Leopard's top-secret secrets

When you watch a Steve Jobs keynote from home, you only get about two-thirds of the value. For one, there’s usually complimentary orange juice and danish on the way into the hall. For another, you get to go hyper-nerd obsessive on every observable detail.

And I’m talking Comic Book Nerd obsessive. Which is still a cut below Star Trek-level obsession, granted, but nonetheless when I attend these things in person I don’t feel like my experience is complete until I’ve overheard someone excitedly whispering, “Check out the back of his belt! He’s got an Apple iPhone hidden there for the final reveal!”

Yes indeed… and Steve has cunningly camouflaged it as the radio pack for his microphone.

It just goes to demonstrate the sort of energy — weird, purple, sentient energy that Stephen Hawking has never gotten drunk enough to imagine — that permeates a Steve Jobs keynote. There is no information in a Mysterious Boxy Shadow under the demo pedestal or a Third And Seemingly Unnecessary iSight Camera Up There On The Stage that won’t be explicitly revealed by the time Steve thanks us all for showing up and releases us back into the general population. And yet, the speculation will keep everybody alert until One More Thing becomes One Final Thing.

I missed out on all of that at WWDC. So maybe that’s why, after I got the the end of the live blogcast and the delayed QuickTime streamcast, I found myself with my chair locked back into the Speculatin’ position.

Our friends in Redmond

Don’t get me wrong. It was a fantastic show that renewed my excitement about This World We Call Mac. If I were footing the bill for the dialysis treatments of three elderly relatives, I would now be pondering which one I’d be cutting off to cover the cost of a new Mac Pro. Just, you know, for a few months.

I’m going on the evening news shortly and I don’t know how I’m going to explain Time Machine without them having to squeegee my excited spittle off of the lens midway through. But as for the new core animation technology, well, I’m not even going to try. How do you explain to the average user that a core animation service doesn’t mean that we’ll be unable to write a simple one-page letter without being confronted by a T-10,000 edition of Clippy? You know, the reason why so many Microsoft Office users have a violent stapler-sized crack in their screens? How do I explain that instead, GUIs can be made far more effective in the exact same way that watching someone install a bathroom fixture on “This Old House” is much more effective than reading about it in a book?

What’s got me speculatin’ (and sippin’ a national-brand beverage, interrupted by some folks doin’ some telemarketin’) was one line from Steve’s keynote, explaining why Apple wouldn’t be demonstrating all of Leopard’s new features during the keynote.

“We don’t want our friends to start their photocopiers any sooner than they have to.”

These “Friends” being “Microsoft,” naturally.

And this was damned neighborly of Steve. It’s only appropriate for him to extend a little pity up to Redmond. Why give the Windows Vista team even more to do in the next few months? It’s the same compassion that we see every week on “Project Runway” when Tim Gunn makes his rounds in the workroom. When the designers have a whole day left to finish their latest challenge, Tim says, “This dress looks like what would happen if a goat ate a whole bag of Skittles and then threw up all over the Kool-Aid Man.”

(Only more…you know… nurturing. )

But if there’s only twenty minutes left and most of the models are in the Valvoline Hair And Makeup Room or the Red Man Smokeless Tobacco Fitting Stalls, the only humane thing he can do is encourage the designer to Make It Work and then go get a good seat for the fireworks.

Nonetheless…

No, it’s probably nothing.

(Lean. Sip. Ponder. Ring. Yes? No, I never do any such business over the phone and I don’t own a photocopier anyway. What? No, I don’t want to buy a photocopier. Click. Ponder. Sip.)

Well, it just occurs to me that it wasn’t necessary to point out that this demo wasn’t complete. Nor was it necessary to offer an explicit reason. When Steve is on a keynote stage, he’s a consummate showman…and just as when you’re watching a magic show, it’s the moves that are apparently unnecessary that should attract the closest scrutiny.

He doth protest too much

So why the explanation?

Ideas:

1) Truly, because Microsoft might have swiped some more ideas from Mac OS X.

If so, this might be the most charitable thing that anybody’s ever said about Microsoft. They’ve had five years to ship Windows Vista, with nothing to show for it but some hats, I think.

I mean, Microsoft is so desperate to distract attention from their inability to ship that they’re sending Bill Gates out to end hunger and disease as a diversionary tactic. That’s desperate.

So it’s flattering to suggest that anything that Steve shows off in August could be coded, tested, and shipped by Microsoft by January.

Although perhaps he’s just confident that in 2007, Microsoft will announce another 11-month delay. Probably a smart bet. Hmm.

2) Because many Leopard features aren’t ready for prime-time yet.

Certainly plausible. But if true…why bother even offering an explanation?

Apple’s refusal to discuss unannounced products can confound users and journalists and analysts alike. But I think it’s the only sensible policy. Is Apple working on a phone? I have no direct information of any kind, but…sure. I bet there’s some test hardware somewhere on campus.

But because they haven’t announced or even acknowledged such a project, they’re free to take their time. If they want to wait three years until a new wireless infrastructure is in place, so be it.

Mac OS X 10.5 has been announced and demoed, but the same principle applies. There’s no announced ship date and no commitment to any features. Nobody would have been surprised or disappointed if Steve had said “Naturally, we’re not showing you everything today.”

Okay. So I’m dismissing the idea that Leopard’s new “Print To Pastry” feature is currently too unstable to demo.

3) Showing off Leopard’s flashier features would give too much away. But not in the way you think.

What if the explanation Steve gave were true?

What if the “missing” features from the demo would indeed have given too much away? Not to Microsoft, who could harvest features and concepts for Vista, but to users, journalists and analysts, who would figure out way too much about the hardware that Apple intends to release in the coming months?

Oooo…I like that one.

We now know that there’s a “time machine” feature that allows users to “rewind” their data to a specific point. There’s a system-wide Tasks/To-Do list. Neither of these features are akin to the point in Steve’s first public demo of Tiger in which he demonstrated Safari’s new RSS features.

No, these features are system-level resources that add a consistent new experience to all apps.

What if — and I stress that I’m just making something up to illustrate a point — Leopard included a new feature called “Livingston”? The purpose of this feature would be for the OS — or a network — to fix your location, route services to you, and allow your proximity to a certain Mac to affect how that Mac interacts with you.

How would Apple demo such a feature without, say, a wireless iPod with a Bluetooth chip? Steve unpockets a new iPod Shuffle the shape of a silver dollar. He walks from an iMac to a Mac Pro. We see on screen that he’s automatically been logged out of the iMac and logged into the Pro.

Oops… they haven’t announced a wireless iPod.

How could Apple demo a cool feature where we can “move” a widget or even just an iChat session from the desktop onto a mobile phone, without a phone that’s super-Apple-studly?

Oops… the Apple phone doesn’t exist.

Hmm.

Again I stress that I’m making stuff up as I go. Just for good measure, I didn’t even check in to any rumor sites to see which tales are getting lots of traction these days. I haven’t been briefed about Leopard in secrecy, and when I was sworn to secrecy about Tiger, I immediately ceased talking about possible features even jokingly. It’s all meaningless entertainment.

Reality check

Okay, thanks for the fun, Andy. But why didn’t Steve show off all of Leopard’s new features?

Because it’s a 90-minute keynote, there was lots of cool stuff to talk about, and nobody has any reason to expect the company to tip over the entire basket of secrets at once.

Still. The chair’s awfully comfortable when it’s tilted into Speculatin’ position, isn’t it?

And besides, it’s a testament to Apple that they routinely produce products that are worth speculating about. When I get a new Microsoft product in the mail it’s often like that moment when you’ve got both feet on the brakes but you know that the car can’t possibly stop in time. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just hope it won’t hurt too much.

ANDY IHNATKO is a beloved technology columnist and longtime Macworld contributor. His column appears monthly on the Web at MacUser.com.

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