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NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

By Nathan Willis on November 12, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

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Apple's .Mac service -- commonly known as dotMac -- is a suite of online utilities integrated with OS X. It is wildly popular with Mac owners, but it costs $99 per year. That annual hit to the wallet prompted J. Kent Pepper to commence a bounty-driven contest to create a free, open source replacement: the notMac Challenge. And he has found a winner.

Pepper launched the challenge last December, following a debate with his uncle over whether a bounty system could produce a quality solution. High-profile, high-price inducement challenges like the Ansari X-Prize were proven successes, and Pepper postulated that same effect would work on smaller-scale issues as well.

At that point, he says, "my uncle challenged me to come up with my own. I thought about it for a while and realizing that dotMac would be a perfect test because it was an area with a small but passionate audience and the solution could be delivered by a single individual."

As Pepper saw it, the $99-a-year dotMac service charge was just high enough to be painful to frugal users, but not high enough to motivate individual programmers to write their own replacements. The collective need of the community would provide that motivation.

"One of the things that I find particularly useful about inducement prizes is their ability to identify participants that would otherwise not have been considered (or even located) through more traditional means. For a developer working in Silicon Valley, the value of the prize might not have been enough compensation, but inducement prizes open up participation to anyone around the world."

Putting your money where your mouth is

The notMac Challenge Web site took in PayPal contributions for the prize money, each of which were then matched one-for-one by Pepper's uncle. All told, the bounty raised $8,622 for the winning entry.

Pepper drew up a detailed list of requirements, including installation behavior and system compatibility, as well as which dotMac services needed to be recreated and which did not.

dotMac offers users online storage space, Web site and photo galleries, and secure remote backup and synchronization of user data like calendars and contacts. Those services are integrated directly with client-side OS X -- iDisk online storage, for example, works transparently with the local filesystem. But dotMac also offers server-side applications, such as IMAP email and Web-based calendar editing.

Pepper decided to narrow the notMac Challenge requirements to just those services integrated on the client-side. There are already numerous, free alternatives for IMAP and online calendars, after all, so there was no point in unnecessarily burdening contest entrants with duplicating them.

The rules also stipulated that all qualifying entries be subjected to a 21-day public review period. The first entry to pass muster would then claim the reward, and release the source code to the public.

And the winner is ...

Ben Spink submitted his code in September, and was declared the winner on October 1. By day, Spink is the developer of CrushFTP, a proprietary file transfer application. He incorporated a stripped-down version of CrushFTP into his winning entry in order to implement notMac's key WebDAV underpinnings. In accordance with the rules, once he was declared the winner he posted both the source code to his notMac implementation and the source code he used from CrushFTP.

In an unusual twist on the rules, Spink's entry did not, in fact, adhere to two of the contest requirements that involved modifying the OS X Finder's Go menu. Those requirements violated accepted OS X security practices, and Spink convinced Pepper that they were a bad idea. His notMac implementation does implement the same functionality, but does so within the app itself rather than in the Finder.

Spink's notMac packages now stand at version 1.1, available from SourceForge.net. The OS X package is a 7.4MB .DMG image, and contains the code to run both the server and client components. With one Mac set up as the notMac server, additional Macs need only the client package, which redirects the built-in dotMac services to the replacement server.

There is also a Linux package that allows you to set up the notMac server-side component on a Linux machine. Currently you cannot run a notMac server and client simultaneously on one Mac, so if you need to synchronize multiple Macs with the service, using a Linux server may be your best option.

Unfortunately, the Linux package lags behind its Mac counterpart in terms of usability and bug fixes. The app is Java-based, but while the Mac version includes a user-friendly launcher and detailed instructions, the Linux version has neither. The notMac Challenge forums include several threads on how to get the app up and running on Linux and even FreeBSD.

Spink does accept bug reports and feedback through the forum, and many of the corrections that warranted the 1.1 release originated there. But success stories about the process include altering some system configuration files and creating a Mac OS X-like directory structure.

You play the Steve

The easier way to get started is with a Mac-to-Mac setup. You must first set up a notMac server, then configure your client machines. After you have mounted the notMac .DMG disk image, double-click the notMac app; it will ask whether to do a client or a server install.

The server setup tool allows you to specify the IP address and port number under which to run. By default it uses port 443 for SSL encryption, but it does not automatically select your computer's correct IP address, so be sure to double-check. You can alter the default data storage directory if you wish (important if you anticipate large backups).

It is essential, though, to set up notMac user accounts for every user who will be accessing the system. On the notMac client machines, the usernames and passwords you set up on the server will take the place of the dotMac account details OS X expects. When you have set up accounts for all your users, click the Enable button to start the service, and you are through.

Setting up a client machine is simpler -- the setup tool asks only for the IP address and port of the server. When you click Enable, the client setup tool switches out Apple's dotMac server credentials for those of your replacement notMac server.

If the server is running and you are not blocking port 443, when you go to the dotMac System Preferences panel, you will see the reverse-color notMac logo in place of the original. You can sign in with your notMac account name and password and set up synchronization and iDisk access.

Some iLife applications, like iPhoto and iWeb, include built-in dotMac features, such as one-click publishing. Since these features involve assembling content on the client side, then uploading the result, they should work out-of-the-box with notMac as well. Bear in mind, though, that your iPhoto galleries will be accessible to the public only if your local notMac server is publicly reachable.

If your main concern is synchronization of address book and other data, running a LAN-based notMac server may suffice. If you choose to run your notMac server on a public IP address, you are theoretically exposing your system to risk, and Apple won't be there to help you if it goes up in smoke.

In perspective

I have never been a paid dotMac subscriber so I cannot personally attest to how painlessly notMac works as a drop-in replacement. At the very least, though, it is an excellent way to leverage OS X's built-in synchronization framework.

As a multiple-computer user, I am keenly aware of how tricky data sync can be. Even if it is Mac-only, anything that makes part of the synchronization problem go away (and at zero cost) is welcome.

Furthermore, the success of the notMac Challenge as a contest is noteworthy. Pepper has proven his point: small-scale inducement prizes can work. In fact, they are probably more likely to work than large-scale contests, at least when the effort is community-driven.

Pepper confirms that there were multiple project teams working on solutions when Spink claimed the prize money. According to the contest rules, those teams are not obligated to release their work as open source software, since they did not win. But the fact that they exist proves that Spink's work was not a fluke -- there was real competition.

Now that this challenge has reached its successful conclusion, Pepper says he is giving thought to launching another. But he is also interested in developing a method for others to replicate the inducement prize contest on their own. "When the iPhone and AppleTV were released, a couple of people offered bounties of a few hundred dollars to develop certain hacks, and I think, since the solutions served the entire community, it would be great if others could've contributed to the prize."

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on NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

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NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.84.72.169] on November 12, 2007 09:44 PM
"notMac" is written in Java, so quite resource-hungry.
Keep an eye on this page: http://code.google.com/p/dotmac/ - the same Java-code is translated in Perl as we speak.

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NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: toronto on November 12, 2007 09:53 PM
I agree that the 99 bucks stops many folks from buying. Its aimed at all the new iMac customers who are easily smooth talked by some salesperson. Also the fact that this contest succeeded is the biggest success from the whole thing.

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Re: NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: Lisa on November 12, 2007 11:20 PM
toronto: I think $99 is practically highway robbery for .mac access. Yeah, I think it's aimed at new users or those who want good integration between Mac apps like iLife, the Web site tool, etc. On the other hand, the ability to keep multiple Macs synced is nearly priceless. I was glad to see the NotMac challenge and hope it succeeds (and also forces Apple to drop .mac prices).

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NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.249.152.15] on November 13, 2007 04:27 PM
What the...? How is this so called challenge even relevant? Most of the point of .Mac is ONLINE storage and supposed EVERYWHERE access from multiple systems. Why would I want to set it up inside my own house? So if my house burns down I lose originals AND backups? I suppose now everyone wants companies to run their datacenters for absolutely free, with no income to pay for, oh, I don't know, salaries, utilities, employee health care, and whatever other meaningless charges. $99 is highway robbery for people who just bought a $2000 computer? Get real folks. Open source is fine but it can't replace PHYSICAL objects, which is what the .Mac datacenter is.

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Re: NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: Nathan Willis on November 16, 2007 11:13 PM
As is explained in detail at the challenge Web site, there is considerably more to dotMac that just off-site storage. Is off-site storage the only feature of dotMac that you use? Hooray for you. And since you brought it up, indeed there are plenty of free online storage services out there, so if that feature is the only one that interests you, you don't really need dotMac either.



Nate

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NotMac Challenge frees OS X users and pays developers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.125.33.192] on January 29, 2008 09:44 AM
I love the fact that this contest was created and followed it with great anticipation. I really hoped that what would come out of it was an alternative to Apple's dotMac service, that would be much less expensive. But in the end this project fell WAY short of the expectation: A dotMac service for the Average Joe. What average Joe is running a Linux server at home to be able to host the server piece of this equation? This remains a dotMac geek lab experiment to create a "free" alternative to a paid service. It falls short, so far. What can get this project going is for a hosting service to pick this up as a low-cost add-on.

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