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Technology: Apple’s Leopard, First Take

I’m going to try to be equitable here, because no one needs to read another anti-Vista rant or Apple-is-God paean. Windows does some things very well; its Previous Versions feature in Vista, for example, has rescued a number of my precious documents from user-induced oblivion. That said, it’s hard to be totally even-handed when Leopard (aka Mac OS 10.5) so handily outshines any other computing interface heretofore created by human beings.

I’m going to try to be equitable here, because no one needs to read another anti-Vista rant or Apple-is-God paean. Windows does some things very well; its Previous Versions feature in Vista, for example, has rescued a number of my precious documents from user-induced oblivion. That said, it’s hard to be totally even-handed when Leopard (aka Mac OS 10.5) so handily outshines any other computing interface heretofore created by human beings.

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Hold the hate mail — I promised more than a simple paean, and I’ll deliver. I’ve been using Leopard for only a few days, and it’s already changed the way I understand the limits of a personal computer. However, I don’t think much of that has to do with Apple, or how great Apple is, or how badly I wish I had invested in them in 2002.

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OS 10.5’s New Look

What does that mean, anyway, that Leopard has changed “the limits of the personal computer?”

Well, for one, I’ve long taken for granted that my Desktop space is a finite, two-dimensional work area that can fit only so much stuff. I can see Firefox and Mail together, but if those two applications are active, then I can’t see iChat behind them. Most users (Windows folks included) have become accustomed to tabbing through applications, hiding or minimizing windows, and closing unnecessary programs to clear up screen real estate. Cue a new feature called Spaces, which is the most welcome addition to my life since Red Bull started making the big cans.

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Spaces in Action

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Spaces, in a nutshell, allows you to have “virtual desktops.” You can select which applications you want to operate on which desktop. I, for example, have my Adobe suite to run on one “space,” which I distinguish from my entertainment “space” (iTunes and iChat), and my small applications “space” (Dictionary, iCal, and Address Book). If I click on Address Book, say, all the crap on the screen shoots off to the side, and I’m greeted by all the open apps in my small applications space. If I tab back to Photoshop, all those small apps are cleared off the screen, so that I only see my Adobe programs. If this is getting too metaphysical for anybody, Apple’s site explains it aptly.

Now, before any Apple-hating turbo-nerds comment that this feature is not new, save your breath. Yes, virtual desktops have existed in Linux for a while now. So have many of Apple’s core features and technology (including their much-vaunted Mach Kernel). That’s why Apple deserves some credit, in my opinion: not because they’re an innovator, necessarily, but because they’re excellent at surveying the technological landscaping and cherry picking the most effective technologies. But that’s far from saying that they deserve all the credit.

Take their “multi-touch” technology — the feature on the iPhone that allows you to pinch and stretch photos to enlarge or shrink them — as another example. Multi-touch: also not a new idea. For one, a company called FingerWorks developed it, and Apple secretly bought them out in 2005. NYU computer science guru Jeff Han also developed a futuristic touch-based interface a couple of years ago which you can watch (and drool over) below:

Okay, that video was cool, but stay with me. Time Machine, another one of Leopard’s flagship features, is also not new; all it does is take regular ole auto-backup software and integrate it into the OS. It’s not magic. You still need an external hard drive. Time Machine is simply a smarter application of an existing technology.

What I’m getting at here is more an assessment of Apple’s sound business strategy than its cult-inspiring design or technology. Apple didn’t have to radicalize the MP3 player before succeeding with the iPod, and they didn’t invent much for Leopard, either. But what they consistently do better than anyone else (ahem, Redmond, Washington) is take stock of what smart people are doing on the fringes of the Valley. They look around, asking, Where is the VC money going to these days? Who’s doing something that will simplify, rather than confuse, the lives of computer users? As it turns out, the answers to those questions usually lead Apple to folks who have done the heavy lifting for them, and it’s simply their willingness to throw money at the idea that gets them ahead in the PC space. Microsoft, with their gobs of capital, has yet to figure out how to do this effectively; they get in too late, with too little (see Facebook; Zune).

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At heart, it doesn’t really matter if you like Apple or hate them. Leopard’s salient improvements will trickle down to the next version of Windows, as well as the next round of cell phones, public computing systems, and handhelds. As more companies look to Apple for copycat material, more of what makes the Mac OS great will improve computing on the whole. Apple may have only 6% market share, but it’s safe to bet that whether or not you intend to, you’ll eventually be loving something about Leopard. So save yourself some time, give in, and try it now.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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