Apple's Mac OS is due a revamp in the New Year. Codenamed Tiger, it promises many intriguing new features - but will it deliver?
Frustratingly, Tiger won't be released until next year - but here are the most interesting aspects of Tiger, plus shareware programs that provide at least some of the same functionality now.
iChat AV: Group videoconferencing
In the next version of iChat AV, you'll be able to hold voice chat sessions with up to nine other people, and videoconferences with up to three others, all within iChat's slick, easy-to-use interface. In the demo shown at WWDC, the videoconference participants' video windows appeared as part of a 3D triptych within one window. It was undeniably flashy. Apple claims that the new video codec it has adopted will result in better image quality while conserving bandwidth.
We'll have to wait for Tiger's release to judge these claims. In the meantime, there are video chat applications like iVisit. While the free version, iVisit Lite, supports only one-to-one video chatting, the $40-per-year iVisit Plus allows eight-way videoconferences. iVisit works, but the interface is a little harder to use than iChat's, and less polished.
Spotlight: No more hidden files
The Tiger feature you'll be most anxious to try is a new, super-search capability for the contents of your own drives that promises to be better than Google. Steve Jobs' Spotlight demo certainly made the tool look like the ultimate search. Spotlight found search terms inside files as diverse as email messages and PDFs of images. The Spotlight search box will be available in any window, save your search terms, and have a slew of other powerful tools for getting your hands on exactly the bit of information you need, no matter how well you've hidden it from yourself.
I cannot find a comparable Mac tool available now. In the past there have been some utilities for Windows that do this kind of magic, including an applet from Autonomy and one from Six Degrees. Just one is currently available, and it's only for Windows: X1 Technologies' X1 Search.
One way to beef up the Mac's Find capabilities now is to use Skytag Software's File Buddy 8, a $40 file-management software with powerful structured searching. It's not as easy to use as Spotlight promises to be, or as fast as Spotlight is reputed to be, but it's more extensive than OS X 10.3's relatively simple Find utility.
Dashboard: Keep your tools handy
If you're always rummaging through the Finder to get to utilities like your calculator or sticky notes, you'll love Tiger's Dashboard.
Dashboard lets you load small, single-purpose applets called "widgets," which can be shown or hidden by pressing one function key. The prototypes demonstrated in Jobs's keynote at WWDC included a world clock and a little Webcam window. The idea is for independent developers to write their own widgets for Dashboard, so you can pick a batch that suits you - but expect to see a handful included with Tiger.
If you must have doohickeys on your desktop now, check out Konfabulator, a platform that lets you load clever and handsome little tools (also called widgets), like a small music player, on your desktop. There's a minicontroversy among Mac observers about whether Apple swiped the Dashboard idea from the makers of Konfabulator.
Industry kibitzing aside, Dashboard and Konfabulator are different in one way. You'll pay $25 to license Konfabulator, but most of its widgets are available for free. Apple's Dashboard will be part of the operating system, and included in its price. Developers presumably may charge some fee for their widgets.
When Tiger shows up sometime next year, we'll have a lot of interesting new stuff to try out and compare. Hopefully the third-party programs here will tide you over until Tiger arrives.