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Eye of the Tiger

1550 words on

A fair bit of buzz went through the world of Mac users when Apple announced that they’ll ship the fifth version of Mac OS X, ‘Tiger’, or System 14 if you wish, before the end of the month. Refreshingly this is well before the end of the ‘first half of 2005’ period that Apple announced.

As a consequence of the announcement, Apple’s website is black now and loads much more slowly than usual. And there’s additional information about the features the public can expect to find in the upcoming OS update. It’s a mixed bag. I guess I’ll end up wanting to have X.4 sooner or later anyway – if only to play with stuff like Core Data and Core Graphics – and Spotlight of course. So I might as well buy it right away… as I am in no mood to spend more money for new hardware that I’d get it with for free (sure, at almost four years my Powerbook is a bit dated and slow by now and severely broken of course thanks to Apple’s brilliant engineering or manufacturing – but the current Powerbooks really don’t look as outstanding).

This of course puts me in the unfortunate position of not being able to benefit from all the goodies that X.4 will bring – those requiring a powerful graphics chip, say. But that situation has been around since the introduction of QuartzExtreme already and I didn’t really expect it to improve.

Looking at the rather vague information that Apple provides its potential customers with deepens my mixed feelings about the product. It does have a few strengths. A very notable of them probably being Spotlight – although I still haven’t seen any information on how much the processing speed, RAM and the number of files on the drive, will affect its speed. And reading the small print suggests that they’ve tried to seriously improve the underpinnings of the OS as well and made less obvious improvements (like command like tools for handling files that don’t break them). On the other hand, looking at the 200+ New Features they claim to have, suggests that there aren’t many features which they should laud themselves for for including them in the fifth generation of their operating system.

Going through the list suggests that the big number of items on it can be broken down into several classes. By far the largest of them consists of things not worth mentioning – because they’re very minor or because they’re not new. If they implement something like Automator, should they really consider each application that integrates with it as a ‘new feature’? Well, they do – I wouldn’t. Similarly for Spotlight. The technology itself surely deserves its place on the feature list. But every single application that uses it in some way? I don’t think so. And what about Dashboard widgets? Mention the technology – of course. But every single application of it? Particularly those whose functionality already existed in Sherlock? Nope.

While listing these may be a move of the activity known as marketing that manifests itself in burying people in useless or insignificant information, other parts of the list are downright wrong. Things that I have already done without even trying hard in X.3, include Smooth Scrolling, Bluetooth Headset Support or JPEG 2000 Support. I’m sure there are a few more.

The next group of things is the inclusion of features of other applications. Partly those are Apple’s own applications, e.g. Sherlock whose functions seem to be moved/replicated in Dashboard or Preview which seems to include the features of Grab. I suppose these are useful as is the AppleScript Utility that lets you manage some aspects of AppleScript but which inexplicably doesn’t seem to be a preference pane.

On the other hand there are features which obsolete existing non-Apple applications, such as the Dashboard or even Spotlight. The first might kill that Konfabulator (?) thing while the latter, if it lives up to expectations, should render nice tools like LaunchBar or Quicksilver superfluous. This time Apple even enters our ground by including Unicode Character Search, which is one feature of UnicodeChecker, into their character palette. Apple also included Birthday Calendar into iCal 2 which may obsolete the wonderful GeburtstagsChecker. While this may be sad for our app, it’s actually what we expected to happen with iCal 1 and then with iCal 1.5. It’s a very simple and useful feature and it’s very hard to understand why Apple didn’t include it right away. (On the other hand, there may even remain room for GeburtstagsChecker as iCal is still a slow, bloaty mess that makes me want to have a paper calendar instead – or Claris Organiser on my LC III ten years ago).

There are more things like Per-account signatures in Mail, Inline PDF Viewing in Safari or the whole RSS support and again I am sure that better knowledge of the ever expanding Mac utility scene will uncover even more third party tools that will be obsolete in X.4.

Many will argue that Apple is stealing here and destroying people’s work or ‘market’. And to a certain extent that’s true. On the other hand, those are the most useful and most popular features found in third party products and why shouldn’t they be part of the OS? [Well, I guess there’d be good reasons for that… but as long as merely utility applications are included, it’s not all that bad] Certainly they’ll reach a bigger audience that way as many people just won’t use or know about any of those third party utilities.

The thing that Apple doesn’t handle well, in my opinion, is that they publish obviously unfinished things (like the iCal/birthday integration) to begin with and thus open the market for add-on tools. Publishing a roadmap with planned features and rough (but honest) dates of when they’ll be made available would also be a good idea in that respect as it might keep people from wasting their time with things that Apple will deal with anyway. Just being a bit more open might make developers feel much more comfortable.

The next class of features are improvements. I think they are very important and hope we’ll find a few hidden gems in the improvements to the OS. While it doesn’t look like a working Finder will be one of them, many others like better AppleScript (apparently including the long-overdue ability to read property list files) and PDF support, included GIMP Printing for uncommon printers, Address Book printing, Certificate Handling, Photo handling, better networking &c look very promising. Of course many of those features are long overdue should rather be considered bug fixes to OS X.2 and X.3, but sometimes you’re just happy that there is progress at all.

Those improvements will require testing of course to be able to tell whether they’re actually worth it. Some of them look like they aren’t – the new, more bloated UI for Mail with toolbar icons which look like they’ve been nicked from some open source project, for example. (Let’s also hope that the updated Mail application has got something like GMail’s ‘Archive’ feature, so we can have an automatic Mailbox for each of our friends [or none even and just direct access to the address book from the search prompt] and just need to mark mails so they are removed from our inbox when we consider them ‘done’.)

And then there’s the class of new features which I am seriously uncomfortable with – lock-in features. By that I mean anything which requires the expensive (and not very powerful) .Mac account or iLife to be bought to benefit from it. Adding those ‘features’ to the OS has no value whatsoever to me as a customer of the OS. But seeing them listed there means that I have to pay for them when the users of those features should be the ones paying.

Alternatively — and I’d prefer that to be honest — Apple should publish the protocols and interfaces they use to make those features work and give people the chance to use them with other products. Why can’t I do the synching stuff to my own web server (or at least another computer that’s standing next to my own)? [This even means I’ll have to trust Apple to be willing and able to deal with my data carefully.] And why shouldn’t people who use more powerful photo management applications than iPhoto be able to integrate their stock of photos with their other Apple applications. It shouldn’t take rocket science to make these things work. And having syncing instead of .Mac syncing and Photo desktop pictures instead of iPhoto desktop picutures would make Apple’s efforts more open and worthwhile of an operating system. But with my typical pessimism, I suppose we’re just not going to see that and Apple will prefer to use their OS monopoly to peddle more .Mac accounts and copies of GarageBand.

As I said at the beginning – OS X.4, as it is presented from its on PR materials looks like a mixed bag: Exciting from a technical point of view, uninspired from an aesthetic point of view and dubious from the point of view of the whole .Mac/iLife things.

April 14, 2005, 1:48

Tagged as Mac OS X.


Comment by Vernon: User icon

I think you have summarized the whole release very concisely. Not,, I suppose, that this will stop hordes of fanatics from criticizing you.

I can’t really disagree with anything you have articulated. I gather that a lot of the improvements will be “under the hood” but Apple gives no indication as to whether or not this will affect OS performance significantly…a more important buying factor to most users than flying widgets ( lovely as they may be). I also suspect that the 64bit architecture will not be of much practical benefit to existing applications so it is, as you say, a decidedly mixed bag.

April 17, 2005, 6:53

Comment by d.w.: User icon

I’m breaking my “don’t blog anything about work rule”, but I guess it should be ok since this isn’t my blog (wink), but Xgrid, depending on how you look at it, competes with a product my company sells. Except it doesn’t, really and anything that helps sell Mac clusters (well, compute clusters in general) probably helps us.

April 18, 2005, 4:15

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