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Up close and personal with Leopard

We look at the latest Mac OS

Earlier this month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled new hardware at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) - and more importantly, offered an early look at Mac OS X 10.5, code-named Leopard. Although Jobs noted that some features of the company's next operating system, which is due out sometime early in 2007, would remain secret for now, he did take developers through a tour of some of the software's new features.

Last week, Apple officials offered guided tours of the company's new Xeon-based Mac Pro desktop computers, conveniently offering a closer look at Leopard for those lucky few on hand to check it out. The software has been released to select developers so they can begin working on making their applications compatible, but it has not been released for public use. Nor is that likely to happen - Apple, unlike Microsoft, keeps its operating systems tightly veiled in secrecy until they are formally launched. That means real hands-on experiences are far and few between.

What we saw proved again that Apple has the most sophisticated user interface (UI) for an operating system out there - and at the same time is always looking for ways to make computing even more practical, simple and fun. Technically, what Apple announced at WWDC is a core system with some incredibly useful application programming interface (API) hooks for developers to write to over the next six months so. That way, when Leopard is officially released in 2007, all of the major applications will be able to exploit these new features. It's a symbiotic relationship, and Apple is wise to care and feed for their developers in this fashion.

Geek stuff

With OS X 10.4, also known as Tiger, the command-line interface applications are 64bit, as is the core operating system. However, there are two versions of the current Mac OS: the PowerPC iteration for older Macintoshes, and a different version for newer Intel-based Macs. There is no universal installation for an IT pro to use.

In Leopard, the operating system, command-line interface and even the application interface are 64bit. This means all applications will have access to the full amount of installed RAM and will not be limited to 4GB. Imagine 16GB of RAM allocated to image rendering or genome sequencing. This should have the science, technology and creative folks salivating. Moreover, unlike some other operating systems, the 64bit version is fully 32bit compatible. So there is only a single flavor of Apple's next Mac OS, which is fully native on Intel and PowerPC machines and offers one master install. In other words, all users experience the same applications and interface.

In addition to the Core Audio, Core Video and Core Image features that professional apps can leverage for incredible performance, Leopard introduces a fourth core framework, Core Animation. Core Animation is an API that enables developers to create stunning UIs with very little code. For example, the album art screen saver required more then 4,000 lines of code in open GL - and only 400 lines when using Core Animation. Developers, rejoice.

One thing still notably missing from the Leopard (Apple engineers, are you listening?) is a way to assign an application to a particular processor and set the level of resource use that app can have. As a creative pro, ideally I'd like to be able to assign high processor usage to the processors and RAM for something like Final Cut Pro. This would allow end users to maximise their processor and RAM use depending on their needs.

Time machine

The basic premise of this homegrown Apple application and API is that backup needs to be set and forget until needed - and then simple-to-use and well integrated for restoration needs. While there are several relatively easy-to-use backup applications for Mac OS X, none compares with the context sensitive Time Machine at the file system integration level.

For example, let's say you have a folder that is set to back up incrementally as changes occur, and you need a file that was once there. You look in the original folder for the file that by just clicking in the folder (not the backup), launch Time Machine and then click the back-in-time arrow. Time Machine takes you back to the last change in the folder. Or in a folder where files are stored, you can type the name of the file in a search window, then launch Time Machine and click the back-in-time arrow. It will take you to the most recent instance of the file you are searching for and then restore it to the folder.

Another example shows the importance of the API and how any application written to it can take advantage of Time Machine's features. Let's say you're using Address Book to look for a person who was once in your listings. Search for his name, launch Time Machine, and the application will automatically take you back to the last instance of that user in the backup. When you restore, Time Machine puts the user's information back in Address Book - no middle steps needed. No other backup application on the market now can do that, nor is any other backup app as well integrated.

Time Machine will back up to any external volume, be they direct-attached, networked or even Xsan volumes. And of course, you can directly browse the backup files and even search them with spotlight, if you are that kind of geek. But for the average user - or even creative professional who does not care to learn the nuances of yet another system management application - this is a very Mac approach to the backup issue.

Trading spaces

This feature, known to many Linux users as a virtual desktop, has been available to Mac users in the form of a third-party utility for some time. Essentially, it allows a user to set up multiple 'screen pages' - each with a collection of applications you'd want for a given task or environment. You can put mail and web apps on one 'space' or a video application such as Final Cut Pro on another. It keeps the clutter down.

Apple has added some decidedly, well, Apple touches to this concept. You can put up all your spaces in one screen and drag and drop between them to rearrange as you like. Also if you have one space up or are viewing them all, operating system features such Expose still work. It's all very cool and very handy, and now built into Mac OS.

Mail

A nice addition to Apple's email application Mail is the introduction of HTML-based templates that can used to send elegant-looking emails. Unlike those in Apple's iWeb application, the templates in the next version of Mail are easily accessible, so if a user wants to create his own stationery template, doing so is a snap. The new Mail app also has some nifty context-sensitive hooks into iCal.

iChat

Ahh, iChat, my favorite underappreciated application. In past Mac OS revisions, Apple added audio and video chat (Panther), 10-way audio conferencing and four-way videoconferencing (Tiger), and now the company has added an API called iChat theatre. It allows the application to be used as a professional presentation tool, meaning Keynote, iPhoto and Quicktime output can be piped directly into an iChat video stream. The quality was excellent, probably leveraging Core Animation and compressed in h.264 for high-quality video over low bandwidth. This allows iChat to be used in myriad ways, by film companies viewing dailies, for instance, or by anyone doing a sales presentation. It takes the application to a whole new level.

In addition, a sophisticated chroma key algorithm was added so that a user can do a snapshot of the background he is chatting in front of, and it will remove the background and key in a background image or video of the user's choice. For corporate presentations, podcasts or just plain having fun, this is a great feature.

With Leopard's release, iChat becomes a fully featured professional application.

The last word

The first close-up view we had of Leopard told us this is going to be a great release. As more features are announced (Apple hasn't said when it will offer more details), you'll hear about them as soon as we do. And when the operating system is released next Spring, we'll cover it in even more detail.


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