.


DigiSign is a program that allows you to attach an electronic ‘signature’ to a file such as a spreadsheet or memo that you can send to someone via e-mail. Any PowerTalk user who receives that document can then ‘verify’ the signature to ensure that it is genuine. This allows you to authorise documents such as expenses claims electronically, without having to print them out and send them to other departments using traditional, slow mail systems. The verification process will vary, depending on your work set-up. Some organisations may decide to restrict the use of DigiSign so that ‘signatures’ can only be allocated to specific users by a central authority such as the accounts or finance department.

Key Chain

A PowerTalk key chain stores all your different network and online service passwords and access codes.

For example, I have accounts with three different online services, and each one has a separate log-on procedure and its own password. With PowerTalk, I can type all these passwords into a key chain, and give the key chain a single password. By using the key chain I can instantly send e-mail via any of these online services, as all their passwords are stored in the chain and I no longer have to type them in myself. You may need ‘gateways’ to use a key chain with services such as CompuServe or eWorld (see MailBox).


Once you install PowerTalk you will see a new icon appear on your desktop. This icon looks like a traditional In/Out tray, and double-clicking on it will take you into the mailbox, where you can sort through all the e-mail that has been sent to you.

PowerTalk also enables online services such as CompuServe to provide ‘gateways’ that connect with PowerTalk. These gateways connect the service to your mailbox so that any e-mail coming from the service is automatically routed into it. This way, mail from several different sources can be stored centrally, rather than being stored in all sorts of different places on your hard disk.

If you want to send a reply to an item of e-mail, the gateway will automatically direct your reply to the required service without the need for you to go and locate the separate communications program that you would normally use to log onto that service.


This is an e-mail application that allows you to send mail to any user who is included in your PowerTalk catalogue, whether it’s a colleague on your office network or just a friend that you send mail to over Cix or CompuServe. [RM note: So the name ‘Apple Mail’ has quite a long history…]



So, with all these fascinating ideas and concepts, why did PowerTalk fail? For a number of reasons. First, its system requirements, that were a wee too demanding for the Macs of that era. It required at least 2.5 MB RAM, but was really usable with 4 MB. Problem is, 4 MB was the maximum available RAM for Macs in the 1993-1995 years, and RAM was awfully expensive. Plus, it was impossible to use together with QuickDraw GX, another Apple innovative and promising technology of the time, again due to lack of memory. Other reasons included a not-really-thought-of user interface (which is strange, considering that we’re talking about Apple; but perhaps not that strange, since we’re talking of 1990s Apple, heh). The Wikipedia article I already mentioned says it all:

For instance, the addressing system was so deeply embedded into the core of the system that simply typing in a new address was an ordeal. First the user had to click on a button, select the address type, type it in, and then finally click OK to have it appear in the message. Disk usage was also a problem; each message was stored as a separate file, requiring 1k or more of space in an era where 40MB and 80MB disks were still common. Thus a few hundred letters would be enough to fill the free space on the drive. Backing up e-mail was likewise almost impossible as a side-effect of the design; the mail was spread out over the network, some of it remote and inaccessible.

Another annoyance was that the system could not know who a user was, because Mac OS did not require users to log in. Thus documents had to be delivered to a user’s machine. This did not work well when the user had two or more machines, making the concept of a universal mailbox difficult to achieve in practice.

Even the remote access functionality was doomed by feature interaction. To ensure that all messages were delivered in a reasonable time on a network where machines might appear and disappear at random (when they are turned on and off), AOCE had a 15-minute timeout in which it repeatedly tried to deliver pending messages. If the user in question was using a dialup connection on a modem, AOCE would keep the line open for a full 15 minutes before giving up on disconnected user, driving up huge long distance bills to deliver a potentially tiny message.

Many of these problems were intended to be solved with the PowerShare server, which acted as an always-on, always responsive “super-peer”. The basic AOCE protocol would notice these machines when attempting delivery, and send to them first, thereby eliminating the delays and centralizing storage and maintenance. Sadly the server was not ready in time for the release, and did not ship for another year. When it did it was likewise slow and resource hungry, largely a side effect of various features of the Mac OS that made it unsuitable for server applications (not that it was designed for this role).

What’s interesting to me about PowerTalk, anyway, is the fact that it shows how Apple was trying to veer toward a document-oriented approach for its system. PowerTalk was bringing that approach to email services, while the immediately following OpenDoc and CyberDog addressed, respectively, document creation/management and Internet browsing. I plan to discuss these in more detail in the future.

Forgotten utilities: TattleTech

Personal Computer World magazine used to have (maybe it still has — I haven’t bought a copy in the last 10 years or so) a very nice Hands On section, with a lot of articles divided in various categories: 3D, 32 bit, Beginners, Computer Answers, DOS, Graphics & DTP, Multimedia, Networks, OS/2, Windows, etc., and of course a Macintosh category. I have several PDFs of this Hands On section from the 1995-1997 era, and I’m very glad I kept the old CDs where they were stored.

In the Macintosh Hands On articles of that time, there usually was a box with a short review of the Utility of The Month. And this is the review by Chris Cain taken from PCW’s December 1995 issue — the Utility of the Month is TattleTech, a very nifty application I always include in the set of utilities I copy throughout my vintage Macs.

Here is a little shareware number I pulled down from eWorld, called TattleTech. No sooner was it downloaded, it saved the day. TattleTech was originally known as “TattleTale”, a program I first encountered in my Mac IIsi days. Much improved since then, it is a semi-diagnostic program that investigates your machine’s configuration and reports the findings. TattleTech can tell you about general hardware, such as what kind of processor your machine has, what speed it is and how much RAM there is, and also about more complicated issues such as system patches, extension version numbers and open files. A complete list can then be printed for your records. TattleTech is ideal for keeping track of what’s in and on your system, seeing what parts are written in native PowerPC code, and for tracking down problems with extensions. It costs nothing to try out and could save you a lot of time if you have a software conflict. TattleTech currently resides in the ZiffNet Hot Downloads section in the eWorld Computer Center. It doesn’t support PCI at the moment. […]

Here are a couple of screenshots of the latest (and last) version of TattleTech (2.84) taken on my PowerBook 5300:

The main TattleTech window, which usually opens the General Hardware section.
The main TattleTech window, which usually opens the General Hardware section.
All the information TattleTech can provide about your Mac is divided in various sections, accessible from this drop-down menu.
All the information TattleTech can provide about your Mac is divided in various sections, accessible from this drop-down menu.

Of course, TattleTech 2.84, being released in 2002, does support PCI and also runs in the Classic Environment under Mac OS X (up to Tiger), although the author John Mancino in the Read Me file warns:

TattleTech will run under Classic in OS X. However, due to Apple’s implementation of the Name Registry under Classic, some of the more important information related to hardware is no longer available. To regain this functionality would require a major re-write of the code to run under Carbon and I have elected not to undertake this effort.

TattleTech used to be shareware. I had the 2.81 version and thought it was the most recent. While researching prior to writing this post, I discovered that 2.84 is the latest and last, and also that it has been turned into a freeware application. Surprisingly, despite many search results in Google, a valid download link is quite hard to find. Sites like VersionTracker, ZDNet, Cnet, and the like all point to the homepage of TattleTech’s author, John Mancino (the direct link is this), but currently that website appears down.

I managed to find a copy on a Taiwanese university FTP site (direct download link). I usually don’t abuse FTP sites — some have bandwidth problems and usually prevent massive simultaneous access to their resources. So I’ll also provide a link here. (Disclaimer: I’m doing this under a ‘fair use’ perspective: if the author of the software doesn’t want me to distribute TattleTech this way, he can contact me and I will remove the link(s) provided).

Download TattleTech 2.84

[2018 Update: The link still pointed to my old site. Moved to Dropbox].

A curious form of Mac evangelism

The “featured letter” of MacFormat’s Issue 63 [May 1998] is rather funny. It’s titled What in the (PC) world…?, and the reader indeed shows an ingenious, albeit complicated, form of promoting Macs:

I am always dismayed when I go to our local PC World computer superstore by the lack of things Apple, and the fact that the only two Macs on display are always tucked away in a corner and ignored. So this is what I’ve taken to doing…

First, I take time to go through all the Control Panels to set things up correctly on each Mac, including turning the speaker volume up to full. Then I find the SimpleText application and open it. I type something like: Apple Macs are the world's best computers; ask for them by name. Apple Macs -- designed by geniuses, marketed by morons! I then select all, copy it, paste it five times; and select all again, copy, paste five times; and go back and repeat it again and again. In just a matter of seconds I have over 250 copies of the phrases. Next I make the window quite small and invoke the “WindowShade” feature to roll the window up into a tiny title bar. I can then position it right down by the Trash can, sticking off the edge of the Desktop. This is repeated on the other Mac, too.

All that’s left to do is select all the text and, after a quick tour of the store, come back and press Command-J (“Speak Selection”) and walk away. Just a glance over the shoulder before leaving the store and you’ll see salespeople wondering what’s going on!

Another way you can annoy them is…

Peter Bell
United Kingdom

The letter is interrupted, probably edited by the MacFormat editorial staff. Their answer, in fact, is: We’d just like to say that all the opinions expressed on this page are those of the writers, not necessarily those of MacFormat or Future Publishing Ltd, and we cannot possibly condone hooliganism or endorse the commission of pranks. Just thought we’d make that clear.

But where is their sense of humour?! Heh, probably in choosing this letter as the “featured letter”, thus granting the guy a prize. For this issue it’s a Pace 56K Voice modem and a year’s Internet access account with leading service provider Direct Connection. (Apparently a worthy prize, by the way: This great prize is worth over £300 and comes courtesy of Direct Connection.)

Probably the letter was picked at random — I can’t help but pointing out the irony of not “condoning hooliganism or endorsing the commission of pranks” yet granting the reader a £300 prize…