Ten years ago, if you had asked me what the biggest differences between Macs and PCs were, I would've praised the Mac's point-and-click mouse-driven interface and blasted the DOS command line lurking below Windows. These days, I'm not only embracing an operating system that has the Unix command line burbling beneath its surface, but also reveling in utilities that replace point, click, and drag with typing.
The old DOS interface was the stuff of nightmares because it required that regular people memorize intricate commands to get work done. The original Mac interface made all those commands accessible -- on the menu bar and in its windows. If you clicked around enough, you could find almost every command a program offered.
The Dark Side of the Mouse
Mousing around was an innovative improvement on typing text commands. Trouble is, yesterday's innovation is today's old news. As computers have become more complicated, getting by on just your wits and your mouse has become more difficult.
Ah, but innovation has rescued us once more. Some of the most lauded Mac utilities are tools that use indexing and clever databases to let you access all the stuff on your Mac with just a few keystrokes. I've been using Objective Development's LaunchBar ( www.obdev.at ), but fellow Mac users have also raved about BlackTree's Quicksilver ( http://blacktree.com/apps/quicksilver ) and Peter Maurer's Butler ( www.petermaurer.de ). Now, if I want to launch an application such as Now Up-to-Date & Contact, I don't have to search for it in the Finder. I just press Command-spacebar and enter nud. LaunchBar has scanned my Mac and knows the names of all my programs; it automatically figures out which program I mean, shows it to me, and opens it when I press return.
Programs like these can radically change the way you use your Mac. When I'm working on a Mac without LaunchBar, I want to pull my hair out.
Find That Tiger
Tiger ships sometime in the first six months of 2005, and this forthcoming version of OS X comes with a number of features that we potentially can't live without. Chief among them is Spotlight -- a collection of technologies that should make it easier to find what you're looking for.
Spotlight isn't a replacement for LaunchBar, QuickSilver, and Butler, but it's very similar to those utilities. It quickly scans everything on your Mac, including the contents and identity of your files, mail messages, contacts, and more to produce instantaneous search results.
A more radical element of Spotlight is the introduction of Smart Folders, which feature dynamic contents that change based on a set of criteria you define. For example, you could have a Smart Folder containing every file you've received via e-mail in the past week, with newer files automatically landing in the folder and files older than a week disappearing automatically. With Smart Folders and fast Spotlight searches, I suspect that we won't be using the Finder in the same way ever again. And I bet that in a couple of years' time, trying to find a file, e-mail message, or personal contact on a Mac running Panther will seem just as frustrating as I now find using a LaunchBar-free Mac.
It's All about Time
Next to Spotlight, Tiger's most impressive new feature is Automator, a system of automating dull tasks that promises to be a gigantic productivity booster for Mac users. But if you can't wait for Automator to give you a productivity push, have no fear; in this issue, we've got dozens of tips and tricks that will help you work faster right now. In this month's "Beat the Clock" article, our team of Mac experts offers advice about streamlining the programs you use the most.
Our tips may not radically change the way you work with your Mac, but they should save you a lot of time -- which you can spend pondering how much time Tiger will save you when it arrives next year.