By Stephen H. Wildstrom Apple Computer (AAPL) CEO Steven P. Jobs is not known for modesty, so few people will be surprised to hear him calling the latest version of the Mac OS X operating system the "biggest leap forward" since the Mac arrived two decades ago. Actually, the new version, called Tiger, is an incremental improvement, but it does make a very good piece of software even better.
The most notable feature of Tiger ($129, or $199 for a "family pack" for up to five computers) is a built-in search tool called Spotlight, that finds information tucked away in the thousands of files that reside on your hard drive. In one sense this application lets Macs catch up with the Windows world, where the past several months have seen an explosion of good, and mostly free, add-on search tools that make up for the lack of built-in capability. But Spotlight has the considerable advantage of being integrated into the operating system, making it always instantly available.
A DASHBOARD OF WIDGETS. Spotlight is as fast as my Windows favorite, X1, by X1 Technologies, available free from Yahoo! (YHOO) -- with results appearing in a window as you type in a search term. Results are listed by the type of file in which they were found, such as documents, mail messages, or music. Spotlight can't search all types of mail, however -- it works only with OS X's built-in Mail program.
An appealing feature of Spotlight is the ability to set up Smart Folders. These are permanent lists of search results that are automatically updated as files or messages are added or deleted. Some Windows programs offer similar features, but the integration in Tiger makes them much handier.
The dashboard in Tiger is a collection of little applications -- Apple calls them widgets -- that can be available on your desktop at any time. The initial set included in the operating system isn't particularly fascinating. Some, such as a clock and a calculator, duplicate items that have been available on desktops for years. Those that utilize a full-time Internet connection, including a weather report and a stock ticker, are more interesting but still not terribly new.
UNDER-THE-HOOD IMPROVEMENTS. Yet Dashboard has great growth potential because Apple based it on a collection of standard Web tools, which makes it simple for programmers to create their own widgets. These can become powerful when combined with the growing use of Web services. For example, a programmer could customize widgets that provide desktop notification whenever there's news regarding a company of interest, or a big change in its stock price, or even publication of a book about it. Done well, widgets could tame the flood of real-time data that threatens to overwhelm us.
A third new component, Automator, gives nonprogrammers the ability to create a script that will perform a sequence of actions with a single click. For example, just by selecting steps from a list, you can create a script that will check for new messages, then search to see if any have arrived from a specific sender. I doubt that most users will get around to trying Automator, but if you have repetitive tasks, it can make life easier. Tiger also includes a lot of under-the-hood improvements, including better Windows compatibility, which will be welcome in environments that mix Macs and Windows PCs.
If you aren't already contemplating switching to a Mac, Tiger's new features won't give you a compelling reason to do so. But they certainly add to what was already a strong argument, based on both ease of use and freedom from viruses and spyware (at least for now). So I'll repeat my earlier advice: Anyone who isn't dependent on Windows-only programs should consider a Mac.
Microsoft (MSFT) is promising fast, integrated search and Dashboard-like widgets in the next version of Windows. But that upgrade is more than a year away, and we have no idea how good those features will be or even if they will materialize. For now, Tiger bolsters OS X's edge as the best personal-computer operating system around. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org