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Ten Things I Dig About Panther

by James Duncan Davidson, author of the upcoming Running Mac OS X Panther

Ever since WWDC 2003 in June (has it really been that long?) I've been planning on what articles to write about Panther when it's released. After all, there are zillions of new things to talk about in this release of Mac OS X. However, until we had a release date from Apple, it hasn't been appropriate to talk much about Panther here on the Mac DevCenter. But now that we know the uncaging of Panther has been set for Oct. 24, and a whole lot of information has been posted on Apple's web site, it's time to start taking a look at this latest effort from Apple.

One question I anticipate that I'll be asked quite a bit in the next few months is: "Should I upgrade?" The answer is, from my perspective, a resounding "YES". This is a landmark release of the system. Each version since 10.0 has upped the ante significantly.

Mac OS X 10.0 (internally code named Cheetah) was the stake in the ground. It showed the world that Apple was changing tracks from the old classic Mac OS to a new Unix-based system. Version 10.1 (internally code named Puma) gave us a performance boost and the Carbon updates required to get Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office running. Version 10.2, known to the world as Jaguar, was where the system became real for most people. It gave good performance and a rich experience.

But this next beast, Panther, is where Apple is no longer trying to establish a new operating system -- that job is done as of Jaguar. Panther is where Apple builds on the base of the previous releases and takes the system into territory that Windows folks won't get to until after the release of Longhorn, whenever that is.

As the Beatles sang, "It's getting better all the time. Better. Better. Better."

Related Reading

Running Mac OS X Panther
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So, without further ado, here are the 10 things that have been announced (out of the hundreds of new features) about Panther that I think are special, and which I think you'll like too:

1. Exposé: The ability to seamlessly multitask naturally leads to a lot of clutter on the desktop. I know that I usually have upwards of a dozen applications all running at the same time. Many Unix systems have adopted the idea of using virtual desktops -- and there are third party tools that bring this idea to Mac OS X. However, with Panther, Apple has leveraged the insane capabilities of Quartz Extreme to give window management a new twist. A single keystroke and you can make order out of chaos. Even better, you can assign those extra buttons on a multi-button mouse to trigger Exposé, making window navigation a snap. Virtual desktops look downright clunky in comparison.

2. Command-Tab: Sure, previous versions of Mac OS X have given the ability to switch between applications with the Command-Tab keystroke. However, it hasn't worked the way it should. And using the little triangle indicator in the Dock to show which application you are going to switch to isn't enough. Now, when you use Command-Tab, you'll see a list of applications appear semi-transparently across your screen. It's a feature that's long been on Windows and it's about time Mac OS X emulated it.

3. Threading in Mail: I get loads of email -- and amazingly enough -- not all of it is spam or various Windows-based worms at work. Quite a bit of it is mail that I have to deal with. And quite a bit of it comes from the various mailing lists I'm subscribed to. Years ago I used to use Netscape Mail, which had good threading support and I've missed that threading model while using the Mac OS X Mail client. Now, Mail looks like it sports threading every bit as good as I've seen implemented anywhere. And not a moment too soon.

The New

4. Fast Preview: As part of being an author who writes books for a living, I read and generate PDF files all of the time. The new faster Preview is going to make life on that front so much better. And now that you can search through PDFs quickly, I won't be opening Adobe's Acrobat Reader nearly so often. And the built-in ability to read a PostScript or EPS file is going to make it easy to read through all my archived material that hasn't been upgraded to PDF. The only thing that seems to be missing is the ability to see annotations that people have made using Acrobat Reader.

5. The New Finder: Moving the focus of the finder to the User's home directory instead of the boot disk is a welcome change. Not having to go click-click-click to navigate a new Finder window from the boot disk to the home folder will save me thousands of clicks a year. And the new sidebar means that it'll be easy to keep track of folders that I use all of the time -- for example, I know that a folder giving a direct link to the book I'm working on will live full-time in the sidebar. Even better, the sidebar appears in the Save and Open dialog sheets for all applications.

The New Finder

6. Safari Rendering: For HTML Safari isn't just a browser, it's also a HTML-rendering component (known as WebKit) that can be used by any application that wants to display HTML. Sure, WebKit has been out for a while know, but it's now showing up everywhere in the system. This means that HTML markup will appear the same way in both Safari and Mail. Even better, the previously laggardly Help application should get quite a welcome speed boost from using WebKit.

7. Font Book: The way that Mac OS X and Quartz display fonts has always been phenomenal, but the tools to organize and use the fonts on your system have been nonexistent. I can deal with organizing fonts manually by copying them in and out of my ~/Library/Fonts folder, but without a way to preview fonts, it's not been easy. Now, with Font Book, it should be cake.

8. File Vault: For a long time I've been running around with semi-sensitive data on my laptop, including my bank records and credit card statements. I've used several schemes to keep this data private, but none has been quite right. Now, with FileVault, the data on my laptop can be locked down when I'm not logged in. With my frequent habit of synchronizing data with my server at home, this means that if I happen to lose my laptop, I'm only out the price of the laptop -- and not worried about my bank account getting cleaned out.


9. Secure Erase Trash: For when you need to be paranoid about your data -- or making sure that the data is really gone when you delete it -- Panther provides the ability to not only empty the trash as normal, but to write random data over the file contents so that it can't be resurrected by people who know how to look at the raw contents of a hard drive.

10. Active Directory Integration: OK, so I know that those of you who live in a Mac-only world couldn't care about this one, but Panther's new ability to use Active Directory as a password authentication system and the ability to store a home directory on a remote Windows server is going to be key to the continued movement of Mac OS X into the corporate environment. I think this one feature is going to enable a huge upswing of Mac sales into corporate environments.

I know the title of this article promises 10 things, but there's one more thing about Panther that I really dig:

11. Xcode: I've always loved that the development tools for Mac OS X have shipped for free. Apple is very wise to realize that the more applications that are out there for Mac OS X, the better the platform does and the best way to encourage developers to write those applications is to provide the tools, as well as great frameworks like Cocoa. The new Xcode IDE looks to take the way that we do development and give it a swift kick in the butt. Instead of making you think about files, it takes care of a lot of things under the covers and lets you concentrate on just writing code. It's a big enough of a switch that I think it's going to take developers a bit of time to get used to, but Apple's putting their user-interface expertise to work in the development space, and we'll all benefit from it.

And the fact that Xcode will be able to use Rendezvous to use all of the machines on a network to help compile code that's just so cool.

So, that's the 10, er 11, things that I dig about the Panther release of Mac OS X. I know these are the features that I've been excited about for awhile and I think that they'll be some of the features that most people are going to be really glad to have. And it's all these features and more that are going to make this the most significant upgrade to the Mac OS that we've seen yet.

Yes, it's worth the price. I've already got my copy on order. Now, if you'll pardon me, I've got a book to finish up.

James Duncan Davidson is a freelance author, software developer, and consultant focusing on Mac OS X, Java, XML, and open source technologies. He currently resides in San Francisco, California.

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