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The Tiger Report: All Right, Still More to Say

When I wrote yesterday’s commentary on the subject, a few folks felt it was just another Mac OS versus Windows Vista comparison, but it’s easy to pluck a paragraph or two out of anything, and make a few pithy comments about it. That’s going on now in Washington, but I’m definitely not going there.

Instead, I’ll just talk about one more Tiger element, and that is Dashboard. Yes, those little widgets that can fill your screen with the appropriate keyboard shortcut, and may actually provide some useful added functionality, or a little eye-candy.

The issues on this software’s origins as a Mac shareware product called Konfabulator and the fact that Apple came up with its own variation on the theme without giving credit or cash to the original creators is yesterday’s news. Of course, I will say that Apple messed up not making some sort of deal, but who listens to me anyway?

In case you’ve just tuned in, Dashboard is a collection of tiny programs, widgets, that resemble those old Mac OS desk accessories in some respects. They are single-purpose applications, and can provide such services as looking up a word, a phone number, or checking news at your favorite information site.

Opinions on Dashboard are rather polarized. Some just adore them, and stock up with abandon. And with several thousand to choose from, there’s apt to be something that suits your fancy.

In my case, I’m rather conservative in my choices. I use iStat Pro to monitor all the things my desktop Mac, a Power Mac G5 Quad, is doing at any particular moment, such as the amount of resources an application is hogging, the temperature of the processors and other components, and the speed of the eight cooling fans.

Perhaps the most ego-satisfying component of iStat Pro displays your uptime, which is how long your Mac has been running continuously since the last restart. Once this figure hits a few days, you gain a great feeling of confidence about your computer’s ongoing reliability. Of course, the fact that I put my G5 to sleep when not in use, rather than shut it down, is sure to put my numbers in a higher tier than some of you.

Another widget that I find mostly useful is Package Tracker, which is designed to keep tabs of the items you’re expecting or shipping via Federal Express, DHL and UPS. Alas, the latest version, 2.1.9, seems to have troubles with UPS and it would be nice to be able to display multiple packages without having to create multiple instances of the widget, but it holds promise.

Being able to check the current temperature and forecast in your city, or selected city, is also a neat idea. I could, of course, go on. There’s a widget that lets you search for the special T-shirt of your choice. Another, called Calorie Tracker, displays nutritional information for many foods. And if you don’t care about your diet, there’s a Krispy Kreme Widget that lets you locate the nearest source of your favorite donuts.

Now Dashboard does have its detractors. The fact that widgets exist on a separate layer, and don’t remain on your screen when you’re working in a regular Mac application, can seem limiting at times. Of course, if you want that, you can always use a shareware utility, Amnesty Widget Browser, which allows the little devils to exist on your desktop.

Even Microsoft has been influenced by the concept. Windows Vista has its own variation on the theme, only the tiny applications are called Gadgets. How original! The implementation does leave something to be desired, but I’ll set that aside, since this isn’t a Vista-bashing commentary.

For Leopard, Apple has new developer’s tools to simplify widget creation. You’ll even be able to take a page in Safari and build it into a simple widget known as a “web clip,” essentially a live Web page. The 10.5 version of Dashboard will even include a handful of themes with which to customize your creation.

As for me, I find myself mostly ignoring Dashboard; that is, until I need to call up my favorite widgets for one purpose or another.