Apple's Snow Leopard: Same great UI, refinements under the hood

Most of what's new in Mac OS X 10.6 won't be obvious to users

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Tim Bajarin, longtime Mac analyst and president of Creative Strategies, supports the idea that this is a Big Deal for Macs in the enterprise.

"For many, especially potential enterprise users, the integration of ActiveSync and Exchange server support is going to be the most interesting [change]. Now Active Sync is part of Snow Leopard itself and delivers full synching functionality of Exchange server with all of Apple's key applications such as iCal, [Address Book] and, most importantly, Mail," he said. These two additions "will make the Mac more attractive to IT and business users at all levels and should help Apple gain some ground with the Mac in mainstream business markets.

This could be one reason why Microsoft has announced that the next version of Office for Mac, due next year, will include Outlook for Mac, replacing the Mac version of Entourage. Those hooked on Entourage, the company said, can use the Web version.

No doubt, Apple's decision to focus on stability and speed sounds better than saying, "We're fixing mistakes we made in Leopard." But a lot of these changes fall under what has long been called on certain message boards FTFF: Fix the -- ahem -- Finder. Some of the complaints historically have been technical -- why isn't Apple's crown jewel of a user interface written in its top-seeded API, Cocoa? And some have been functional -- why can't we have this feature that worked oh so well in Mac OS 9?

Apple's answer: Snow Leopard will finally have a Cocoa-based Finder. Apple intimates that this will improve responsiveness (bring more of "the snappy"); technically, this will make the Finder 64-bit-aware and enable it to take advantage of Grand Central, at least on systems with the minimum GPUs. The switch to Cocoa also brings some welcome services to the Finder, such as bidirectional text support.

Snow Leopard won't be the second coming for those who miss the halcyon days of the spatial finder. (Google those two words to get a sense of the discontent Mac OS sparked.) But it will dial back some of the less successful, we'll say, interface tweaks in recent OS revisions, and add a few that are useful: a Put Back command for the Trash; easier assignment of applications to Spaces; and navigation of folders in Stacks and the ability to scroll through their complete contents in grid view. Neither of those will replace pop-up folders, but both are welcome fixes.

A foundation for growth

Personally, I'm glad Apple put the brakes on marketing-driven feature bloat. Going in and overhauling the foundations and frameworks is a great idea -- and something Microsoft is partly doing with Windows 7 in an attempt to woo disgruntled Vista and satisfied XP users.

I'm also glad that Apple is charging a relatively nominal price. Buyers might feel stung if they had to pay $129 for what a lot of users would see as nothing more than a lot of plumbing fixes.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. If Apple's goal with Snow Leopard is to lay a foundation for future growth, a lot will depend on adoption, both by users and developers. The more of each, it seems, the more benefits to all.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications such as Salon, eWeek, MacWeek and The New York Times.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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