Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life
Tiger’s New Stripes
When I ripped open the box two weeks ago, and found within it a new operating system, I wasn’t expecting miracles. I’ve learned not to expect miracles from anybody anymore, reality distortion field be damned. But what I got from that little box, and a lot of messing around, were three big important changes, and a myriad of refinements to the rest of the system.
I began by doing what all the cool kids were doing before installing a new system: backing up my data. After a loss of a significant paper in college, I began to take backup with a degree of diligence that monks of the Benedictine Order would find to be acceptable. I made a complete copy of my home folder, wrote up a nice little text file with all of my serial numbers, and wiped my system. As Brent Simmons says, “Doubt is a parasite that lives in computers,” and the only infectious things allowed near my computer are those fun Internet memes about your favorite books or some musical trivia.
As I finished my installation, and restored my old home folder to its former glory, I was greeted with my first Tiger Surprise: Spotlight indexing. Spotlight, all by its lonesome, is reason enough to upgrade your system. Though I am a bit of a stickler for organization, frequently my files will end up a bit disorganized, and I can never quite remember where I put my notes from the last board meeting. Of course, in order to make it to the point where Spotlight is useful, you need to index everything, and I do mean everything, on your disk. This can take some time, and I wouldn’t exactly plan to do anything, at all, while it’s going on that first time.
If you’re familiar with QuickSilver, the “Command-Space” reflex is ingrained into your workday; to get a document, to get an address or an e-mail, that simple command structure will begin to infect your day-to-day workflow. I’ve found myself using Spotlight almost as a QuickSilver-replacement: an application launcher, a document finder, and a collage creator. The Spotlight window will divide the results into a group of logical filesets, including e-mails, calendar events, contacts, PDFs, photos, movie, bookmarks, and other documents. This is a neat parlor trick, but it’s got to have some substance in order to work: enter the right-hand panel, allowing you to sort by date, name, kind, or people, as well as to limit your results by specific dates.
Of course, the beauty of Dashboard widgets is that Apple has flung wide the doors to the API, allowing everyone to build their own widgets, and better yet, people have responded to Apple’s call, making widgets by the dozen. Currently, on Apple’s download directory for widgets, there are over 200 entries: everything from currency rate widgets to traffic widgets to e-mail checking widgets, and back again. I’ve picked up several that I’ve come to depend upon, including flores, a Gmail checker; Hula Girl, desktop candy; and Minesweeper, which is precisely as it sounds. Dashboard fills both frivolous wants and desperate needs, bridging the gap between useful and fun.
I’m not much of a programmer. I never have been. Loops, if/thens, cryptic abbreviations, and even more obscured commands leave me feeling dizzy. I’ve done some AppleScript, which is probably the most approachable language I’ve dealt with, but mainly it was for simple things like dialing a modem, or dealing with simple file tasks. With Automator, though, I felt right at home. The simple workflow interface allows you to create flowing groups of tasks that take simple objects and morph them through the workflow from one thing to another entirely.
Automator’s workflow “puzzle pieces” take specific types of input and move them along a specified path. Sample workflows take unread mail messages from Mail and transmute them into an iPod Note for you to read on your commute, download linked photos from a Web page and add them to your iPhoto library, and batch-processing image. Fortunately for you, it’s not just Apple’s applications that are part of the Automator dance. Many developers took the opportunity to update their programs with new actions, including blogging client ecto, popular text edit BBEdit, and RSS reader NetNewsWire just to name a few. In addition, it’s possible for anyone to write their own workflow hooks, and Apple is maintaining a download directory of new workflows and new actions that can be used in concert to create more diverse actions. The future of Automator is pretty bright. As more and more applications get Automator hooks, as Apple diversifies the effects Automator can have, and as the platform becomes subject to O’Reillyan re-mixing, Automator has the most potential for cool of any new feature in OS X.
Some Sticking Points
Tiger isn’t perfect. No operating system will ever be perfect. But there are some glaring problems in Tiger that may make you think twice before drinking the Kool-Aid and upgrading your system. First of all, the much-discussed Widget Vulnerability Problem. Essentially, widgets are small programs. They can do things like open Web pages and access shell scripts, and this clearly creates a trust problem for a lot of folks. How do you know a widget isn’t malicious? This could be the same problem that has plagued the Windows world for a long time in the form of e-mail attachments. Apple has one small thing in their favor: Dashboard asks you to be sure before you run the widget for the first time, but, of course, most folks will still click through that unknowingly in order to get the pretty, shiny widget to work. The lesson? Education. Teach folks not to accept candy from strangers. This lesson, as outbreak after outbreak occurs on the Windows side, has proven to be fairly difficult.
Spotlight is slick, but it’s not flawless. It doesn’t handle exclusionary queries, which is something that any search engine ought to be able to do. In addition, it will not pattern match on anything near your spelling. If I want to launch FileMaker Pro, and I type FMP into the Spotlight bar, it will go looking for that acronym, instead of using the fuzzy logic that LaunchBar and QuickSilver have implemented to create keystrokes for applications. Of course, that Spotlight is an application launcher at all seems to be a mere throwaway gesture. Exclusionary queries, such as “get me all the documents that have the word ‘Consulting’ in them, but not the ones marked ‘Special Projects’” don’t work in Spotlight at all. Well, at least they don’t work in a coherent and straight forward fashion. If you want to start doing real exclusionary queries, you have to learn the proper syntax which looks a bit like: kMDItemAuthors == "Steve"wc && kMDItemContentType == "audio"wc Your average user isn’t going to want to set up queries like that just to move some documents around. Spotlight is not quite there yet, but the first attempt is pretty solid.
No, it’s not perfect, and there are bugs here and there (most of them now squashed by 10.4.1) but Tiger is, overall, a damn fine OS, and something Apple ought to be proud of. Sure, the multi-connection video iChats only work if you’ve got a recent G5, and the changes to iSync aren’t anything to write home about, but there’s a lot out there to be enjoyed and explored. Do yourself a favor and upgrade. You’ll thank Apple later.
Also in This Series
- About My Particular Macintoshes · May 2012
- From the Darkest Hour · May 2012
- Shrinking Into an Expanding World · May 2012
- Growing Up With Apple · May 2012
- Recollections of ATPM by the Plucky Comic Relief · May 2012
- Making the Leap · March 2012
- Digital > Analog > Digital · February 2012
- An Achievable Dream · February 2012
- Smart Move? · February 2012
- Complete Archive