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Timbuktu Pro 6.0.3 for OS X Reviewed

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 7
Column Tag: Review

From Here to Timbuktu

A venerable tool is updated for OS X

by Chris Kilbourn

Ensconced In Its Evolutionary Niche

In biology, a holotype is the original specimen used to describe a species. In the taxonomy of Macintosh applications, Timbuktu Pro, published by Netopia, Inc., is the holotype for remote desktop screen sharing and file exchange software.

Timbuktu Pro's original copyright dates to 1987, the era of the MacSE and MacII, and network administrators and remote help desks the world over have been singing its praises ever since. Timbuktu Pro provides a remote desktop screen in a window with the ability to either view or control it, a file exchange function, a text chat method and, if you and a remote machine have microphones, an audio intercom feature.

With the ability to remotely control other computers and exchange files with them, Timbuktu Pro can be a huge time saver in solving problems, providing user training and performing software installations and upgrades. Pre-Timbuktu Pro, you actually had to get out of your chair and visit the user or server to perform even the simplest task. In a campus environment where a server or user might be a fifteen-minute walk away, the benefits of being able to control a machine at a distance are apparent.

Unlike other applications with similar longevity, Timbuktu Pro has remained surprisingly lean and consistent over the years. There has been little feature bloat, and if you were a user from years ago, it would be like returning to your home town after an extended period away: things might look a little different, but you would have no problem finding your way around.

I suspect that much of the reason that this is the case is because Timbuktu Pro fills its niche exceptionally well, has been extremely successful and Netopia has wisely decided not to mess with success.

In version 6.0.3, Netopia has squashed a few niggling bugs, added a feature to allow for limiting remote screen color depth in order to goose performance and allows for aliasing the TCP/IP Zones file used by the TCP/IP Scanner function in order to facilitate sharing the file with Netopia's NetOctopus, a software asset manager. With version 6.0.3, Timbuktu Pro on Mac OS X matches the performance and stability of earlier versions.

Where To From Here?

Timbuktu Pro is a great product. I have been using it for over ten years and it has saved me countless hours and an endless amount of frustration in that time. It performs well, is a solid application that plays well with others and does exactly what it claims to do without fuss or bother.

It just about owns its niche, but faces competition from Apple in the form of Apple Remote Desktop for screen sharing and file exchange. As legions of Macintosh programmers will tell you, you know you have a great product when Apple releases its own branded version.

Given all this, it is hard to review a product with such a long, successful track record. Instead of talking about the screen sharing function, (it is great,) the file exchange performance, (functional and reliable,) or dissect the Preferences menu, (still blissfully straightforward and clear,) I will focus on areas where I think that the application could move forward and retain its competitive edge.

This Isn't Your Father's Macintosh

With Unix under the hood of MacOS X, we have entered a whole new world of file permissions, file ownership, directory navigation and process management. The current version of Timbuktu Pro deals with many of these issues gracefully while adhering to the Mac OS interface. It would be nice, though, to see Timbuktu Pro embrace some Unix power user functions and tune up some interface features to reflect our new operating system environment.

File Exchange Fun

The feature of Timbuktu Pro that I have used the most over the years is the File Exchange function. It has saved me a huge amount of time in checking to see what software has been installed on remote machines and by providing a quick check to see if a remote server is up or down without incurring the system overhead of a screen sharing connection.

The trusty user interface of side-by-side directory listings of the File Exchange function has not changed much since the Font/DA Mover pioneered this type of view. It is time for a tune-up and some feature enhancements, though.


Figure 1 - Timbuktu Pro's File Exchange Window

A welcome addition to the user interface would be a directory Favorites menu. I find that when I am transferring files inbound to my computer, they are usually going to one or two places on a regular basis, and having to repetitively navigate to those directories can become a tedious task. OS X's Open and Save dialog boxes have the directory Favorites menu as a core user interface feature, and placing it in the File Exchange window would save keystrokes, mouse clicks and time.

Another minor nit with this interface is the default local directory Timbuktu Pro starts you at the Desktop of the root account. This view should really start at your home directory or allow you to set the default directory to begin browsing in. OS X saves your documents in your home directory's hierarchy by default, so why doesn't Timbuktu Pro? Having to navigate there every time seems kind of silly.

For power users, I would like to see options to toggle viewing file ownership, viewing group membership, the ability to change file permissions, viewing alias/link targets, viewing file size, viewing icons, show/hide hidden files and the ability to filter the list view by file type or name. This may sound like lots of feature requests, but the Unix ls, chmod, chown, chgrp and grep commands will perform these functions for you. They are just waiting in /bin and /usr/bin to be tapped and utilized.

Providing local and remote user and group views along with the ability to adjust the user and group ownership, (chown and chgrp,) of remote files saves a file download/modify/upload cycle when you have a need to adjust remote file ownership.

Using the ls command in Unix provides a wealth of file information, and you can expand or narrow the scope of information it provides by utilizing option flags. Providing a clickable unix-style file permissions listing, (i.e. - -rwxr-xr--,) where you could click on the permissions you wanted to enable or disable would save having to go through the process of downloading the file, changing the file permissions and then uploading it to the remote computer

Having a directory filename and file type filter, (grep,) would speed the location of an errant .html file that was misplaced in a graphics directory where there are hundreds of files to sift through. Timbuktu Pro's search feature is very fast, but does not allow you to search within folders.

By being able to toggle these Unix commands in Timbuktu Pro's File Exchange window, the exchange feature would be transformed into a sophisticated remote file management tool.

Providing the option of selecting these features as general preferences coupled with the ability to create filter or view preference sets would provide power users more control over file manipulation. Filtering out information from the list view might also provide a significant speed boost to the display of files in the File Exchange window. For example, if I do not want to see icons or file size, those are two less pieces of data that need to be fetched and displayed.

Stupid Shell Tricks

Old-school Unix system administrators were constantly searching for the most efficient combination of shell commands with the least amount of keystrokes in order to accomplish a given task. The command-line interface of the shell was continuously expanded over the years to allow all sorts of various and sundry file manipulation tools that provided sophisticated features, assuming of course, you knew they were there and knew how to apply them to the task at hand.

One of the reasons why you might transfer a file with Timbuktu Pro is to do something with it. You might need to edit it, or email it off to someone, or merge it into another file you are working on.

I know that I cannot count the number of times I have had to download a file from a web server that someone else created, then edit it, and then return it back to the server. During this process, I have had to switch from Timbuktu Pro to the application I am editing the file in and then locate the file before I could begin work.

A feature I would like to see in order to help alleviate some of this hassle is the ability to send a file directly to an application. (Crusty sysadmins will recognize this as the shell pipe feature.) Copying the file to your machine and then having it open up in the targeted application would save a fair amount of effort and needless clicking around.

Borrowing a feature from Apple's Safari, marking a directory location with snap back would complete the process when it was time to return the file. Timbuktu Pro does allow you to save connection documents which will place you in the directory you were browsing, but providing menu access via bookmark-type structure would go a long way towards making server farm administrators and help-desk technicians very happy.

Oh, That File Goes There

One File Exchange feature I have always coveted in the exchange function is the ability to move a file on a remote computer. The only way to do this currently is to copy the file to your local computer, then re-copy the file to the proper directory on the remote computer, and then delete the remaining extra files at each end.

This has always been a bother, especially when moving directories around. Some might argue that to move files or directories around, you should use the Control function. My counterpoint to that argument is that can take much longer to move files around on a remote computer via the control function if that computer is heavily loaded with processes or at the end of a low or constrained bandwidth connection.

In the server environments I have worked in with Timbuktu Pro, I have dropped files into directories by accident when the screen redraw rate slowed down during a Control session. With the File Exchange function, you always know where you are at, directory-wise.

Do You See What I See?

The Control feature in Timbuktu Pro is the meat and potatoes of the program. It allows you to remotely dismiss a pesky dialog box, perform training or troubleshooting for remote users and view how many hits your web server is receiving when it is sitting in a data center on the other side of the planet.

As before, this feature has been rock-solid over the years and it is difficult to say much about it other than the fact that this feature works, it works well, and the screen redraw performance is good. In constrained bandwidth situations, you will encounter jerky remote mouse pointer behavior and slow screen updates, but this is no fault of Timbuktu Pro. A screen redraw meter might be a nice addition to have in situations like that to confirm that it is the redraw that is slow, not your local machine.

For all its success in screen sharing, I do have one major nit to pick about the Control function environment, and another feature I would like to see enabled.

Back To The Future

Try this thought experiment: imagine you are a brand-new Macintosh user that has only ever used Mac OS X. Now, initiate a screen-sharing connection in Timbuktu Pro. Now guess how long it will take you to figure out the window control features.

That's right, there are no Aqua controls in the Look or Control windows of Timbuktu Pro.


Figure 2 - Timbuktu Pro's Control Window Controls

This may seem like a small issue to bring up, but software is hard enough to use as it is, and mixing control interfaces on a user violates user interface guidelines big-time. For a professional's view on violating user interface guidelines, check out <http://www.asktog.com>. To paraphrase Tog, it is a bad, bad thing to do.

There must be legacy code issues in Timbuktu Pro that has prevented Netopia from adopting Aqua interface guidelines in the Look and Control windows; at least, I hope that's the reason. Here's hoping they sort those issues out and are able to bring consistency to the windowing environment in the next release.

Command And Control

Raise your hand, if while using Timbuktu Pro in Control mode, you have inadvertently closed a remote window or quit a remote application by mistake. Raise your other hand if in doing this, it has caused short-term chaos for you to sort out.

I'm the guy in the corner waving both hands above his head like he is trying to flag down a 747.

Number one on my feature request list for the entire application is the ability to suppress the transmission of command-key combinations to a remotely controlled computer via some sort of toggle switch, with the default being suppression and with the ability to override it on a per-session basis.

Having been the victim of my own fingers, usually when low on sleep, in quitting remote server applications, it would be nice to have this safety feature to prevent user error.

A Heretical Thought

Software publishers and software users have reached an accommodation when it comes to features: feature requests are turned into coded features if it is cost-effective to implement them. The marketing and business calculus that drives this dynamic tends to be fairly clear-cut, and has provided us with software that does all sorts of things we need it to do, and some features that we perhaps do not use, but that a significant fraction of other paying customers do.

When this dynamic breaks down and product managers approve every feature requested, we end up with applications that become huge, lumbering beasts that try to be everything to everyone, (Word 6 anyone?). Timbuktu Pro, thankfully, has always been a lithe application free of features that leave you scratching your head asking, "Who the heck needs to do that?"

Operating systems change and the applications bundled with them change over time. Years ago, Apple shipped microphones with computers and monitors to encourage multimedia uses of the machines but they no longer do this. Text chat programs for the Macintosh used to be difficult to install and interoperated poorly, if at all. With the advent of iChat, this is no longer the case.

Lack of built-in microphones and the inclusion of iChat with OS X make the Intercom and Chat functions of Timbuktu Pro mostly superfluous and they should be purged from the application. Why burden the code base with functions that are either difficult to utilize, (by having to buy a microphone,) or are better implemented in another application (iChat)?

The Bottom Line

Timbuktu Pro performs as advertised, without quirks or crashes for screen sharing and file exchange. Low or constrained bandwidth situations will cause noticeably jerky screen redraw and slower file transfers, but that cannot be blamed on the application. The interface is straightforward, with its features and options easily accessible via menus and key commands.

Version 6.0.3 brings Timbuktu Pro for OS X into the solid performance and stability realm that the application enjoyed under the Classic MacOS. This reviewer hopes that future releases of the application will take advantage of the Unix underpinnings of OS X and make shell commands for file manipulation available when utilizing the Exchange function.

Timbuktu Pro 6.0.3 for MacOS X is a deservedly esteemed application that should be an integral part of your software library if you have a need for remote screen sharing and file transfer.


Chris Kilbourn is an independent small business, network and web infrastructure consultant. Chris is also the founder of digital.forest, Inc., http://www.forest.net, which offers database, application and web hosting services in addition to server colocation. You may contact him at chrisk@forest.net.

 
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