The excuses really aren’t very important, but the end result is. Microsoft has admitted that its long-delayed operating system upgrade, Windows Vista, will miss another deadline, this time the crucial Christmas holiday season; that is, except for volume licensing customers who are far less likely to upgrade. No doubt, PC box makers will be disappointed, because they won’t be able to bank on that half a billion dollars Redmond has budgeted to promote its new release, and they will have to fend for themselves.
To be sure, the promised delivery date, January, is bad for the industry. Assuming it’s met, which is not a given considering the way things have gone so far, it’ll be during a quarter when sales in the industry tend to be at their lowest. Of course that might work to Microsoft’s benefit, because of early release bugs become serious, it’ll give them time to fix them without doing a whole lot of damage.
But where does all this leave Apple? When Steve Jobs first mentioned the next upgrade to Mac OS X, code-named Leopard, he said it would appear during the latter part of 2006 or early in 2007. With the delay of the WWDC until August, I was willing to believe that the latter would be closer to the mark. Now, in fact, it may very well be that Leopard will appear just around the same time as Vista, creating the climate for a battle royal to gain operating system ascendancy in the public mindset. But I’ll get to that possibility shortly.
Of course, by then, Apple’s journey to the Intel side of the processor wars will be over, and second generation products will be ready. It’s also likely that key Mac applications that are currently on the sidelines will have made their trip to Universal binaries, so existing with Rosetta emulation will not be as critical a factor as it is today. In fact, I fully expect that Adobe’s job will be done as far as its Creative Suite is concerned, and that Microsoft will, at the very least, have announced the next version of Office for the Mac. Maybe we’ll even see a possible version 8 of Virtual PC, offering a way to run Windows on a MacIntel with most of the performance of the regular version on a PC. By then, the techniques for dual booting Windows on a Mac will have been simplified so that it doesn’t take a whole lot of arcane instructions to make it happen.
In any case, the latest Vista delay gives Apple more options. Depending on the state of Leopard development, it is always possible it will really appear in time for the holiday season, which means Apple will have the market for itself, assuming it isn’t just going to talk about the latest iPods. The real problem is that it’s not 1995 anymore, so plugging a new operating system isn’t really as important as it used to be. Far from it. Today, computer users are largely concerned with other things, such as their digital lifestyle, and the applications they need to run to get their work done.
You see, I really believe that both Apple and Microsoft will encounter one significant problem, which is how to sell upgrades to customers who have grown accustomed to the way their computers work right now. Sure, the Windows platform is overrun with virus infections, spyware and all the rest, but will customers really want to cope with the uncertainties of Vista, even if it is supposedly a whole lot more secure? It may very well be that it’ll just make malware authors more creative in finding the inevitable security leaks and exploiting them. Whatever anyone tells you, no operating system is totally secure, and Vista, at best, will simply make it more like Mac OS X and other Unix-based operating systems in closing additional doors to potential harm.
The real problem Microsoft faces is that many businesses are actually still using Windows 2000, and do not even regard XP as a great enhancement. Of course, they will inevitably upgrade, but it’s not so simple on the other side of the tracks. Most Mac OS X upgrades involve just a few clicks of the mouse, and sitting back while the installer does its thing. Things do go wrong from time to time, but not very often. The reason you hear about it at troubleshooting sites is that people with problems are far more vocal about them. People who have no problems at all just get back to work and worry about more mundane pursuits, such as paying the bills, feeding the family and the rest.
Here Apple will likely confront a serious problem, and that is to show that Leopard is really a compelling upgrade to Tiger, one that Mac users can’t ignore. Of course they’ll get 10.5 anyway, when they buy new Macs that ship with the upgrade preloaded. But otherwise, what will Leopard offer that Tiger lacks? So far, the rumors haven’t been very enticing. All we’re hearing about, so far, is a faster Finder, maybe a few more frills and better integration with Spotlight. There’s talk of a telephony application, and enhancements in the user interface, individual features and perhaps the standard under-the-hood stuff to make everything run more efficiently. System administrators will no doubt appreciate the expected Universal installer, so they can deploy single disk images over a mixed network of PowerPC and Intel-based Macs.
But will there be enough eye candy to make you want to spring for another $129 for the upgrade? By the time Leopard arrives, Tiger will be from a year-and-a-half to two years old, so maybe you’ll be anxious to try something new. Or maybe you’ll just be content to leave well enough alone, and that’s something Apple wouldn’t like, because it’ll then face the same dilemma that’ll confront Microsoft whenever it gets Vista out the door.
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