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Waiting for Leopard Book II: The Real Marquee Features

All right, with a genuine 316 new features and enhancements in Leopard, you can probably talk all day about the ones that appeal to you. But you only read, most times at any rate, about a handful of sexy features that, while useful in and of themselves, may not be the most important reasons to buy an operating system upgrade for your Mac.

Sure, I do plan on trying Time Machine and comparing it to my existing backup solutions. I’m also curious about Space and how well it performs in relation to other multiple desktop applications that have appeared and disappeared on the Mac over the years.

I’m particularly hopeful about the Finder. Not so much about the spiffier interface, but whether its speed bumps have been eradicated. While it handle multitasking better? If a network share shuts down (such as putting a MacBook to sleep), will the Finder realize the changed condition right away, or present a spinning beachball for several minutes until it figures out what’s going on?

But that’s just the stuff that everyone is talking about. In fact, there are a number of elements to Leopard that don’t get listed among the top ten bulleted points, and I’m just going to touch on two here. I’ll get to more as time goes by.

First a disclaimer, though, and that is that I have not actually tested these new capabilities, and won’t be able to until the shipping version of Leopard arrives. So I’m mostly commenting on the promise, and I trust the reality is close enough not to present an issue.

Let’s begin with a significant new feature in Font Book that will affect desktop publishers and graphic artists — and, in fact, anyone of you who must use a large number of fonts for your workflow. That’s auto-activation.

What this means is that, if you open a document that calls for a font that isn’t active, Leopard turns it on. As soon as you quit the application, the font is switched off, so you aren’t saddled with huge font menus.

Up till now, this capability was reserved to font management programs, such as Suitcase and FontAgent Pro. It all dates back to the late 1980s, when graphic artists embraced the Mac because of its superior font handling capabilities. But actually, the Mac OS was not originally designed to function with loads and loads of fonts that had to be loaded and unloaded on the fly. The original Suitcase was, as the original author, Steve Brecher, said at the time, “a clever hack” because it had to perform feats of magic that weren’t native to the system.

Indeed, although it could be a little buggy at times, Suitcase and its competitors worked. But to get auto-activation functioning, you had to add special plugins to the major graphics applications, and when those applications were updated, the plugins had to be changed too.

Worse, these features, although mostly functional, didn’t always operate fast or reliably. Besides, they were simply attempting to replace what the operating system should have done in the first place.

Will Font Book’s auto-activation somehow make Suitcase and FontAgent Pro irrelevant? If it was their only feature, maybe, but they provide other font organizational tools, along with network support, that may still keep them alive. At the same time, many graphic artists, whose needs aren’t quite as extensive, may find Leopard’s font tools to be sufficient to get the job done.

The other feature also fits into the “what is old is new again” category, and that is the Leopard version of Automator, the application that lets you build scripts or workflows with reasonable efficiency.

Way before System 7 arrived in the early 1990s, we had Apple’s eternally buggy MacroMaker and some great third-party variants, such as QuicKeys. The latter has survived two processor changes and an operating system migration, and is still available for Mac OS X.

One of the best features of these programs was something labeled in QuicKeys as “Watch Me,” which did just what the name implied, and that meant recording the steps you took in opening applications accessing various functions, and then being able to play them back by invoking a single keystroke.

For Leopard, the Automator variation is called “Watch Me Do,” and it’s supposed to operate even with applications that aren’t script savvy. If it accomplishes much of what you could do with those great macro utilities way back when, it’ll definitely encourage the masses the try scripting for themselves. After all, if you don’t have to learn an often arcane scripting language, the ability to automate repetitive functions is something every one of you will find extremely useful.

Yes, as I said, these aren’t sexy features that are apt to be discussed very often. However, they have the potential to make Leopard indispensable for many of you, even if you don’t care about backing up your Mac with 3D pizazz and having multiple desktops.

There’s a lot more to say, and I’ll continue to examine Leopard’s potential in future articles.