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Friday, April 4, 2008

Apple Leopard Shows Great Promise, Needs Fixes

The top-billing with Apple's new operating system, code named Leopard or OSX 10.5 is the backup system given the marketing name Time Machine. Backed up with space age style graphics, Time Machine zooms you back and forward in time on a space continuum that makes you think your documents, images and movies stretch out into the galaxy.

Without going into Time Machine at great depth (many other sites and blogger have been writing about it since last year when Apple previewed it), Time Machine lets you restore documents going back to a specific day, week or year and does so with the speed and simplicity to make other back up systems seem old and outmoded.

Apple still has some fixing to do with Time Machine. It has yet to work with the Airport Express USB drives and prefers Apple's touted Time Capsule -- a Airport hub with 500 GB or 1 Terabyte drive built right into the wifi router.

Many Apple faithful who bought Apple's marketing back in the summer of 2007 to buy Airport Express with USB port for a backup hard drive have been mightily angry that Apple uses its programming failure to market a new device of their making. Their chant is "fix Time Machine to work with third-party USB devices." I agree.

STACKS & SPACES

Over time Apple has been transforming the Mac Finder and Desktop to make it more configurable to different use scenarios and assist the user with organizing and keeping their desktops clean. Stacks and Spaces are Apple programmers recent additions to this never-end effort to bring order to a chaotic universe.

Stacks throw all your download and desktop cluttering documents into a menu bar stack that expands out like a geisha's fan and flutter out before your eyes when you click and hold on the stack. It is a pretty cool solution to the way our desktop tend to become a litter box of document icons.

Spaces has the similar quality of organizing for the clutter-prone and seem to match Steve Job's zen-like obsession with neatness and orderliness. Employees of Pixar often noted that Jobs office was like an Oriental rock and sand garden where the only thing a CEO should do in there was meditate. Spaces is the desktop and finder equivalent, allowing you to order your workspaces, save them and flip spectacularly through to each. Spaces is almost an Andy Herzfeld type application, allowing you to flip the cube and view different Finders from different angles of the prism. Again, totally stylist and cool in that Apple way.

Often Apple's best advances are in the little areas of the operating system that let you do things more easily or do things for you that are laborious yet routine. I've owned a personal computer, specifically a Macintosh, since 1984. In all those years I have a mantra playing in the back of my head that says, "The computer should be able to figure that out so I don't have to."

Back in the 80s and 90s I wanted the computer to simply know what ports I had my printer or scanner connected to without having to tell and configure the operating system. I wanted my desktop simply to sense it was connected to the network and show me the volumes I could access. Most recently, I want my laptop or iPhone to sense and know when there is a wifi network I can connect to and prompt me to select it and authenticate.

DATA DETECTORS

One of the greatest and most mundane (DOH) features added to Leopard is data detectors. This is the feature that you've always wanted when you say to yourself "why can't the computer figure it out." Whenever Leopard sees text that resembles an address or date it gives you a pop down menu next to that data with the option to add it to iCal or Apple's Address Book.

Taking this a step further Apple has given applications like Pages the ability for you to draft a letter in a template and then go to Address Book select 1, 5, 10 or any random number of people in your address book and then drag the names into the address space at the top of the letter and it simple performs a mail merge with one complete letter per name you've dragged.

The data detectors even figure out that if you have a salutation, it will place the persons name in the appropriate spot at the top of the body text. No more of the stupid double brackets - field name coding to achieve a mail merge. Let the computer software figure out the details. That's what computers are for right?

iCHAT THEATER

iChat has gotten considerably better with Leopard. In the past, some of the ideas Apple built into iChat were cute but not too useful. Thus iChat hasn't caught on like other Web 2.0 technologies that improve IP communications. Now, with iChat Theater you can share photos, movies and Keynote type presentations across the internet with family, friends and business partners. If you are in front of the camera, iChat Theater makes a small window for you to live in and a big theatrical window for your picture, movie or slideshow.

While this concept is great and could bring more people to use the iChat feature of Leopard, my experience trying to use it with an Leopard upgraded Powerbook laptop and iMac have been mixed. The slideshow were slow, the audio failed and it seemed to be CPU heavy and brought all functions to a stuttering halt. Let's hope Apple works on fixing iChat and making it more stable and reliable because they could have a winner here.

SYNCING

Syncing has gotten some changes with the recent Leopard release. In the past, Apple has been all over the board with iSync, iTunes, .Mac and I think it has driven many Mac users to resignation with trying to sync across their desktop, laptop and mobile devices like iPhone and iPod. I know I've been frustrated and flustered with it and still in Leopard, syncing the Address Book between laptop and iPhone contacts -- is really funky. The sync feature likes to mix up the photos of different contacts just to confound you. So my friend Diane's picture got randomly assigned to my lawyer John contact on the iPhone. Go figure.

I hope this isn't one of those creeping Microsoft sloppiness problems -- where getting feature to work is successful only 35% of the time.

Within the Leopard Address Book preferences you will find setting that will allow you to sync your address book with Yahoo and Exchange mail servers. This ability to communicate and sync outside the world of Apple apps will be a big boon to the "switch to Mac" market and enterprise computing where Active List and other company served mailing capabilities are necessary.

The coolness of these and a bunch of smaller features makes Leopard well worth the price of upgrade, However, Apple has some fixing it needs to do to iron out the odd imperfections with this system version.

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