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

Desktop Exposé

In October 2003, Apple leveraged the graphics power behind its Quartz drawing engine to add Exposé features in the release of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. Exposé animated all the open windows with a single click, either shoving them all out of the way to view the desktop, or shrinking them down to fit into the desktop view without overlapping. Another key press and the windows all resumed their former size and position. That made Exposé a complex combination of window management features that was easy to grasp and use.

Designer Arlo Rose, who along with lead developer Gregory D. Landweber, created a Mac OS theme skinning utility called Kaleidoscope, had earlier come up with the idea of skinning any given bit of information in the same manner as was popular to do with MP3 players of the time. Rose started work with Perry Clarke to build a system called Konfabulator for developing artistically skinned widgets to display information such as battery level, a calendar, or system resources. Using the network and a scripting later, Konfabulator widgets could also look up weather reports or webcams, and even serve as mini applications such as a calculator.

Konfabulator widgets (below) typically acted like desk accessories, mingling with standard application windows. However, after the release of Panther, Konfabulator's developers borrowed a page from Exposé to create a new feature mode that would bring all the open widgets to the foreground and dim everything else into the background at the press of a defined hotkey. Konfabulator called it Konsposé.

Leopard Desktop

Konfabulator vs Dashboard

In the release of Mac OS X Tiger 10.4, Apple debuted a new feature called Dashboard (below) that did something very similar. Like the earlier scuffle between Watson and Sherlock, Dashboard overlapped in functionality with Konfabulator in a way that essentially rendered it obsolete, despite being implemented differently.

Konfabulator created its own runtime environment that launched widgets as JavaScript applications using an XML interface. That meant it was running in the background all the time to keep widgets updated. Konsposé was an optional feature for highlighting running widgets.

In contrast, Dashboard widgets were launched by the Dock. They were also normally sequestered to their own Dashboard environment, which worked very similar to Konsposé. That design limited the system resources Dashboard widgets would consume when they weren't in view.

Additionally, Apple's widgets were snippets of HTML styled with CSS and scripted with JavaScript. They are essentially just tiny web pages, making them easy to build and easy to test within a browser. The rendering of Dashboard widgets is performed by WebKit, the engine behind Safari. Because widgets are managed by the Dock, rendered by WebKit, and usually exiled away in the hidden Dashboard, there is little overhead imposed.

While Dashboard had the unfortunate effect of killing Konfabulator on the Mac, it was really the natural outgrowth of Apple's development of Exposé, the Dock, and WebKit. Konfabulator, while innovative and attractive, was a flawed design that hogged a lot of memory. Fortunately, Konfabulator found a buyer in Yahoo and went to work developing its widget engine for Windows users.

Leopard Desktop

Searching for a Replacement

Dashboard didn't just kill Konfabulator. It also killed the web services end of Apple's own Sherlock. Rather than pulling up the Sherlock application to load a set of prebuilt web services channels, Dashboard allowed users a highly graphical way to lay out desk accessory style applets that did the same types of things. It could also call them up and dismiss them with an Exposé-style keystroke, rather than only run them within a Sherlock window.

Had Apple not "interfered" in the markets for Watson and Konfabulator, Mac users would be today stuck with two poorly implemented, competing systems with a lot of overlap. Back in the mid 80s, Apple had attempted to maintain its Mac platform without encroaching on third parties, and instead pushed its own apps off into the Claris subsidiary. After ten years of letting third parties fight over shareware implementations of features Apple should have addressed itself, the company nearly died. It now thinks about itself first.

Like Exposé, Dashboard also highlighted the animated, fluid potential in Mac OS X's Quartz graphics engine. Widgets dragged into the Dashboard sea ripple, and individual widgets are configured by touching an icon that flips them around to reveal configurable settings.

The other half of Sherlock, related to local file search and content indexing, remained as Sherlock's iconic magnifying glass under the name Spotlight. Apple's existing V-Twin search engine had shown up in Panther as the Search Kit, but it was further overhauled in Tiger to enhance its performance and add Google-like search syntax and phrase based searching. Back in March of 2002, Apple had hired Dominic Giampaolo, an architect of the advanced BeOS file system. Giampaolo worked to build similar metadata indexing features into the new Spotlight.

On page 4 of 4: New Desktop Features in Leopard: Spotlight; New Desktop Features in Leopard: Dashboard; and Other New Desktop Features in Leopard.