Crouching Tiger Hidden Productivity


I’ve been using Apple’s Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger on my Apple PowerBook since nearly a month now….. I can’t help but think “this is how computers should be”.

I’m trying to understand and jot down my thoughts on why it has made me more productive and why it is such a pleasure to use.


Note that whatever I am writing here is from the point of view of a Linux user and a non-geeky one at that too. I like using Linux because it gives me many advantages and features that are suited to me but I don’t compile kernels or ./configure every application that I want to install. I’m not an advanced user by any means (see my blog’s tag line for more information).

What is Mac OS X ?

For the uninitiated, what is Mac OS X? Well, Mac OS X is the operating system (similar to Windows) that runs (only) on Apple Macintosh computers.

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger is claimed to be the “most advanced operating system in the world”. Hmm, not quite. Why? Because it is more like a Linux distribution rather than a core operating system like Windows. Distributions contain lots of applications bundled so that you have almost everything you need when installing a distribution. On the other hand, when you install an operating system (in the true definition of the term), you need to install all your required applications separately such as photo software, bluetooth software, calendar, addressbook and email applications, office suites, DVD player software and so on. Tiger has most of this stuff as part of the system, these applications are not core of the operating system but are certainly central to getting your work done.

The lines are certainly blurring about where an operating system starts and the applications begin. For example, Microsoft Longhorn (the next generation of Microsoft Windows) is adding RSS capabilities to the core system which also means Internet Explorer (following the example set by Firefox and Safari browsers).

User Experience

First and foremost, every user expects the computer to be simple and usable. Needless to say, Mac OS X is miles ahead of the competition here. Simplicity just oozes out of the system. I find that aspect more appealing than any other “feature”.

For example, there is no Start menu and there is no taskbar. To run applications, open the Finder application (which is sort of like Windows Explorer), click on Applications folder and then double-click the application you want to run. Browsing your hard disk follows the exact same paradigm. Notice, that applications are treated just like files and are no different.

Under the hood, applications are just folders with .app extension – they show up as “applications” in the GUI. It can’t get more simpler than that and retains the Unix tradition of ‘treat everything like a file’.

Without a taskbar, how do you see what all you’re running? Press F9 and it shows you all the windows that you are running, and you can select the one you want to look at. There are keyboard shortcuts to cycle through applications as well as cycle through windows of the current application.

That reminds me that Mac OS X makes a distinction between application and windows of the application. For example, if I can start the Safari browser and close the window that opens up, the Safari application is still running. I can press Command-N to open a new window and continue. To completely quit Safari, you have to press Command-Q. This paradigm is consistently followed by all software. One of the advantages of this approach is that opening new windows are a snap compared to opening the full application every time. Also, you can have applications running even without a window open, such as the iTunes music player.

The Help functionality has radically improved over the previous Mac OS X 10.3 “Panther” where it used to take 6-7 minutes to just open! In Tiger, it opens instantly and the find functionality makes it really usable. I know that most developers sneer on the mention of documentation, but I feel a good to-the-point documentation is very important and has certainly solved many issues for me as a user.

The Devil is in the details

There are many applications that come with the Mac OS X such as the iCal calendar application (which I particularly like), QuickTime audio/video software, iTunes music player, Mail application, iPhoto photo software, Garage Band professional music-making software, iMovie HD for making home movies, etc.

What I like in most of them is the level of attention to detail. is a good example. Mail has threads like every other modern email client, but what made it useful for me is the ability to move threads (which I was never able to do in Thunderbird). Similarly, the preferences section is to-the-point and makes it very easy to add new accounts, etc. without confusing the user.

Another thing I really really liked was the Activity Viewer. Press Command-0 (command-zero), and it pops up a window which shows you exactly what Mail is doing. You can even cancel operations in this Activity Viewer.

Keyboard shortcuts are a different story, though – Command-Shift-D for sending email is not very convenient.

Built on Open Source – great for developers

Remember that I mentioned that Mac OS X retains Unix traditions? That’s because it is based on BSD Unix. The core of Mac OS X is open source and is called Darwin. Mac OS X builds on top of Darwin and adds many features like the GUI and many other technologies.

This is undoubtedly appealing to many people like me, and is certainly one of the reasons that lot of researchers and students are switching to Mac OS X. As Paul Graham says:

If you want to know what ordinary people will be doing with computers in ten years, just walk around the CS department at a good university. Whatever they’re doing, you’ll be doing.

Mac OS X has many open source software that comes as part of the system including programming languages such as Perl, Python and Ruby. In fact, Mac OS X makes a big list of open source software part of the system including SQLite and wxWidgets and even Apache!

If you think Apple only takes from open source and does not give, you are mistaken. For example, Apple has something called kdrive that makes rendering of the screen very fast (which is why it is called an accelerator). This has been provided as open source and now Trolltech is porting kdrive to to replace the existing outdated accelerator architecture which will make composition managers like xcompmgr really fast and able to do some of the ‘display tricks’ Mac OS X has been doing for awhile.

Apple has also recently made WebKit a fully open source community-involved project. WebKit is based on the open source KHTML and other KDE-based technologies. WebKit is the core of the Safari browser and other technologies that are part of Mac OS X. What’s remarkable is that Apple has managed to make it platform-independent and enabling Nokia to port it to their Series 60 mobile phones!

MS-land is nearby

If you really need MS-office, there’s the official Microsoft Office on Mac.

I have Windows Media Player 9 for Mac installed so that I can see all those great Channel 9 videos.

Integration – great for everyone


What makes Mac OS X wonderful is the integration of all the parts. The best example is Spotlight – the search engine for your desktop. Spotlight, by itself, was not impressive for me (you already have Google’s and Yahoo!’s version of it for Windows, and you have Beagle for Linux). What did impress me was the integration into the system. For example, I was browsing my Music directory in Finder and I wanted to look for that old song that I had made a few years ago. I just searched for my name in the search tab and voila, Finder/Spotlight fetched it for me in a couple of seconds!

Screenshot of Spotlight integration into Finder

The next thing I discovered about Spotlight was that there are hooks built in to Mac OS X such that every time you close a file after editing it, Spotlight comes into action instantly and indexes it. As a result, I was able to search in Spotlight for the email that dropped in my inbox a mere second ago.

Spotlight also provides a command line client called mdfind which you can use to search for files in shell scripts.

iPhoto and Mail

Another good example is iPhoto and Mail. In iPhoto, I can select a few photos, and click on Share -> Email, it automatically creates a new mail with the resized photos (to save bandwidth; and it is configurable) and all I have to do is enter the email address and click on Send. I haven’t found a similarly easy tool on Linux or Windows.

Not impressive? Well, Share -> Burn Disc writes to a CD in a couple of clicks.

The “Just Works” factor

  • Bluetooth is built-in to the system. Just click on the icon in the top bar and and click on ‘Set up Bluetooth device’ and voila! You can start transferring files from/to your bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. It works with printers, mice, etc. in the same manner.

  • Plug in your digital camera into the USB port – iPhoto starts up, click on ‘Import’ and you have the photos on your computer.

  • Plug in your iPod and iTunes opens up the same way. This one works seamlessly because Mac OS X, iPod and iTunes are all from Apple.

  • Software management is easy as well. The Windows-style installers are used, otherwise it is a simple unzip, double-click and run style of working. For OSS lovers, Fink allows you to apt-get install anything for Mac OS X. If you ever want to get rid of Fink, just do rm -rf /sw and you have a clean system again. Now, that is really cool. (Note that you have to install Fink separately)

  • If you download a zip file using Safari, it automatically unzips the archive for you and puts it in a folder.

  • PDFs are part of the system just like text files. The Preview software makes it a joy to read PDFs. Also, the Quartz rendering engine is based on PDF technology, so the rendering is lightning fast. In the print dialog of any application, you can choose to create a PDF.

Dashboard and the Dictionary

The dictionary feature is usually ignored by most people when they talk about Tiger, but it is one of those small but incredibly useful things for me, especially when combined with Dashboard. Dashboard is like a separate desktop that runs whenever you open it. You have “widgets” running in Dashboard that are like mini-applications. If I just move the mouse to the lower right corner (as per my settings), Dashboard opens up and I click on the dictionary widget and start reading meanings of some words I came across while reading. Similarly, I use the calculator and the Wikipedia widget in the Dashboard.

The flip side

Not everything is hunky-dory though. For example, in the print menu, if I click on Mail PDF, it used to give me an ‘unknown error’. It was fixed when I upgraded to Mac OS X 10.4.1, though. There are a few glitches here and there but I haven’t hit a roadblock yet.


The Apple user forums have been very helpful to me. There are tons of sites out there with useful info including MacZealots and MacDevCenter.

Concluding remarks

There is a much more to explore but I’ll stop here for now. The combination of Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and PowerBook has been an incredible experience for me, I have truly begun to appreciate the value of good design and attention to detail.

It also has made me believe that computers can work as you would expect them to, and it doesn’t have to be hard to get your work done.

Relatedly, I’m looking forward to a Leopard vs Longhorn vs Linux comparison next year.

Further reading material

Update : Added MS-land section

29 thoughts on “Crouching Tiger Hidden Productivity

  1. hey…that was a great deal of brunch… makes me more and more attracted towards mac…. :)

  2. Aah.. first time I read the tagline today. That pretty much describes me too!

    Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger is claimed to be the “most advanced operating system in the world�. Hmm, not quite. Why? Because it is more like a Linux distribution rather than a core operating system like Windows.

    But even a distribution has an operating system at its core! Maybe it is that core which is the ‘most advanced’ in the world!

    PS: Proudly Apple free since… forever! ;-)

  3. Nice review.

    i’m was interested in getting a mac. mostly for the dev tools,
    darwin/unix core and overall user interface.

    windows has its advantages, mostly when it comes to hardware prices and
    support. i don’t do gaming but people like that too.

    what apple has correctly done is leverage its hardware/software/os
    monoculture to maximum effect.

    with the “intel” announcement, i’ll hold off on the purchase until they
    come out with the non-ppc based machines.

  4. Talking of cost…
    Swaroop, what exactly is the cost for this hardware? Are updates free? Are service stations for hardware available?

    Will it run GTK+? Qt? Gnome? KDE?

    Damm curious…

  5. @Pradeep: I thought it was the other way around :P , and yes, I’ve seen that page, although I should read it again.

    @Pramod: Thanks :)

    @Sudheer: Go for it!

    @Deepak: It took me a long time to come up with a good tagline! Regarding the ‘core’ part, maybe that is true since OpenDarwin is supposed to be really cool.

    @Julian: I couldn’t have said it better myself :) … and yes, gaming is the only thing not going for the Mac OS X platform, but I don’t play computer games as well.

    @Kiran, @Ankit: Yeah, the price hits your wallet hard but I guess it’s worth the quality of the product.

    @Makuchaku: See the [Powerbook]( page on the cost of the hardware. The updates are free. Yes, there is a service centre in Bangalore. Yes, it _can_ run Gnome and KDE but very few people do. See the [list of Fink packages]( for more details.

  6. I have been thinking of buying a Powerbook for some time now. But given the recent Mactel announcement, should i wait for a year? What’s your take on that?

  7. Krisna:

    Apple is a hardware company. First and foremost. They have been since the Apple I and this is why they almost died out.

    In this debate, there are 2 options:

    – Apple opens up the OS X operating system to allow any commodity hardware to install on it. Thereby killing off their company hardware operations. They won’t do this.

    – Apple holds off producing their Intel based machines for a year so that they iron out all the creases and not allow any simple white box the ability to run OS X. Thereby maintaining their hardware/software/os
    monoculture. They will do this.


    Apple are phasing out PPC based hardware and software. There may only be 1 more PPC version of OS X. They won’t release new PPC hardware.

    Unless you want a very cheap PPC machine in half a year, don’t get a PPC based machine in the near future!!

  8. “Plug in your iPod and iTunes opens up the same way. This one is possible because Mac OS X, iPod and iTunes are all from Apple.”

    Not a Mac only feature. This works for Windows version of iTunes also. You can make it work using Gtkpod for Linux too, if you make the right changes in the configuration files. I have done that on Ubuntu Linux and it works like a charm.


  9. @Krishna, @Julian: My personal POV is that it depends on how early you want it? I don’t think there’s any problem on buying a PPC PowerBook since it will be supported by all the applications. On the other hand, Mac applications might run slower on Intel PPC in case they are not compiled for Intel (and will be running on Rosetta). So, there are pros and cons on both sides. Basically, if you want it now, get it now; if you can wait, then wait :)

    @Anand: I never said it is a Mac-only feature. I just meant it works seamlessly well because all three are Apple products.

    I haven’t tried GtkPod since it messed up my friend’s iPod Shuffle and he had it to format it to get it working again.

  10. Hmmm… I don’t want to stress a technical point too much but, things can work seamlessly even if they are from different companies.

    An example: If your KDE is configured well, pushing in a blank disc inside your CD/DVD drive opens up K3B automatically.

    Similarly in Linux, you can edit the autofs, udev and hotplug deamon config files to automatically mount the IPod when it is plugged in. A simple GNOME/KDE config modification can then make Gtkpod run. Of course, it is not easy to do this when compared to Mac/Windows but it can be done with some patience and a few cups of coffee . :-)

    Gtkpod does not work with IPod shuffle AFAIK.

  11. Linux has same capabilites [and maybe more] than Apple, but the biggest problem is they all dont work out of the box… No distro can match the outofbox Apple… But after installing, dirtying your hands, you can get same functionality as Apple’s..

  12. Let me put it succinctly : I do **not** want to hunt around in the control center or edit autofs, udev and hotplug and whatever configs to be able to do those things. If an end user is required to put in such effort, I don’t call it seamless.

  13. Well, Linux is for folks who like poking around and making things work, though it can be customized to the easiness of a Mac, if required.

    For example if you use MEPIS, you don’t need to do all these. MEPIS automatically mounts the IPod and opens up Gtkpod. Plug n play.

    Hey, you don’t hunt around in control center. Instead you have to go to /etc and manually edit some config files :)

    If you dont like poking around systen internals, Linux is not for you. Mac puts you somewhere in between the Linux geekiness and the Windows dumbness. The best proposition for Mac is that it has the right kind of mix for power users as well as end users. And one hell of a GUI.

  14. > Well, Linux is for folks who like poking around and making things work, though it can be customized to the ease of use of a Mac, if required.

    Mac combines the best of the Linux and Windows worlds – that was a subtle point throughout the article which I didn’t say explicitly :)

  15. Swaroop,

    I don’t think there’s any problem on buying a PPC PowerBook since it will be supported by all the applications

    For how long? Once Apple completely moves to Intel, why should new apps be developed for the PPC?

  16. Krishna,
    Like I said. But more importantly, once Apple completely moves to Intel, why should a new _Operating System_ version be developed for the PPC.

    It’s like getting stuck with Windows 98 forever.

  17. @Krishna, @Julian: Apple has been developing Mac OS X on both Intel and PPC for the **past 5 years**, I don’t think there’s any technical reason for them not to be able to continue that. With respect to why would they do it? They wouldn’t think of leaving their loyal users in the lurch, would they? I don’t think they’re stupid enough to forget PPC for their newer OS versions.

    Anyway, I don’t like to speculate about these things. I have a Powerbook right now and I am happy with it. There is one year to go for Intel-based Macs to be released and one and a half year for Leopard to be released, that’s still a long way off.

  18. Swaroop,
    They won’t continue the OS because they don’t/won’t make PPC machines anymore. Apple like any company thinks long term about technology. OK, in 2-5 years time, why would they release an OS (which they must _support_) to a very small and minor market?

    Like I said, there may only be 1 more PPC OS release. To keep people happy. I won’t be suprised if they don’t because it’s not work the hassle.

    Yes, they will leave their customers in the lurch. At some time or another. Economically and technically, sooner rather than later.

    Engineers cost money. They wouldn’t spend good engineer time on testing legacy PPC that would go into future development.

    When it comes to software, there is a thing called backwards compatibility. There’s no such thing as forwards compatibility. 1 year or 1.5 years isn’t a long time at all.

    Also, the target market for Apple is the premium market. The premium market buys the latest and greatest.

  19. >For how long? Once Apple completely moves to Intel, why >should new apps be developed for the PPC?

    I dont see that as a problem. Just look at Debian linux which has +14 different platforms and increasing. Remember that all the developer tools are there to support multiple architectures.

    Im going to buy a new ibook this week anyway. Its my first Mac machine. I have been using linux for several years now and have gentoo on all my machines now (except firewall).

    Portage (the gentoo software packaging system) is also out on tiger (has been for quite some time) and i dont see any reason not to make the jump to tiger. Its just that as i have been getting older (and wiser i hope) i just dont have time to doo all that tweeking needed on several machines running linux. Its maybe not much time but its too much for me and so the only choice i can think of actualy. I will leave gentoo on servers another distro on firewall but that helps my time consumption somewhat.

  20. >I dont see that as a problem. Just look at Debian linux which has +14 different platforms and increasing. Remember that all the developer tools are there to support multiple architectures.

    That’s a moot point. NetBSD runs on 58+ platforms.

    Sure, portability may be fine if you have the source code and can build from source. But last time I checked, Microsoft didn’t really care about portability and they didn’t distribute their source code with their products.

    Microsoft, Adobe, or any large commercial software company is not going to see the Mac architecture as a “multiple architecture”. They are just going to see it as Intel based.

  21. I believe (maybe just wishfull thinking ;-)) we are comming to a turning point somewhere in the future (soon?!).

    >Microsoft, Adobe, or any large commercial software >company is not going to see the Mac architecture as a >“multiple architecture�. They are just going to see it >as Intel based.

    Are you the informational officer of these companies (or chairman, CEO?). Not trying to be rude ;-). The market has been extremely homogenous when it commes to mainstream desktops. I dont see any other operating system that can compete with windows than osx = there is no other MAINSTREAM unix desktop than osx.

    I know i cant forsee the future and i think you cant either (not shure about that) but i just hope that there could be more heterogenous computing environments in the (near) future. Hope that this is not just wishfull thinking.

    I just believe that if apples share of the market would at least double somewhere along the line then the attitudes on platform availability on software could change. BUT it seems to require an comersial operating system and big enough clientbase (users, which apple doesnt have qiute yet, but i see them geting more people onboard).

    I´ve been looking at open source projects for so long that I dont see them comming “mainsteam” enough. So bsd:s and linux:s are just not geting there (so it seems though).

  22. @Habi: It all comes down to numbers. Companies go where the market is and where the numbers are (generally speaking).

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