iDisk over dial-up: Forget the Finder, use Goliath

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
March 24th, 2005 • 2:37 am

I cannot believe it took me so long to find this out…

I have been a .Mac subscriber for a long time. Unfortunately, I have also been stuck with a dial-up Internet connection during all that time. And I am afraid I have to say that trying to user Mac OS X’s built-in iDisk features over dial-up is not just painful, it is actually masochistic.

The problem is quite simply that Mac OS X’s built-in iDisk features have obviously not been designed with a dial-up connection in mind — or even tested with such a connection. Because if Apple had tested the iDisk features with a dial-up connection, they would have realized that the interface is absolutely atrocious.

For one thing, the iDisk features are integrated into the Finder. Even though Mac OS X actually launches a separate, invisible process called mount_webdav when you mount your iDisk in the Finder, this process is not accessible through a separate application. The functionality it provides is only accessible through the Finder. When you mount your iDisk, it appears in the Finder as a separate volume at the “Computer” level. If you want to view what’s inside your iDisk, you simply open the iDisk volume in a Finder window and browse its contents. If you want to copy a file from your hard drive to the iDisk, you simply drag it onto the iDisk window in the Finder.

I say “simply”, but it’s anything but simple over a dial-up connection, because the Finder is a poorly written Mac OS X application and because things are so slow over a dial-up connection. The problem is that, unlike good old FTP for example, file management in the Finder has a lot of overhead: whenever you browse a volume in a Finder window — regardless of whether it’s a local volume or a remote volume — the Finder loads file icons, file previews, all kinds of file information, etc. And all this requires quite a bit of bandwidth.

Over a dial-up connection, this means that even the simplest operations take a very long time. And the big problem is that, during that time, the Finder is pretty much unusable. I don’t know if it’s because the Finder is not a properly multi-threaded application or because of the intrinsic design of the iDisk features, but when I try to use my iDisk over my dial-up connection, I frequently get the spinning pizza of death in the Finder for extended periods of time. And if I don’t get the spinning pizza, I simply get unresponsive windows where nothing seems to be happening.

If I want to cancel what I was trying to do — because it just takes too long and I am losing patience and I need to use the Finder for something else — then things get even worse. Either the cancellation itself takes a very long time or it simply does not work at all, and the Finder becomes completely unresponsive.

Worse still, if I try to force-quit the Finder, it doesn’t even work! The Finder stays open even though it’s stuck, and force-quitting seems to have no effect.

Fortunately, I have discovered that the problem is actually with the mount_webdav process and that force-quitting that particular process (through Activity Viewer) actually “frees” the Finder, which becomes responsive again. But this is a clear illustration of the problem: mount_webdav is a separate process, but from a user interface point of view it is integrated into the Finder, and when something goes wrong with mount_webdav, the Finder itself ceases to work properly.

There are other problems still. If I am using my dial-up connection for anything else at the same time (like downloading a big file), the iDisk features become even less responsive, and seize up even more easily. As well, even without anything else going on over the dial-up connection, the Finder’s progress bars for file copying operations would also be completely useless (either staying at 0% until the very end or jumping immediately to 95% and then staying there until the very end).

And while copying a file to my iDisk in the Finder, if I try to use the Open or Save As dialog box in any Carbon application, the dialog box takes forever to appear. Obviously, in Carbon applications, the Open and Save As dialog boxes share some functionality with the Finder itself, and when the Finder becomes unresponsive, these dialog boxes become unresponsive as well.

To put it shortly, trying to use the iDisk in Mac OS X over a dial-up connection is a nightmare.

To me, the core problem is Finder integration. Most of the problems are related to the fact that the iDisk features are part of the Finder and not accessible through a separate application. Anything that involves the Internet can easily become problematic when using a dial-up connection, but at least if it’s handled by a separate application you can just force-quit the application in question when things go wrong.

So I decided to try and find out if there was a third-party tool that would let me use my iDisk without using the Finder’s iDisk features.

First, I checked out Panic Software’s FTP software Transmit 3. I was a user of Transmit 2 for a long time, but recently switched to Interarchy, as I explained in this other post. But one feature that Transmit 3 does have and Interarchy does not have is the ability to access WebDAV volumes. The iDisk is a WebDAV volume. So I thought I’d give Transmit 3 a try.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get it to work. First, when I tried launching Transmit 3, it would crash right away. I discovered that the problem was due to my existing com.panic.transmit.plist preference file (left over from my Transmit 2 days). I trashed that preference file and tried launching Transmit 3, and it worked fine then. Still, it’s not particularly smart of Panic Software to design a new version that’s not able to handle the previous version’s preference file properly.

Then I tried to access my iDisk using Transmit 3′s features. The interface is reasonably straightforward — although they give no indication of whether you should use your user name with or without the “@mac.com” part, and the error message when you use the user name with the “@mac.com” part gives no indication that this is what the problem is. (You need to use your user name without the “@mac.com” part.)

But even after I had the correct user name and password, it still wouldn’t work. It looked like Transmit 3 was logging in, but then the file listing would stay completely blank. A look at Transmit’s transcript log indicates that things get stuck at a stage with a “405″ code — whatever that means. I sent an e-mail inquiry to Panic Software, but have yet to receive a reply.

Then I tried to see if I could use mount_webdav in the Terminal with a command-line interface, without going through the Finder. mount_webdav is indeed a command that can be used in Terminal, but I looked at the man page and tried to use the recommended syntax, and it wouldn’t work. The Terminal would simply give me a prompt, without any error message or any indication of what was wrong.

Finally, I went to VersionTracker and searched for descriptions containing the word “webdav“. I didn’t get many results, but I saw one for a freeware application called Goliath. The application was described as something that can be used to build web sites on WebDAV servers, but the description seemed to indicate that it could also be used for simple operations such as managing files (which is all that I want to do, really).

So I downloaded it and fired it up. And it works! You can easily connect to your iDisk by using the http://idisk.mac.com/username/ URL and your user name and password (without the “@mac.com” part). This open a window with a Finder-like file listing — but it’s a separate application, and not the Finder. You can still drag-and-drop things from the Finder, so it’s almost as good as complete Finder integration — without any of the numerous drawbacks.

And it’s fast — much faster than the Finder, as least for mounting the volume and showing the file listings. And the progress bars for lengthy file copying processes are actually fairly accurate!

It’s a freeware application, so you cannot really ask for much more. The interface is not as polished as a typical Mac OS X application. (It still uses Mac OS 9-like icons and text labels, with no font smoothing.) But that’s the least of my worries at this point. All I care about is that it works reliably, and has absolutely no impact on the usability of the Finder for anything else.

The bottom-line here is that, when it comes to using the iDisk over a dial-up connection, you simply cannot count on Apple. They obviously don’t care about dial-up users, and are probably hoping that they will all go away by themselves, turned off by the fact that the iDisk is utterly unusable over a dial-up connection using Mac OS X’s built-in iDisk features. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is.

Apple probably thinks that we can all afford and have access to high-speed Internet and that those who can’t should not even bother. But as far as I know, there is nothing in the advertising for .Mac that indicates that using the iDisk features is not recommended over a dial-up connection. And certainly when .Mac was first launched, there were many more people with only a dial-up connection. Since then, however, Apple has made no visible effort to make the iDisk features more usable for dial-up users. On the contrary, they seem to be ignored more and more.

The only good thing is that the iDisk is based on a standard technology — WebDAV — and that this technology is supported by third-party applications. If Apple used proprietary technology for the iDisk, we dial-up users would definitely be stuck, and would probably have to give up on the service altogether. As it is, a tool such as Goliath is a lifeline for dial-up users, and I for one am very happy that I’ve found it.


4 Responses to “iDisk over dial-up: Forget the Finder, use Goliath”

  1. Rainer Brockerhoff says:

    Actually, using .Mac from outside the US, even with a 512K ADSL connection, is nearly as slow as over dial-up. I believe latency is to blame here. Anyway, this was the main factor which led me to stop using .Mac after the initial trial period.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Interesting. But if Goliath doesn’t have the same latency issues, then clearly the problem is with Apple’s software, not with the intrinsic limitations of the connection. (Obviously I cannot test Goliath over an ADSL connection from here.)

  3. Rainer Brockerhoff says:

    Well, I’ve tested Goliath here and while download speed for larger files is the same (as expected), the time to show a directory listing is much smaller.
    Obviously the problem is with the Finder integration; as you said, it pretty much gets stuff like file attributes, icons and so forth piecemeal, and with some items it might read the entire file to build up the thumbnail. So not only the actual number of bytes read by the Finder could be much larger, but it probably would generate a larger number of packets.

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