By Peter Burrows Over the years, secretive Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs has announced so many surprises during his keynote speeches at the semiannual Macworld confabs that it's a bit of a disappointment when he doesn't have some shocker. Yet, Jobs left everyone hungry for more after his talk at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference on June 28.
No eye-catching update of the long-in-the-tooth iMac was unveiled, as many analysts hoped. Heck, after hearing a smattering of Beatles songs come over the intercom before Jobs took the stage, this reporter would have bet a day's wages that Paul or Ringo would show up to announce a settlement of Apple's trademark lawsuit with the Fab Four's Apple Corps record label.
"RAISES THE BAR." That wasn't to be. But this year's gathering in San Francisco still had a couple of technical splashes that could prove to be substantive innovations over the long term. Apple's stunning 30-inch flat-panel monitor was certainly impressive (if pricey, at $3,200). The real news, however, involved Tiger, the next release of Apple's three-year-old Mac OS X operating system.
As always, Apple showed the world how to make computers more usable and appealing. Tiger "certainly raises the bar," says Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenbeg. "It will definitely put pressure on Microsoft (MSFT) to deliver something as functional and as visually appealing" when it releases its next version of Windows, dubbed Longhorn, in 2006 or 2007.
What's the big deal? Besides some under-the-hood improvements, including better graphics and video performance, Tiger has innovations that could change the way people interact with their computers. The most exciting is a new search capability, called Spotlight, for quickly finding and categorizing information on the hard drive.
FINDING YOUR INFO. Start typing the topic in the search field on the upper right hand of the screen, and an index of data sources appears -- from word-processing documents and e-mail to contact info, digital photos, and home movies. Using simple pull-down menus, it's easy to further sort the information -- say, by date created, or the time it was most recently viewed, or by author -- to find just what you were after.
That's because Spotlight searches not only through the files' content -- all instances of the word Ben Hur, for example -- but also through so-called metadata that describes those files (not just the name of a movie, say, but also the year of release and the cast members' names).
It could be a powerful way to cut through the familiar filing-cabinet metaphor used in traditional user-interface designs, says Jupiter's Gartenberg. "If you want to make a budget for an upcoming vacation, do you file it under 'budget' or 'vacation'? And either way, will you ever find it again?" he explains. Spotlight could sidestep such questions. "People don't care about filing their information," he says. "They care about finding their information."
Indeed, Tiger promises to let users create ever-changing "Smart Folders" or "Smart Groups" -- say, a list of contacts who'll have a birthday in the next seven days so you don't have to send yet another belated card.
TANTALIZING CAPABILITIES. In the future, Spotlight could be a major step toward the new Holy Grail in personal computing: universal search. Powerhouses including Microsoft, Yahoo! (YHOO), and Google are all talking about ways to let users search both inside their computer and on the Web -- with just one command.
Apple Executive Vice-President Phil Schiller denies that Apple is thinking in this direction. "Searching an operating system on your hard drive is an entirely different problem from searching the Net," he says. The trick for Google and its ilk, he notes, is how to scour billions of Web sites -- and to scrape them frequently so the searches are as up to date as possible. When people search their hard drive, however, they often expect it to include files they may have just stored seconds before -- as well as contextual information, such as when the files were created or last read.
Let's take Schiller at his word. But Spotlight has some tantalizing capabilities, and it's easy to imagine how they could be expanded for external searching. Apple already knows how to serve up songs and other content to millions of online users, and it has the brand name to go toe-to-toe with Yahoo or Google.
More likely, it could leave the Web-crawling to Google (which now is the default search engine on Apple's Safari Web browswer) and integrate it into Spotlight -- and perhaps gain a share of ad revenues. "I'm not sure that Apple is the one that will crack the riddle [of universal search]. But they have a good shot at it," says Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay.
NOT CHEESY. Tiger has other intriguing features as well. Rather than have to search for individual icons for frequently used "accessories" such as clocks, stock tickers, calculators, or the iTunes music library, users can call them up all at once with a single click -- and then make them all disappear with one more.
And Apple has vastly improved its iChat videoconferencing technology. For the first time, as many as four people can take part at once. But rather than simply show each participant in a tile, Apple took the time to create a sort of virtual conference-table feel in which attendees are oriented so it seems they're talking to each other. It may sound cheesy, but it's not.
Of course, Apple's marketing machine has a way of making every Mac operating-system release seem more earthshaking than it is, and this time is no exception. The truth is the outfit's real software breakthrough came in 2001, when it moved from its brittle old code base to OS X, which is based on the ultrareliable Unix operating system. That was a daunting transition for Apple -- and will undoubtedly be even tougher for Microsoft, which is struggling to deliver its oft-delayed next version of Windows.
"DRIVE THE COPYCATS CRAZY." Still, one can't blame Apple for having some fun at Microsoft's expense. Apple has only 1,000 or so engineers in its operating-system development team, far less than the legions at mighty Microsoft. Yet against all odds, Apple continues to keep the pressure on. "We think Tiger is going to catapult us even further ahead -- and drive the copycats crazy," Jobs said during his keynote. No Apple powwow would be complete without a few jabs at the Colossus of Redmond.
No matter how good it is, don't expect Tiger to boost the piddling 2% market share Apple has in operating systems. But ultimately, its innovations always seem to find their way into general usage. As the massive posters on the walls of the Moscone West conference center said, "Redmond: Start your photocopiers." Take that, Gates and Ballmer. Burrows, a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau, is filling in for Byte of the Apple columnist Alex Salkever