Tiger

technology

The announcements of the new features in the next version of MacOS X ('Tiger') turned out to be a lot more exciting than I was anticipating. Many other people have commented on things, so I'll just mention the two features that grabbed my attention the most.

I feel vaguely smug that I mentioned what a good idea something like Smart Playlists would be in the Finder when I wrote about Panther, and — lo and behold — 'smart folders' pop up in Tiger. In fact, the technology behind this feature — Spotlight — is even smarter than that. It will allow you to search on the fly for a very wide range of attributes, and will group the results intelligently so that it's easy to find what you were looking for from among emails, files, images and bookmarks. Underpinning this is an entirely new metadata engine, which indexes the contents of files and even obscure properties such as the copyright notice on a file, or the resolution of an image file. Apple have already built in a system wide search engine for this, as well as smart folders (which use the metadata) in Finder, Mail and Address Book, but the engine could be used by developers to build all kinds of cool things into new applications. There's even a command line interface to it, so I'm already thinking about all the wonderful pipes you could set up to and from Unix applications. It remains to be seen how well it scales across real filesystems with thousands of files, but it's tempting to think that just dumping all your files in one folder and letting Spotlight find stuff or organise it into smart folders of related items might — at last — be possible.

The other exciting announcement for me was Automator. This is an application to build automated sequences of tasks like scripts, but without needing to do any actual coding. You merely choose from a number of pre-set elements, and drag them into the correct sequence, adding a few options as you go. In the Keynote, there was a demonstration of how Automator could be used to suck down a load of images from your .mac webpage, import them in a new album in iPhoto, then export them to iDVD to burn a disc for all your unfortunate relatives to have to sit through at Christmas1. It was all very quick, and more importantly, reusable. I'm sure that this is what Applescript was always intended to be. Despite its 'English-like' syntax, Applescript is actually quite difficult to get to grips with if you want to do anything slightly complicated. The easy syntax is a bit of a trap, as it lulls you into a false sense of security before you get tripped up by some subtle complexity to the way that a command works. Automator looks as if it will be much easier for coding-phobic people to use, and even for programmers who just want to knock something up quickly to accomplish a boring task. Again, it remains to be seen how it works in practice, and how much freedom you have with the sub-tasks provided.

The other announcements looked interesting too, but not as innovative as the two I've mentioned. Inevitably, many people are talking about how the Konfabulator developers have had their idea ripped off by Apple in Dashboard. Neither is really to my taste (the widgets are too big and resource-hungry in my opinion, and I have GeekTool to put information on the desktop), but I do think that the developers have been rather dubiously treated by Apple. There's an iChat interview with Arlo Rose (one half of the Konfabulator team) on Geek Patrol.

It's all so exciting that I'm sorry I'll have to wait at least 6 months before parting with my £100 for Tiger.

1 Well, that's what I was thinking about the actual task when I was watching the demonstration.

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