Last week i upgraded to the 10.4 (“tiger”) version of Mac OS X, and I’ve been getting acquainted with its new features. The headline attractions are Spotlight (for search), Dashboard (for lightweight applications), and Automator (for scripting). Although I’m happy to have them, none seems likely to make me wildly more productive. That’s not entirely Apple’s fault, though. As the boundaries between desktop systems and the network continue to blur, it gets harder to deliver value purely in the form of OS or application upgrades.
Consider Spotlight, OS X’s new search engine. It works so quickly that, while composing this sentence, I was able to search for “so quickly” and find the file I was in the midst of writing. Other aspects of Spotlight are less compelling, however. The advanced query syntax should be more accessible and better documented. Search results should embed the found words in contextual wrappers.
Even with such improvements, Spotlight wouldn’t be indispensable to me. As I noted back in January, desktop search feels like an anachronism in 2005. Increasingly, my data lives in the network. There, it’s searchable in the same way from any of the various machines I regularly use. And when I choose to make it so, it’s also visible to colleagues or to the Web’s aggregation engines. Enhancing these tasks will matter much more to me in the coming months and years than indexing my local hard drives will.
Dashboard is the home for a new generation of lightweight applications that reminded blogger John Gruber of the Desk Accessories on the original Macintosh. Dashboard widgets are a cute way to repackage WebCore, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. But I’ve already got weather forecasts, stock quotes, and currency converters at my fingertips in any browser. Reinventing them for Dashboard doesn’t thrill me.
However, the drawing and painting capability Apple invented for Dashboard and added to WebCore as the new (and controversial) HTML <canvas> tag has become a catalyst. The Mozilla project has embraced it as part of a two-pronged effort to improve browser-based imaging: <canvas> for dynamic bit maps and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) for dynamic vector-based imagery. That’s the ticket! When we upgrade the Web, we lift all boats.
Then there’s Automator, a visual builder of “workflows” that encapsulate routine tasks. I’ve used it to create a workflow that connects to an FTP server and navigates to a directory deep within it. Commercial FTP clients can do this, but OS X’s built-in FTP client can’t — or rather, it couldn’t until I enhanced it. Automator made it as easy as can be to identify the necessary actions (“Connect to Server,” “Get Specified Finder Items”) and wire them together. Still, the exercise proved more challenging than I had expected. As I worked through it, I found myself relying more on programming skills than on end-user instincts.
We’ve learned this before and will again when the next wave of business process modelers arrives: Visual programming tools don’t turn civilians into programmers. Nor is that an appropriate goal. Visual and textual representations of code are necessary, but they’re insufficient for the kinds of automation we require. Our systems will have to watch our behavior, codify patterns of use, and adapt accordingly. Once, PCs could have done that, but they didn’t. Now the network will.