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WebEdge 95
Volume Number:11
Issue Number:10
Column Tag:From The Field

WebEdge Conference Report

What really happened when the lights went out?

By Jon Wiederspan, jon@comvista.com

WebEdge II happened in Austin, Texas last week (August 20 - 24) and the city seems none the worse for the wear. WebEdge I was held last spring at the Apple offices in Austin, where 100 attendees squeezed into a space that probably wasn’t rated by the fire department for that load. Obviously it was successful, because WebEdge II had over 300 attendees and many of them had been at the first conference. To handle the load, the conference was moved to the Austin Convention Center, which seemed much more spacious, especially when you had to hoof it from a class at one end of the halls to a lab session far away at the other end. Ten different rooms had classes going all day on various topics and an extremely well-stocked Hack lab occupied the far end. A latté stand marked the center point of the hall for those who found their energy levels flagging, although coffee doesn’t seem to have the same importance in Austin (yet) that it has had for years in Seattle.

About the Lights

The conference was planned well and provided more opportunities for information and meeting people than any one person could take full advantage of. In future years, though, the thing that will stick most in people’s minds will be the one unplanned event - a power outage. I was working in the Hack lab at the time, as were about a dozen other people on the 30 or 40 computers available (depending on whether you counted the portables or not), when the lights first faded, then flickered several times, and finally went off altogether. Needless to say this didn’t do a lot of good for anyone’s work in progress, and the computer monitors also sounded as if they would definitely have preferred a more polite method of powering down. The only people who escaped were those using portables that had some battery reserve. One user expressed the thought that maybe plugging in his machine was the final straw for the electrical system in the building, but I personally suspected that the Convention Center was designed a little better than that.

The power fluctuations played havoc with the fire alarms, so the next thing we new we were all being ushered out of the building until someone found out what had actually happened. It being late afternoon, many of us now faced for the first time the brutal truth of summer in Austin, Texas. Inside, the building had been a comfortable 68 degrees and humidity was, of course, no problem. In fact, several people had complained that it might be a little bit too cold in the building. Outside it was somewhere around 95 degrees and at least 75% humidity, not something this Seattle boy is accustomed to. The complaints stopped at once and I didn’t hear them for the rest of the conference. A gentle Austin drizzle started minutes later and completed the experience.

Everyone was able to enter the building again after a short wait, power returned after maybe half an hour, and everything returned to normal with classes running slightly late. Reports were that a lightning strike had taken out power for the entire city grid. Unfortunately, this included the University of Texas-Austin which provided the network connection we needed to reach the rest of the world. The network was down and, with both e-mail and Web services unavailable, the Hack lab quickly lost interest. In retrospect, though, the power outage probably helped much more than it hurt. No matter how exciting a presentation is, you can only sit through so many in a single day, and more than one presenter had been hearing soft snoring sounds in the classrooms. Now, WebEdge II will be remembered as “the one where the lights went out”.

What is WebEdge?

For those who don’t know, WebEdge is the conference for Macintosh webmasters and developers. For three days attendees witnessed presentations on new software for use with Web servers, on Web design and maintenance issues, and on how to write software for Web servers in several languages. Evenings brought the Birds-of-a-Feather sessions on various topics, from the best way to write HTML documents to the future of the Web itself. Interspersed with all of this were sessions in the Hack lab, opportunities to meet the people who own the names that keep appearing in the MacHTTP-talk mailing list, and some fine meals at a few of Austin’s many fine eating places. Personally, I loved the IronWorks, located only a couple of blocks from the Convention Center. It had great ribs and an extremely informal atmosphere that reminded me of some of my favorite places in the small towns of northeastern Washington.

There were two tracks to the conference. The first track was for webmasters and focused on design, content, and pre-built solutions, although it included a course on writing CGI applications in AppleScript (by yours truly). Speakers included Martin Haeberli (Apple’s Internet Wizard), John Hardin (author of MacWeb), Chuq Von Rospach (list-mom for the Apple Internet mailing lists), Robert Best (author of World Wide Web Weaver), and some twenty other Web folks of equal prominence. The second track was for Web developers, including many webmasters but primarily those who develop their own software solutions to customize client sites. Classes in this track emphasized programming and service provider topics such as writing CGI applications in C, the HTML and HTTP standards, and Internet Service Provider issues and answers. Some speakers from the first track spoke here too; new faces included Mason Hale (author of the CGI interface for Frontier), Jaeson Engle (of MIND fame), and, of course, Chuck Shotton (author of WebSTAR and MacHTTP).

This WebEdge was sponsored by Apple Computer, Inc., Power Computing, Starnine Technologies, Maxum Development, Delphic Software, Connectix, Adobe Systems, Inc., Everyware Development Corp., Bungee, and MacTech Magazine.

The WebHack Contest

The Hack lab was equipped with about 30 computers, an equal mix of Apple PowerMacintosh computers and Power Computing clones. I enjoyed the opportunity to give the Power Computing stuff a workout and I couldn’t find a single flaw, although the Ikegami 17-inch monitors were a bit hard on the eyes. Although everyone was allowed to use the lab, only Web developers were allowed to enter the Hack contest. The contest rules were loosely based on those from the MacHack conference, with the exception that the lab closed at midnight (because of Convention Center rules). Given the number of attendees carrying a portable of some kind, that wasn’t much of a problem. The top prizes were a PowerMacintosh 8150 Internet Server bundle and a Power Computing Power 100. Other prizes were provided by Metrowerks, StarNine, Main Event Software, Everyware, Bungee, and Ceneca, who all gave away full versions of their software, and Connectix who gave away three QuickCams.

The hack entries covered a wide variety of topics and ranged from purely fun to a future commercial product. The winning entry by Katy Agnor of The ForeFront Group, Inc. (http://www.ffg.com/) fell in the latter category. The entry was called Web Pirate, and its primary purpose was to grab pages off of a remote site and copy the entire page, including inline graphics, to your local site with all links intact. It first checked the Netscape cache to see if you already had the page downloaded, which is a big help on low-bandwidth sites. The final version should allow you to choose between designating a range of pages to get or grabbing entire site. Since copyright is a very sensitive issue on the Web right now, the final version should also have some method for a site specifically to allow such activity - and probably a name less suggestive of theft!

The runner-up (by Chris Esther) was a CGI application that fed logging data on the fly to a 4D database which would then output a real-time report of the top ten visited pages (you could filter out specific file types like GIF graphics) and the ten computers that most often visited your site. Christopher Utley created a CGI application in Frontier that allowed pages to be created, deleted, or edited on a site via a Web page. Stephen Banks created an AppleScript script that would convert a QuickTime movie into multiple GIF images which could be served as an animation on a Web site using the server-push feature (this will be a new feature on the XFiles site http://www.neosoft.com/sbanks/xfiles/xfiles.html, which Stephen maintains). John O’Fallon used NetCloak (his company’s product, http://www.maxum.com/maxum/) to create a server that had multiple unique home pages, although his trick would only work with Netscape and NCSA Mosaic clients. Mason Hale created a four-player game called “Tubin’!” using images of actual attendees who had preceded the conference with a tubing trip to beat the Austin heat. Jaeson Engle created a CGI application called MIND Controller that allowed new entries to be added to a MIND server via a Web page. Kelly Campbell stole the show, though, with a simple animation of a standard WebEdge pocket protector (all attendees got them) from which Chuck Shotton suddenly popped out.

All of the entries should be available soon from the WebEdge site at http://www.webedge.com/, along with entries from the previous conference.

Conference Highlights

Ceneca Communications was the darling of the show with their soon-to-be-released products, PageMill and SiteMill. PageMill is an HTML editor that goes to another level beyond the current crop of editors. The interface is much like that of any word processor, but has HTML as the underlying language. PageMill completely hides the HTML tags from the user unless non-standard features such as Netscape and proposed HTML-3 tags are desired. PageMill also makes good use of drag-and-drop for making links and inserting inline graphics. SiteMill includes PageMill functionality but enhances that with site management capabilities. SiteMill checks a site for dead links and other common errors at the startup. Once the links are fixed, SiteMill maintains them even if a file is renamed or moved to another folder. Fixing a link can be as easy as dragging a new file over the link to reconnect it to the proper page. Ceneca Communications has promised a pre-release version of PageMill for the many people who were ready to buy it even in alpha form. More information is available from Ceneca’s Web site at http://www.ceneca.com/.

Robert Best (of Best Enterprises, http://www.student.potsdam. edu/web.weaver/about.html) also introduced a complete rewrite of his popular HTML Web Weaver, an HTML editor written in Prograph. The new product is called World Wide Web Weaver, and has several new HTML features. The biggest change is the addition of an interface for automatically generating CGI application code to process forms. The new interface will create CGIs that can take form information and send it out via e-mail, send it to a database, or create a new HTML document, depending on the plug-in used. The software is still in alpha and can be downloaded from Best’s Web page.

The next version of MacWeb was revealed by John Hardin under his new company name, TradeWave Corporation (http://galaxy.tradewave.com/). TradeWave, formerly EINet, is aiming MacWeb and a collection of related security products at the corporate market that needs a very high level of security. In addition to authorizing the server (so the client knows that the server it thinks it is talking to is the one it actually is talking to), the new system will authorize the client to provide another level of protection for handing out sensitive information. The system will also provide encryption of data transmitted between client and server, and will be offered as a toolkit that can be incorporated into other client-server products to make them Web-enabled and secure for Internet use.

Kee Nethery (Apple Computer) and Jaeson Engle (The Jourvian Group) both presented their Domain Name Server products for Macintosh OS, respectively named MacDNS and MIND. Both are able to be primary DNS servers and can be configured to create RAICs (virtual servers with multiple machines answering to the same DNS name). MacDNS has not been released yet by Apple, but it should go into beta testing soon and be shipping in winter as part of the Internet server bundle. MIND is freely available now as alpha software and has been performing very well on many sites. MIND also has the ability to be a secondary DNS server, which MacDNS hasn’t at this time. On the other hand, MacDNS has by far the friendlier interface for configuration and management.

Starnine Technologies displayed their latest update to WebSTAR, version 1.2, which performs 30 - 50% better than version 1.1 and twice as fast as version 1.0 (which is currently on the Apple Internet Server bundle). In addition to the speed improvement, version 1.2 adds support for “server-push”, a feature introduced by the NetSite servers from Netscape Communications Corp. Server-push allows the server to keep a connection open indefinitely and pump data through at intervals, which can be used for creating animation effects or for regularly updated information such as a stock ticker. Version 1.2 also added support for “raw” files that are returned by a server without processing and is safe to use under OpenTransport (1.05 or later). Chuck Shotton warned that performance would be decreased when using OpenTransport because the ethernet drivers are not yet PowerPC-native and there are still some OT bugs to be worked out. As a side note, several people reported installing Connectix Corporation’s SpeedDoubler on their PowerMacintosh servers and getting a noticeable speed increase; SpeedDoubler improves emulator performance when accessing files, which is a lot of what a Web server does. John O’Fallon reported that his server, with SpeedDoubler installed, was handling more than 200 connections per minute (264,000 connections per day). Chuck Shotton said that their testing had the figure at closer to 350 connections per minute.

Several database connectivity solutions were displayed by Everyware Development Corporation (http:// www.everyware.com/), ForeSight Technology (http:// www.fsti.com/), and Eric Bickford (http:// www.macweb.com/). Everyware has an update to their product ButlerLink/Web, which provides an easy-to-use interface between a Macintosh Web server and their Butler SQL database. The new product is called Tango and is not only faster than the previous product (it is now written in C instead of AppleScript) but also has several new features such as a “shopping basket” that lets you save up selections from previous searches for later action. Tango obviates the need to know SQL, and generates all of the HTML forms (the user need only provide a header and footer). Everyware announced plans to add ODBC support to future versions of Tango, which would allow it to talk directly to any database that supports ODBC. ForeSight demonstrated their product, NetLink/4D, which turns your 4D server into a CGI application that can communicate directly with a Macintosh Web server. NetLink/4D extends the 4D programming language so all of the flexibility is still available. NetLink/4D is very fast and provides support for threading multiple connections. Eric Bickford showed his new product WEB FM, which provides a simple interface for linking FileMaker databases to a Macintosh Web server. WEB FM provides several methods for searching a FileMaker database quickly, updating entries, and deleting entries. Although WEB FM does not currently generate the HTML form pages automatically, that ability is planned for a future release.

Closing Address

The closing address was provided by Bill Enright, who demonstrated his product Whurlwind, which he is developing jointly with John Louch of Apple Computer (this is not an Apple product). Whurlwind is a VRML 1.0 viewer for Macintosh computers. It works by converting VRML 1.0-compliant files to QuickDraw 3D scenes and objects that can be manipulated with the QuickDraw 3D interface. VRML has gained a lot of attention because it allows a three-dimensional space to be described in a small file relative to a QuickTime VR image of the same space. In addition, the 3D model allows the user to travel around in the scene, whereas QuickTime VR may constrain the user’s freedom of motion. Internet links can be embedded in objects in the scene, although this feature was not working perfectly in the demonstration version. Bill warned users that the software is definitely still a hack (which he considers a compliment), will run only on PowerMacintosh computers (because it requires QuickDraw 3D), and needs about 32 MB RAM to run. Even given those limitations, I don’t think I was the only one to download a copy to take home.

 
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