Who knows what features lurk in the heart of Leopard?
When Steve Jobs gave a preview of Leopard during the WWDC 2006 keynote this past August, he started by offering the following caveat.
Let me start off with some of the stuff that we can’t show you. There’s some top secret features to Leopard that we’re going to keep a little close to the vest and not going to show you today. I just want you to know they’re there. We don’t want our friends to start their photocopiers any sooner than they have to. So we’re going to keep a few things a little secret.
Immediately after the WWDC 2006 keynote, I was tempted to post my thoughts on this “top secret” business. Instead, I decided to let things stew for a while. I figured something might leak, and I looked forward to reading everyone else’s guesses about what Apple’s got up its sleeve.
Well, it’s been three months and not much has changed. Apple has revealed a few more tidbits about Leopard’s underlying technologies, but nothing that an ADC Select or Premiere member wouldn’t already know—nothing “top secret,” in other words. With MacWorld San Francisco fast approaching, I figured I’d better write something before it’s too late to speculate.
Let’s start with the Steve Jobs quote above. The gist is that Apple is keeping some things secret because it doesn’t want Microsoft to start copying them immediately. Before even considering what these features might be, let’s back up a bit. Should we even take Jobs’s statement at face value? Here are a few other possible explanations.
Apple hadn’t yet decided on the final feature list for Leopard. The demonstration only included the features that were already locked in.
The top secret features were not yet complete or stable enough to demonstrate.
Apple felt the need to respond to Vista, but hadn’t yet decided what that will response would be. The top secret features were vaporware, an attempt to “keep the PR fires hot,” as a friend of mine put it.
There’s little sense in trying to argue for one case or the other with so little information. I just want to start off with the idea that we don’t really know anything more than what Jobs wants us to know. Apple’s public statements are not always perfectly in sync with its internal machinations, after all. It’s wise to stay skeptical.
Anyway, to further the discussion, let’s start with the premise that Steve Jobs was being straight with us. That leads to the next question. What kinds of features would Apple be worried about Microsoft copying? What features could be copied such that a few extra months of secrecy would be a significant portion of the total development time Microsoft would require to duplicate them?
It seems to me that any significant technological feature would take Microsoft a very long time to copy if it started work as a reaction to a WWDC 2006 announcement. Historically, Apple has given Microsoft plenty of lead time on most of its major technologies. For example, the Quartz graphics layer was demonstrated at MacWorld San Francisco in January 2000. It’s taken Microsoft seven years to catch up. Had Apple sat on Quartz for a few more months, it would not have have made much of a dent in that gap.
So, what can be copied quickly? What could Apple legitimately fear might be stolen from them in a timely manner? User interface elements come to mind. Something like the Dock or Exposé could be copied very quickly by Microsoft using Vista’s graphics foundation. Of course, both of those are old features that have probably already influenced Microsoft as much as they’re ever going to. A more relevant example might be some sort of iTV integration feature in Leopard that Microsoft could quickly add to Windows Media Center Edition. My point is that interface features of a similar scope are very easy to copy, provided the underlying technology already exists.
By far, the most popular theory about Apple’s top secret features is that Leopard will include an all-new look and feel. Even before WWDC, this expectation existed. John Gruber predicted “the most significant UI overhaul since 10.0.”
I’m not saying it’s going to be a complete visual re-imaging like the transition from Mac OS 9 to 10.0, but in terms of the incremental refinements to Aqua that we’ve seen with each new revision to Mac OS X, I think 10.5 will be the most dramatic. It’s time to zig now that Microsoft is zagging with Vista. They’re going to try to make Vista look as out-of-fashion and goofy and childish as possible.
As Gruber also points out, this prediction definitely fits with the observed trend of Apple’s software moving towards a more “professional”-looking interface in the past few years. Given the embarrassing degree to which Microsoft has found itself aping some aspects of the Aqua look and feel, it would indeed be a perfect time for Apple to “zig,” as Gruber puts it.
As much as I hope this prediction is true, I find it hard to believe that Apple is legitimately afraid that Microsoft will quickly copy their alleged all-new Leopard interface. Recall that the Aqua look and feel was revealed at the same time as the underlying Quartz technology, in January 2000. And again, it’s taken Microsoft seven years to release an interface significantly “inspired by” Aqua.
Furthermore, unlike individual UI element that can be whipped up in a few months, overhauling the look and feel of an entire OS is a huge amount of work. It’s laborious, time-consuming, and the QA is murder. It also affects every single developer, which means that the entire software community has to shoulder the QA burden as well. Microsoft has already gone through that once with the Aero appearance developed for Vista. Doing it again is pretty unthinkable until the next major revision of Windows.
But maybe Apple feels differently. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Apple really is afraid of revealing its new look too early. So let’s run with that. Is there any actual evidence that Leopard will include a new look and feel?
So far, every publicly released screenshot has shown the same old Mac OS X UI. Sure, some applications have gone from brushed metal to the newer "unified" look, but these are all existing players in the UI game. Even if brushed metal is permanently phased out, as seems almost certain, that’s still hardly an “all-new” look and feel.
Everything at WWDC beyond the keynote is covered under an NDA, but it stands to reason that something as dramatic as a complete interface overhaul would have leaked by now. Instead, pictures like this have leaked, demonstrating Leopard’s resolution independence features—still buggy, obviously. This feature is not new, but the high-resolution artwork revealed in that screenshot is. It’s still not a new look, however. It’s just a more detailed incarnation of the existing look.
Still…there is definitely something fishy about that screenshot. Look at how poorly those “stoplight” window widgets are integrated into the window background, for example. Does that match the high-quality that you’ve come to expect from in the Mac OS X UI? To me, that screenshot absolutely screams “temp artwork.” It looks like a bunch of filler images quickly whipped up to give developers something to test with.
But then, maybe my sincere hope for an all-new look in Leopard is clouding my judgement. What does everyone else think? Could the high-resolution portions of that screenshot possibly be final art? Is it just the obvious layout bugs and the remaining bits of low-res art that’s distracting me, making me think even the high-res widgets are not up to snuff? Please add your thoughts to the comments.
To sum up, I still don’t entirely discount the possibility that the rationale offered for the top secret features is bogus. Given the level of secrecy at Apple, it’s not hard for Jobs to play us. We really have no idea what’s going on in Cupertino boardrooms.
If the fear of copying is legitimate, then it’s hard to know what to expect. Trying to guess what Apple is afraid of is much harder than trying to determine what Microsoft could actually copy in a reasonable timeframe.
And let’s be realistic. Microsoft hasn’t even been able to get all of its own new features and technologies into Vista. What are the chances that it could turn on a dime and copy something—anything—announced in August of 2006 and then fold it into Windows Vista in time for a Q1 2007 launch? Slim to none, I’d say. I doubt there’s even much that could be copied in time for the first major Vista service pack, given the backlog of Microsoft’s own technologies also vying for release.
Top secret? Well, it’s mysterious, that’s for sure. Here’s hoping all will be revealed in January.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.