One Tactful Tiger: Everyday Benefits of a Feature-ridden Cat

Repetitive and mundane computing tasks may be a thing of the past, if Apple has its way. When the company's next release of Mac OS X hits shelves early next year, consumers have a lot to look forward to when it comes to saving time. Many of the 150 new features boasted in Tiger promise to simplify routine tasks and further promote the Mac as an intuitive and streamlined way of computing.

Among those features, I previously focused on Spotlight, which brings a new approach to an aging Sherlock. Yet, Spotlight is just the tip of the iceberg. There're oodles of other goodies that are sure to save you plenty of angst.

Whether repetition is part of your normal routine or arises during a specific job, a sure way to increase your efficiency is to make the computer do the brunt of the work for you. Tiger's Automator lets you easily create 'scripts' to handle such occasions and free you for more creative activities. Now, this ability isn't all that new. AppleScript has been around forever, but it's really only been accessible to those with the time and inclination to learn to program with it. Automator, however, lets non-programmers create scripts visually by clicking and dragging various computer 'Actions' into a series of steps. Apple has coined the process as 'Workflow.'

Tiger will ship with over a hundred of these Actions to choose from. Each will have a number of options and settings to increase its flexibility. Included among the Actions will be such timesavers as renaming files, resizing images, downloading files, creating archives, searching with Spotlight, and triggering the various functions of your Apple programs. As each Action is completed in the Workflow, the results are passed in succession for use by the next Action, until the entire Workflow is completed. The Actions can be completely automated or interactive with user input during the Workflow. Consequently, with very little effort and in very little time, one can build complex Workflows that also remain extremely flexible.

One great thing about Workflows is that you can trigger them from within your applications or your desktop without loading Automator. And, of course, once a Workflow has been created it can be saved and shared with the other Macs in your home or office. After Tiger is released, I expect we'll see many Mac enthusiasts sharing Workflows via the Web and many software developers making their applications Automator-friendly by supplying custom-tailored Actions.

If you maintain multiple computers, use PDAs, or subscribe to .Mac, you're going to benefit from the new synchronization engine Apple has integrated into Tiger. With built-in synchronization, iSync is no longer necessary and has been dropped. Instead of using iSync, you will set synchronization settings from within your applications and monitor all sync-related activity with Sync Manager. Fortunately, you will be able to do everything iSync allowed you to do and much more.

One benefit of this change is that you will be able to synchronize more on .Mac than just your calendars, address book, and bookmarks. Multiple computers linked through .Mac will be able to share application preferences and system settings. For example, you could change every dock on every Mac in your office simply by making the changes to the Mac on your desk. Once you've made the change, you can hit the Sync Now button. You will also be able to set the sync engine to automatically perform the synchronizations at some regular interval in the background as you work. Of course, through the use of .Mac, the computers that you're syncing can be in the same room or on the other side of the world.

A second benefit is that synchronization is now open to third-party developers. So, as software-developers add synchronizing abilities to their applications, you'll be able to sync the preferences and data from those applications between your computers and portable devices. Consequently, you'll then have options to use applications other than those included with OS X for managing address books and calendars across multiple machines. Plus, utilizing .Mac for the synchronization will effectively leave you with an offsite backup of the information should something go wrong with one of your computers, applications or portable devices.

Some of the more skeptical among us might view these changes to synchronization as an elaborate ploy on Apple's part to sell more .Mac subscriptions. Undoubtedly this is true to some degree. Even so, if you haven't considered .Mac before, you should really have a look at it. Since joining .Mac, I've made extensive use of it, both personally and in my small business. In the future, I plan to write more about the current benefits of .Mac to small business. For now, I'd like to point out that $99 US a year is a small price to pay for the security of an automatic off-site backup, access to mail, address book, and bookmarks from anywhere, and the ability to easily create individual password-protected web pages for your clients to download files from.

Another new feature of Tiger that could theoretically increase user productivity and efficiency is Dashboard. I say 'theoretically' because Dashboard looks like far too much fun to play and waste time with. Nonetheless, Dashboard has the potential for productivity gains as it works something like Expos? but for mini-programs called Widgets. With one press of a function key, a semi-transparent 'dashboard' instantly appears on your desktop from which you can select and control these programs. Some of the Widgets that will be included with Tiger let you view calendars, retrieve stock quotes, view contact information, manipulate stickies, use a calculator, and control iTunes. With another tap of the same function key all of it fades away instantly. If there's a widget that can aid you in your work, then Dashboard is going to be a very efficient and productive way for you to access that information and get it out of your way quickly when you're done with it.

Similarly, another feature that will be beneficial to business users even after the novelty wears off is iChat's extended abilities in Tiger. Users will be able to voice conference with up to ten people simultaneously or to videoconference with up to three others in one window. Tiger iChat definitely takes computer-based voice and videoconferencing to a new level, making it a more useful and effective way for business people to communicate. Moreover, the quality of the video in iChat has dramatically improved thanks to a new video codec that essentially gives all video functions in Tiger a speed and quality boost.

In the past two columns, I've looked at only five of the 150 new features in Tiger. Already it's pretty obvious that Tiger adopters will have an operating system that out-performs all others, increases both efficiency and flexibility, and maximizes a user's control over personal workflow. With all of those abilities, Tiger will help you get your work done faster so you'll have more time to play with all the really cool new stuff in OS X.