Final first impressions of Leopard

It’s been two weeks since Steve Jobs and a trio of other Apple executives took to the stage at the Worldwide Developers Conference to preview the next version of OS X. Now that Macworld has had a chance to examine each of the features slated for Leopard, I thought I might add my own two cents on what Apple has revealed about OS X 10.5. After all, OS X has basically been both my hobby and my job for the last five years; I'm as interested as the next person to see where this OS is headed.

To me, the single most interesting thing about the entire Leopard presentation was actually one that received very little time in the presentation—a single slide displaying the words Top Secret. At the keynote, Jobs told attendees that we weren’t actually going to see everything new in Leopard, as Apple wanted to keep Microsoft’s photocopiers offline for a while longer. To me, this was a very telling slide—everything else we were about to see wasn’t really the good stuff about Leopard. It was merely the stuff that Apple felt it could share without giving a competitive advantage to Microsoft.

Instead, I think the truly revealing Leopard presentation will come at January 2007’s Macworld Expo. By that time, (theoretically) Vista will either be shipping or very close to shipping, and Apple will probably feel comfortable revealing the Top Secret items we weren’t allowed to see two weeks ago. I’m not sure what those features might be, but they must be good if they’re stronger than the 10 areas that Apple opted to disclose.

Note that it’s also completely possible that was nothing more than “marketing spin,” designed to get people like myself speculating what hidden gems we may have yet to see, with the reality being that there are no super-secret hidden features. Only time will tell…

As for the features that were discussed in detail, there are five that I think are going to be real winners once OS X 10.5 ships next spring—and by “winners,” I mean compelling features and applications that will help drive the OS X user experience to yet another level. Those winners are:


Time Machine: With more and more of our lives being stored on hard drives (think photos, movies, music, etc.), it’s critical to have a good backup. Yet very few people take the effort to regularly back up their systems. Time Machine looks like it could change all that. With a very intuitive and ground-breaking 3-D interface, and automatic background operation, Time Machine should make it brain-dead simple for anyone to have a constantly-updated and easily accessible backup. Yes, you’ll need to invest in another hard drive to keep the Time Machine backups…but how much are those digital-only pictures of your newborn child worth?

There are some questions to be answered relative to drive space usage with Time Machine—I posed a few of them in my write-up on the backup feature —but I applaud Apple for taking the initiative to make backup a key element of the operating system. I feel somewhat sorry for the vendors who targeted consumers with backup solutions, as their market just got a lot tougher. But Apple seems to have really done this one right.


Core Animation: This is a developer-level technology, but it’s one that might just fundamentally change how we interact with our software in the future. For the Core Animation demo, Apple explained how the company used the technology to convert a 4,000-line screen-saver from OS X 10.4 into a 400-line Core Animation project—and one with more features than the 10.4 version. Company executives also revealed that Time Machine’s interface is based on Core Animation. As developers experiment with Core Animation, I really think we’ll start seeing some groundbreaking new apps that take user interaction in entirely new and useful directions.


Mail: The incorporation of notes and to-do's in Mail is a great move. Like Steve Jobs, and probably many of you, I spend an inordinate amount of time in OS X’s built-in mail client. I also spend a lot of time flipping between Mail and iCal, adding events, to-do's, and notes to myself in the form of events. Having that built-into Mail will be a great time saver.

Even better, though, is the fact that the to-do feature is a system-wide server, accessible to any developer. This should mean the emergence of new apps that will also be able to tie their activities into the to-do server. Having just one to-do system that can be used by any application is a brilliant move, assuming developers take advantage of the opportunity.


Dashboard: For developers, Dashcode will make it much easier for them to write Dashboard widgets. But that’s not what’s most exciting about Dashboard in 10.5. That distinction belongs to Web Clip, which is actually a feature in Safari. Press the Web Clip button, and Dashboard opens, showing the displayed web page in a widget. Scroll the page and size the widget to show what you want to see, and blammo, you’ve created your own personalized widget. Scott Forestall created five widgets in about five minutes; it’s really as simple as drag-and-drop. I think giving users the ability to create their own useful Web-display widgets is a very shrewd move; it increases Dashboard’s mind share with the users, and gives all of us a reason to use Dashboard—even those like myself, who were previously not huge fans of the feature.


iChat: iChat has matured nicely over the years, and Leopard looks to continue the trend. Tabbed chats are a great addition, as anyone who has used Chax to add the feature to iChat in 10.4 can attest. On my machine, it’s not unusual for me to have 10 or so iChats open at once; having them all grouped in one window makes it much easier to manage the multitude of conversations. Sharing slideshows and keynote presentations is also a great idea, as is the ability to record your video chats.

I can’t, however, say the same for animated buddy icons—I can only hope there’s a preference to disable this “enhancement.”

Surprisingly, the coolest new iChat feature wasn’t even covered in the keynote. It is, however, explained on Apple’s Leopard iChat page . That feature is iChat Screen Sharing, which will allow two people to control one another’s screens, complete with audio, via an iChat. For someone like myself who does a lot of tech support for the relatives, this will be a huge timesaver. Instead of typing up instructions with screenshots, we’ll just be able to start a screen sharing chat, and I can then do what needs to be done while explaining what I’m doing and why.

Important but not obviously cool stuff

While the obvious winners on my list all have very visible public faces, there are other elements of Leopard that are just as important, but much less visible. While many users may not take advantage of the following features every day, they serve an important role in making OS X 10.5 a solid upgrade from 10.4.


64-bit applications: In 10.4, Unix applications can be written to take advantage of 64 bit processors (the G5s and the new Mac Pros). In 10.5,
64-bit support has been extended up to the actual GUI level—all the frameworks now support 64-bit code. For those in fields who push huge (over 4GB) data files into CPU-intensive operations (think astronomical and scientific data), this is very important. For most of the rest of us, we won’t see much, if any, change in our typical consumer applications.


Deliver the complete package: Basically, this was Steve’s way of saying that Apple will finish those things they’ve sort of sporadically started before, and include them all with Leopard. Specifically, Boot Camp, Front Row, and Photo Booth will all be bundled with Leopard and will work with a wide range of Macs (and cameras, in the case of Photo Booth). It&38217;s nice that people won’t have to resort to finding hacks to use Front Row or Photo Booth. From a somewhat cynical perspective, though, holding out Photo Booth as an incentive to upgrade to Leopard seems a bit weak—but no such argument for the other two applications, obviously.

Universal Access: Leopard will go even further with accessibility. While this mainly benefits those with special needs, there are some trickle-down effects for the rest of us. The demo of the new text-to-speech voice, comparing it to those of both Tiger and Vista, was jaw-dropping. The new voice sounds incredibly natural—you can even hear short “breathing in” noises just after a period or punctuation mark, much as you would when listening to a real speaker. I was stunned by how good the new voice sounds. It even sounded great when sped up to near super-human speeds, which is important for people who have to listen to every single word that appears on their screens.

The jury’s still out

Until I get hands on time with Leopard, I’m uncertain as to how well done these final two features are—it’s just too hard to draw any conclusions based on the keynote and information on Apple’s Leopard Web pages.


Spaces: Spaces is Apple’s implementation of virtual desktops. As my colleague Dan Frakes explains in his Spaces preview, a virtual desktop is just what it sounds like—a desktop that doesn’t really exist, but one you can use as though it were real. It’s a way of organizing multiple open applications, such that you put store like applications together, and only activate the desktop they reside on when you want to use it. There are a few OS X apps that implement virtual desktops today— Desktop Manager and VirtualDesktop Pro to name just two.

Traditionally, virtual desktop apps have appealed mainly to the “geekier” users of OS X, and I’m not sure that’s going to change much with the advent of Spaces. While Apple has done a good job of making virtual desktops as easy to use as possible, there’s still a bit of setup and learning curve to go through. For those who do like using them, however, the inclusion of a fully supported solution is a big plus—especially as the Dock is fully Spaces-aware, which makes it somewhat easier to manage applications between Spaces.


Spotlight: Ah yes, my old friend Spotlight. Some of the changes described sounded quite useful—the ability to search other Macs and OS X servers on the network, and the addition of pre-populated recent items. Quick Look, which offers a preview of photos, contacts, snapshots, etc., without opening the parent application sound especially useful.

But the one Spotlight feature that I’m personally most interested in is the “richer syntax” for Spotlight. Unfortunately, beyond describing support for booleans, there wasn’t any other information provided about this feature during the keynote. The Spotlight Web page explains that you can now use AND, OR, and NOT in your search requests to help narrow your search results, as well as adding specific file attributes, such as author, type or keyword. That all sounds great. However, what’s not clear is whether you can also use parentheses to control the order of searches, nor whether these advanced searches are available in both a Finder search and a Spotlight window search. I really hope Apple has extended Spotlight’s search syntax anywhere we can use the Spotlight engine, but again, we’ll have to wait until we’re much closer to a shipping product in order to answer that question.

Conclusion

Overall, I thought the WWDC preview of Leopard was a solid performance for Apple. Unfortunately, it seems we’ll have to all wait a while longer to see what Leopard’s really going to be about—when the Top Secret slide is replaced by a series of slides that really show us what Apple’s been up to with 10.5. (Or not, if it was all marketing spin.)

Aug 21 10:20 a.m. edit: Corrected section on web clip to reflect proper presenter and number of widgets.

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