OSX 10.4 preview: hits and misses

As it the case every year, the attention of the Mac world focused on the Apple World Wide Developer Conference with high hopes for new products and exciting new development from a company that has managed to showcase a high cool factor while remaining one of the smallest players in the computing field.

The news of banners poking fun at Microsoft made people think that the new operating system would be something to contend with. With statements like “This should keep Redmond busy”, one would expect some radical improvement to this new OS… but most of the changes were under the hood and most of them showed a company that seems to be on the defensive. Let’s look at what they offered and what are the hits and misses in this new OS:

the Dashboard will probably be the feature that most people talk about as it is the most visual new component to the new version of this operating system. Put simply, it is a collection of widgets that can sit on your desktop, similar to the third-party produced Konfabulator, a company that will now have a hard time competing with Apple. It also seems to be a defensive move to counter the power that XAML will offer to its developers. Beyond the issue of Apple running over one of its own development partners (ie. Konfabulator), the fact that their dashboard does not seem to offer any programming interface and does not seem to offer a way to integrate rich Internet client applications (what I call hybrid applications) seems like a fairly tremenduous gap. Why not open it up to developers so they can start coding applications now so that, when the new OS comes out, an increased number of widgets is available?

Safari RSS is another one of those features where Apple runs over one of their own developers. This is a big win for RSS, similar to the news that Microsoft is building RSS into their tools. It may be a leap but I believe that Microsoft will have an RSS reader in their OS too. A couple of missed opportunities in the implementation Apple is highlighting, though. First, why keep it limited to Safari? It seems that this is the perfect kind of service to integrate with .mac in order to compete with something like my favorite RSS reader, bloglines. The problem with keeping it limited to a desktop app is that I don’t spend all my time on a mac (I know, I can hear the shock and dismay in Cupertino) but want to be able to read my RSS feeds from different computers and devices. How about integrating it with their own ipod line?

New Search Technology: There seems to be a trend in operating systems about making better use of search. Longhorn is looking to offer better metadata and search handling, merging Internet and hard drive search in a single tool. Apple is trying to restore parity on this front with a new feature. At this time, it provides a nice set of file types to search for. Noticeable in this queue is the lack of support for search of windows media files, and what looks like a lack of interfaces to allow other developers to offer their data types as part of the scope. On the Microsoft side, the way they handle this is through some changes to their file system (a new file system called WinFS will sit at the core of the new operating system) with a richer metadata set. A question here is whether Apple is changing the underlying file system of their operating system to support this. It would be nice to know as nothing was said about backward compatibility.

Another improvements is Automator, a new visual interface to scripting repetitive tasks into your OS (basically, you could call it Applescript++). This is actually a pretty nice thing and I hope that Microsoft will include something similar in their next OS. It could greatly simplify things. I guess this is one of those cases where a photocopier could be useful in Redmond.

Another feature that Redmond should copy is the iChat AV product, a competitor of MSN messenger. Apple understands that those chat products are used for collaboration and Microsoft needs to learn from that. Desktop sharing, audio and video conferencing, complete with VoIP integration is a product that will become key in the enterprise market in the future.

A significant announcement is the support for 64-bit processors. While this is not a huge market right now, it is evident that Apple is placing big bets on its G5 product line. This could be a good move in terms of getting more involved with the research community. Great for number crunching but I don’t know what apps will run on this beyond the scientific community. Similarly, announcements of improvements to their rendering technology and support for advanced video coding will probably appease members of the creative community who have generally been at the core of the Apple market. These two announcements are aimed at market protection and are a good move.

Finally, while most people tend to focus on the desktop, let’s not forget that there is also a server product. OSX v10.4 server is Apple attempt to compete in the enterprise space. The introduction of blogging software blojsom into this server shows that Apple understand that blogs are now an important feature of the server enterprise space. This is another significant win for RSS and for the blogosphere as it adds legitimacy to the concepts of syndication and blogging. Also of interest in the server product is the fact that Apple is bundling NT migration tools. If Apple attempts to keep quiet their goals of displacing windows machines, this might not be the way to do it.

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