Writing a book about Tiger was one of those ideas that seemed really great on paper – particularly the small, powder-blue paper with the name of my publisher’s bank on it – but, inevitably, there came the time when I actually had to start writing the thing. And that’s when I wished I’d considered the many, many problems that come with trying to write about a piece of software before it ships. Remember that I was working with pre-pre-pre-release versions of the OS; I had to hand in the absolutely final changes to the manuscript five weeks before that magical day when thousands of Mac fans heard their parents, friends, and significant others ask them: “I don’t get it; you’re
going to be standing outside in line all night where? To buy what, again?”

Honestly, you have no idea how difficult it is to write about something that doesn’t actually exist. Somewhere there’s an author working on a book about the new-found prosperity and security sweeping the US thanks to President Bush’s domestic and foreign policies. He or she has my sincere and emphatic sympathy. I been there, man, I been there.

The week Tiger was released, Macworld asked me to contribute a scorecard for all of 10.4’s new features. It was an interesting exercise. Spotlight seemed like nothing less than a God-given miracle when it first set about the task of organizing my 200GB of files. But did I feel differently, five months later? And for that matter, now that these features have been for-real and in daily use for a full three months (at time of writing), is the seductive sheen still intact after the familiar day-to-day grind?

Well, Spotlight still kicks butt. I raved about it in the book and I gave it an A+ on the scorecard. If Spotlight made the task of organizing and finding information any simpler, your Mac would have a big blue button reading, “Come on... you know the file I mean, right?”. The fact that it’s a fundamental feature that holistically impacts the entire Mac experience is just gravy. Only a moment ago, I needed to retrieve that list of grades and Lord knows where I’d saved it. But it was in my hands in moments, after a Command-Space and t-i-g-e.

Still, I’m going to grudgingly reduce the grade to an A. Partly because one of its most important features – defining files and folders that shouldn’t be indexed and searched, such as your financial records – is buried in the interface, but mostly because I want to leave room for the Big Blue Button that I’m sure will arrive with Mac OS 10.5.

Automator suffered a small dip in my estimations, but it turned out that the dip was me. After Tiger shipped I started getting a little frustrated with its limitations. The real problem was that I kept trying to make it do things it was never meant to do. Apple never claimed that Automator was a replacement for AppleScript. The moment I accepted that you exploit Automator for its blind, dumb obedience but should still turn to AppleScript for actual intelligence, the sun rejoined my sky. It got an A in the scorecard, and big thumbs up in the book... I’ll let that stand.

Safari RSS got a B from me, which translates to ‘Good effort, son; keep it up’ but not mtop-of-the-class performance. I’m glad Safari now supports Rich Site Summaries (click the RSS button and you’ll see a clean, neatly organized and searchable view of the current Web site’s contents) but I confess that I almost never take advantage of it.

RSS is as revolutionary and important to the noughties as HTML was to the nineties, no question – which is why I use Ranchero Software’s NetNewsWire newsreader. This standalone application utilises RSS capabilities to their fullest, whereas Safari just sort of acknowledges that RSS exists. Even if you don’t want to spend the dough, a free account on www.bloglines.com will deliver RSS features that go way beyond what’s hardwired inside Safari. So Safari keeps its B, but is warned that I’m expecting a lot more in the coming term.

I confess that I succumbed to a bit of irrational exuberance when I gave iChat AV an A-. After (literally) months of trying and failing to make it to do anything that could even remotely be described as iChat-ish, I was just happy that I’d finally gotten it working it all. Plus, four-way videochat and nine-way audio is – please forgive me for using a mystifying technical term – wicked awesome.

I wish I’d compared it more explicitly with Skype, the Voice-Over-Internet chat application. The sound quality is every bit as good as the times when I’ve done radio interviews over an in-studio satellite connection, and for a dashed-reasonable fee, you can “chat” to any phone number. Bottom line: iChat’s most useful features are more or less unchanged. Let’s drop that one down to a B+.
And now, we come to my personal Waterloo: Dashboard. Good heavens, in the book I speak as if either (a) it was the most impressive technical feat since the Nazarene catered an event for 5,000 on just pennies, or (b) I’d been consuming an irresponsible amount of ether.

My heart was in the right place. For years, I’ve been wishing for alternative user experiences, and here Apple had given us a new invisible layer of apps. However, you can only access with a keystroke, whichm makes you wonder why you don’t simply command-tab into the Address Book directly. And they all disappear again when you click back into a different app, which makes you wonder what the point is of having accessories that can only be seen alongside other accessories.

Plenty of Dashboard widgets have now been released and they span the spectrum of features and functions. I love my TV Tracker widget. But just a moment ago it took nearly thirty seconds for the thing to reactivate and tell me about a handful of shows coming up on a handful of channels. It would have taken less time to tab into Safari and click on my Yahoo! Television bookmark, which gives me the whole evening’s programming at a glance. Nearly every widget I’ve installed tells the same story: it’s neither faster nor as convenient as tabbing into a real app or a Web page. As things stand, Dashboard is a failure. I give it a D-, just out of pity.

Looking over my newly-revised scorecard, I’m pleased to note that Tiger has more or less matched my junior-high academic performance. Dashboard proved that a segregated layer for simple, single-purpose mini-apps was an interesting idea in theory, but, in practice, better left alone. I had much the same relationship with those times in gym class when they made us run laps for half an hour and then shimmy up an eighteen-foot rope. I been there, Tiger, I been there. MW