New Mac OS X 'Leopard' features may leave the door open for Vista

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

San Francisco (CA) - Banners outside Moscone Center - the site of today's Apple Worldwide Developers' Conference - were unveiled this morning, revealing the latest look at Apple's marketing campaign for its next version of Mac OS X, formerly code-named "Leopard." The signs read, "Introducing Vista 2.0."

While Mac OS X version 10.5 will indeed be innovative, the enumeration system implied by this ad campaign may also be accurate: Apple will ship the new system sometime next spring, meaning it may not beat the consumer version of Microsoft Windows Vista to market. But developers are getting their first view of Leopard today. Despite the all-new branding, the 10.5 version is not an across-the-board revamp of Mac OS X. Instead, it includes updates to several common Mac features, including iChat and HTML-based e-mail, plus a few new accessories.

Probably the most striking new addition to Leopard is called Time Machine, but like Leopard's new slogan, the name may be a little overstated. It's a new visual metaphor for file backup that enables users to pull files, folders, or entire system configurations back from given points in time. Windows users will point out this is similar to the System Restore Point feature that premiered in Windows XP, although visually, this could be somewhat "cooler."

What has gotten a less-than-cool - perhaps even tepid - reception, even from Mac supporters reporting from the WWDC floor, is an accessory called Spaces, which will be added to the list of Mac desktop gadgets. Apple's press release this morning describes Spaces as "an intuitive new way to group applications required for a given task into a 'space,' then instantly switch between different spaces to bring up the specific applications required for that given task. Users can get a bird's eye view of all their Spaces and choose where they want to go next with just one keystroke or click of a mouse."

If this sounds familiar, it is. Many computer users for Windows, Linux, and even Mac platforms have been making use of third-party virtual desktop accessories since the middle of the last decade. Essentially, the user creates multiple desktops for separate purposes, and can switch between desktops with a key sequence or special mouse movement. Microsoft itself released a virtual desktop gadget for Windows XP as a "PowerToy" years ago. Spaces' presentation of active virtual desktops as thumbnails, enabling users to switch between them, is surprisingly not much different.

Keeping some attendees' eyebrows raised, at least, was the part of the presentation CEO Steve Jobs referred to as "the big one:" Leopard's revised Mail client will now feature the capability to read and produce HTML-based e-mail. In the past, Mac users had actually touted the system's native mail client's lack of HTML-based e-mail features as an advantage, citing how HTML attachments were mainly responsible for getting Microsoft Outlook into so much trouble. Reports from the show floor indicate that mail security was not a principal concern when Jobs brought up Leopard's Mail, but rather it's multitude of default stationery choices.

Another element of Mail that may make some wonder to whom Mr. Jobs has been writing lately, is the program's new ability to be leveraged as a reminder and scheduling system. But unlike Outlook, which keeps schedules on a separate tally, Leopard's Mail users can remind themselves to perform certain tasks using new features that enable them to mail themselves notes. Any number of documents recognized by the operating system, including multi-part documents and images, can apparently now be managed in the same itinerary as e-mail messages.

According to one report, during the demonstration, a user launched a document the normal way, made a notation in it, and then converted it into a note recognized by the Mail application.

Developers were also given a performance demonstration of the new operating system's CoreAnimation library, which will serve as a common API for rendering in both two and three dimensions. The new rendering library may have been responsible for one of iChat's new features, which many will concede Microsoft does not yet have: Borrowing a concept from local TV newscasts, participants in video chat sessions will now be able to splice substitute backgrounds in back of themselves in the frame, creating new backdrops or virtual studios. Users will now be able to share entire video presentations, including those made with iMovie, through an open iChat window. As a result, a Mac user could conceivably anchor her own virtual newscast, complete with virtual desktop.

A screen shot of Mac OS X version 10.5 'Leopard'

An iChat participant is apparently enjoying her new copy of Mac OS X version 10.5, though probably not really from the tropical island where she appears to be. (Courtesy Apple)