Greetings once again, O Readers from the Future. Never before have I felt the yawning three-month gulf that lies between us so sharply. As I write this, it's June and Apple's World Wide Developer Conference is still in full swing. Here in the past, where we still get around San Francisco in primitive atomic heli-zeppelins instead of the clean and efficient pneumatic tubes that have become just a boring part of the daily commute in your era, we're still very slightly agog at Steve Jobs' stunning keynote presentation of the features and technologies that will lie at the chewy nougat centre of Tiger, aka Mac OS X 10.4.
And yet our early-summer-2004 ways must seem so quaint to you, O Readers from the Future, who by now have had several weeks to process all of this. I can't give you any news, per se, but I can answer the most relevant question that's on everybody's minds the moment Apple sketches out the capabilities of a significant new edition of the OS: “How does all this affect me, personally?"
Well, me personally couldn't be more thrilled that Tiger's ship date has been announced as the delightfully vague “First half of 2005." I've just finished writing a whole new series of Mac books for Wiley Publishing. While I was writing the Mac OS X 10.3 book, it was with a nervous eye on the horizon: Tiger was lurking somewhere in the bushes like… I don't know, a lion or something.
By now (as you know from the massive holographic billboards projected above all government buildings and McDonalds franchises) my Panther book has been released and its sales figures are making JK Rowling feel like a bit of a punk. Had Tiger been released in October (as was rumoured, largely among friends of mine who felt that I don't drink nearly enough hard liquor) the book would have only had about seven weeks to earn me some long green. Better, the Panther book will become obsolete only after I've had time to write a Tiger book to replace it with, and thus within the same 12 months I'll be able to stick my hands in the till twice, so to speak.
So that's a great relief. It looks like I can afford to have that kitchen wall replaced and finally I'll be able to enjoy my breakfast in peace, without being disturbed by livestock wandering across my linoleum and knocking over my microwave cart, or the neighbours phoning in and demanding that I either tie my bathrobe or put on some underpants.
Tiger's new features are all winners, too. Particularly the fully integrated search system. Incredibly useful, yes; relieves the users from one of the most tedious parts of using a computer, absolutely. But from the “How This Affects Me" perspective I like it because it's easy to explain and I can toss in lots of colourful, page-filling screenshots as I show people how to use Spotlight and Tiger's other search features.
When I peruse a product's feature lists I hope for lots of Shrek-style anthropomorphized dancing animals and concepts that can be explained through a series of grunts and gestures, or perhaps a sentence at most, viz “Raises from the dead recently deceased and mostly intact pets weighing no more than 44 pounds." Dynamite; one afternoon's work and I've got a new chapter for the book and the rest of the day free for waffles and golf. You don't the same sort of oomph from a press release that's headlined “Mac OS X 10.4 underscores the relevance of XML metadata as a core competence."
In fact, only three things worry me about Tiger. First, there's Automator. I love AppleScript, and I evangelize the Mac's scripting and automation system with the same fervour with which I like to foster hatred of feature films based on Seventies TV shows. So while I'm intrigued by this new feature that allows basic users to automate processes and workflows through an intuitive and graphical interface instead of a scripting language, I know it's a Big Win for the public but I worry about what it means for poor AppleScript. Resources that developers should be committing to beefing up the scriptability of their apps will be used to make the things work with Automator instead.
And then there's Dashboard. If we were in Mars' gravity and atmosphere I could possibly expand my ego enough to claim that Apple got the idea from me. For years I've been advocating that apps (and the OS itself) should have two different “faces": the familiar one, and a simpler, more colourful and more accessible one that the app presents when it knows you're not paying any attention to it. When you're reading mail. Mail.app needs to present you with windows and drawers and menus and scrolling lists. When it's in the background, it should collapse to a simple floating translucent window that tells me when it last checked for new mail, how many messages are waiting, and the “From"s and “Subject"s of the top five unread mails.
So Dashboard is a step in the right direction. It's just too bad that they had to torpedo Konfabulator in the process. Just as they did with Karelia Software's Watson search tool, a highly original and successful third-party OS enhancement has been undercut by a curiously identical enhancement that Apple rolled into the OS proper a year after the upstart makes it big. It's a distressingly Microsoftian trend, and the worry is that Apple is sending a bad message to developers: don't you dare innovate. Not if you want to run a business, anyway.
This column is indeed all about me, me, glorious me, so I'll end with the concern that Tiger will do nothing to enhance my stature as a serious technology journalist. It's bad news for all Mac users, really, in that once again, it's just too damned good. With 10.0 and 10.1, we could be aloof and critical of an OS that Just Wasn't Quite There Yet, but Jaguar kicked butt and OS X has got incrementally kick-buttier ever since.
Thus, when I write about Tiger it'll be with a well-deserved enthusiasm bordering on delight. But it falls straight into the stereotype of Mac users as some sort of cult that likes anything Apple does. Well, we do, by and large, but that's only because Apple keeps giving us good stuff. Just try to explain that to a Windows user, though. The movie Trainspotting made the point that only junkies can understand the life and joys of junkies, that people wouldn't do heroin if it made them feel bad. As for the troubling fact that Tiger hasn't even been released yet and already it's causing me to think favourably of deadly opiates, well, I choose to ignore that. This column is, after all, entirely about me. MW