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Tiger OS turns up heat on Microsoft

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The cat's out of the bag.

Tiger, the latest version of Apple Computer's Mac OS X operating system, debuts today. This is hardly news to the Mac faithful, who have been alerted through daily e-mail reminders and a running countdown on Apple's Web site to the day Tiger is "unleashed."

The folks in Redmond, Wash., are bracing as well. Tiger, Apple's fifth major operating system upgrade in four years, keeps the competitive pressure on Microsoft, which is at least a year away from introducing the successor to Windows XP, dubbed "Longhorn."

It's not that Tiger is about to eat Longhorn for lunch -- after all, Microsoft Windows runs 94 percent of the world's personal computers. Rather, Apple's history of operating system innovations sets the standard for Microsoft to imitate or exceed.

What makes Tiger innovative, rather than merely iterative, is that it breaks down the barriers between the self-contained computer and the Internet. It is the first operating system to incorporate and expand upon the intensive hard-drive search popularized by Google. It also fetches the kind of up-to-the-minute stock, weather and flight information typically found on Web sites such as Yahoo. Apple even improved on RSS news and blog feeds and integrates them into its Safari Web browser.

Analysts and industry observers expect Tiger to be the most successful of the Mac upgrades, in part because of consumers' heightened awareness of all things Apple. Credit the sustained popularity of the iPod digital music player for stoking interest in anything the company has to offer.

Of course, Apple's marketing impresarios are playing the fascination factor for all it's worth. The company plans a worldwide launch of Tiger, with the software going on sale at 6 p.m. today in each time zone and giveaways around the globe.

Apple is only too happy to trumpet the new features of its operating system that Microsoft has merely promised.

"I think we're leading the operating system race, and others are following our taillights," said Chief Executive Steve Jobs, portraying Microsoft as a copycat at Apple's annual shareholders' meeting last week.

As Jobs concluded his remarks, Apple executives retreated to a locked demonstration room on the Cupertino company's campus to offer a glimpse of Tiger.

This will be the first to integrate a Google-like desktop search into the operating system. Anyone with a typical computer hard drive containing 60 billion or so bits of information understands the dilemma: thousands upon thousands of e-mails, pictures, songs and documents and no way to quickly retrieve what you want. The ability of the operating system to find the digital bit in the data stack has become crucial -- as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN recognized by offering software to search computer hard drives.

Tiger's new, powerful search tool, called "Spotlight," instantaneously scours the hard drive to find what you're looking for -- no matter the file type -- words, pictures, etc. -- or where it resides. Spotlight displays results as soon as you start typing.

It's hard to capture the speed and bloodhound precision of this feature. As Apple product manager Chris Bourdon began typing the word "Yosemite" into Spotlight's search field, each keystroke yielded more refined results: photos of El Capitan, an Adobe Acrobat map of Yosemite, calendar entries, e-mail exchanges. Select one result -- say, the map -- and the Acrobat reader immediately launches.

Because Spotlight is part of the operating system, software developers can begin to incorporate it within their own applications. Spotlight already searches such popular applications as Microsoft's office suite or Adobe's Acrobat reader. Other developers could use the plug-in, too, so that new applications can retrieve content from elsewhere in the hard drive.

Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, predicts Spotlight will dramatically change how people find and manage the gigabytes of data we all generate.

You will no longer need to recall the subject heading of a particular e-mail to find it. Nor will you have to go to the trouble of creating separate file folders to keep track of a work project -- Spotlight has a feature called "smart folders" that does that automatically.

"Spotlight really is a fundamental change in how you get to things on your computer," Schiller said. "I am hard-pressed to think of anything as impactful."

Search is one of Tiger's more than 200 new features. Another, the Dashboard, contains a starter kit of 14 miniapplications called "widgets" that offer timely weather forecasts, stock prices, flight information and the like.

The widgets arrive on the desktop with a splash -- literally. Deposit the world clock on the desktop and it generates little ripples on screen. It appears and disappears with a single keystroke.

Apple's iChat instant messaging service now supports four-way video conferencing. The images are displayed on the screen in three dimensions, as if all the participants are sitting around a virtual conference table.

Other features will tickle the inner geek. Tiger supports the latest high-definition video compression technology, H.264, which yields bright, vivid images from even more compact files. The video trailer for the upcoming "Fantastic Four" movie was crisper than that found in any theater. The updated Safari browser lets you read syndicated news and blogs and pull all these RSS feeds together into a single list that can be searched by keyword.

Benjamin Reitzes, an analyst with UBS Investment Research in New York, predicts the appeal of these new features will be popular with the 14 million Mac aficionados who already use Mac OS X. It might even persuade some of the 10 million Macintosh users who have yet to switch to open their wallets.

And that could be worth $1 billion in revenue to Apple this fiscal year, Reitzes estimates.

Piper Jaffrey analyst Eugene Munster said he doubts Tiger alone will produce more converts to the Cupertino way.

"It definitely adds the cool factor, which is all part of the Apple mystique," Munster said. "But it's not going to be the same level as a more secure operating system or better applications."
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