Brave Apple takes on Microsoft

At MacWorld in January Apple surprised the audience by releasing two new pieces of software that provide direct competition to the already dominant offerings from Microsoft.

At MacWorld in January Apple surprised the audience by releasing two new pieces of software that provide direct competition to the already dominant offerings from Microsoft.

The first is the long-rumoured Apple-branded web browser, Safari, to take on Internet Explorer (as in "Surfing Safari" of Beach Boys fame). The second, and more ambitious, offering is a presentation package fully compatible with, and a third the price, of Microsoft's PowerPoint, called Keynote.

With an upgrade to version 6 of Internet Explorer for Mac OS X delayed, and the OS getting criticised in review after review for poor web browsing performance, Apple has taken its fate into its own hands and developed a new browser. Instead of developing its own engine, however, Apple decided to use the open source Konqueror engine from the Linux KDE Desktop Environment. Upon release of the Safari public beta (in its third public release), the improvements the development team at Apple had made to the engine were immediately submitted back to the source tree in good open source fashion.

From testing, Safari definitely meets the objective of providing a lightning-fast browser for Mac OS X. Unfortunately it has more than a few rendering issues with some sites, and with the exception of its bookmarks-handling and "snapback" features, is relatively feature-poor in comparison to Internet Explorer and other browsers such as Opera, Omniweb or Chimera. However, as improvements are sure to rapidly come, it is one to keep an eye on, and so I have adopted it as my primary browser, Internet Explorer being a backup for those picky sites.

In comparison, Keynote, as the legend goes, was originally designed for the needs of Apple boss Steve Jobs, to provide him with a tool that allowed him to put together professional presentations with a minimum of fuss and actively demonstrate some of the advantages of the Quartz graphics engine of Mac OS X. At the launch in January, Jobs stated that he had been beta testing the software at keynote presentations he had made over the previous 18 months. Given Jobs’ famed demanding nature and the pressure of putting together a smooth presentation, there should be no surprise that this is a very stable 1.0 release.

Keynote is loaded with features, but perhaps the most important are that it can import and export PowerPoint presentations with only minimal changes for feature differences, and that its native format is XML-based. The full compatibility with PowerPoint means that incorporating an existing presentation into a new Keynote-based one or collaborating on a joint presentation with a PowerPoint user is a real breeze, thus allowing Keynote to easily slip into the corporate environment. However, its open XML native format opens up new possibilities for dynamic presentations. Imagine, for instance, that you have a scheduled task that runs daily before you get into the office in the morning. It queries your company's accounting system for the latest figures and automatically compiles a presentation for the managing director. All you would have to do then is review and show.

When Bill Gates was queried about Keynote a day after its release his comment was "I doubt what they've done is as rich as PowerPoint". For me that sums up the whole philosophy of Microsoft Office: features first and usability second. Keynote looks to reverse that with its features following its inherent usability.

In a position that some would greatly envy, I very rarely have to do formal presentations as part of my job. As luck would have it, though, Keynote came out just before our company's 20th anniversary conference where I was scheduled to make one to our distributors. To really test out the usability of Keynote I decided to dive in without the assistance of a manual in putting my presentation together.

The presentation I put together lasted an hour and a half, included a existing PowerPoint presentation from a third-party supplier, and used a variety of graphics formats from JPEGs from a digital camera to bits of PDF documents and QuickTime footage. With the great templates provided and the alignment guides that show up automatically when dragging items around, putting the presentation together was a snap and looked simply amazing on screen. The only thing that was slightly frustrating was the lack of a good collection of clip art.

Taking on Microsoft by releasing both Keynote and Safari is a brave move by Apple. But I am glad that it did release them, because with both packages previously unchallenged in the market, Microsoft has not had a good reason to spend resources on improving them.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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