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Friday, October 19, 2007, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dashboard, Spotlight and the Desktop


From Multiprocessing Desktop to Simple Web Client

After the Mac desktop gained the ability to run concurrent applications with System 6 and the MultiFinder in the late 80s, the role of desk accessories began to wane. More modern architectures, like the Unix-based NeXTSTEP, could run many applications at once using virtual memory allocation that intelligently managed RAM so that background applications could sit idle without using significant system resources.

With the arrival of the web, the concept of running small applications within the context of a web page again resurrected the idea of desk accessories. Rather than being ornamental or simple accessories to a system that could only do one thing at a time, web applets were conceived to perform tasks in a sandbox, in order to securely interact with a remote server from an environment designed to use minimal resources.

Sun's Java promised the potential for replacing complex and difficult to manage PCs with simple "thin clients" or "network computers" that could centralize computing infrastructure, particularly in corporate settings. That was an affront to Microsoft, which wanted to maintain a market for PCs running Windows. Microsoft partnered with Sun and then worked to tie Java development to Windows, removing any real value from it on the desktop.

From Web Services to Multiprocessing Desktop

As client-side Java died, Sun and other vendors focused on the server side and implemented standard methods of vending services to PC clients. Microsoft had similarly scuttled the market for alternative desktop operating systems on the PC, leaving NeXT to similarly migrate its development environment from the PC desktop into the realm of web services.

NeXT's WebObjects adapted the company's desktop application development tools to instead construct web server applications. Rather than interacting with application windows on a PC desktop, the WebObjects server created dynamic web pages for multiple remote users to interact with in their browser. When Apple acquired NeXT in 1997, it inherited WebObjects along with the NeXTSTEP operating system.

Rather than continue Apple's internal plans to deliver a thin client Mac as a network computer, the newly merged company delivered its NC "work in progress" as the iMac, an easy to use consumer system. That followed the trend toward powerful desktop-oriented machines advocated by Microsoft rather than the stripped down thin client machines that were the buzzword of the day. Like Microsoft, Apple had a desktop operating system to sell; the rest of the industry was competing against Microsoft's desktop. The combined forces of Apple and NeXT decided that if they couldn't beat Microsoft, it would join it.

Apple and NeXT merged their collective strengths to deliver a new computing desktop; NeXT supplied the Unix foundations of its operating system and its rapid applications development tools, while Apple supplied mature application level technologies such as QuickTime and ColorSync. Some technologies would end up as a mix of both legacies; for example, the desktop of Mac OS X based its file browser largely upon the existing Mac Finder, while incorporating the concept of the Dock from NeXTSTEP.

Apple's VTwin Desktop Search Technology

Among the other technologies Apple had in its portfolio to contribute were advanced data indexing and search tools called the Apple Information Access Toolkit or V-Twin. Third party developers had delivered Mac applications using V-Twin search technology as early as 1997. The next year, Apple shipped Mac OS 8.5 with Sherlock, a new application that used V-Twin indexing to deliver full context file search on the Mac desktop.

Sherlock also merged local file search and Internet search results in the same interface. Using plugins, users could query multiple search engines on the web at once. Apple allowed search engines to display their banner ads in the Sherlock application window, which looked particularly jarring in a desktop context (below).

Leopard Desktop


Sherlock 2 (below) followed in Mac OS 9, which introduced a channel bar for searching various websites. It also got the heavy brushed metal appearance that Apple liked at the time. Between searches, Apple even popped up its own ads.

Performing general web searches against multiple sites began to lose its value as Google rapidly replaced a variety of competing search engines by returning more effective results in a simple, uncluttered web page interface.

The evolving idea of accessing the web to quickly capture and distill information from a variety of sources—directly from the desktop without having to fire up a web browser—still made a lot of sense. Apple eventually learned it wasn't going to be funded by garish contextual advertising though.

Leopard Desktop


Watson vs Sherlock

In 2001, Karelia released Watson (below) for early users of Mac OS X. Watson served as a companion tool to Sherlock; it used a similar plugin architecture to rapidly find information on the web without launching a regular browser. Watson's plugins were small Cocoa applets designed to query sites, return results, and display them in a specialized interface showing off the elegant new appearance of Mac OS X's Aqua desktop.

Leopard Desktop


Karelia was outraged when Apple introduced Sherlock 3 (below) the following year as part of Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar in 2002. The new Sherlock matched Watson in functionality, although it was implemented differently. The new Sherlock plugins were essentially small web pages rendered within the app's window in a structured format, rather than being a freeform page inside a browser, or a full development platform like Watson.

Like Watson, Sherlock's design allowed for custom controls and rapid updates without waiting for a regular web page to redraw, but its implementation gave Sherlock an edge over Watson in that its plugins were simpler to develop. Of course, that didn't help Karelia, which immediately lost its market for the shareware-priced Watson. Watson was later acquired by Sun.

Leopard Desktop


On page 3 of 4:Desktop Exposé; Konfabulator vs Dashboard; and Searching for a Replacement.