What iMovie did for computer editing of digital video and the combination of iTunes 2 and the iPod has done for music, the brand new iPhoto could do for the acquisition, management, and storage of pictures from digital cameras. Like iMovie and iTunes, it's available as a free download, but unlike them, it works only on OS X -- and it ends up illustrating important strengths and weaknesses of the new operating system.
FULLY AUTOMATIC. The problem iPhoto is designed to solve is a common and simple one. Digital photography is rapidly gaining in popularity, but most computers offer little more than the electronic equivalent of a shoebox for storing the results.
Recent versions of Windows improve the situation a little by automatically generating thumbnail images to serve as icons for pictures. And third-party tools are available for organizing picture libraries, such as Sierra Imaging's Image Expert, but they're somewhat difficult to use and don't integrate particularly well with Windows.
When you connect a digital camera or a memory-card reader containing photos to a Mac running iPhoto, the program automatically launches. (Overriding software supplied by camera makers in this way got Microsoft heavily criticized around the time of Windows XP's launch, but nonmonopoly Apple has gotten a pass.) Click the "Import" button, and all the pictures are copied to the hard drive picture library.
SEARCHABLE PIX. Using a stunningly obvious concept, each import session is tagged as a separate "film roll," giving you a natural way to find pictures later, no matter how they may have been reordered and reclassified. You can also group pictures into albums or tag them with keywords that can be used to search. It's all a lot easier that trying to remember anything about the photo stored under the filename dc217.jpg.
IPhoto normally shows pictures as tiny thumbnails. But using OS X's very sophisticated graphics capabilities, moving a slider control allows you to enlarge or shrink the images on the fly. In general, the ability of the iPhoto-OS X combination to resize or rotate images quickly and smoothly puts even the fastest Windows computer to shame.
IPhoto has a downside, however, and it involves OS X. Good as iPhoto is at manipulating pictures, its editing capabilities are rudimentary. It allows you to designate another program as the editor that will launch when you double-click a picture. But very little is available in the way of native OS X software. And while workhorse programs, such as Adobe's Photoshop 6.0 and Photoshop Elements, will run in OS X's "Classic" mode, their integration with iPhoto is terrible. Until more mainstream Mac programs come out in native OS X versions, the usability of the new operating system and of excellent tools like iPhoto will be limited.
PUBLISHED PRINTS. If your pictures don't need much editing, iPhoto has some very nice printing tricks. It can print pictures in several standard sizes -- though, except for a contact sheet, there's no provision for multiple images on a single page. It lets you send your pictures in electronically for printing by Kodak -- the sort of linked transaction that also brought Microsoft under heavy attack.
And it lets you assemble pictures into a book that will be commercially printed and bound, starting at $29.95 for 10 heavy, glossy pages. (A service called myPublisher (www.mypublisher.com) offers similar books at a similar price for Windows users.) IPhoto also lets you create a slide show or ready pictures for a Web page. But, oddly enough, there's no straightforward way to e-mail images.
All in all, iPhoto is an outstanding tool for organizing digital pictures that bolsters Apple CEO Steve Jobs's claim of the Mac as the hub of the digital home. It offers a combination of power and ease of use that competitors would do very well to study.
For another review of iPhoto, see BW Online's Byte of the Apple, 1/16/02, "The New iMac Makes Pictures Perfect." Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online