Today at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, Steve Jobs unveiled the next version of Mac OS X, codenamed Panther and scheduled to ship sometime before the end of 2003 for $130. Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar was a major upgrade with numerous large and small improvements over the previous version, and from initial impressions, it appears that Panther will follow in Jaguar's footsteps. Jobs said that Apple has made over 100 major changes to Panther. Here's a brief overview, based on the information available at this point.
New Finder -- Panther sports an all new, brushed metal Finder with several significant changes to standard windows that Jobs claimed were more user-centric. In particular, Apple tried to emphasize those folders that people actually use by putting them in the new Places sidebar on the left side of the window, much like albums in iPhoto or playlists in iTunes. The top part of the Places sidebar lists accessible volumes; the lower part holds your favorite folders. Clicking an item in the Places sidebar jumps to it directly. The Finder will feature new Open and Save dialogs that also use the Places sidebar; we'll see if that's sufficient to help us wake from the horrible nightmare that Open and Save dialogs have been for so long.
Labels have finally returned to the Panther Finder, as has network browsing using the Network icon that has long sat (mostly) unused at the top level of everyone's hard disk. Searching should be faster in Panther's Finder as well, and like searching in iTunes and Mail, it will refine the visible items to those that match as you type. In a fascinating twist, Apple has also added an Action menu to the toolbar of Finder windows; it simply contains the content of the contextual menu that would appear if you Control-clicked or right-clicked a selection in the Finder. That says to me that Apple is acknowledging a basic usability problem with contextual menus for many users; there's no way to know a contextual menu is available simply by looking.
Lastly, a new feature called Expose (actually spelled with an accent on the final "e" and pronounced "ex-po-zay" from what little I could hear of the stuttering QuickTime webcast) aims to help us clean our cluttered Desktops. Expose offers three functions that can be invoked with a function key, by throwing the pointer into a corner of the screen, or with a button on multi-button mice. The first function uses Quartz to tile all open windows; mousing over a window displays its title, and clicking one expands it (along with all the rest) and makes it the foreground window. The second function tiles all the windows in the current application while making windows in other applications go grey; again, a click in a window activates it. The third function simply hides all open windows, providing access to the Desktop. Apple doesn't say if pressing the function key a second time will show all those hidden windows again.
Network Improvements -- As is fitting for today's emphasis on the Internet and local area networks, Panther incorporates a number of changes that should make Macs even better network citizens. SMB and Active Directory support has improved, which should enable Macs to coexist on Windows networks better. IPSec-based (IP Security) virtual private networking is also included.
On the Mac-only side, Panther can automatically synchronize files with your iDisk in the background, making it easy to maintain backup copies of important files (although 100 MB of iDisk storage disappears awfully fast these days). The better iDisk integration also means easier sharing of files between computers, and Jobs claimed it works particularly well with laptops that connect only sporadically. It's basically a local folder that syncs via .Mac.
Mail 2.0 and Address Book -- Apple's bundled email client will receive a significant upgrade with Panther. Performance has reportedly improved significantly, and Mail will use Safari's HTML engine, which will help HTML rendering quality and speed. For those who subscribe to mailing lists, Mail will provide a new interface for tracking and reading discussion threads. Mail's spam filter has reportedly been improved for better accuracy, and it can take advantage of server-side spam marking tools like Spam Assassin or Brightmail. One last neat feature that previously existed only in Microsoft's Entourage: replies and forwards are linked to messages, making it easy to track what you've done to a message.
Mail also has more integration with Address Book, and a number of new small features that some people may find helpful when addressing mail, such as the capability to highlight messages addressed to domains not in a "safe" list. Another interesting bit of integration - if you change some of your contact information in Address Book, a new option in that program can automatically notify all your contacts of the new information. Finally, Address Book can print labels and phone books.
User Switching and Security -- In the keynote, Steve Jobs admitted that Windows XP had trumped Mac OS X in how it handled multiple users, since in Windows XP, you don't have to quit all your applications to switch from one user to the other. That feature will be coming to Panther, and it should make Mac OS X significantly faster and easier to use for families having trouble justifying the extra work of multiple accounts. You set up fast user switching in the Accounts preferences pane, which also offers more levels of security that can be assigned to individual users.
Other security improvements include FileVault, which encrypts the entire contents of your home directory using 128-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption. It works on the fly, and is ideal for protecting files on a PowerBook or iBook. Laptop users will also appreciate a new Panther setting that requires a password whenever the Mac wakes from sleep.
Finally, a few utilities from independent developers will suffer from the addition of a new secure delete feature in Panther that writes seven passes of random data over deleted files to prevent them from being recovered.
Faxing and Preview -- With Panther, Apple is entering a mostly ignored field that has seen little decent software over the years: faxing. If you hook up your Mac's internal modem to a phone line, you can fax any document from the Print dialog to contacts in your Address Book with fax numbers. Incoming faxes can be printed, forwarded to an email address, or viewed in the new Preview application, which can now handle multi-page faxes. Preview converts black-and-white images to 8-bit grayscale using anti-aliasing and smoothing techniques, which may make the faxes easier to read on screen. It would be nice to see additional integration with Internet fax services like eFax, since no matter what Apple adds to Panther, there's no way around the annoyance of dealing with fax reception without a dedicated second phone line.
Preview has received additional improvements, particularly in terms of performance and linking. Apple claims "URL support in Preview makes short work of navigating long documents," which I hope means that it supports PDF bookmarks and links. Also supported are links to other documents and out to Internet resources. If Preview offers support for all those types of links and proves to be faster than Acrobat Reader, it may supplant Acrobat Reader as the most capable PDF browser on the Mac. Other features that would help Preview overthrow Acrobat Reader include improved text copying from PDF documents (currently tricky with Acrobat Reader) and indexed text searches.
Font Book -- Secure deletion utility developers are undoubtedly upset at Panther, and font utility developers may be as well, once they see the new Font Book. Like Suitcase and Font Reserve, Font Book helps you install, preview, search, activate, and deactivate your fonts. Activation and deactivation happen dynamically, so you don't need to relaunch applications to take advantage of the changed font sets.
The Font Panel has been enhanced to help you take advantage of font ligatures, kerning, number spacing, rendering fractions, and more. The Character Palette even lets you preview a character rendered into every available font, something that will probably be appreciated by Unicode users.
The Upgrade Question -- Steve Jobs claimed Apple has seven million active users of Mac OS X and said that the transition to Mac OS X will be done by the end of the year. I suspect that means that he thinks all of the people who are going to switch from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X will have done so by that point, though there's no question that some people will remain with Mac OS 9 until they have reason to buy a new Mac.
As with the migration to Jaguar, I fully expect many existing Jaguar users to be unhappy about paying $130 for the upgrade to Panther, and it's entirely likely that a non-trivial percentage of users will stick with Jaguar. When I asked a roomful of shareware developers at MacHack how many users they estimated hadn't upgraded from Mac OS X 10.1 to Mac OS X 10.2, I heard numbers as high as 20 percent. That surprises me, since Jaguar is so much better than Mac OS X 10.1. Obviously, we won't know for a while how much better than Jaguar Panther really is, but I expect the number of people who consider Jaguar sufficient to be potentially even higher than the number who stuck with Mac OS X 10.1. Apple clearly expects that some people won't upgrade as well, since they're offering iChat AV for free with Panther but charging $30 for those who want to use it with Jaguar.
We'll certainly be ponying up the $130 for Panther when it comes out, so you can look forward to much more detailed coverage and thoughts about whether Panther will be worth your hard-earned cash.
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