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.