Among the many improvements chief executive Steve Jobs has brought to Apple Computer Inc. since his return in 1997 has been consistent major operating system releases, particularly those of Mac OS X.
But with the release of Panther, Mac OS X receives its fourth major upgrade in three years, an impressive track record. The next major upgrade to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, code-named Longhorn, isn't due until 2006. By then, Apple should have released at least two more major upgrades to OS X.
With upgrades coming so quickly, one might suspect that Apple is rushing them out the door, but that hasn't been the case. Panther, like Jaguar last year, contains 150 new features, although not all of them will be apparent to all users.
Some of the features, for example, are targeted at developers, some at systems administrators and those versed in OS X's Unix core, and some at business users. But quite a few will appeal to most Mac users, including home users.
Among the many pre-release rumors regarding Panther was that it supposedly was faster than Jaguar. For reasons unknown, Panther is noticeably snappier on my 500-megahertz iBook than Jaguar, but I saw no appreciable gain in speed on my 867-megahertz G4 Quicksilver tower.
One of the overriding themes Apple is emphasizing with the OS X 10.3 Panther upgrade is that it is "user-centric," mostly through changes in the Finder. In fact, while this release contains several gee-whiz features, it's the significant changes to the Finder that matter most.
The most obvious change is the Sidebar, which was added to the Finder windows, the primary means of navigation in OS X. The Sidebar is a column of icons that provide quick access to your hard drive, iDisk, and any optical media you may have inserted as well as several key user folders, such as Applications and Documents.
Better still, the user can add any often-used folder to the Sidebar.
The three view options -- with files represented as icons, in a list or in hierarchical columns -- remain unchanged, but the Sidebar is present in all three unless toggled off by a widget in the upper-right corner of the window.
Another change to windows in the Finder, which now sports the "brushed metal" look that has permeated much of Apple's software, is the addition of an "Action" menu. It provides access to such functions as creating a new folder or the "Get Info" command. Those nostalgic for Mac OS 9 will celebrate the return of colored file labels in this menu.
The second most obvious change to the Finder is to the open and save dialog boxes. These dialogs mimic the Finder windows in that they also employ the Sidebar. Users now also may choose between navigating with the list view or the column view.
The Finder sports several more subtle user-friendly changes as well. For example, clicking on any icon in the Finder now outlines it with a shadow while highlighting the file name in color.
OS X also now has built-in faxing, right from the Print dialog box. And the fax window includes a link your Address Book to make it a snap to fax documents.
Even the gee-whiz features are aimed at improving the user's experience.
At the top of this list is Exposé, which may be the sexiest OS X feature since the Genie Effect. With Exposé, a user-designated keystroke shrinks all open windows as small as needed to make them all fit on one screen. Moving the mouse over a window highlights it and causes a label to appear. Clicking on a window instantly brings it to the front full size and returns all the other windows to their previous sizes and positions behind it.
Exposé will be a boon for those who often have multiple windows from multiple programs open on their screens.
Almost as nifty is Fast User Switching, which Apple unabashedly admits that it stole from Windows. Now, a user need not log out to allow another user in the house to log in to check e-mail. A new menu on the far right contains the name of every user and a check mark if that user is logged in.
To switch, one need only select their name from the menu, and their personal screen rotates into view as one side of a three-dimensional cube -- an effect borrowed from Keynote. When done, the original user can select his name from the list and his screen rotates back into view.
Another practical new feature is built-in faxing. With Panther, Apple has added a fax button to the standard Print dialog box. A new Preference Pane for faxing also allows users to set up their Mac to receive and store faxes.
Perhaps an acknowledgment of the rather odd and confusing way OS X handles fonts -- dozens of fonts can reside in up to four different folders -- Apple has included a font manager with Panther.
Called Font Book, it performs many of the same functions that third-party font managers have, allowing users to activate and de-activate individual fonts as well as collections of fonts. While it may not meet all the demands of professionals, Font Book should satisfy the management needs of most users.
A feature sure to appeal to laptop users is File Vault, a means of encrypting data on your hard drive so that the information is totally inaccessible should your laptop be lost or stolen. According to Apple, the 128-bit encryption technology is nearly impossible to crack.
Beyond the changes to OS X itself, Apple also has enhanced several of its accompanying applications.
The Preview application, which can read Adobe Acrobat's PDF-formatted files, now is much faster and can open more file types, such as Postscript files. Apple says it can open and scroll PDF documents even faster than Acrobat itself.
The Mail application now can view messages in threads, so that if you have a running dialogue with someone, Mail will group all those related messages together. Apple also has further improved Mail's already impressive junk-mail filters, and has tapped Safari's rendering engine to display HTML-formatted mail.
In a move sure to please IT managers, Apple has added support for Microsoft Exchange Server, which will allow Macs direct access to the mail servers on Windows-based networks.
The support for Microsoft Exchange Server extends to the Address Book application, which allows users to keep their contacts synchronized with the server. Other new features of Address Book include the ability to print address labels using Avery templates and integration with iChat AV so you can see who among your contacts is online.
Speaking of iChat, with Panther the video-conferencing software graduates from beta to becoming an official part of Mac OS X. Jaguar users who do not upgrade to Panther can purchase iChat for $29.95. The free public beta that has been available since June will expire at the end of the year.
But all these upgrades come at a price. As with Jaguar last year, the cost to upgrade to Panther is $129. Only those who purchased a Mac on or after Oct. 8, or anyone who ordered a PowerMac G5, can get Panther for $19.95.
And, as with Jaguar, savvy Mac users can find better deals. Most of the Mac catalog resellers, for example, are offering Panther for $119; Mac Connection has a rebate deal that brings down the price to $99.
Last year, many Mac users complained about the lack of a less-expensive upgrade path from Mac OS X 10.1 (such as offering an upgrade for $79 or so), but it sold well anyway. Thus far this year, there has been little clamor; perhaps Mac users have accepted it as Apple's policy, like it or not.
Whether Panther is worth the money is ultimately up to each Mac user, but the abundance of cool, desirable features will pry open a lot of pocketbooks. Apart from the marquee features, there are dozens more less obvious ones almost as impressive. They all add up to one terribly tempting upgrade.