Apple's Technical Feats of the Decade

It's Apple-retrospective time all over the internet, and everyone's talking about Mac OS X, the iPod and iPhone. I wanted to take a minute and reflect on ten lower-level technical innovations that Apple produced in the past decade which are probably unremarkable to any marketing-oriented discussion but which moved the state of the art on in some way.

Bonjour (neé Rendezvous)

Remember the old days of networked printing? Yeah, it was a pain. It's cute that we don't have to do that any more. Bonjour sat out its early days in relative obscurity, dutifully finding our printers for us, until the iPhone came along and, suddenly, it was really important to have an automatic way of discovering other devices on the network.

Just imagine a world today in which your iPhone apps had to be manually configured to find their desktop counterparts? Horrible.

WebKit

2003 opened with a boom when Steve Jobs announced Safari. At the time, it was thought a wildly ambitious project for Apple - or, indeed, anyone - to try and take on the onerous task of 'keeping up with the internet'. In many ways, the story of WebKit has been a case study in Alan Kaye's dictum that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Safari has always been a relatively fast browser, but the early days were spent playing catch-up. It's in the past few years, in which the WebKit engine has also been in the vanguard of standards compliance, that the engine has received serious attention.

DVD Encoding and Burning

Taken somewhat for granted today, but remember when Steve Jobs announced that Apple had worked out how to use the PowerPC Velocity Engine to dramatically cut the time it would take to encode a DVD? iDVD hasn't had a lot of love recently, but it was a big deal in its time.

Time Machine

Every geek wishes that their relatives kept better backups. With Time Machine, from its big, chunky On/Off switch to its trippy time-warp UI, we're now in a position where it might actually happen. In Leopard, for the first time, Mac OS X now bugs you to set up a backup drive every time you connect an unknown volume to your Mac.

Time Machine is really a big deal.

Unibody Laptops

Anyone who owns a unibody laptop will tell you that it's an utter delight to handle and use. For years, all laptops have been built along the same lines: a strong frame on which the skin panels 'hang'. The unibody idea changes everything, and enables the amazing MacBook Air along with the solid-as-a-brick MacBook Pro line.

Eliminating Device Drivers

Remember drivers? Yeah, me neither. Between building in the common device class drivers like USB Mass Storage and PTP and setting up a dynamic printer driver install technology in Snow Leopard, Macs have never been more compatible with 3rd party hardware than they are today.

Exposé

Some people don't like Exposé, but those people are wrong. It arrived in Panther, and I've been addicted to it ever since. It hasn't been perfect. In particular, try using Exposé with a screenful of text documents on a Mac running Leopard. In Snow Leopard, however, almost all the problems have been addressed, and Exposé has never been more useful.

Aperture

Aperture's a tough sell to some people, but let me take you back to November 2005. All we had was iPhoto and Photoshop, both of which were fairly destructive editors, although iPhoto would let you 'revert to original'. What Aperture attempted was nearly beyond the capabilities of the hardware of the time: a live-rendering fully nondestructive end-to-end RAW workflow.

The standard practice for those shooting RAW back in 2005 was to betch-convert the RAW files from the camera to some other form for manipulation, usually TIFF or PSD. Aperture saved the time and disk space required and kept photographers working with the camera files as long as possible.

Certainly, Aperture has had a few mis-steps along the way but I think it deserves a mention for what it tried to do so early on in the professional photographers' migration to digital. I also suspect it's not entirely fanciful to say that, were it not for Aperture, Lightroom might never have made it out of the Adobe Labs.

Bonjour Sleep Proxy

I've mentioned the new-in-Snow-Leopard Bonjour Sleep Proxy before. This is a technology whereby all a machine's bonjour broadcasting can be taken over by a Time Capsule or Airport base station while the machine goes to sleep. When any service is resolved by another machine, the base station will wake the serving machine and hand off the requests to it. This dramatically improves the usability of bonjour-discovered services like iTunes streaming when machines are set to go to sleep.

Grand Central Dispatch

The near and medium-term future is multi-core, and GCD is Apple's way of preparing developers and their software for a new world in which concurrency is the default and synchronised code is the exception where necessary. We're not there yet, and the hardware is far more parallel than most software today can usefully use, but it's important that Apple is giving a lead on this.

Other Honourable Mentions

I don't have time to write about each one, but some other important technological things that Apple did in the 2000s include:

  • Rosetta - made the PPC/Intel transition a non-issue for almost everyone.
  • Instruments - performance analysis tools unlike those on any other platform.
  • Boot Camp - who would have thought it would ever happen?
  • Safari and iTunes for Windows - very high-fidelity ports.
  • Migration Assistant - rocky start, but coming of age now.
  • Back to My Mac - another rocky start, and still a bit shaky, but I think this technology has a big future.