Mac2Windows

MacLink Plus 15: Still Capable after All These Years, But...

- 2004.12.01 - Tip Jar

DataViz and its MacLink Plus product have a long history on the Mac platform. I still can find a copy of a version of it dating back to the late 1980s, designed for System 6 Macs.

Like later versions of the product, it included a set of file format translators, allowing users to convert between a multitude of word processor, spreadsheet, database, and graphics formats. This older version also had some uniquely useful functionality that got dropped from later versions of the product.

Along with the ancient program stored on a Mac-formatted floppy disk, there is a cable with a plug for a round Macintosh serial port (the "modem" or "printer" port on older Macs) on one end and a PC-style RS232 serial port connector on the other. There's also a floppy disk for use with a DOS or Windows (version 2.x!) PC.

Unlike today, it was often difficult to get Mac-created files onto a PC or PC-created files onto a Mac; few personal computers had Internet connections or local area networks, and few used 1.4 MB high density floppies. Many PCs used 5-1/4" diskettes, and even if your Mac and PC both had 3-1/2" drives, they most often could only read double density (800K Mac, 720K PC) diskettes.

Also, unlike the later 1.4 MB diskettes, Macs and PCs physically formatted double density disks in totally different ways; they can't easily read one another's diskettes. (Central Point Software, makers of the copy protection-breaking CopyIIPC and CopyIIMac software marketed a PC add-on board that could be used to let PCs read, write, and format double-density Mac disks, but these were not very common items).

With this old version of MacLink Plus, schools, homes, and businesses with a mix of Macs and PCs could transfer files between the two systems. And with the files on the Mac, they could be translated into a format that could be read by the Mac's applications (in most cases).

Pretty neat.

For the better part of the 1990s, most Mac owners had some of MacLink Plus whether they knew it or not. A subset of the product's file translators were licensed by Apple and included in some (but not all) Mac OS versions as well as with most of the versions of ClarisWorks/AppleWorks. In fact, the latest editions of AppleWorks 6.x include a variety of MacLink Plus translators customized to allow AppleWorks to read and save in Microsoft Office file formats (among others).

Let's call what Apple licensed "MacLink Lite."

DataViz continued to develop the full MacLink Plus, adding the ability to read, view, and convert between a growing list of file types. Version 15 (US$80; US$40 upgrade) includes compatibility with new products like Microsoft Office 2004 and Word Perfect 12, new graphics translators for Photoshop, and support for the new Stuffit X compression format.

Another new feature is the ability to extract the text from PDF files for pasting into a word processor. And new support for dock connector iPods and iPod minis lets users convert word processor and PDF files to plain text and send them to their iPod.

In all, MacLink Plus 15 boasts of the ability to read and translate files created by various versions of 17 PC (DOS or Windows) and 15 Mac word processing programs, 9 PC and 7 Mac spreadsheets, 10 PC and 7 Mac graphics formats, and 7 PC and 6 Mac database formats. As well, the program can deal with files encoded or compressed with a range of popular formats.

All this can come in very handy if you have a collection of data files created over the years using software that is no longer installed on your computer. On my Windows systems, I was a big fan of a now obscure word processing program: Samna Ami Pro (later purchased by Lotus, which is now owned by IBM) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ami Pro support is not built-into either the Windows or Mac versions of Microsoft Word, but when I need to refer back to those old files, MacLink Plus (or its companion Windows program, Conversions Plus) will let me open those files in Word.

(It's not always a perfect translation, however. A Slovenian computer user recently asked me for help with a large number of Ami Pro files that included formulas. While MacLink Plus/Conversions Plus happily read the text and basic formatting, both left blank spaces where the formulas appeared. IBM/Lotus's more modern WordPro word processor (part of the company's little-marketed SmartSuite alternative to Microsoft Office for Windows) also left blanks for the AmiPro-created formulas).

If you need to access Mac or DOS/Windows documents in formats supported by MacLink Plus, it could prove a lifesaver. But those users are probably in a shrinking minority.

In the program's heyday, 15 years ago (more or less), PC and Mac users used a wide variety of programs. I remember a review in PC Magazine (around 1988 or so) of over 100 different word processors, for example. Aside from plain text files, it could be difficult to transfer files between different applications - or even between different versions of the same application.

It was even more difficult to transfer files between platforms; even applications from the same manufacturer might use incompatible file formats for the Windows and Mac versions.

Those choices have shrunk dramatically. How many word processors for the Mac can you think of? One? Three? Half a dozen? And file format compatibility has become increasingly important. Even Microsoft has learned a lesson here; their Windows version of Word 97 created .doc files that couldn't be read by users of previous Word versions. This forced many users to move up to Word 97 than might have otherwise been the case, but it also created a consumer backlash. Microsoft released file translators for the two previous Word versions and has kept the file formats of subsequent PC and Mac versions of Word compatible with that Word 97 format.

Today most users are able to share word processor, spreadsheet, and graphics files with other PC and Mac users and have some confidence that their documents will be readable by the recipient.

The result: MacLink Plus works pretty much as advertised. It will let users read, view, open, and edit documents created in a wide range of file formats even if they don't have the programs originally used to create the documents. It will let Mac users access documents created by PC users and by users of a range of older Mac software.

But, if like many of us you only need to access Word and Excel office documents, PDF files, and JPG graphics, maybe you don't need it. LEM


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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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