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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Will Mac users Pounce on Leopard?

by Ted Landau
August 10th, 2006

Apple has now partially drawn back the curtain, allowing us a first "sneak peek" at Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X. With each new OS, one of Apple's prime goals is to pack it with enough new and exciting features that you are no longer content with your old now inferior and antiquated OS -- opting instead to upgrade (or, for Windows users, switch!). No wonder. A great deal of profit (or potential loss) hangs in the balance between whether a new OS launches successfully or lands with a thud.

So let the speculation begin: How well will Leopard do when it is finally released next spring? Getting an answer depends not only on a look at the upgrade's features, but on a consideration of the different types of Mac users making this decision.

For some users, the only time they will ever upgrade their Mac software is if and when they buy a new Mac. Some of these users are still happily running Mac OS 9. They tend to view upgrading their Mac with trepidation, rather than anticipation. Most of them are probably unaware that a new version of Mac OS X is even on the horizon. You can't expect too many sales from this group, even if the new OS could print money.

At the other end, there are the users who always buy each new upgrade, usually as soon as possible, regardless of how good (or bad) it is. They are eager to remain up-to-the-minute with all the latest tricks in Apple's bag. Apple need not spend a dime advertising to these users; they already have their checkbooks open. And yes, you can count me in this group!

In between, there is a broad middle-ground of users, almost certainly the majority. They are ones who say, "I'm ready and willing to upgrade, but first convince me it's worth it." These are the users at the sweet spot on the bat that Apple swings when it comes out with a new OS X version. These are the ones that Apple most targets in its marketing.

So how will Leopard go over with these users? It's too early to tell for sure, especially with Steve Jobs still promising some as-yet-unannounced features. Still, I expect Leopard to do well. But I also expect it to be a tougher sell than Tiger or Panther. There's a lot to like in the new OS, but not much to say "I absolutely must have it." Here's why:

Time Machine. Backing up has never been sexy and Time Machine is not likely to change this perception. At its heart, Time Machine is a backup utility. There are already dozens of such utilities on the market, many of them quite good and at a very reasonable cost (such as the excellent SuperDuper! for only $28). Of course, Time Machine is written by Apple and included as part of the OS, making it easier and more convenient to use. But it remains to be seen if this is enough to get people who have thus far resisted backing up (which, as pointed out at the WWDC Keynote, is the vast majority of users!) to start doing so.

Equally noteworthy, Time Machine is more than a basic backup utility. It adds the ability to go back in time and bring back documents that you deleted or overwrote. This "time travel" feature is fantastic, no doubt. It would have saved me from heartaches on several occasions in the past couple of years. But a lot depends on exactly how well it all works. Previous attempts at such feats (from Power On's Rewind software for Mac OS 9 or Prosoft's now defunct Data Recycler) suggest that it will require a good deal of overhead, in terms of processor activity and storage space. Plus, Time Machine just about requires the purchase of an additional hard drive. This is a barrier that probably already accounts for why many users do not back up regularly. Time Machine will not change that.

My concern is that, after getting a closer look at what is needed to make Time Machine a practical tool, most users will continue to resist. Still, if Apple does pull this off, Time Machine will be the single best reason to upgrade to Leopard.

Spaces. This utility certainly looks quite cool in demos. While some may describe it as an expansion of what Exposé can already do, it is more than that. It is true virtual desktop software (such as You Control: Desktops or CodeTek's Virtual Desktop). It offers the ability to maintain separate complete desktops for different tasks, with different applications and different documents open in each space, combined with an ability to instantly shift from one space to the other. Despite how useful this can be, the existing third-party programs in this category have never caught on with a wide audience. Making it part of the OS may change that. But I am skeptical.

iChat. The updated version of this software offers several impressive new features. Some are eye-candy (such as adding a backdrop to your iChat screen, similar to what ChatFX already offers). But others are important and, many would say, long overdue. With features such as multiple logins and invisible status, it pretty much catches up with competitors such as Adium. The ability to play Keynote presentations over iChat offers a convenient way to remotely view slide shows, from family photos to business charts. For me, as a troubleshooter, the most exciting addition is being able to control another user's screen from iChat. True, I can already do this in Tiger, for free, using Chicken of the VNC. But it will be easier to set up with iChat, especially when trying to coordinate with less-skilled users on the other end.

Mail. There are several significant new features in Mail, including stationery, notes and to-do lists. This promises to be one of the better reasons to upgrade to Leopard. Still, there are already several note and to-do list packages out there (including Microsoft Office's Entourage). How many users will switch from their current choice? And how many users that don't already use these options will now feel compelled to start? My guess is that the answer is: not too many. But if you are already a dedicated Mail user, the good news is that the Leopard version is a huge improvement.

Dashboard. With Leopard, creating your own Widgets will be remarkably easy to do -- either via the no-brainer Web Clip method or via the you-do-need-a-brain Dashcode route. Dashcode appears to do for Widgets in Leopard what Automator did for AppleScript in Tiger. Of course, this is somewhat of a left-handed compliment. Automator has not exactly been one of Tiger's big success stories.

Spotlight. I confess I have not yet had much time to examine all the ways in which the Leopard version of Spotlight outpaces the Tiger version. But I do know that the Tiger version leaves a lot to be desired (in terms of speed, specifying search parameters and getting exactly the results you want). Happily, the Leopard version appears to address many of these concerns. Spotlight also promises to be a better application launcher (making it more competitive with third-party utilities such as LaunchBar). Overall, this could be big news; it's too close to call right now.

To be sure, there's much more in Leopard than currently displayed on Apple's Web site. For one example, there's Safari 3.0, which sports an ability to merge multiple windows into a single tabbed window as well as undo an unintentional closure of tabs. And underneath Leopard's hood there will be some less-apparent but significant improvements. I am particularly looking forward to a 64-bit native Finder, hopefully complete with bug and interface fixes for many of the things that have frustrated Mac users for several OS iterations (see my recent MacFixIt article for more on this topic). But as Apple is not giving these improvements much publicity, they are not likely to do much to help sell the OS, at least not initially.

Despite all this, as I said at the top of the article, I expect Leopard to be a successful and compelling upgrade. Here's why:

The total package. Even if no single major feature results in users saying "I must have this," the combined total of all the new features should convince people to say "There is just too much good new stuff here for me to ignore it." Leopard is a significant upgrade of a couple of dozen applications, plus the OS itself. It would be hard to find a better deal.

Similarly, as you may have gleaned from the above highlights, many of Leopard's new features (more so than in previous OS X upgrades) are Apple's takes on already popular third-party software. Some may conclude that this makes Leopard "unexciting." But combining them all into one Apple-designed OS makes the total package much more attractive than having to seek out a dozen or so third-party alternatives.

Intel Macs. What may well turn out to be the biggest reason to get Leopard is that it will work better (faster and with greater compatibility) with the Intel processors that run inside all current Mac models. This is especially so for the 64-bit Mac Pros -- as well as the likely other 64-bit models still to come. Even if you don't consider buying Leopard as a stand-alone package, you will automatically get a copy when you upgrade to an Intel Mac starting next spring.

Ignoring how any of this affects Apple's finances, I am not in the least disturbed at the prospect that Leopard may turn out to be Apple's least innovative Mac OS X upgrade. In fact, I see two quite positive consequences of this.

First, I believe it reflects the coming of age or "maturity" of the OS. It's as if Apple is saying "Tiger is already so good that it's hard for us to improve it much -- at least not right now." Plus, as Apple happily pointed out at the WWDC, Mac OS X is already well ahead of Windows' Vista and is likely to stay that way -- despite Microsoft's efforts to "photocopy" the Apple OS.

Finally, although this may be a consequence of my advancing age, I welcome a bit of a breather in the pace of change. After having survived dramatically overhauled OS versions, coming at the rate of about once a year, from Jaguar to Panther to Tiger, I can use some down time. I look forward to at least a brief respite where I can spend some time exploring Mac OS X -- without worrying that I am just a few months away from having to relearn how everything works. Leopard is a refinement of Mac OS X, rather than an overhaul. That's perfect for me.

Bottom line: I look forward to the release of Leopard -- as much for what it isn't as for what it is.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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