Ihnatko's Tiger Report: Spotlight
by - April 29th, 2005
Am I really about to say "Spotlight is the most revolutionary thing to happen to desktop computing since System 1.0"? I suppose I am. It sounds like hyperbole but I've looked at that sentence long and hard and I haven't found anything wrong with it. Oddly enough, it brings to desktop computing one of the best ideas from the Newton OS.
On the Newton, "files" and "folders" were sort of antique concepts. Everything you created was tossed into a database that was actually known as the "soup." Yes, the concept was tailor-made for an OS optimized for appointments, contacts, and little notes, but it really was a terrific idea. It made an important point: users don't want to have a directory structure, or even to have a name attached to every file, necessarily. What they want is to be able to find their documents and info quickly; filenames and folders are just a means toward that end.
Naturally, Spotlight doesn't turn all of Tiger's files into a soup. But has much the same payoff. It's really possible to just save document you create into your Documents folder and let Spotlight and the Finder's Smart Folders feature keep the docs you need close by. I've just saved this column and it's landed in the Documents folder. Watch what I can do, without any extra effort on my part:
1) It instantly appears in the "Active Projects" Smart Folder, because it's a document that was created or modified in the past 24 hours.
2) It also appears in the "Tiger Stuff" folder, because it mentions Tiger.
3) And let's also put it in the "MacObserver.com" folder, in case I want to see what I've done in the past.
4) Oh, and I'll want to back it up at some point. So let's have it show up in a "Target for Backup" folder. Every time I write an AppleScript (or hey, cool, how about an Automator action) that needs to refer to files that haven't been backed up yet, I can just point the script to this folder instead of having to build the query by hand each time.
On and on and on. Hell, I don't even need to do that much work, do I? The Spotlight menu can bring up any piece of data I need, in just a second or three. Naturally, as enthusiastic as I am about this, it's possible to go overboard. There are plenty of projects where I can either organize them with Smart Folder backed by a 29-term Spotlight that only misses about 11% of the necessary files...or I can just click the damned "New Folder" button and remember to save everything in one place to begin with.
Still: this is the first new fundamental feature that's totally changed the way that I work with an OS. It's the first one that's changed the way I think about an OS.
And Spotlight will just get better and better as more and more software publishers take advantage of it. I was chatting with a novelist pal and we were comparing our daily battles with the keyboard. "Do you know of a word processor with a button labeled 'Oh, you know what I'm going for; could you just sort of fill in the rest?'" he asked.
I haven't stopped looking for just such a word processor. But Spotlight brings that sort of functionality to the task of finding stuff. "Get me all of the DVDs that I've ripped into QuickTimes. You know...all the movies created in the past couple of weeks that are longer than an hour in length." "I need to see the Sun-Times column that I wrote about Panther back in 2003. You know the one." "Dangit. I took that picture with my old Nikon 990, it was a flash picture, it was taken at a party after 9 at night...do you know the shot I'm talking about?"
It's just ungodly good. If Apple emailed me a couple of months ago and said "Andy, we'll give you a free pass; choose one Tiger feature and we'll let you use it in public" my choice would have been Spotlight, in a walkover. Life is just so much better with Spotlight than without, and it's now one of the top three things that I show off when a Windows user wants me to explain What's So Great about the Mac OS.
Ihnatko's Tiger Report
digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.
Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).
Most Recent Columns From Andy Ihnatko
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