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First Look: Leopard first looks: Core Animation

Editor’s Note: This the 10th profile in our ongoing series on the recently announced features slated for Mac OS X 10.5, the next major update to Apple’s operating system.

Apple Core technologies—Core Audio, Core Graphics, Core Image, and Core Video—give software developers a leg-up when creating multimedia applications and behaviors for OS X. Instead of starting from scratch, developers can take advantage of underlying frameworks to easily add sophisticated features to their apps that perform very efficiently. Mac OS X 10.5 brings another item to this list, known as Core Animation; Apple promises that this Core technology will make creating complex 3-D animations more accessible.

How it works

Core Animation provides a layer-based animation engine that dynamically renders different media layers—ones with text, 2-D graphics, OpenGL renderings, and video—at the same time. The scenes it helps create can have transparency effects as well as Core Image filters and effects. A developer can use from and to points, key frames, spline animations, and transitions (fade in, reveal, and push, for example) to create complex animations for UI elements including menus, sorting, reordering, zoom and pan, and mouseovers.

Core Animation also takes advantage of the multi-core chips in Intel-based Macs, meaning that while an application itself runs on one core, Core Animation processes run on their own, dedicated core.

Why it was added

Apple’s big selling point to developers is “Let Core Animation take the headache out of animation”—that’s exactly why it exists. Developers usually need to manage the movement of individual elements on a frame-by-frame basis.

Animated effects like this one will require fewer lines of code when built using Leopard’s Core Animation technology, Apple says.

During the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, Scott Forstall, Apple’s vice president of platform experience, showed the company’s iTunes ad in which album covers fly around to create a cityscape. Forstall demonstrated the same thing made using Core Animation—it took one-tenth the lines of code as the original. What’s more, the television ad was a rendered movie, whereas Forstall’s Core Animation demonstration was a live animation that he could navigate through—a feat that requires a lot of technology and a lot of graphics and processing horsepower.

Who’s it for

Core Animation is an underlying technology, and, as such, it’s not a consumer feature—it will be used by developers. Apple, for example, is using Core Animation for the cool animated effects in both Time Machine and Spaces. At the same time, the reason Apple creates Core technologies is so developers can make applications with richer features and experiences for the user, so the ultimate beneficiaries are you and me. Users need to have a Core Image-capable Mac in order to reap the benefits of Core Animation.

What’s missing

Until Core Animation is finalized and developers get a chance to put it to the test, it’s difficult to say what Apple needs to do to make it better.

What it means

Providing powerful animation tools under the hood of OS X means applications will look snazzier and perform better. The technology is there to make it easier for developers to do many things, not the least of which is to wow customers and skeptics alike with everything the latest Macs and compatible software can do.

[ Jonathan Seff is senior news editor for Macworld .]

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