October 30, 2003

An early eval of Apple's Mac OS X 10.3

Author: Chris Gulker

Apple's BSD-based Mac OS X 10.3 Panther offers 64-bit processor support and new features wrapped in
the latest version of a GUI that has its roots in the NeXT desktop.
While Panther sets a new standard for ease of use and interface look and
feel, it still lacks features that Linux users have long enjoyed.

Panther, billed as "the evolution of the species" and built on the open
source Darwin
project's version of BSD 5, really is an
evolutionary step -- not a revolutionary new operating system.
Panther does offer admirable user-interface consistency and ease-of-use, but
its new Finder is bound to draw complaints from died-in-the-wool Mac users,
particularly the large base of users who still cling to Mac OS 9 "Classic."

*NIX users will find this one of the most polished GUIs ever
bolted onto a UNIX-like OS and probably won't have issues with the file
browser. Mac developers groaned audibly when Steve Jobs presented an OS X
Finder based on the NeXT columnar file browser at the ADC conference in 1998, and
Mac OS Classic users continue to resist it in favor of traditional Mac
windows, icons, and folders. In Panther, columnar view is the default
window behavior.

Apple has taken the sleek, brushed chrome interface featured on apps
like iTunes and Safari and applied it to the new version of Finder, the
always-on application that provides the Mac desktop and handles chores
like connecting to servers and other shared resources. Gone are many of
the shiny, translucent Aqua interface widgets
and light gray pin stripes that debuted barely three years ago.

Finder windows offer a new pane, called a Sidebar, that weds the
NeXT-like columnar file hierarchy view with a Windows XP-like list of storage
devices and common sub-directories in the user's home folder. Buttons
on the customizable window allow users to select iconic, list or column
views and turn the Sidebar on and off.

While this will be handy for people who are at home with hierarchical
file systems, it has potential to confuse others because it can mask
parts of the hierarchy, particularly when the list or icon views are
selected. At first glance, files appear to live at the top of whatever
directory is selected in the Sidebar -- intervening folders and subfolders
are not shown. Sidebar does not have an option for the tree view common
to Linux and Windows desktop windows.

ExposZ allows for one-click tiling of all open windows.

A new feature called ExposŽ allows
one-button (or one-click) tiling of all the open windows as thumbnails, and is
a very handy way to find a specific window on a crowded desktop with
many apps running.

Panther continues Apple's commitment to making it easy to use Macs in
heterogenous network environments. Mac OS X 10.3 offers easy one-click
access to network servers in the underlying BSD 5 subsystem. A
click-to-start list in the Systems Preferences Sharing panel turns on ASIP
(AppleShare over IP), SMB, Apache, FTP, and printer sharing via LPD/LPR and
CUPS. NFS, surprisingly can only be turned on using the command line or
a GUI config app like Marcel Bresink's NFS Manager.

Panther also discovers and connects to virtually any Windows or *NIX
server, although, in practice, the process didn't always work smoothly,
and occasionally not at all. Panther generated username/password errors
and refused to connect to a Red
Hat
Linux 9 box running NFS on a local subnet. For its part, the Red Hat
box could see the Mac in its UNIX network browser, but returned an
error when attempting to open a directory. For some reason, SuSE 8.2 worked fine, in both directions,
and the Mac happily connected via ASIP to the netatalk server on the RH 9 box.

Panther also features Rendezvous,
Apple's version of zeroconf, that
does a good job of discovering supported server and printer shares on the
subnet. Panther's new Finder doesn't cure one of my pet peeves:
Finder still stalls while network processes like trying to connect to
servers are in progress. The time-out seems to be shorter than it was in
Jaguar, and the dread spinning beach-ball appears more quickly to let
the user know the machine hasn't locked up.

And Panther does lock up. While I was investigating the screensavers, I
clicked on the .Mac option that
downloads and displays a high-key slide show of gleaming Apple products
using the features of Apple's Quartz graphics system. Not only did the
screensaver not load, but the GUI locked up completely. The mouse cursor would
move, but everything else, even the clock, froze.

A quick ssh from my Linux machine revealed that only the GUI had
frozen; BSD/Darwin was chugging along fine underneath Panther's hood, and I
was able to do a safe restart from the remote terminal. Lacking another
machine and a network, I would have had to do a hard reset on the Mac. For $129, you would hope to get a well-debugged product.

The Mac's distinguishing Finder app may not win many plaudits from longtime Mac users.

A feature I would love to see in Mac OS X is virtual desktops. My Red
Hat/Gnome machine has become a productivity workhorse because I can have
several projects -- with different apps, docs et al. -- open at the
same time and switch between them as needs dictate. I think nothing of
leaving apps and files open for days or even weeks on the Linux machine.

Panther's predecessor, Jaguar, was quite stable -- the Finder and apps
would sometimes blow up, but they normally exited gracefully. This is a
dot-zero rev of Mac OS 10.3, so we'll have to wait and see if Panther
really is "Solid as a Rock," as Apple advertising claims.

Panther comes with a ton of Apple "iApps" that handle everything from multimedia chat to photo collections to music downloads to movie making, and Panther integrates
them well into the operating system. For example, iPhoto slideshows are
listed and available from the screensaver tab of the System Prefs
control panel, and the Finder has an iChat menu that lists currently
available buddies and user status. Apple's Safari will play back streaming music
in iTunes, and QuickTime Player plays video in Finder and Safari browser
windows.

Apple's Mail
app has been revved to include better topic thread management, including
a nifty e-mail summary feature, but its bare bones look and feel have
evolved little. Mail's trainable Bayesian spam filters work quite well
with a bit of training, and Mail integrates nicely with the Apple Address Book,
which now supports syncing with Exchange servers as well as LDAP.

Mail integrates only minimally with iCal, Apple's calendar app, though it (or any mail program) is
available from other apps to handle chores like emailing photos. Apple's
integration is nice, but Ximian's Evolution is a
better email/calendar/contact bundle, in my humble opinion, especially
when teamed with SpamAssassin.

Notable additions to Panther include Font Book, a new
font management app, integrated fax
sending and receiving (long a Mac OS X weak spot), FileVault, which
offers 128-bit AES home-directory encryption/decryption on the fly, a
personal firewall and a XFree86 4.3-based X window
system
as an option of the installer package. There's also fast user
switching
, built-in 802.11 and Bluetooth support and revved versions of
the DVD player, iSync and more.

Indeed, Panther comes with so much software it's hard to believe there
will be much incentive for commercial developers to embrace the
platform. Long-time Apple partner Adobe
Systems
recently dropped the Mac version of its Premiere movie-editing
package and has chosen not to develop Photoshop Album and other new
applications for the Mac.

Open source developers, on the other hand, will be interested in the
tighter integration of X11 with Aqua. Many X11-based apps will just
compile and run on Mac OS X, and features such as cut-and-paste between Aqua
and X apps are supported. Apple apparently believes that open source,
rather than commercial development, represents the future of Mac software.

Performance on my 2000-vintage 500 MHz G4 Power Mac was acceptable, if
not snappy. I should note that the upgrade install took more than two
hours; my last Red Hat install took 30 minutes. Performance on a
single-processor PowerMac G5 was another experience entirely; even 32-bit apps
displayed performance I can only describe as immediate -- owing, no doubt,
to the G5 board's massive bandwidth and CPU power.

Will Panther tempt Linux users? Sure! But I don't think there will be
widespread defections, given the price points of the Apple hardware
required to run it. A bigger question for Apple will be whether its own
faithful, the millions of users still on Mac OS 9, will find Panther
compelling enough to make the jump to the future of Mac OS.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based freelance technology
writer, has authored more than 130 articles and columns since 1998. He
shares an office with 7 computers that mostly work, an Australian Shepherd, and a small gray
cat
with an attitude.

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