Mac OS X Leopard: A perfect 10

Apple's new operating system and its massive new feature set challenge users and developers to explore new and better ways of working

No one is unhappy with Mac OS X Version 10.4, known as Tiger. OS X is not an application platform (I bristle at using the term "operating system" for OS X; I explain why below) that needed repair, speeding up, or exterior renovation. Motivations for major upgrades of competing system software — roll-ups of an unmanageable number of fixes, because the calendar says it's time, or because users are perceived to have version fatigue — don't apply to OS X. Apple wields no whip to force upgrades because Tiger stands no risk of being neglected by Apple or third-party developers as long as Leopard lives. Despite the absence of a stick that drives users into upgrades of competing OSes, or perhaps because of it, Apple enjoys an extraordinary rate of voluntary OS X upgrades among desktop and notebook users. Why? People buy Macs because the platform as a whole is perfect, full stop. Leopard is a rung above perfection. It's taken as rote that the Mac blows away PC users' expectations. Leopard blows away Mac users' expectations, and that's saying a great deal.

[ Leopard was selected to receive an InfoWorld Technology of the Year award. See the slideshow of all the winners in the platforms category. ]

Apple's secret, which is no secret to Mac users, is that major OS X releases deliver tangible value far in excess of their asking price, which in Leopard's case is $129. OS X is, first and foremost, a platform for integrated, user-facing applications. And to a far greater extent than previous releases, OS X Leopard itself exploits the facilities that Apple's developers have used to create the vendor's commercial software. Apple hasn't reserved any of the Mac platform's goodies for itself, and users don't need to wait (or spend) for apps that expose the platform's richness in productive ways.

For example, Screen Sharing is now built into OS X; just open the Finder icon for a remote server and click the Screen Sharing button to grab the remote system's display and, optionally, its mouse and keyboard. Apple built Screen Sharing into iChat, and Back to My Mac uses the .Mac service and Screen Sharing to securely tunnel to files and consoles on Macs behind firewalls. All of Leopard is like that — every Leopard feature, even those that would ordinarily be invisible to all but developers, or reserved for the use of the vendor, is planted throughout OS X in the places you'd put it.

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Freedom in the frameworks
Looking at it from a technical perspective, Leopard's step past perfection lies in its extensive use of the combination of the Mac platform's intrinsic integration and Leopard's delivery of hundreds of additions and enhancements to OS X's frameworks.

Apple supplies a consistent, familiar, and well-documented path for developers to do any given thing. In contrast, an entire industry has sprung up around providing developers with proprietary plugs for the gaps that Microsoft leaves in Windows, often intentionally as an aid to the third-party development community. The completeness of the Mac frameworks leaves no room for a marketplace for Mac developer library enhancements.

What's changed in Leopard is that Apple has invested enormous effort to expose Mac framework enhancements to users through OS X's built-in facilities and applications. Leopard's out-of-the-box experience, which I define as the things that a user can do without spending an extra dollar on software, eclipses Tiger's, and Tiger was no slouch in this regard. In the past, third parties have offered freeware and shareware facilities to extend or even replace Finder, the Mac's answer to Windows' primitive Explorer. That died out with Tiger, and Leopard makes such efforts entirely useless. That is not a bad thing.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple is not afraid to put developers out of a given line of business. Leopard integrates e-mail, browser, calendar, search, preview, dictionary, thesaurus, media player, code-free scripted workflow, accessibility, and almost innumerable top-level bundled apps and capabilities that, in one sense, take out any market for supplanting these things. No matter how well Apple does something, someone has cooked up what it feels is a better, but usually just different, way to do it.

Leopard addresses that. Rather than seeing Leopard as a popping of the balloon for third-party enhancements to the Mac's core user experience, a more accurate way of looking at it is that Apple frees developers from trying to improve on that experience. Third parties can focus on new applications instead. Yet, Apple's 300-plus features are all things that third-party developers have at their disposal without requiring any hacks or workarounds to get at. If this registers somewhere between confusing and unbelievable on your scale, I understand. Apple has always let users and developers make their Macs into anything they like. Leopard moves the line between top-level functionality that can be improved upon and baked-in user-facing capabilities that don't need improvement.

Windows and Leopard don't compare
To the user, Leopard drives like the ultimate and ultimately extensible integrated application suite into which the Macintosh happens to boot. Every application installed to Leopard plugs into and extends the suite. Developers can't help it; merely using the Mac frameworks creates a Mac app, which is distinguished by its integration with and extension of the Mac as a whole.

That is why Leopard fits so poorly in the "operating system" category, but at the same time, I don't blame my colleagues for lingering over comparisons between Vista and Leopard. Journalists and observers have to cubbyhole Leopard somehow because the projection of objectivity demands comparison of like products. I can't do that without a lot of bending and forgiving. Vista and Leopard don't compare, and as this is a focal point of other reviews, I'll take up the comparison by way of explaining why I believe it is erroneous and misleading.

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You can reasonably argue that in the commercial space, Windows is always Windows plus Office, and that the combination exceeds Leopard's core capabilities in many ways. Setting cost aside for now, what Office opens to the user does not improve their productivity when they step outside Office. Indeed, there is an entire industry dedicated to creating desktops that effectively boot into Office and hide Windows entirely because, from the standpoint of IT, giving desktop users the run of Windows adds nothing but trouble. This is the reason behind Vista's failure to thrive: IT doesn't want a pretty Windows; IT wants a thin and invisible one, out of users' reach. Over time, Microsoft has filled out Office to function as a user's sole interface, not only to the system, but to the network and the services wired into it. It usually falls to IT to extend Office's capabilities at the server layer, and at great expense.

As to cost, when tallied frankly, the price of a single commercial Windows desktop in an enterprise is potentially infinite, and it is a continuous and growing expense. It is so burdensome that outsourcing the management of Windows clients is another Microsoft-fed industry.

As much as the idea of a PC booting to Office appeals to IT, the idea of a Mac booting to Office is patently absurd. Even hard-core Windows shops concede that point. Likewise, nobody pays for outsourced management of Mac desktops or servers. OS X takes care of that.

Starting Leopard
Now that you understand how Leopard got its 300-plus features (new frameworks extended to the Mac's out-of-the-box user experience) and where it fits, I can move into the review proper. Here, I do not presume that the reader is familiar with the Mac beyond the groundwork that I have laid above.

There are three ways for users to get the Leopard client: As a single-DVD upgrade for their existing Intel or PowerPC-based Mac, as a set of installable discs placed in the box with Macs that ship with Tiger installed, or preinstalled on a new Mac. OS X installs without requiring registration, activation, or a product key. Because you can run OS X only on a Mac, Apple doesn't consider this necessary.

When installed on a new Mac, Leopard includes a digital media suite called iLife '08, which includes iMovie, Garage Band, iDVD, iWeb, and iPhoto. Discussion of this suite is beyond the mission of this review. These elements are well worth discussing in a commercial context, much more so than the multimedia that's in the box with costly editions of Vista. Rather than taking the space here, I'll address iLife '08 in my Enterprise Mac blog. I will review iWork '08, Apple $79 desktop productivity suite, which includes word processing/layout, spreadsheet, and presentation applications, separately.

Existing users install Leopard by inserting the DVD and double-clicking the Install OS X icon that appears when the disc is inserted. This reboots the Mac from the DVD drive. Unless you've done something really weird with your Mac, the upgrade process migrates your existing user and application settings so that when you reboot after the upgrade, everything works as before, but Leopard comes in.

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One snag that commercial users hit during migration is the deactivation of applications that require license keys or online purchase validation. Such applications will demand registration on their first launch, making it all the more critical that you keep a record of your registration keys.

Following installation, Leopard activates Software Update, a free service that rapidly checks your Mac against available updates. All Apple-branded software is covered by Software Update, so it's important to run it again if you install new software after Leopard is running.

Leopard comes with a short printed manual that walks you through its features. It will strike Mac newcomers as bizarre that this tiny manual actually takes a green user from baffled to productive, and with no condescension, no disarming cuteness, and no intimidation. You get used to that. It's common to all Apple documentation and services.

Spoiling users in productive ways
Leopard is intrinsically integrated from the core to the bundled apps, making Leopard useful straight out of the box, no extra software required. That hasn't been the case to this point. Leopard is the first release of OS X that, if made and sold by a competitor, would bankrupt Apple.

The trouble with 300-plus new features is that even Mac users might fear being knocked off balance, if not buried under an avalanche of newness. (And yes, 300 is a verifiable claim, shy of reality if anything; that figure doesn't include a lot of the new system-level and developer goodies.) Millions of users were just finding their rhythm with Tiger (OS X 10.4). Won't most of this go to waste simply because professional users don't have time to stop working and play with the mountain of toys that Apple put under their trees?

The mind-stretcher with Leopard is that the 300 features actually make OS X simpler. You don't have to pull in pieces from elsewhere and fire up AppleScript to flesh out a maximally productive environment. Leopard users will spend far less time bouncing from app to app, or from one System Preferences (the Mac's Control Panel) pane to another, to wire up their workflows. Insider tips are no longer required. With Leopard, Apple has brought everything to the surface. The beautiful part is that the way Apple put Leopard together, the new features don't carry a learning curve. They just seem to appear when you reach for them.

I worked constantly and deeply with Leopard before slogging through Apple's overwhelming master list of Leopard enhancements to make sure that Apple kept its promises. It did. That tedious work done, I'd rather relate some direct experiences with the features that just appeared when I needed them while I was using Leopard. It is by no means a representative sample or a greatest hits remix. Leopard doesn't lend itself to that. I'll just tell you about some of the things that jumped into my hand when I stretched it out.

No matter how big our displays are, they're never big enough. OS X is so slim and fast that Mac users immediately take up the habit of leaving apps and documents open so that they can easily multitask. I multitask best on the two-headed (dual display) Mac Pro in my lab. But an hour into any work session with that machine, I've managed to fill two displays with deep layers of overlapping windows and begun wishing I had another display, and then another.

Now I have them. Spaces creates a set of virtual desktops, each the size of your entire display, that you can flip into the foreground with one keystroke or one click. You can drag an application from one Space to another by dragging a window into the thumbnail for the destination Space. Apple managed to make cut-and-paste and drag-and-drop operations as easy with Spaces as if they are with one desktop, and actually easier than a two-headed system.

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