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Panther and G5: The Future is Almost Now

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 7
Column Tag: Programming

Panther and G5: The Future is Almost Now

by Scott Knaster

This month we take a detour from our usual dusty dirt road to examine, MacTech-style, Steve Jobs' keynote speech at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference 2003 in San Francisco.

A Sunny Day Around The Bay

This past spring, Apple announced that it had moved WWDC in time and space, relocating from its traditional May dates in San Jose to June in San Francisco. But the biggest change was the buzz that WWDC had stepped up in rank and was now to host an Apple product announcement of the highest order.

The conference was held at the wet-paint-new Moscone West venue. You can tell how modern this place is when you visit the bathrooms: there are motion-sensitive automatic paper towel dispensers. When I saw these, I wondered if I was witnessing one of Apple's big technological announcements of the day. But I wasn't - Apple hasn't gotten itself into sinktop computing just yet.

As with any Steve Jobs keynote, there was electricity in the air and the lines for the keynote hall formed early. Just before the scheduled 10:00 AM start, the doors opened and the attendees surged in. Apple's crowd-control folks were heard to ask people not to run. Everyone found a seat.

Anticipation

As we waited for the show to begin, everygeek took out a PowerBook or iBook and began idly scanning the Internet. It soon became apparent that AirPort access wasn't working very well. So enterprising attendees starting setting up computer-to-computer networks and using the names of the networks themselves as a form of communication. Some of the first few networks to appear were named "airport not working again", "I love steve jobs", "I'm running a 970 pbook", and the clever and enticing "Steve Jobs' computer". By using the names of networks to converse, Mac developers in the crowd fulfilled the old saying that "Eventually, every application expands until it is able to send e-mail."

By using MacStumbler, an open source utility for sniffing out wireless networks, I was able to take a snapshot of this playful networking (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. With Internet access failing, clever geeks at the WWDC keynote expressed themselves via the names of private networks they created.

Steve strode out without introduction (everybody knew who he was anyway) and commenced his presentation with a review of what's happened recently and how things are going. He announced impressive numbers for AirPort Extreme ("1000% sure" that 802.11g is the successor to 802.11b), Apple retail stores (58 stores opened in 25 months so far, with cool new giant stores that look like enormous iPod boxes coming to Chicago, San Francisco, and Tokyo), and iPod (1 million shipped and 5 million songs purchased at the iTunes Music Store). He announced that Safari 1.0 was now available, along with a framework that lets you build a browser core into your own apps with incredible ease.

Of course, nobody was there to hear that stuff: they wanted to find out what was new. Steve kicked off that portion of the speech by talking about what was going on with OS X. Again with the impressive numbers: 7 million active users, 6000 native applications, more than 300,000 active developers, and 100 major new features in Panther, a.k.a. Mac OS X 10.3, the new version of OS X that everybody came to see. Steve then launched into an extensive demo of some ("we don't have time to show them all") of the new Panther goodies.

The most visible new Panther features are in the Finder. Haters of brushed metal will have issues with the Panther Finder, although loyal Mac OS 9 folks will find a few old favorites restored. The mantra for the Finder's new features is "user-centric, not computer-centric". To that end, Apple has added a customizable column of common icons at the left side of Finder windows, including your disks, home folder, and others (see Figure 2). This feature is sufficiently raw enough that Apple's department of cool marketing names had not yet taken a firm hold of it: Jobs referred to it as "the left column", although Apple's web site refers to it as the Places sidebar. It gives the Finder a look that's reminiscent of iTunes and the other iApps, which is no doubt intentional.


Figure 2. The new Finder includes a column of icons at the left.

Speaking of iTunes, another cool new Finder trick is interactively winnowing a list of files, iTunes-style. The search box in the upper-right corner of Finder windows lets you quickly narrow the list of files you're looking at. This handy feature also shows up in the file browser for Xcode, Apple's nifty new developer environment.

The new Action button in the toolbar shows that Apple understands the power of contextual menus and the problems of discoverability. Clicking this button brings up a list of actions that varies depending on the selected object, and you can get the very same list by control-clicking (or right-clicking, because "some people have two-button mice", as Steve acknowledged) on the object.

Panther includes new and improved Open and Save panels. The Places sidebar appears here too, which gives you easy access to your disks, including network volumes. You can look at your files in a list view or column view. See Figure 3 to take a look at the new Save panel. Another much-requested feature from OS 9, file and folder labels, is back in Panther.


Figure 3. Panther Save panel

One of the coolest bits of iCandy introduced by Apple is a new feature called Expose. Hmm, Expose, Rendezvous...those French guys at Apple are infiltrating the department of cool marketing names! Expose is a solution to the problem of finding the window you want amongst all the windows on the screen. Expose zooms all your windows down to miniature size and arranges them on the screen so you can see and pick the one you want. Because it's from Apple, Expose works with flair, smoothly animating all the window-moving business using Quartz Extreme. See Figure 4 for an idea of how this looks, but you'll have to actually watch it in action to get the full thrilling effect.


Figure 4. Expose shows all your windows at once, in miniature.

After showing off the Finder, Jobs introduced iChat AV, a new version of the instant message program, now featuring voice and video chatting, or as Jobs called it, "videoconferencing for the rest of us". To show off iChat AV, Steve video-chatted with a friend in Paris and even took a call from Apple board member and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. When told he was the second person ever to appear in a live iChat AV chat, Gore looked disappointed and said "Being first is difficult". Apple also shipped a camera, called iSight, to use with the new software.

The new Font Book feature adds lots of power to font management in Panther. You can search for fonts by family and typeface, group font effects, and customize the set of fonts you can see in an application (see Figure 5).


Figure 5. Font Book lets you see and manage fonts in Panther.

Here are some of the other new features in Panther that Apple has talked about so far:

A new version of Preview that's much faster than the one in Jaguar. Jobs demonstrated very fast scrolling through an enormous PDF doc: the PDF spec itself. Self-reference: whoa! This new version also performs searches much faster than before.

Every print panel now has a Fax button built in. That's very cool, although probably less so to companies who make fax software for OS X.

There's a new edition of Mail that's faster (of course!), lets you drag and drop addresses around when addressing a message, handles threads, and uses Safari's rendering engine to display HTML.

Fast User Switching, which according to Steve is "the only feature we've copied from Windows", lets you quickly change users without having to log out or even quit apps. For the piece de resistance (I'm trying out this French stuff too), Fast User Switching employs a supercool graphic trick, borrowed from Keynote: the old-to-new user transition appears as faces on a rotating cube.

iDisk now lets you work on a local copy of files, then automatically syncs them back to your iDisk. This is especially handy if you work on iDisk files from more than one Mac, as your latest changes will always be available.

New security features include FileVault, which automatically puts 128-bit encryption on files in your home directory, and Secure Empty Trash, which writes random data where your files used to be when you empty the trash.

One of the few downers during Steve's speech came when he said that Panther would be available "before the end of the year", which sounds later than many folks had been guessing. However, Apple shipped a developer preview release at WWDC, which should be available to Select and Premier members of the Apple Developer Connection.

News You Can Really Use

After finishing the OS X Panther stuff, Steve introduced Xcode, Apple's new development environment. Xcode is the successor to Project Builder, and it's made for speed and productivity. Xcode includes a new gcc 3.3 compiler that closes much of the speed gap it used to suffer from when compared to CodeWarrior: now, instead of being 10 times slower when compiling the Finder, it's less than twice as slow, which definitely counts as progress.

Jobs described Xcode's distributed builds feature, which uses Rendezvous to find idle computing resources on the local net and puts them to work building big projects in order to speed up project turnaround time. That's pretty cool.

Next, Steve talked about how Xcode removes the linking phase for debug builds, improving turnaround time while you're in the code-build-crash-debug cycle of development. At this point, one clever nerd shouted out "now take out debugging!". Now what fun would that be? In another attempt to speed up your life, Xcode precompiles your headers while you're still typing in the rest of your code, which can save lots of compile time.

After announcing Xcode, Steve called up Chris Espinosa, who has worked at Apple for more than half his life (though not just on this project) to show how it works. Chris demonstrated an Xcode feature called Fix & Continue that lets you change an application while it's running, then see the change in the running app. While not quite fully interactive, Fix & Continue is handy for making various edits and changes and then viewing the results immediately. Chris showed a flower-drawing app that was only displaying one petal per flower, which is hardly pretty enough for an Apple demo. Using Fix & Continue, he changed the number of petals per flower (a constant) and we could see the result almost instantly, without having to stop and explicitly rebuild the app. Chris then upped the ante by changing the constant to a function call, and Fix & Continue worked just as well.

Finally, Chris showed the now-familiar search box (just like the ones in iTunes and the Panther Finder) as a way to instantly search for files in your Xcode project. Many long-time Mac developers have never been able to warm to Project Builder, due to a number of issues that include poor performance, tricky user interface, and inertia. Xcode is clearly designed to make those developers think again about switching to Apple's tools.

Watch for much more detail about Xcode in Dave Mark's column next issue.

As Always, One More Thing

With the Panther and Xcode announcements successfully out of the way, Jobs turned to his trademark "One more thing..." schtick to issue the day's biggest news: the PowerMac G5, which Apple calls "the world fastest personal computer". Jobs acknowledged that G5 specs had been mistakenly leaked onto Apple's own web site days earlier, then nicely spun the leak by pointing out that although some thought the specs were too good to be true, they really were accurate after all.

Jobs described the partnership with IBM that led up to the creation of the 64-bit G5 chip, which IBM calls PowerPC 970. The raw specs are pretty cool: up to 2 GHz clock speed, with 3 GHz promised within a year; 1 GHz front-side bus; massively parallel architecture that can have an incredible 215 instructions in flight at once; dual floating point units; and a super-duper dual pipeline Velocity Engine. Jobs brought out IBM Vice President John Kelly, who looked only slightly out of place at an Apple shindig (jacket, no tie) and talked about the $3 billion factory that IBM uses to make these puppies.

After announcing the G5 chip itself, Steve described the system Apple built to go around it. This includes a clever system controller that speeds things up in a number of ways, including dedicated bandwidth for main memory, fast PCI and PCI-X slots, and huge expansion, including up to 8 Gb RAM.

With the chip and geeky system details described, the new Power Mac G5 arose like a golden calf from a previously hidden pedestal on the stage. The aluminum design is boxier than previous Power Macs, and features lots of little holes to help ventilate those heat-producing G5s (see Figure 6). In fact, the G5 has nine fans for cooling, an announcement that brought a groan from the audience that has suffered with "wind-tunnel" G4s. Steve explained that the fan armada is controlled by software, not just dumb sensors, which will actually lead to quieter computers, but many in the crowd seemed to be skeptical and adopted a wait-and-see (or, more accurately, wait-and-hear) attitude.


Figure 6. Power Mac G5. This is the front, which includes several ports for easy access.

The coolest parts of Steve's G5 demo were the "bake-offs" and charts that compared its speed to various Pentium and Zeon configurations. This time, the claims included a new wrinkle: an independent testing house that verified Apples "fastest personal computer" boast. Those claims were much debated following the keynote: one key question was whether the tests used the best C compiler for the Intel machines. But nit-picking aside, it's clear that for the first time in a long while, the PowerMac G5 finally restores Apple to a competitive position in raw system speed.

Steve is Really Just Like Us

After the keynote, I returned to the high tech bathroom facilities. As I was drying my hands at the sink, who should bound into view but the man himself, Steve Jobs. I said hi, he said hi, and I walked out of the bathroom as he stood at the sink. As I walked out, I heard the whirr of the automatic paper towel dispenser, followed by the sound of Steve chuckling in amusement. So here's the early rumor: look for Apple to ship automated paper towel dispensing hardware in every PowerMac G6.


Scott Knaster has been writing about Macs for as long as there have been Macs. Scott's books How To Write Macintosh Software and Macintosh Programming Secrets were required reading for Mac programmers for more than a decade. Scott wrote developer books for General Magic and worked on Mac software for Microsoft. Scott's books have been translated into Japanese and Pascal. Scott has every issue of Mad magazine, which explains a lot.

 
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