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ATPM 10.06
June 2004


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by Matt Coates,

Some Offers We Are Not Needing

It’s so nice to have all these new friends! Esmerelda recently e-mailed me about a terrific weight loss product. Mary tells me that I can get a college degree—even a Ph.D.—without any “required tests, classes or books!” My pal Sidney is offering an excellent deal on Viagra, and Chauncey—good old Chauncey—reports that thousands of people are switching to smart spam control.

Meanwhile, another Mary and her co-workers Nickolas, Victor, Dwayne, Sergio, Monty, Neil, Bret, Jarrod, Lonnie, Jake, Dallas, Harley, Ernest, Luciano, Noe, and Aureilio were nice enough to take time from their busy schedules to let me know that I can save big money on my software purchases and impress the boss so much that I’ll get a promotion.

Who could pass up Adobe Photoshop for $60? And hey, these folks aren’t just software salespeople—they’re environmentalists. Apparently, they have found that eliminating manuals, registration cards, boxes, and other bothersome landfill from my software order helps save our planet! I commend them all, but none so much as the diligent folks at “eBay Accounts Management” who during a rigorous “update and verification of accounts” discovered that my information is incomplete. Even worse, if my account “is not update to current information within 5 days,” I could lose my right to bid and buy. But, no problem! All I have to do, the e-mail informs me, is “go to this link below and fill out the proper information that we are needing…”

Thank goodness Congress is saving us from junk mail. It’s just what we are needing. Spam was getting out of control, but the tough new anti-spam act slammed shut the mailbox door. So let’s not rest now—how great would it be to have a “do-not-spam” list like the “do-not-call” list that ended all that annoying telemarketing? Call me a foolish dreamer, but it could happen. For now, perhaps the best thing we can do is take the advice of my buddy Chauncey and order his “ultimate” solution to spam. As Chauncey puts it, “you owe it to yourself to try this program, and forward this e-mail to all of your friends who hate Spam or as many people as possible.”

My Little Network

We hear a lot these days about digital hubs and networked homes, about kitchen appliances that get together for a chat and then order the groceries, about home media servers and wireless systems that flow digital music and movies from the Internet into flat screen, high-definition video monitors (“TV” is so 20th century) all around the house. It’s amazing stuff, but still not part of everyday life for most of us. Much more accessible are the small wonders of linking your Mac to an iPod, the Internet and a mobile phone—it’s an affordable illustration of how powerful the digital hub concept really is.

Pairing my PowerBook with an iPod and a so-called “next generation” cell phone brought together a variety of hardware devices and software in some truly useful ways. “Useful” is the important word; for the first time, the gee-whiz element of interconnecting devices was less important than the practical applications of my modest network. I’m not on technology’s cutting edge here, and that’s what makes my unremarkable little network so remarkable. It links off-the-shelf software with some affordable devices and makes all of them even more useful and entertaining because they can communicate with each other.

The brain of my network is OS X software and several of its components, including iTunes and iSync. The nervous system is a mix of wired and wireless networks, for the permanent links, and USB and FireWire cables for the elements that come and go from the net. Among other body parts are a DSL connection, a subscription to Apple’s dot-mac, and the Web-capable cell phone. The iPod is the heart of my network—its elegant software engineering and industrial design revealing the allure and power of interconnectivity.

Most striking was how the already useful Mac programs—iTunes, Address Book, iSync, and iCal—immediately became integral parts of both the new network and my Mac-using experience. I already used all of them regularly, but now they had impressive new superpowers. iTunes pilots the iPod and Apple’s online music store, Address Book and iCal share their information with each other and with both the iPod and the cell phone, iSync keeps the network up-to-date and, in concert with dot-mac, makes my information accessible via the Web. Many of these things were possible before, but now they are everyday events, smoothly performed as they should be. It’s easy to see how, just a bit down the road, my network will expand to include home and mobile entertainment components. It’s not a matter of if, but of when.

My new network wasn’t planned; it began when my wife answered my request for an iPod for my birthday. I wanted it for the usual reasons: to take my iTunes music collection on the road and to use the pod as a portable FireWire hard drive. The opportunity to finally ditch my Handspring Neo was a big factor, too. Like many Mac users, I had grown tired of being a steerage-class passenger of the Palm OS. Handspring (a spin-off of Palm, now merged back in) was only marginally friendlier to Mac users, even though the Mac address and datebook interface had once been Apple’s Claris Organizer. iSync made linking a Handspring or Palm PDA to a Mac easier, but the process remained, and remains, annoyingly cumbersome. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks the interface for loading Palm software is a mess of unintuitive design and mediocre implementation?) I also realized that scratching text onto a tiny screen with a toothpick stylus wasn’t working for me; I could have chiseled words into marble just as quickly. So, near the end, I just gave up entering text altogether, choosing instead to write myself a note on paper the old fashioned way and enter it later in my calendar. Finally, when once-promising news and feature conglomerator AvantGo dropped active Mac support, I dropped the Neo. And I don’t miss it.

iSync puts my Address Book and iCal calendars on my iPod in an instant. And if I leave the pod at home, no problem. I still have my Motorola T721 cell phone. It lacks Bluetooth, which would allow wireless syncing, so I bought a USB cable that lets me attach the phone (and a dozen or so other Motorola models) to the Mac’s USB port, and now my cell phone works with iSync, too. (The T721 syncs datebook information, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, but not street addresses or notes; what gets synced varies among cell phone models.) It’s worth noting that I didn’t have to install any new software in the phone or the Mac—they synced without a hitch on the first try. The Windows version of syncing requires installation of new software on both PC and phone.

The Motorola USB cable included an unexpected bonus: it lets the cell phone be used as a modem. A fairly slow modem, to be sure, but useful in a pinch. Unfortunately, in contrast with syncing, this feature is not always easy to get up and running—you’ll need to track down connection info from your service provider to plug into OS X’s Network panel along with a modem script tailored to your phone, and they can be hard to find, especially for Mac users. My provider, AT&T Wireless, incorrectly says the Mac does not support the use of my GPRS phone as a modem, and, like several other wireless providers, only offers instructions for configuring a Windows PC. In Windows world, linking and syncing is usually handled by third-party software sold along with connection cables, so you may need to look for instructions for manual entry of the information. The info you need is not platform-specific, but you will need to figure out what goes where.

After a lot of Web slogging, I found what I needed. But wouldn’t it be thoughtful for Apple, which promotes the Motorola USB cable on its iSync Web page, or Motorola, which sells the cable, to spare Mac users all the hassle and offer current and accurate connection information? Neither does.

If you can’t find the modem scripts you need, you may find relief in a nifty $12 shareware application from Italian software developer Massimo Valle called GPRS Script Generator. It creates modem scripts tailored to the GPRS cell phones of more than 200 service providers around the world. GPRS, which stands for General Packet Radio System, is a popular and speedy (for cell phones) protocol for transferring data over second generation cell phones. Valle says it’s notoriously difficult for a non-expert to develop the essential GPRS modem scripts, so he created GPRS Script Generator, which compiles custom scripts from a database of information.

Using a GPRS phone as a modem is an odd experience which Valle says is akin to using a slow, always-on DSL connection: your phone doesn’t “dial” to connect as a traditional modem does—remember, GPRS is a data-only radio service. Instead, using OS X’s Internet Connect, the phone silently opens a channel to your service provider. Keep in mind that GPRS is not a dial-up protocol so you can’t use it to connect to a standard ISP, such as EarthLink, and usage fees are based on how much data you send back and forth, not on how many minutes you are logged in. It’s all very peculiar.

I don’t expect to use a cell phone connection to the Internet very often, but it’s nice to know it’s there as a backup. And fiddling with GPRS is geekish fun—an opportunity to wrap the brain around a new technology. But the best thing about GPRS and Mototola’s USB cable is that they added a cell phone to my burgeoning little network. The phone isn’t important—what matters is the illustration that a communications device bought for other reasons and uses can fit so easily and seamlessly into my Mac network. It’s getting easier and easier to have their information and entertainment we want, when we want it, and where we want it. And isn’t that the point of digital hubs and networking? My little network is coming along nicely.

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