Leopard at six months: Does it live up to the early hype?

Though some thought it was released too soon, Mac OS X 10.5 has matured into a solid operating system

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It took Apple longer to add a feature to Leopard that had been promised by CEO Steve Jobs and cut from the operating system before it was released: Support by Time Machine -- the backup utility included in Leopard -- for AirPort disk backups. Apple users who relied on the company's AirPort Extreme base station for wireless connections had been told that they could attach a hard drive to their wireless router and use that disk for backups with Time Machine.

When Leopard first shipped, people were surprised to find this a no-go. Without saying why, Apple had culled the feature from the shipping version of the operating system and only implemented it -- unofficially -- when it released a slew of software updates in February. (Apple also released Time Capsule, hardware that made those backups even easier.)

The one change with Leopard that could be a show-stopper for some was Apple's decision to discontinue all support for its "Classic" OS -- meaning no one on Leopard could run Mac OS 9 programs. (In fact, that one change has prevented the company I work for -- a major media firm -- from migrating our users to Leopard.)

This was not unexpected, as even the Intel version of Tiger didn't support the Classic environment. The only users who could run Mac OS 9 programs in Tiger were those with older PowerPC-based hardware. Although Leoaprd runs on the older machines, support for OS 9 was finally dropped altogether. For Apple, the move was seen as a necessary step, but it's a problem for users with legacy software.

Perfection remains on the horizon

Since Leopard's debut, Apple has been busy, bumping Mac OS X from the initial 10.5 on Oct. 26 to 10.5.1 on Nov. 15 -- a quick update largely aimed at squashing all those niggling bugs that shipped with the operating system. Version 10.5.2 arrived on Feb. 11, and the next update, Version 10.5.3, is expected soon, although Apple hasn't said when. Those revisions have included numerous bug fixes, security updates and code tweaks, including the aforementioned tweaks to the menu bar and Stacks.

By way of comparison, Mac OS X Tiger had three upgrades in its first six months. By the time Tiger was replaced by Leopard, it had received 11 such upgrades and dozens of security updates and software tweaks. What does this mean for Leopard? Look for a series of future updates as Apple continues to improve on the Leopard code base, just as it has for every other version of OS X.

Leopard also offers behind-the-scenes benefits for users: built-in developer tools that allow Apple to detect problematic code and to help boost performance. Because Apple has implemented DTrace in its development environment, Mac users are likely to see a more stable operating system and applications. Anyone using Apple's developer tools for their applications is also using the very same tools Apple uses for its own diagnosing and bug-fixing.

Even as Apple moved to firm up its already full-featured operating system, it looked to build upon the platform by unveiling tools for iPhone application development. The iPhone runs on a scaled-down version of OS X, making it easier for developers to create apps for the phone and do more with apps for the operating system. The iPhone software developer's kit, due out in June and based on Apple's existing Mac SDK, effectively extends the reach of existing tools to allow for a seamless development platform.

With the tools in place, building an application for one Apple system adds knowledge and experience that can be transferred to apps built for another Apple platform. For developers, this means they can create powerful, functional and stable applications quickly, without the need for teams of coders or support squads. For end users, the result is a wider variety of applications and functions, no matter which Apple product you're using.

Is the upgrade worth it?

Six months after its release, debates about whether Leopard is a worthy upgrade have largely vanished. Even large companies are checking it out, uncertain as they are about the future of Vista; for example, IBM is running a test to determine whether Macs in the office would be a smart move. A recent survey by ChangeWave Research found that "Apple continues to set the standard for corporate customer satisfaction." That's noteworthy, given the lack of a specific Apple push into the enterprise.

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