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New Apple Technologies

Along with the PowerPC, Apple showed in its Macworld Apple Pavilion a number of upcoming future technologies that promise to add to the power and the complexity of the Macintosh experience. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, some will add to the overall enjoyment of that experience as well.

Scriptable Finder — I suspect that one of the technologies that we’ll see soon is the Scriptable Finder. Those who have used Frontier and AppleScript know that the Finder is not particularly scriptable and does not support script recording. People have hacked around some of the Finder’s scripting limitations in AppleScript, and Frontier has long been able to bend the Finder to its will. Still, the Scriptable Finder (which, if I remember my rumors right, may appear this spring), will be welcome, and for scripting weenies like me, the recordability will make it easier to get started. Much of my problem with scripting the Finder is that unlike a rigid DOS system in which there are relatively few directories due to the difficulty in navigating and managing them, a complex Macintosh file hierarchy doesn’t play by as many rules, making it harder to discover patterns that cry out for a script.

QuickDraw GX — I’m not a printing fiend – it took me over three years to finish off the toner cartridge that came with my laser printer. So, I have less enthusiasm for QuickDraw GX than I’m sure many people do. In brief, QuickDraw GX is a long-awaited rewrite of how the Macintosh handles device-independent display of fonts and graphics along with a more powerful printing architecture. Those who print constantly will appreciate queue control and a completely-redesigned print dialog box. QuickDraw GX has improved color management technology to ensure that colors are consistent across different output devices and other Macs. Along with improved low-level graphics functionality for developers, QuickDraw GX includes more advanced typographical capabilities, automating the process of dealing with line spacing, kerning, ligatures, and the like.

Perhaps the most interesting new feature in QuickDraw GX, which I had not heard about before Macworld, is the capability to create portable documents. As far as I can tell, you can essentially print to a special file that QuickDraw GX can then display properly on any QuickDraw GX-equipped Mac. This sounds exactly like what Adobe, No Hands Software, and Farallon have done with Acrobat, Common Ground, and Replica, respectively, except for the fact that it would be built into the system software. I haven’t heard anything about cross-platform capabilities for the portable documents, but Apple would be foolish not to create some sort of limited reader for DOS and Windows. Of course, they may avoid doing that purely to avoid the competition with the existing portable document architectures, not that any of them have wowed the market.

Apple Interactive Help — Of all of the new technologies features, Apple Interactive Help has the most promise in terms of helping the most Macintosh users. At the same time though, it is the least impressive and seemed to be more highly touted than its capabilities warranted. Admittedly the Apple person gave a lame demo, but perhaps there wasn’t anything cool to show.

As far as I could tell, Apple Interactive Help is a system level text browser offering "how do I?"-oriented questions and answers. You can search or browse through it, and if you wish, create your own help databases. However, I saw no indication of interactivity other than the fact that the user could search in it, and I saw no indication of context-sensitivity that would allow it to suggest answers to your unspoken questions. I don’t want it making suggestions without being asked, since there’s no accounting for personal methods of working, but it seems that we’ve advanced sufficiently that we can go beyond balloon help and little help browsers.

I may have suggested this before, but I’d like to see the concept of user level in help. Balloon help bugs me because it’s so stinking persistent – listen to it and you’d think that I didn’t know that I was pointing at an inactive window after years of using a Macintosh (and yes, I know how to remove those messages). If only we could code help balloons, and now sections of the Apple Interactive Help database, such that they would appear once no matter what level, but then only appear if they were judged to be of interest. So, for instance, I would see the balloon telling what Open does once, but never again. However, the balloon informing me what the modifier keys go with an obscure menu item would continue to pop up until I explicitly dismissed it.

Macintosh Drag & Drop — One of the most interesting features in Word 5.0 was drag & drop editing. I was an initial skeptic but now admit that it works well. (I use it all the time in Nisus.) I believe some high-end graphics and layout programs enable you to drag and drop graphics and text blocks from one document to another rather than forcing you to use copy & paste or the Scrapbook. Macintosh Drag & Drop takes these ideas and implements them to the hilt, so you can drag & drop text and graphics from one application to another. Of course, for those of you who have yet to convert to the religion of multiple monitors, it may be difficult to view both documents on screen at once. Apple helps you with this by letting you drop a selection on the Finder, to create a Clippings file which you can later drag into a different document window. Barring the problem of screen real estate for many people, I have high hopes for Macintosh Drag & Drop.

OpenDoc — Last, but most certainly not least, Apple showed OpenDoc. I cannot hope to do OpenDoc justice in this small space, but the idea is that it provides a document-centric interface with applications appearing only as tools (think ClarisWorks). As it initially stands, you can create a document in any OpenDoc-savvy application (being a container is the easiest level of savvyness and theoretically requires almost no code changes, whereas later levels may require almost complete rewrites) and then use any other application or part of another application that knows about OpenDoc as a tool within the first.

At a basic level, OpenDoc works much as Microsoft’s OLE does today, where you can embed an Excel spreadsheet in a Word document, and clicking on that spreadsheet launches Excel, as though you opened an Excel worksheet from the Finder. However, instead of a behemoth like Excel, eventually we’ll see tiny applications, or tools, that do specific tasks. The big issue here is that programs must be rewritten to work in this fashion, and in theory large companies with big programs (WordPerfect, as one of the early OpenDoc supporters, will probably face this soon) will break programs into different tools that the user can use in any OpenDoc application.

What difference will OpenDoc make to us users? WordPerfect and friends (although I seriously doubt that Microsoft will support OpenDoc, since they see it as competition for OLE) will probably continue to sell large, expensive packages of many modules that combine to offer the same features as the behemoth programs of today. My hope is that these programs will instead be split up so that you can purchase a set of the necessary modules and fill out your collection with modules from other vendors that work better for you. If priced properly, this technique should lead to cheaper or similarly priced complete solutions, but the solutions will be customized and better suited to specific tasks. In an equally ideal world, small developers will sell modules that are highly tuned for specific tasks, in contrast to the checklist-pleasing modules that the large companies ship. I hope that small developers stay in business in this way, but frankly, I’m concerned since the tasks of marketing, selling, and supporting a module may be too great for a small developer to bear, even if she can produce a tremendously cool module. The only hope for such developers might be to go completely electronic, since the Internet amplifies the individual and enables a single person to do the marketing and tech support work of many.

In any event, I’m rambling slightly, because even though Apple showed some OpenDoc code running, it’s still difficult to get a sense of how well it will all be implemented in the end, or if the market will change to accept OpenDoc. Sure, IBM, Novell, Taligent, Oracle, and Xerox are also OpenDoc supporters, but since when has an industry alliance meant squat for creating something that works, and that works for a large number of real users?

If you wish to stay up on what’s happening with OpenDoc, Component Integration Laboratories has several low-volume mailing lists that talk about OpenDoc. To subscribe or to get more information, send email to:

[email protected]

with one or more of these lines in the body of the letter:

subscribe opendoc-announce [email protected]
subscribe opendoc-interest [email protected]

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