Jaguar: Mac OS X Prepares to Pounce
At the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs previewed the next major release of Mac OS X, codenamed "Jaguar," due for release in "late summer," which we would interpret to mean the end of August. Along with a number of Mac-only features that we’ll cover below, Jaguar will build in the latest versions of the Unix operating system and tools that lie under Mac OS X. Some of those tools, such as the GCC 3 compiler, could help developers provide improved performance, and others, like the next generation Internet protocols IPv6 and IPSec, will help Mac OS X be a first-class Internet citizen. Those changes, though welcome, are unlikely to affect users as much as the higher profile improvements Jobs outlined. One caveat – we’re not developers and Apple didn’t provide a webcast of the keynote, so we’ve had to piece details together from a variety of sources. More details will undoubtedly become known as WWDC continues.
iChat — Adding to Apple’s iApp stable, Jobs announced that instant messaging software called iChat would be built into Jaguar. iChat will be compatible with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), marking the first time AOL has allowed any company to work with AIM. That hasn’t stopped a variety of companies from reverse-engineering AIM support, and with Mac OS X users added to AIM’s 150 million user party, AIM compatibility will become even more attractive. You won’t need an AOL or AIM account to use iChat – it will work with your iTools username and will reportedly also let you create buddy lists of local network users as well. Apple plans to integrate iChat with the enhanced Mail and Address Book so you can see the online status of people in your buddy list and turn email exchanges into real time chats. iChat’s interface is simple – it uses "dialogue bubbles" to present instant messages in a "graphically conversational manner." And you thought balloon help was dead.
As much as we’re not fans of instant messaging, iChat will probably be a hit by virtue of being bundled with Mac OS X. Chat applications haven’t evolved much from their inception years ago, so we’re hoping that iChat does more than offer a pretty Aqua interface. Our wish list? An auto-correct option that ensures words are spelled correctly coupled with an auto-expansion function that turns the common abbreviations like "cul8r" into the actual words of "See you later." So what if we’re old-fashioned?
Mail — Apple’s bundled Mail client has thus far failed to measure up to any well-known email clients. Judging from the WWDC keynote, though, the next version of Mail will provide more competition via filters with multiple criteria, automatic saving of message drafts when you quit, better handling of multiple accounts, searching across mailboxes, color highlighting, security features, support for virtual private networks, and support for QuickTime.
Most interesting, though, is the promise of a spam filter that works on the semantic content of spam. Apple must be extremely careful in how Mail identifies spam, since false positives could prove highly damaging to the business reputations of companies whose legitimate mail was incorrectly identified. We had significant problems with Outlook Express’s Junk Mail Filter marking TidBITS as spam when it first shipped – despite the fact that TidBITS has always been an opt-in mailing list, a number of readers reported us as spammers based solely on Outlook Express’s say-so. If that judgement were to come from Apple’s default email client, especially given that it will be used heavily by novices, it could be utterly disastrous to companies like us that rely on email communications.
Address Book — Backing up iChat and Mail is a new Address Book. The main change to Address Book is that any application can now access its system-wide database of contact information. It supports vCards and reportedly will also offer LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) searching. Plus, it’s tied into Apple’s forthcoming Bluetooth support, so you can exchange vCards with PDAs and cell phones. It’s unclear if other applications will be able to use Address Book to work with databases containing other sorts of information; also unclear is if the database engine underlying Address Book offers sufficient performance and robustness to be used in such a way. We’ve been agitating for a system-level database since 1996 (see "The Database Returns" in TidBITS-341); it would be nice to see Apple finally provide such a service.
Finder Improvements — Fans of Mac OS 9’s spring-loaded folders will be happy to see the feature return to Mac OS X, enabling you to click and hold on a folder to view its contents and drill down into other nested folders. Also new in Finder windows is instant searching via a Toolbar Search field into which you can enter file names or text in a document; the results are displayed in the Finder window. It promises to be much better than today’s glacial searches via Sherlock.
The Finder will also receive performance boosts from multi-threading and from Quartz Extreme, an enhanced version of the Quartz rendering engine that’s responsible for drawing graphics. Quartz Extreme offloads graphics processing to a supported video card, freeing up the Mac’s main processor(s) for application-specific tasks. Graphics-intensive programs like 3D games and video utilities will see performance improvements, as will the drawing of Finder interface elements such as drop shadows and transparent windows. However, the key phrase here is "supported video card," which includes the Nvidia GeForce2 MX, GeForce3, GeForce4 Ti, GeForce4, or GeForce4 MX, as well as any ATI AGP Radeon card – and preferably cards with at least 32 MB of VRAM. So, essentially, only the newest Macs (other than the iBook) will be able to take advantage of Quartz Extreme, no doubt an effort by Apple to stimulate hardware sales when Jaguar is released.
Sherlock 3 — Although we primarily use Sherlock to find files, Apple has always pushed it as a way to find Internet information such as news headlines or phone numbers. Those features have never impressed us, in part because Sherlock has always been a jumping-off point, displaying results that load into a Web browser when clicked. Sherlock 3, however, will be able to display properly formatted results in its own window, turning Apple’s online sleuth into what looks like a clone of Karelia’s excellent Watson, although Watson offers more tools than appear in Apple’s screenshot of Sherlock 3.
Handwriting Recognition — One of the more intriguing announcements was support for handwriting recognition, referred to as Ink on Apple’s Web site. Reports from the conference claimed that handwriting is recognized by any application that accepts text, including Unix programs such as Terminal. However, Apple’s Jaguar page notes that Ink works in Mail and TextEdit, with an additional program called InkPad used to copy and paste written text into programs that don’t support Ink. An input tablet is reportedly necessary, though we suppose a finger on a PowerBook or iBook trackpad might work as well.
Ink will no doubt ignite a new round of speculation about a Mac OS-based handheld device, which we’ll believe when we see it. In the meantime, adding this type of low-level support provides developers with an alternative to keyboard-based input. We can imagine graphics programs supporting Ink for adding text to illustrations, or educational programs relying on it to help children learn to write. However, it’s important to remember that handwriting recognition has never caught on with most computer users, not to mention the fact that tablets remain uncommon input devices.
QuickTime 6 — Apple’s Jaguar preview also included QuickTime 6 and QuickTime Broadcaster. QuickTime remains one of Apple’s key technologies, with QuickTime 5 for Mac and Windows being downloaded a few million times each week. QuickTime 6 will sport (yet another) new user interface and better performance of streaming media over limited-bandwidth connections. It will also enable users to view MPEG-4 video. The MPEG-4 standard is a way to encode audio and video for use on digital devices or for transmission over the Internet; it was defined nearly four years ago and is itself partially based on QuickTime. Like QuickTime, MPEG-4 can scale to a variety of devices and deliver content in limited bandwidth situations (like typical Internet streaming applications today). MPEG-4 also targets high-end digital television and video markets, has features for creating interactive applications, and offers digital rights management features. MPEG-4 also supports Advanced Audio Coding (also known as AAC – a perceptual audio encoding method from Dolby Labs which offers better fidelity than MP3 audio in less bandwidth). With QuickTime Broadcaster (combined with QuickTime Streaming Server), QuickTime 6 will probably make Jaguar the first platform that can create, stream, and view MPEG-4 video.
A complete MPEG-4 solution is nice in theory, but it’s currently mired in licensing issues. The multimedia and video industry has cringed at a licensing proposal which includes a per-minute use fee (roughly $.02 per hour), along with fees for shipping MPEG-4 encoders and decoders. Although Apple has essentially completed development of QuickTime 6, it won’t ship until licensing issues are worked out. Including QuickTime 6 in Jaguar may indicate that Apple has confidence that MPEG-4 licensing issues can be finalized soon.
Rendezvous — Jaguar will also include Rendezvous, a new technology from Apple intended to ease administration and configuration of IP-based network services. Long-time Mac users fondly remember how easy it was to set up and configure AppleTalk networks: you plugged in the devices, turned them on, and they magically all knew about each other. Rendezvous promises to bring the same functionality to IP-based networks, letting devices both discover services available on the network and advertise services they offer – and it’s all supposed to work over Ethernet, AirPort, Bluetooth, FireWire, and other networking technologies. An iBook with an AirPort card could automatically find a printer connected to the iMac upstairs; a user could set up iTunes to serve as a music jukebox for an entire local network. Rendezvous is based on a draft IETF standard called Zero Configuration Networking and should be most useful in small networks where network administration is low-key or absent; let’s hope Rendezvous doesn’t expose any security bugaboos.
Windows Compatibility — On the cross-platform front, Jaguar improves Mac OS X’s connections to Windows-centric networks. No longer will you have to type URLs for accessing a shared Windows folder via SMB – Jaguar includes SMB browsing. Plus, in news that probably isn’t popular with the folks at Thursby Systems who work on DAVE, Jaguar will also let Mac OS X share files with Windows machines (although Apple’s press release didn’t mention printer sharing). Finally, Jaguar will offer built-in PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol) security for virtual private network (VPN) uses.
Universal Access — Mac users with disabilities have been pretty much locked out of Mac OS X so far, with only Niemeijer Consult’s KeyStrokes and Black Cat Software’s Mouseki offering onscreen keyboards under Mac OS X. The release of Jaguar should improve the situation significantly, since Jaguar will offer APIs that let developers provide screen magnification via Quartz, out-loud reading of text under the cursor, access to everything via the keyboard, and visual notification of alerts. It’s possible Apple will provide simple user-level utilities with Jaguar, but it’s even more important to provide these system-level capabilities to the developers working on tools for Mac users with disabilities.
Bated Breath — Jaguar promises a great deal, but with developers receiving a copy at WWDC, there’s hope that we’ll see not just the technology in a few months, but also a wide variety of applications that take advantage of these new capabilities to offer features never seen before. Apple will undoubtedly preview Jaguar again at Macworld Expo in New York in July, although there the demonstration should be aimed more at users than developers. Until then…