Today's keynote from Steve Jobs at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco dished out the promised preview of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and its bundled applications. In the keynote, Jobs noted that over 50 percent of the installed base of Macs are now using Mac OS X, which amounts to 12 million users. That's up from the claim of 7 million users a year ago at WWDC, and although I'm not quite sure what to make of that 12 million number, it's not far from the 13.75 million Macs Apple sold from 2000 through 2003 (judging from the company's SEC 10-K filings). Nonetheless, Tiger will be Mac OS X's fifth major release since the operating system's introduction in 2000, and there's no question that Apple has made significant changes over that time.
You won't see Tiger this year though, since Apple is committing only to the first half of 2005 as a ship date. That could mean as early as January 2005 (expect to see a big preview at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, though I would be shocked to see Tiger ship then) or as late as June 2005. My money is on sometime in between, partly because it's the safest bet and partly because I believe Apple would want to use WWDC next year to preview what's coming rather than recap what just shipped. But software schedules are notoriously difficult to predict, particularly that far out, and particularly for an operating system, so there's no telling. The cost will once again be $130.
As with Panther, Apple is again touting 150 new features, although a few are more significant than others. Like everyone else, I'm seeing this stuff for the first time, so rather than attempt to repeat all the details here, I'll restrict myself to a short description of (and commentary about) each major new feature, along with a pointer to Apple's Web site, which you should read for details.
Spotlight -- With Spotlight, Apple aims to make it significantly easier to find data already on your hard disk. Spotlight won't just search filenames and content, as Mac OS X can do now; it will also be able to gather and search through metadata, much as iTunes and iPhoto can do with Smart Playlists and Smart Albums. Spotlight will power additional smarts: Smart Folders in the Finder (which could let you overlay different organizational structures on top of the basic hierarchical file system we have now), Smart Mailboxes in Mail (letting you group the same set of messages in different ways), and Smart Groups in Address Book.
It's good to see Apple acknowledging the need for more access to metadata about files and other data objects in the system, since as the amount of data we all accumulate increases, the more difficult it becomes to manage. Apple's metadata search engine will be able to extract some metadata from files automatically, and developers will be able to add their own metadata as well, making it possible to extend Spotlight's capabilities easily.
iChat AV for Tiger -- Immediately after iChat AV showed off audio and video chats, users started asking if they could include multiple people in an audio or video chat. Right now the answer is no, but that will change once Tiger ships. Multi-party audio chats will be limited to 10 participants; multi-party video chats to 3. As you would expect, the interface for iChat AV for Tiger is elegant, with a multi-party video chat showing each person an almost three-dimensional display, complete with subtle reflections on the "floor" in front of each person's picture. Multi-party audio chats lack the whizzy graphics, but add helpful sound-level meters, making it easy to see who is talking, even if you don't recognize voices. That's a feature I'd love to have on normal conference calls.
Apple also claims improved performance and picture quality, and while those will be welcome, I also hope to see reliability enhancements; the main reason I don't use audio and video chats more often is that at least some of the time it turns into a troubleshooting session via normal text chat for the first five minutes.
Safari RSS -- Although Apple's Safari RSS page is overenthusiastic about how RSS is a "new" technology, when in fact RSS has been around for years, it's still a major addition for Safari. RSS is a way of using HTTP to publish information, usually article headlines and summaries, though full articles are also possible, and in fact, you can read TidBITS Talk via RSS by getting the URL from the XML button on our Web Crossing version. You read RSS feeds using special programs like Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire. RSS support in Safari won't be unique; Opera 7 and the public beta of OmniWeb 5 both offer RSS features already, so it will remain to be seen how Safari's RSS support will stack up.
Other useful features in Safari RSS will include identity protection when using public Macs, the capability to save Web pages in an archive format and to email them directly, and to search your bookmarks. My take is that Safari RSS will be a nice improvement on Safari, but won't compete with the more full-featured browsers like OmniWeb and Opera.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Karelia Software wasn't flattered when an update to Apple's Sherlock mimicked Watson, and the same is true for Arlo and Perry. Apple has in the past purchased products or licensed code to include in the Mac OS, and it's unclear why the company seems unwilling to do that now, particularly given the open source underpinnings of Mac OS X and all the effort that goes into using those projects. The cost probably wouldn't be usurious, at least in comparison to the ill will generated by copying the work of small independent developers, both in the community at large and among developers who are being conditioned to avoid creating anything Apple might later take for itself.
The main consolation Arlo and Perry have is that Konfabulator is available now, whereas Dashboard may not ship for up to a year. In the meantime, you can enjoy Konfabulator even more with the just-released Konfabulator 1.7, which adds Unicode support and an Expose-like feature for showing all your Widgets at once on the same layer, separated from everything else that's showing.
Automator -- Dashboard may be an obvious knockoff, but it's less clear if Tiger's new Automator will threaten macro utilities like Script Software's iKey or CE Software's QuicKeys. Automator is a visual scripting environment for creating "workflows" that are sequences of "actions." Although it sounds like a macro utility when described like that (Apple calls it a "personal automation assistant" and has given it a little robot icon), the Automator Web page seems to point toward it having more of a link with AppleScript and Apple Events. We won't know quite where Automator fits for a while, but in the meantime, it's decidedly interesting.
VoiceOver -- For many people, using a Macintosh is visually difficult or impossible, and Apple is attempting to address that with VoiceOver, a new technology built into Tiger. VoiceOver enhances Mac OS X with a spoken interface that reads email and document files aloud, audibly describes the workspace, and provides a set of keyboard commands for navigating the entire operating system. It's difficult to extrapolate from Apple's description exactly how VoiceOver will work, but we can hope that it will make the Mac more accessible to those with disabilities.
.Mac Sync -- I've been tremendously disappointed in iSync, since Apple neither opened it up to other developers nor extended it to synchronizing files and other data between networked Macs. With Tiger, that should change, since Apple is building synchronization services into the operating system and opening them up to developers. Apple seems to be making a big deal of how Tiger's new sync engine will work with .Mac accounts to let you synchronize contacts and calendar, although it's unclear how that's different from what iSync provides now. Nevertheless, I hope Tiger's sync engine will enable much more than iSync has so far.
Tweaky Improvements -- Last, but by no means least, we come to the improvements that will primarily interest developers. Tiger will offer 64-bit memory addressing for memory- and CPU-intensive applications while retaining compatibility with existing 32-bit applications. 64-bit addressing will also improve code portability with other 64-bit Unix systems. Speaking of Unix, Tiger will upgrade to the FreeBSD 5.x kernel, provide command-line access to Spotlight, and offer access control lists for controlling access down to the file level. Xcode 2.0 will enhance Apple's development tools with visual modeling and design features, an integrated Apple Reference Library, improved Java support, and graphical debugging from remote machines. A pair of new architectures called Core Image and Core Video will enable developers to access the speed of the graphics processing unit (GPU) built into today's video cards. My impression is that Core Image and Core Video will basically enable faster and fancier eye candy than ever before. And while we're on the topic of video, Apple will be revving QuickTime to support H.264, a new MPEG-4 video codec (compressor/decompressor) that can display video on platforms from cell phones to high-definition TV; iChat AV for Tiger relies on H.264 for better picture quality without the need for additional bandwidth.
Tiger Server -- One more thing... As with previous Mac OS X releases, Apple also has a server version. Along with the improvements in Tiger, Tiger Server will include Weblog Server for publishing a weblog, an iChat server for protecting the privacy of internal communications (it will be compatible with open source Jabber clients for various operating systems), a variety of tools that aim to ease the process of migrating from Windows-based servers, server-based home directories for mobile users, a Software Update Server that lets administrators control the availability of Apple's updates for Tiger, an Internet Gateway Setup Assistant to simplify setting up Internet sharing services, and Apple's Xgrid clustering software.
Tiger Server shares the same amorphous ship date as Tiger itself - the first half of 2005 - and it will retail for $500 for 10 clients of $1,000 for an unlimited-client edition. It sounds good, and by adding services, Apple increases the likelihood that those of us with Panther Server or Jaguar Server will consider upgrading, something that's a good bit less likely than with desktop systems.