It has been just over six months since Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard first shipped, bringing with it a slew of new features, a tweaked user interface, revamped underpinnings and - as is often the case - a healthy batch of complaints from users about problems. At the time, some in the Macintosh community even argued that Apple Inc.'s new operating system was released before it was ready for prime time.
Given that this was the first major update of the Mac operating system since early 2005 and that it had already been delayed once - from April to late October - Apple clearly didn't want to announce another delay. But did the company do a rush job in an effort to push its crown jewel out the door?
Apple has taken steps in recent months to iron out any wrinkles that users have found. With two major updates now under its belt (a third update is due out soon) as well as the release of numerous code tweaks and security fixes, Leopard has gained ground and maturity and has grown into a solid computing platform.
Leopard promised enough new features to tempt Mac users to upgrade Apple touted some 300 changes, major and minor: Time Machine for automatic backups; a more powerful search tool, Spotlight; virtual desktops called Spaces; new Parental Controls to help users track what their kids are doing on the computer; Quick Look, which allows users to open files without having to first fire off an application; an updated user interface with a new Finder and Dock; elegant tweaks to mainstream Mac programs like Mail and iChat; and behind-the-scenes changes aimed at helping developers improve their own applications. (For my money, Time Machine, which makes something as dull as backing up your system easy and fun to do, makes the move to Leopard a no-brainer.)
Finally, with Leopard came the official version of Boot Camp, which allows you to run later versions of Windows XP or Vista natively on a Mac. (An earlier beta version of Boot Camp received no further updates once the new operating system was available.) Boot Camp does limit you to running one operating system at a time. However, if you want to run more than one, you need virtualization software such as Parallels or VMware.
Problems emerge While Leopard's feature list tempted Apple fans into purchasing Leopard, within days of its release, reports flooded blog and news sites about Leopard installations gone awry, resulting in blue-screened Macs - a technological irony, given the grief Mac users have given Windows users throughout the years. These issues were soon tied to Unsanity LLC's APE software - the remedy involved uninstalling the software from single-user mode.
The most alarming of Leopard's initial crop of bugs was a rare but reproducible glitch that involved data loss under specific circumstances. If a user moved files from one disk to another while holding down the Command key, and one of the disks became unmounted during the move, both the original and the copied items would delete themselves.
While the bug was fixed just days after it was found, it raised questions about Apple's quality control and only amplified fears that Leopard had been pushed out of the door too soon. Although nothing as nasty has shown up in Leopard since then, the data-loss issue put off some buyers, and in fact, a lot of Mac fans weighed in on online forums and in blogs, saying they would wait a few weeks before spending their $129 on the operating system.
Less serious were the complaints about changes to the operating system's user interface, which offered a more unified look by ditching the "brushed metal" look used in Tiger. Coming under fire were the changes to the Dock and modifications to the Finder, including a new way to navigate the Mac's file system called Cover Flow. While this new feature allowed for iTunes/iPhone-like album browsing through files in the Finder, many fans in online forums dismissed it as needless eye candy, while others debated its merits. Even something as minor as the newly transparent menu bar divided Mac users.
Whether you were happy with these interface changes seemed to depend on whether you were a longtime Macintosh user or a recent convert. Generally, long-time users found the new animations and graphics superfluous; new users, by contrast, liked them and found the animations useful.
No taste for eye candy
Complaints seemed loudest about the more graphic-intensive Dock, especially its new reflective quality and 3-D appearance; those complaining preferred the older two-dimensional look. Resourceful Mac fans soon devised ways to change the Dock's appearance - some involving command-line access, others involving more extensive system changes using third-party software.
While the Dock's appearance could be changed, a new feature called Stacks couldn't. Tiger users had grown accustomed to a Dock that showed folder contents as hierarchal, text-based lists, which allowed them to traverse folders and files without relying on the Finder. But Leopard's Stacks displayed icons in either a grid or as an arching fan of icons, depending on where the Dock was on the screen.
If you had a folder with 10 items or less and your Dock was located on the bottom of the screen, icons arched out from a folder when you clicked on it. If you had more than 10 items in that folder, however, you got icons lined up in a grid. And if the Dock was located along one side of the screen, all you saw was a grid.
That's not exactly the model of user-interface consistency that Mac users had come to expect from Apple, to be sure. Adding to the unpredictability: A folder's Dock icon changes to reflect the most recent file added, annoying users accustomed to a consistent Dock interface.
While these seem like minor issues, devoted Mac users take these things very seriously. Apple apparently did so as well - when the second update for Leopard was released in February, it allowed users to display folder items as they had in Tiger, using hierarchical menus or icons. Right-clicking on a Dock icon now opens a customizable pop-up menu that allows users to choose among the various options, even allowing each folder to have its own setting.
In OS X 10.5.2, you can right-click a folder on the Dock, then choose the List option (highlighted on left) to display the folder's contents in the Tiger-style hierarchical mode (shown at right).
That same update offered a "fix" for Apple's new translucent menu bar at the top of the screen. Until Leopard, it had been white; with Leopard, it looked more like frosted glass. The new look allowed desktop pictures to show through, potentially making menu commands harder to read - something that was never an issue when the menu bar was a solid white.
As with the Dock, innovative users quickly devised ways to make the menu bar appear to be a solid color, while others tried desktop pictures with a white strip across the top. With the 10.5.2 release, Apple added an option to the operating system that allows users to toggle the menu bar between translucent and solid. (It's located in the Desktop & Screen Saver System Preference.)
Leopard 10.5.2 also lets you revert to a solid menu bar.
Late additions: Java and disk backups Just as easily remedied was the initial lack of Java 6 support. While most users of Leopard never noticed a problem, Java developers who rely on Mac OS X did - Java SE 6 offers a slew of new features for developers, such as simplified graphical user interface development, streamlined Web services and a standardized framework for scripting languages.
Apple released a build of Java 6 on Dec. 14, 2007, about six weeks after Leopard's release, quieting the complaints coming from Java developers. It also released another update in mid-February, adding even more improvements over the initial release, though compatibility is still limited to 64-bit Intel chip sets.
It took Apple longer to add a feature to Leopard that had been promised by CEO Steve Jobs and cut from the operating system before it was released: Support by Time Machine - the backup utility included in Leopard - for AirPort disk backups. Apple users who relied on the company's AirPort Extreme base station for wireless connections had been told that they could attach a hard drive to their wireless router and use that disk for backups with Time Machine.
When Leopard first shipped, people were surprised to find this a no-go. Without saying why, Apple had culled the feature from the shipping version of the operating system and only implemented it - unofficially - when it released a slew of software updates in February. (Apple also released Time Capsule, hardware that made those backups even easier.)
The one change with Leopard that could be a show-stopper for some was Apple's decision to discontinue all support for its "Classic" OS - meaning no one on Leopard could run Mac OS 9 programs. (In fact, that one change has prevented the company I work for - a major media firm - from migrating our users to Leopard.)
This was not unexpected, as even the Intel version of Tiger didn't support the Classic environment. The only users who could run Mac OS 9 programs in Tiger were those with older PowerPC-based hardware. Although Leoaprd runs on the older machines, support for OS 9 was finally dropped altogether. For Apple, the move was seen as a necessary step, but it's a problem for users with legacy software.
Perfection remains on the horizon
Since Leopard's debut, Apple has been busy, bumping Mac OS X from the initial 10.5 on Oct. 26 to 10.5.1 on Nov. 15 - a quick update largely aimed at squashing all those niggling bugs that shipped with the operating system. Version 10.5.2 arrived on Feb. 11, and the next update, Version 10.5.3, is expected soon, although Apple hasn't said when. Those revisions have included numerous bug fixes, security updates and code tweaks, including the aforementioned tweaks to the menu bar and Stacks.
By way of comparison, Mac OS X Tiger had three upgrades in its first six months. By the time Tiger was replaced by Leopard, it had received 11 such upgrades and dozens of security updates and software tweaks. What does this mean for Leopard? Look for a series of future updates as Apple continues to improve on the Leopard code base, just as it has for every other version of OS X.
Leopard also offers behind-the-scenes benefits for users: built-in developer tools that allow Apple to detect problematic code and to help boost performance. Because Apple has implemented DTrace in its development environment, Mac users are likely to see a more stable operating system and applications. Anyone using Apple's developer tools for their applications is also using the very same tools Apple uses for its own diagnosing and bug-fixing.
Even as Apple moved to firm up its already full-featured operating system, it looked to build upon the platform by unveiling tools for iPhone application development. The iPhone runs on a scaled-down version of OS X, making it easier for developers to create apps for the phone and do more with apps for the operating system. The iPhone software developer's kit, due out in June and based on Apple's existing Mac SDK, effectively extends the reach of existing tools to allow for a seamless development platform.
With the tools in place, building an application for one Apple system adds knowledge and experience that can be transferred to apps built for another Apple platform. For developers, this means they can create powerful, functional and stable applications quickly, without the need for teams of coders or support squads. For end users, the result is a wider variety of applications and functions, no matter which Apple product you're using.
Is the upgrade worth it?
Six months after its release, debates about whether Leopard is a worthy upgrade have largely vanished. Even large companies are checking it out, uncertain as they are about the future of Vista; for example, IBM is running a test to determine whether Macs in the office would be a smart move. A recent survey by ChangeWave Research found that "Apple continues to set the standard for corporate customer satisfaction." That's noteworthy, given the lack of a specific Apple push into the enterprise.
What's more, the OS x86 project is looking for ways to install Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware. And just last month, Miami-based PsyStar Corp. popped up to offer Mac clones. It may not be legal, and Apple will no doubt have a few things to say about the venture, but it shows the energy and enthusiasm of those who have used the Mac OS, and is a sure sign of Apple's continuously extending reach.
With Intel chips inside and Boot Camp installed, Macs can now run Windows, meaning no one is necessarily bound to a single operating system. If you are still on the fence about switching but are a fan of Apple hardware, buying a Mac is win-win. Even if you find that Leopard and all of its features don't suit your fancy, you can easily back up your data, reformat your Mac and install any operating system you desire, be it Windows or a Linux distribution. Because Apple generally chooses higher-end components for its Intel-based computers, most current operating systems should work fine.
Though Apple's hardware is what so often draws a crowd - remember when the iPhone and MacBook Air came out? - that hardware is just a collection of parts. Leopard is the heart and soul of the Mac.
Note: This blog first appeared on our sister site Computerworld
Michael DeAgonia is a Neal-award winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as a Macintosh administrator at a large media company.