Little is known for sure what Steve Jobs will reveal to the throng of coders at Apple Computers Worldwide Developers Conference on Aug. 7.
However, its a good bet that the current more-general debate between Macs and Windows platforms—the longtime battleground for PC and Mac partisans—will quickly move to a specific fight between Mac OS X Leopard and Windows Vista. And that may, or may not, be a good turn for Apple.
So, what do we know of Apples plans?
For sure the company will provide developers with detailed information about the new features and foundations in Mac OS X 10.5, aka Leopard.
According to the conference schedule, Leopard Server will also be introduced, bringing a “giant step forward in capabilities and performance for deploying and managing Apples industrial-strength server operating system.”
On the Windows compatibility front, we know that Mac OS X Leopard will feature the release version of the Boot Camp Assistant that lets Intel-based Macs boot into Windows.
But this is really about everything that is known for a certainty. Of course, there are plenty of other theories to be found around the Web.
Rumor sites have spoken of Apple making some deal for the Parallels virtualization software, which was released in June.
However, VMware looks to announce its Mac version at WWDC (weve received launch party invitations already). Will either product make it onto the keynote stage for demonstration?
Some other likely candidates are Finder upgrades, the release of a new version of the iPod nano and movie rentals through the iTunes online store.
The Finder is due for help and Phill Ryus contest for fake Leopard screenshots drew a bunch of thoughtful and useful entries. Apple may pick up on some of the suggestions.
Others suggest that we will see a flatter, tabbed look to the Leopard interface, replacing the standard bubbly-blue popup control, for example.
Perhaps this grayer look and feel will make switchers from Windows XP feel more comfortable.
Whatever surfaces on Aug. 7, the selection process for Leopard features must have been tough for Apple. Which market segment should it target? Perhaps the current installed base of Mac OS X users? Or the growing group of “switchers,” who are defectors from Windows? Or the platforms strong group of professional content developers? Or perhaps target new audiences in small business and even the enterprise?
At the same time, Apple must be looking over its shoulder (or on the horizon) at Microsoft and the looming release of Windows Vista. Should Apple target Leopard outwards to address the feature set of Vista, or inwards, towards the requirements of Mac customers and its software developers?
Unhappily for executives in both Cupertino and Redmond, Microsoft has made Vista a moving target, pulling features here and there, and making significant changes in direction for some components touted a year ago. That must have made Apples choices more difficult.
Apple Cant Rely on
Certainly, Leopard cant match up with Vista in bulk—the sheer mass of change when compared with its predecessor. Vista is a huge change for Windows, on almost every level.
The comparable change for the Mac platform came with the arrival of Mac OS X 1.0 in 2001; everything since has been evolutionary.
This doesnt downplay the significance of the changes in the past string of cat-named upgrades. Mac OS X Tiger, v10.4, is much more refined and improved over the raw, initial release, but the change hasnt been a revamp of the core foundations and UI.
At the same time, Microsoft plans to bring a range of content creation applications into the base technology offered by Windows. This is similar to Apples current approach with its iLife applications.
Apple must wonder if the perspective of the “switcher” may change as Windows gains a new interface and more graphical power. Such a change wont happen this year and for this holiday buying season; but it could have an impact after Windows Vista is released and users see it in action.
Interestingly, now that the hardware for each OS is directly comparable, the discussion around the merits of each platform by partisans seems to boil down to a few talking points of interface—which OS does this or that task better or worse.
At this time, the OS X versus Vista interface dispute centers on graphical navigation as expressed in Expose and Flip 3D in OS X and Windows Vista respectively.
There are side arguments over the value of translucent windows, menus and other elements in an interface.
In Vistas Aero environment, users will have a number of ways to navigate to a particular document: moving the mouse over a Taskbar item will present a thumbnail view of the document, even presenting a moving image for a video; Windows Flip, the replaced Alt-Tab command, will present a parade of live thumbnails instead of the generic icon and name in Windows XP; and Windows Flip 3D, which will stack the open windows in the middle of the desktop and let users flip through them with the scroll-wheel.
This feature will only be available to users of the top Aero version of Vista.
By moving the cursor to a user-defined corner of the screen, Mac OS X users can invoke Expose, which presents all the open windows scattered around the screen or just the windows of a particular application.
Users can identify the window they are looking for or one associated with the application, which can then reveal the window with another cursor move.
After using both, I found Expose more practical and useful. It provides more targets for users to eyeball. But then again, Im very used to Expose.
With Flip3D, finding the right window is a gamble. The scroll-wheel may uncover the window sooner, or later. But users will still need to go through some amount of round robin.
Will this be the level of discussion when comparing the two operating systems? Maybe so. And maybe thats what its really all about—our day-in and day-out computing experience and personal feeling of productivity.
For some, better here and there in the interface will be enough to sway a Leopard purchase. Others may need a more compelling pitch, like better security or a continued push towards software, services and hardware integration, i.e. “solutions.”
Or maybe the cool cachet that Apple enjoys right now with the public will be enough. Perhaps we will hear some of that at WWDC.
David Morgenstern is Storage Center editor for eWeek.com and also has long experience with the Mac. He can be reached at email@example.com.