WWDC Apple today released some intriguing details about the next version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, including the surprise good news that it will cost a mere $29 and the expected bad news that it will run only on Intel-based Macs.
Snow Leopard's debut at Monday morning's Worldwide Developer Conference
cotillion keynote broke little new ground - most everything major had either already been announced or leaked. What was interesting was the wealth - for Apple, at least - of detail.
Before launching into those details, however, Apple's SVP for software engineering, Bertrand Serlet, couldn't resisting kicking Microsoft a bit while it's down on its Vista luck. "Microsoft has dug quite a big hole for themselves with Vista," he gloated, "and they're trying to get out of it with Windows 7."
Having inserted the knife, he twisted it, saying, "But underlying Windows 7 you have the same old technologies: DLLs, the Registry, disk defragmentation - no end user should ever have to know about that." He also tossed a few barbs at Windows' security subsystems, saying that they'll be even more complex in Windows 7 to prevent a PC from being "infested" with malware.
"So that's Windows 7," he sniffed, "same old technology as Vista. Fundamentally it's just another version of Vista."
Needless to say, he prefers Mac OS X. "We love Leopard," he enthused, saying that Apple's goal for Snow Leopard was "to build a better Leopard." And if this next version of Mac OS X lives up to what Serlet and other Apple honchos went on to demonstrate, Apple may have pulled it off.
Safari: Safari 4 was released as a public beta in late February. Today, it graduated to shipping status for Leopard, Tiger, Windows XP, and Windows Vista and will ship with - and be enhanced for - Snow Leopard.
He didn't, however, quote any of Apple's other speed claims, which still show Safari 4 coming out on top, but not as dramatically.
Serlet also claimed that in what he called the "gold standard" of web standardization testing, ACID3, Safari scores a perfect 100 out of 100. IE8, he said, scores 21 per cent. Now, whether or not ACID is a true measure of a browser's ability to run anything that's thrown at it is debatable, a 100 per cent versus 21 percent compliance is good marketing copy at minimum.
In Snow Leopard, Serlet claimed, Safari 4 will have enhanced crash resistance based on the ability to isolate plug-in failures without crashing the entire browser - or, for that matter, the entire Mac OS X.
QuickTime X: QuickTime - now QuickTime X - will be given not only a face-lift but also powers formerly found only in the extra-cost QuickTime Pro.
Most obvious is its new interface. Gone is the aging brushed-chrome interface with its semi-retro transport and volume controls. In their stead is a floating, translucent transport dialog similar to that in DVD Player. Roll over it to make it appear. Roll away, and it fades from view.
QuickTime X also has simple video-trimming capabilities: just drag to select the section of a video you want to keep or export, then send it to iTunes to sync it with your iPhone, iPod, or Apple TV, or publish it on MobileMe or YouTube. It also now uses Apple's ancient-but-sturdy ColorSync technology for improved color accuracy.
Finder: Snow Leopard's Finder is essentially unchanged, but small improvements have been made. For example, Finder windows now have a slider in the lower right that controls real-time zooming of icons. While that may seem mere eye-candy, the icons are interactive. You can zoom them to a large size to page through PDFs or preview QuickTime movies while still in Finder-window view.
Exposé: Currently, invoking Exposé's All Windows mode does just that - it shrinks and displays all the currently open windows. Although an Application Windows mode is also available, Snow Leopard makes it easier to invoke: click and hold on an application's icon in the Dock, and only the windows associated with that application will arrange thmselves for viewing on the desktop.
You can also select a file in an Exposé-revealed Finder window, drag it to an application's Dock icon, and that application's open windows will Exposé themselves on the desktop. You can then drop that file into your window of choosing. Whether you can do the same with selected content from a document wasn't clear in the demo.
Stacks: These Dock-based collections of files had a rough start in Leopard. In Stacks' first iteration, large collections filled up the entire Desktop when displayed, often with their filenames truncated to unreadability. A Leopard upgrade soon made it possible for you to choose to view a Stack's contents in a list mode in addition to the original grid. In a further improvement, Snow Leopard adds the ability to scroll through a grid view.
Also fixed is another Stacks headache: In Snow Leopard, when you click on a subfolder in a Stacks collection, you'll remain in the chosen view rather than being popped into a Finder-window view as before.
Hardware helpers: Not much new was revealed on Monday about the three most important new technological underpinnings of Snow Leopard, namely ubiquitous 64-bit support, the parallelization aid known as Grand Central Dispatch (GCD), and the GPU-hijacking CPU-offloader OpenCL. Nice new logos, though.
During the next few days of the Worldwide Developers Conference, deep-tech details of these technologies will be revealed to the assembled coders. Unfortunately, the conference-goers are bound to a tight code of confidentiality, so if we were to reveal the technical underpinnings and extent of the 64-bit kernel, or GCD and OpenCL's modes of access, barriers to entry, or paths to success, we would - as the old saying goes - have to kill you. And although The Reg is a heatlhly, ongoing business, we simply don't have the travel budget necessary to track down and snuff each and every one of our millions of readers.
One technology that did receive a decent public explanation today was Snow Leopard's Microsoft Exchange Server support, which will be built into Snow Leopard's versions of Apple's Mail, iCal, and Address Book apps. Although it's free with Snow Leopard, you'll need Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 to make it work.
Set-up is ludicrously easy. Open Mail's Add Account dialog, and it will autofill your Exchange username from your own contact info in Address Book. Add your password, click create, and you're set up for all three apps.
Auto-discover finds and displays all of your Exchange email, folders, to-dos, contacts, and notes. Apple claims that "all" Mac OS X technologies are available for use with Exchange data. You can, for example, use Spotlight to search all your Exchange info, or use QuickLook to display Microsoft Office docs - and since QuickLook uses PDF renderings of files, you don't need to have Office installed to view, say, a PowerPoint Presentation.
iCal and Exchange calendaring can work together so that if you get an Exchange meeting invitation mailed to you, you can either one-click accept it in Mail or open it in iCal, which will display your Exchange calendar along with your personal calendars.
If you want to schedule a meeting with an Exchange group, drag that group out of Address Book into iCal and the meeting will be scheduled and the participants notified. iCal will also integrate room and attendee availability and suggest new locations and times if conflicts arise.
There are a few more nifties offered by Snow Leopard, such as HTTP streaming, Chinese characters being able to be written on your MacBook's touchpad, a faster installation process, the fact that a full Snow Leopard installation will require 6GB less space than Leopard, and more.
What's going to be most interesting to watch, however, will be how quickly and thoroughly developers adopt and adapt to such underpinnings as a fully 64-bit environment, GCD, and OpenCL.
If they do, and if Apple delivers as promised, Snow Leopard promises to be well worth its $29 price tag.
If you have an Intel Mac, that is. Otherwise, you'll be living with Leopard from now on - and whether or not Apple plans to further refine that OS is anyone's guess. Our guess is "No." ®