Apple Computer normally keeps its mouth shut about upcoming software. In the case of OS X 10.2, a major operating-system upgrade, Apple couldn't be stopped from demonstrating features and even shipping the product about a month earlier than planned.
The latest version was code-named Jaguar, a name that's stuck down to the Pixar-rendered, fur-covered X on the product box and CD-ROM. It officially was to ship today, with a retail price of $129, or $199 for a five-user home license.
Apple doesn't offer an upgrade price for existing OS X users. Many readers have written to complain about that, and I agree.
Still, Apple didn't skimp on what it stuffed into Jaguar, and it's superior to 10.1 in the elimination of many daily irritants, the improvement of basic features and behind-the-scenes plumbing that will make systems run better and faster.
OS X 10.2 is full of the kind of maturity that 18 months of hearing users howl and praise can bring. Spring-loaded folders are back in the Finder. Drag an item on top of a folder or hard drive and hold, and the item's window pops open. Or launch the Classic environment, and you're asked if you really meant to.
Apple has built improvement on top of simple surface gloss. Searching for files in the Finder no longer requires a launch of a separate program.
Instead, a search dialog stands on its own. You can customize Finder windows to always have a Search field at the top.
Exchanging files with Windows machines is now built-in and painless. Select Connect to Server from the Go menu in the Finder, and any Windows workgroups show up in the leftmost column.
Likewise, sharing your Mac as a Windows-readable volume is a single click in the Sharing item in System Preferences.
The same sharing item also includes built-in network firewall protection from unauthorized outside access.
The option to share a network connection with AirPort users restores an OS 9 feature, Software Base Station, which was sorely missed by users who didn't want to purchase an AirPort Base Station for that purpose.
Jaguar adds support for a just-emerging form of wireless networking called Bluetooth that can connect Palm organizers, cellphones and other small devices that have to husband battery life. You need the $49 D-Link USB Blueetooth adapter, available from Apple (store.apple.com), to work with Bluetooth peripherals.
If you have a Bluetooth-enabled phone, like the Sony Ericsson T68i, incoming calls are displayed onscreen in OS X — with the caller's name if it is in the systemwide revamped Address Book — and an option to reply via text or voicemail, or to answer the call. You can also make data calls from your Mac via a Bluetooth-enabled cellphone at speeds ranging from 10 to 100 kilobits per second depending on your area, cell provider and other conditions.
Apple revamped its Mail application, too, turning it from a wimpy and brain-dead program to a slick competitor to powerful packages like Entourage and Eudora. It has a surprising number of features, although most of them are limited in ways the more robust mail clients aren't.
Notably, however, Mail has the first trainable junk-mail sorter that's supposed to learn as you mark messages as junk or not.
iChat adds instant-messaging as a basic component of Mac OS X, which should make the kids happy while old fogies like me still try to figure out why billions of instant messages are sent every day.
Apple's system interconnects with AOL's for a huge initial pool of people to send smiley faces to.
Apple's only application misstep is with Sherlock 3, which, instead of searching for files, now interacts with Web services like stock quotes, movie listings and plane schedules.
Apple blatantly copied the features from Karelia's Watson software, which it maladroitly gave an innovation award to earlier in the year (www.karelia.com/watson/, free trial, $29 to register). Read Karelia's FAQ for a definition of class under pressure.
Two missing faces from this release are iSync, an address-and-calendar synchronization utility, and iCal, a calendar-and-appointment program. Both are due in September and will be free downloads.
iSync can work over Bluetooth, AirPort, Ethernet or USB, and coordinates information among Palms, cellphones and iPods. iCal manages datebook entries and allows shared schedules and a publish-and-subscribe system that pushes out changes as they're made.
Both iSync and iCal can be used on their own, but they also tie into .mac, Apple's $99-per-year online service at Mac.com, allowing you to sync data via .mac to multiple computers (say, home and work machines, or backing up a laptop on the road) and to publicly share calendars without setting up a separate Web site.
Mac OS 9 users waiting for their favorite or necessary features can probably declare the wait over, too: Most of what was missing is finally back, and typically improved on.
Current OS X users will find individual changes and additions not entirely compelling, but when taken as a whole, Jaguar is a worthwhile upward move.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to email@example.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.