Welcome back, Apple. Seriously.
Leopard - they still do computers
Apple may have dropped the "Computer" from the company name earlier this year, but its latest OS released today gives it a chance to remind everyone where its real value lies.
Thanks to success of the iPod, Apple is now bigger than the entire global record business - digital downloads included. That's an incredible statistic - and reminds us that the Recording Industry Ass. of America, far from being the omniscient oppressor of popular mythology, is more of a mangy and toothless old dinosaur these days - pawing at a fly.
With European countries poised to legalise P2P, history may well judge that Jobs jumped into digital music too early. The peerless iPod has helped quadruple Apple's revenue in five years, but looks like leaving Apple with a nasty antitrust taste in the mouth from the EU - and all for what, exactly? With subscriptions rendered "invisible", and no DRM, paying for music piece-by-piece makes as much sense as a square wheel. And as for the much-vaunted movie experience - I believe mobile video is a cunning trick to persuade the phone industry to squander its fortune, leaving it ripe for takeover. So far, it seems to be working.
For me, however, it's the marriage of hardware and software found on the modern Mac that gives Apple the real difference. And while pundits confidently predict the death of the personal computer - as they've been doing ever since it was invented - the Mac goes from strength to strength.
Today's release of Leopard is particularly well-timed, too. Windows Vista has arrived years late and well short of expectations. The niggles and annoyances that come with a new OS release have grown, rather than diminished, over the course of the year. So rather than clamouring for higher-specced machines to run Microsoft's new OS, users are clamouring to get the six-year old Windows XP back on their old machines. That certainly wasn't in the script.
So what does Mac OS X have to offer?
For Windows users, it's primarily the safety of running all their old applications at full speed, or as near to full speed as makes no difference. This is something Apple couldn't offer until very recently - but the transition to Intel chips has gone smoother than anyone expected. And with Intel chips, there's no performance or compatibility penalty that comes from CPU instruction level emulation.
Thanks to Parallels and VMWare Fusion, Macs can even run Windows applications seamlessly on the same desktop. Without these two applications, Windows users can still dual-boot using Apple's own Boot Camp, although a copy of Windows is still needed in both cases. When users have their favourite music or special interest software for Windows, that makes switching alot more attractive.
Leopard does have the usual collection of annoyances and very welcome tweaks we've come to expect.
But Leopard, like Tiger, is about one very major new feature - in Tiger it was search (Spotlight) and in Leopard it's backup (Time Machine). But both are primarily marketing rather than releases - designed to remind people about the Mac system. That's not meant to be dismissive: Apple had done pretty much all the heavy lifting by the time OS X 10.3 (Panther), the first usable successor to the old Mac OS, appeared four years ago.
So on the plus side come lots of very minor but welcome interface improvements: Better parental controls, a Windows-style preview called Quick Look, and simple screen-sharing across a LAN. On the downside, there are one or two UI novelties that seem to be included for no reason other than to confuse and annoy users, such as the translucent menu bar.
As for "Stacks", it's something I first wrote about four years ago  when I interviewed one of the original designers; it's a technology Apple has had since 1992. (Read about how "Piles" evolved into Stacks here .) But I'm reserving judgement until I've had a chance to put it through its paces.
Experience has taught me never to judge a new mobile phone unless a full month has elapsed - additions that seem useful after a week or two prove themselves to be tiresome gimmicks after a couple more. Similarly with desktop UI er, "innovations". After a month of Tiger, I'd gone back to CTM's excellent FoxTrot Personal Search  for finding documents by content, and Devon Technologies' (free) EasyFind  for finding files by name. And it took even less time to unburden my F12 from Dashboard.
But Leopard looks set to fulfil its role as a reminder why the Mac is simpler, more secure and less of an unmanageable hairball than its chief desktop rival, Windows.
We'll have a full preview soon after
the Torrent has downloaded Leopard goes on sale. ®