Tiger: Think Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Itis been more than eighteen months in the public eye, and has taken center stage at every major Apple event in the last year. Like the opening act for a sold-out headliner, itis been used by Apple CEO Steve Jobs to delay satiating the crowdis anticipation for Appleis new hardware announcements. Itis been heralded as the most significant upgrade to Mac OS X ever, its hype aided by the extra half-year Apple has made its fans wait to breathe new life into their Macs.

Yet for everything that Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger has been made out to be, thereis an awful lot that it simply isnit, or that it at least wonit be for a lot of people.

My take on Tiger in a nutshell follows: with more than five years of Mac OS X development under its belt and already three major upgrades to the operating system, there simply isnit as much room on the surface for Apple to improve the general day-to-day experience of using a Mac. Accordingly, the major improvements to Mac OS X that Tiger brings to the table are primarily under the hood and not so much in the form of new features that youill wonder how you ever lived without.

Let me make it clear that Iim not downplaying the significance of these accomplishments -- the technical details of which Iill spare the average reader (Ars Technica does an excellent job of touching upon the major points for those interested) -- but rather to point that Tiger simply isnit as wide-reaching a Mac OS X upgrade as others have been.

Tiger isnit like 10.1 Puma, which actually made Mac OS X usable and added such obvious features as DVD playback. Itis not like 10.2 Jaguar, which delivered a substantial performance boost and really started to set Mac OS X apart from the competition. Itis not even like 10.3 Panther, which brought all-new technologies like iChat AV to the table.

From a usability perspective, Tiger is very much an evolutionary upgrade, even if its underpinnings are more than that. Spotlight is nice, primarily for its speed in my opinion, but whether meta searching is all that Apple, Google, and Microsoft believe its cracked up to be depends on how you already sort and organize files on your Mac, or donit. (In my experience, Mac users generally have a much better handle on where their documents and other user files are on their computer than Windows users.)

Dashboard is certainly slick and the ripple effect that adding new Widgets does to your screen (on systems that support Tigeris new Core Image graphics technology) will impress your friends again like the original Genie window minimizing effect, but Dashboard is not a new concept. Itis arguably just the best implementation of such an idea to date, a trend that Apple has gotten better and better at ceasing upon in recent years.

Spotlight and Dashboard may be the two most highly publicized features out over a purported 200 to grace Tiger, but theyire also on a very short list of new features that actually deliver something for almost everyone.

I noticed this when showing off Tiger to a friend of mine, a recent PC Switcher who uses her iBook for the same list of basic tasks many people in her shoes do: word processing, Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, music, and photos. In trying to demonstrate to her how superior Appleis engineering efforts are and what a sound investment she made in picking up an iBook, I quickly noticed that beyond Spotlight and Dashboard, I didnit have a whole lot to show her. Appleis iLife i05 upgrade delivered more for her than Tiger does, and even that upgrade seemed rather marginal from the iLife i04 package that shipped with her system.

What weire left with in Tiger is a list of new features whose value is highly dependent on how you use the system. This may not seem like a novel idea, but itis a departure from previous upgrades.

Mail 2.0 seems to be a solid upgrade to Appleis e-mail client, but only if you used it to begin with. Chances are if checking your e-mail with your Web browser is what youire accustomed to, Mail 2.0 doesnit deliver any compelling features over Mail 1.x for encouraging you to use a proper e-mail client. If youire more of a power user who enjoys Bare Bones Softwareis Mailsmith, Mail 2.0 wonit switch you back to the Apple camp. Similarly, if youire a Microsoft Entourage sort of person, youill probably stay that way. In fact, if youire in an environment that relies on Microsoft Outlook, youill have to.

iSync supports many more devices, but both Address Book and iCal have received only marginal updates. The ability to share your address book with others is handy, but Iid rather have seen an easy way to synchronize Appleis Address Book with that of Microsoft Entourage, Palm Desktop, or other third-party applications added to Address Book.

If youire in the minority and subscribe to Appleis .Mac Internet services, Tiger packs improved support for syncing your data with .Mac servers and other Macs. If youire not interested in .Mac, then none of that makes a difference to you.

iChat AVis much-touted three-way video conferencing is every bit as cool as Mr. Jobs has demonstrated time and time again, but I canit shake the gut feeling that hardly any Tiger user will actually use it, especially on a regular basis.

Safari 2.0/RSS is the best Safari to date, but as an RSS reader it pales in comparison to more robust readers. Its best purpose may be to introduce the world of RSS feeds to those surfers unfamiliar with the technology, but RSS is still too much and too geeky for the majority of users I know.

Automator is similarly geeky. Itis not as niche as AppleScript -- and many of us probably remember that AppleScript was supposed to be scripting for the rest of us -- but I believe it will still be too techie for most.

QuickTime 7 and the new H.264 video codec is a very compelling technology upgrade, but it canit really be considered a Tiger feature since versions for Panther and Windows will soon be available. The improved performance of the new Cocoa (fully Mac OS X-native) version of QuickTime Player is one of the best parts of the package.

Perhaps itis not fair to dissect each new tangible feature of Tiger and say theyire not terribly compelling in and of themselves, but even when Tigeris parts are taken as a sum of the whole, the upgrade is lacking on surface.

I consider myself a power user of Mac OS X. Iim not a developer, nor do I pretend to be on weekends, so Appleis new take on APIs with Tiger means about as much to me as how India is faring in cricket this season. Yet between the gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage I work with on a daily basis, I find Tigeris intangible refinement to be its most compelling feature.

Whereas Jaguar took working with Mac OS X on a daily basis from a tolerable experience to an enjoyable one, and Panther smoothed its corners by making tasks like viewing or moving hundreds of files many times faster, so too does Tiger deliver that same polished feel. Applications seem more responsive, the Finder feels snappier. Getting info on a file is now almost instantaneous, the way it was back in the Mac OS 9 days. Calculating folder sizes takes just a second or two, not twenty. These may be small refinements, but for seasoned Mac users like me they make all the difference.

Perhaps the most overlooked new feature -- and one that I find most impressive -- of Tiger is that its system requirements remain pretty much unchanged from Mac OS X 10.0. Somehow Appleis engineers have continually managed to pack more and more features into the operating system while improving performance at the same time, an approach that many other companies should try to emulate.

Tiger may not be as compelling or dramatic an upgrade in my eyes, or for other users, as Appleis engineering efforts may want it to be, but it represents the first step towards the future of Mac OS X as a whole. Having nailed down the majority of usersi needs so well between 10.0 and 10.3, Apple has shifted its focus to laying the groundwork for expanding its reach and securing its OS dominance into the future.

And thereis nothing wrong with that.