Leopard has pounced

Well, we’ve just survived another OS X migration and it’s time to take stock.

As a developer, I’m kind of committed to having all my programs work flawlessly on the latest operating system on the release day, so I have had quite a bit of preparation to do ahead of the launch.

My first impressions of OS X 10.5 go back to not long after the keynote speech where Steve Jobs presented it. System migrations are usually accompanied by a deep developer sigh (at least outside of Steve’s reality distortion field). This is not because it’s not great news, but because it means a lot of extra work just to stay where you are.

My main development machine is a Mac Pro and of course there’s no way that I want to install an early beta build of an entire operating system on it before it’s pretty much production ready. In any event, it’s safer to do a clean install on a fresh partition every time a beta comes out; which for most developers means installing it on a secondary machine.

In my case that’s my severely underused MacBook Pro that has hardly left my office since I got it. I have to say that the new Leopard look didn’t really impress me much the first time I saw it. It still doesn’t really, I’m afraid.

The challenge for a developer is to make his/her programs look good on the new version and I’m not really sure how to achieve that yet. A Better Finder Rename 8, due out in beta form 2008Q1 (that means March) will probably sport a few look & feel changes to fit in better with the “unified look”, but will it actually look better? or just more somber?

I was never a great fan of the brushed metal look, so seeing it essentially everywhere now doesn’t really improve things much. The new folder icons are of course unreservedly awful. The dock I frankly don’t care about much. I’ve got it hidden by default, and I’m the world’s only A Better Finder Launcher user, so never actually see the thing.

The translucent menu bar is also not a problem as long as you find a mostly black background picture. I use the picture of earth from space that has a completely black background and on my trusty 30″ cinema display that means that the entire menu bar looks the same “somber gray” as the unified look windows. It’s a shame that the rounded corners have gone, but what the hell..

The aesthetic choices that have been made for Leopard are not easily comprehended by mere mortals. Yes, I think it’s a step backwards in terms of looks. Surely a space theme appeals mostly to little boys watching Galactica (I watched the episode where number 3 sees the face of the missing 5 cylons last night) and not to most professionals and (Trekkers excepted) women. What a curious choice..

The new “capsule” buttons on the Mail app also surely must be a bad joke. After two years of people ridiculing the capsule buttons, they’ve simply gone and have made them even worse (quick, tell me which buttons are disabled!). Hhmm..

In terms of actual interaction, however, most of these changes are actually for the better. It is far easier to see which window is active. The keyboard navigation works much better (of course that was the only area where Windows 95 was still better than OS X), and the unified look is, well, more unified.

A disturbing feature of the new Finder is that it looks so much like iTunes that you catch yourself confusing both. “Unified” can also mean “indistinct”.

In terms of performance there isn’t much to report, except that the entire system seems to be more responsive. Tiger had a tendency (especially on Intel machines?) to become fairly unresponsive if it did any kind of disk heavy processing (such as crunching a couple of million rows of database records) or if you dared to mount a network drive. It’s too early to be definite about this, but the problem seems to have magically vanished.

The biggest feature of Leopard is of course the “Time Machine”. It’s terribly gimmicky and I haven’t been able to test it much so far, but it has huge potential.

Backups are a chore. They are expensive (you need a huge external disk, two if you want an off-site backup) and time-consuming (you need to schedule time for the backups). Finally, when you need to go back to an older version, you usually find that something has gone tragically wrong. So on the whole they can be useless and a chore.

My backup strategy so far consisted in two 1TB IOmega UltraMax external Firewire drives and “Retrospect Express”. Incremental backup of my entire user folder at 1AM each morning. Duplication of iTunes and Aperture libraries once a week. The second drive is stored permanently off-site. Every now and then I duplicate the on-site drive completely onto the off-site drive, which for obvious reasons takes “a long time”.

Today, the third 1TB IOmega drive has arrived and I’m about to do the first “proper” Time Machine backup: the entire drive for a full system restore.

The largely unanswered question is “is it good enough to do real backups with?” or is it just a gimmick? I have $300 bet with IOmega that it’s the first rather than the second..

Backup is a huge issue for somebody who makes their entire living off the content of a single hard disk.. but it’s not as easy as all that. There’s disaster recovery (you don’t want to have to re-install everything in the event of hard disk crash), but there’s also “data loss” (you don’t want to lose any crucial files) and finally “archiving” (the stuff that you don’t have any real need for anymore, but that might come in handy one day, say your 1998 tax returns). Related to that is the question of “version control” for things such as websites and source code (“this unique combination of 75,000 files represents version 7.9.5 of A Better Finder Rename).

Unfortunately all this stuff is getting so big that there’s no longer any time and money efficient way of doing it. Archiving your 90GB SVN repository onto DVD would take 25 DVDs and probably over a day of copying.. I had a quick look at backup tapes but those are now more expensive than hard disks. IOMega’s REV system would fit the bill, but at $1 a gigabyte and $399 for the actual cartridge drive, it’s hardly a cheap solution either. Add to that the fact that IOmega quietly drop their old storage formats (Zip, Jazz) every few years and there’s simply no acceptable solution out there.

Now (hint) if you guys at IOmega want to get in touch and send me a REV system for review, I would only be too happy to review it for you ๐Ÿ™‚

My compromise is to put an archive section on my main hard drive for now.. do I still need to put everything in my SVN version control repository? I guess so since Time Machine does not support snapshots (yet?).

This leaves getting used to the new applications that come with Leopard. Mail app is quite a bit faster than it was and it now deals gracefully with large mail boxes (I’ve got around half a million emails). Putting aside the awful “capsules”, it’s a fine mail application. I’m not sure about the non-hierarchical to-do list; this seems kind of simplistic and with a million things to do and limited time, you need something more heavy duty. My current solution is a huge whiteboard and several hundred “to-do” post-its all over the office walls..

For me the fact that the new “Terminal” application has been improved is a not insubstantial gain. Tabs are great and there simply wasn’t anything worthwhile out there to challenge the built-in terminal application..

Another big change is that the Unix foundations of Leopard have changed quite a bit. A lot of things that you used to have to install yourself are now built-in: svn, ruby (a proper working version), rails, etc.. This is a double-edged sword (how easy is it going to be to upgrade the built-in unix tools?), but itโ€™s a step in the right direction. It only took me about a day to migrate my “in-house” ruby/mysql system and another hour or so to figure out what’s wrong with svn.

As a developer of course the most significant change is XCode 3.0. I’m looking forward to getting more acquainted with it..

Is it a successful upgrade? Yes, it is. It might take some getting used to the new look, but there’s a lot of hidden goodness and the panoply of small improvements soon add up to an improved over-all experience.

Most importantly (unless you use Application Enhancer and other haxies), you’re in for a simple, largely trouble free upgrade to a more refined product. It’s not a giant leap right now, but once developers like myself can start using 10.5-only features (expect that to be around the time 10.6 launches and everybody who buys software has migrated to 10.5), you’ll see a lot of improvements in actual applications. And isn’t the applications that make an operating system great?

Take care until next time.

Yours sleep deprived..