Apple’s OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” Cranks “Metal”, Imitates Windows 7’s “Aero Snap”

Apple, Inc.’s (AAPL) next operating system (OS), OS X 10.11 will be a direct successor to OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” in name as well as in form.  Apple announced today at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that the new OS would be branded “El Capitan”, a name that pays homage to a massive 3,000 ft. (900 meter) tall granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.

I. Refining the Experience

At the first preview of the upcoming OS, Apple’s software chief, senior vice president (SVP) Craig Federighi told the audience that the emphases were on experience and performance.

Apple SVP Craig Federighi shows off OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” at WWDC 2015. [Image Source: Neowin]
Also prominently featured in the experience category Federighi and his team showed off improvements such as a gesture-enhanced version of the core “Mail” app (Apple’s answer to Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) Outlook).  Mail also gets new “Smart Suggestions”, which will make suggestions about scheduling events or adding contacts, based on contacts parsed from messages in a user’s inbox.  In theory this will reduce the user’s need to hand-maintain the address book, event calendar, and other time sucks.

The homescreen of OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” is seen running on a Macbook.
With the launch of the Apple Watch, Apple debuted San Francisco, a new set of fonts which it claimed were optimized for visibility on the small screen.  Now it’s rolled the new font out to OS X, making it the default font for the upcoming operating system.  Apple claims that San Francisco delivers equally pleasing results on the high definition end, render in crystal precision.

Apple San Francisco font is now onboard OS X.
Perhaps the most eye-catching improvement — and one that seems likely to provoke a lively debate — is Apple’s new “snap” feature.  Snap is eerily similar to the “Aero Snap” feature which Microsoft rolled out in 2009 as part of Windows 7’s improvements to the “Aero” theme first introduced in Windows Vista.  

Adding to the similarity, there’s a new “spit view” which works almost hand with the “snap”.  As with the snap itself the split view provies nearly identical in visual implementation to Microsoft’s default windows divisions.  (Side note: This is an ironic twist given that some may hazily remember Microsoft was accused of cribbing style elements from OS X with the release of Windows 7.)

Split View and Snap work nearly identically to Microsoft’s similar Windows features.
Another tweak makes the cursor bigger upon wakeup from sleep so as to give the user a more prominent visual cue of their starting location in the visual environment.

Spotlight has been heavily overhauled.  It’s now positioned within a summonable search applet that can be positioned anywhere on screen and resized as convenient.  There’s support for new kinds of internet-located search hits including:

  • weather
  • stocks
  • sports
  • transit
  • web video

Apple also writes that you’ll able to “use natural language to find documents and files on your Mac based on when they were created or who you sent them to.”

Mark my words, Apple is preparing to merge Spotlight and “Siri”.  The integration of natural language processing into Spotlight with OS X 10.11 is a telling sign of that.  There’s been speculation for some time now when Siri will arrive on Apple’s personal computer operating system.

Siri beat Microsoft’s own natural language-endowed smart voice-controlled digital assistant, Cortana to market, debutting in 2011.  Microsoft users would have to wait three more years before Cortana would finally come along with the release of Windows Phone 8.1 in early 2014.

With Windows 10, though Cortana has leapt ahead of Apple, bringing the joys of having a digital secretary to your personal computer.  Hence in spite of its improvements, Spotlight will inevitably suffer a bit of feature envy when the new build of Windows arrives in finished form on July 29.

Cortana is seen starting up in these shots from a Windows 10 preview build.
[Image Source: Jason Mick/Global Tech News LLC]
I would predict that OS X 10.12 in 2016 will merge the mobile Siri app into Spotlight and possibly rebrand it into something like “Spotlight with Siri”.  The writing is on the wall, but surprisingly few are reporting it.

Another bit of similarity to Microsoft’s recent work is found in OS X 10.11’s revised Mission Control which is looking rather similar to the Task Picker/Multi-Desktop Selection pane found in recent builds of Windows 10 (albeit with the desktop bar shifted to the top of the screen).  See what I mean:

Apple OS X 10.11 — Mission Control

Task Picker in two builds of Windows 10. [Image Source: Jason Mick/Global Tech News LLC]
Moving along the usability theme Apple has a picture grouping dubbed “Moments” that allows you to apply location metadata to a collection of pictures — or just a single shot.  Photos also gets third party extensions for the first time, so expect companies like Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE) (maker of Photoshop and Illustrator) and Autodesk, Inc. (ADSK) (maker of the Pixlr image editor) to potentially peddle plug-in lean varieties of their photo editing software in this new space.

Much like Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Chrome and Opera Software ASA’s (STO:OPERAO) s/t browser, Apple’s Safari browser will acquire the ability to pin your most used tabs.  

Tab Pinning in Safari in OS X 10.11
It also adds a sound icon that displays in the tab graphic for tabs playing sounds, allowing users to better track down and mute a tab that’s making too much noise.

II. Metal Highlights Performance Improvements

Returning to Federighi’s central theme, Apple is importing iOS’s Metal API into OS X.  Metal is an effort to transform OpenGL into a multi-form factor challenger akin to Microsoft’s DirectX.  Here again we see “El Capitan” feature set following somewhat in Microsoft’s line.

Apple claims Metal API will offer up to a 50 percent boost in “rendering performance” in OS X.
Apple’s API name offers a very literal rendition of a phrase we’ve heard graphics makers lust after for some time now — the goal of “getting closer to the metal.”

Perhaps the first major manufacturer to do this was defunct graphics processing unit (GPU) maker 3DFX who Voodoo graphics card line used a low level API built atop OpenGL called “Glide API”.  After its bankruptcy NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) acquired its “Glide API” and other assets in 2002, yet NVIDIA remained largely apathetic to the idea of a low level, less verbose riff on OpenGL.

3DFX was the forefather of the “closer to the metal” GPU firmware movement.  Had its swan song, the Voodoo 5 (6000) (pictured) made it to market, we might have been talking about this a lot sooner.
[Image Source:]
Rather it was NVIDIA’s rival GPU maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) who first revived the “closer to the metal” ideology announcing the “Mantle API” in late 2013.  Apple and Microsoft followed — Apple via iOS 8 and Microsoft via DirectX 12, which saw its first previews in late 2014.

It’s worth noting that while media coverage of AMD’s Mantle API has been rather cynical (see this critical commentary in Seeking Alpha, for example).  NVIDIA’s distinguished engineer Tom Petersen perhaps set the tone for such criticism telling MaximumPC during an interview:
We don’t know much about Mantle, we are not part of Mantle. And clearly if they see value there they should go for it. And if they can convince game developers to go for it, go for it. It’s not an Nvidia thing. The key thing is to develop great technologies that deliver benefits to gamers. Now in the case of Mantle it’s not so clear to me that there is a lot of obvious benefits there.
But AMD has clearly had the last laugh, even if the press remains somewhat ignorant of it.  NVIDIA has quietly incorporating some similar features into its own GeForce graphics drivers).  And AnandTech‘s latest benchmarks indicate AMD’s Mantle API is not only well, it generally outperforms current builds of DirectX 12 in benchmarks that utilize four or more CPU cores (DirectX 12 ekes out a win in dual-core benchmarks).  Clearly Mantle is not the false hype NVIDIA and some journalists purported it to be.

Apple also competes in the “closer to the metal” movement with the Khronos Group’s Vulkan API.  Khronos is a key nonprofit found in 2000, who promotes the standardization and advancement of open graphics protocols such as OpenGL.  Khronos is comprised of a collection of engineers from member companies.  Valve Corp. and Epic Games — two top game engine developers — also support Khronos and the Vulkan API project.

The one year old Metal project competes with Mantle, Vulkan, and DirectX 12. [Image Source: BGR]
Member companies include AMD, NVIDIA, Intel Corp. (INTC), and Microsoft.  Apple is also a member of the group, so in a way its Metal API is creating with its own cosponsored third party graphics effort.  It should be interesting to see how Metal stacks up to Mantle and DirectX 12.  

While such a comparison might initially seem like comparing (no pun intended) apples and oranges, it should be possible to pull together some a PC system running Mantle and DirectX 12, with similar hardware to an OS powerhouse like the Mac Pro line.

From what little is known it’s clear Apple is confident that Metal will offer a wicked fast performance.  In terms of the raw draw calls Apple is claiming a nearly ten-fold time reduction over vanilla OpenGL.  And in addition to improving rendering speed (framerates), Apple claims that the new lower level Metal API will improve efficiency (read: battery life) by up to 40 percent in certain scenarios.

Moving along, on the performance front Apple has also spent a lot of time optimizing its low level calls and OS X process management.  It claims to have improved display of emails in Mail and app-switching two-fold, as well as improving the speed of previewing of PDFs four-fold.  Overall an app launch speedup of 1.4x is claimed.

Apple is also working at a low level to offer performance improvements to its touch and input technologies.

III. Availability

Developers at WWDC will get their hands on an early limited beta of El Capitan.  Developers will also get to access the limited beta shortly, via the Apple’s OS X Developer portal.

That will be followed by a Public Beta next month.  Apple says it is targeting a “fall” launch.  And one more point of similarity with Windows 10 — just like Windows 10, OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” will be offered for free to users of the respective platform.

Now that’s a similarity we can all agree is welcome news.

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