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Toppling the Tower of Babel

A crash course in office interoperability. Business advisor hed: Toppling the Tower of Babel dek: A crash course in office interoperability. by Matt lake

The civil-engineering school at my college used to claim that the language schools owed them, big time. Resisting the urge to criticize their use of the expression “big time” at the end of a sentence, we linguists took them to task. “Oh, yeah?” we sneered. “Prove it!” And they did, by pointing to the Tower of Babel. The religion schools backed the engineers on this point. According to the Old Testament, God confounded the world with different languages because of a huge civil-engineering project at Babel–a tower as high as the heavens themselves. If it weren’t for this ambitious construction, we’d all be speaking the same language (and it wouldn’t be English).

Right around the time my college cronies and I were engaging in these sophomoric common-room arguments, Apple Computer and IBM were building their own minitowers of Babel. The PC and the Mac were also skyscraping feats of engineering that spoke different languages and ensured confusion among their proponents. A client of mine, a small school in eastern Pennsylvania, elected to speak Macintosh, and was quite happy with the decision. For about 20 years, that is–until last month.

After a couple of decades, the school’s administrative Macs were beginning to flake out with age. Lacking the budget to buy newer Macs, they had decided to migrate to cheaper PCs–but they had 20 years of documents and an old but crucial database, all in Mac formats that were pure Babel to the current crop of PC applications.

Parlez-vous Mac floppy?

The first problem in sharing data between mutually incompatible computers is physically transferring the data. Although both types of computer handle three-inch floppy disks, a PC formats them in a different and mutually incompatible way from the Mac. Sure, newer Macs are able write to PC-formatted floppies, but they’re not too smart about it. Although Windows has been able to handle long file names for six years, the Macs truncate folder and file names into gibberish such as !Administ.tra and !Registr.ati. At the Windows end, there’s nothing to indicate that these truncated file names are word processing or database files, so they’re next to useless. Without a network, this poor school had just embarked on a massive printout and data entry program when I intervened.

The real solution is a $50 program called MacOpener from DataViz. It’s a Windows program that enables PCs to read Mac floppy disks, as well as Mac Zip disks, SuperDisks, and portable-storage hard disks too. MacOpener retains extended file names and folder structures, making it ideal for casual sharing of data in offices with both Mac and PC users and for a dedicated migration of data from one system to the other. It adds several items to Windows Explorer, including a right-click menu option for formatting floppies and other media in Mac format. It also gives you the option of reading both the Mac and the PC formats on dual (or hybrid) CD-ROMs.

MacOpener works by running a small app called MacName that works closely with Windows Explorer, translating Mac-formatted media transparently into Windows-readable format. The app takes up about 1.8MB of system memory at all times–though in my tests on several systems, this didn’t cause significant slowdown or other system problems. If this seems like too much RAM to sacrifice all the time, MacOpener provides a configuration program that lets you turn off the automatic loading.

Sprechen sie MacWrite?

But merely transferring data from the Mac to the PC is only half the solution. The trick is translating the files into a format that Windows applications can read. That’s where another DataViz program comes in. Conversions Plus 6.0 includes all of MacOpener’s features and throws in a Rosetta Stone of data translation capabilities. Feed it a file from most word processing and spreadsheet programs on either Mac or Windows platforms–as well as many graphics and some database apps–and it will be able to translate the file into most any other common format. And the documents retain their formatting, formulas, logical operators, and database attributes. Conversions Plus translates between dozens of program formats, including such Mac-centric formats as AppleWorks, ClarisWorks, MacWrite, and PICT graphics files.

Conversions Plus can handle bulk conversions or deal with files one by one. Fire up the program, and you can take entire folders of ClarisWorks databases, for example, and convert them into Microsoft Works or dBase IV. Or you can double-click on a MacWrite file in Explorer and Conversions Plus will pop up and suggest converting it to Microsoft Word. You can also right-click on a mystery format file in Explorer, select the Conversions Plus option from the menu, and click on Info to get a breakdown of what the file’s all about.

Better yet, Conversions Plus can blast through all kinds of archive and encoded files. This includes not only Windows-friendly Zip and Unix Z files, but also the Binhex and MacBinary formats that baffle anyone but a Mac fan.

Another neat trick that Conversions Plus handles is scrambled e-mail attachments. It’s common for Macs to encode e-mail attachments using UUencoding, which results in no apparent attachment deletion in Windows e-mail boxes–but reams of gibberish code in the body of the e-mail message. By running Conversion Plus’s Attachment Wizard, the gibberish gets translated into whatever file was attached–which can then be converted into whatever format you need.

Note: Although this particular assignment was to move data from old Macs to new PCs, it’s possible to do the data translation dance on Macs, too. DataViz’s MacLinkPlus 12 is the granddaddy of data translation products, and, as its name suggests, it’s a Mac program all the way–able to recognize everything the Windows program Conversions Plus can recognize.

Habla usted FileMaker?

So far so good. But, sadly, Conversions Plus goes only so far. My school client maintained a crucial database in the Mac mainstay FileMaker, and several publications in PageMaker. And Conversions Plus won’t handle either format. Of the few options open to them, the most practical approach to handling these files was to buy the Windows versions of the programs. That’s because FileMaker and PageMaker don’t work anything like their counterparts. Sure, you can import PageMaker documents into other DTP programs. And you can transfer records in FileMaker by exporting and importing with DBF or delimited text formats. But that’s just not enough.

You can’t easily migrate a FileMaker database to, say, Access under Windows. You have to recreate the whole interface and retrain the users in the new program–a huge pain for a small department with a small budget. A much easier and more cost effective solution is to pony up a couple of hundred bucks for the latest FileMaker for Windows–version 5. While FileMaker 5 has a different format from earlier versions of the program, it can open and convert earlier formats readily enough–and export files into the old format too, if necessary.

And that about wrapped up the school’s great exodus to the PC platform. All that remained was for me to poke my head into the staff common room and interrupt their discussions of civil engineering, linguistics, and biblical folklore with a quick farewell. I wasn’t about to get drawn into that debate again. I’d settled those arguments 20 years ago.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake has racked up experience in three major corporations and one branch of the government. He currently operates and helps nonprofit organizations develop a Web presence.

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