Apple will today (23 August) officially release the latest version of its Mac OS X operating system, known as Jaguar, which includes new technology that allows the system to run applications on the desktop that access services on the Internet.
Mac OS X version 10.2 features a revised version of the company's search tool Sherlock that acts as a user interface for accessing Web-based services.
"In many ways Sherlock changes the way that people will use and enjoy the Internet," said Ken Bereskin, director of Mac OS X product marketing. "The browser remains the ultimate Internet tool but it's designed for browsing. We've got the sense that there are some key services on the Internet that people use all the time that can benefit from having really great desktop applications designed for them."
Apple has lined up eBay and Moviefone to offer services through the Mac OS X desktop with plug-in applications built for Sherlock. With eBay's plug-in, for example, users can search eBay's marketplace for an item to bid on. Sherlock then automatically queries eBay's Web site for relevant listings, and returns any matches to the users' desktop.
Other plug-ins include one from YellowPages.com, which allows a user to enter in a business type, such as "hardware store," and receive a list of nearby hardware stores, a map of their locations, as well as detailed driving directions. Moviefone's service allows a user to search nearby cinemas for film times and also order tickets.
Microsoft has promised to deliver its own set of consumer-facing Web services through its Windows operating system that would allow users to order tickets and book reservations without using a Web browser. Codenamed Hailstorm, and later renamed .net My Services, Microsoft has put on hold any immediate plans to roll out the service to consumers.
While several industry analysts said that Apple's technology is far less developed than the infrastructure Microsoft aims to deliver through its .net initiative, conceptually, the Web-based applications delivered through Sherlock provide an early glimpse at the future of Web-based applications and services.
"I would agree that they are using a Web services metaphor, but I think it's drastically different to the Microsoft .net strategy," said Tim Bajarin, president of research firm Creative Strategies.
"It is similar in that they both aim to create applications that are Web-based, but in Microsoft's case they're going even deeper in suggesting that they can create the underlying architecture for delivering Web-based applications," he said.
Like Microsoft's .net initiative, Apple has made use of the industry standard data format XML to allow a desktop application to pull data from the Internet and display that data in an interface other than a browser. However, Microsoft is developing a more expansive infrastructure for .net with servers and tools that would be used by businesses to build, host and deliver Web services. Much of Microsoft's efforts are aimed at linking together the computer systems of business partners.
"From Apple's standpoint, it's not clear from what they've shown here how rich its applications will be," Bajarin said, comparing the technology to .net.
With its consumer-facing .net Web services, Microsoft has said it plans to integrate all of the transactions that would take place as users access Web services. For example, if a user were to order a plane ticket through .net My Services, it could potentially draw funds from a user's bank account and schedule the flight into the user's address book, without the user seeing the transactions.
Sherlock lacks such advanced features, as users still have to access a Web browser to finalise transactions that are initiated in Sherlock, such as making an actual bid on eBay.
Still, noted Al Gillen, research director of systems software at IDC, "by going around the browser [to initially access data], that really is more like a Web service".
Apple said it plans to release a software development kit (SDK) in the next few weeks that can be used to build Web-based applications that plug in to Sherlock. Eventually, users will be able to choose from a list of available services, called channels, and add them directly to their desktops.
"We're working with a large number of partners on this," Bereskin said. "With the SDK, organisations can create their own plug-ins for Sherlock."