Mac OS X 10.6

The announcement this week that Apple were releasing the latest update for the Mac operating system has been much reported. Apple stated a while ago that this latest release was more about refinements than new features, but sometimes refinements are better. The upgrade price from Leopard is merely £25, which raises the question as to what you get for this. The answer is larger than I’d assumed. For me, the biggest reason to upgrade is that it will be possible for non-iPhone owners (such as myself) to syncronise contacts with their Googlemail account, to quote:

Now everyone, not just iPhone users, can synchronise their contacts through MobileMe, Yahoo! and Google.

In addition,

users of multi-touch trackpads on older macs also get three- and four-finger gestures.

My trackpad accepts two-finger gestures (for scrolling) but nothing else, so I’m hopeful on that front.

There have been some nice-sounding refinements to Exposé (allowing access to multiple windows in an application, including minimized windows) as well as making the (in my view, largely redundant) “Services” menu option more context-sensitive. They’ve also done some work on Preview, which was getting a bit tired.

The ability to connect iCalendar and Address Book up to an Exchange server would be useful at work, but only after they upgrade our server to Exchange 2007!

I’ll be interested to see if the use of 64-bit code makes for a speed improvement on my MacBook Core 2 Duo, but my guess is that these improvements are harder for the individual user to experience for sure, unless they are dramatic. For me, however, syncing up to Google Contacts will be worth the 25 quid upgrade alone.

I’ll report more once I get it – but I’m not going to be one of those queuing outside an Apple Store on Friday.

Firefox 3.5 and the brave new world

I downloaded Firefox 3.5 for my Mac this morning – after carefully checking that it would work with my plugins, especially the beloved Zotero. The new features list is a variable set, but one of the more remarkable is its ability to send information about your whereabouts to Google, who then can plot your position on Google Maps. I had a go – it was rather scarey: I was located exactly at the right spot of my road. So how do they do it? The Mozilla (ie. Firefox) website is a bit circumspect:

When you visit a location-aware website, Firefox will ask you if you want to share your location.

If you consent, Firefox gathers information about nearby wireless access points and your computer’s IP address. Then Firefox sends this information to the default geolocation service provider, Google Location Services, to get an estimate of your location. That location estimate is then shared with the requesting website.

If you say that you do not consent, Firefox will not do anything.

Now I guess it’s no surprise to the more geeky readers of this site that it is possible to work out the country you live in from the IP range of your computer – which is how many company sites automatically relocate you to the local/national version of their website. What was more intriguing, to me anyway, was how Google could locate me by nearby wireless access points. What’s going on here? My guess is that Google, in using those photographing vans, has squirrelled away in its database somewhere the names of all local wireless access points it has picked up during its various stops to take photographs, and hence knows where your local wireless access-point/router is (or was) located. The Firefox privacy page gives some more details:

If you choose to allow it, the Firefox Location-Aware Feature first collects one or more of the following relevant location markers: (i) location provided by a GPS device built into or attached to your computer or device and/or geolocation services provided by the operating system; (ii) the wifi routers closest to you; (iii) cell ids of the cell towers closest to you; (iv) the signal strength of nearby wireless access points and/or cellular phone towers; and/or (v) your computer or device’s IP address. Next, it attempts to determine your location using these location markers. Any information Firefox uses, receives or sends as part of this Location-aware Feature is not received by any Mozilla servers or by Mozilla. Firefox does not track or remember your location. Firefox does remember a random client identifier, the temporary ID assigned by our third party provider to process your request, for two weeks.

In my case, the computer was not connected to a GPS device or a cellphone, so all it had to go on was the IP address and the SSIDs of the local wireless network and relative signal strength. Yet it got me to the correct end of the street and the correct side of the road. I cannot believe it could have done that by IP alone.

Now Firefox are falling over themselves to say that your browser will only send this information to Google if you give it permission (and in my case, that permission is asked every time it wishes to do so) and then the info is sent across an encrypted link to Google. And, since its Firefox, I’m inclined to believe them, since the Firefox browser is open source and therefore open to the scrutiny of anyone who wishes to (and who can understand the code). However, were Microsoft or Apple to supply me with a browser which could send this kind of information to heaven-knows-who, I would have to take their word for it that they were going to use this information for the purposes they say their were.

A few conclusions from this little foray into computer-enabled-geolocation:

  1. Firefox may have opened a pandora’s box here (and I guess users of iPhones must be long used to this sort of thing). We are moving from a time when surfing the internet was a relatively hidden activity to one where, now, the technology allows just about anyone with sufficient wherewithall to  find out where you are, almost to within a house or two. A good or bad thing?
  2. Firefox have just provided me with the final (as if I wasn’t pursuaded already) reason why I will, henceforth, only use an open-source browser,  and also a good reason only to use open-source software generally. Any operating system could build in this facility of its own without recourse to using a particular browser, sending the information as to your whereabouts to any company, government agency or commercial marketing firm that it sees fit.
  3. Firefox, or more fairly, this technology, permits large-scale surveillance of the population by any government who wishes to do so. They would need the capacity of a Google to aggregate the local information indicators such as WiFi SSIDs, mobile phone masts, GPS locator and IP range, but, once they’ve got it, the police can immediately find out where you (or, at least, your computer) is at any particular time. Given the propensity for governments such as those in China and Iran to censor the internet, how long before they will insist on access technology which harvests and reports on users’ locations as a matter of course? In other words, it’s the ultimate snoop tool if used in a certain way.

That said, I can’t help saying that, used voluntarily and under due supervision (of the software firms, rather than the users) it is a potentially useful tool. I just don’t think these big software concerns will simply continue to offer it just for free. The future trajectory of Google in the use it makes of this kind of information should be watched closely.

Dim the lights baby …

Here’s another computer nostalgia post coming up…

Those of us who grew up either using old VDUs or early CP/M or MSDOS computers may sometimes long for the simplicity of a black-on-white white-on-black screen when we’re writing. I must say that I find it:

  • More soothing on the eyes
  • Less distracting than a fully-lit screen
  • More conducive to creative thinking, and hence writing

There are a growing number of applications out there which attempt to simulate this old, soothing environment on contemporary computers. Lifehacker alerted the world to another one today

However, for Mac users, especially new ones (such as Rick or Richard), there’s a much easier way to achieve this state of half-remembered innocence and simplicity.

The trick is to press Ctrl+Option+Cmd+8 and dim the lights baby. (Doing it again restores things to normal.)

OpenOffice and Zotero

zotero.pngToday I discovered Zotero. I gave over my day off to some preparation towards upping my academic activity as the year progresses. I have already decided to move over from Microsoft Word to OpenOffice. This is largely because I have never liked MS Word 2003 for the Mac. It has too much clutter and too few features of relevance to me. Furthermore, like most Microsoft applications, the user is steadily gravitating further and further away from actually controlling the application and more in the direction of being controlled by it. In the case of Word 2003 for the Mac, the inability to design my own letter template that actually worked, despite all the RTFM-ing and web searching in the world, finally led me to hate the application which I had quite liked in its 1997 incarnation (although never so much as I’d liked WordPerfect). What finally did it for Word was that the reviews of the latest Word 2008 for the Mac suggest that the chief improvement over its predecessor is that it comes as a Universal Binary. Given that I had come to dislike Word so much, ‘similarity’ was not exactly what I was after in the new version. To pay more good money for this application would have required a radical departure.

So I have finally, and consistently made the change. I’m using NeoOffice. This is a Mac Aqua port of OpenOffice, but to all intents and purposes they are the same application, so I’m going to refer to it as OpenOffice – partly because this is the incarnation which I use on my Linux machine. I’ve been mucking about trying to find a new wordprocessor which ticks most of my personal boxes. I’ve tried Pages, the one which ships with iWork 08, which I principally bought for Keynote. Pages isn’t bad. It integrates beautifully with OS X as you would expect and uses the latest Apple HIG. It’s not a bad little wordprocessor, but it is limited once you start pressing it into some serious applied use, which is what I want, once I turn my attentions to writing something serious. For example, it won’t combine both Footnotes and Endnotes in a single document: something I was using back in the early 1980s with my first word processor, when I was compiling a critical text of the Catholic Apostolic Initiation Liturgy for my PhD. If my MS-DOS wordprocessor (the sadly-lamented Perfect Writer, which started life on CP/M) could do it then, there’s no real excuse for Apple’s current offering being unable to offer it now. The second problem with Pages is that it uses a unique, proprietory format for its files. Yes, like most other WPs it will export in Word 97 format (.doc), and does a swish job of producing PDF files, but I really don’t want to get locked into some minority format for any sophisticated formatted project. Thirdly, and worst of all, Pages is restricted to the Mac platform, and for a wordprocessor, it would have to deliver significant extra leverage (such as the ability to write articles by itself) to make that anything other than a net liability. So Pages, in the end, was not up to the job, however pretty it looked on my Mac.

I’ve always watched the OpenOffice project with interest, and occasionally played with it on my Linux box (which doesn’t do much by way of wordprocessing). Yet up to now, I never bothered much with it because of sheer, yet increasingly irritated, laziness of staying in the familiar world of Word. It’s not the prettiest WP in the world, but its feature-set has grown over the years without becoming the bloated behemoth which is Word. In similar way, the Mac incarnation, NeoOffice, looks a bit weird on the Mac, despite being an Aqua application, but it then just goes and does the job. More to the point, it uses an open document format (*.odt) and can also import and export a whole range of other file formats including *.doc, *.pdf and even the ghastly *.docx format which the latest versions of Word use. More to the point, it does the traditional stuff of wordprocessing really well – including robust footnoting. So I think my search is over, and ironically, it hasn’t cost me a penny (except for the Education Version of Mac Office 2003, which I bought some years ago).

But the real discovery today has been Zotero. The citation-footnoting-bibliography capabilities are already there in OpenOffice/NeoOffice, but they’re limited. Of particular annoyance is that when using the “internal” bibliographic system, you’re locked into just one citation format and it’s not the one I usually prefer – Chicago Manual of Style. Zotero, which is open-source, takes a completely different approach and works as a Firefox plugin. At first, this may seem a bit weird but it’s one of its greatest strengths. Zotero is starting to be supported by a *lot* of academic funding, compared to other open-source projects. Once you start to play with it, you can see why: it has *masses* of realizable potential. At its most basic, Zotero is a bibliography/citation application which stores all your bibliography in a database file which it stores locally on your computer’s hard-drive. This is important because Zotero will continue to work, even when you’re disconnected from the Internet. Generating a citation is easy: you can copy it to a file, or onto the clipboard, for insertion in any kind of document, application, etc. That is it at its most basic. But it’s much more clever than that.

Zotero will “read” bibliography off a web page. For example, if you visit an Amazon page to see a book’s details, you just need to click a little icon which appears in the address bar of Firefox and suddenly an entry is copied over to Zotero’s bibliography, as Steve Jobs says, “bang!” – just like that. All the form-filling is just done automatically. It works on most major library catalogues (such as the British Library, Cambridge University Library, etc.) citation indices, and a host of other sources for bibliographical information. If you like, you can add and edit detail, but my experience so far is that most of the stuff goes straight over.

The next clever thing is that Zotero will talk to both MS Word and OpenOffice/NeoOffice via plugins. Once you’ve installed it, you see a series of new buttons on the wordprocessor’s menu bar, for creating and editing citations and bibliographic references in a document. Doing a citation in a footnote is done by clicking a button, then picking the work from Zotero’s database which opens up in a window, click again, and it’s done. The citation can appear *in a whole range of possible citation styles, including Chicago Manual of Style*. You set the style at the start of each new document or as a default.

Zotero also allows the user to affix notes to bibliography entries in much the same way as similar commercial applications, such as EndNote. But unlike those applications, it can easily be ported across different operating systems because it’s linked to the Firefox Plugin API, rather than to an Operating System’s API. It is therefore possible for me to keep identical copies of my bibliography, on machines using Mac OS X, Linux and even Windows (although I no longer use the latter) using Zotero and some judicious use of rsync.

In addition to this, Zotero will also reference a whole range of things, including web pages, in each case producing beautiful bibliographic output. It would take far more than a mere blog post to do it justice, but if you’re doing any form of research which requires compilation of bibliography, then it’s definitely worth having a look.

Zotero is still under development and its features are already very large. I’ve also discovered that there are one or two bugs in the OpenOffice plugin: you can confuse it by inserting citations out of writing sequence (it gets confused with its “ibids” – but there again, don’t we all?) but it allows you to override its guesses in the citation, so it’s not the end of the world. This is a project which is worth watching carefully and I would regard it as fully usable and useful right now.

OS X Leopard

In case you haven’t noticed (ha!) Apple announced the release of the new version of OS X (“Leopard”) yesterday. I remember I was in Pasadena when Tiger was released, and there was a line of students queuing down Mainstreet outside the Apple Shop before it opened at 10am to buy their copy. Such dedication by the Faithful!

No, I’m not queuing anywhere for Leopard, but I may pre-order a copy. What I am feeling smug about is that I didn’t buy an iBook when I was in the US that summer, although I would have done so if Apple in the US hadn’t refused to recognise my UK credit card to that value of purchase. I’m now very grateful for that. The iBook would have had a G4 processor in it and the news on the street is: don’t get Leopard if you’ve not got an Intel processor under the hood, although FAST G5 processors may cut the mustard … -ish. (UPDATE: the official Apple line on this is that Leopard will run on a G4 running at 867MHz or above. My guess is that some features will run fine or faster, and some will run slower – I suggest the policy of leaving it to the early adopters to find out. Your average G4 user would like all existing Tiger features to run as fast if not faster, then to have a significant increase in usable features to make the purchase worth the while.)

In order to make (slow) iBook and PC users jealous, I would mention that the list of new features in Leopard can be found here. Some are good, quite a few are not so good. iChat is still locked into .Mac and AIM, so I’m going to continue to use the multilingual Adium, even though it won’t permit voice and video chatting on the AIM network. Furthermore, any OS X (Tiger, Leopard, whatever) is only half as powerful without Quicksilver running, which is worth as much in terms of speed and usability as a complete OS version upgrade in my opinion.

Is that an iPod in your pocket …

This has got to be one of the sillier stories to attract my attention recently: a man’s mother is claiming her son’s trousers (‘pants’ in Americanese) were set alight by his iPod nano whilst working at Atlanta International Airport.

Blogging from Greenbelt (again)

I have had to endure lots of grief this year from Foundation members for my Greenbelt blogging escapade last year. This year, they asked me to take my MacBook Pro to help with the videos for the service that Foundation is running tonight (Friday). People are curiously silent about the teases this time around.

AndrewA new experience for me this year was sleeping with my laptop. This was possible because Sharon isn’t coming to GB until Saturday night, and all in all it seemed a prudent way to avoid theft. This is not an expression of my love for my laptop (of which there is no doubt) but after hearing that the site was targetted by tent thieves at a festival held here earlier this summer.

Whatever the reasons, it’s great to hook up with old friends whom I meet this time every year. One of which is Andrew Jones, who’s been a quieter blogger in the past year, but is catching up with his blog as I write.

Computer-geek heaven (ii) – look, I’m the boss!

TeletypeAlright, so I know some readers of this blog just hate my geeky posts, so I promise this is going to be the last for a bit, so don’t unsubscribe me, OK? I mentioned in the first of these that I’m now enjoying a sense of being in control (Linux/Mac) rather than being in the dark (Windows). There’s always a trade off between sophistication in your computer and the level of control you have over what’s going on. A key issue here is the now universal use of GUIs. The fact that the user can click, change window, drop any menu, all at any particular time makes GUI programming very complex, compared to the simple days when computers were related to using a slightly modified teleprinter (and great fun they were too). The command line interface of Unix and MSDOS reflects this heritage: you say something via your keyboard (not a mouse in sight) and if you’re lucky your computer will print what you said either on the roll of paper going through the teletype or on green or amber print against a black background on one of those new-fangled VDUs. When I was first at University, if you got in early, you’d be able to nab a VDU terminal. If you got in late, you’d go on a teletype. My first PC had an amber monochrome monitor upon which I wrote all my PhD thesis, so I’m quite attached to it as interfaces go. (My default Unix/Linux terminal colour of choice is amber on black.) So in the heritage of Unix programming, the basic model was a keypad, a sequence of lines either written by you or by the computer printed a line at a time, and all data stored in a plain ASCII text file. Days of innocence.

Nowadays, it’s all much harder and more code- and time-intensive to write even the simplest program, because everyone wants to point and click on it with their mouse, in any random sequence of order. This leads to event-driven and object oriented programs for very good reason. After all, nobody seriously uses the Command Line for anything remotely business-related, do they? But your average part-time amateur hacker with a day job hasn’t a serious chance of taking control of his or her computer to make life simpler or to do things exactly in the way that he or she wants. Such programming is strictly for teenagers and undergraduates who have more time on their hands than they’ll ever have again. (Believe me kids!) The days when you could write a simple little DOS batch file or BBC Basic program to do something useful that would simplify your busy life are now gone forever.

Well, this situation has been seriously challenged by Gina Trapani (her of the Lifehacker website) in a persuasive post entitled The Command Line Comeback she points out that for most touch-typists (I’m one. My Mum taught typing at her school, so I got the treatment. Thanks Mum!) a typed command, especially a short one, is miles quicker than moving your hands off the keyboard, wandering around the GUI for the control you happen to want, then back to the keyboard. This is particularly important for the kind of disciplined tasks which help keep you organised. A classic case in point is adding something to a to-do list. Again, the more repetitive a computer command is, the more likely it is that a brief typed command from the keyboard will be quicker than using a mouse to navigate a GUI. Enter tools like Quicksilver. On the face of it, Quicksilver indexes all the files and commands on a Mac, and then allows you to summon up a command or file with keystrokes, with QS already pre-empting what you’re going to type. It’s summoned-up with CTRL+space so isn’t hard to access. So, for example, to switch from this Web-based editor to iTunes, I merely need to press CTRL+space+i and I’m there. Quicker than the mouse. To get back, it’s another three keystrokes. But Quicksilver is much more powerful than that. It’s possible to assign commands to live keystrokes, so it’s possible to write a Unix script then assign it to globally accessible keystrokes with Quicksilver. In addition, Trapani and others have shown how simple Unix shell scripting, Perl and other forms of script-based languages (Python, Ruby, etc.) can turn the keyboard of a GUI-based computer such as a Mac or Linux into a very powerful, fast-interfacing office computer.

This school of thought is also combining with another re-discovery: the power and flexibility of the good old text file. Gina Trapani has worked with others to develop a plain-text to-do list system, which can be read and changed in a text editor, manipulated by standard Unix tools such as grep, uniq and sort, or added-to or edited with a shell script. More can be read about this approach here, here, and at its own website here. When combined with Quicksilver, this has proved the fastest to-do system I’ve ever used (including pen and paper!) but has the added benefit of being completely extensible and controllable by the user. In addition, with a bit of help from rsync, a Unix utility which keeps files across computers in sync with each other, I have it available on both the Mac and the Linux computer. A return to simple ASCII text files is the ultimate Open Source approach. It allows the data to be accessed by the most simple or the most complex program, and you’re not locked into some proprietary format should you wish to change your software in some way. This reflects the tendency in open file formats (eg OpenDocument) to move back from binary to plain text with various kinds of markup. For me, this system means that I always have a continuously-updated to-do list on my desktop (courtesy of Geektool). If pressing F11 to use Expose to show me the desktop is too much distrubance, I can press CMD+CTRL+T and it appears in a transparent bubble on my screen (using QS, Growl, a bit of Applescript and Gina’s todo.sh script), and stays there while I continue working until I click it with the mouse to make it go away.

So, in summary, the near loss of the MacBook a month ago followed by some geek-time on holiday has yielded a lot of dividends. The power of a fully-supported commercial desktop operating system plus the power of Unix makes a delightful combination. So now I’m a complete convert. If there’s one thing to say in summary of this long geeky post: if you’ve got a Mac, get Quicksilver.

Computer-geek heaven (i) – Getting under the surface of the Mac

Well it doesn’t need me to admit on this blog that I took my laptop away with me on holiday a couple of weeks ago. When I wasn’t surfing and drinking down at the Blue Bar, I had set the time aside to really get to know my MacBook Pro. Perhaps it was the experience of being without it (indeed, the possibility of its demise) that made me appreciate it when I got it back. It’s been quite a busy time since Christmas, and somehow we never really had the time to become properly acquainted. I was too busy using it to take the time to play.

I first got my hands on an Apple Mac in 1984 when one of the students at my college was given one. It took another world, but completely out of my financial league. When I was directing IT policy at my last job in the 1990s, Apple was going through a lacklustre era, with MacOS not significantly ahead of Windows 95 and certainly not worth doubling the price-per-unit.

So what’s changed? Ever since discovering Linux in the early 1990s, when I had to set up the first internet servers at Trinity College, I’ve gradually grown to hate and despise the Windows operating system. It’s an un-planned mess of an operating system, totally lacking engineering discipline of any kind, as far as I can see. When installed on a PC, about 85% of the things gobbling up the machine’s power, memory and hard-disk space are never going to be used by the owner. By contrast, when I first discovered Linux, if I needed something, I normally had to compile it from source code and install it myself. With time, I gradually came to know exactly what I needed on the machine to run, and more importantly, how to control it. This gave me both power and, most importantly, security (which became increasingly important as the Internet opened up to some fairly unpleasant people who regularly mounted attacks on our internet machines). I never had that level of control with a Windows PC – I was as in the dark as every other user and it increasingly annoyed me.

The problem is that I had become addicted to some key applications which only seemed to work on PCs. There were two particular drugs: the first was Microsoft Outlook, which despite being the usual MesS, actually did relate to the sort of things I needed a computer to assist me with at my desk. The second was a liking for Palm PDAs – which effectively have been my diary in my pocket for the past eight years or so. The truly lethal combination was the way these two things could speak to each other: syncronising the information held on each.

When I moved from Trinity to my present job, the first truly viable window managers for Linux (KDE/Gnome) were coming onto the scene. But the integration of PDA and PIM, which Outlook offered, was years away. Shortly before getting the Mac last autumn, I spent a few weeks running my PDA into Linux using both Evolution and K-Mail. Both worked ‘after a fashion’, but the KPilot and Gnome-Pilot software are still very unstable. Although I managed to get Gnome-Pilot to work in Ubuntu in the Dapper Drake release (it had never worked in Breezy) as soon as I upgraded to Edgy Eft, the application had broken again. This is simply not good enough. Most serious business users need PDA/PIM integration to just work, no messing. In addition, getting the wireless card to run with each upgrade was hours of work. This may be fun for the hobbist, but hopeless if you’re needing a computer actually to save you time in your work. So Linux has remained my delight in the den, where I don’t *have* to have all key features working all of the time. But for work, I either had to stick with the despised Microsoft or move to the Mac. For many years, I was an unhappy Windows user. Sure, Windows XP had sorted out most of the stability problems, but it was just boring, bland and badly-engineered and I hated it.

Mac DesktopIt wasn’t the eye-candy of Macs which converted me – they’ve always had this, and I’ve resisted it since seeing a first generation Mac in 1984. It was the operating system. MacOS has always had stability, because it has only had one lot of hardware to run on. OS X was the same, but … under the hood it was Unix! Linux is part of the Unix family, so from the user’s point of view, the two are more or less interchangeable. This meant that it had all the reliable usability I needed for work (it ‘just works’ with my PDA), in addition it had the raw power needed for good video and audio work that I was struggling with on my aged Windows notebook. But last of all, I could know far more about what was going on under the hood than I ever did with Windows.

The week’s holiday was a profitable time for getting to know my Mac in Unixian ways (sorry, this really is a geeky post). I’d always kept Unix work on a different machine to my office machine. Now I am finding that I can use the power of Unix to speed up various aspects of the office work. In particular, I have been intrigued by the way it’s possible to use some of the power of the command-line of Unix without necessarily going into a terminal, thanks to Quicksilver. It’s one of the less-brilliantly-documented pieces of software on the net, but it’s also one of the most productive and powerful applications available for OS X. (More about this in the post which follows.) But in summary, I’m now using Unix as a growing component in a suite of hard-core office applications, rather than just in a hobby or system-administrative way, and it feels good.

The other landmark this past few weeks is that last weekend I finally reached the point where I no longer depended on Microsoft for anything. OK, well not quite true: I use Word and Powerpoint, but I could easily use NeoOffice for the rare times I need a wordprocessor or presentation package. I merely use them because they’re there on my machine. They’re no longer mission-critical. By the way, have you noticed how you don’t seem to use a Wordprocessor as much these days? Email and other electronic forms of communication are slowly replacing the need for nicely-printed-out paper documents. Outlook is out of my life. The only other piece of Windows software I was missing was a decent personal financial organiser to replace MS Money. So last weekend, I installed GnuCash, an open-source financial package, which is excellent for my needs. I used MacPorts to get it (which I prefer to Fink) and left it to compile all the required libraries (LOTS!) from source for a couple of hours. The result is a home-compiled, native Intel application which more than does the job.

The net effect is that I now feel completely detoxed from Microsoft for the first time in my computer experience.

Mac OS X: Leopard starts to show its spots

There’s been a sneak peek available at the forthcoming version of OS X (the Apple Operating system, for those off the planet) for some while now. At 10am PST (6pm BST) Steve Jobs did his usual annual keynote speech to the WWDC (worldwide developers conference – normally held in California!). These are masterful performances: a bit like a cross between Steve Martin doing his famous “I feel a heeeeeaaaling comin’ on!!!!!!” and a baby-boomer rock and roller gone into hyperdrive. As I write, Apple’s website doesn’t yet have it up, but I guess it will appear in the next day or so. [Update: as predicted, he’s up on the Apple Site now.]

However, the company have now just released their full online sales pitch for Leopard, which is currently gracing the front page of the site.

Here’s my quick take on the new version:

a) Finder – BIG improvements on the User Interface, including the ability to look inside documents without actually opening them. They’ve made it look like iTunes, including the “flip through the albums on the shelf” approach. (Apple call this Cover Flow).

b) Time Machine – this looks like the backup utility to die for, including historic incremental backups which are searchable with Spotlight or visually with Finder (and Cover Flow). It sounds as though any plugged in drive, .Mac, Mac-server can work with it. Well let’s wait and see.

The other features left me somewhat underwhelmed …

c) Spaces – Apple are making a big thing of this, as well they might. I had them running on my Linux desktop seven years ago. Come on! What have we been waiting for.

d) Mail – have introduced pretty HTML mail. Well knock me over with a feather Trevor! Didn’t this appear on Netscape Mail about 1998? And I bet half the spam filters in the world will stop ’em coming through.

e) Some new features which it should have had ages ago, including ‘convert mail message into a to-do’, notelets and various nice bits of intelligence, such as offering to convert texts of addresses into address book cards. Hmm… In summary, Mail is a great mail client with pretensions to become a bit Outlook-ish, but it isn’t anywhere near the all-singing-all-dancing mega app, and I really hope that it doesn’t try too hard. OS X is so nicely integrated as an operating system, I’ve always felt the OS was the killer app on the Mac, and there was no need for bloatware like Outlook.

f) iChat has some nice video iCandy, but it still doesn’t do much in the way of multiple protocol support. Boring.

g) iCal – some improvements there, giving a slicker user feel.

h) New Safari – version 3.0 The beta is out now. What is more you can also download Safari for the PC (XP/Vista). They’re going for market share here, possibly because there are still so many websites out there who non habla Safari. It’s not going to budge me off Firefox – too many nice plugins and greasemonkey scripts to be beaten now.

So there we are: some key improvements, but really I can’t help feeling that this is a case of coasting a bit. Vista is rubbish compared to OS X Tiger, and so there’s little competition to force Apple to keep up the pace and focus. Yes, of course I’ll upgrade when it comes out. But I will be slightly wondering whether it’s worth the price. The new backup app (time-machine) and the big improvements in finder will be the key selling points for me. And it’ll be nice to have multiple desktops (sorry, I mean “spaces”) on this machine as they are on my den Linux box.

However, as I write I’m upgrading that one by two releases of Ubuntu to the Feisty Fawn. It’s quietly doing it all in the background, and not costing me a penny.

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