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The Leopard Report: Is Apple Regaining What it Lost?

As much as some people have been busy yawning at the WWDC keynote, I regard some of the developments as particularly significant, even though this particular 90-minute Steve Jobs address is regarded as a one of his worst in recent years. But isn’t that what they said last year?

No, it’s not Time Machine. We heard about all that last year, and little new was revealed about it. Spaces? I’ve never become enamored with multiple desktops largely because I use a utility, HideItControl, which only keeps the application I’m using visible. That’s sufficient for me.

I suppose I might warm up to the improvements in Apple Mail, although I switched to Microsoft Entourage 2004 a long time ago because of its superior handling of IMAP. iChat? Well, the promise of improved sound quality is encouraging, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to make and receive phone calls, just as you can now with Skype? Just asking.

No, none of this gets my blood flowing, and since I don’t write software for a living or any other purpose, having better 64-bit support and all the rest are of academic interest. If these features help deliver better applications, allowing me to get my work done more efficiently and with greater flair, fine and dandy. Otherwise, I just don’t care.

However, having a better Finder does impress me quite a bit. Yes, having it resemble iTunes is certainly useful, particularly for Mac switchers and those who are obsessive about interface consistency. But my main concern is being able to organize my stuff, and not to suffer from the blatant slowdowns of the previous Finder. As I’m writing this article, for example, I’m simply backing up a couple of folders in simultaneous operations to a pair of backup drives. That’s all. Yet routine Finder functions, such as displaying a small folder of files, or even invoking an Open dialog box, have slowed to a crawl. And this is on a vintage Power Mac G5 Quad, with loads and loads of RAM.

Yes, the Finder can be snappier on a MacIntel, but not to a large degree.

So even if Apple left the Finder’s interface alone, repairing its performance lapses would be a huge plus for me. In fact, that would rate well ahead of any interface changes, but having the promise of both is particularly impressive. If the promise of the new desktop and Finder are largely realized, that’s almost enough to convince me to pay $129 for the Leopard upgrade.

Stacks? Well, those are fancy folders that simply display a few animated tricks when you click on them and they open before your eyes. I suppose that’s better than simply clicking on a folder in the Dock, and, while the mouse key is pressed, have the contents pop open. It might even encourage developers to harness the power of Core Animation since Apple has put it on display wherever possible.

Of course, there are supposed to be over 300 new features in Leopard, which ought to be enough to justify the two-and-a-half year wait, although only a small number of those enhancements have been revealed so far.

So I suppose there’s reason to hope that there are other goodies that only developers under nondisclosure agreements are just discovering, but might appear at Apple’s site before long. I’m still optimistic that the tired Open and Save dialog boxes will be enhanced for easier navigation and maybe even the ability to deliver an expanded list of recent stuff, including the files you’ve been accessing.

Being able to create my own Dashboard widget by taking a clip from Safari 3 sounds interesting, but it’s not my number one priority.

However, it’s good to know that Apple has decided to revert to its original 1984 concept of consistency, by consolidating all the interface variants into that single shaded-gray look. It’s about time.

Of course, the most important things about a new operating system are often not the features that are most appealing to marketing people. You want speed and stability, for example, but that doesn’t sound terribly sexy. And it is true that each version of Mac OS X has been more reliable and snappier than its predecessor, although the difference between Panther and Tiger wasn’t huge.

I would hope that, after packing on all the eye candy, Apple has done something to make Leopard run faster, and, with all that extra development time, there won’t be so many point-zero bugs this time out. In fact, some folks weren’t happy with Tiger until a few of the most serious initial defects were eradicated. Let’s really hope that things are different this time.

For now, I’ll just remain ever-optimistic that we won’t need that inevitable 10.5.1 right away, although it will eventually appear.