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The 10 Geekiest Leopard Features I Will Probably Love

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This is already horribly old news, and by old I mean several days ago since that’s about as fast as it takes technology news to grow old, but Apple is releasing Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” at the end of this month. Apple is calling this release a “major upgrade,” and indeed Apple has rarely made its users wait so long between operating system releases as they have done between Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4) and Leopard. So, I’m already excited.

But then today I was glossing over Apple’s featured features list and I got even more excited. There are the usual, largely meaningless, fluff updates that are nice for Joe Schmo or his mother, but that power users simply don’t care about, like the new iChat support for animated buddy icons, but the list is also chock-full of really cool, really useful features.

What’s interesting is that a good deal of these features aren’t really new features at all. For instance, if you knew how to manipulate the NetInfo database on your Mac, you could already share any folder via Apple’s “Personal File Sharing” feature. (Here’s a Mac OS X Hints hint explaining how to do it.) In Leopard, however, Apple claims that this functionality is now integrated straight into a folder’s Get Info… window. If it works as smoothly as Apple claims, this is finally going to bring Mac OS X (client) into decent competition with Windows XP Professional in terms of GUI-level power-user features.

However, while all of these features are really cool, here’s a list of the ten geekiest features I will probably absolutely love, for one reason or another.

  • Ruby on Rails, out of the boxThe hot thing in web development right now is Ruby on Rails. Macs have already been the best personal desktop and web development platform because they have built-in support for the Apache web server and a host of other features, but now they will come with a ready-to-roll installation of Ruby on Rails, sporting Mongrel and (better yet) Capistrano! Specifically with the addition of Capistrano, which is terribly undersold as simply a Ruby on Rails deployment platform, these UNIX-y “toolbox” items are bound to make Macs that much more useful right out of the box.
  • Safari’s full history search — As their recent public partnerships with Google have shown, Apple is very clearly invested in search technologies. Spotlight gets a huge number of improvements in Leopard, but none which I think are going to be more useful to more people than this one: spotlight searches on the full text of each web page in your visited history list. That’s just awesome. Also awesome: using spotlight as a calculator and as a dictionary, which also shows just how Google-like Apple is trying to be. (Google also lets you ask it arithmetic questions and a dictionary.)
  • Wikipedia articles in Dictionary.app — I love Wikipedia because it’s one of the fastest ways to get (relatively) reliable information quickly. Now that Dictionary.app has built-in integration with Wikipedia, imagine the possibilities for getting that knowledge instant-gratification craving fixed. Apple has not yet announced this capability, but I can easily envision a scenario where all Cocoa text fields are instantly “wikified” (with text that matches Wikipedia articles highlighted) much in the same way that current Cocoa text fields allow you to right-click on a misspelled word and have it corrected by Dictionary.app.
  • Application-based firewall — In classic Apple fashion, functionality that was previously available via third-party additions is now available from Apple itself. In this case, I have to wonder how well Apple’s updates to its firewall will obviate the need for Little Snitch, which is basically an application-based firewall, too, and a good one at that.
  • Built-in guest log-in account — If you’re as paranoid about security as I am, you’ve already created a special, limited-access user on your system (called Guest or Visitor or whatever) and whenever friends are over, you tell them to use that account instead of your own. Now in Leopard, Apple has gone through the trouble of setting this up for us already. A small change that is going to have a big impact.
  • Scriptable System Preferences & applications — With AppleScript, you can automate the things your computer does with scripts, as long as those things are “scriptable.” In previous versions of Mac OS X, huge gaping holes of what things shipped by Apple were scriptable existed, causing me (personally) some really annoying headaches. AppleScript GUI scripting helped me get around many of those roadblocks, but now it seems Apple is finally filling in some of the most notorious gaps in this functionality with scriptable System Preferences. Yay!
  • Automator workflow variables — Automator brings the power of AppleScript I just mentioned to more people with a completely graphic programming environment. There is no need to open up a text document and write AppleScript code because Automator lets you create a script (called a Workflow in Automator jargon) using your mouse by dragging and dropping actions into the order you want them to be performed. It’s very slick, but until now it’s been very limited. With Leopard, Apple is beefing up Automator so that it includes things like variables, basic programmatic capability that was sorely lacking before. (Also majorly cool: a command-line utility to access Automator!)
  • Finder.app’s path bar — Every serious Mac user knows that the Finder needs a lot of help. Now, it’s getting some. Something the Windows Explorer has had forever (as had every desktop environment for Linux, of course) is a visual cue to show you where in your filesystem tree a given folder is located when you are viewing said folder. Now the Finder gains this capability (though Apple’s description implies that it’s going to be off by default) with what Apple is calling a “Path Bar”. Finally!
  • Cocoa and scripting bridges — Even though no one really seems to know about it, it has long been possible for languages other than AppleScript to do things like send Apple Events to Mac OS X applications. Specifically, Ruby and JavaScript, two of the most well-known web development languages in existence, can already do this with a single ScriptingAddition (OSAX). But now Apple is making this functionality a central feature and fully extending it to their Objective-C (and Cocoa) language and applications such as Xcode and Interface Builder. This means people like me will have a shallower learning curve before we’re able to create full-fledged, native Mac OS X applications. Now that’s exciting!
  • Xcode 3 refactoring — This is something you kind of have to see to believe. I got the opportunity to see it demoed at Apple’s Leopard Tech Talks last year and I was really excited by it. With the new Xcode, Apple’s development IDE, you can do away with find-and-replace searches for things like renaming functions because Xcode understands what parts of your code are what structures and, when you tell it to “change the function named myFunction to myNewFunction,” it’ll only find-and-replace function names instead of every instance of the string “myFunction.” That’s pretty big, and if it were available for more languages, it’s almost enough to make me ditch vim.

So there you have it. Ten features you might not have already known about that are some of the most promising features I can see in Leopard. And I didn’t even get into Wide-Area Bonjour, which could make services like DynDNS or No-IP a thing of the past (and which I still want to learn more about), or the new Terminal application (finally with tabs!), or even the multiple user certificates for S/MIME encrypted email.

Note: One of the least known security features available on Mac OS X is also possibly one of the best, and the simplest. Evidently, all Intel-based Macs are shipped with the XD (aka. NX, aka. DEP) bit turned on—and thankfully there doesn’t seem to be any way for users to turn it off. However, this isn’t a silver bullet and if you want to learn why you should check out this excellent Anandtech article: A Bit About the NX Bit.

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