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SAN FRANCISCO—Apple Computer once again showed it still owns the secret sauce when it comes to computer interface design (and maybe even with hardware industrial design).

At the keynote address on Aug. 7 to Apple’s faithful developers gathered here for the annual Worldwide Developers Conference, CEO Steve Jobs “wowed” the audience with demonstrations of powerful, yet simple technology foundations and programs.

Apple even showed one with a 3-D interface that made sense.

The impressive 3-D interface demonstration was for Time Machine, a file and system backup and restoration application that will be a standard component of Mac OS X Leopard, aka v10.5.

The Leopard update is due in the “spring” of 2007, Jobs said, which means it could ship anytime during the second quarter.

“Time Machine is one of the best concepts for a backup utility anyone has ever had and one of the best user interfaces anyone has ever had,” said Peter Glaskowsky, technology analyst with Envisioneering of Cupertino, Calif.

Read more here about Apple’s rollout of its Intel Xeon-based workstation-class machine, introduced at the WWDC keynote.

According to Scott Forestall, Apple’s vice president of Platform Experience, Time Machine will back up and restore “everything” on a Mac running Leopard. The backup can be to a connected hard drive or to a server on the network.

Unlike the System Restore feature in Windows XP that looks at the state of Windows and the Registry, Time Machine provides a granular incremental backup for all bits and pieces of the OS, as well as data files. Users can restore the entire hard drive or just a single file.

But it was the interface that drew the audience into the program. The recovery window featured a vertical timeline on the right hand side, and two arrows that floated in the frame, one pointing towards the user (the present) and the other into the screen (the past).

Of course, the subject of the Time Machine restoration, whether a file or folder window, was presented in the center of the screen and behind it, were arrayed the older versions extending and shrinking into the past.

The windows are animated to flip forward and backward in time, similar to the Flip3D mechanism in Windows Vista.

The timeline will let users target a particular day, week or month by clicking a day or by sliding the cursor up and down.

Users will also be able to reveal the changes with the arrows that move the windows forward and backward in time.

In a demonstration, Forestall offered a number of scenarios that users commonly experience, such as recovering a file that they don’t remember the name of but can recall its location in a particular folder.

With the folder displayed in icon view in Time Machine, the change was evident with the sudden arrival of the “lost” document popping visually into the folder.

Forestall checked the file in a preview window, without opening the application, and then restored the file with another click.

He also showed the program restoring a deleted contact from the Address Book and a roll of photographs in iPhoto.

“It’s the first app I’ve ever seen that has a real reason to have a 3-D user interface,” Glaskowsky said.

“We’ve seen this before with application switching and so on. But that’s an OS feature, not an app. This is a real app, and it’s the first one that really needed 3-D to convey the impression of what you’re doing,” he continued.

Glaskowsky is so right. Most 3-D environments have really been terrible. In the 1990s there was a vogue to emulate “real” 3-D virtual environments for productivity, such as desks with drawers that opened, instead of folders and icon views.

And then there’s Flip3D and context switching. It’s all more of an effect, although Flip3D in Vista is a step forward from Windows XP. It’s just not in the league with Apple and Mac OS X’s refinements.

Next Page: Which came first?

But what came first: the 3-D or the killer interface?

The functionality of the 3-D interface found its genesis in another Leopard feature, called Core Animation, according to Apple executives.

This new programming layer lets a variety of files be handled as animations in a 3-D space, including still images and QuickTime animations.

The windows still support the effects, transparency and color space mapping from the system’s Core Image and Core Video services.

Can Leopard’s features compete with Windows Vista? Read more here.

The Core layers in Mac OS X, Core Audio, Core Video and Core Image, “introduced a developer layer that abstracted the complexity of controlling some of these very low-level capabilities and made it approachable to a wider range of developers. Core Animation takes that one step further,” said Frank Casanova, Apple’s senior director of QuickTime product marketing.

He said Core Animation lets developers use image effects and video on real-time animated sequences.

“Time Machine is an example of what our own developers internally did with Core Animation. They did so in way that was easier for them, more animated and faster, and far simpler than it would have been,” he said.

The demonstration of the power of Core Animation was impressive.

A programmed sequence created towers of “cards” made from iTunes cover images in real time. The user could fly around the structures or select one, flipping it over to reveal the playlist on the reverse side. All of this with effects running.

According to Apple, Core Animation cut the programming overhead from 4,000 lines of code to about 400 lines.

What machines will make the Leopard cut? Apple isn’t talking, but here are some likely candidates. Click here to read more.

Meanwhile, Apple at WWDC stepped up its attack on Windows and Windows Vista in particular.

The keynote featured a listing of features already in OS X and due for introduction in Vista.

Following the listing, Jobs remarked: “Our friends up North spend over $5 billion a year on R&D, and yet these days all they seem to do is try and copy Google and Apple. I guess that’s a good example of how money isn’t everything.”

Apple can not only make sense of a 3-D interface, but it can make the trains mostly run on time.

Since the release of Cheetah, the first version of OS X, Apple has executed on its OS plan.

Except for the forthcoming Leopard, which is some three to six months late, depending on how you count, the company has released stable and useful iterations of its Unix-based OS on time to its developers and customers.

Despite the resources, Vista is years late and pared down to an almost unrecognizable state. Hello, Redmond! Are you watching?

Do you have any thoughts about the Vista vs. Mac OS X Leopard slugfest? Send them in here.

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