Monday, October 29th, 2007

Over the weekend, dozens, nay, tens of thousands of Macs worldwide were upgraded to Mac OS X Leopard, the latest version of an operating system that has been refined in five major releases since its introduction early in this century. Have I, yet? Well, actually, I first installed (a beta of) Leopard back in June (see photo at right…our little MacBook at WWDC)…marveled in its features, delighted in its potential, and then reverted that puppy back to 10.4 as soon as I could so that it would..uh..work.

And since the official release, we’ve been waiting for our ‘up to date’ copy that comes with Sammy’s new machine (a lovely large-screen iMac, purchased last week.) So have we leapt, at this moment? No. But soon, very soon.

Since my beta taste, the hard working folks in Cupertino have been working hard, and we can add this new milepost on their amazing parade of major releases:

  • Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard 10/26/2007
  • Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger 04/29/2005
  • Mac OS X 10.3 Panther 10/24/2003
  • Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar 08/23/2002
  • Mac OS X 10.1 (internally, ‘Puma’) 09/25/2001
  • Mac OS X 10.0 (internally, ‘Cheetah’) 03/24/2001

By comparison, Microsoft Windows XP was released in October 2001, and its successor in major releases, Windows Vista, came out in January of this year.

Apple has a challenge in marketing this latest version of their OS: do you tell the truth and talk about the staggering number of underlying improvements and innovations that are, for the most part, beneath the surface? Or do you play up a couple of whiz-bang, comprehensible features that the average joe will want? (The promotion of Time Machine gives you your answer.)

The reality is: you should buy Leopard for the underlying work, because it lays the foundation for huge amounts of whiz-banginess in almost every aspect of the apps you use in the future. I would also add that the shipping product..10.5.0, is really in some ways just a way to get in the door…I predict the refinements and bug fixes and tweaks in the next six months will be 1) essential and 2) a big part of getting your money’s worth.

The Apple developers, when not distracted by things like iPhones and Apple TVs, have been working hard to add powerful new core functionality. And with a hard end-of-October deadline, they’ve pushed hard and delivered a product that is both astonishing and probably a little bit rough around the edges. But for many of us, the improvements will be worth those edges:

Take Core Animation, a framework for making interface stuff move with fluid elegance with very very little effort on the part of an application developer will eventually make everything in the land of Mac have that elegant dynamism you see now on the iPhone. And then there’s the capability to create and run 64-bit programs, which is a boon for the scientific and technical computing world…and also makes it possible to use all of your microprocessors’ power in ways that take pages to explain. They’ve added filesystems and frameworks that make backup and working with the metadata contained in the zillions of files on your hard drive much easier.

But any of that added functionality only comes with an upgrade to Leopard. Yep, you’re gonna start to see a lot of “Mac OS X 10.5 only” labels on downloads.

Ironically, the two application suites that were once at the fingertips of many, many mac users—Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and so on) and Adobe (Photoshop, Illustrator, inDesign) are now the programs that least take advantage of these under the hood refinements. It’s hard for them to leverage Mac OS X 10.5-specific functionality—if not impossible—because they’ve committed themselves to a single code base for multiple platforms…Windows and Mac…and because Apple hasn’t given them much of a developmental head start.

They (sometimes stubbornly) have their own way of displaying text, holding on to internal data structures, and even dropping menus—and it’s not that their ways are bad, they just don’t take advantage of what the underlying operating system and the Cocoa frameworks (libraries of reusable code that, if used, give you that head start) have to offer. There’s waste there…there can be a performance hit as well, since code to do the same thing is loaded yet again into memory where perfectly good code sits, ignored, lonely.

So what does this mean to the end user? There’s a real benefit to “buying in to Cocoa,” and using Leopard along with applications—like Apple’s own iWork apps instead of Office—that take advantage of the new underlying goodness.

I’d also call to your attention new Cocoa-wonderful apps like Gus Meuller’s Acorn—a lightweight, inexpensive, clever alternative to Photoshop, that may be part of the key towards living a zippy, Microsoft and Adobe-free life. It gets no small part of its speed and wonderfulness by “buying in” and embracing as much Cocoaosity as it can.

I think an argument can also be made if that you’re a contrarian, who lives their lives in Office instead of iWork, in Firefox instead of Safari, who doesn’t think much of iPhoto…well an upgrade of operating system isn’t going to bring you much in terms of added performance or functionality…and in fact may cause more trouble for you than its worth. Stick with Tiger for a while. It’s fast, stable, relatively lean.

But eventually the siren call of new underlying functionality will get you to upgrade…you’ll find one app you just have to have with that “Mac OS X 10.5 only” label…and there you’ll be.

The Power of the Third Party.

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

The real Steve Jobs said today “Let me just say it.” Okay, go ahead, Steve, say it.

We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

This is, of course, a very different sentiment than laying out an obstructionist approach: “they break in, we lock em back out,” rinse, repeat.

Jobs (and his company) may have had this general strategy all along—let’s see how much excitement there really is; let’s see just how many people are battering at the door.

Turns out, quite a few. Estimates of the number of people who have unlocked their phones to allow 3rd party apps onboard vary, but they’re large enough to constitute interest and enthusiasm.

Apple would have been foolish to ignore the sheer energy that comes from big crowds of youthful developers who want to craft coolness into the device they pull from their pockets to impress people at coffeeshops, airports, and meetings. Those enthusiasts are out there now, breaking down the door every time that Apple re-bars it, and I’m glad that Apple has decided not to waste that creativity and word-of-mouth buzz, juice, whatever.

So next February, they open the door, under some sort of (as yet still) mysterious parameters, they stand back, and oh yes, they will reap the rewards.

It’s not that Apple doesn’t have or couldn’t hire enough developers to create the amount of software that is showing up for this “best mobile platform ever”…but if piles of apps are just handed out from Cupertino, sometimes, dare I say it, the bounty gets taken for granted. Apple actually runs the risk of this with a steady release of new revs of all that iLife and iWork stuff. “Oh, yeah, I have those programs on my machine. Not sure what they all do, but yeah, they’re on there.”

If packages emerge (with some real sparks of new ideas) from the third-party community, that software seems to arrive encapsulated in a heightened, shinier quality of buzz, juice, spark.

Often, the development has been open. We’ve read about it in the land of blogs. Other 3rd party developers have enthused. It may even be open source, which may do exactly nothing for the end user but generates a whole other level of enthusiasm online.

And finally, of course, sometimes a small but powerful idea of uncommon originality will emerge and catch fire from completely outside the Cupertino mothership…and those more fragile, more important ideas are fanned into life more successfully in the nurturing environment of the third party world.

If Apple succeeds in constructively channeling this energy, well, then get ready for all kinds of multi-touch doohickies from the land of Apple that will work much the same way as the iPhone and the iPod Touch did…but in your car, on your kids’ school desktops, and so on.

Isn’t it “ironic.”

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Hello from Seattle, where the skyline looks like an ad for ABC’s Thursday night lineup. How dare they co-opt the space needle!

Hey, I love it when I see signs out there in the real world that use those fine punctuation marks, the quotations, to create a sense of emphasis (in lieu of a bolder type, or an underline, or red ink, or something.) Of course, to me, it looks like when they say ‘we only use the “freshest” meat’, they’re kinda implying it might be just the opposite of “freshest.”

That’s why I’m “chuckling” at this fine “blog”, here.